Last weekend I attended my first ever FantasyCon. It was a terrific event, and hats off to the British Fantasy Society for organising it. The highlight for me was taking part in a panel on the practicalities of being a writer, which reinforced something I’ve been thinking about for a while: the importance of routine.
Whether you’re a struggling debut author or an established name (or somewhere in between, like the vast majority of us), there is nothing that beats a routine. It may sound obvious, but it took me a long while to realise it. I would pick up a book and think: how on earth is a pipsqueak like me supposed to write one of THESE?
I first had the idea for The Machinery about seven years ago, but it wasn’t until five years ago that I actually got cracking on it properly. What was it that held me back? I think the problem was that I had the wrong idea of how a writer’s life actually works. I had a vision of terrific bouts of artistic effort, preferably accompanied by absinthe, in which I would sweat my way through at least one draft of my work of genius over the course of a week. This would probably take place somewhere in Paris.
But then when I sat down on a wet morning in South London in front of my computer, reality hit. I would knock out a paragraph, and look at it with a savage eye, comparing it to the work of whichever titan of the field I had been reading before I took my seat. I would grow discouraged, and limp away from my desk, returning after a few days, or perhaps even after a few weeks, to rearrange the guilty paragraph. Sometimes I would venture to write a new paragraph, or even an entire chapter. But it was useless. I would allow myself to get downhearted, and that was the end of it until the next time I randomly opened the document again.
Eventually I broke through this, and it really was like shattering some kind of wall. I swore that I would write until I hit a certain (unambitious) word count: it didn’t matter if the words were no good. In fact, it didn’t matter if they were total dross. I would do it every day.
So my main piece of advice to anyone who would like to write a book is this: set aside a small amount of time every day in which to do it. In fact, you don’t even have to do it every day: do it five days a week, and give yourself the weekend off. That’s what I did. It’s pretty amazing how it all starts to add up after a while, and you don’t even notice the time going by.
Set yourself a realistic goal, and lean towards the smaller end of the scale. If you’re not sure you can do 500 words or two hours a day, set your target at 200 words or 30 minutes or whatever sounds easy to you. Even 100 words and 15 minutes a day is fine. It really doesn’t matter. This is your first novel: you have a life you need to live, and you aren’t just writing a book, you’re allowing yourself to learn the best routine for you.
You may find after a while that the goal is too small, and that you are more than capable of writing twice as many words or for double the length of time. That’s great – bump it up. But at the same time, don’t worry if it’s not doable. Just lower the target.
The muse never came for me, but something better did: routine. The version of my novel that has been published bears very little resemblance to the first draft I completed, or even the second, third or fourth. But those drafts seemed to go by quickly, as I set myself a realistic routine. Even if I hadn’t got a book deal, I’d still be glad I did it, if only for what I’ve learned about discipline.
So to anyone who would like to write a book, but is intimidated by the enormity of it all, just do what I did: take it in small chunks, remember there’s always a delete key, and most importantly, take it easy on yourself. You’re a writer, but you don’t have to be tortured.