So you’ve sold your proposal, you’ve got the first part of your advance and now you actually need to write a book. Someone’s actually given you money to be a writer and they’re expecting you to deliver. It’s utterly, utterly brilliant and utterly, utterly, utterly terrifying.
With Bad Santas, I had the added pressure of the fact it was a Christmas release and so, having met the publisher and received the offer in February and signed the contract at the beginning of April, the book had to be ready by the end of May. Which was a bit intense. Luckily I started writing from the February of else it probably would have been impossible!
So how do you do it?
- Plan how much you need to write
Work out the exact number of words you need to write and when your deadline is. Divide it by the number of weeks and then by the number of days you intend to work. You then have your target number of words per day.
- Plan for Contingency
Now ignore this figure. Instead work out the exact number of words you need to write to get the book finished four weeks before the deadline. Aim for that target instead. Then you’ve got a whole month to cover you for illness, parts of the book taking longer than you anticipate, rewriting days and things like that. Also add another 15, 000 words to your word total to cover all the things you write that either ultimately don’t fit in with the book or aren’t good enough to use. Do the maths again. Now you’ve got your real target number of words per day. Try not to panic when you look at it.
- Plan what you’re writing
If you got the pitching document I discussed in article #3 right then it will now be your best friend. If not you really need to structure out each chapter and make sure you have a blueprint of exactly where you’re going – it’ll save you a lot of wasted time and energy as you go through the book
- Work out your writing routine
Be realistic about how much time you have, especially if you’re not able to take time off work to be a writer. I was lucky enough to take a break to write the book but I’m now sat on the top deck of a bus typing into my laptop as I take the 43 from Muswell Hill to London Bridge on my way into work. This gives me an hour to an hour and a half’s writing time per day. It’s not ideal but, as I’m not writing any specific project at the moment, it could be far worse.
Also, think about the way that you work and try to work with that, rather than against it. For example, I’m a procrastinator who gets occasional bursts of focus – typically first thing in the morning, shortly before lunch and then for a couple of hours in the late afternoon and early evening. When I was writing Bad Santas, I tried to structure myself around that. On an ideal day I’d get up about 7 or 8 o’clock, do an hour to an hour and half of work (usually revisions and re-writes from the previous day), then take a shower, a short bus-ride to somewhere scenic and from there take an hour and half long walk to the British library (walking really helps me both relax and to think about what I’m doing). I’d then do about an hour’s work before breaking for lunch, spend most of the afternoon recovering from the lunch break and then do a concentrated burst of writing between 4pm and 7pm before going home.
Obviously I’m not suggesting that that’s the best way to write but it is the best way to write for me. As far as is reasonable around your life commitments, it’s a good idea to think about what works for you and stick to it – there’s no point in chastising yourself but not being sat in your writing chair at 9am if you find it easier to write in the night-time.
- Be disciplined
At the same time, it’s really important to be disciplined. Whilst writing is a million times better than a real job, you still get days where you really don’t want to get out of bed, sections of the book you dread writing and times when you lack all motivation and just want to pack up and go home (unless you’re working from home, in which case you want to pack up and go out somewhere instead!) And, if you’re writing a 60, 000 word book, there’ll be times when you find yourself utterly bogged down in the middle somewhere, unable to see the end and feeling like you can’t possibly process, let alone write down, everything you need to say. But ultimately, if you’re going to finish the book, you have to keep going.
Whilst writing the book I worked out that I could write approximately 2, 000 ‘useful’ words a day. Any less and I was being unproductive, any more and the quality really tailed off. So I set that as a target made sure I ended even the ‘bad’ days with 2000 more words on the page. Obviously quite a lot of those words needed rewriting later but I find re-writing much easier than writing. Once you’ve got something down, you can then work out how to get it right…
- Make sure you do something tanigble, even if it’s not what you originally planned.
Nonetheless there will be days where you really find you absolutely cannot face doing the part of the book that you were ‘supposed’ to be doing that day. If you really can’t discipline yourself to do it then the simple solution is to do something else instead. Revise and rewrite previous chapters or leap forward and write another part of the book which sounds a bit more interesting. But try to always go to bed feeling you can see what you’ve achieved.
- Re-write continually.
You’re first draft of anything will not be your best piece of work and you should always go through and see what you can do better. The only exception to that is when you really want to give the impression that it’s just you’re unfettered thoughts spilling out onto the page. Which is my excuse for ignoring my own advice on these articles. But otherwise re-writing is key.
- Proofread. Or better still, get someone else to do it.
I am the world’s worst proofreader – as anyone who has read this will probably attest. My grammar and spelling are fine but I tend to type really quickly and think even quicker, as a result of which what I type tends to be the train of the inner monologue in my head. This can easily end up like one of those teletext subtitles pages where things are written down phonetically at speed and ludicrous spelling mistakes ensue. Unfortunately I also read really quickly and, as a result, tend to see what I think is on the page and fail to pick up my own mistakes.
Ultimately the publisher will have their own proofreader but it looks awful if you hand in something riddled with errors and I dimly recall that there are psychological studies that show that the more spelling and grammar mistakes there are in a piece of writing, the less plausible people find the argument. So it does matter that you get it right before submitting it.
Bear in mind this is really a case of “do what I say and not what I do” here and an area where I’m incredibly sloppy – luckily my parents and friends helped proofread the book for me but these articles are far more exposed and I’m sure my laziness in this respect has come clear several times already!
Ultimately writing is hard work (or at least it can be) and the key to finishing a book successfully is sticking with it even when you utterly hate doing it. There are thousands – perhaps even millions – of people who’ve half-written books that they’ll never finish. Becoming one of the few that actually finish things is a crucial part of succeeding as a writer.