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Diary of a First-Time Author #10 – How To To Write a Book

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?


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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


  1. 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.


  1. 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…


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

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Diary of a First-Time Author #5 – But what about self-publishing?

I’m aware that my last piece rests on the assumption that you are looking for a publisher to publish your work. Some would argue that, in the age of self-publishing, this is no longer necessary.  Can you not just publish yourself and skip this entire hassle of jumping through hoops to get an agent or publisher to like your work?

Possibly.  It’s not an avenue I explored personally (for reasons that’ll become clear as you read this), and I won’t pretend to be a self-publishing guru, but I do think there are certain things to bear in mind before considering the self-publishing route.

Self-publishing is, in theory, a great thing.  It opens up chances for writers who choose to work outside the publishing industry, allows  writers more control over their work and, especially if you’re a hobbyist writer who just wants to make something available for people to read without the stress and the hassle of finding a publisher, there’s certainly some merit in that.  And anything that makes it easier for a new writer to get their work to an audience has to be welcomed.

If you’re self-publishing in the hope of ultimately making a living as a writer, I feel there are a few things to bear in mind.

Firstly, self-publishing tends to work best for people who work within specific genres – wonderful though the internet is for getting your work out there, it still needs people to search for it and find it and they’ll mostly do that by searching by genre or by “people who liked this also like this” recommendations.  So, if you write a strong crime novel or romance and enough people like it, then there’s a good chance other people searching for crime novels or romances will find it too.  However if you’re writing something that doesn’t fit in with what anyone else is writing, you’ll find it much harder to garner attention.  (The flip side of this, of course, is that you can also succeed by writing a book that is so niche that people looking for a book on a subject will only find yours!)  One of the things that large publishing houses can do – and often will do – is take a book that might have otherwise struggled to find an audience due to its subject matter and turn it into a hit once people realise how good it is.  I find it hard to imagine The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Life of Pi or The Kite Runner, for example, would have garnered a huge amount of attention had they been self-published.

What’s more, it’s important to realise that self-publishing doesn’t remove the business and publicity aspect from you’re doing but rather makes you responsible for selling and marketing your work.  To self-publish and succeed, you need to not only be a strong writer but also be your own agent, publisher, salesperson and marketing team and I would confidently guess that the people who’ve done well out of self-publishing have done so based on business acumen and self-publicity just as much as their writing skills.  (That’s not a dig by the way – business acumen is a fantastic thing for a writer to have and I really wish I had some myself!)

More importantly, you need to be your own editor too – or find someone else who can do it for you.  You might be able to put out a book without needing clearance and approval from editors, proofreaders and fact-checkers but that does not mean facts don’t need to be checked, errors don’t need to be corrected or large sections of your book won’t need rewriting and rewriting and rewriting to make them as good as they can possibly be.  (Just ignore the fact that, when it comes to my own work, I’m the world’s worst proof-reader and am doubtless showing up my own hypocrisy in this blog!)

Related to this, if self-publishing is to gain as strong a reputation as ‘industry’ publishing then it has to do so because it’s populated by people writing high-quality work that doesn’t quite fit in with the expectations of the conventional book world.  This could be by aiming for niches that the mainstream book industry is too large to creep into or by being populated by writers who are confident, self-sufficient and feel they want to be free to work without commercial considerations, rather than people who really want to be published conventionally but are self-publishing because their work has been continually rejected by the mainstream publishing industry.

Tough though it is too take manuscripts are generally rejected for a reason and, much as people cite famous misjudgements like Decca Records turning down the Beatles or the Life of Pi being rejected by 5 major publishers, these tend to be famous precisely because they are exceptions rather than the norm.   And even then the Beatles ultimately did get a record label Yann Martel found a publisher so the lesson there is more that it can take a lot of work and a lot of knockbacks to find the agent or publisher who sees the value in your work rather than that someone who’s been rejected by the entire industry is likely to prove everyone wrong.   If you do find your work is being rejected then it’s far better to look at the reasons why – whether it’s that you haven’t approached the right people yet or whether it’s because you’re work needs to be improved – rather than simply assuming everyone is wrong and carrying on anyway.

There are potentially good motives for choosing to self-publish – and these motives will only get stronger as self-publishing develops over time – but I think this has to be a choice you make, rather than one you’re forced into due to a lack of options and I honestly believe that anyone who writes well enough and gets their approach right can ultimately get that choice for themselves.  Self-publishing can be a way to market yourself to publishers but only if you make sure your work is strong enough to act as a selling point.

Ultimately putting out something that is not good enough will only serve to damage your reputation as a writer.  Like independent music, self-publishing can only be at its best when it’s populated by people who really believe in the value of independent working outside of industry conventions, rather than simply becoming a home for rejected manuscripts by authors who crave mainstream success but are either too cocksure or too unwilling to objectively assess their work and make improvements.   Whatever form you choose for publishing your work, there is never an excuse for not doing everything you can to make something as brilliant as it can possibly be!

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