This Is How To Write A Book

The finished product and a celebratory cake, given by a friend's mum
The finished product and a celebratory cake, given by a friend’s mum

It starts with an idea. You can’t predict where it’ll come from, but you’ll know when it’s arrived. Perhaps it’s the light casting from a swimming pool, or something you read in the newspaper, or something benign you see on television. It’s something in the world around you that at one particular moment rings as true as a great first kiss.  It happens when your mind is soft and pliable, often when you are doing something else, when you are far from thinking about writing at all.

The idea clings. It makes itself a nest in your mind, and it won’t be moved. It hassles you in the middle of the night, and pops into your mind when you’re drinking coffee with a friend.  It spreads, growing and shrinking.  In short – it’s persistent.

You start to look for it.  You worry the idea will leave.  It will give up on you.  Fine, you tell it, I’ll try. You sit down, and let the words come. A mess on the page, and in your mind, but maybe there’s something there. You keep going. You’re trying to get around the back of the thing, to see the parts that it is hiding. Not yet, it tells you, be patient. You don’t want to be patient. You want to see the world behind the story now, you want to know your characters. You want everything to be clear.

You walk away.  Later, you come back. You read what you’ve written.  It’s not how you wanted it to be. Since you left, a gap has opened between what you wanted to put on the page and what is really there. It’s excruciating. You want to close that gap, to tear the thing apart get inside it. It is almost unbearable.

But you don’t. You keep writing. You know that to stop now, to look back and let in even a single tremulous doubt would be to kill the thing before it’s even got started. You keep going. You write a number of words a day, and then you stop. It’s only when you’ve reached that number that your mind relaxes, that you feel content. You do that for many days, and against your will, the thing begins to form. All you are doing is sitting down and letting it happen. You are not doing anything to stop it. That’s it.

When you’re done, many days and weeks later, it’s a beautiful mess. Things have happened that you didn’t expect and you are grateful. In your mind, the book is perfect.  You don’t look at the page.

You walk away again. You let a week pass, and then another. You do other things. You go scuba diving; you eat ice cream. You drink too much. You kiss someone inappropriate, and then apologise. You live life. You do whatever it is you do when you’re not writing.

Eventually, you return. You sit at your desk and take a deep breath.  You tell yourself that this is necessary. That it won’t be easy. That all first drafts are shit. Then you open your laptop or notebook and you look at what you’ve written. You really look. You look so hard your eyes sting. You examine it from every angle: you ask yourself what is important. You ask what you are trying to say, in each and every word, in each and every sentence.  You let in those doubts you had shut out.  You imagine you are someone else, a stranger or an enemy, and you tear your work apart.

The thing begins to change again. You let it.  You don’t try and hold on.  You trust in what is happening.

Time passes, and you keep working.  You stop only when you can’t see the words clearly anymore.  You send it to someone else.  Someone you trust.  You let them do the work. You give them time. When they come back to you, you listen. You try to understand what they are saying.

You start again, as if it is the beginning. You rework. You rewrite. You repeat. You hope this is the last time, but you know it might not be. You are at peace with that. You tell yourself you love the process, when really all you want is the result. You don’t, whatever happens, give up.

You are open. You let things happen. You trust that your subconscious knows better, like your mother.  You ignore the rules, and then enforce them.  You listen.  You try to move out of the way of your own ego, your past, your fears, yourself.  You just keep writing.

One day, someone tells you your book is good.  You don’t believe them.  They tell you again.  They say they want to help you send it out into the world.  You frown.  You listen to what they have to say.  You want to tell them you are a fraud, about every moment you spent working, but you don’t.  You let them believe this is how the book emerged, good and whole and magical.  You feel bad.

You let them help you.  The book becomes a thing outside you.  You watch it grow, out of your control.  You let it.  You listen to people talking about it, disagreeing with you, the person who created it.  It makes you happy.  It is not a dead baby.  It belongs to other people now, but it will always be yours.

You wonder how you made the thing at all.  You worry it will never happen again.  You read other people’s work, and you enjoy it, but it exacerbates your own fear.  You run on a treadmill, trying to out-chase that feeling.  You try to lose yourself in the work of others.  You try to learn.  But still, another idea will not come.

One day, you are laughing with your friends, bent double, when you see a penny in the street.  The way it lying, half covered in dust, sets off a feeling you recognise.  You don’t wait this time: you leave your friends and you write.  You begin again.

Want more?  I’m running a giveaway at the moment for UK readers – you can win a whole host of bookish goodies.  Click below to take a look:


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