I’ve set myself the task of writing and publishing a book during lockdown, and sharing my experience with anyone else thinking of doing the same, especially if it’s the first time you’ve tried. This week, we’re finally deep into the main part: getting the words down.
Word count at the start of this week: 31832
Before I had my own first book published, I used to have a whole shelf of books with titles like ‘How to become a published author.’ I’d read the blurbs on the back cover and they’d invariably say something like “xxxxx is a global bestselling author who has written 18 books, and now they share their secrets!” And I’d think “Well how come I’ve never heard of you then?”
Then, one day, I spotted Stephen King’s On Writing. I’d never read any of King’s books at that point, but I thought, “He’s one of the best-selling writers in the world. I bet he knows what he’s talking about.”
He does. I reread King every time before I start a book. Full or practical advice, it’s also inspiring and makes you want to write.
Wanting to write is the most useful bit.
Actually sitting down and getting the words out is the hardest part of being a writer. There are bits where it feels like your brain is trying to climb out of your ear and make a run for it. Times when you look at the page and you just know that completing a sentence is beyond your powers. Yesterday I wrote 280 words in a day, and they are shit words that will need to be rewritten at some point. Today so far I’ve written 1800, and I feel like I have more to come if I can get other chores finished and still have some energy left.
Most writers I know have a specific time of day when it works best. Only you know when your time is. Bruce Robinson, writer of Withnail and I, wrote in the small hours of the morning, drinking red wine as he did so, until he was wankered by the time his family get up for breakfast. I used to enjoy my attempts at writing fiction in the evenings. But doing what I do now, the hours between 7am and 11am are precious. If I try to write all day, by the end, 80% of what I’ve done happens in that time slot.
For some writers it’s about a word count rather than a time slot. I don’t fetishise my wordcount as much as I used to, but it’s still the measure of success I use in a first draft. Once the words are down you can move them, cut them, change them, polish them. I massively overwrite, and then rely first on my wife, and then my editor, to help me rein it back in. (On this book, that’s the same person.)
Some novelists start writing not knowing how the story is going to turn out. For a heavily researched non-fiction book, you can’t do that. That’s why I spend so much time doing the planning I’ve spoken about in previous posts. I see the research and planning as laying road, and once the road is down, I can run along it. There are various adventures along the way.
I wrote the last thousand words I did today in less than an hour. There was a bunch of italicised notes sitting between chunks of finished text I wrote last week, and whenever I wrote those, for some reason this but wasn’t happening, so I left it to come back to later. I refer to these bits as ‘thickets’. They’re usually caused by me having to synthesise several different lines of research, or link one big point to the next in a smooth way. They can hold me up for hours.
One useful way of getting through them is to switch from typing to trying to write out what I want to say longhand. It seems to call on a different part of the brain that looks at the writing in a different way.
If this doesn’t work, the trick is to leave it and move on to something else, which is what I did last time I got stuck on this part. The brain continues to process its way through the thicket at some deep level, or maybe you were just so close to it you couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Coming back to it today, it was suddenly clear again, a stretch of open road that I galloped down for about a thousand words before I needed a breather.
My other main hazard on the open road is the rabbit hole. This is when I’m running along and get tripped up by something seemingly small and innocuous. Last week, I wanted to write two sentences which showed that, craft beer notwithstanding, there was a general preference among a large number of people to buy from small, independent businesses rather than large corporations. So I googled these words and immediately got a hit on an American study that showed trust in both big and small companies was high, but trust in smaller companies was higher. Then the hit below that was from another study that showed only 30% of people trusted large corporations. Both studies were by reputable organisations with large sample sizes. The discrepancy might have had something to do with how the question as asked – it often does – but apart from that I wanted to find some UK stats for comparison, and soon I’d spent an hour getting increasingly frustrated researching something that will be a maximum of two sentences tossed off in passing, and may even end up being edited from the final manuscript.
So the next couple of weeks are about hitting the open road, getting the words down, and remembering to leave thickets and rabbit holes and come back to them later, as part of what builders refer to as ‘snagging’ at the end of a job.
To paraphrase Eric Morecambe, it’s about getting the right words down – just not necessarily in the right order yet.
My new book The Meanings of
Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June.