My Best Writing Advice From An Author of Four Books
Want to write a book? Don't know where to get started? Let me help you out.
When I was younger and house parties were a more frequent occurrence, one of the questions I hated the most was ‘What do you do?’. If I said life coach, I would be met with people who had never heard of it since it was 2014 and it had only started becoming a thing. And then upon explanation, I would be bombarded by all of one’s problems. If I said influencer, I would be met with so many preconceptions that it wasn’t worth it. And if I said author, I would be met with confusion and an up-down look trying to assess my age.
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I remember one bookseller once saying to me that if a 24-year-old said they had a memoir, her first response is “Are you famous or what happened to you?”. I was 24 when my memoir was published, and yes, something happened to me. Some of the responses I have got include:
But aren’t we all?
Are you actually published though?
Do you mean aspiring author?
All of them sort of implied that I wasn’t an author author. Not a real author. But the most common of all responses would be the people who would respond by saying ‘I’m writing a book too’. I’d ask them questions about it and turns out they would not have put a word on the page. People want to write a book but then they never write. So if you want to write a book, here’s how to turn it from a hypothetical idea into the real thing.
If you want to be a writer, write
I truly believe everyone has something important to say and that we all have a writer in us. The key to actually being a writer though, is to put a pen to the page or nowadays, even just typing a few words out. Stop worrying about making it good, or even published and just write to your heart’s content. That’s how my memoir was created. I wrote because I thought I was dying and I had something to say before I died. I promise you as someone who wrote a whole book with no intention of publishing it, finishing a book is satisfying. Reading your own work and being proud is satisfying and even if the only writing you ever do is writing in a diary at the end of the day, I still love going back and reading my diaries. Ignore the hierarchy of published vs unpublished writers. Some people write things for people to read and some people just write for themselves and that is important enough too.
You can’t edit a page that doesn’t exist
What stops a person from writing is that they think sentences are perfectly formed the first time they are written. They want to sit down and type a perfect novel from the outset but there is a reason why drafts and edits exist. You can improve it once it’s down on a page but you can’t improve on anything if it doesn’t exist. Stop worrying about making it sound good, and actually try to get it out from your brain to the page.
You are not allowed to edit until your final word count is hit
Once you start editing, you won’t stop. And the more you edit, the more you slow down your writing so very early on in the writing process of my first book, I created a rule that I wasn’t allowed to edit anything until I had written the last word on the page. I made this quite an extreme rule because I noticed that even if I fixed a spelling mistake I noticed, I would start fixing everything. More importantly, I would start deleting. No deleting! This might not work in fiction because you might have to readjust for the storyline but it’s a good policy if you are writing non-fiction. The easiest way to ensure you don’t edit is to try to re-read as little as possible. You have to have trust that you will fix it later and if you worry, you won’t remember what needs fixing, I sometimes will highlight it in yellow so that it stands out when I hit the editing process.
2,000 words a day… with exceptions
Stephen King famously said that he wrote every day with no exceptions, even his birthday, even Christmas. Realistically, if you work another job, you need exceptions. There are days when I am out the whole day at an event, there are days I need to create content for an ad, and there are days I am working on a public speaking talk. My general rule of thumb though is if there is at least a morning/afternoon free, then I need to write 2,000 words. In fact, sometimes when I only had 9 am-12 pm free, those three hours were more productive than the days when I had the whole day. Sometimes writing 2,000 words would take me all day and I would be finishing at 9 pm and sometimes it takes me 40 minutes and I am done before 10 am. When I hit 2,000 words though, I stop. I don’t think ‘Well it’s 10 am, I should keep going' because otherwise, the motivation that is inbuilt into this system disappears. The point is that if you do it in 40 minutes, you are rewarded with free time and that’s why more days than not, I do it in a few hours and it doesn’t take the whole day. If you punish yourself by working quickly by doing more work, you are teaching your brain to not bother if you are still going to be glued to your chair. If I’m having a particularly good day and have a good momentum and most importantly, really enjoying it, I may keep writing but that means whatever extra I write is deducted from the following day so that it keeps the motivation there. If I write 2,500 today, I only have to write 1,500 tomorrow. Or if I have a particularly good week and write 20,000 in a week (five working days), that means a week off. I don’t punish myself for being more efficient.
Spend more time thinking than writing
So how do I end up pumping out 2,000 words in less than a few hours? I avoid the blank page. If I sit down at 9 am and I am staring at a blank page doing nothing with only silence in my head, then I get up, go make myself a cup of tea, go empty the dishwasher, go to the gym, will put some laundry on, maybe get the vacuum out. I do all the mindless activities that I dread doing in my house, while I am thinking about what I want to write and usually what happens is I will be mid-folding laundry, when a sentence will get stuck in my head and I will rush to my computer and start typing. Never sit down without knowing what you want to say. Staring at a blank page has never inspired anyone. When you go to do anything else, the more mindless the better, you take the pressure off and you give your brain a chance to breathe and think.
You will forget it if you don’t write it down
A dull pencil is better than a sharp mind, as they say. Do not trust your memory because you will not remember. We have all had a moment when we’ve been trying to sleep and suddenly our brain swarms with thoughts. If you are an author or a writer of any kind, that is when the best sentences will come to you. So much so, that for my first book, I would cave into it and write mostly between the hours of 2 am- 4 am. Now, it is too inconvenient to not work traditional working hours and so instead, what I do is if a thought comes to me, I either leave myself a voice note or I will jot enough notes in the notes section of my phone that I will remember the next day. This also helps with the previous point because it means you aren’t sitting down to an empty page, you are sitting down with incomplete thoughts from the night before that *hopefully* make enough sense to decipher and serve as a prompt to get started. It’s a lot easier to keep writing than to start writing.
Write in bullet points when you can’t write
Sometimes when you write, you can get so focused on trying to make it sound eloquent that it keeps getting me stuck. In these moments, I swap to bullet points and that way, the words still count towards my 2,000 for the day and I will tackle those bullet points when I either have more energy or am having a really good day where I am in flow. There will be good days. There will be days when writing is effortless and those are the days I choose to tackle my bullet points. Usually, this technique is pulled out when I am at the end of the day and tired and writing feels like trudging through treacle so even if I just try to turn the bullet points into actual sentences the following morning, that night’s sleep usually helps. What I also find happens when I convert to bullet points, is I actually will write complete paragraphs in bullet points, but often it’s how to join two points I want to make together to make it a coherent point. But I need brain juice for that so if I’m running on empty, words written in bullet point form are just as good. Like this list! And yes, I’m having a low-brain-juice day.
Your first draft will be shit
Whenever I used to send off my first draft to my literary agent, it would usually come with a disclaimer of ‘I know this is shit but this is just a general gist of what I want to write’. I no longer make these disclaimers because I believe it’s the equivalent of making the joke before a bully does. Not that my agent is a bully, but that I don’t believe in the mentality that it hurts less if you say it first. Instead, I trumpet that you should be the biggest believer in your own work, even shitty first drafts and ultimately, they are a literary agent, they know first drafts aren’t going to be the best - you don’t need to tell them! I wish all budding authors could read the books they love in their first draft form because I think it would demystify writing in the best way possible. The intent of the first draft is to get all the main ideas down on the page. Make it sound good later! Usually, for me that means removing repetition, fixing a whole bunch of grammar and spelling mistakes and also making it a fraction less casual. I am a very casual writer in the first draft. I intentionally keep in some of the casualness but also in the editing process, that’s when I will add in more research and the fancier definitions which require thorough explanations.
You will have days when you can’t remember how to write
A secret that I do when I first start writing a new book is I actually have to read my old books to remind myself that:
I can write
I have done this before
I have heard authors joke that writing a book is like childbirth in that it comes with this weird amnesia that you ever did this before. It’s true and I think the reason why this exists is because it’s hard when you start to imagine that it will become a finished product one day and therefore having one book out already makes it easier to remind yourself that you can.
As Cheryl Strayed once said ‘The way it feels to write a book is that you can’t write a book’
But if this is your first, the only way to get through this feeling is just to keep writing. You will have days you believe in it and days when you don’t, the important part is that your feelings don’t dictate whether you write.
If you want to delete it all, walk away
Every author will have at least one of these days. It’s not the day you are having a few wobbles, it’s the day when you can’t see anything good in anything you have ever written and you want to just quit. Do not throw away anything. No deleting until you are at your word count. If you want to take the whole document and drag it to the trash bin, that’s the day you take a day off. Every writer needs a day off once in a while!
What have you found helps you to write? Let me know in the comments!
Lots of love,