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On Not Writing

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Catherine Ryan Howard

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I started writing my novel in September 2009, in that that was when I sat down and started typing words. But really I “started” my novel some ten years before that, when I started reading every How To Write a Book book I could get my hands on, attending courses and workshops, sidling up to writers at signings and launches, buying superfluous stationery and making sure I had a fresh copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook every January, despite the fact that I had nothing that needed sending to anyone. So why the delay? Well, before the writing, there’s the not writing…

I finished my first novel last May. I started writing it in September, but I started preparing to write it about twelve years ago, when I was 16.

There was a lot of preparing to do.

Before I could think about writing a novel, I had to have somewhere to write it. I rearranged my bedroom so I could fit in a desk, and then pored over the Argos catalogue to find just the right flat-packed model. Bought it; assembled it; installed it; hung a new noticeboard right above it. Then I moved out and into my own apartment, where the only free spot for writing – a corner of the living room – just didn’t suit my desk. Back to the Argos catalogue. Bought another one; assembled it; installed it; wondered why I bothered when the other one would have done. Then I’ve just about got my writing space sorted when I up and move to Florida, and now my writing space has to be sitting on the floor with my laptop balanced on a plastic container.

How can I possibly work under these conditions?

I also had to have something to write on. Before we got our first household PC back in 1998, I used to get electronic typewriters for Christmas. (Of course back then, they were just used for homework.) Then – wow! A computer. I loved tapping away at the keys. But it was installed in the living room; I could hardly write with such noise and distractions. As if! Using my Leaving Cert as an excuse, I finally bagged a laptop two years later, and thought that I’d be so enamoured with my new machine that a novel would practically run out of me. (This was because I’d read a quote from Michael Connelly who said that the best thing for writers block was a new computer.) No such luck. There was another laptop, and then a new PC. I bought it because it was cheaper than a new laptop, but soon I was complaining that it wasn’t portable. I donated it and bought a Mac – my credit card melting as I exited the store – because isn’t that what most published authors used? Yep – that was my problem all along. I was just using the wrong type of computer! Then there was also the reporters notebooks (Claire Fountaine is the only brand I accept), clicky pens (Mitsubishi Uniballs) and planners (Moleskine, obviously) that I’d need for making notes, and just the right brand of coffee.

(Starbucks Breakfast Blend.)

So – finally – I’m sitting at my desk in a room of my own in a household that’s been warned to be quiet, with my colour-coded index card system and clicky pens to hand, fingers poised over the keyboard of my shiny new Mac. But what to do now? (To quote from the fantastic How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, “Did you just start writing sentences? That seemed a bit rash.”) I knew how to write, but did I know how to write a book? Um, no. So I signed myself up for a workshop that promised to get my novel started in a weekend, although I couldn’t get my novel started that weekend because I busy attending the workshop, and then when I got home it kinda slipped my mind. I went to every reading, book signing and author talk I could feasibly travel to, thinking that by some form of osmosis I might get the power to write a book. I always sat in the front row of these events, taking furious notes. Jodi says she always goes for a walk first thing in the morning because it helps her think. Note to self: do this. I bought a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook every single year despite having no novel – or even a chapter – that needed sending to anyone, and every How To Write a Novel in a Weekend Without Breaking a Sweat and Get an Agent, a Six Figure/3 Book Deal and a University Teaching Position By Monday Afternoon book I could get my grubby mits on.

Basically, I did every thing I could except write a book.

In September 2009 I moved into a little holiday home by the sea. I sat at its kitchen table with my Mac, a clicky pen and a legal pad, and I started writing. Eight weeks later, I had a finished draft. And in those eight weeks, I learned volumes more about how to write a book than I had from any of the courses, writers or books I’d studied in the previous ten years.

(Although, funnily enough, I got the idea for the holiday home from an interview I read with crime novelist Alex Barclay. So it wasn’t all wasted!)

So stop with the preparation.

Just start doing it.

  • The Dark Room: A thrilling new novel from the number one Irish Times bestselling author of Keep Your Eyes on Me
  • www.designforwriters.com

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