Writing is a great job in many ways. You can do it in bed, it isn’t weather dependent, the only back-breaking part is forgetting to do your yoga, you don’t need qualifications, you’re fairly in control of your time and your customers don’t generally have tantrums. As to creative elation, after a good day, you return to earth like an astronaut, you’re exalted at how beautiful it is – and what’s more you honoured that beauty, you wrote it all down, you changed someone for the better, you changed yourself for the better, you entertained nobly, you dreamed up a new world.
Here are the aspects of being a fiction writer I’ve found hard work, and, knowing how awkward it is to moan about anything you can do in your pyjamas, and emboldened by ignorance, and pity for my future self and anyone like me, here is all the advice I can think of that’s helped.
I have no money
Problem: You aren’t getting paid. Solution: Get another job, get a patron or write extremely well, diversify as much as possible and work extremely hard – and if you can make your living by writing, I take my hat off to you.
I’m falling apart
Problem: You sit still for hours, you don’t see anyone, you don’t go out, you’re going crazy. Solution: Accept that people are designed to move and be with other people, for at least some of the time. Running in the woods and rampant socialising might yield material.
I’ve got some ideas but I don’t know where to start
Problem: Your novel could be about anything, real or imaginary. Solution: Organise your ideas. Only deal with the ones you keep coming back to. Of these, only deal with the ones you’re obsessed with, and of these only the ones that have the power to stop being arbitrary: the characters could become real, the events might have happened, the themes won’t leave your head.
I’m still not sure I’m doing this right
Problem: You want to write about fruit, but you think you should be writing about veg. Solution: Write the novel you want to read. Write not so much about what you know as what’s on your mind when you’re alone, what you’re scared of, what you love. Don’t be cowed by other writers. Everything starts with an embarrassing no-name slob of an idea. But do be inspired. They did it.
I’ve written a few chapters, but I can’t tell what I think of them
Problem: You can’t judge what you’ve just written objectively. Solution: Ignore it for as long as possible. Twelve hours, six months. Write something different, do something else, then relax into reading it. If you haven’t got time, change the format – read it on a kindle or double-spaced, read it in a different room. It’s tempting to ask someone else to read it, but don’t waste another person’s fresh opinion on something you haven’t tried to improve.
That stuff I wrote, there’s not much of it
Problem: Writing a novel is like pulling out a parasitic worm. Solution: To get the whole thing out, take it gently and slowly, there may be more in there than you expected.
That stuff I wrote, it’s rubbish
Problem: You’ve had a good look at it, and it’s ugly. Solution: You need to edit it.
Cut the pretentious bits. They’re fake, they’ll never work. Once you think you’ve done that, re-read it and cut the bits you couldn’t see the first time, then repeat.
Read it aloud, does it sound natural? Is it necessary? Is it clear? Don’t get blinded by words, go back to your thoughts and work out what you actually mean.
Keep it simple. Bizarre things can happen, as long as the characters react realistically to them, but (this is inexplicably hard) don’t neglect the obvious.
The reader is your guest of honour. Love him, don’t assault him.
It’s still rubbish, I’m going to kill myself
Problem: Self-doubt. Solution: Self-doubt is not a problem. If you’re not riddled with it, you’ll never be unbalanced enough to start your tenth round of editing.
Be you. This is all that you have. ‘If I try to be him, who will be me?’
At low moments (or when you’re on a high) things are never as bad (or as brilliant) as you think.
The incalculable advantage of writing in a free society is that you’re probably not telling stories that will risk or save your life, or anyone else’s. Most deadlines are flexible. Have a look at the moon. Ride your bike. Go to bed.
That stuff I wrote, it’s shameful
Problem: If your novel’s published, it will get you and people who know you into trouble. Solution: If it glorifies something glorious, like consenting sex or justice or free speech, respect to you. But you might need courage. Do not be afraid.
I’ve been writing this novel for years – no one’s reading it
Problem: You can’t find a publisher. Solution: Don’t be fooled by rejections. Get other people to read it, act on their valid criticism, then try different publishers.
I’ve been writing this novel for years – how do I know it’s finished?
Problem: You’re addicted to your novel. Solution: If the story and the characters couldn’t be otherwise, if you’re slightly less riddled with self-doubt than you usually are, you’ve probably finished. A novel can be a life raft. Start building another one and jump on.
My family don’t know me, my car tax has run out, I have muscle wastage and a small income
Problem: You’re a professional writer. Solution: Take. A. Break.
Ease your way slowly into being a lazy, ineffectual person again. Enough’s enough.
(c) Alice Burnett
About Ideal Love:
After an argument with her husband Gilles, Venus Rees is left devastated by his sudden death. But when she discovers that he died of a treatable genetic condition she knew nothing about, she is haunted by the thought that he didn’t love her enough to save himself. As time passes, Venus looks set to be trapped between grief and distrust forever. Until she meets the shy, good-looking and seemingly ideal Alex.
Intertwining Venus’s compelling attraction to Alex in the present with Gilles’ enraptured pursuit of her in the past, Ideal Love is an intimate and life-affirming novel about love, from its incandescent beginnings to its final breath and back again.
Order your copy online here.