This summer I’ll publish my fifth novel five years after my first one came out: Distress Signals was released in May 2016 and 56 Days will be out in August. That means I’ve been a published author for five years. I signed my first book deal in March 2015 so we could even add on a year there and say that I’ve been a professional author for six years. But I started writing Distress Signals in 2013 so we could be generous and say I’ve been at this lark for nearly eight years. Or we could go crazy altogether and start counting all the way back in May 2010 when I self-published Mousetrapped, my memoir about working in Walt Disney World, which would give me more than a decade at it. Even then, I would be a published author for only a fraction of the time I was absolutely obsessed with making it happen.
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I figured out they existed, that books didn’t just spontaneously appear on bookstore shelves. I work with a picture on my desk of eight-year-old me, taken on Christmas morning 1989, where I’m tapping away on the Petite typewriter that Santa has just delivered while the coolest toy ever, Barbie’s Magic Van, sits off to one side, ignored. I was the girl in your class who relished the assignment of an English essay for homework, who was so excited about it that she started scribbling down ideas during lunch. I can still remember the out-of-body experience that was meeting a real-life author for the first time: Mike McCormack, having just published Crowe’s Requiem in 1998, visiting my school. (I got to tell him this when we did an event together at the Irish consulate in San Francisco in 2019.) Waterstones on Patrick Street had a reference section with a shelf dedicated to How To Write A Book books and I spent my teenage years steadily working my way through them, learning about everything from how to format a manuscript to how royalties are paid. Whenever the The Writers and Artists Yearbook was updated, I replaced my copy even though the previous one was still looking decidedly brand new.
Things took a turn in January 2004 when my mother rang to tell me to turn on The Late Late Show. Cecelia Ahern was the guest. She had just signed a mega deal for her debut novel, P.S. I Love You. This wasn’t that long ago, but it was a different world then. There was no social media, no easy access to writers or even other people who wanted to be writers. I had only lasted three weeks in college, one of which was Freshers’ so technically it was two, where I’d supposedly been studying science subjects. I’d never even met anyone else in real life who had the same dream as me and here was this other Irish girl, not only wanting it too but having already got it, and she was a year younger than me. I’m not proud of this, but I immediately burst into hot, envious tears.
Of course, there was one crucial difference between me and Cecelia Ahern: she had actually written a book. I hadn’t written anything, even though I was over-qualified to deal with any publishing eventuality that might occur once I had, if I ever did. All I wanted was to be a published writer but I never actually did any writing. Looking back now, I know exactly why I was doing (or not doing) that, and I know why you are doing (or not doing) it right now, reading this article (written by me, your enabler, who called it ‘The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got’ because she knew damn well you’d respond to it). It’s because I was scared. It was much nicer – and safer – to stay in the world where everything I wanted might yet be mine than it was to risk finding out whether or not my dream of writing novels for a living might forever remain just that.
How To Write A Book books have their place. They’re hugely inspirational and motivational for starters, and there’s certainly a few gems in them that I still rely on today. But many published novelists have never cracked the spine on a single one. Yet all of them – every single one – did do something else: they put their arse in the chair and starting writing, and kept doing that until a book was done. You will never learn as much as you from reading about other people writing books than you will from actually writing a book yourself. And you don’t need any of the other information until after you’ve done that. So, get writing that book.
You already have everything you need to do that. There is no magic pen or special software or writing retreat required. You have the time if you are willing to sacrifice time spent doing other things and you don’t need as much time as you think you do. If you wrote 300 words a day, in a year you’d have a book and you’d have enjoyed a few weeks off as well. That’s just one-third the length of this article so far. You are already a voracious reader, so you know how books are put together, how characters are drawn, what makes dialogue realistic. (If you’re not a reader, stop trying to write and become that first. Otherwise you are wasting everyone’s time, including your own.)
But I will give you one piece of advice before you start, my favourite piece. The best advice I ever got. Write the book you want to read but can’t find on the shelf. It’s deceptively simple and incredibly effective. If you do that, you will be writing in the genre that you know and love. You will be writing a book that excites you and entertains you and keeps bringing you back to the desk day after day. You will write something original – whether that’s an idea that hasn’t been done before, a new way to tell an old story or something written in a fresh, distinctive voice.
When I finally started doing this, writing the book I wanted to read but couldn’t find on the shelf, it led to Distress Signals, which got me my agent, who got me my first book deal and has got me many more since. It’s still what I do today whenever the time comes to decide what to write next. If you take that advice, you can’t go wrong – and everything else can wait until after you’ve done that.
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
About The Nothing Man:
I was the girl who survived the Nothing Man.
Now I am the woman who is going to catch him…
You’ve just read the opening pages of The Nothing Man, the true crime memoir Eve Black has written about her obsessive search for the man who killed her family nearly two decades ago.
Supermarket security guard Jim Doyle is reading it too, and with each turn of the page his rage grows. Because Jim was – is – the Nothing Man.
The more Jim reads, the more he realises how dangerously close Eve is getting to the truth. He knows she won’t give up until she finds him. He has no choice but to stop her first…
Order your copy online here.
The Nothing Man is out now in paperback. 56 Days will be published on August 19. Pre-order an exclusive, limited SIGNED edition from Eason Ireland while stocks last: https://www.easons.com/56-Days-Catherine-Ryan-Howard