I don’t want you to just write a book.
Look around you – for which read: trawl the internet – and you’ll find the same, perfectly correct advice everywhere:
At best, this advice is geared to an early learning mindset; it’s geared to people on the vertical part of the learning curve, and it’s trying to pretend that the curve isn’t vertical, for fear of discouragement.
Well I’m going to treat you like an adult.
You’re at the bottom of a vertical cliff. Maybe there’s a safety rope. Maybe there’s an inspiring climbing instructor. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re nervous, tense, and might be on the edge of an attack of the shakes.
That’s what it feels like to be in front of the vertical part of the learning curve.
Think of how you felt during your first driving lesson. The most anyone could tell you to help you feel better was to remind you just how many people have successfully learned to drive. But the most helpful thing that your driving instructor will say to you is not “I know you can do it.”
It’s what she says after you’ve pulled away in first gear, driven ten yards, and then pulled back into the curb. She says: “well done. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
That’s the sound of encouragement. It’s when people tell you well done for taking the first few steps. It’s impossible to tell you well done if you’ve never tried.
So here’s my first, and favorite, example of when Yoda was wrong:
Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.
I’m sorely tempted to say that I don’t have words to express just how wrong this is, just how angry this makes me. But the truth is, I’m a good writer. I have lots of words to express it. I’m just far too considerate of your sensibilities to use them in a published article.
Without try there is no learn. This is for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that in order to learn almost anything, we have to imitate and repeat. We call this practice.
The repetition enables us to build neural pathways and to develop dedicated muscles. The second is that encouragement is a very hard currency, but you can’t spend it on someone who has not tried.
As soon as they have tried, whether or not they have succeeded, you can encourage them.
“Well done,” you say, “that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
If you want to be able to find the right mindset to write your first book, there’s one more thing you have to know about becoming a writer.
You never stop learning.
Learning curves are the graph of a logarithmic function. I’ll give the non mathematical explanation in a moment, but bear with me, because the mathematical explanation of this extended metaphor is wondrous: the shape of the curve is always the same, regardless of the scale.
Let’s say the x axis is the number of weeks you’ve been learning for, and the y axis is how much you’ve learned.
If the x axis goes up to 10 weeks, the curve starts out vertical and finishes horizontal, curving quite quickly around week 3.
Extend the x axis to 20 weeks, and the shape of the curve will be exactly the same, it just starts to curve quickly round week 6 instead.
This is what learning to write is like. The more you learn, the more you discover, and the more you realize that there is a lot more yet to be learned.
But this shouldn’t be demoralizing…
… it should be liberating.
It’s liberating because you soon realize that you’re first book is just the first step. That means your first book isn’t going to be anything like as good as your second book. That every book you write will be better than the last.
Even if you’ve never written so much as a short story, it’s a very small stretch of the imagination to think that once you’ve written ten books, you’ll find it easy to s ee everthing that’s wrong with your first one.
It’s liberating because everyone who is persuing an artistic path is seeking something that can never be completely found. That can only be approached. And this means that every step on the path is as valuable as every other. Even though your first book will be your worst, it will still be an essential part of your life’s work, which is the struggle to communicate meaning through stories.
Does it sound like I’m treating you like an adult?
Western culture gives you the false impression that idealism, and especially artistic idealism, is not for adults. Adults are pragmatic. Adults are realists.
Idealism, especially artisitic idealism, is for adults. Art is necessary because we understand that meaning goes beyond Yes and No. That meaning is often almost impossible to express clearly, simply, plainly or literally.
And stories exist because sometimes meaning can only be expressed over time, or through a journey. Sometimes to communicate our meaning, we need a process.
That process is the communication that passes between writer and reader.
Think of your driving test. By the time you took your test, by the time you collected your license, you knew, for certain, that your first driving lesson was the first step to collecting your license.
Your first book is that first driving lesson.
What I’m trying to do here is show you the mindset that leads to writing the first book, and how to avoid the mindset that prevents you from finishing it, or the other one – equally wrong-headed – that prevents your finished book from ever seeing the light of day.
The mindset you need is to recognize that your first book matters.
And there’s one more component that you need to establish this, and that is to recognize that you want to write because you have something to say. Something you care about. Something that you value. This something is your meaning.
Identify and understand it, and you will have no difficulty addressing the blank page and no difficulty in finishing your story.
One more thing about learning…
So, I’ve berated Yoda and talked about the wonderfully weird exponential curve, but there’s one other aspect of learning that you can’t afford to be without. Providence, or history, or our biological and cultural descent, has provided us with a means of learning very rapidly and very effectively, almost without realizing we are learning.
But unfortunately, if you went to school at any time in the last couple of hundred years, you will have had it at best denigrated and sidelined, at worst beaten out of you. It’s play. Play is a lot more than just “fun” (if there’s any such thing). Play is a lot more than just try. Play is experimentation.
It’s taking steps in new directions. But also it’s rehearsal. Repetition. Trying out and trying on. As an adult, if you want to relearn what you’ve unlearned about learning, the most important thing to reintroduce into learning is play.
To sum up, getting the mindset to write your book:
It’s not easy to summarize, or to pare down to a few glib soundbites, because telling stories is an art, and art is communication through non-literal, messy, intuitive, associative means.
In other words, art communicates the way your human cognitive and communicative faculties really work, as a mixture of feeling, sensation, emotion, truth, understanding; a mixture of certainty and uncertainty. A mixture of the present with the eternal process of living.
I’ve done the messy pep-talk. I hope it’s left you even more daunted but even more encouraged. If you have the temperament to become a writer, then it will have done, because the main characteristic that my pep talk addressed was ambition. Ambition is the quality you have to have, the sine qua non to use the Latin, of self-improvement.
Finding your ambition requires a bit of introspection, but it helps if you spend some time talking to others about what you want to achieve. It will bore them, but it will help you get the self-knowledge you need, so trespass a little on their goodwill for your own good.
You can thank them afterwards.
I think it’s worth our while talking about some practical considerations. If you’re going to write a book, you might as well make it as easy for yourself as possible. In my course on writing your first book, Read Worthy Fiction, I devote an entire lesson to making yourself comfortable in your writing environment.
But that doesn’t mean you need to set yourself up a cosy little nook somewhere. I wrote about 60% of my first book in the office, on company time. I have worked with a writer who did most of her first book on the kitchen table while preparing meals for her family, with the radio and the extractor running, and the kids watching the TV in the next room.
Making yourself comfortable is about knowing where you need to be in order to be able to write.
I also know that I write more when I have something else I ought to be doing but don’t much fancy doing, like hanging out the washing or changing the straw in the goose shelter. It helps if you understand your motivations.
Many writers use the process of story discovery as a means of motivating themselves, but long term, this will fail, because the more you know about the art and craft of writing, the more you will know in advance about what you are going to write.
My feeling is that it is best to start in the right place, and know exactly what you’re going to write.
Take as many decisions as you possibly can before you start writing. Remember all these decisions count as tries, so there’s no need to worry about whether you make the right decision. You’ll learn something valuable whatever you chuse, and that’s the point of the endeavor.
Write down your answers to these vague, broad, open questions:
A novella is 20,000 to 30,000 words (40 pages and 60 pages in old money). A short novel is 40,000 to 80,000 words. I advise you to aim for 20,000 to 40,000 words.
I advise you not to exceed 100,000 words for your first novel, as you will make yourself wait to learn all sorts of valuable lessons.
How to actually write?
My number one advice, which counts for about 95% of the effort of preparation and will be your most valuable asset for the creative, technical and artistic challenge ahead:
If you can only one-finger type, you will go so slowly that you will not be able to maintain a strong sense of your story, and the narrative will become stilted and jerky.
There is pretty good voice recognition software available that you can use to dictate to the computer, but this is much, much slower than typing. Alternatively, you can dictate, and make use of a professional copy-typing service. There are many of these to be found online and rates are very reasonable, but still, this is much slower than touch typing.
I type at 80 to 90 wpm (words per minute). With a few week’s practice, you can learn to type at 50 wpm or more. That’s 3000 words an hour if you type continuously, which when writing your book, you won’t.
If you include rephrasing, rereading, staring into space or out of the window, trying out dialog aloud and the many other non-writing parts of the writer’s creative process, then 1000 words an hour is only accessible if you can touch type.
The best advice I can give here is to condense the whole creative process down to a couple of simple phrases:
It isn’t for nothing that I’ve created a course for first time writers. There’s no way I could give meaningful advice about what to write in a short article like this one.
But, I get that this simplification begs a pretty big question:
Where do the ideas for what to write come from?
I would generally hope that if you have the ambition to write a book, then you already have some sense of what you want to write about. That’s why I suggested you answer those questions asking what the book is about. But even once you know what it’s about, you still have to work out the detail of what happens.
You can see, not far above you, maybe three or four yards, a ledge that’s wide enough for you to sit and have a rest. That ledge is now your first objective.
To get there, though, you have to find a route to climb where there will be hand and footholds that you will be able to reach, and you will have the strength to hang on to. There’s only one way to find them: try.
Grab a likely looking handhold and see if you can get started. Feel out with hands and feet, and see if you can work your way up. If you can’t, go back down and try again.
The detail of writing is all about identifying your objectives.
Once you do, everything starts to fall into place. Let’s suppose that you give yourself a very broad objective for chapter 1:
The main character has their most valued possession stolen.
This statement immediately begs a whole pile of other questions:
Although you don’t have to tell the reader the answer to all these questions, clearly you need to answer them, and each answer leads to a new objective:
This dialectic process will lead inevitably to the story being invented and to its being told.
Eventually, you will internalize this process and do it instinctively, in exactly the same way as you steer, brake and accelerate in your car without consciously thinking about it, now that you’ve been driving for a while.
As I’ve already intimated, and it bears repeating, learning to touch type is the single most effective way of making your ambition to write a book accessible. This implies using some sort of writing machine.
Plenty of authors still use manual typewriters for their first draft. For exactly the same purpose, many authors favor small, dedicated machines like the Alphasmart range or lightweight portable electronic typewriters.
The advantage of these machines is the focus they provide, because they can only be used for writing. There are no distractions. No games, no internet, no messaging.
The authors who use these machines do so either because they like to be isolated and focused, or because they want to escape the temptation of distractions.
If this is going too far for you, then all you need is a computer with word processing software.
A novel is just text with gaps and a few chapter headings.
So in theory, you don’t need anything more complicated than a text editor, like Microsoft Windows Notepad.
In reality, once you reach a few tens of thousands of words, it becomes valuable to be able to find your place easily, to add notes, references and comments, and so a richer working environment becomes more important.
I’ve written another article about writing software that covers these in a lot more detail.