Novels are time machines that take in hours from their writers and convert them into the ability to transport their readers elsewhere. They eat up evenings and weekends and whatever you throw at them. It’s amazing how long you can spend agonising over a couple of sentences. On the other hand, it’s equally surprising how much you can produce in just five minutes.
If you’ve got a job, and/or caring responsibilities, and want to write a novel but have no spare time, how are you ever going to fit it in? Part of the answer is sleight of hand. You need to kid yourself that it’s feasible until you’re so deep in that there’s no way you’re going to give up. You have to get over the hump.
Here are some tricks and ruses that will help to get you started and keep you going. The time your novel takes up is going to have to come out of somewhere, sadly; you’re never suddenly going to get a whole new load of hours in which to write it, unless a very wealthy and obliging patron comes along. So, what gives?
If there’s anything you routinely do that you don’t really like doing and would prefer not to bother with, why not cut back on it? In my case, that has meant embracing my inner domestic slut. The inner domestic goddess is no help at all on the writing front – we’re barely on speaking terms. And to paraphrase Rose Macaulay, better a house unkept than a life unlived (or a book unwritten).
I do feel ashamed of my writerly sluttishness, but console myself with the thought that Iris Murdoch apparently had a very messy house. And as for Quentin Crisp – he maintained that after the first five years, the dust didn’t get any worse.
You’re almost certainly going to have to cut some corners somewhere.
During your precious writing time, resist interruption. According to Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame, when Plath was a new mother living in Devon she tried to write in the morning and leave housework till the afternoon. However, she was liable to be interrupted by surprise visits from the local nurse and midwife, who would head on upstairs and find Plath working away, undressed, the bed unmade, and the chamber pot unemptied.
The Person from Porlock called on Coleridge and Kubla Khan ground to a halt. If you can avoid letting the Person from Porlock in, then do. It may be necessary to cultivate a bit of writerly ruthlessness.
Be very, very selective about what TV you watch. Consider abandoning all reality TV. The reality you invent will be much more compelling. Maybe this will mean some holes in your water cooler chat, but you’ll manage.
Get to know some other writers. If one or two of them are published, so much the better. It’s proof that it’s possible. I met Jenny Colgan socially back in the mid-90s and a few months later there were posters for her debut novel up all over town. It happens.
One way of meeting other writers is to do a creative writing course, selected according to the funds and time you have available. The Arvon Foundation runs week-long residential courses that don’t cost the earth and there are various online options. Some terrific writers have done creative writing courses. Many have not. It isn’t a pre-requisite.
Set yourself a deadline and make sure that someone else knows what it is. The carrot – publication, praise, renown, money – is far off, and likely to keep on getting jerked out of reach, so a stick is more likely to help you on your way. A deadline is an excellent stick.
When I was writing Stop the Clock, I set myself the target of writing a chapter a month, for twelve months, at the end of which I figured I’d have a novel, of sorts. I handed over each chapter on the due date each month to a colleague at work (in a brown envelope so no one else would pick it up and start reading.) I missed one month’s deadline, which was when my children had chicken pox. Just knowing someone was expecting me to deliver spurred me on.
Find yourself a reader, or readers, but choose with care. With an early draft, you don’t need detailed feedback. That can come later. In the meantime, while you’re trying to get the damn thing out, ‘I liked that bit’ will probably suffice.
You may not need much more than to know that someone has read it. You certainly won’t want detailed criticism. Hint: your ideal reader will probably share some of your tastes and values, but is unlikely, especially in the early days, to be your spouse.
You will also need at least some people around you who believe that what you are trying to do is worthwhile, even if you haven’t yet shown them what you’re writing. If your spouse or partner is one of these, count your lucky stars. However, you should beware of telling the world at large that you are writing a novel. Play your cards close to your chest until you’re really getting somewhere. This helps to create the psychological space and sense of freedom you need to make stuff up (which is what you need to do for writing to cease to seem like hard work, and become a pleasure).
More tips to follow…