Are you serious about putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and finally starting that novel idea you’ve had for years? Costa and Orange Prize shortlisted writer Monique Roffey offers her top five tips for getting the best out of your writing process – including finding your personal rhythm, getting into the habit of drafting and how to edit successfully.
1. Find your time and rhythm
Everyone ‘feels like’ writing at different times of the day. While I understand not everyone gets the luxury of using their favourite hours to write, my advice is try to arrange your working day around favored hours, often early in the morning or late at night. When does the muse most likely strike? For me, I’m best first thing in the morning, while still unguarded and still full of dreams. I write then, and I write till lunchtime, and then I’m done. I write on my laptop and l always have. One writer friend writes on her phone, with one thumb, on the way to work. Another friend writes best at 3am, but then he’s an insomniac. Find your time and place and rhythm and try to keep to it and then, slowly, slowly you will find you have writing in your life, as a habit. This habit tends to give your writing habit status, too. Becoming a writer is an auto-didactic process; one of the crucial first things to cultivate is a regular habit and practice of being there at the page.
2. Relax; it’s not a race
I journeyed home the other night, on the Central line, with a well-known writer who is about to publish her third novel. Her last novel was published seven years ago. “It took its own time,” she said. “I had to relax into it.” And of course we have the example of Arundhati Roy’s massive twenty-year break between novels. Its just not a race, it never is. Novels take their own time. They refuse to be rushed. They need research; they need drafts, they need downtime. They need editing. They need a lot of time and space and you need to practice your craft first and be up to it. First practice fiction, then try small things/stories, in your own time, and your own way. Join a peer group of fellow scribes. Open up to constructive feedback, grow and learn and apprentice yourself for a couple of years, then settle. It’s not a race. Write what you want in your own time.
3. Never compare
It’s fatal to compare your work to that of others. Never compare your journey to anyone else’s and your writing style to that of another. Having a competitive streak, or a mindset that is constantly trying to compare and assess your work to others is unhelpful. While there may be the ever hoped for book deal as a goal, really, in my experience being goal orientated about writing is anti-creative. It doesn’t help. It puts the cart before the horse. Instead, make the work, quietly, and let the work develop. Keep it sacred, stay humble and conscious and instead be conscientious and regular in your writing. One day, over time, something will come of your pages. Show it to an editor, get some sound feedback and then write some more. A writing career is a slow, long haul, career; it suits bookish, studious types who like reading. Nerds. Don’t look over your shoulder. Be the nerd that you are, feel into it and write your own thing. If a person in your group does well, fine. As Gore Vidal said, famously, ‘every time I hear that a friend has done well, a part of me dies.’ This is funny and true, especially true of writers. Stay cool. Wish your friend well and keep writing and never worry or compare your work to theirs.
4. Never write and edit at the same time
Write. Let the muse strike and write for your life. Take hours if you need to. Then go for a walk. Leave your words to cool. Hours, or even days later, come back and tidy it up. Trying to do both at the same time is a recipe for what writers call ‘writer’s block’. It’s like driving with the hand brake on. Just like a good tennis player can play with his or her left and right hand, so a writer needs to master writing and editing but they are very different things, one creative, the other more pragmatic and literal. You don’t want to be editing every sentence you write. You need to edit your sentences some time after you write. Otherwise you can soon become gridlocked, fraught with anxiety over every word. Write; let your fingers fly at the keys. Think of the grammar and spelling and structure of each sentence later.
5. Get into the habit of drafting
An artist usually makes sketches or a sketch of what she or he plans to paint or make, especially if it’s a long piece of work. So too, the writer should draft and make sketches. Plan and write a single draft, aim to get it finished rather than for it to be a perfect end product. That’s because it’s only the first draft or sketch. Let your first draft settle; give it six weeks before you read and edit it in hard copy form, then make notes and start draft two, and likewise draft three.
Born in Trinidad, Monique Roffey’s acclaimed novels include The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (2009), Archipelago (2012), House of Ashes (2014) and, most recently, The Tryst (2017), as well as a memoir, With the Kisses of his Mouth (2011).
Image (c) Teri Pengilley