How to write a book

Yesterday, on Twitter, I saw this

and it annoyed the hell out of me.

First of all, to clarify, I thought the Guardian supplement Higson refers to was related to NaNoWriMo which, it turns out, it’s not, but I think my point still stands and here’s why:

In the early nineties when I was trying to be a journalist, I bought a How To Write book. I can’t remember much about it, but I do remember that it put me off trying to be a journalist – and off writing altogether – for, well, years.

One thing I remember clearly was that the author said that if you say you want to be a writer – rather than saying you want to write – you don’t really want to write. At that point, I’d been saying I wanted to be a writer for at least five years. So that bit of the book made my heart sink. Had I just been kidding myself all that time? Was I just messing about with this writing thing? Apparently real writers say they want to write. I was doing it wrong.

Yes, I had no confidence/self-esteem and there may be lots of people who read that and thought “Hey, screw you! I want to be a writer and I will be a writer!” and stuck the book in the recycling. Good for them. But that’s not how it was for me.

Now I still haven’t read the Guardian supplement and I’ve heard it’s not actually very good, but consider this: Someone who had been thinking about writing a book for a long time may have read that supplement and been inspired. They may have been struggling with starting a book and thought the advice laid out in the Guardian seemed useful. And then they saw Charlie Higson’s tweet – Charlie Higson who has written 14 novels – and felt their heart sink. Consider the wording of his tweet: “Any novice writers intrigued by…” What if he’d said, “Any novice writers inspired by…” And some “novice writers” will have been – they really will – and then a successful writer comes along and says no. THIS IS NOT HOW YOU WRITE A BOOK. You’re doing it wrong. And so they don’t try. And their book remains unwritten. Congratulations, Charlie.

I feel a bit bad singling out Charlie Higson – I haven’t read his YA books (too scary for me), but I loved his adult books (and The Fast Show’s Ted and Ralph is a work of beautiful genius) – and he’s certainly not the only author to do this. Every November, I see many many condescending tweets from writers – published and unpublished – saying THIS IS NOT HOW YOU WRITE A BOOK. 50,000 words in 30 days? No. You’re doing it wrong. But they are wrong. All of them. Because, as I said on Twitter yesterday, the only right way to write a book is the way that works for you. And you should feel free to ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

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14 thoughts on “How to write a book

  1. Yeah! I can’t stand how uppity some writers get every November. If you “can’t” write a book in 30 days, what’s it to them if people try?

    I used to listen to/read way too much advice about rules you “have” to follow but it turns out the only rule worth following is to do what’s right for you.

    1. Exactly. It’s really weird and it smacks of ‘you shouldn’t even try to write – leave it to the professionals’ and I’ve no time for that AT ALL.

      I was the same. Spent years reading rules and asking writers for advice, but as Zoe Marriott said recently, what people are really asking for is the secret to writing a book. And there really isn’t one. You just have to write it in whatever way works for you.

  2. Well said! One of my NaNO books has been published and another is with my agent. Of course I polished and polished them for months after NaNo BUT I got the first 50000 words of them written (ready for polishing) during the 30 days of November.

    1. Thanks, Debs. My last two books were written for NaNo, as was the book I got my agent and publisher with (though it wasn’t subsequently published). Of course lots of editing/rewriting/polishing is needed, but it’s great for getting what Anne Lamott calls the ‘shitty first draft’ down.

  3. I think what Charlie HIgson might have been getting at was that so many people think, as you said in your comment above, that there is a ‘secret’ to writing – and we all know you can’t get that ‘secret’ from a newspaper article. Because there isn’t one. The only way to write a book, is to write it.

    1. I don’t know if that’s what he was getting at, Jane, but I think he implied the exact opposite: that there IS a secret and you won’t get it from a Guardian supplement. I’ve had a look at the supplement now and while it’s nothing new or exciting (nor does it claim to be, to be fair), it’s a perfectly practical starting point for writing a book. In fact, I’m going to do it instead of NaNo this year, I think.

  4. It’s the way he puts ‘novice writers’ as if he’s the expert. (Oh well, yes so maybe he IS an expert.) But I think the real reason for such condescension is that people like him don’t want any more competition. So the more people he can put off writing, the better. I’m not a writer but there is a writer in my family and so many people have said to me “oh, I want to be a writer!” When I say “well, be one then”, all sorts of excuses pop up. There aren’t any rules, regs or advice that will help someone who needs to write. They’ll just do it. And it’s such a shame when their talent is stilted by big-headed know-it-alls. I mean, if Barbara Cartland can do it (yes, I know and I’ve never read anything she has written ‘cos it’s badly written tosh …) I firmly believe anyone can!

    1. I’m not sure it’s about competition (although I wouldn’t be surprised), I think it’s possibly more that some authors like to think they’re doing something special that not just *anyone* can do, which of course isn’t true at all. Anyone can write a book – it may not be a good book, no, but pretty much anyone can put 80,000 words down on paper.

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