Writing in the shadow

A question that’s been preoccupying me recently, as I spend more time reading than writing my own stuff, is this: how does anybody manage to write a word after reading their favourite novels?

One of my favourite novels, for example, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I sometimes tell people it’s my favourite novel (I don’t really have an answer to that question, but it’s something to say that most people have heard of), but really, I love Heller’s lesser-known novel Something Happened even more (I wrote a review of it here). It’s a difficult novel to love, described by Kurt Vonnegut as “one of the unhappiest books ever written”, and yet – drawn as I am to unhappiness and things/people that are hard work (ahem… joking) – love it I do.

I recently re-read Something Happened as research. Like Bob Slocum, the narrator of Heller’s novel, my narrator, Jason, is a fragile and toxic man crippled by self-loathing and assailed by irrational fears and a general sense of doom – that something bad is going to happen to him, and that he deserves it. Having re-read Heller’s novel, though, I felt deflated about my own idea, which seemed like an obvious, derivative, poorly-written pool of word vomit in comparison. I hadn’t only stolen Heller’s themes, but clumsily aped his writing style (he puts lots of asides in parentheses (and sometimes parentheses inside parentheses as well (see what I did there?))). Why do I bother, I wondered? What am I saying or doing in my writing that’s new, different?

Recently at a party I told someone my novel is “a more British American Psycho with less violence and misogyny and definitely no rats” (this is a shining example of the calibre of my small talk). I didn’t even like American Psycho much (due to aforementioned violence, misogyny and rats). There are parts of it I think are genius – I’ve tried to recreate the business card scene with Instagram profiles in my novel – but mostly, I’ve reacted against it. When Jason tries to go all Patrick Bateman on women, they defy his expectations and show him up for the sad little man he’s trying to be (he does have some redeeming features, honestly). Still, when I compare my novel to its anti-inspiration, I get that sinking feeling. What if people think my novel’s a watered down version of American Psycho because I’m afraid to be shocking?

Reading great novels confuses me, because they make me feel I may as well give up, but they also make me desperate to write. I know I’ll never be as good or bold or shocking as the author I’ve just read, but I can’t help but try anyway. The one way I can guarantee never being as good is by giving up, right? There’s a quiet voice in my head that says, “They’re only a human being and they wrote this. You’re also a human being…” And who knows, maybe Heller had the same voice in his head when he read Nabokov. Maybe Nabokov felt like crap and wanted to fling his manuscript in the fire when he read Tolstoy. And so on and so on.

There’s another positive way to look at it. With every novel I read, and with every element of another writer’s style I absorb, my writing becomes more complex. Recently I read two Julian Barnes novels in a row and for a few weeks everything I wrote sounded like a posh old man sadly reflecting on his past regrets. But then I read some other novels, and the voices of those authors were added to the mix. As a result, my novel-in-progress is an ugly, messy, unfocused, Frankenstein’s monster-type creature – but nobody else could write it. And perhaps the voice of Emma Goode, and the voice of every writer, is just that – the voices of a thousand other writers so intermingled they create something new and beautiful, colours coming together to form white light.

So I try not to feel too hopeless. If I keep reading and keep writing, and writing and writing, pushing through the feelings of inadequacy that ambush me every time I pick up a brilliant book, weaving in the elements I love, whittling away those I don’t, my writing will become more honed, confident and self-assured. Who knows, maybe one day somebody might even read one of my novels and love it so much they hurl their laptop out of the window in despair. I can only hope.

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Highs and lows

It’s been three months since I began my break, and some people have been asking me how I’m finding it. Great, I tell them. Fantastic. The best time of my life. And that’s partly true, but it’s not the full truth, so I thought I’d write a very honest appraisal of the highs and lows of my time out so far.

Yes, there are lows. Some people imagine I’m rolling out of bed at 10am every day, padding around in a silk dressing gown, sitting in the summer house by the lake with my typewriter, languidly producing a word-perfect chapter before hopping on a plane to Thailand. But although I do wear my dressing gown a lot, and do have a shed and a pond that could pass for a summer house and lake if you squint, this isn’t the case. Even if it was, anxiety brain wouldn’t let me enjoy it. (“Can you really afford that silk dressing gown?” it would whisper. “That’s a bit extravagant. You’re quite spoiled, aren’t you? Who are you going to Thailand with, anyway? All your friends are working like proper human beings. Oh yes, and enjoy reading that ‘word perfect’ chapter back tomorrow. Heh!”)

There are some days where I stare at a blank word document, then stare at my bank account, then have a mini panic attack, then have a nap, then feel ashamed of myself for wasting time. But there are also days when I write thousands of words and go to the gym and bake a cake and basically feel like a superhero. I’ve learnt to ride these waves of success and failure, confidence and self-doubt, accepting that nobody goes through life without the occasional embarrassing belly-flop.

High: So this is what not being tired feels like…

I just finished Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which really opened my eyes to how important sleep is. I realised how unhealthy my former routine of waking up at 6am to write before work was. Sleep-deprivation stifles creativity, and when I was stressed and busy I was a terrible insomniac. Now I’m getting more sleep, I’ve learnt what it feels like to not be tired, and boy is it a weird feeling. Initially it’s like being on some kind of stimulant. Everything is so clear and sharp! Your brain is working at 200%! But then it dawns on you that this is what normal is supposed to be. I still have the occasional sleepless night worrying about wedding admin or the latest episode of Love Island (not ashamed), but now it’s not every night, my head is so much clearer when I sit down to write.

Low: I can’t treat writing like a 9 to 5 job.

Occasionally I read an interview with a writer who churns out seven novels per year who will say sternly, “I wake up at five AM EVERY DAY. Then I write for SEVEN HOURS. Then I have lunch. Then I run a marathon. Then I write for SIX MORE HOURS. Then I sleep. EVERY DAY. If I break this routine I give myself twenty lashes. You won’t make it unless you’re COMMITTED to your craft!”

When I was on my writing retreat in Scotland I wrote like that, but that was a special, magical world. Back at home I simply can’t focus on my novel for more than a couple of hours at a time. There is washing to do, and food to make, and a cat demanding attention. Sometimes I get angry at myself because I’m not writing as much as I could if I chained myself to my desk – 3,000 words a day would wrap my first draft up in a month – but then I remind myself that the purpose of this break isn’t to be a slave to writing. The purpose is to relax, have fun and learn to love writing again.

High: The steady onward march of the word count.

Despite the above, I’ve almost written 50,000 words of my novel. Sometimes I’m only able to write a couple of hundred words; on better days, the most words I can write before my brain evaporates is about 2,000. This has always been the case, but now I’m able to write almost every single day and the word count is creeping slowly and steadily up. It’s likely those 50,000 words mostly suck, since I’m refusing to read back anything I’ve written until I write the final sentence, but those sucky words are Second Draft Emma’s problem. Sorry, Second Draft Emma. You probably don’t even have sunshine and Love Island to console you.

Low: Please be my friend. Anyone.

This sleepy Surrey village ain’t London. If I want to go for a drink with someone, we have to argue over who will drive, or beg my parents to drop me off like I’m fifteen, or take a bus. (The other day I got on a local bus, tried to tap in with my Oyster card and said loudly, “Oh, sorry, this isn’t London!” Nobody on that bus hated me more than I hated myself.) In London I’d see friends every day; now I can go a full week without speaking to anyone except my parents, my cat (who doesn’t have much chat), and the receptionist in the gym, who I’ll probably end up begging to be my best friend and give me lifts to the pub. The upside is more time to write; the downside is that I’m not sure slowly losing it to the point where I shout at flies is good for my writing…

High: A time to think, a time to read.

When it comes to writing I’m a ‘throw myself headfirst in’ person. One thing I’ve been learning from my writer friends is that thinking time – gazing out of the window whilst contemplating difficult characters, thorny plot issues or how to create conflict – is equally as important as words on the page. For me thinking time isn’t just literal time, but also mental space; I couldn’t focus on my novel when my mind was caught up with an unhappy author at work or a lightbulb that needed fixing in my flat. Reading time is important too. Since I no longer have to perform the balancing act of not falling into a stranger’s lap while holding a book on the tube, or fight against someone’s sweaty back to hold my book more than a centimetre from my face, I’m reading much more and finding inspiration for my writing.

Low: WHAT HAVE I DONE???

I’ve always insisted that it doesn’t matter if this novel doesn’t work out, because I’m doing this for myself. I stand by that, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts. What if my idea just isn’t very good? What if I’m wasting this once in a lifetime opportunity? Should I be writing something different, something better? I say I’m not expecting to get published, but how will I feel if I don’t? Are people expecting great things of me because I gave up my job? What do I tell people when they ask what I do? Why do I mumble about being a freelancer or joke about watching Bargain Hunt instead of saying I’m a writer? I’ve learnt to place these self-doubting questions in the back of my mind, where they buzz pointlessly like wasps trapped inside jars, faintly audible but unable to harm me.

Retreating

Late year I was daydreaming at work. The idea had entered my mind that I might leave my job, but I wasn’t decided. I thought that if I did quit, I’d love to go on a writing retreat. On a whim I googled writing retreats Scotland and came across Moniack Mhor, a writing centre in the Scottish Highlands. There were ‘limited places available’ on the May retreat. I booked there and then.

Usually I’d book off holiday from work at the same time, but this time I didn’t. In my head, this was the first stepping stone to making my idea of quitting a reality. I can be stubborn and irrational: now I had something booked, I had to see the idea through.

About six months later I was on my way to Scotland, officially unemployed, remembering that moment at my desk. I’d actually done the thing! I left behind an oppressively hot and grimy London with a pounding headache, but when I stepped off the plane at Inverness the air was damp and bright and refreshing. It felt symbolic of my new beginning in life.

I lingered outside Inverness rail station, waiting for the shared taxi that would take me to Moniack. I shyly observed every artsy-looking person around me: could it be them? I was unsure of the kind of people who went on these retreats. Would they be mega-serious professional writers who would make me feel like a child splashing about in a paddling pool in comparison? Would they be achingly cool, or exhaustingly eccentric? The taxi driver appeared and led me over to a group of people who looked… normal. People like me. I immediately felt comfortable in the presence of other writers.

We arrived at Moniack and were shown to our rooms, which were simple, cosy and most importantly, lacking in distractions. Mine had a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape, where horses and cows outnumbered houses fifty to one. I lay on my bed for a while, my senses amplified: I could hear floorboards creaking, wind gently rattling the window, Highland cows lowing. It was the most peaceful I’d felt in a while, as if somebody were sweeping out the cluttered contents of my head and filling it with air and light.

In the dining room there was there was wine, tagine and chocolate brownies, and good conversation. We were a mix of novelists, poets, short story writers and playwrights, all there for different reasons – editing, finishing first drafts or starting something new – but we were united by our love of writing, which was so strong we wanted to do nothing else for a week. When I said I’d recently quit my job to write, there were no baffled looks; on the contrary, everybody applauded. I knew I was in the right place.

On the first day the light woke me up at 6.45am, and weirdly I didn’t want to collapse back into my pillow and sleep for another hour. Not being tired was strange: I was light-headed, dizzy. I went out to the straw bale studio in the garden for some morning yoga. Yoga takes on a new dimension when you do it in front of a panoramic view of the Highlands amid silence sprinkled with birdsong. In Surrey I’ve adapted to the constant roar of the nearby motorway, and so true silence was unnerving; the only roar I could hear was the wind through the trees. By the time I was lying on my back watching gauzy clouds drift past the porthole in the ceiling, I was used to it. I could have laid there all day – but there was writing to be done.

And done it was. From 8.30 to 5.30 every day I wrote almost constantly, pausing only to read, eat or walk, and after four days I had over 12,000 words. I’ll admit I was a little dubious about retreats before I came: why not just hire out a cottage for a weekend and make your own? Actually, Omar and I did this once, and we did do some writing, but we also spent a lot of time watching films. There’s something different about a formal retreat – something in the combination of the scenery, the lack of distractions, and the inspiration provided by fellow writers – which creates the perfect space for productivity.

I’d begun the week worried about what the other writers would be like; I ended it convinced that my fellow writers were the best thing about the retreat. My group were the perfect balance of hardworking and sociable. Whenever I was lagging, someone would motivate me. On the last night we ate haggis and drank whiskey, listened to bagpipes, and even contemplated an impromptu ceilidh (although after the whiskey, it’s probably good that didn’t happen), which was great fun. It was wonderful to meet writers working on such different projects, and to grow my writing circle a little larger.

I’m so pleased I made that spur-of-the-moment decision to book onto a retreat, not only because it inspired me to make an important life change, but because it was invigorating, relaxing and extremely productive. It also gave me confidence: I now know the novel idea I spent months brewing in my head while wrapping things up at work might just have some mileage.

In the month since the retreat, I haven’t quite managed to replicate my 3,000 words a day, unfortunately. I know that’s only natural, but still, I’m wondering… when can I go on my next retreat?

A new beginning

Last Friday, I walked out of the office for the last time; walking away from a job my twenty-one-year-old self would have considered her dream (had she been able to see into the future, she would have rugby tackled me to the ground screaming). It felt strange, as if I were simply going on a longer than usual holiday, and I half-expected someone to email me on Monday morning asking me to filter a spreadsheet by my name and fill in column D. At no point, however – not even now, when I’ve spent the day reorganising the food storage container drawer – have I been in any doubt that leaving was the right thing to do.

It’s not that I hated my job; not at all. But it took me a while to realise that hating your job or getting a better one aren’t the only two reasons you’re allowed to leave.

Last year, as was well-documented by this blog, I wrote a novel after completing Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. The course was a turning point for me, as it made me think about myself as a ‘proper’ writer for the first time, but afterwards I became obsessed with finishing my novel as quickly as possible. I saw it as my get-out clause from the mundanity of a nine-to-five office job, and gave it my all: waking up at 6am to write before work, staying up late, turning down social invites. After three drafts, I was so utterly exhausted that I decided my novel was as good as it was ever going to be, and sent it off to agents. I got closer than I ever have to securing an agent, but nonetheless, my inbox filled with (polite, encouraging) rejections.

I still believe the novel was good, but it wasn’t good enough. That might be because it just wasn’t the right novel for that time, or because my exhaustion led me to be too hasty. Either way, I was pretty broken after those rejections. I’d worked so hard. I’d built up my hopes. I’d led myself to believe that this could be it, this might be the one, despite knowing that most writers face hundreds of rejections before they get that ‘yes’. It’s good to be optimistic, but I’d pinned everything on this novel getting published. Of course it was unlikely to end well.

I crashed and burned. I said I couldn’t do it anymore, that I was giving up writing. I became bitterly cynical about the literary world, avoiding Facebook and Twitter because I didn’t want to see people posting about their brilliant agents and their amazing cover designs and their awesome book launches. You don’t want this, I told myself. Doesn’t the struggle continue after you get an agent, after you get published? Do you really want to play that game? I confused the healthy belief that there’s more to life with completely turning away from my passion, and having been so focused on my writing for so long, I felt purposeless. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed because I didn’t see the point. Some of the symptoms of the severe anxiety I suffered at university began to resurface, and when I noticed this I knew something had to change.

So, I took a break. I didn’t write a word for six months. I filled my days with other things I enjoy – reading, singing, playing my piano, yoga, running, spending time with the friends I’d neglected – and started seeing a therapist, learning mindfulness to help with my anxiety. Eventually I felt the urge to write again, and began to chip away at a short story. I started to see my experience with my latest novel in a different way: I’d learnt so much on the course, made some wonderful new friends, and had got to the point where several agents wanted to read my whole novel. All of those things were achievements to be celebrated. If I wrote something else in future, applying everything I’d learnt on the course and with the advice and encouragement of my new friends, what else could I achieve?

I even came up with an idea for a new novel, though I restrained myself from rushing to start writing. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

The culmination of all of this was the realisation that I had to leave my job. For a long time I’d been waiting either for success with my writing, or for some amazing new career to fall into my lap. Neither of these things happened, and so I’d been waiting, waiting. But why not just take a leap of faith? I had enough savings to dedicate some time purely to writing, but had always been afraid: it seemed reckless, stupid, privileged. For once in my life, though, why not do something unexpected, something not involving a detailed plan? There was also the fact I’d gotten engaged and planned on moving to Cambridge, and therefore away from my job, anyway. Wasn’t the year before getting married the perfect time to be a little bit irresponsible?

The more I thought about this plan, the less crazy it seemed, and the more like the most sensical thing I could possibly do. Even my parents agreed, because they wanted to see me happy.  All that remained was to hand in my notice (I’d told enough people of my plan that it would have been embarrassing not to!). That part was scary, but everyone at work was not only completely understanding, but excited for me; they thought it was a great decision.

As I write this now – loving the fact I actually have time to write a blog post and am not cramming it resentfully into my one free evening – I’m inclined to agree.

It’s my second day of unemployment and so far I’ve spent my time (when not reorganising plastic tubs and putting things in boxes) making a plan for the coming months: I have several holidays booked, plus some freelance copywriting and editing work, and then of course there’s my plan to write a new novel. My first trip is a writing retreat in the Scottish Highlands, where I plan to throw myself headfirst into this new idea (after careful plotting, of course). This time, there’s no expectation to get published or be a success: I’m doing this for me.

I’m excited for what the coming months have in store; plenty of surprises, I hope. I’m also excited to restart this blog so I can keep my friends updated on my adventures and share my thoughts on my new writing journey. Initially I wanted to set up a new blog – a blank slate – but actually, I decided it’s best to keep on updating this one. I want people to see the journey that’s led to where I am now as well as my journey going forwards.

I hope that in the future, someone might read this and be inspired to take a leap of faith too.

Writing update: owning it, and second draft torture

I get embarrassed talking about writing. When people ask me how my novel’s going, I assume they’re just being polite, blush and mumble and change the subject, or I downplay things: ‘Yeah, it’s coming along OK, but it might not go anywhere so I’m trying to just enjoy writing for its own sake…’ I’m afraid people will think I’m arrogant and pretentious, or just a bore (‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? You haven’t mentioned that before!’). Most of all, I’m afraid of setting myself up for an embarrassing failure. I’ve been talking about writing for years. If I don’t get published people will think I must be really bad and, even worse, pitiably deluded about my ability to string a sentence together.

Recently, a friend pointed out that I’m constantly putting myself down in conversation. It’s not just the writing; I’m afraid of admitting that I might be half-decent at anything. Rather than charming people with my modesty, this constant self-denigration is actually more irritating than just owning what I do. What’s more, it can come across as insincere – because I do believe I’m a good writer, regardless of whether I get published or not. Most of my writer friends aren’t published yet, and I don’t consider them ‘not real writers’ because of that: it’s their self-belief and their dedication to the craft that make them writers, not a six-figure book deal. In fact, one could argue that dedicating oneself to something when there’s no immediate payoff – just early mornings, lonely evenings, sleepless nights wrangling with your plot, but above all the sense of fulfillment that comes with expressing your creativity – is the purest, noblest form of writing.

Payoff would be nice too, of course. 

It’s Lent, and this year I’ve decided I’ll try to banish the feelings of embarrassment, shame, self-doubt and fear of failure that constantly attempt to ambush my life (a nebulous resolution, I know). In that spirit, I’m going to tell you about my writing, proudly. So, here’s my latest novel update.

I’m almost at the end of my second draft, although that little almost feels like the last stage of a triathlon I forgot to train for. It feels like I’ll be writing this bloody novel until my teeth start falling out, and have been writing it since the day I learnt my first word (it’s been just over a year, but oh, how I’ve aged…). I write more frequently than ever, and yet it’s still never finished. I’ve never, ever found the writing process this torturous – and I suspect it’s precisely because I’m finding it so torturous now that this novel is the best I’ve ever written. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way it will be again and again and again if I continue to write. It will never get easier; the journey will just be different each time.

Now I know why the previous novels I wrote weren’t good enough. This was my writing process:

  1. Have a vague idea. Think myself very clever.
  2. Plunge headfirst into writing and churn out a few chapters in a frenzy. Read them back and think myself even more clever.
  3. Realise I need a plot and half-heartedly concoct something that I think sounds vaguely plausible.
  4. Write more chapters. Edit each one immediately after finishing until I eventually reach the end. Piece the chapters together and, ta-da, it’s a novel!
  5. Read through novel as a whole. I’ve already edited it, so think the writing is awesome. Tinker with it a bit. There, it’s perfect now!
  6. Put the novel in a drawer. Read it back a year later. Cringe at the disjointed chapters, the inconsistent characters, the lack of a coherent vision or overall narrative structure. Think I’m not very clever at all and will never be a real writer.
  7. Mope for a bit, and then pick myself up and move on.

Picking myself up and moving on was the most important part. For each of those crappy novels, I’m sure I learnt something, even if it was what not to do. For my current novel, largely informed by what I learnt on the Faber course, my process has been very different:

  • Have an idea. Start writing. When I feel it’s actually going to work, take a breather.
  • Write out a detailed plot, divided into a rough number of chapters, with a clear narrative arc, as well as brief profiles of the main characters. (This is not to say I stuck rigidly to this plot; it changed dramatically as I wrote, and had epiphanies while in the shower, so I was constantly editing and updating my plot document.)
  • Write my first draft. Write write write. Keep going. Never look back, however tempting. Churn out reams of crappy prose until I reach the ending.
  • Put it in a drawer. Don’t do any writing; live my life, see friends, cook proper meals, go to the gym… or mostly just end up sleeping. (I left my draft about a month, although some people leave it six months; I can see the value in giving yourself a proper psychological distance, but I’m too impatient!)
  • Self-publish a single copy, so I can read it as if it’s a published novel. (I found this stage painful; I was on a high when I finished the draft, a feeling that was crushed upon reading the crappy words that had seemed ‘raw’ at the time. The draft was pretty terrible, but I could see its potential.)
  • Write out the plot, chapter-by-chapter, in a grid. (In this grid I included the major characters in each scene and the time of year, to make sure characters received equal attention and the seasons changed appropriate… there was an awful lot of ‘pathetic fallacy’ rainfall in my first draft.) Overhaul the grid, making it more coherent and logical.
  • Go through the manuscript and cut, paste and delete to match the new grid. (In this process I cut out about 20,000 words.)
  • This is the stage I’m on now: rewrite. It’s taken months longer than expected, because this isn’t just tinkering: characters have had personality transplants (by which I mean, they now have personalities), new scenes have been written, darlings have been killed. I keep coming across the words INSERT SCENE HERE or MAKE THIS BETTER just when I think I’ve nearly finished another chapter. This can be disheartening when I feel like Sisyphus forever pushing his stone up a hill, but what keeps me going is that it will end – even if it takes three, four or five drafts.

A year and a half into this novel, I’ve come to accept that writing isn’t always a passionate, cathartic rush of images and ideas flowing effortlessly from my soul and my fingertips. Most of the time it’s a long, hard endurance test, and I’m determined to keep on running until I pass out. On top of my completed novel, I hope.

The horrors of public speaking. Or not.

I recently graduated from my Faber Writing a Novel course (did I mention I was doing a course?). The graduation day was mainly a celebration of the things we’d achieved over the six months and I was looking forward to it, but also approached it with trepidation. Why? Because it involved that horror of horrors: public speaking. We had to read out extracts from our novels, not just to our beaming classmates and tutors, but to a room full of literary agents. Cue sweating, shaking and the sudden onset of pubescent voice-wobbling.

Writers are often scared of public speaking, perhaps because we tend to be shy, thoughtful types. I wrote as a child because I didn’t have the confidence to express my thoughts and ideas in speech. When I put pen to paper the words flowed, but in front of an audience I’d turn red, my lips flapping uselessly around simple words, making embarrassing spoonerisms and Freudian slips. People seem surprised when I tell them this, because they think I have good elocution in conversation (read: ‘you’re posh’). Well, yes, because I’m not utterly terrified in everyday conversations (though I do become ludicrously even posher when nervous, as if doing a comedy accent.)

Nerves are nothing but self-sabotage, and yet although we all know this, so many of us struggle to tell them to get lost. A successful writer is probably going to have to speak in public fairly often – I doubt the ‘mysterious, reclusive’ writer cuts it in our world of media personalities – so I knew I had to overcome my stage fright.

In the hours before before my Faber reading, I started to worry, but I wasn’t worrying about the reading itself: I was worried about the fact I wasn’t worried. Why not? What was wrong with me? I worried that if I didn’t worry beforehand, worry would rugby-tackle me the moment I stood at the podium – ‘Thought you got away with it, didn’t you?!’ – and as I blathered barely coherent English I’d wish I’d practised my piece 700 more times.

Except that worry never showed up. The reading was fine; enjoyable, even. I’m not sure what changed me, but I put it down to a few reasons.

Firstly, growing confidence. I’m bad at many things – using tin openers, for example – but I’m confident I can write well, and don’t believe I’m being arrogant when I say that. Trusting my writing would speak for itself took the pressure off me speaking for it. All I had to do was make my voice loud enough to be heard. I‘ve also come to realise the value of my own writing; I have something other people want and enjoy. The agents didn’t turn up to do us all a favour, or because they were bored and wanted something to do. They’re all already incredibly busy, but they took time out of their days because they wanted to look for new talent among us. That talent could be me.

Secondly, practice. As an editor, my day job doesn’t involve public speaking, but it does involve presenting book projects to our publishing board. That means putting together a convincing presentation and not bungling it when I read it out to a room full of people who decide whether my book sinks or swims. There’s a level of personal investment, although admittedly it’s not the same as reading my own prose, which feels rather like doing an intellectual strip show. The first time I did a book presentation, I was timid, hesitant, dithering. Now I go in and say: here’s my book. I think it’s great. Do you? And they always do. I don’t think practice makes perfect, because perfect isn’t a thing human beings can achieve, but practice makes much, much better.

Thirdly, this TED talk. I found it a few days before my reading when I was listening to The Guilty Feminist podcast. One of the presenters, Deborah Frances White, mentioned how she never directs anyone to her TED talk because she hates her haircut (and feels guilty about this because she’s a feminist and shouldn’t care about her hair). Hair aside, I thought it was a great talk. I love it when she talks about how,when you’re speaking, you shouldn’t worry about how your audience perceive you: you should focus on what you have to say that will change their worlds. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t go, ‘Er, guys, is it, um, OK if I tell you about this dream thingy I had, maybe? *cough*’ He said, ‘I have a dream,’ and people listened. Obviously you don’t have to believe you’re Martin Luther King Jr. – you’d be deluded if you did – but you have to believe that you’ve got something worth saying, or you won’t be able to convince anyone else.

I’m just going to say it: I think my novel is worth reading.

Or it will be, once I’ve finished it.

Finally, the room was full of supportive friends. I know I’ve said this ten times before, but as soon as you realise other writers aren’t out to get you, and that they want you to succeed, everything becomes so much easier. I focused on them. Surround yourself with people who love the same things as you do and all will be well.

On Being Finished

The first draft of my novel is done! Finishing was, I’ll admit, a little underwhelming; I expected to write my final line to the triumphant blare of trumpets, but instead it was more like a deflating party blower. That’s not to say I don’t feel happy and relieved, but I recognise this first draft is just the beginning of a long process. There’s a lot more to be done before I can say the novel is ready to inflict upon unsuspecting friends, fellow writers and literary agents.

My writing course changed my understanding of what a first draft is. I used to think a first draft had to be polished. For previous novels, every time I finished a chapter I would go through it three or four times and edit it until I thought it was ‘perfect’. Then, when I got to the end, I’d read through a couple of times, make some overall changes and correct typos, and ta-da! The novel was supposedly complete – except that it felt like a series of disjointed chapters with a stilted narrative, uneven structure and poorly developed characters. I’m not surprised my last novel didn’t go anywhere.

This first draft is very, very different to those previous ones. It is rough, by which I mean word vomit, and most chapters I didn’t even read through after completing them. No going back is my new rule. For some people, a sketch of the novel’s scenes on a single sheet of paper, without a word of prose being written, constitutes a draft. Others might write some prose but leave lots of gaps (‘They have an argument’, ‘Insert philosophical musings here’, ‘Note to self – make this scene better’). I’ve written out my scenes properly, but it’s far from my best writing. Reading back parts of it makes me cringe, but it’s fine. The writing itself isn’t going to be my primary focus until draft three or four. First, I’m going to look at the structure, plot and characterisation – then, once those aspects feel watertight, I’ll start perfecting the prose.

For now, though, I’m going to take a break. I’m an impatient person, and in the past I’ve leapt into editing straight after finishing, but I’ve realised it’s important not to do that. You need to take a break of at least a few weeks so you can go back to the novel with fresh eyes. So, I’m giving myself a month off. I can’t wait. For the past year, 6am starts have been the norm, no matter how little sleep I get, and any free evening is automatically dedicated to writing. For a month I’ll be free to do anything I want with my time, although I feel slightly bewildered: what do people do with spare time?

Here are the things I want to do while I’m taking my writing break:

  1. GET SOME SLEEP. Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
  2. Hit the gym, hard. Over the past few months I’ve been convincing myself that I need extra food to fuel my creativity. Also, cake makes writing that difficult scene so much more bearable. I think it’s time to make amends for that – plus I’ll need another means of releasing all that pent-up energy.
  3. Cook and eat proper meals. Cooking takes up precious writing time. I’ve been eating meals involving the least effort possible – so much spinach and ricotta tortellini the sight of it makes me queasy now – but I’m looking forward to lingering over a risotto, or slow cooking a stew on a Sunday and then eating it sitting at a proper table instead of at my desk, stuffing food into my mouth with one hand and typing with the other.
  4. Emerge from my cave and socialise. Sorry, friends, but there may have been times when I said I wasn’t free to hang out because I’d planned to write that night. It wasn’t a lie – I still count a writing night as being busy – but not everyone understands. Now I’ll have to use some other excuse to get out of social occasions (joke: now I will gladly attend any social events I’m invited to, during which I’ll constantly say, ‘Oh, did you know I’m writing a novel?’ until I stop getting invited to things altogether).
  5. Read more. I used to read about fifty books a year; now it’s half that. I mostly blame having a job (grr, necessity), but it’s also because I spend far more time writing these days, which is slightly ironic, because I believe that to be a better writer you should read constantly. I’m going to cram as many books as possible into my brain over the next few weeks – I’ve got to get some inspiration for novel number two, after all – and perhaps write a few book reviews for this blog too.
  6. Just relax, for goodness’ sake. I’m not very good at relaxing; paradoxically, it stresses me out, because it feels like wasting time when I could be doing something productive. I need to train myself to be content just doing nothing. I attend a yoga class weekly, and important part of that is being able to lie there in stillness and silence, not thinking or worrying about anything, which really does make me feel less anxious; I’d like to transfer that into my everyday life. There’s nothing wrong with watching a crappy show on Netflix, or reading random articles I find on Twitter, or just staring out of the window like a cat. Cats have got it all sorted when it comes to stress-free living.

All of the above notwithstanding, I’m going to have to do some writing. It makes me happy and keeps me sane. Even though I only finished yesterday, I’m already feeling the urge to write something, which is probably why I’m writing this blog post. I suspect it’s like when you finish eating a massive three-course meal and declare you’re not going to eat again for a week, then wake up the next morning with your stomach rumbling. Just like starving yourself for a week is a bad idea, it wouldn’t be healthy for me to not write at all for a month, would it?