How to write a book in a day

I’m on the train.  I’ll probably make myself ‘train-sick’ writing this post like I did on the way… but I’m so full of it I must write NOW! 😉  I’ve been to the British Library – what Stephen Fry calls ‘the mothership’ – today for the Rathbone Folio writers’ day.  I was attracted to the title – above – and the thought of picking up tips from published writers, among them the shortlisted authors for the Rathbone’s Folio prize. I thought it might be much-needed inspiration – even if they did miss out the comma 😉

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How to write a book, in a day.  They were mostly people I haven’t heard of, but now know a lot better since they, along with the judges, had the courage to share their different ways of producing novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction, ably interviewed by A L Kennedy who was winsome, humorous and honest about her own writing process, reminding me a bit of (a female) David Tennant. Strange but true!

IT WAS FAB.  For me it was perfect. I haven’t sat in a lecture theatre for I don’t know how many years and of course that bit was tiring and impersonal and I had to make a dash for an M&S sandwich and toilet break at St Pancras Station in the short lunch break as that’s where I knew things were. I ended up taking surreptitious bites down behind the seat in front as the next session got underway! But – I was gloriously a student for a day, complete with back-pack, laptop and notebook and actually interested in learning from people who – at bottom – were like me.  A bit.  They had all started somewhere, right?

The day was divided into 3 sessions: The Beginning, The Middle and The End, with different panels for each and time for questions at the end.  Rather than tell you about everyone and everything that happened – thank goodness you say! – I’ll just tell you why I’m so excited that I’ve paid £4 for East Midlands Trains wifi so that I can blog NOW.  Partly, it has to be said, because I discovered on the way my iPhone’s personal hotspot isn’t reliable enough on the train with all those No Service holes in coverage.  I bet Samuel Johnson didn’t have this problem!

One: finding your voice. Kate Clanchy, poet, writer and teacher and one of the judges, started off by saying that so much of the issue with writing is the validation of one’s voice – the sense that there is an ongoing conversation which each writer is entitled to join.  So many of us lack confidence but as Coldplay sing, “You just want somebody listening to what you say (it doesn’t matter who you are).” Hearing the ongoing uncertainties of an accomplished woman who still struggles with ‘what I’ve just written is absolute rubbish’ was somehow really helpful!  And I loved that she is a poet.  It reminded me that form is just as valid as prose or fiction. Kate said she gets her ideas in the shape they want to be – short or long poems or longer pieces: it is apparent that once we start to write it takes on a life of it’s own, and the individual gets to say it in his/her own voice.

One example of an extraordinary voice was a young, Jamaican-British poet, Raymond Antrobus, who had achieved the 8 book shortlist with his collection called The Perseverance.  He has been writing poetry about his alcoholic father and living with deafness “since he was a kid”.  His excitement at discovering open mic nights and a whole community of others writing and performing and as a result of that finding an editor who believed in him made me want to cheer.  His moving story of being given the sermons, poems and short stories of the grandfather who’d died the year he was born and realising he’d inherited something silenced the room. His conscious emphasis on bringing together his mother’s Jamaican oral tradition with his father’s favourite poet William Blake to create a new flow – it was well worth giving up a Sunday just for Raymond!

Thanks for my ticket, Martin!

Two.  “This is what I should be doing” In the first session, The Beginning’ (how does inspiration come, what drives the process?) Guy Stagg, a young man who has written The Crossway, about his journey from Canterbury to Jerusalem made as a ‘healing’ after mental illness said “I had the feeling that this was what I should be doing. I had a story to tell and I was the only one who could tell it.”  I feel like that. I’ve known for some time but it’s the practicalities and emotional investment that prove difficult.  As a journalist he talked about the sort of writing that ‘keeps yourself out of it’ – that he’d tried to write his account that way – but got to a point where the manuscript was demanding something more personal. In the end everyone agreed that the best literature is personal, that it is important to avoid evasion and let yourself be on the page. An injection of emotion, the revelation of the “I” that is telling the story brings human passion to the narrative and intensifies the story.  Guy did say that the confessional impulse can be overwhelming, and that doesn’t always make good reading, but being devoted to honesty and raw vulnerability myself I was much encouraged by this part of the discussions 😉

Three. The process.  Everyone who spoke had a slightly different approach to making/sticking to a plan – which is good because everyone works differently. Making a plan is good, but later it will probably have to be thrown out as the thing comes alive and develops it’s own direction.  Listening to novelists describe how their fictions come to life was fascinating.  One woman said she just ‘throws paint at the wall’ for the first 3 years before taking bits of paper with ‘scenes’ on and fitting them together in the right order, tidying it all up in the 4th year. She said it is like putting together all her jewels into the right pattern.  This helped me realise I already have many of my jewels ready to be placed.  They all agreed on a time scale of 3-7 years to produce a book! One lady had written hers without any idea it would ever be published, which gave immense freedom – but then she had way too many words and had to cut a lot out.  AJ Kennedy herself refuses to call the first 3 years writing at all: it is all ‘notes and ideas and research’ until the 4th year when she just writes from beginning to end on the keyboard, barely stopping to eat or sleep!?!

The main helpful tips on practically keeping going were to

  • set aside regular ‘work time’ and stick to it – avoid delay, set a timer: DO IT.  “Be present to the page” Start writing something! You don’t have to start by writing chapter one!
  • “writer’s block” is not really a thing – just WRITE through the judgment (ie that this is rubbish!”) Or don’t call it writing (like AJ). Call it blogging! (like me!)             “Writing is an exercise in overcoming the fear that you are not a writer”
  • writing is a solitary activity –  it happens in your head. “You are talking about thousands of hours in another world – one you have to make attractive to your reader, somewhere they will want to be” (Guy Stagg).  Also “Don’t compromise yourself, You are all you’ve got” (Janis Joplin) – basically it’s up to you, no-one else!
  • it is crucial to maintain the momentum and routine
  • Samhaving breaks, going for walks, listening to music, eating and drinking – keep thinking, stay focussed.  Work will not always be writing/self-maintenance is important.
  • research is also important but you can be writing at the same time, don’t use it as an excuse to put things off!
  • Keep believing in what you’re doing!

I am both encouraged and sobered by what I have heard. I am glad I am not writing a novel but I still have to give my characters depth and integrity. I certainly have a plot and know the ending, but knowing the end from the beginning means the story itself has to hold people’s interest.  I waffle a lot so probably have too much material, but I’ll also need to write some new bits.  I have a vague but flexible plan and some work time set aside – but the routine part is going to be hard to stick to with our various travel plans. I will have to be strict in order to make progress!

Considering the amount of time it takes, the huge personal investment and the eventual production of something solid, an object that can be held by another person – someone you may not even know, someone who isn’t even born yet – producing a book is surely comparable to childbirth.  A book is an inheritance of human creativity, a shape that a writer makes with words, a shape that in it’s turn holds it’s readers. What a privilege.

It is a long journey to take and when it’s done will anyone publish it? I can’t see that far. All I know is, I’ve got a story worth telling and only I can tell it.

With thanks to those who have gone before.



2 thoughts on “How to write a book in a day

  1. I’ve been letting this sit in my inbox till I had real quality time to read it. Didn’t want to rush it.
    As always open and deep and so much “writer’s truth” in there.
    I’ve taken to setting a timer for an hour and just doing the stuff with no internet etc for an hour. Also notebook by my side in case random “to do” things pop into my head.
    Go you! You are amazing and you need to do it. And you can
    Rooting/praying for you XX


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