A thing writers say a lot is: ‘Then the real work begins.’ They say this about all kinds of things. Having an idea is easy – after that, the real work begins. Getting a book contract is easy – after that, the real work begins. And writers are jerks, because this is absolutely true.
My first novel, The Paper House, recently went to print. I got just two emails at the end: ‘Final cover has gone.’ and then, ‘Pages have also gone.’ Done. The first thought I had was, ‘That was easy.’ Hilarious. Publishers clearly have some kind of memory erasing device to keep their authors from existential meltdown.
It took me three years to write my book. What I’ve learned about writing and about myself in those three years is but a fraction of what I expect a writer learns over a whole career. But maybe these things will help you. If you’re like me, you want to write a first book. Not every book afterwards. Not every book in the whole world. Just one damn book.
Here’s what I did: I started.
People (cruel, masochistic people) had said to me, ‘Just write it,’ as though it were that simple. Just write it! Unfortunately, they are right. There is no other way to write a book. Unless you actually write it, you will always have zero books.
I use NaNoWriMo to write my books, because I am competitive and I want to write more and faster than strangers. For all of November 2013, I sat in my local library and wrote 2000 words a day. This was a great luxury and a privilege. I didn’t try to write around my job, or try to write while my children were shouting, or try to write on the toilet. I focused on one thing at a time, and for most of my day, that thing was writing. By the end of December, I had a complete draft. Not a great draft, but a finished one.
Writing THE END was the first moment I’d believed it was possible to write a book. Until then, every godforsaken letter of every damned-to-hell word seemed futile. I didn’t believe I would do it. I was writing the last paragraph of the last chapter and I still didn’t believe I would get there.
This is the main reason writers don’t finish: They believe that writing is hypothetical. Writing is a fantasy. There is a knack to writing a book, a secret. Only people who know the trick will ever get to THE END.
It’s not true. The only people who will get to THE END are the ones who do the work.
Five weeks after I signed with my agent, she sold my book to my dream publisher, Picador. Boy, was I naïve. I tweeted nonchalantly about how straightforward it had been. I blogged about how easy the next part promised to be. I wrote dastardly, terrible posts on writing forums about how clever I was.
I was so excited just now when @Picador_Aus followed me and then I remembered I tricked them into publishing my book and my heart went EEE!
— Anna Spargo-Ryan (@annaspargoryan) July 7, 2014
That was two years ago. Publishing is slow. It’s slower than you’re imagining. Months can go by without a peep from the other side. For a writer who needs constant reinforcement (me), this is excruciating.
So you learn. You have no choice. You learn patience, and you learn perseverance.
You do a structural edit. An editor points out how you can strengthen your manuscript, through better pacing, better story, better characterisation, better setting, and so on. It takes a long time. It’s really hard work. Where you could previously plug away at writing bit by bit until you were finished, structural edits require you to understand your whole book at once.
If you’re lucky, you do one structural edit. I did five.
Every single time I started a new structural edit, I knew I couldn’t do it. I knew I didn’t have anything left in me to put into that book. I had written every single word I had, in every possible combination.
But the only alternative was to stop. To have zero books. And so, I did it.
Writing THE END was the first moment I’d believed it was possible to write a book.
I wrote 200,000 words, of which 73,000 ended up in the final book. I’m telling you this not because I want you to worship the very keyboard I type on (unless you want to, it’s up to you), but to illustrate the magnitude of the work that goes into a book. I have never done so much work in my life. But I did it, even though I am a lazy slob who eats biscuit crumbs from the inside of her elbow. There was no trick. I just really, really wanted to have written a book.
The thing you need to know about writing a novel is this: you have to want it. It is such hilariously hard work that the only way to get it done is to want it more than you want any other thing. You have to want it more than fame, more than fortune, more than going to the pub, more than watching the new season of Kimmy Schmidt, more than having tea with an antelope. You have to want to spend every skerrick of energy you have, mental and physical, even if your book tries to kill you (and it will).
And then suddenly, it will be done.
It comes in a rush. Each time I finished an iteration of my book, I was surprised. I thought I had more to say, more things to include, more stuff to change. Every time I saved a version of my story, I said: ‘Oh.’
Just, ‘Oh.’ Just, ‘Final cover has gone.’ And then, in hindsight, it seemed easy.
I’ve learned lots of things about myself while writing and editing this book, but the most important one is that I can. And I can even though I didn’t uncover the hidden key or break the secret code or bribe a monkey. In fact, I got to the end and I thought, ‘I want to do it again.’
And so, the real work begins. Again.