What’s the point of trying? Aren’t there too many books in the world already? What I’m writing is rubbish / difficult / not turning out the way I want – why bother?
Every writer I know – even those who are very successful – has times like this. It’s inescapable. And, in my opinion, essential. If you had no self-doubt, you’d lack the ability to be self-critical. But finding and keeping a sense of purpose is also crucial, or you’ll give up as soon as you face difficulties. You need to find a mid-point between doubt and confidence.
As they say at Nike, just do it. It’s the best piece of advice I can give others - and myself. Don’t spend time wondering whether you feel like writing today; just sit down and get on with it. Non-writers often assume that you have to be in the right mood; you must wait for inspiration to strike. Writers, on the other hand, will tell you that inspiration comes from the writing itself. Most have a daily routine, whether that consists of a daily word-count, a chapter completed, or a certain number of hours at the laptop or notebook. In my experience a routine like this (mine is a rough target word-count, produced in several bursts throughout the day) creates a sense of momentum and achievement as the pages build up. Crucially, writing becomes part of your routine, so that a missed day feels like skiving. When your story begins to write itself while you’re not at your desk – while you’re driving, showering, walking or cooking – you will know that you’re really motoring.
New writers are often advised to take a keen interest in the book world, reading blogs and Twitter, following links to articles and reviews. There’s a great deal of wise and useful advice on writing to be found on the internet, and of course in the Writers’ and Artists’ guides. But I think it’s vital to strike a balance between isolating yourself at your desk and obsessively following book-world media. It may be helpful to read about revising a novel, using historical detail or developing a character; you may pick up tips this way, or recognise a habit you already have. But many writers acknowledge that receiving daily news of other authors’ six-figure advances, publicity tours, film deals and glowing reviews only makes them want to give up. It’s disarmingly easy to imagine that every author other than yourself is receiving prizes, attending film premières, signing multiple contracts and basking in the glow of critical approval. One step farther and you’ll convince yourself that everyone is laughing at you, ridiculing your puny efforts and mocking your pitiful aspirations.
None of this will help you to write, so you need to avoid it. Your unwritten work is as insubstantial as morning mist, and as quickly evaporated unless you concentrate on it.
Turn off the internet, or use a laptop with no connection – or even a notebook. (I look back with nostalgia to the days when, once the post had been delivered, the only communication from outside would be via the telephone or a knock at the door. Now we’re bombarded, if we allow it, twenty-four hours a day.) You must find ways to protect the part of yourself that does the writing, and to allow yourself to focus single-mindedly on the book – the page, the sentence – in front of you. Only you can write that story. It’s yours. You are in charge. Your task is to make this ¬story as good as you possibly can – not to compete with every other book out there. If you expect readers to live in your story, you must live in it first, while you’re writing.
Once you’ve experienced the pleasure of emerging from a really good writing stint, - returning to normal life with a slight sense of dizziness, unsure how much time has passed, but certain that what you’ve just written has the vitality and purpose to carry the story forward – you will want to recapture that flow again and again. And the best way of achieving that is to do some writing every day. If work, family and other commitments take up most of your time, a regular writing stint of even half an hour daily (first thing in the morning, perhaps, or late in the evening) will keep your story fresh in your mind. It may sound counter-intuitive, but having a regular routine is one of the most effective steps to feeling inspired about your writing; your brain learns to go into writing mode at certain times of day.
What about getting stuck? You’re unlikely to achieve that exhilarating feeling of flow whenever you sit down. There will be stodgy days, times when you’d rather clear the gutters or pay bills. Don’t worry. It’s part of the job. A marathon runner doesn’t expect to romp through the whole 26.2 miles; there will be loss of energy, painful knees, aching lungs. The runner keeps going, and so must you. Once you reach the end, you can go back – unlike the marathon runner - and improve, improve, improve.
What it comes down is that unless you’re already famous and established, the world doesn’t care in the slightest whether you write a book or not. Only you care enough to put in the hours to make it happen. Don’t do it to get rich. Don’t do it to become famous. Those are imponderables, the destination of a favoured few. It’s only worthwhile if you do it for the love of writing: making something uniquely your own from twenty-six letters of the alphabet and a few punctuation marks.
Top picture credit: Chris Normandale
Yvonne Coppard and Linda Newbery are the authors of Writing Children’s Fiction: a Writers’ and Artists’ Companion, published by Bloomsbury.