How to write without feeling intimidated by the blank page

Writing is and always will be an intimidating process – there are so many ways to go wrong and so few ways that instantly feel right to an inexperienced mind. Besides this, sitting down to write often requires the engagement of emotions which are not altogether comfortable, but are nothing less than essential in the deployment of all creative endeavours. Additionally, those who express an interest in learning to write face about a hundred enormous obstacles: will I be any good at it? Is there any fucking point? Will anybody actually read my bloody stuff? Is it possible to be a writer and not be poor and jaded forever? This is accompanied by a damaging cultural belief, in many societies, that in the age of the internet, absolutely anyone can be a writer. And if anyone can be a writer, writing must be easy. Writing, in the minds of many, is either a profession for mega-rich authors, journalists or students not yet at peace with their place in life, fumbling through until they no longer have to write any more. Yet the importance of written communication is a dominating force. Surrounded by such complexities and tarnished by the blight of a million terrible Amazon novels, it’s hardly surprising that putting words down can feel so difficult.

Reading this blog post probably won’t change any of that much – although it may illuminate a few things which help reveal ways to cope (a bit like this post from a long time ago on writer’s block).

Consider how incredible the concept of writing is

The controlled transfer of thoughts to paper or screen by way of fingers is a mesmerizing thing when you stop and really think about it. When we write in a way that can be accurately understood, we’re directly connecting our thoughts and feelings with those of everyone around us (or, at least, those who take the time to read them!). This is an incredible act of physical and psychological union – better than mind-reading, in a way, as the thoughts are pure and distilled and a reader doesn’t (usually) have to fight past an endless stream of consciousness to get to the good bits. So, if you’re feeling intimidated, consider that you are engaging in something fantastic and incredibly unique. Talking’s great and all, and painting a picture is a fine way to interact with others and share our thoughts, but writing is the honed and crafted direct observations of human beings. That’s quite something, don’t you think?

You can always write more

I don’t care if you’ve just finished writing your first novel and lost it – well, I do, I feel quite sorry for you, but you get what I mean – or if you’ve just wiped-out that blog post you’ve been working on for a week. You can always write more stuff. The preciousness of thought and time means that most of us get quite attached to our writing, often in an unhealthy way. We struggle to say goodbye to it, even when we know we can do better. Yet saying goodbye to it is exactly what builds stronger foundations. A better ability to cope with change and keep on going, past the constraints of rejection. The fact that you can just begin again a few minutes or hours later means that words are infinitely powerful.

Words are organic and unlimited. Aside from a few nightmarish notions fed to us by disenchanted people and critical self-esteem issues which beg you to do anything else instead, there is nothing stopping your words affecting people in the same way that the so-called great novelists of our time have – words are your chance to tell the world precisely what you think in any way that you desire. If that doesn’t act as an incentive to better one’s ability to communicate via the medium of words, I don’t know what does.

What you have written has been written before, but so what?

I often hear the argument – the bad argument, the terrible, meaningless argument – that writing has been done so well so many times before that there is no point pursuing it as an activity or occupation. It simply is not true. It doesn’t matter in the least. There will nearly always be someone out there who you know who is better than you, or more capable. It’s irrelevant. That a million people have attempted and failed to finish their novels does not mean that you will suffer the same fate. Even though the outcome for a new writer may be statistically likely to be similar, where writing is concerned, statistics are only worth the value we give them.

Know that the act of writing will bring about joy and self-growth, no matter what its end result

Contrary to popular misconception, the important thing about writing is not solely the act of committing words to paper or screen. The other very important thing is enjoying doing it. Out of all the times I have written blogs, articles or novels, I can only truly recall a couple of times where I in no way benefited from the process. Writing brings enormous entertainment, stimulation, inspiration and enjoyment. It’s a proven thing that those experiencing the flow state of writing are at one with themselves and, while being alone, are anything but lonely.

Unsure of what to write?

This is a subject I have covered extensively in a past blog. My best advice to those who are trying to write and feeling consistently daunted by it is…try and think about what you really want to say. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it could be very small. It could be a seemingly inconsequential observation that leads to bigger, pivotal things. In writing, small things grow into big things with very little encouragement. The great thing is that it happens automatically, you just need to commit some time.

Failing that, consider what you don’t want to say. Writing does not always have to follow strict rules and regulations. If you’re completely unable to write anything at all, then why not ask yourself the question of why this is the case. Why not try to formulate this feeling of frustration into meaningful words?

Stop listening to others who say they find writing easy

Again, this truly is irrelevant to you. How does it matter how well someone else does something? Who cares if they’ve only been writing seriously for a year and have written their first novel draft, beginning to end, one-hundred-thousand words? It simply does not matter in any way to you and what you’re doing, and it never will. And again, be careful not to run away with yourself. Writing is a learned craft which cannot be rushed.

I remember when I first started to write about 10 years ago. Writing came very naturally to me, because I didn’t know what I was doing and it felt exciting to write without restriction. So accept that writers go through stages. Important stages that cannot be missed or circumnavigated. Those at the very beginning may find writing almost effortless, as they are naïve and lack the constraints presented by rules. Those who are well-practiced in the art may write in what appears to be a reasonably effortless way, owing to their growing knowledge-base and many hours of practice. If you’re somewhere in the middle, however, and a blank page is intimidating you, there is a possibility that this is all part of a very important process that must be endured and worked through. So try to relax and have fun when writing. If you can only do one thing, write stuff that makes you really smile.

Do you have any advice for fellow writers, or those who would like to begin writing but don’t know where to start? Feel free to leave a comment below, like it or share it on Facebook/Twitter. Let’s see what we can get together and learn.

 

 

Some Men Think Female Writers Have It Easier: Here’s Why I Disagree

EL James…the woman who single-handedly reminded housewives everywhere what naughty naughty sex is all about. Notice the work I have done on her cleavage. And no, she’s not supposed to be a Simpsons character, but I can see where you’re coming from

You look at the facts — no, let’s get this straight from the beginning…what you believe are the facts — and it’s easy to form a solid, unshakeable opinion when it comes to writing and the sexes. It’s an enormously biased one which focuses solely on one side of the argument, and very quickly you’re convinced: women writers have it easy, or easier, while male writers — excluding the big names — struggle to get their voices heard. The more you think it, the more frustrated you become. Soon, everything you see in life supports this claim, and anyone questioning you is clearly wrong. Female writers? They don’t know how lucky they have it.

I know this because for some time, up until relatively recently, I had been convinced that female writers had it somewhat easier when it comes to gaining attention and the like. My reasoning? Like many, it was the following simplistic world view:

1) Women make up the majority of novel/short story readers on this planet: fact.

2) Many literary agents are female (the exact number is highly debateable, as is their precise level of sway within an industry which is difficult to pin-down and almost impossible to predict).

3) All over the internet, female writing groups are appearing. I doubt anyone would argue with me that the number of female-specific groups largely outweighs male-centric groups. Suddenly, being a female writer is rife with opportunity.

4) Women are (arguably) generally better at offering emotional support — although statistics show that in reality, men are as likely to be empathic as women — and doing this in a productive way which benefits everyone in a group, both on and offline. This alone (apparently) makes being a female writer preferable — commercially speaking — to being a male writer. In short: if you’re trying to sell your debut novel to the world, it’s quite likely that the support of your fellow sex will come in very handy. Even if you are an experienced writer, writing is constantly in a state of flux, so at any time you need all the help you can get.

These are the main reasons. There are many more besides but the point remains the same: on the surface, it would appear that women are at a serious advantage and that men haven’t got a hope in hell. I don’t blame men for thinking this — I know the frustration of breaking through as much as any male writer — although I would urge them to consider all perspectives before they start speaking of this situation as if it is fact.

Thing is, I just don’t believe it now. Another thing is this: I’m getting sick of hearing men complain about it. Here’s why (in relation to the aforementioned points) I think we all need to stop and consider this argument. Maybe then we can work together and not apart.

1) So what if the majority of readers are women? It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. A good book is a good book, and to say that women only read female fiction is an outrage and a lie (if you need further convincing, look at the new-style crime-fiction which many women have taken to both reading and writing). I haven’t conducted a survey, but I am willing to say in writing here that there are millions of women who like to read every kind of genre — thrillers, comedies, history and non-fiction as well as chick-lit. If this fact is true, then, in my opinion, it makes a mockery of the argument that men are at a disadvantage. Publishing may be unequal in many respects, often favouring men — in particular with the books that get reviewed by the biggest publications out there — but that doesn’t mean that every aspect is.

Another important thing to consider, like it or not — and I can only assume that some male writers reading this will not like it — is this: traditionally speaking, women are more in-tune with their feelings, and this is something which I believe is essential for writing of any kind. Could the reason some male writers feel downtrodden be the simple fact that they simply lack the emotional insight that makes writing of this nature possible? I know I’m going to piss a few people off by saying that, but here’s the thing: don’t take it personally. This isn’t an attack on male writers, it’s merely an investigation into what’s really going on here, or what might be in some situations. My point, then, is this: if you’re not able to write about the emotions and inner-world of your characters — more than that: their relationship with the world and the intense kind of thoughts which we all have yet don’t always make public — then your books probably won’t appeal to a large percentage of women out there who make up your potential audience. But there’s no need to panic. There are numerous genres which do not capitalise on this standpoint, and plenty of male writers have success each and every year with books that are a million miles away from the label of chick-lit. Many of these books are written with men in mind, and there are numerous examples of male writers — such as Wilbur Smith — who cater for this audience (or could be seen to).

Even if all this were not true, there are still a lot of male readers out there with big reading habits. Look at the enormous success of Fight Club and you will see that the book had a lot in common with much of women’s grittier fiction. Dark as it was, the writing was about what really mattered to men and this is what people want to see. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female as far as I am concerned: readers will always want to read books which they connect with. This is our ultimate challenge, and gender stereotyping doesn’t have to get in the way of it.

2) If you’re worrying about sending your manuscript to a female literary agent and it being rejected because you are male, stop it, wipe that out of your mind right now. You have much bigger things to worry about and they are not going away any time soon. It won’t be rejected because you are male — probably, unless your work is deemed repulsive or disrespectful to women and that agent found it especially offensive —  it’ll be rejected because it just wasn’t good enough. Fact. If a female writer produces a better novel than you do, one which is believed to have a better chance of commercial success, then it will almost certainly be accepted. Of course, there are holes in this argument: the agent might be looking for another female writer, or she might simply be of a disposition which makes her more likely to choose a book which is traditionally more female (although I don’t like that term: I think it’s condescending. Male and female attributes can be interchangeable after all, and there is absolutely no reason to suggest that a man cannot write the kind of story which women want to read). Complicating matters further is the fact that just as there are sexist males out there, there are sexist females who just won’t get on with male fiction and will always be against it. Even if you’re a man who writes under a female name — as many romance novelists have been known to — you may be at a disadvantage. But that? It’s just called LIFE, so it’s a waste of time moaning about it.

My own Fight Club poster (watercolour on paper)

Another thing to take note of is that before most manuscripts make it to a literary agent, they go to an assistant for initial evaluation. This means that there is often as much chance of a man reading your novel as a woman (debatable, as many women perform a dual-role as admin/assistant and slush-pile reader, but possible nonetheless). Note: this isn’t just me making assumptions. I can verify much of this with real experience, as many of my editors are females, and in the past I’ve had contact with a number of female literary agents — all who have accepted work from male authors and will continue too as long as they can see good business sense in it.

3) The debate about online female writing groups/reading groups is the perfect breeding ground for male anger and female resentment; in this debate, all the elements of psychology, common sense, reasoning and rationality often go out the window and are replaced with bitterness, anger, frustration and sheer disgust for the incredible success of others. And when you think about it…why shouldn’t the men out there be a little bit miffed? I can, in some ways, see the complainers’ point and see this from both sides. Although, in this case, I would argue that what many men are angry about isn’t the fact that these groups exist. It’s that they feel isolated. That they are not included. They simply wish — as I do sometimes, I have to be honest — that more male writing groups existed. Well, wake the fuck up, dudes, it’s not womens’ fault that evolution turned out this way. Besides, if you’re that concerned, get off your arse and start your own writing group like many of these talented female authors have. Don’t say “they’ll just call us sexist,” either, because to be honest who cares? Women received the same backlash and it did not stop them from forging their own path. I’m talking about history, too. Women haven’t exactly had it easy, have they now? Anything they have achieved in fiction writing should be commended, not belittled.

4) Now onto Women are (arguably) generally better at offering emotional support…

First, let’s look at the case of female comedians: ever noticed how there are very few, popular, professional female comedians out there? It’s got to be hard operating in a world which is so completely male-dominated; where everyone says “you’re shit,” even when you’re actually very good. And the worst thing is that as funny as some of these women are, even after battling for years to reach a similarly high level as some men, they still suffer from a lack of respect — both from peers and the general public. Where men can fiddle their tax and all but get away with it, when a woman steps out of line then the playground politics come out; if she fights against it she’s a know-it-all-bitch, and if she says nothing she’s guilty — regardless of the evidence. Because that’s what it’s all about: composing stories which suit our way of thinking — agreable stories which we can, subconsciously or not, manipulate until we’re satisfied we’re being discriminated against and the world is out to get us. Our biases outweigh everything, after all, and as humans searching for answers where there is often only a complicated pattern of events, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do about that! After a life-time of conditioning and being told that male comedians are better, very few of us are able to see through the bullshit and view everyone on even ground.

So, circumstance can be a pain.

And that’s all this is, I think. It’s not womens fault that they help one another, look after one another and rally to support their friends when the time comes and help is needed. It also isn’t their fault that, when meeting a new female friend, they are often able to put aside their own agendas — like the desire to sell their own book, or their own pure arrogance — and act in a supportive manner. The fact that many men are not capable of this should have nothing to do with it. For me, that us men are so far behind in creating our own reading-group sub-culture is a separate thing and should be treated as such. If us men want things to change then the first thing we all need to do is to stop being jealous and asserting blame. Women have been through a hell of a lot of shit in the past few hundred years, less you forget: they carry our children and often bear enormous parental responsibilities when times get tough (not that men also don’t, but come on guys, we’re not the ones actually having the babies, are we?). These are separate issues too, so come on, let’s focus on the right things. Surely that’s got to be possible? I’m hoping we’re about to find out.

,

The eternal troublemaker

This is all about commas: what they are, what they do, what they’re for and why they are so crucial. But, just to be clear, this post isn’t going to be a how-to. In my opinion, using commas is an intuitive thing which cannot be taught — the basics can, of course, but to my mind, saying much more than that is like telling someone how to speak and when to pause, and I don’t believe in that (and besides, most people have a basic grasp of what a comma does and how it is used, even if they’re not sure why and sometimes make mistakes). What this post is about is pointing out the things I have noticed over the years. Some may seem obvious. Others are more complex. All of them are things which help me understand how writing benefits from them.

Number 1: commas aren’t essential, but understanding their effect is.

In life, when it comes to commas, I guess there are 4 main groups of people. You have those who can’t live without them and stick them in everywhere, knowingly, enjoying the process of dividing up their work, and then you have 2) those who avoid them at all times because they prefer simpler prose, and 3) those who fall somewhere in the middle, and can’t work out what the hell is best. Lastly, you have group 4) people who haven’t got a clue where to use a comma and just shove them in where it feels right. I often find myself in the 3rd category (and hope I have not recently been in the fourth!). I like experimenting with both commas and no commas, and how much/where I employ them — an apt word, I think, seeing as they’re doing a hell of a job — depends on the POV I’m using, the tone of the work, and the effect I want to convey. It’s all about effect. That’s why in thrillers you sometimes see long comma-less sentences dragging you through some hellish situation usually involving murder and mayhem, in an attempt to rack up the tension. Equally, punctuating a paragraph with lots of commas is great if you want to stall the reader slightly in certain places. Like a slight pause to take a breath. Think of it like walking down a corridor, and the comma is a wall which drops down out of the ceiling every few steps, making you stop before it slides back up to reveal some hideous monster, or a romantic moment. There are many different kinds of corridor so I’ll let you choose your own.

One thing which I think confuses people about commas is the fact that they’re not always there to provide a slight pause. Sometimes they’re there for purely technical reasons — rolling commas for creating a list — and s0metimes they’re there to separate words from one another so that sense can be mad and clarity can be had. Other times, still, commas dictate a critical rythm to a novel or book and changing this formula part-way through can be as worst disastrous, at best irritating. To make it even more confusing, occasionally, a skilled author might change the rate of comma usage deliberately to mess with your head, making you read faster or slower, depending on what is coming and what has been before. And the list goes on…

There is no comma school that I am aware of. You can’t go and stay at The Comma Academy and learn it all and then come home and feel content in the knowledge that you now fully understand and are as capable as the next person. The best thing you can do is read books and re-read books. Read your own work and re-read it, moving commas and mentally noting why it does or does not work; how things are different. The key is to know the effect commas have on your work, because without giving this due thought, you are writing blind. Worse, your confusing your reader, forcing them to go back over your last paragraph. Something you don’t ever want a reader to do — unless they enjoyed it so much they felt compelled to.

I found my copy in Oxfam and it cost me £2. Great price for an amazing book which every writer needs to own

Number 2: if you want to write books which matter, understanding the comma is your all-time best-friend

Because writing is my job, this tends to have a knock-on effect with my friends and family. For example,when writing to me, some people seem to feel the need to be more articulate than they might be with someone who doesn’t write all the time — I have been told this by friends — and others write emails which seem unnaturally perfect. When I cross-check these emails with the person I know in real life, it’s easy to notice that this person has spent much longer formulating their email than they usually would do. This unnerves me and I always tell people this: I couldn’t give a monkey’s if friends write to me in that fast-paced, slightly incomprehensible way which is so common in the social-networking world. Actually, I’d welcome it! As long as I can understand what the hell they’re on about, that’s all that matters to me.

Writing a novel is completely different. If a subject matters to you — and it surely must, damn it, as you’re dedicating hundreds of hours to it which could be spent doing anything else — then your ultimate goal should be to create the most clear vision of your work that is possible. The ideas on that page shouldn’t just be good, they should, instead, be a direct representation of precisely what you mean and think. And it’s sentences like that which make me panic: this post is full of commas. Is it saying what I mean? Yeah, I think so. Although we all have to accept that just like a painting or a sculpture, a creation is never exactly what we set out to achieve at the start. There are always gaps where more thoughts should have been, and every book ever written is just one possible version of that work. Had each sentence been written in a different time, in a different place — even just a few seconds later — then the work would have been different. It all depends on so very many things: mood, blood pressure, what someone said to you at work the day before; the hopes and dreams which surprise us daily and the things which take place which are unexpected, lunging us into a different train of thought.

Number 3: putting a comma in the wrong place can alter the reader’s perception forever.

Commas are madness. They matter so much (and we haven’t even started on the full-stop/period). The fact that comma placement matters so much can be savage on the mind of a writer. Hear the comma roar! Savage, I tell you. It causes procrastinaton and makes us second-guess ourselves — something us writers are already notoriously bad for. To make matters even worse, commas can seem to be in the right place for months, and then later on you can re-read the draft of a novel and decide that actually…they’re all in the wrong fucking place. There’s no way to change this, of course — fucksticks! — and this is where we come back to accepting something is as good as it gets (or as good as time will allow us to get it).

I can’t speak for everyone in the world, but for me, personally, when I read anything and the commas don’t make sense, it completely throws me and gets me thinking. OK, so I’m analysing this more than a lot of people would ever do, but the difference between a writer and someone who doesn’t care for writing isn’t so severe, I don’t think. The only real difference is that a writer will be able to work out why a comma’s usage is wrong, whereas a reader will struggle with it, and this confusion may lead to their mood changing, and their opinion of the work/author being tainted. This is absolutely what nobody wants to happen — it could mean somebody putting down your book. Unless that’s your plan and you’re being smart and messing with the reader’s head. In which case, you had better be aware what you are doing!

Novel writing: when deciding what novel to write feels TOTALLY impossible

Sometimes, when I just can’t decide on what to write, I paint

For anyone out there who is right at the beginning of their career as a novelist — so early in their career, in fact, that at this point in time, calling it something so defined and formal as a career seems distinctly optimistic and in no small way stupid — deciding which kind of novel to write is quite possibly the biggest dilemma of them all. In my experience, those unfamiliar with this spectacle of hard-working bum-numbing slavery — those who, through no fault of their own, can only speculate on what writing a novel must be like — think that the physical act of writing is the hardest part, and that the decision to write the novel in question is formed somewhat easily from some grand idea which has been long in the making; an idea which just seems right somehow…in the same way that we all pick up a good book and find outselves entirely immersed, as if this novel could only have been written in this very specific way by this one author. (Ahhh, the romance of it all.) Yet the late nights, the early mornings, the totally all-encompassing nature of it all and the way it takes over every single aspect of your life, including sleep, are, for me, nothing in comparison to the gut-wrenchingly difficult process of choosing one novel idea over another. It’s a cruel and necessary game that plays out for all of us writers, and the simple fact is that it doesn’t ever get any easier, because the rules are always changing and we’re always looking to create something better. The problem, I suppose, is that while you are writing one novel — that book which to begin with seemed so right, so your own making — your mind is also, by turns, working in another direction towards a different novel idea that very badly wants to make itself known. And this is where the danger comes in. For what it is worth, here are my tips for sticking and deciding upon one idea and all other related matters.

1) Can’t decide which idea you want to write about? In the past, when I have been in this situation and forced it — become so fed-up with the procrastination of it all that I have found myself frantically writing a novel, any novel, just so it could be done and I could move on — the result has been at times OK, at times awful. A forced novel — that is to say, a novel which is born of desperation to put words on paper and fulfill the outline of an idea which is more mechanics than emotion — is a bad novel which will likely go nowhere. Whatever you want to write, a burning ambition to complete the project is the only common thread that links us all. Write that novel because you simply must do it. Write it because whenever you should be doing something else, the idea plays on your mind and just won’t leave you the hell alone.

2) A novel is not a loose outline of events without an ending, or a concept floating loosely between copycatting someone else’s work and two forged ideas. Never forge ideas together — what do I mean? I mean don’t take two or more novel ideas you have had and chuck them together as one, pretending that this might somehow work. Just because there is a beginning, middle and an end, does not mean that those ends go well in company of one another. Keep on point and you’ll be right.

3) Stop worrying about how people will react to the idea of your novel, and don’t be alarmed if you don’t see that idea already in print somewhere on Amazon. While it’s always good to know that there is a similar work of fiction out there — something of familiarity is welcome in such a lonely pursuit as this one — the fact that there isn’t can be a special, magical thing. It could mean you have stumbled across a concept which is unlike most and therefore impressive! Always remember that at some point in history, an idea was revolutionary and new and that author — think Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita — was condemned for creating what is now considered a masterpiece. Bravery does pay, so forget what others are saying and doing, because that’s a waste of time. If you believe in your concept and believe you can make it reality, then you can. There is no doubt about that. Words are oganic, and it can be done.

Nabokov

4) What are your strengths? I love reading thrillers. The Bourne Identity by the now deceased Robert Ludlum is a classic in my opinion. Yet, much as I adore reading this book and others like it — I just finished Drive by James Sallis which was different but similarly fascinating in form — I know that my strengths do not lie in the thriller-writing field. What a pain, would be so much easier if they did. The reason why: I find it difficult to be serious for that long, and my job as a freelance writer already commands enough of my time to be spent seriously. The up-shot of this is that after work I am glad to write in a way which feels completely unshackled. So, if you enjoy writing humourism, write comedy, or something with a comedic thread. If you enjoy writing romance and you are a man, do not be put off. If I were you, I’d just write whatever you enjoy doing and say bollocks to everyone else. You’re going to be spending one hell of a lot of time doing this, remember, so you want that raw enthusiasm to be present always. More importantly, if you ever expect a reader to pay for your work and spend many hours voraciously consuming it, you have a moral and intellectual obligation to them to produce work which is a direct representation of your most natural abilities.

5) Be careful about inserting religion, your own moral values and ideas into your novel: for me, this is a critical point. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter if you are religious or not, what you believe or don’t believe, or what you think is great about the world. Just remember that your characters should — I think — begin life as people in their own right. This is not a crusade. They should develop their own voice, their own moral out-look in life and be capable of being in direct disagreement with everything you stand for. If you only ever write characters which feel like you and act like you do, how do you expect them to outgrow your own limitations and expand into something big, scary and influential to the reader? If writing about characters who are so different from you feels wrong or immoral, then perhaps this is the wrong genre to be writing in?

If you do have a cause to further, though — you want to write about something to further awareness, rather than to ram your ideas down the reader’s throat — go ahead. Write about what matters to you. I know I did with my debut novel, and it was the best decision I have ever made.

6) This could go on all day, but I will end here on this important point: sometimes, just sometimes, you will be in a strange mental place where 3 or 4 or 5 ideas all seem like the right novels to write at this very moment. This is, quite possibly, the cruelest game for the intellectual spirit to play, and it may just mean that yes…you are cursed: you must write all these novels one after another. Bummer. Bigggggg bummer. But, oh well, things could be worse. At least you have ideas. Right?

14 novel writing lessons you simply cannot ignore

It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting down to write your very first novel, or your tenth. Here are a few things I always tell myself — purely my opinion, so I’ll let you decide if they are relevant or not. Who knows, maybe they will come in handy for you:

1) If you think there are no real rules for writing novels and forming structure, you’re wrong: there are hundreds of right ways and wrong ways to do things, but you don’t need to know them all — all you need to know is what works for you. Read a lot, read as much as you can, because if you’re not reading what’s been created before you, you’re not going to increase your knowledge to the level at which you can explode that knowledge, expand on it and produce something genuinely worthwhile that the world really needs.

2) Words are organic. They are just words. Stop getting attached to words, it’s ridiculous. Losing 100 pages of your debut novel may be the best thing that can ever happen to you. You’ll fight to get it back, and if you make it past that then you can do anything. N-E-THING.

3) Write novels, spend months slaving, then never, ever look at them again. It’s not a waste. Not every single book you write, at least in the very beginning, will be worthwhile. Just because you wrote something doesn’t mean that you should publish it. Publish a novel that you know in your heart isn’t good enough, and you’re only making the already tough journey harder than it needs to be. Above all, trust yourself.

4) Don’t just read what you love to write. Reading different genres allows you to understand the methods and madness intrinsic to every type of writing. Romance books will teach you how to tackle emotion, while thrillers will teach you speed, pacing and tight sentences. Read literary fiction and you’ll soon learn what you can and cannot get away with, experimentally speaking. Read non-fiction: it is essential, and once you’ve absorbed enough of it you’ll be able to merge the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not in a way that would have been impossible before. Your words won’t just jump off the page, they’ll grab your reader round the throat and make their heart bloody race.

5) Stop reading over your first draft over and over again. It is nothing less than a waste and, worse, mental torture that will dog you of inspiration and threaten to destroy the entire process. Once you have written your novel, leave it and don’t touch it, don’t even look at it for at least 2 months. Maybe more. Zadie Smith — author of the wildly successful White Teeth and absolutely stunning On Beauty — once said that you should leave your novel years before you look at it again. I tend to agree, although I may get run over tomorrow, so I prefer to leave it a minimum of 2 months.

6) Be prepared for people to despise your work. Be prepared for reason-less hate and constant criticism about everything you’re trying to convey. Polarizing opinion can be great. Fuck it, it doesn’t matter anyway. Every single new idea that was ever produced began life as something which someone, somewhere, despised. New ideas are always hated: they are the uncomfortable notions of progress and should be championed. Without them, you’re just following others. Think about it: what’s more disgusting, refusing to move your bag so someone else can sit next to you on the train, or writing a novel which makes people really think and consider?

7) People will tell you You can’t write a novel in a few weeks, it takes years. That’s nonsense born out of total ignorance, pure and simple. Providing you have a concept, or the seed of an idea, you can write a book as fast as you can put words down. Even if you don’t: remember, there are no rules.

8) It’s OK to keep changing your mind and going from one idea to the other and back again. This IS healthy. It may not feel like it, and your creative writing teacher may find it unnatural, but your mind is turning the idea over and over, round and round, and that is natural. Waiting and considering many ideas allows the most important ones to rise to the top. Don’t fight this process, and if you’re too set on an idea then maybe it’s too easy. If you’re not challenged when writing, what will your readership think?

9) Swearing is OK, as long as the words hold purpose. Swear words have been part of literature since whenever that start was. A good writer will use them correctly, lending each one the attribute the power it deserves. A good writer will also use them incorrectly and somehow make it work.

10) Tense, rules about grammar, and everything you read in some generic internet article can be ignored — if you know why you are ignoring them.

11) If you want to write a book, you must begin sometime. If you enjoy writing, do it. If you don’t, then go and do something else instead.

12) Tackle big, scary, frightening ideas. Don’t ever not write something because you think that someone might be offended.

13) You must allow others to read your work.

14) Keep calm. The words will come, just get the ideas in your head straight first: what are you trying to say?