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World Book Day: How to Write One!

Don't do it, people, unless: a/ Someone has ALREADY given you at least a five figure sum b/ It will genuinely help save the world or c/ the idea is driving you mad. Like tinnitus it is always with you - worse at night but still there in the morning!

Sorry, but that first novel is unlikely to be 'War and Peace'. Unhelpfully, the news only features the exceptions, those six figure multi international first book stars. They are the lottery winners of the writing world - but even they have often been quietly slogging on other projects for years, honing their craft. We hear of their extraordinary success and it creates unrealistic expectations about how much work, luck and skill is required ( I believe, in that order) and makes us dissatisfied with our own steps towards success.

But, if you really can't resist, put in the effort to practise your skills and work your way up. International sports heroes have done their time at school sports' days, county, regional heats before they ever get near a national or international arena. They have put in hours a day for years before we ever hear of them. Yet we writers think that we should be producing a classic straight off the starting post! So many of us are discouraged for ever by initial rejection. Unable to accept the criticism of even experienced and knowledgable 'coaches', we resist advice in the form of wise editing. We can have the attitude that the initial idea / draft is 'sacred', come down somehow pure from the Gods, and must be accepted in its entirety. So we give up. Writing a book is a marathon rather than a sprint. One agent says he thinks of writing a book as doing a Phd: similar methodology, time frame, commitment and outcome.

Do your research - you have to be obsessed to keep going, unless there's a large sum already sitting in your bank and an Editor phoning you every week expecting the word count. Everything and anything can be of interest. Visit locations, read, go to museums, exhibitions, galleries, interview people. Get into the clothes, food, sanitary habits, art, music, politics of the time and place you're writing about ( think 'Method acting' maybe!). Keep a file of quotes, images, scraps or 'gems'. Never dismiss an avenue of inquiry but 'dip your toe' in everything that comes your way. Most of the fun of writing is the quirky research paths you find yourself on. Get out there! Go to readings; join a book or writers' group. Learn to love and learn from genuine critical feedback (yey, bring it on!).

Most important of all: START ACTUALLY WRITING EARLY ON IN YOUR PROJECT. What ever you do, don't be like Casaubon in Middlemarch who dies, surrounded by mounds of research, without completing a project that's too big for him. When I run sessions on writing, two things dominate as reasons would-be writers don't succeed in completing their projects. One is fear of failure. This isn't helped by the unrealistic expectations created by the ' literary lottery' mentioned above. The other is 'I don't know where to start'. Like that Phd, a book can be an overwhelming prospect. I say to this, 'Doesn't matter where you start; start anywhere, just start.' The blank screen/ page is your enemy. Just begin with something: a description,conversation, incident. Keep all these 'snippets' safe just incase they can be used in your final edit, but be prepared just to write. When you start writing, even when you haven't got a clear idea where this piece fits in, it kick starts ideas. Writing something stimulates more writing in an upward spiral. When I start a project, I write the bits that interest me most first. I call these 'writing islands'. I might see two characters in a room and write their conversation. It may be a 'set piece' incident, crucial to the plot. In The Geometry of Love, I had a sentence 'Knowing Miranda began with my mother' scuttling about like a scorpion in my mind for months. In The Shadow of Nanteos I held the moment Elizabeth puts her hand in Cai's as she descends from the carriage and looks up at Nanteos mansion for the first time as its mistress, in my mind. For The Dipping Pool, an image of the pool at Llyn Ianto in Cwm Einion is with me all the time. It doesn't matter where you start, just start - then keep going. Enjoy the process. It's a marvel what the murky subconscious will present you with.

Next month: Publishing, marketing and reviews.

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