I’ve been asked a lot recently about how I wrote my first book, which was published at the end of 2017. Years of research, copious amounts of coffee, endless drafting and redrafting finally resulted in my manuscript. The manuscript eventually became the book.
I wasn’t given a manual when I first decided to put pen to paper, in fact I was a complete novice. All I had was a passion for my subject, a determination to put my arguments down on paper, and a willingness to learn by doing. So, without a guide, I set off down the mysterious road of writing, and like all good adventures, it turned out good in the end. As in all tales of old, the path of course was not always smooth, but with real personal determination and commitment I got there. Here are my top eight tips to writing; a sort of mini-guide for those of you starting out on that daunting, yet very exciting journey.
Create your comfy place
If you’re anything like me, I only write well in certain spaces. I have to create the right physical environment which helps my headspace, my thinking, my overall ability to start typing those all important words. Everyone is different and you should try and find what spaces work for you. I know writers who can only write in libraries, drawing their focus from the academic world around them. Others it’s the cafe, and many more it’s in splendid isolation. For me personally, I can’t write around other people or noise that’s not of my own creation. Sitting in a cafe or the park is my Kryptonite when it comes to penning my next chapter. I get easily distracted and fail to focus on the details when people are buzzing around me. I can’t loose myself in the words and the world that I am creating or interpreting. I’ve learnt over the years that a desk by a window, so I have a view of the sky and can see the seasons change, inspires me. I often write to music, and always use headphones, as I feel immersed in a different place, the music blending into my background as I type. It can also help with inspiration, so I pick music that supports the subject I’m writing about or simply enjoy and relax the most to. I always write in my study, surrounded by my books and my notes. Everything is to hand and the room airy and calm. I don’t take my phone in with me when I’m writing so I can’t be distracted.
When I started out, I didn’t know this worked for me, it was a simple case of trial and error. Trying different environments over the period of a few months really helped to find my comfy place. Be unafraid to be experimental.
Research, research, research
Whether it be fiction or non-fiction that floats your boat, good quality research is at the heart of any new book. Understanding your subject, getting to grips with the intricacies of the detail and the multi-faceted layers of your subject, allows you such depth of knowledge that you can make connections in your work that many other writers have possibly missed. The reader will feel the quality of your research when they read your work, so putting in the hours before you even begin to put pen to paper is an absolute must. As I was writing a biography of the fourteenth century English king Edward II, it wasn’t just enough to research about him. I wanted to know about the people around him, about the court. What clothes were they wearing, what and when did they eat? How did they travel, how long would it take? The questions were endless. Building up a knowledge of your subject in the broadest sense allows you as a writer to paint a picture about the world in which your characters lived. Do this well, and you will open up a window into a world in which your reader can peer and escape, and they will certainly thank you for it.
Write for you…and the audience just occasionally.
When I first began to write my book I was fixated with who my audience would be. Would it be academics? Would it be those who had an interest in history or would it be the commuter looking for a good book to read on their next train journey? In the end, I realised that if I was going to try and write for all these people, then in many ways, I needed to stop thinking about them as a collective as they were too broad a group. Instead I focussed on my personal mission. Why was I writing a biography of Edward II at all? I was writing it, because I wanted to myth bust and allow the character of the king to be seen in an unbiased light after 700 years of rhetoric and Edward-bashing. I wanted to introduce him to the widest possible audience and inspire people to want to know more about him. What the reader did, whether they were an academic or not, was therefore not important. So this became my driver, and to that effect I thought less about the individual audience, and wrote instead with my core principle in mind. In short, I wrote for me. This made me conscious to have all the academic integrity in the the book, but to ensure the politics and the world I was explaining, was explored for the general reader. It allowed me to judge the pitch and tone of the work and write the biography I always wanted to write.
Write until the writing surprises you
The hardest part I find in writing any piece of work, be it a book, a column piece in the magazines I write for, or the latest article on my blog, is simply starting the damn thing at all. Yet, as the years have gone by I have discovered one simple truth, thanks to a wise old friend. Just start typing. Something is better than nothing. It is…trust me! Write until the writing surprises you, because believe me, it usually will. We all have good days and bad days. Our mood shifts as does our focus. Every writer battles with this, sometimes hourly. But simply typing means you have something. Keep writing, and before long you will anchor your thoughts, find focus and the words will start coming. Don’t focus on what is not coming, focus on what is. If I get really stuck, I take a quick break, no more than ten minutes. Make a cup of tea, get some fresh air, but don’t start looking at the phone or the internet. I try and keep my headspace clear. I then go back to my desk and start typing again. It is here that things really get going and the writing comes into its own. Remember, you can’t edit nothing.
Overcome your inner critic…it’s just you on a super-charged bad day!
I refuse to believe those writers that say it just comes easy to them. It certainly doesn’t to me. I have an enormous internal critic sat on my shoulder every day I write. ‘They won’t read it you know’, ’who do you think you are to write a book’, ‘your rubbish’, ‘give up before you hurt yourself’. The common conversations I have when I battle against my inner critic. Over the years I’ve learnt to turn this inner monologue into my motivation. The more I feel like I can’t do it, the more I say to myself I can. I keep the goals small. Bitesize makes anything manageable. Just write a paragraph, a page, then suddenly you’re at a chapter. Making things bitesize, allows you to have mini successes. The more successes you have, the more your inner critic begins to look small. Stick to your guns, someone somewhere will want to read your work. When the work is done and the reviews start coming in, you’ll know you were right to keep going.
Set out with a good structure
While this is not always right for everyone, for me its a golden rule. I work best when writing within a framework. Deciding on a structure to your work early on allows you to keep focus, set milestones and keep the writing coherent and to plan. Writing a biography on Edward II, I quickly decided to write chronologically, beginning with Edward’s birth. I divided the book into four parts; birth and apprenticeship, accession and Gaveston; the middle years and finally the decline and fall of the king. I knew within those parts, I wanted roughly the same number of chapters to make the book feel balanced. I knew I didn’t want overly long chapters either because I find this as a reader myself too arduous. Smaller chapters within a great structure helped to give the book a sense of pace and drama, which matched the content of Edward II’s life story. It also meant as I was writing each chapter, I was able to devout a week to writing each one so this gave me a much more comprehensive working schedule overall. It meant I had milestones and mini-deadlines to meet. It kept me focussed and on track.
Allow your style to evolve
I started my writing journey thinking I needed to be a great writer from the off. I wasn’t. I still don’t feel like I’ve got there yet either. As I wrote the words and chapters of my book, my confidence grew and with it my writing style. Allow yourself the freedom for your writing to breath and develop. It will naturally grow as you get into your manuscript, and this in my view, is one of the most exciting parts of the whole writing journey. You can always go back an edit after all, so don’t fixate on those earlier pages. By the time you go back to redraft them, you will feel much more like an early pro.
The first draft is, well, the first draft.
So after months of research and writing you finally complete your manuscript as you pen that last chapter. But remember, the job is not done. It’s really only just beginning. You have the words, but this is only the first draft. Your style has probably evolved, your views may have changed as you’ve written. There may be more evidence you want to add, odd paragraphs that don’t feel or read right. Giving yourself plenty of time to re-read your work and make good quality edits is essential if you’re to produce a book that is the best you can make it. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to do this. Editing can take months of detailed work. Even if you have an editor, you should work together in partnership to polish your work until it sings. Take the time, after all you’ve come this far.