So many people have been asking how I managed to write a book that I’m starting to wonder whether I should be feeling a little insulted. Yeah okay, so I produced something that someone, in a moment of either extraordinary generosity or extraordinary folly, decided to publish. But me succeeding in releasing a book isn’t, like, one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse or anything. Or at least I hope it isn’t – WikiAnswers is worryingly inconclusive on the subject.
The question has been particularly popular with people who know me well, which is no surprise really – my most outstanding talent is generally agreed to be procrastination. So I guess it is a bit of a surprise that someone who isn’t able to complete a tax return on time might have a bit of difficulty completing 70,000 words which, when read consecutively, make at least some degree of sense.
The reason people ask, of course, is that like running, singing and laughing at Peter André and Jordan, writing is one of those things that we’ve all done a bit of ourselves. I know for certain I haven’t got a Nobel Prize-winning theorem in me, or a shot at the Tour de France, but like most people who enjoy reading books, I’d always wondered about writing one.
Actually, the answer of how I did it is simple. I enrolled in a creative writing Masters at UTS, and did a bunch of courses, after which I’d written about 60,000 words. After all that work, it wasn’t that much more strenuous to polish it up into a first draft, which I sent to publishers.
But of course that’s not the answer people want to hear. I remember, because the question used to absolutely fascinate me way back in my B.N., or Before Novelist period. And yes, I know this sounds a bit patronising, but hell, I just wrote 70,000 words that some people, at least in my immediate family, have actually bought – I’ve a right to be slightly smug.
The answer people want to hear is the one that explains a great mystery – how on earth you actually discipline yourself to do all that writing. A Masters deadline helps, but it doesn’t explain how you actually do the assigments. The thought of writing all those words sounds to most people like a quirky variant of waterboarding where your clothes stay dry. And even after I’d written the first 6000 words of my novel, for an assignment, the prospect of pushing it up to 70,000 seemed more painful a prospect than hammering rusty nails into the soles of one’s feet, or doing the publicity for Dick Cheney’s forthcoming autobiography.
But during my Masters, one of the things we learned us was how other people do it. Authors love nothing more than writing pieces explaining how they write, and we read dozens of them while I was studying. Every author has their own approach, which they insist is the definitive solution which all wannabe writers must adopt. And the hilarious thing is, every writer is utterly different. Some exhaustively plan their novels, and write full, detailed biographies for every character, while some let them flow spontaneously from their subconscious. Some rouse themselves at 4am each morning and perform callisthenics before settling in, while others burn the midnight oil. Some writers plough through all day, some stop when they’ve hit a specific target. There really is no secret.
To cite some famous examples, JK Rowling writes in an Edinburgh Starbucks, which isn’t something I could possibly recommend because it’s hard to concentrate when you’re gagging on terrible coffee. While Roald Dahl had a shed in his garden in which he would always have exactly six sharpened yellow pencils, which sounds more like a basis for diagnosing obsessive compulsive disorder than a surefire technique that should be adopted by other writers.
Every aspiring writer wants to know how they can actually make themselves do the work. The glib answer is that you have to have self-discipline. But frankly, I don’t. So I essentially tricked myself into writing the novel. See, I hate working, but I love cafés. Knowing this, I would take myself off to my favorite café, and sit there for an hour or two, having a coffee. I get bored easily, so to avoid the tedium of my own company, I’d pull out my laptop (with no internet or games on it – that’s essential!) and write. And once I actually started tapping away, I found it fairly easy to concentrate, and I wouldn’t let myself go home until I’d written 1000 words, and edited the last 1000 words I wrote. (I’m lucky to write fast, but if you set your own target at 250 words a day, that’ll still work.)
I also had an incentive scheme where once I’d finished, I gave myself a reward. Sometimes it was an arcade game if there was one near the café, sometimes a bit of browsing in a music store, and sometimes even a gelato. Yeah, it was really literary.
But the biggest reward was that, to my surprise, I really, really enjoyed doing the writing. It made me feel like, well, a real writer, like I’d always dreamed of being. Sometimes I’d work in a bookshop café, like the one at Kinokuniya or Berkelouw’s in Paddington, and imagine what it would be like to see my work on the shelves around me. In other words, I’d daydream – but it worked as an incentive.
So if you want to know how other writers do it, you’re actually asking the wrong question, in my opinion. What you need to ask yourself is how can you make yourself write. No-one else can answer that for you. For me, it took deadlines imposed by a university course that was so expensive that I simply wouldn’t let myself drop out – and most importantly, yielding to my own personality. That is, I ended up working with my flaws rather than trying to overcome them. I would love to get up at dawn and write every morning, right after I go to the gym for an hour and bake fresh crusty bread rolls for the homeless. But the fact is, I never will. So I made writing a pleasurable activity, and before I knew it, I’d written a whole book.
There is one downside to this. I’ve now carefully trained myself only to work in cafés – in any other environment, I will simply procrastinate. And to be honest, the café habit is getting expensive, and I’m doubtlessly eating way too much gelato. Still, at least I’ve found a way to make myself do the work. And as my friends will tell you, that’s something of a miracle. In all honesty, I can hardly believe I did it either. Perhaps it is one of the signs of the Apocalypse after all?
This post originally appeared on the Random House Australia blog.