Laura Barnett’s debut novel The Versions of Us was a Sunday Times number-one bestseller, translated into 24 languages, and shortlisted for Debut of the Year at the British Book Awards. Her follow-up, Greatest Hits was published in 2017, with an accompanying soundtrack album by the musician Kathryn Williams. Laura has taught creative writing for Guardian Masterclasses, delivered a TedX talk on originality in fiction, and worked as a writing mentor for the charity Arts Emergency. She is also a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School.
We are thrilled to have Laura as the latest addition to the CBC tutor team! Here she gives us her tips on making progress with your novel …
Getting started on anything, as we all know, is by far the hardest part of doing it. I sit around thinking about cleaning the bathroom for far longer than it actually takes to clean it. Diets are always more appealing when they’re put off until tomorrow, and as for Dry January… well, I’m halfway through my first attempt, and let’s just say it’s taken me about 15 years to get round to it.
With novel-writing, getting started can be particularly difficult. A novel is a not inconsiderable piece of work: 70-80,000 words for a small to medium-sized one, and anything from 120,000 words for a book you’ll be able to prop a door open with. That’s a serious mountain to climb – or at least it is when you’re standing at the bottom of it, crampons in hand, wondering how you’ll ever reach the top.
The answer, as every mountaineer knows, is in small steps. So, here are my tips for how to get yourself scaling that novel mountain.
1. Equip yourself properly
A mountain-climber – a sensible one, anyway – wouldn’t set off in shorts and a T-shirt, with nothing more than a banana and a can of Diet Coke. Likewise, you want to furnish yourself with the proper equipment to start writing your novel.
If you really feel you need a brand-new laptop to write with, and you can afford it, great. If not, no problem – most of our greatest novels were written longhand. And anyway, the most important equipment costs nothing – it’s curiosity. Start looking and listening. Really looking and listening. Observe the world around you. Ask questions. You have to look outwards before you can start looking in.
2. Stop telling yourself you don’t have time to write
Time is an elastic concept. Most of us are busy, but there is always time for what you really, really want to do. And if that’s writing, then here’s the good news: you don’t need as much time as you think you do.
Very few people have the resources or inclination to sit and write for ten hours a day. You can write a novel in an hour a day, or half an hour, or even fifteen minutes. Yes, it will come slowly, but if you sit and do it every day – or at least five days a week – it will come.
Find your half-hour – on your lunch-break, maybe, or your evening commute, or in the sliver of time before bed when you’d usually be on your phone. Sentence by sentence, half-hour by half-hour, your novel will emerge.
3. Don’t worry too much about planning
Some people plan their novels meticulously before getting started. They write timelines, draw detailed maps. Personally, I do very few of these things. I do like a character sketch – a page or so of thoughts about who a character is, and what their backstory might be – and I sometimes jot down a paragraph or two to outline my story. But really, for me, the best way to find what I want to write, and how, is by writing it.
Take that kernel of an idea – a fragment of dialogue, the relationship between two sisters, the particular expression on a child’s face – to the page, and see what happens. Be quiet and listen to what your characters are saying and thinking. What you hear may well surprise you.
4. Fight the fear
Fear is a powerful enemy. It tells us that we are worthless, that our ideas mean nothing, that the world doesn’t need our half-baked useless novel. It warns us that our ambitions will almost certainly fail. It reminds us that the average income for a writer is £10,500, and that won’t pay the mortgage on its own, so what’s the point of wasting our time?
I can’t pretend that some of this isn’t true: not the worthlessness bit, of course, but the average income, sure. And yes, your ambitions might falter. You might write an entire novel and then discover it isn’t working and set it aside. You might take 10 years to get published, or never get published in the way you dreamt of at all.
I’m saying all this not to depress you, but to fight fear at its own game. Fear thrives on uncertainty – this might happen, I might fail. Look all these bleak scenarios in the face, and they lose their power. And none of them matter, anyway. The only thing that matters is your need to write. If it is deep-seated, and truthful, and impossible to ignore, than you will write, and none of the other stuff – the business stuff; the external stuff; the stuff you can’t control – will matter. So tell the fear, as politely or impolitely as you like, to get lost.
5. Enjoy yourself
One of the things that might be stopping you from getting started is your fear (see, that word again!) that the actual process of writing is going to be miserable.
Well, there will be days than it will be. Monday mornings in February, probably, when it’s dark and freezing outside, and you’ve got up at 6am to write, and the dog is howling at the door because he’s desperate for a wee.
Writing, like anything worth doing, is hard, but there are ways to make it easier on yourself. Fighting the fear is one of them; making time to enjoy yourself, both on and off the page, is another.
In her wonderful book The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron talks about the importance, for artists, of play, and of pleasure. Artists, like children, need moments of sheer fun – little snatches of time when you cosset yourself, allow yourself to relax, to dream.
Find these moments where you can. If you’re stuck on a sentence, stop for a minute and look out the window. Focus on the world beyond yourself; think about how wonderful you found it as a child. Outside your writing sessions, take small moments of pleasure. They needn’t be expensive – I’m not talking champagne cocktails (though there’s nothing wrong with those). A walk on an autumn day. Sea-swimming. Lighting a candle. Find your sources of pleasure, and return to them whenever you need a fresh blast of energy to return to climbing your novel mountain.
Now what are you waiting for? Get to it – and travel well.
To explore our longer, selective-applications novel-writing courses in London or online, and to apply, visit our courses page.
We also run three short online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.