Write On – a short practical guide to becoming a published author.

Getting Started – the tools of the trade.

Hoards of people want to write a novel. Just as doctors find that everyone they meet tells them about their ailments, authors find that everyone tells them about the novel they intend to write. Authors generally nod politely, say “oh, how interesting!” and go home secure in the knowledge that about 99% of the people who ‘want’ to write a novel will never put pen to paper because they don’t really want it at all.

It’s only when the partygoer/man on the bus etc says “I am writing a novel” that it’s worth while rolling up a trouser leg, exchanging the secret handshake of writerdom and settling down to talk shop. Like winning the pools, owning a dream house, being famous, going on Britain’s Got Talent, meeting [movie star of your choice] and dazzling them with your wit, for most people writing a book is one of those ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ things that will never come to pass.

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The people who enjoy dreaming about being a famous author – of looking seriously out of a window while the sun floods over their manuscript and somewhere in the distance an influential reviewer is overwhelmed by their profundity – are probably better off not considering the reality of the thing. This is advice for the other people, the ones who want it enough to actually do something about it.

So, you’ve never written anything before, and you want to become a published novelist. There is no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in this goal. It’s not like my desire to go and live in Rivendell – a resolution hampered by the fact that the Last Homely House is sadly fictional. Becoming a published author is entirely in the realms of the possible, providing you’re willing to put the work in for as long as it takes.

How to start?

Writers are very fortunate. The tools we need to begin writing professionally are very simple. At their most basic they are even very cheap. You can go from aspiring writer to Writer using nothing more than a pen or pencil and a piece of paper.

Writing in longhand in a notebook has the advantage that a certain degree of slowness is built in. It gives you lots of time to think as you work. If you’re starting to write fiction from a basis of never having done anything of the sort before, a pen and notebook can seem less intimidating than a computer. Plus it’s more private and more portable than all but the smallest net books.

If you’re going from zero to novel, it can be helpful to do a lot of your initial character and plot roughing out in longhand. However, I really wouldn’t recommend writing out your entire novel in longhand if you have another choice. You can, if you honestly can’t afford a computer. But then you’ll have to send it off to be typed by someone who does have one, because no publisher takes longhand manuscripts. In fact, most publishers will only accept emailed manuscripts in electronic file format these days, so there’s no getting out of it. Just the researching, marketing and networking opportunities of the internet make it worthwhile alone.

So, a computer with word processing software ought to be down there as one of your necessities. In the short term it will make the mechanical act of getting the words down easier. In the medium term, the internet connects you to beta readers, advice, publishers and agents, submissions calls and places where you can begin to establish yourself as a voice to be heard. And in the long term your publishers and editors will need to be able to contact you by email and send your edits back and forth with tracked changes attached.

In short, you can learn the craft of writing using pen and paper but once you’ve done that, if you mean to write for publication, you’ll need a computer.

I should probably just assume you have a computer already, shouldn’t I? After all, how else would you be reading this post?

Assuming you have a computer, you also need some kind of word processing software. In the long term, most publishers will require you to have Microsoft Word, because that’s what they use, and it has the nifty Tracked Changes ability which editors use extensively. You may also end up using a dedicated programme for writers, such as Scrivener. I can’t get along with it, but many writers seem to swear by it.

In the short term, I recommend LibreOfficeWriter. I do all my writing on this. It’s completely free, it does almost everything Word does, it even opens Word docx files which my version of Word itself won’t do, and once you’re finished it can save its files in a doc format indistinguishable from that made by Word, so nobody knows the difference.

OK, we have pen, paper, a computer, a word processing programme and the internet. What else?

The final things you need to get hold of before you can write are time and space.

It’s finding these things which proves so difficult many people don’t even start. Anyone can buy a pen and some software, but ordering your life so that you can have time to write is a sure sign of being sufficiently committed to actually succeed.

What you need is a place where you can achieve a deep state of concentration, and enough time to use that state for something productive. Finding this place and time varies from writer to writer according to their individual circumstances. In my case, I began writing when I was at home all day with the baby. The baby would sleep for approximately one and a half hours in the middle of the day. I would put her down, tuck her up, switch the computer on and write until she woke up. This meant sacrificing all of my “Oh, thank God, peace and quiet and space to be an adult” time, but it was worth it.

If you’re lucky enough to be someone who can concentrate in a crowded room, you may find you can write for half an hour every day in the coffee shop on your way home from work. You could take the laptop to the library at lunch time. When I had two children with asynchronous sleep cycles I booked an exercise class at the local gym, put them in the creche and typed for two hours in the cafe instead.

If you’re a person who can’t concentrate without solitude and silence, you may have to go to more extreme measures, such as getting up half an hour early every day and locking yourself in whichever room in the house the rest of the family are unlikely to disturb when they wake. Or even taking a camping heater down to the garden shed and typing until your laptop battery runs out.

Going to the effort of building writing time into your day is a good litmus test of how serious you are about this writing lark. Much of what separates the writer from the wannabe comes down to how much effort you’re willing to put in. So finding the time to actually do it is the most important step of all.

The next most important step is finding something to write about, and that’s what I want to talk about next week, in Getting Started – What’s the Idea?

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