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How not to serial 5


This is the fifth excerpt from David Armstrong's wry and entertaining How not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author

5. Discipline

But even though most of us can't produce a book in a couple of months, there's a lot to be said for getting the first draft out quickly. It's not at all unusual to be beset with doubts about just what it is you're doing.

If you can get your first draft down in a: few weeks you are much less likely to be overwhelmed by, and give into, these doubts.

But perhaps you should have doubts: maybe the book doesn't have legs; maybe you are already losing your way, and the idea does need more thought and planning.

There are always lots of reasons for not writing a book, whereas there are very few for embarking on an undertaking that's going to be difficult, will make you miserable, tired, anti-social and generally unhappy. And that's only the writing.


But it's also true that if you wait too long, plan too long, make too many notes or talk too much about the book you are going to write, you'll probably never write it at all.

Writing a novel is (invariably) a private, a secret thing. As George Eliot has it in Middlemarch, 'We must keep the germinating grain away from the light.' It doesn't do to expose your fragile notions to the harsher elements of scrutiny too soon.


Starting is the hardest thing, but remember Susan Shaughnessy's advice: 'The writing you don't do today is lost for ever.' It may sound a bit melodramatic, but there is some truth in it. TV writer Jim Hitchmough used to say, 'Don't get it right, get it written.' And I've heard Inspector Morse creator, Colin Dexter, say that it doesn't matter how bad that first sentence is, get it down. If you've got it written, you can change it. Write a bad sentence, a terrible one, but get it written.

Only a few hours later, when you've worked on it and changed it and revised it arid rejigged it, you might end up with something half decent that wouldn't otherwise have been done. It doesn't happen if you don't make that journey to your study and begin.

I'd had a few short stories and poems published when I began my first book, Night's Black Agents. I was lecturing full-time at a college of Further Education, and had a young family.

Sometimes, the last thing that I wanted to do (after the marking and preparation for the next day's teaching) was to go up to my writing shed and do another chapter on my book.

But I would still find the will to trudge up the garden path, switch on the word processor and work on my novel.

Something gets you going. I'm not sure what. Were we taken from the breast too soon? Ridiculed in the school playground? Not picked for the soccer team? I don't know. Is it the wish for recognition? A desire to join the ranks 'of those thousands of others who have done the same thing before us? Or is it simply some deeply-held wish to tell your story, to share your notions with others?

The thing that keeps you going is the fact that, in spite of all the setbacks, you have to believe that what you are doing is worthwhile: you are telling a story, and that story has 'legs'. It's big enough to sustain the length of a book - a minimum of some seventy thousand words.

Best of all, you have an idea, and ideas are very thin on the ground. When he was an elderly man, PG Wodehouse was asked why he no longer wrote short stories. ’If I get an idea these days, I make it last for a novel,' he replied candidly.

Lots of writers can pen a line. Journalists do it, short-story writers do it, people writing letters and emails do it. But to write a novel, to start, to plough on, to keep at it and maintain belief in it until it's finished, that's staying power.

Sadly, of course, it's also often insane, misguided and deluded.

And there's the catch. Who's to say which it is that you are writing!

Unfortunately, to get your book written, let alone sold to a publisher, you're going to need huge reserves of inner strength and discipline, and a barrel of self-belief that borders on arrogance.

Try to write every day; if you don't, you'll lose the rhythm of your prose, as well as features of the plot, characters and, most importantly, your 'voice', the very timbre of the book that you are trying to maintain.

But even more important than these, if you don't write, you'll lose the habit. Now that's OK if you're not a writer; it'll be like forcing yourself to go to the gym. Everyone I know who has to make themselves go and work out gives it up in next to no time. I go to the squash court because I like playing squash. As long as the knees hold out, I'll be there. I often get beaten, and I get tired, but I love it.


Tips and summary:

1) Don't talk it, write it.

2) Get something down. You can change it/scrap it later, but get something on the screen/page.


The next excerpt from How not to Write a Novel will be in the September Magazine.

About How Not to Write a Novel

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt
The seventh excerpt
The eighth excerpt
The ninth excerpt
The tenth excerpt
The eleventh excerpt
The twelfth excerpt


© David Armstrong 2003

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