Their spines contain their highlight reel

Here I am on a Monday morning in the Staatsbibliothek.

With my folders and flashcards.

And the Microsoft Word document open before me.

Surrounded by faces scowling in concentration, I am blank as a slate.

Here, where minds bathe in luxury, anything is possible.

All it takes is the scratch of a pen, the tap of a key, the turn of a page.

“Read over document as a netural, distant reader might,” it says on my to-do-list.

I breathe in. And out. And in again as I begin:

It was the day everything began to change and bit by bit, the threads of Dora Danckelmann’s past became unraveled…..

I scroll through the document.

Then 40 minutes later, the verdict.

The neutral, distant reader shakes their head apologetically.

They are neither kind nor unkind.  Neither my champion nor my challenger.

Their task is indepenent arbitration.

The words (all 54,375 of them) the reader says carefully, refuse to dance together.

Some shoot out in vulgar bursts. And others crawl too carefully along.

Too uncertain and at once too brash to form a bond.

Less than the sum of their parts.

I thank the reader and survey the truth:

The story has no flow. In 54,375 ways, it has steered off course.

A sorry tribute to its source.

It doesn’t work. Not because I am in the mood for self-destruction; but because it’s the plain and simple truth.

My story isn’t any good.

Not yet.

The shelves around me bulge with books. Thousands of them, forced into neat rows.

Like soldiers in waiting.

Their spines contain their highlight reel. The anguish that made them, rubbed away like sadness on your Facebook timeline.

Their polished boots ready for inspection, ready to deny the battles they’ve seen.

Like them, I’ve got no choice but to soldier on.

54,375 ways I’ve gone wrong. 54,375 ways to make it right.

One word; one battle at a time.

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How to write a novel

A short guide by someone who’s trying

On character:

It doesn’t matter what color hair they have, what month they were born or how long their nose is. Ask yourself instead: what do they desire? What have they been wrong about all their life? This advice from Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius came to me like a revelation. It changed everything.

On self-loathing:

When you are failing, look down at yourself like the deity of your choice would. Watch the hunched-over figure staring at her blank Microsoft Word document, and her 23 open tabs, ranging from ‘How to write a novel,’ to ‘How to beat your inner critic.’ Then laugh at the senseless misery you have created.

Laughing beats loathing. Take it from someone who’s good at both.

On time:

Unless you’ve got a magic stream of income or you’re certain you’re the next Stephen King, don’t quit your day job. Take a deep breath and accept that you’re never going to be able to give your novel the time it needs or deserves.  That’s because in your head, it’s the most precious thing imaginable.

Full disclosure: I’ve gone months without writing a word of my novel. In fact I’ve only recently got back into it after a long absence. I had good reasons. Work was crazy, I was feeling anxious and a loved one was sick. Your reasons are probably better than mine.

But do you know what I didn’t do in my fallow period? Abandon the idea. If the idea of writing a novel is something that eats away at you at night, you have no other choice but to believe that it can be done.

On planning:

For every single idea you have, ask ‘why.’ If your story is about a little girl who loses her dog you need to answer the questions: why does she lose her dog? Why does it matter that she loses her dog? Why does she have a dog in the first place? If you answer these questions, you already have lots of scenes to write: the one where you describe how she loses her dog, the one where you describe what her dog means to her and the one where she gets a dog. All of these scenes will create their own ‘whys?’ Asking why helps you get to know your character’s back story. It also boosts your word count exponentially.  ‘Why’ is a magic word.

On publication:

Don’t write to be published. Write because even though you hate it, the torment of not writing is worse. Write because it helps you understand. Write because it’s the greatest act of imagination in the world. Write because without stories, we are nothing. Write because you have no other choice. And when you have done that, to the truest of your abilities, show it to the world. And when it is rejected, rest easy knowing that you wrote for the right reasons.

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Write because even though you hate it, the torment of not writing is worse.