You Will Need:
An idea for a novel that has been swimming around your head for some time. (Months or years optional)
1 cup of back-up novel ideas.
800 cups of coffee
A slightly thick skin
3 x large bags of determination
2 x large bags of discipline
1 x large bag of encouragement
Step One: September
First, take a day off work to prepare yourself to take on a familiar literary tradition – writing that novel. Spend the day buying lots of thrilling stationary – pens with perfect nibs, paper, and a board to stick positive affirmations all over. Consider yourself to be at a fairly good starting point – you are intelligent, fairly well-read, have studied creative writing at university level for two years, and you have some kick ass stationary.
At your first workshop, with your stationary, take note that on top of everything, you have one up on most others who have embarked on a similar journey. You have an extremely valuable resource that others didn’t have – a mentor.
She, Kate Kerrigan, is hugely enthusiastic and well spoken. She is smart, and a little bit hilarious. Your kind of woman! With the majority of her twelve published novels coffee stained and slotted into your bookshelf at home, she is the perfect ingredient for this mix. As she speaks about writing every day, and the importance of social media, you can’t help but get distracted by your own inner voice, which is screaming “OMG! A real life writer!”
Pitch her a plot that you have left to marinate in your temple for years. She assists you to pull it apart, leaving you to realise it isn’t fully seasoned. She also makes you become acutely aware of how much work is ahead, and of your flat Galway accent. (Bu’anyway).
At that, you have learnt your first and most valuable lesson. Don’t have tunnel vision when it comes to your writing. Be open.
Spend some time sitting by the beach with one of your fancy notebooks. Scribble out a handful of alternative plots to work with. When you finally come to something that sparks excitement, reward yourself with a change of scenery: a café.
Sip slowly and scribble. Notebooks, seaside, and coffee shops. You are a total cliché.
But,sometimes a cliché can work. Sometimes, it just means that you have pandered to a shared understanding, to something that is familiar and was pleasing to others before you.
Step Two: October
Toss novel idea 2.0 into the mixing bowl. Stir gently as the reckless wobble of plot points and characters bring it to life. Spend a couple of weeks kneading out your protagonist, figuring out her motivations.
When your mentor dips her spoon into your new mixture, it drizzles thinly, and dribbles off quickly. It lacks flavour, too. This isn’t what you envisioned happening that day you bought all the stationary, but you decided to take on the novel, so it is not a time to start whinging.
Your mentor advises you to fluff out your mixture with a younger, more fun character. Think about this when tidying the cramped single room by the river that you are renting. Think about it while you try to make latte art at work. Think about it at 3am, when cats are having kittens and all your peers are stumbling out of nightclubs and into house parties. Think about it until the mixture gets sticky, then ridged. Until you are filled with an anxiety that kills any creative thoughts.
Give yourself a few days. Go back to the beach, and the café. Bring some books, and read hungrily. Don’t be afraid to be inspired by others.
Eventually, a girl will emerge from the mess. She will start to whisper from the back of your mind. Call her Harriet. She is young, fun, and relatable.
Listen to her as you tidy your room. Take notes at work, in between making latte art. Write a first chapter by her at 3am, when cats are having kittens and your peers are stumbling out of nightclubs and into house parties.
Find yourself wishing that you could spend your days making literature, instead of coffees. It is a thought that you cannot un-think.
For your first trip to your mentor’s home in Mayo, print out the first chapter of your new plot. Sink into the sofa at beautiful 20th Century style house, sip coffee and take in the sea views. Let yourself be seduced by the artistic interior, brilliant company and your mentors’ animated voice. Surreal.
Hold your chapter until it becomes damp with your anticipation. It feels like literature. It even smells like it. Read it out for your mentor.
Saturate in her praise for two hours. Perhaps it is literature. Perhaps you too, could become a “real life writer”. Surreal!
Step Three: November
Suggest less work hours to your boss. Your boss suggests a new job.
Whip six chapters into existence. Leave to partially set for a couple of days.
Go back and re-read when you are in different moods. They are okay, but not the wonderful opening chapters that floated around your head and onto the board in your tiny bedroom. It is November now, and the temperature has dropped. The mixture takes on a cooler, more concave shape. Harriet, who is vital to the idea of being a “Celtic Tiger Baby”, but warm and likable, is not warm or likable. Your mentor, and the group of writers who you have grown close to, help you come to this realisation.
Take a while to come to terms with the daunting experience of scrapping six chapters. Your mentor has done it before, so she pokes you and Harriet out the other end.
In your tiny bedroom, read a positive affirmation that hangs from the board. Take a blank A3 page from your stack of stationary, toss the mixture gently, and start again.
The bitter taste of a restart can be forgotten in those sweet 3am moments of exhilaration. The moments when you begin to peel back layers of your protagonist, and feel you are writing something real.
Step Four: December
Drink people, instead of coffee or mulled wine. Watch their expressions. Tell them you are writing contemporary women’s fiction, and observe their reactions. Some are lovely, encouraging. But some, you notice, are ignorant. Continue (unfortunately) to view people in these terms for some time.
Are these people your possible generalized audience? It is too scary to think about. Pick one person whose opinion you trust, and write for them instead.
Allow the process of writing to caramelise. It will become a distinct sweet flavour, once you stop worrying about silly things – like people, or fanciful syntax.
Work for a company that sells the most coffee, and most renowned mince pies in the city. The unnecessary stress will encourage you to quit your job and move home after Christmas.
Step Five: January
At home in the countryside, spend weeks adjusting to this new form of freedom. Then, spend more weeks cleaning out your bedroom and making the perfect writing space. Put a nice desk by the window that faces out on the forest and the pond in your lawn. Watch the birds hop through frosty grass, until it’s four in the afternoon and you need a snack … and just another cup of coffee.
Return to the desk with the anxious excitement that comes with the blank possibility of a computer screen.Maybe you need some more new stationary. Or a year’s supply of candles, or an ergonomic chair.
Move your desk from the window to the wall.
Sit down, and realise that you need to put your energy into writing, not creating “the perfect writing space”.
Let your pyjamas become your new work uniform. In your spare time, read, go for long walks in the forest, and bake treats to eat with your coffee. Bliss!
Perfect Writing Space?
“Go for long walks in the forest”
Step Six: February
Allow your mixture to soften. Stop worrying about chapter plans and edits. They disrupt the natural flow of your writing.
In an attempt to respect your writing process, decline invitations from your friends to participate in “rag week”. Scribble the word “discipline” on a blue sticky note, and stick it on the wall in front of your desk.
Finish chapter seventeen. Print it out for your second visit to your mentors’ home. Over coffee and candles, allow her to read it. Let go and watch her grate your mixture, guiding you through the following chapters that seem riddled with unknowns.
The girls in your group, your mentor, and you bring different ingredients to the table. Combine gently.
Spend the night talking to those girls about books, boys, and the human condition. Bliss!
Buy a dress and go to the ball. It’s all about balance.
“Buy a dress and go to the ball”
Step Seven: March
Chop that pesky self-doubt into small pieces, and throw it away. It doesn’t belong in the mixture, even if it keeps turning up.
Sit at your desk from midnight to dawn. People will tell you this is wrong, but it works for you – so do it. Don’t bother trying to explain to them that those peaceful hours allow you to hack into a murky part of your mind, where dreams are created. They might not understand, until those dreams come true.
Go to a book festival and approach one of your favourite writers, Marian Keyes. It is important to learn from those before you.
Spend a week attempting to fold your mixture into a writing software program on your laptop. You find it to be a tedious process.
Attend a talk about the writing industry, given by Vincent Woods. Transfer one piece of his advice to the board hanging in your room – “if this is something you want to do, you will do it”.
Step Eight: April
Beat your mixture rapidly, and as much as possible, as you feel the panic of final deadline setting in. Send a batch of nine chapters off to be line edited by your mentor.
Your mentor skypes you and tells you that your plot is running a bit thin, and to “go back to your early chapters again”. Put aside three days to have a break down, and cry to your mother. Use your strong love of baking as therapy.
You may have over seventy thousand words, but have you got a grip on reality? Remember: you must be prepared to do lots of work, replotting and different drafts. Your mentor has pointed this problem out because she wants you to avoid any pitfalls that she experienced.
Take a sharp knife – one that is detached from your ego and emotions – and score your mixture. Pick out the bits that are not working. Take a character named Liam, and stick the knife through him. When he draws his final breath, put him in a folder to be brought to life in a different project. Feel a surprising lightness in his absence. Replace him with a new character, call him Sean.
Fall in love with Sean, and the possibilities he holds for your plot.
Spend weeks re-plotting your early chapters on A3 sheets of paper with different coloured sticky notes. Pitch this new plot to your mother, who talks you through a myriad of plot points and problems. Decide that when this book finally transcends from dream to reality, she will get a dedication line. Transfer the plan from paper to PowerPoint, and pitch it to your mentor. Decide that not everything she says is the gospel truth. It is important to go with your gut.
Attend a talk by Kevin Barry. After he frightens you with his story of true determination, ask him to sign your copies of his books.
Attend a talk by Louise O’Neill. After she awes you with her attitude, ask her to sign your copies of her books.
Notice that you are no longer screaming “OMG! A real life writer!”
Perhaps, you have become one yourself.