As we await the announcement of our literary prize winners, Deborah Moggach offers a 12-point plan for aspirant wordsmiths
1. Don’t go out to lunch.
2. Don’t go online until lunch.
3. Don’t start writing your novel until you know your characters very, very well. What they’d do if they saw somebody shoplifting. What they were like at school. What shoes they wear. Spend days – weeks, months – being them until they thicken up and start to breathe. VS Pritchett said, “There’s no such thing as plot, only characters.” Once you know them well they’ll lead you into their stories. If you start too soon you won’t have a clue what they’re going to do and all is chaos.
4. However hopeless and inadequate you feel, leave that self behind. Psych yourself up until you’re confident that the world will be interested in what happens to your characters. Confidence is key.
5. Don’t “write”. “Writing” is about showing off or imitating other writers. “Writing” mistakes solemnity for seriousness. Just write. Have courage, be truthful, be true to your characters.
6. Don’t be daunted. Writing a novel is a huge adventure; when it’s going well it’s more fun than fun. When it stutters to a halt, put it aside. Go for a swim, go for a walk, take a week off. Don’t panic or be afraid; you and your characters are in it together. Trust them to come to your rescue. Of course it’s a long haul, but you always knew that, didn’t you?
7. If a character stubbornly refuses to come alive, switch to the first person. Suddenly they’ll be speaking to you. Later you can change it back again if you need to.
8. I have to know the ending before I can begin. Map out as much as you need but don’t over-plot or you can constrict your characters. Let them change it as they go along.
9. You don’t have to know the ending.
10. In other words, you don’t have to listen to anyone’s advice. There are no rules to break. That’s the pleasure of it. Read The Paris Review’s interviews with writers – everyone has their own methods and if a novel is truly alive it will break all their rules too.
11. Discover the times when you’re most creative – mornings, nights, afternoons – and clear the time to work then. Many writers find the mornings are best, and the afternoons are only good for editorial corrections, or getting the washing done. Others can only work through the night, drunk.
12. Sort out your priorities. Don’t clean your home, other than as a displacement activity. There won’t be time. You’ll probably neglect your friends too, and even your personal hygiene. If you have children, however, try to keep them fed.
- Deborah Moggach’s latest novel is Heartbreak Hotel (Chatto & Windus).
- The winners of the Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize will be announced in next Sunday’s news section.
- Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach
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