During the week a major milestone occurred – I held a copy of my own book in my hands. OK, it was a proof, but it looks like a book, and feels like a book, and on sniffing I can confirm it smells like a book. It’s one of those moments you dream about when you’re an aspiring writer, along with seeing it in the shops, and getting ‘the’ phone call. And like other milestones I’ve experienced so far, it’s not exactly how I thought it would be. It’s brilliant, of course – I almost cried for a moment – but you soon assimilate. I imagine it’s the same for multi-bestseller writers. ‘Oh, I’m number 1 AGAIN – that’s nice. I wonder if there’s any more biscuits.’
I know that sounds strange. But I think it’s part of human nature to get used to anything, and once you’ve achieved your dreams, to very quickly move on to the next one. Sad, but true. It’s why I consciously try to enjoy every moment of this, and remind myself how desperately I wanted a publishing deal just this time last year.
In a way perhaps it’s healthy. Holding the book, I felt proud and happy, but also detached from it. I’ve finished with this one, and thank God – imagine if you couldn’t switch off your ‘edit’ brain for a book that was printed and on the shelves. I’m now preoccupied with the next thing – writing my next book, editing my ‘real’ first book (ie the bottom-drawer book), and having a go at screenwriting. Your work has to change and evolve. The long lead-times of publishing mean that by the time one book comes out, you’ve probably moved on to writing not even the next, but the one after that. Having just handed in a book that’s scheduled for publication in 2013, I understand that feeling.
So I’ve decided it’s a good thing to detach yourself from the product of all that sweat and angst and work. Let the little book go out in the world and make its way, like a baby turtle hatched on a beach. Of course, most of them get eaten before they reach open water, so it’s maybe not the best metaphor (or is it?) Keep looking ahead to the next one, and the next. Because if you’re going to survive sitting in front of a screen every day, you have to live for the process of writing, not just the results, however enjoyable and pleasant they may be.
In that spirit, I’m thinking ahead to National Novel-Writing Month in November. I’ve never actually done this myself, but I think I channelled its spirit when writing The Fall. I was definitely churning out 1,000+ words a day, not editing at all, and I tend to recommend this approach with an almost evangelical zeal. Especially for your first book, it’s so easy to get discouraged and bogged down, either because you think you’re writing’s not good enough, or you don’t know what happens, or you worry you’ll never get published. All those things may be true, but here’s one thing I know – you will never get better, or finish the book, or get published, if you don’t even try. So my writing advice tends to boil down to. 1 – start the book. Keep going. Try to do 1,000 words a day – you’ll be surprised how quickly you can write if you never look back. 2 – finish the book. The day I finished my first book was a real milestone for me – and one that meant every bit as much as I’d imagined. It wasn’t until that I day that I knew I could even write a book, or that I understood what it was like to structure a whole plot in my head.
And you know what? You do get better. If you keep going for a year, putting down words, listening to feedback, reading widely, you will get better. I’ve just gone back to my first book, which a year ago I was tearing my hair out over. I knew it was flawed, but had no idea how to fix it. Now I find I can easily identify what’s wrong, and want to rewrite so many sentences for style. So keep going, and you’ll get there. Like walking a very long road, the mile-markers will show you your progress, and as you pass each one, you’ll start looking ahead to next.