Writing a book is a solitary act. For me, it encapsulates both the beauty and biggest challenge with the art form. Sure, you might have a patient friend, or a writing group you can bounce ideas around with, but the actual writing is down to you.
It requires you to spend inordinate hours alone, usually in silence, putting one word in front of another until you have a sentence. If you’re fortunate, a collection of sentences become a paragraph and, if you’re really lucky, a clutch of paragraphs become a chapter. Cue imaginary high five.
So how do you keep going? I thought I’d share other people’s wise words that motivate me when I’m writing.
This timeless piece of advice from EB White is stuck to my computer screen as a constant reminder of why I write. I have a story to tell. It’s a story that I’m passionate about. It’s a story that I think other people might like and one day, they might become passionate about it too.
This is going to sound melodramatic, but when I read this quote, it scares me to think that I might not finish a book before I leave this life. Even if the only thing I get out of the experience is a pile of pages, that I can stand up and say, ‘There. I’ve done it. One novel, a beginning, a middle and an end. Done.’
Or give it to my friends to read and do nothing more with it. The thought of not doing those things physically scares me. So when I’m on a down day and the most frequently used key on my keyboard has been the delete button, I remember this quote, put my head down and keep going.
Said in relation to the theatre, I feel this quote is equally applicable to books. You are writing to be read. But more than that, you are asking someone to take time out of their day to turn off the TV, put their phone away, close Facebook and choose to be entertained by your work. That’s a huge privilege. And when you’re caught up in trying to get the words on the page it is all too easy to forget your audience.
Back in December, ebook retailer Kobo teased statistics that suggested the number of ebooks that their readers manage to finish was eye-wateringly low. Now please do not get me wrong; I’m not saying that these were unengaging books by talentless authors – far from it. But there is no denying it. These are the theatre-goers who have decided to walk out in the middle of a performance. For whatever reason they’ve stopped caring about these stories.
This links into Tom Stoppard’s persuasive theory of how to pitch your story for the pleasure of your audience which is a tale for another time, but well worth a watch on Youtube if you’re interested. My point though is, where the EB White quote gets me writing, Tom Stoppard’s advice challenges me to write better. Do we really need to know how blue the sky was on a given day? No? Cut it. Started the last three paragraphs in the same way? Change it.
Write for your reader. Write better.
This is a quote that I do not write down. You won’t find it stuck to my desk, in a notebook or in my manuscript. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve written it down, so potentially paralysing are it’s effects. And yet, this is what we aspire to.
The idea of what perfection is will vary from reader to reader, writer to writer, project to project, from the start of your career to the end. But what perfection feels like is always the same; transcendence in the written word.
Take the scene from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies where the boys suddenly turn on each other, or the bridge scene in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or pretty much every line in Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. These are the lines you end up reading over and over again, trying to work out how these authors have created a scene, a feeling so seamless, so effortlessly depicted in print that it couldn’t possibly be constructed from the same 26 letters available to us all.
When I’ve thrown all the ideas on the page, wrestled them into a decent structure and have a piece of work that silences my inner Golum/Smeagol complex from debating the merits of the writing and accepts it might just be ok, this is the motivation that I wheel out. This is the quote that doesn’t settle for ‘ok’. Nice, lovely and great are it’s daily feast. It is the quote that sends me rampaging through my manuscript scratching through the adverbs and searching for the words that express what I mean with a sense of freshness and originality.
Because no one is going to write your book for you. Which brings us back round to EB White’s advice. And if, after all of this, this piece of advice doesn’t scare you too, don’t lose heart. It’s not because you’re not meant to be a writer. You just haven’t found your project yet. So go find it.