I’m dipping into an interesting guide at the moment between major edits on my next book. It’s called How to Write Like A Bestselling Author: Secrets of Success from 50 of the World’s Greatest Writers. The writer is Tony Rossiter, who I mainly know as a columnist for Dalesman in a regular slot as the magazine’s “offcumden” (a dialect word for a newcomer from outside the county, for those not in the know).
There are a million and one “how to write a bestseller” books, but this one’s a bit different. It recognises entirely that what works for one writer won’t work for another, and instead focuses on the practices of individual authors and what we can learn from them. Jane Austen, Roald Dahl, JG Ballard, Bill Bryson, two of the three Brontës, Dan Brown and many others – it’s a diverse line-up.
Each entry covers the author’s major works and influences, how they got into writing, and the most interesting part to me, their writing routine.
I’m always fascinated by other writers’ daily routines and how different they are. I heard from a well-known and long-established writer of romantic comedies recently that she sets herself to write 1000 words a day, sitting on the sofa, with breakfast television on in the background to provide plot or character inspiration. And, she remarked, she had to fight for every word. Meanwhile, one of her contemporaries dashes out 2000 words before 8am so she has the rest of her day free. Empire of the Sun author JG Ballard, I just discovered, used to write 700 words a day five days a week, putting aside two hours in the late morning and two in the early afternoon for writing, before going for a walk to ponder the next day’s writing.
Personally, when I’m drafting I aim for 2000 words a day minimum, seven days a week. If I feel I can write more, I often do, keeping going until my invention gives up. This allows me to finish a first draft in six weeks. For my last draft, which I needed to finish quickly due to other commitments, I aimed for 3000 words a day and finished within a month. The discipline of daily word counts was something that was really hammered home to me while writing my first novel, which I did for the NaNoWriMo event in 2015.
I don’t have a dedicated writing space at home (although I’m working on getting one!). Generally I work sitting on the bed with my laptop, listening to instrumental music (nothing with words while I’m writing, ideally: I find it distracting). I also squeeze in as many words as possible on my morning and evening commutes during the working day, and in my lunch break. Part of my commute involves a two-mile walk, which I always use to plot out scenes in my head so that when I get to where I’m going – either the train or my house – I’m ready to dive straight in.
I use my iPad to write during the working day, to save me lugging my laptop around. On both laptop and iPad, I use the Scrivener program, which I really love, backing up to Dropbox so I know I won’t lose anything. At the end of each day, I track my word count using an online project planner called Pacemaker, which helps me keep track of whether I’m staying on top of targets.
I don’t go too far with planning, as I know the stories in my head morph drastically when I actually start writing them. Each new novel starts with a loose synopsis, a few thousand words describing where I think the story will go. I don’t do character sheets, preferring to learn who they are as I write them. Every now and then, when I can see the story’s going in a different direction to the one planned, I’ll write a fresh version of my synopsis based on what I think should now happen. But I don’t let what’s in the synopsis constrict me if it doesn’t feel right when I come to write it.
Some writers will recommend absolutely no reading back or editing until a first draft is complete. Personally, I find it helpful to go back and read through what I’ve written at regular intervals – usually every 25,000 words – to refamiliarise myself with my story. I will make minor edits at that stage, although refrain from cutting large chunks until the draft’s complete. I also tend to read back the previous scene every morning before beginning that day’s writing.
I tend to overwrite, so my first drafts always come in too long – usually around the 110,000-word mark. Once complete, my first job is to go through and cut a minimum of 20,000 words. This usually takes two full read-throughs. I’ll then do one or two more full edits, to polish, before sending to my beta readers for their feedback.
After making any changes I feel need to be made based on their opinions, the manuscript goes to my agent. She will usually have much heavier structural edits to suggest, often in stages – I took my last book, for example, through four rounds of structural edits with my agent before she was satisfied with the story. It then went to my editor, who guided it through a further couple of rounds of revision. So while a first draft may take as little as six weeks to write, the work then required to make it worthy of being a published novel takes a lot longer. My last book, Meet Me at the Lighthouse, was over a year in the making, and about half of what was in my original first draft didn’t make the final cut. It gets easier to be ruthless when it comes to cutting, I’ve found – it felt painful in the early days! Now, I try not to get too attached to any darlings I know I might later need to kill.
So, that’s what I’ve found works for me. Other authors will have their own ways of working. I think for me though, the most helpful thing is setting a daily word count and sticking to it, whether it’s a few hundred words or a few thousand. Once those words are down on the page, you’ve got the clay ready to start modelling your novel.