Posted by: stelladuffy | April 24, 2012

the how to write a book thing (again)

A young(er) friend has just asked me how does she go about starting to write a book, when she already has some (but not all) of the story, and she knows it’s there and she really wants to do it, but she just doesn’t know how to start.

This was my reply :
Write 500 words a day. 500 x 5 days a week (any 5 days) x 50 weeks (two weeks off) = 125,000 words in a year.
An average novel comes in somewhere between 70 and 140k, so 125k is perfect.
That’s a first draft in a year, while not taking any time off your other work, at somewhere between half an hour and an hour a day (5 days a week) to write those 500 words.
Then, once you have a first draft, you know what you’re writing, you can read it and find out what the story is, the one that’s arrived on the page, not the one you thought it might be when it was all in your head as a possibility. And THEN – edit/rewrite the hell out of it and make it better.

I’ve said this here before, and I’m right (!), the only way to do it, is to DO IT.
I knew nothing about writing books when I started. Nothing, MUCH MUCH less than you do now, because you’re reading this page.
You do not need to take a sabbatical, you do not need to leave your current job, you do not need to be child-free – Beryl Bainbridge was a single parent, Chekhov and Trollope both had full time jobs – you just need to get up half an hour earlier or stay up half an hour later or take half an hour of your lunch break and use that time to write. You’ll work out which time suits you best, but you won’t work it out by thinking about it. You’ll find it in the practice of doing it.

There is no ticket, no trick, no magic, no pattern that works for every book, no one-size-fits-all way of doing it – other than sitting down and doing it.

Write one scene. Then write another one. Then another one. Maybe go back to the content of the first scene. Maybe jump ahead (or back in time). Chapters can be any length but 5000 words is fairly long and 1500 words is pretty short. Let the story show itself. Start and let it come. It’s a practice (like yoga), it’s a meditation (like any), and it’s an effort (like running).

Many of us put a bit of ourselves in our first book. If you find that’s the case, have the character make some choices you didn’t or wouldn’t, that way they can begin to become their own person. When they’re not you, when they are their own person, different things will happen to them (in the story) because they’ll have reactions you haven’t had yourself, experiences you haven’t, and then you’ll be writing fiction rather than just-shaded personal ‘fact’.

Here’s a blog about it I wrote a few years ago (saying the same thing!) :

And Danuta Kean‘s got a great new piece here about Creative Writing courses. Some of which are great, and some rubbish. But even the best of them have no magic ticket – There Is No Magic Ticket. Do the work. Write the book. Go!

nb – yes, selling it (agents, publishers, the market etc) is another matter entirely. But don’t worry about that until you’ve written something. Write a first draft first. The farmer doesn’t go to the market saying “I’m going to have some delicious potatoes in two years’ time, please pay me for them now.” She says “I’ll dig a field and fertilise the soil and plant potatoes and weed those potatoes and water them and grow them and harvest them and THEN I’ll take them to the market.” Grow some potatoes.


  1. Wonderful and inspiring as always Stella! I wish I’d really understood what it was to give myself creatively to my book/manuscript/Thing at the start, rather than worrying about what it would/wouldn’t/should/shouldn’t be. The worrying and dreaming and wishing and waiting for a lightning bolt take up all the time. I never knew how easily I could be distracted until I decided to write a book. I wish I never made the big decision, and instead just went quietly about enjoying it with discipline. Oh well, we live and learn! Great piece x

  2. ah, we all learn as we do it! and we learn as we do the next one and the next … I don’t imagine there ever comes a time when it feels like “Oh yes, this writing thing, I’ve got it now!” (Also useful not to waste time beating self up …) x

  3. Great stuff. I did actually do the ‘bits’ of a book once – individual scenes, between characters who said way more witty things than I ever could, much more articulately. But I never completed it, because I think, I thought it should be a literary ‘effort’ which required great swathes of uninterrupted time. All tosh, I see now. This was done before computers, so I have the manuscript under the bed. (of course). I’ll dig it out….

  4. Dig. It. Out. (and pay some lovely person to type it up into a doc and then work on it. sorted.)

  5. You are wonderful and this is just the guidance and nudge get the hell on with it, stop making excuses, focus, focus etc. see it as a daily practice come on woman, just do it that I needed! Thank you xx

  6. xxx

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