How to (finally) get started on your first novel

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Jessie Greengrass, 34, is a writer from London. Her critically-acclaimed debut collection of short stories, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It was recently nominated for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016. Here, she shares her tips on how to write – and how to get published.

A large part of writing is learning how to work, and everyone does that differently. Before you’ve been published, it can be hard to justify taking the time to write – but if it’s something you’re serious about then you have to take it seriously. In fact, you have to treat writing like a job. There are very few people who can wait for inspiration to strike and then rattle off deathless prose by the yard; for the rest of us, it’s a question of sitting down every day and worrying away at it, even when it’s the last thing we want to do.

I go running a lot (slowly!), and I’ve found that writing is a similar process. The thought of doing it is awful. The act of doing it is 95% awful. And for the 5% when it feels like you might be flying, you’re almost certainly about to fall over. But after you’ve done it you feel better about everything: yourself, the world, the people you live with. Hold that thought as motivation, set aside a parcel of time during which you won’t be interrupted – even if it’s only half an hour – and then sit down at your desk, best chair or in bed (hey, it was good enough for Proust) and get started.

But how? Personally, I’m a fan of a daily word count. When I sat down after An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk was published and wanted to start on an idea for a new novel, I felt completely overwhelmed by the size of the task.

Editing is an unholy mixture of graft and craft, and it’s what makes writing good

And so I worked out a rough minimum novel length and divided it by the number of days in a year, minus weekends. Immediately, the whole thing seemed possible.

Getting words on the page is the easy part, though. It’s editing which is hard: some unholy mixture of graft and craft, it requires sitting and going over the same ground again and again until there’s nothing else to change.

But editing is also what makes writing good, and if you haven’t done enough of it then it will be immediately obvious to a reader. No matter how much talent and quickness of thought you possess, if you haven’t done the laborious part then finding a place for your work will be impossible.

Don’t write to be published; write to write well. But when it does come to trying to find a place for your book, perseverance is important – and faith. In the face of rejection, hold on to the fact that editors, agents, panel judges are all ordinary people and that in the end so much of it comes down to personal taste.

Inevitably there will be people who don’t like your work, and that’s fine: think of all the books other people love that you don’t, and vice versa. Keep writing, keep editing, keep sending your work out.

And remember – even when it doesn’t feel like it, running is good for you.

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Jessie’s Writing Dos & Don’ts

Do make time to write. Set aside a regular portion of time, even if it’s only half an hour every few days, and treat it as working time.

Do start straight away. There’s a temptation to feel that everything needs to be perfect before you can begin, but it doesn’t and it never will be. You don’t need to have folded your pants and paired your socks and wiped every leaf of your money plant. Crack on.

Do set yourself small goals. Writing a novel is hard; writing 100 words is easy. Keep doing the second one every day, and eventually the first will follow.

Don’t stop until you’re finished. Getting all the words on the page is the easy part. Keep editing and editing until you can’t find anything else to change. That’s when you’re done.

Don’t panic. Writing is an anxious business done by anxious people, but try and avoid worrying about whether what you’re doing is any good and whether you’ll be able to find a publisher for it. Those things can come later. When you’re working the only important thing is to write honestly and with as much care and clarity as you can.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk and One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass is published by John Murray Press, £10.99.

Images: Rex Features, iStock