Here is the full transcript of British writer Nathan Filer’s talk titled “How to Write an Award-Winning Bestselling First Novel” at TEDxYouth@Bath conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to write an award-winning bestselling first novel by Nathan Filer at TEDxYouthBath
On a rainy spring day in 2009, I shuffled into a lecture theatre, at the University of Bristol and listened to a presentation titled “Evidence-based Approaches to Positive Psychology.” I was deeply, deeply miserable. Depression, ironically, was my bread and butter at this time. I’ve spent the last 3 years of my life surrounded by filing cabinets in a cramped office where I helped to administer large-scaled trials, comparing the effective talking therapies, looking at side effects of anti depression, that sort of things. And it was good work, and it was important work. The problem: I wasn’t any good at it.
My aptitude for statistics was woeful, I was slow with databases and spreadsheets. I’m not especially imaginative with PowerPoint. As it will become evident I needed a friend, even, to help me with this. My heart was elsewhere, locked away in my drawer at home with the first 20 pages of a novel which I’ve been meaning to write for years only “where was the time?” Then slumped to my desk on that rainy spring day, an email arrived reminding us that everyone was welcome to attend the lunch time lecture.
I read the title again “Evidence-based Approaches to Positive Psychology.” These things tend to suffer from a lofty verbosity, translate, “How to be happy.” I grabbed my coat. The notes I made during that lecture remained pinned to the corkboard which this represents, above my writing desk five years and one novel later. They contain no insights in how to shape a compelling plot, there’s nothing on writing convincing dialogues or characterization, there are no well-worn wisdom on the importance of cutting adverbs. Though you should, should cut your adverbs. But writing a novel demands far more than the words replaced on the page.
So today, I present to you: How to write an award-winning bestselling first novel. Or at the very least, to be happier whilst trying. This is the seven-step guide. It’s guaranteed to work.
Step 1: Have specific goals. The operative word is “specific.” My pile of pages hidden away at my desk, my intentions to be a writer one day, it was a start but it was too vague. It didn’t bother me that I would put my manuscript aside for a week, a month, six months at a time.
And why should it? I’ll get there eventually. The problem, well, our goals aren’t specific. It’s that it’s all too easy to convince ourselves that we’re getting there, when actually, we’re not.
Then at the other end of the journey, it can be difficult to truly savour the attainment of your defined goals because it’s not so clear when we’ve achieved them. So here is what I did. I replaced “I want to be a writer”, something I’m still not actually sure I’ve achieved, with “I will write something today.” That’s pretty specific, yeah?
On the first day, in the frenzy of positivity, I wrote a page. The next day, I deleted that page. But I also wrote a paragraph. That paragraph…. At the end of the first week, I had written 2 thousand words that would never make it into my novel. But I’d also written what would become the first line. It was there, waiting.
Step 2: Make sure your goals are achievable. As my novel progressed, as I knew with great certainty my central character and how the story would unfold, I set myself tougher goals. “Today, I will fix that irksome issue with the chronology”, “This week, I’ll finish chapter four”, “Next week, I will send off some parts of my writing to literary agents”, etc.
My vague desire to be a novelist, to be a writer has been replaced with these very clear, very specific goals and it felt great because they felt achievable. All too often in life, we set ourselves unachievable goals and then we feel really bad about ourselves for failing. Many writers set themselves a word count target. And I tried this as well, it can be helpful to some people, like I said I need to write a thousand words a day. That’s not so much but still, I struggled with it.
So I set myself an achievable goal instead. I told myself “You know, it doesn’t really matter if all I write is 10 words. It doesn’t really matter if I delete 50 words. What I need to do is spend the time at my computer, trying. A lot of time I couldn’t quit my job but I could spend 2 hours every single evening, I could spend 5 hours over the weekend. And it’s worked for a while, too, and I progressed and I was moving the novel on.
But writing can be hard and lonely and disheartening. I sent off a sample of my work to an agent and then the rejection letter arrived. I took that day off, of course I took that day off. I took the week off. I stopped.
Step 3: Be prepared to fail. I mean it sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But we could all do with a reminder from time to time and I’m pleased that I still have these notes pinned above my desk. The important thing is to see failure along the way for what they are. They’re setbacks in a longer journey but they’re not the end of the road. I don’t think I can be a writer and I don’t think I can be a person alive but I certainly don’t think that I can be a writer alive who hasn’t run into some sort of failure in their career. A rejection letter…
Well, that’s a hiccup. Three rejection letters…. Well, that’s three hiccups. What about 30 rejection letters? I would suggest to you that if you get 30 rejection letters for your novel there’s a chance that your novel isn’t any good. But that’s not the same as you’re not being any good. However much of ourselves we pour into our writing, it’s never the whole of us. And besides, you’re not trying to be a writer, remember? But you’re trying to write this specific novel. If it doesn’t work out, why not try writing another one?
My debut, a book which has gotten a great deal of attention and praise it wasn’t the first novel that I wrote. It was just the first novel that I got published. Years before, I wrote a children’s book. I had a talking worm in it. That novel got a whole heap of rejections. They weren’t all automated rejections. Some of them were but some of the publishers took time to write to me with a few words of encouragement to say that there was something about the style that they liked. I was being told that I wasn’t bad. The rejection letter from my second debut went a step further. “It’s good”, it said, “it’s not for us but it’s good.”
Step 4: Base your affirmations in fact. Good isn’t great, but good is good. And good might just be good enough. I think it’s important to give ourselves a pep talk from time to time. A few words of encouragement. Writing on the whole is a solitary experience and it can be a long time before we hear praises from anyone else. But the important thing is to base the praises we give ourselves on facts. If you tell yourself you’re the world’s most remarkable storyteller you’ve got a pretty long way to full. But that sentence you wrote the other day. That sentence when you captured the precise moment your protagonist realized the truth. That was really really good. That would stand up in any novel. You need to savour those moments. It may be your private burden to suffer the anxieties of writing. But it is also your unique privilege to be the first in line to enjoy what you created.