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.
Step 5: Be flexible in how you get there. A hundred pages in, I hit a wall. Writing a novel is an enormous undertaking and we learn so much about ourselves along the way. Sitting at my desk, even with the private pep talk was no longer working out for me. So I changed tact. I enrolled on a creative writing course, a master in creative writing right here in Bath. I never planned to do that from the start, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is your specific achievable goal. I set out to write this novel, not to doing so without help. And for me, doing the creative writing course was very helpful. But they can present new challenges too. When we share our work with lots of people it’s all too easy to be buffeted around in the winds of conflicting advice.
So… Step 6: Take responsibility. This is your novel. If it does get published, well, it’s going to have your name on the cover. You can’t write a book by committee. That doesn’t mean we should ignore advice from other people, far from it. Say you write a chapter and you share it with 10 friends and all 10 of them come back to you and say “The scene with the meringue, it doesn’t work”, I think it’d be a good idea to revisit the scene with the meringue. But if only one of them says the scene with the meringue doesn’t work well, your opinion counts too. If a reader is able to fully understand what you try to achieve and can tell you why you haven’t achieved it that is really useful advice. If they just don’t have a taste for meringue and you do need to take responsibility and keep the delicious meringue.
The final step is to focus on what you control. One way into publishing is to get a literary agent that’s a way that many people go on to have a book on the shelf. And if you want to get a literary agent, you can be sure to select an agent that is accepting submissions in your genre. You can look at their submission criteria and you can fastidiously adhere to them. These are the things that you control. What you don’t control is whether the agent chooses to represent you. If the agent does choose to represent you, what you don’t control is whether or not you get published. If you do get published, what you don’t control is what the novel’s cover will look like. What you don’t control is whether the novel will be reviewed. If it is reviewed, you don’t control whether those reviews will be favorable. You don’t control which shops will stock it. You don’t control if any shops will stock it. You don’t control how many people will buy it and you don’t control how they will receive it.
So don’t give another thought to writing a best-selling novel and don’t think about writing an award-winning novel. Focus instead on what you control. Think about the next sentence and you might just be going in the right direction.
Five years on from that rainy spring day my novel is on the shelf and it has been well-received. It’s been better received than “The Talking Worm”. But that doesn’t mean that it was all a breeze. I keep those notes attached to the pin board above my writing desk and I refer to them often. And I should probably refer to them even more often because writing is so hard and I often falter.
And as for being a writer, I think that’s always a work in progress. I was asked to write this TED talk and to come and speak to you today. I didn’t really know where to start or what I wanted to say. So I set myself a specific, achievable goal to spend an hour at my keyboard. Here wishing you every success with your own first novels if you want to write a first novel. Here wishing you every success with whatever your goals are and much more importantly, every happiness. Thank you very much.