This Writing Life: How Not to Write a Novel

I love Pinterest. Perhaps it’s because I have a very visual brain, but I find endless inspiration in all the pretty pictures and beautiful artwork, sparking story ideas left, right and centre. In recent weeks, I’ve also found it to be a surprisingly useful repository of writing advice, sometimes in poster form, and sometimes in full articles hidden behind the pictures. There’s a problem with taking writing advice from the internet, though, particularly from a site that’s as open and lacking in curation as Pinterest. What one user finds enlightening is going to be completely useless for another… And that’s where this post comes in.

You see, whilst browsing Pinterest images today, I came across one titled ‘How to Write a Novel’. I clicked on it, wondering what fresh nugget of inspiration I might find – only to be left dismayed. According to this image, after all, ‘writing a novel’ could be easily summarised in a few bullet points, cheerily arranged on a brightly coloured poster; not only was it painfully simplistic, but some of it was just plain wrong.

It’s fair to say that everything about this poster rubbed me the wrong way. Some of the ‘advice’, after all, was truly useless, verging on terrible. Don’t use crutch words! (Sure, but that’s a tiny detail to be worrying about when you’re just starting a book, and you won’t know what your crutches are until you’ve written it, anyway.) Do make your dialogue sound natural! (Yeah, great, except that’s MUCH HARDER THAN IT SOUNDS.) Don’t edit the novel whilst writing it, or write without knowing the ending in advance! (If that’s how you write, yes – but plenty of writers don’t work that way, and are happy with their process regardless.)

Okay, if I’m honest, the real problem with this poster wasn’t the advice itself, or its terrible English (always encouraging, given the subject). The problem, really, is with the prescriptive nature of advice like this. Not only is it impossible to break the process of writing a novel into such simple steps (write several drafts, then proofread when you’re done is the last one – so casual, as if that might not take you anywhere from a month to a decade), but it’s also impossible to so clearly define that process in a single way. Every writer works differently, and by that I mean really, REALLY differently, sometimes even from one book to the next. A few bullet points on a poster isn’t going to change that.

But this advice is aimed at new writers, you might say. In actual fact, I think that’s worse. Implying there’s One True Way to write a novel is singularly unhelpful for anyone coming to writing for the first time. There are enough worries and insecurities in being a new writer without being told you’re Doing It Wrong. And I know this might sound hypocritical of me, being someone who frequently gives out writing advice on the internet, but here’s the one thing I always come back to: everything I suggest is subjective, and it won’t work for everyone. This is simply my experience, learned by trial and error, by making endless mistakes, and by listening to – but not always heeding – the words of people who’ve been doing this longer than I have.

If you are a new writer, worrying about how to tackle your first book, here’s my biggest piece of advice. In the words of a well-known sports brand, Just Do It. Start writing, make mistakes, and learn from them. Every piece of advice you’re ever given (including this one)? Consider whether it could work for you, but don’t treat it as gospel. Every writer needs to find their own path, be that the same as their idol’s or radically different to everything that’s come before. There’s no easy road map to becoming a writer, even to writing a single story, no matter what posters on Pinterest might try to tell you – and whilst that sounds kinda scary, it’s ultimately liberating. Go out there, do your own thing, and remember: there’s no-one who knows your writing process better than you.

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