Back of a film set, Shepperton Studios, 1981. This is what writing means to me, and I know precisely why I took this picture. Writing fiction is all about smoke and mirrors, of a sense of creating a reality that while seemingly solid, is no more than illusion: On the other side of this film set is paint and plaster resembling rock, or a front room, or an Edwardian lounge. As a writer, this is what we see - the nuts and bolts behind our creation, when just on the other side of the reading experience, the magic unfolds.
I've been working for three days to finish a Jasperland piece on my infinitesimally small part in the 1983 movie Pirates of Penzance, but even out here, isolated in the emptiest county in the whole of the UK - we call it the British equivalent of Wyoming - the pressures of the pandemic are still felt, and they divert - so perhaps I'll get it done tomorrow.
I don't know who or if anyone is reading this, but if you're out there isolating with an elderly parent that you must shield at all costs from harm, you are not alone. If that elderly relative is exhibiting many challenging traits and must be cared and cajoled throughout the day, then again, you are not alone. There are many like us, and although our burden pales against those who are currently unwell or who have loved ones who are unwell, or at risk on the front line of the outbreak - then do not feel that what you are doing is not important: it's vital, for this is what we are and what we do in times of difficulty. The job you are doing sometimes feel frustrating and often without gratitude, but it is right, and proper, and compassionate - and when this is all over, you will know that you did the right thing in trying circumstances, and you will permit yourself the vanity of a small sense of pride that you were there for someone else when it mattered, even if they didn't really know it.
Okay, so this is the peptalk I wrote for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) a few years back. It's the advice I kind of wished I'd given myself, although given my character, I probably would have poo-pooed it and gone my own way irrespective. I think it works because it's about craft and not art. Learn how to build a book, and the magic will follow; great painters have to learn to draw first.
What are you waiting for? Go write a book.
I once wrote a novel in 22 days. 31 chapters, 62,000 words. I didn't do much else - bit of sleeping, eating, bath or two - I just had three weeks to myself and a lot of ideas, an urge to write, a 486 DOS laptop and a quiet room. The book was terrible. 62,000 words and only twenty-seven in the right order. It was ultimately junked but here's the important thing: It was one of the best 22 days I ever spent. A colossal waste of ink it was, a waste of time it was not.
Because here's the thing: Writing is not something you can do or you can't. It's not something that 'other people do' or 'for smart people only' or even 'for people who finished school and went to University'. Nonsense. Anyone can do it. But no-one can do it straight off the bat. Like plastering, brain surgery or assembling truck engines, you have to do a bit of training - get your hands dirty - and make some mistakes. Those 22 days of mine were the start, and only the start, of my training. Your First book will be the start of your training, too.
There's a lot to learn, and you won't have figured it all once that book is finished, but it'll be enough for you to know that you don't know it all, and that it will come, given time. You'll have written enough to see an improvement, and to start to have an idea over what works and what doesn't. Writing is a subtle art that is reached mostly by self-discovery and experimentation. A manual on knitting can tell you what to do, but you won't be able to make anything until you get your hands on some wool and some needles and put in some finger time. Writing needs to be practiced; there is a limit to how much can be gleaned from a teacher or a manual. The true essence of writing is out there, in the world, and inside, within yourself. To write, you have to give.
What do you give? Everything. Your reader is human, like you, and human experience in all its richness is something that we all share. Readers are interested in the way a writer see things; the unique world-view that makes you the person you are, and makes your novel interesting. Ever met an odd person? Sure? Ever had a weird job? Of course. Ever been to a strange place? Definitely. Ever been frightened, sad, happy, or frustrated? You betcha. These are your nuts and bolts, the constructor set of your novel. All you need to learn is how to put it all together. How to wield the spanners.
And this is why sitting down and writing a book - any book, even a bad one - is so important. Don't look at this early stage for every sentence to be perfect - that will come. Don't expect every description to be spot-on. That will come too. This is an opportunity to experiment. It's your giant blotter, your sandbox, an empty slate, ready to be filled. It's an opportunity to try out dialogue, to create situations, to describe a Summer's evening. You'll read it back to yourself and you'll see what works, you'll see what doesn't. But this is a building site, and it's not meant to be pretty, tidy, or even safe. Building sites rarely are. But every great building began as one.
So where do you start? Again, it doesn't matter. You might like to sketch a few ideas down on the back of an envelope, spend a week organizing a master-plan or even dive in head first and see where it takes you. All can work, and none is better than any other. The trick about writing is that you do it the way that's best for you. And during the next 50,000 words or so, you may start to discover that, too.
But the overriding importance is that your first book doesn't have to be good. It doesn't even have to be spelled properly, punctuated or even tabulated neatly on the page. It's not important. Practice is what's important here, because, like your granny once told you, practice does indeed make perfect. Concert violinists aren't born that way, and the Beatles didn't get to be good by a quirk of fate. They all put in their time. And so will you. And a concerted effort to get words on paper is one of the best ways to do it. The lessons learned over the few months will be lessons that you can't get from a teacher, or a manual, or attending lectures. The only way to write is to write. Writer's write. And when they've written, they write some more. And the words get better, and sentences form easier, and dialogue starts to snap. It's a great feeling when it happens. And it will. Go to it. Write a book. Do it. Do it now.