Bob’s Tips for Writing

February 24th, 2010

Just a few nights ago, I was commiserating with my friend about the burden of a writer’s life – writing! How difficult it is to believe in yourself; to set goals and a writing schedule; to say something; to start. All in all, to become a committed writer requires constant self-inflicted psychological manipulations and pep-talks. This of course is not the first time I have this conversation. The last time I had it, over a drink in Kayan with my friend Bob, the following post came to fruition.

With exactly two months left in Beirut’s tenure as “World Book Capital,” here is CER’s contribution to the cause…

Come by Cafe Younes on first Wednesdays of the month, 8 p.m. for open mic night.

By Bob

There are no rules. It doesn’t matter what you write, who you’re writing for or why you want to write. Everyone is different. This list is a list of what worked for me and of what I learnt from the writing process. I hope they help. But they are not a list of rules.

Yes, everyone is different. It may help to read about the writing habits of other writers, if nothing else to demonstrate how differently they go about their task. I’d recommend the Paris Review volumes for this, from which I learnt, amongst many other gems, that Hemingway wrote standing up.

Writing is a journey. If this sounds corny as hell, well, so be it. But I repeat: writing is a journey. Before I started writing regularly, I used to think “How can I write a book that has to be 100,000 words?” It would take me too long – years – I thought, and I would never be able to cope with anything that big. But as soon as I started writing regularly – after a couple of weeks or so – I realized that I was comforted by the fact that the journey had started. I didn’t know where the journey would take me, but I was on the move, and that was all that mattered.

There is no set length for a book. OK, a novel should, broadly speaking, be at least 80,000 words, but once it gets going, you’ll find that worries about its length will evaporate.

It doesn’t matter if what you want to write isn’t fully planned before you write it. I would even go so far as to say that it doesn’t need a plan at all. About ten years ago, I read a book called “How to write a novel”. It gave a detailed description of what one had to do before the actual writing. But because I never managed to do all those things (character portrayal, intricate plot layout etc) I didn’t write. How could I? I hadn’t followed the ‘rules’. So for ten years I was ‘prevented’ from writing by reading a book on how to write.

Writing creates writing. The story can only come out if words, sentences and paragraphs are on the page. Ideas will come from the process of writing, from translating semi-thoughts into words on paper (or screen). It may well be the case that the ‘real’ story doesn’t appear to you until you’ve got a substantial chunk of it down on paper. That’s when detailed planning – of the rest of it – comes into it’s own.

Try and write at regular times. It doesn’t have to be absolutely precise, but more so than “sometime in the morning”. I was a teacher when I wrote my book. I was fortunate enough to have a clear timetable on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, so I could be back home by 3 o’clock on those days. That meant I knew there was no excuse not to be writing by 4. I would also write on Saturday mornings, starting, again approximately, at 11am.

Set a target for each writing session. I told myself that I couldn’t stop until I’d done 1,000 words. In a straight run, that would take about an hour-and-a half. But often it would take longer. It didn’t matter if I got up to make a cup of coffee, or look out the window, or even – briefly – chat to my flatmate, I knew that I could only stop once I’d clocked up 1,000 words. That way, I knew I’d be getting through 3,000 words a week, at least 12,000 words a month, and if it necessary, at least 144,000 words a year. It also helps with point (3) above. But it doesn’t matter if it’s not 1,000: 500 is still a lot.

If a voice in your head is saying “I can’t write”, then start writing but tell yourself that you’re pretending to write. Go on saying this until that first voice disappears. And it will.

Don’t edit too early. Try and avoid going over what you’ve written in the previous session, otherwise there’s a danger you won’t get anywhere. Just read the last few lines, make sure you’re happy with those, and then start.

You’re allowed a bad day. You’re allowed several bad days. If you think “Oh my God, what I just wrote was terrible”, then chances are it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was. But even if it was, what does 1,000 words matter in a book that’s going to be 80,000 long? You’ll be able to edit out the ‘bad’ stuff when you’re ready to.

Pick a handful of people whose judgment you trust and show them what you’ve done. You may find it difficult, as I certainly did, to write the whole thing without wanting or needing someone else to read what you’ve written thus far. Remember, though, that writing is a highly emotional matter – or it is for me, anyway – so be prepared that they not might be as totally committed to your book as you are. Some will be flippant, some won’t get it. But if you’re reasonably happy with it, then so will someone else, and they’ll offer constructive, thoughtful comments.

Once you feel as though you’ve finished a first draft, leave it for a while. It may be a few weeks or a few months. You need to create emotional distance between you and the work, so that when you come back to it, you see it with fresh eyes. That way you’ll better know the difference between what really works and what doesn’t.

You can do it. I know this because I did it.

About the Author:

Bob left University in 1995 and then spent six years working for the UK Labour Party – between 1995 and 2001. In the latter years he worked at 10 Downing St, as a ‘Special Adviser to the Prime Minister.’ After that, he worked for a while at the BBC and then as a teacher – when he somehow found time to write a book (an “everyman” story about a young man who found his way in the political arena next to Tony Blair – hitherto unpublished). In his late 30’s he decided to come to Beirut where he currently works and has long-winded discussions over whiskeys at Kayan.

One Response to “Bob’s Tips for Writing”

  1. Antony Di Nardo says:

    Thanks for this, Rima. I always find “writing tips” both fascinating and intimidating, feelings of inadequacy about to bloom. Of course, like Bob says at the top of his list, there are no rules, only what works for you.

    Have a look at these other tips from writers of some repute that were recently published in The Guardian:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

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