Writing a book part 3: am I cheating?

Novel writing is something that comes naturally, goes the thinking. Surely, great authors don't need to read writing manuals or attend creative writing workshops or lurk on internet writing forums, do they?

Yes, in many cases. Graeme Simsion wrote his very funny bestseller The Rosie Project as part of a creative writing course at Melbourne University (and he has blogged about whether creativity can be taught). Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, was an alumnus of the fêted UC Irvine writing programme. And it's a little known fact that Jane Austen went on a course entitled 'Authors & Authorability' at what was then the East Anglia polytechnic.

Most people write fiction at school. I figured that writing a book was exactly like that, just longer - you simply sit comfortably and begin at the beginning. This is precisely why the books I've tried to write in the past were either aborted or shamefully bad, and usually both.

Maybe some gifted writers can do it spontaneously. Stephen King is like that - a fact I only know because I read his book about how to write. And yes, I appreciate the irony. He starts with a basic scenario, or a character, and lets his imagination guide him.

I wouldn't be writing my book now had I not attended Turn Up To The Page earlier this year. It's a writing course run by the lovely Kerry Hudson, who has just won a French literary award for her second novel, Thirst. Over four weeks, she taught a group of around ten budding writers the basics of writing a novel. By following the exercises she gave us each week, it dawned on me how vital it was to learn the craft of writing.

These guidelines might seem obvious - but it wasn't until I heard how a proper published writer works that I appreciated their importance. Here are points I found most salient:

  • CHOOSE a subject that moves you
  • PLAN exactly what happens to the characters, chapter by chapter
  • KNOW your characters inside out and back to front
  • REACTION is more interesting than action
  • SELF-DOUBT is totally normal. Every writer thinks they suck.

Some of those same writers do suck, of course, so I guess you just have to have faith in yourself and not give up. She also told us that blogging about the process was her way of ensuring she finished her first book. So I'm nicking that idea from her too.