Why waiting for inspiration can damage your writing

A Cold Season by Alison LittlewoodI recently read an article on The Guardian website, where some famous authors gave their advice on writing. I hope I can be forgiven for just happening to pick a favourite from someone who also happens to be my favourite author – Neil Gaiman. At the top of his list was simply, ‘write’.

I thought about writing for a good ten years before I started. During that time I did some useful things – I worked at crafting sentences, albeit in the service of producing non-fiction as part of my day job, and I read voraciously (as I always have, ever since I learned to read). But none of that was a substitute for sitting down and engaging my imagination and putting one word after the next, travelling deeper and deeper into a world I created.

In the end, I joined a local night class to force myself to give it a try. Why this should have been necessary when all I had to do was disappear into a quiet room and put pen to paper, I don’t know: except that sometimes, simple things seem scary, especially when you have the feeling that thing might be important to you. Anyway, there I was in the class, and within ten minutes the tutor – the patient but no-nonsense tutor, which was just what I needed – gave us a writing exercise. What, I thought – seriously? Now? And I was so nervous I couldn’t get the top off my pen.

Since writing A Cold Season, I’ve met a lot of people who’ve said “I’d like to write a novel – but I don’t know how to start.” The answer – that you start by getting started – is at once the most simple and the hardest thing to grasp.

A Cold Season was the first novel I submitted to a publisher, but it wasn’t the first one I drafted, or even the second. And just as with writing fiction in the first place, I thought about novel-writing for a long time before I got started. And did that help? Did the lightning bolt of inspiration strike and carry me through the next 80,000 words? No, of course it didn’t. It actually took plenty of hard graft and determination.

It also took a welcome boost from NANOWRIMO, or National Novel Writing Month, which essentially takes the premise that if you stick to writing a set word count every day, at the end of the month you’ll have the first draft of a novel. Probably not a very good first draft, but that was okay: I’d decided by then that all I wanted to do was to have done it. I’d started treating it, not as a potential magnum opus, but as a writing exercise; and furthermore one that, if it wasn’t very good, had only cost me a month.

One problem: where was the lightning flash? It hadn’t come yet. I had the determination, but no premise. No plot. Not even an inkling that one was forming in the back of my mind. So I ended up deciding what this January novel would be about on December 31.

Yes, I did type that right. I picked a storyline out of the air the day before I started – and then I just started. And it was pretty tough, especially the big-bit-in-the-middle, but I did it.

Then I shut the file and didn’t even look at what I’d written. That wasn’t the point: I’d done what I set out to do. I’d proved to myself that I could write a novel, and found I liked it. Soon after, I dreamed up another idea, and started writing another.

A year later I read back my first effort, and the thing that really surprised me was it wasn’t as bad as I expected. It wasn’t something I’d want to hone and polish and submit, but all those things I felt I’d struggled with – structure, pacing, writing something that was actually novel-shaped – they were all there, more or less. Sometimes, when we jump in with both feet, we can surprise ourselves.

And that’s the beauty of writing. When we sit around waiting for inspiration, nothing very much is likely to come along and surprise us. But when we’re in the middle of it, putting one word after the next – that’s when the surprises happen.

So, to return to the start – as Neil Gaiman said – the number one piece of writing advice is to write. It may feel difficult at times, but it will surprise you. It’s just that the surprises aren’t up in the air, out of reach, dancing with the lightning: they’re in the ground, just beneath your feet, waiting for you to unearth them.



Alison LittlewoodAlison’s first novel, A Cold Season, is out now from Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick for spring 2012.
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