Written by Julie Mayhew


How to write a book: part one

Loads of us want to write a book and yet so few of us ever get it done. We’ve asked the excellent author Julie Mayhew for some tips. First up, she tells us about how to deal with those excuses going on in your head.

desk with manual typewriter
They say everyone has a book in them. There have been three in me so far and I’m hoping – at the very least – that there’s one more. (Mainly because I’ve signed a contract to say there is and I don’t want to have to give the money back.)

Having a book in you is the easy part. Think of that time you pitched an epic plot across a pub table after three too many wines, or recall a startling news story that sent you wondering about the minor characters or what would happen next. Have you ever woken from a dream that felt like it was directed by Spielberg or is there a slice of your family history which is just plain ‘wow’? If so, there you go: that’s the beginning of your book.

The next step? Give yourself a blank page and write 80,000 words.

I get it. Fetching the book OUT OF YOU is the terrifying part.

A student on a writing course I organised not long ago put his hand in the air to ask a question after a two-hour session on the basics of character, plot and structure. “This is all well and good,” he said, clearly frustrated, “but I have this great idea in my head. How do I turn it into an actual script?”

“Well,” I said, tentative, a little worried that I had misunderstood the question but also aware that I was probably about to break terrible news, “You have to just write it down.”

He was appalled. He had come looking for secret tricks, magic spells and transforming potions. But there is no Santa Claus who will write it for you.

Even if you’re Barbara Cartland, laden with small dogs, reclining on your chaise, dictating to an assistant, there is no way around it. If you want to write a novel, then you have to spend lots and lots and lots and LOTS of time writing a novel.

But, if you can bounce back from that piece of tough love, here are some other ways to answer those voices in your head who will stop you even before you’ve typed ‘Chapter One’.

“I don’t have time.”

Don’t be that person who claims to be so much busier than everyone else. Were you too busy to watch Game of Thrones? To sit in that beer garden all Sunday afternoon? Those are worthwhile activities, I’m not saying don’t do those things, but be honest with yourself. Do you really not have time or are you not MAKING time?

Block some writing sessions in your diary now. Just an hour or two a week for starters. Then protect them like a wolf with her young.

“If you tell someone you’re writing a book and they squawk, ‘What, you!? No way!’ before keeling over in hysterical laughter, take it as cast-iron motivation to prove that idiot wrong.”

“I am not the kind of person who writes a book.”

Growing up, I believed that ‘the kind of person who writes a book’ was a posh, literary heir with a floppy fringe, who spent the mainstay of his days punting down the Cam. Basically, he wasn’t a she, didn’t come from Peterborough and hadn’t been within a mile radius of state school. This is of course, in literary terminology, bullshit. Anyone can write a book. And anyone should, so that we have more diversity of voices in publishing.

“I can’t spell.”

And my grammar would make you cry. I went to school in the 1990s when grammar wasn’t on the curriculum. But the more I write, the more I do understand the rules (and when to break them). Chiefly because when you’re published, there is a copy editor whose job it is to know grammar better than you and to help you out, tweaking your stories so they read proper (or should that be properly?).

“People will make fun of me.”

If you tell someone you’re writing a book and they squawk, “What, you!? No way!” before keeling over in hysterical laughter, first take it as cast-iron motivation to prove that idiot wrong and second, take it as evidence they too, deep down, really want to write a book themselves and are horribly envious that you are actually doing it.

“What if it’s shit?”

It will be. It’s meant to be. The first draft, that is. Tell the story to yourself. Make it messy, have a play, get it all out. Then go back when you’re done and polish up your sentences so they sing out sense for those who want to read it.

“But it’s going to take ages.”

Yes. It will. I think Goethe spoke some sense on this: “What is not started today is never finished tomorrow.” So you might as well, make a start that is…

Julie is the author of three novels: Red Ink, The Big Lie and Mother Tongue, out this month.


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Written by Julie Mayhew

Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.