TOAST Magazine

How to Write a Book by Maggie O'Farrell

BOOK CLUB

A new year heralds new dreams, hopes and ambitions. For some, it's the year when their book will finally be written. With this in mind, we asked the best-selling author Maggie O'Farrell for her tips on approaching the empty page...

Beginning is the hardest part: to face the empty page is to set yourself up for vertigo, for despair, for the writing yips. The solution is to trick yourself, to sidle up to the desk, almost by accident, as if you have nothing in particular planned for the day, for that stack of paper.

You can spend a while selecting the right pen, adjusting your chair, lifting and lowering the blind, settling the cat on your lap, until you feel just right. Then pick up your pen. No pressure. Nothing to see here. It’s just you, at your desk. Make a few strokes, a note or two, a word here or there, perhaps even a sentence.

The first few forays into a book are like walking alone into a blizzard: you can’t see for whiteness, you don’t know what’s out there. Will it be people, animals, mountains, rivers, crevasses, monsters – dangerous or benign?

What I wish someone had told me when I was starting out is that you don’t have to begin at the beginning. The most important thing it to plunge in – it doesn’t matter where. You can write the end, if the mood takes you, or the middle, or a few chapters in. Just write: get words down on paper, form a scene, create a dialogue, set some of your imaginary friends to arguing or singing or dog-walking. What you write at this initial stage will, in all likelihood, not make it to the final draft but there is great comfort in word count, in having something to work with. You can’t redraft and rewrite and recraft an empty page. So, write. Set down your words, don’t look back, don’t re-read. Just put down what you need to say and worry about fixing it later.

Writing a book is a collision of accident, imagination and hard work. The former because you never know what may fall into your path, what you may stumble upon, what you may overhear on the bus. Someone might say something or you might see something and there will be a sudden and satisfying click, deep inside your mind, setting a wheel turning. Oh, you will think, I didn’t know that, I didn’t realise, I didn’t see.

You might then begin to read or research or think around this moment, this realisation. You will flesh out the idea, find it clothes to wear, things to say, places to go. You will walk around it, looking at it from different angles. You might not sleep much, at this stage. If you have trouble switching from your real world to your fictional one, try listening to the same piece of music, over and over again, until whatever surrounds you fades away.

If you get stuck – and you will – take a walk. Where isn’t particularly important: urban, rural, mountainous, sylvan, oceanic, crowded, isolated. Move fast, as fast as you can; something in the pounding of your pulse and the rhythm of your stride will release solutions and improvements. Or go to a gallery, a museum, anywhere you can absorb the ideas of others and get away from your own. Listen in to conversations, observe people around you – what they wear, how they hold themselves, how they interact. There is great solace to be had in immersing yourself in the tidal suck of others’ lives.

Remember, always, that to be a writer, you must first be a reader. Return to the well, as often as you can, to replenish yourself. If you’ve hit a wall with your work, go back to that of the masters. Read carefully, analytically, and work out how they did it. If necessary, like a mechanic taking apart an engine, disassemble a book you admire, analyse its parts, its components.

Towards the end, it will be graft that gets you through. Know that you will redraft and rewrite your work thirty, forty, fifty times. You will examine and agonise over every comma, every semi-colon, every adverb. You will have to mine all your reserves of patience and perfectionism. When I am at this stage, I am reminded of practising for my piano exams, as a teenager: all those hours and hours with my fingers on the keys, going over the derangingly familiar phrases, bars, accidentals: tinkering, polishing, perfecting.

When you finish, you’ll know your book inside out and back to front. You will dream its cadences, its images, its conversations. You will look your characters in the eye and ask them, did I get it right, did I come close? You won’t know until a few years down the line, when it gradually becomes clear to you where you hit the mark and where you didn’t. Every book teaches you something, at the same time as filling you with a desire to put this new knowledge into practice, to try again. It’s all part of the process.

Words by Maggie O’Farrell. Maggie's latest book is I am, I am, I am.

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