Burn Your Notebooks

In order to write well, you first have to write badly. You have to learn your craft. It’s like learning to drive a car – you can’t compete in the Monte Carlo grand prix the first time you sit behind a wheel; you have to make all the embarrassing mistakes, the awkward stalls and occasional prangs – and the same’s true for writing.

During the three years I spent at university, I kept a series of hardbacked, cloth-bound notebooks, which I filled with scraps of fiction, poetry and diary entries. The A4 pages had train tickets, flyers, articles and photographs stuck and stapled to them. I wrote in them every day (this was in the early Nineties, before blogs and social media), and I must have written upwards of 250 poems in them. For three years, those books were the most precious things I owned. They held all my thoughts and drafts. I even included photocopies of them as an appendix in my dissertation.

But after university, the books felt like a dead weight around my neck. They contained too much angst, and too many bad poems. Writing in them felt like a duty instead of a pleasure. If I wanted to move forward as a writer, I knew I’d have to unburden myself of them.

And so I burned them.

You have to write a lot of crap before you start to get good. You have to get a lot of rubbish out of your system.

And burn it.

What if I never write anything again?

Yesterday, I wrote about finishing a novel and wondering what to write next. The part I missed out was the worst part of all: wondering if you can write anything else. Indeed, wondering if you will be able write anything at all, ever again.

You see, after you’ve battered your brains against the keyboard for six months to produce a coherent (I hope) eighty- thousand word story, and you’ve somehow made it work, it’s tough to go back to the beginning and start all over again.

‘Do I have enough left in the tank for another book?’ you ask yourself in the dead of night. What if I never come up with another decent idea? What if I’ve used up all my creativity? What if when the book I’ve just written comes out, everybody hates it so much I never get asked to write another? What if I never write another word?

Self-doubt and insecurity are the bane of a creative life. You are only as good as your last book. Every time a new one comes out with your name on the cover, people will use it to judge you and your worth as a writer. And frankly, that can be terrifying – especially if a fundamental part of your self-identity is tied around writing books.

There’s only way way to get past it. Only one cure for THE FEAR.

You have to write.

You have to get back on the horse and throw yourself into another project as soon as possible. Take a little time to recharge the mental batteries, sure. Just don’t prevaricate too long, or THE FEAR will start to take hold.

After four novels, I’ve come to accept that the first 20,000 words of each book will be tough going. It takes a while to ease into the story and for it to take on a momentum of its own. I’ve come to expect that difficulty and not let it intimidate me.

THE FEAR is a cunning bastard, and adopts many guises.

I will not give in to THE FEAR.

Because, to paraphrase something a wise man once said, I came here to write books and chew gum.

And I’m all out of gum.

Click here to find out more about THE FEAR and how you can overcome it.

Armed With Pens Interview

The Armed With Pens website features a new interview with me, where I talk (at some length) about my writing, what attracted me to the genre, and the attributes I think a good writer needs.

“Talent, style and imagination are all important attributes, but if you never finish your book, no-one will ever read it.”

You can read the whole think here: www.armedwithpens.com/interview-gareth-l-powell-on-writing/

All First Drafts Suck

I have a friend I want to tell you about, because the chances are you might know someone just like him. You might even be someone just like him.

Now, I don’t want to embarrass my friend on the Internet, so for the purposes of this post, let’s call him Bill. I see Bill maybe once a month at various literary events, and sometimes in the pub. Bill wants to be a novelist. He really, really wants to be one. And not just any novelist. No, Bill has convinced himself that he’s going to write one of the great science fiction books of our time. After all, he spends all his time reading and criticising other books. He’s seen just about every science fiction film made in the past thirty years, and he has an opinion on just about any genre-related subject you care to mention.

However, Bill never writes anything. Oh, he talks a good game. He’s half-convinced everyone he knows that he’s a serious author. He can tell you all about the book he’s going to write. Like the character of Katin in Samuel Delany’s novel Nova, he can rattle off half a dozen literary theories without pausing to draw breath, and without ever commiting anything to paper. He never writes anything down for anyone else to read. Bill’s convinced he has it in him to be a world-class novelist, but he’s pushing fifty, working in a job he hates, and taking no active steps to achieve his dream.


Because Bill’s expectations are too high. He’s set his sights on writing a perfect novel without putting in the groundwork. He has so much of his self-image tied up in this idea of himself as a frustrated writer, a great talent waiting to be discovered, that if he ever actually finishes writing anything, and it isn’t the shining masterpiece he sees himself as capable of producing, he’ll be crushed.

So instead of writing, he makes excuses. He says he needs to find a physicist to check whether the physics of his idea are feasible; he says he needs to locate some obscure out-of-print book on sixteenth century witchcraft; and he says he can’t possibly work unless he’s alone with his muse for a month in a cottage on the edge of Dartmoor. These excuses are his security blanket. They are obstacles he puts in his own way, to avoid having to confront the fact that writing novels is hard, time-consuming work, and the only way to do it is to sit down and start typing. Better to feel that he could produce a brilliant book if only he could afford to take a month of work, than to just get on with it and be disappointed by the results. Better to cling to the comforting notion that he’s an unrecognised genius than risk disappointing himself by failing to live up to all his talk.

Earlier, I used the phrase “without committing anything to paper”, and that’s the key: commitment. I like Bill as a person, and I think the ideas he has are wonderful, and I wish he would write them instead of talking about them. But he never does. Like the overweight middle-aged guy who still dreams of being a professional footballer but never trains or tries out for a local team, Bill lacks the commitment to put in the hard work needed to achieve his goal.

If you want to write, you have to accept that the first draft you write will look pretty ragged. It will not be perfect. But the important thing is to get it written. That’s the hard part. Once you actually have it all written down, it becomes real. It exists, and you can then take steps to polish and improve it. Expecting every word that flows from your fingers to be perfect first time is unrealistic and self-defeating, as you tend to get hung up endlessly trying to write the perfect first line, rather than ploughing ahead and telling the story.

I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who’ve told me that the first line, and sometimes even the whole first chapter, gets rewritten once the rest of the book is finished. So why waste your time trying to make it perfect, when the end of your book might suggest a different way for the story to open?

A couple of years ago, I wrote the following in reply to a question on this site, and I think the words are just as applicable to Bill (and all the other Bills out there). I wrote:

“I will give you the best piece of advice I was ever given: just write the fucking thing. Getting the words down on paper is the hard part. And it doesn’t matter if your first draft sucks. All first drafts suck. The important part is that you write the story. Then, when you’ve finished it, you can go back and edit it, polish up the text to make it shine. Editing is easier than writing. So, if you have a story to tell, just write it down without worrying how it sounds. You will not hit perfection first time. But you will get a completed first draft that you can then work on, to bring it up to professional quality. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to edit as they go along – of trying to make each sentence perfect before moving on to the next – and that is deadly. Just write. Tidy up later. Go for it”


Step Away From The Keyboard

Sometimes, you just have to take a step back.

When you’re working on a story or novel, the plot can overwhelm you. You have this grand vision, but you have no idea what to write next. Your characters won’t come alive on the page, and everything you try to write feels flat and lifeless. You lack inspiration. You feel frustrated. You have writer’s block.

How do you get past it?

Step away from the keyboard. It’s no use sitting there trying to force the issue. Give your hindbrain permission to work on the problem, and then go and do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. Go swimming. Watch a trashy movie. Distract your attention away from the project you’re working on, and let your unconsciousness stew over it.

Sometimes, that’s all we need: a distraction.

I’m in the early stages of a novel, and earlier this evening I found myself stuck. I wasn’t sure where the next chapter would go, or which character it would follow. After an hour or so of sitting at the keyboard getting nowhere, I took myself off into the living room and watched I, Robot on E4. No, it’s not the best movie ever made; but what it did was distract my conscious mind from fruitlessly worrying at the problem. I had a notebook with me, and as I watched the film, ideas kept popping into my head. I had stepped out of my own way. With my attention on the big screen, my imagination had the freedom to run riot — and by the time the film finished, I found I’d written outlines for the next five chapters.

So, next time you’re stuck with a story that just won’t gel, take a bath; go for a walk; or take a long drive in the country. Swim a few lengths of your local pool. Do something that relaxes you. Take your mind off your troubles, and the solution to your story may just pop into your head.

3 Ways to Breathe Life Into Your Fiction

New writers are often given the following piece of advice: “Write what you know”. In other words, concentrate on the things you’ve observed and the things you understand about the world around you. If you’re a former journalist wanting to write a mystery, make your main character a journalist; if you’re a coal miner, write about the dangers and camaraderie of life down the pit.

Such first-hand experience can add verisimilitude to your fiction; but what happens if you’re trying to write genre fiction? What if you’re trying to write about a future society so far removed in time that they barely remember the present day? What if you’re trying to write about a supernatural horror preying on a group of cave divers, or a lone warrior on a quest across a mythic fantasy kingdom? In science fiction, fantasy and horror, characters are routinely put in situations in which it would be impossible for the writer to gain any direct experience. How then can you convincingly fill in these scenes using only your imagination?

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3 Ways Of Finding More Time To Write

One of the questions people often ask me is: “Where do you find the time to write?” When they ask this, I often think that what they really mean is: “Why can’t I find enough time to write?”

From personal experience, I know how difficult it can be to find the time and energy to be creative, especially if you have a full time day job, a mortgage to pay, and a family to look after, and I won’t pretend I have all the answers. But there are strategies you can use to increase the time you have available for writing. The three strategies listed below have worked for me, or for other writers I know personally:

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