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Why I began writing – the origin story

I always wanted to be a writer.

Books were my refuge when I was small. Authors like Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, and Jill Murphy were my heroes. My writing tastes diversified as I grew, diving into Malorie Blackman, Louise Rennison, and Jane Austen. I read widely and unstoppably. And I wanted to be the one to create worlds for other people to escape into.

When I was about twelve, I bought an old typewriter at a car-boot sale. It got stuck every time I tried to use the Q and every letter had to be punched out, but I began writing a story about fairies. One fairy had lovely long hair that all the other fairies were super jealous of. I was enjoying myself, while maddening my family with my metallic thumping of words onto the page, but then I made a mistake.

Typing out a story word-for-word a second time wasn’t quite as fun, especially when I made another mistake halfway through. I don’t think I’d even spent an afternoon using the typewriter before I was in tears. It was packed away on top of my wardrobe. I’d thought writing was going to be a fun experience. It was until I hit that little stumbling block. I do wonder sometimes how many more books I would have written by now if I hadn’t been daunted by that first mistake.

I tried writing MANY more times. I’d live in the stories in my head and sometimes the urge to write them down became too overwhelming and I’d grab my laptop and try. I very rarely got past the first page. I’d sit back after an hour to read my efforts and became overwhelmed by how awful it all was. It was only a faint echo of the glory in my head and that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t keep any of my writing. I was so disgusted that it didn’t match up with what I’d imagined that I destroyed all evidence of every attempt.

This was a frustrating time. I knew what I wanted to do but had no idea how to do it. I went to university and studied English Literature, so I learnt about how loads of other people wrote. If anything, I was more intimidated than before. There were creative writing classes available but I didn’t take any of them. I was too scared of writing something and then letting other people read it.

I became resigned. Writing was something I wanted to do but I assumed it was something I’d figure out one day in the future. I got a job at a library and surrounded myself with other people’s stories. I tried not to dwell too much on that fact that I’d never be an author if I carried on like this.

Then my father-in-law died suddenly. He was 56 years old. He went into hospital in the morning and had passed away by the afternoon. John was a wonderful man, and the days and weeks after he died were horrendous.

His death taught me something. Quite childishly, I’d assumed that writing was something I would do when I was older and that I’d have as much time as I wanted to do it. John’s death reminded me that you cannot count on having years in the bank to do that thing you want to do some day. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it now.

It took several months, but I wanted to try writing again. I felt much clearer about what I’d done wrong the other times I tried to write a book. I ditched the computer and bought some notebooks from Paperchase. I knew I would never throw one of them away (sacrilege!) and they were small enough that I didn’t need to look at anything I’d written, at least not right away. I could turn the page and pretend to myself that everything I’d written was perfect. That’s the illusion I needed to create to be able to write.

I was still a bit stuck. I’d wanted to write for years so I had too many ideas bumping into each other inside my head. I couldn’t decide which one was the BEST, which one was the RIGHT one to work on.

I was reading a lot online at this point about writing, scouring author websites for any advice that would get me started, when I stumbled across Joanne Harris’s website. Two sentences stuck out in her advice for prospective writers:

“Write what you want to write. Don’t write what you think you ought to write (or what other people think you should write).”

Those two little sentences broke something down inside of me. There was no BEST idea, there was no RIGHT idea, there was only the one I WANTED to write.

So I started. 17th January 2014, I wrote the first words of a story that would take me exactly six months to write. This was the story of my heart and, although it is shelved now, it taught me that I can write a book if I want to, I can edit a crappy first draft into something passable, and I can endure a lot of rejection and still come through wanting to chase my dream of being a published author.

If you are a bit like me, you so want to write but are struggling to start, here are some tips:

  1. Identify what isn’t working for you – I had to write that first novel in notebooks because I couldn’t bear to look back at what I had written. You might not have the same problem. Maybe pen and paper is too slow for you. Maybe you need to write in a different room, with music or in silence, in prose or poetry. Try something different and stick with what works.
  2. Let yourself write what you want to – free yourself from an idealised view of the book you want to see on shelves and just write what’s fun. There will come points when writing is a bit more of a slog, but writing down an idea you love should be a very freeing experience. Write what you want and you’ll find yourself falling in love with it over and over again.
  3. Don’t read back – this is my general advice for all first drafts but especially the very first one. I took immense comfort in the knowledge that no writer pens a perfect first draft, but it doesn’t make writing my crappy ones any less painful. If you can, just keep writing through to the end. Then leave it alone for a while. When you come back to it, the reading honestly won’t be so painful.
  4. Try, try, try, and keep trying – that’s all I do. That’s all any writer is ever doing. There is not a point in time when you KNOW how to write. It’s all a muddle. We’re all finding our way. Those who end up in libraries and on bookshelves are those who caught the writing bug and didn’t stop trying.

You could start today. Grab a pretty notebook, sit back in a comfy chair, and write whatever is in your heart.

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