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How to write a novel alongside your day-job

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It can be done, as author and journalist TR Richmond explains…

If I had a pound for every time someone said to me they wanted to write a novel, I’d be as rich as JK Rowling.

So many of us harbour the ambition, but we’re all busy and writing a book is hugely time-consuming. The challenge is particularly acute if you’re in full-time employment. There’s barely enough time to see your family and friends (hell, there’s often barely enough time to put the bins out), so how can you find the time and headspace to write 100,000 words?

The good news is that it is possible, as long as you observe a few basic ground rules.

1. Start

There’s no time like the present, so why not start it today? Literally, today. Like, right now (OK, as soon as you’ve read this article, obviously). Don’t put it off in the hope that inspiration will strike. Begin, and sooner or later inspiration will come. Every minute you procrastinate is one less minute you’re writing.

2. Avoid distractions

Your time is precious so, when you are working on your book, give it your undivided attention. No phone calls, no texts, no watching TV out of the corner of your eye. Turn Twitter off. Shut Facebook down. Pull the plug on the whole damn internet, in fact.

3. Set targets

It’s common sense to give yourself goals and make lists. It also makes the task less intimidating if you break it down into more manageable chunks. Can you get a draft of the first chapter done by the end of the month? The first three by the end of next month? You could be halfway through it by Christmas and have a full draft by next summer. You’ll be glugging wine at some literary shindig in The Garrick by Christmas 2017.

4. Routine

Some successful authors with day-jobs allocate one day every weekend to writing; others lock themselves away for a few unbroken weeks every year. I like the “little and often” approach so get up at 5am and work on my fiction for two hours before I go to work (admittedly, I’m usually sparko in front of the telly by 9pm). Decide what works for you then stick to it.

5. Mum’s the word

Some people tell everyone at work about their endeavours (“yes, yes, I’m making fantastic progress with the great English novel, I’ve got almost 400 words written and I’ve only been working on it for 10 years). Better to badger away and stay schtum. You can share the good news when it actually happens.

6. Listen to feedback

Whether it’s from a select few colleagues whose opinions you trust or anyone else, take constructive criticism on board. One caveat to this: If you’re writing any particularly disgusting or deviant sex scenes, maybe don’t show those to your colleagues…

7. Create a suitable place to work

In an office, your employer will give you a comfortable desk and chair in a temperature-controlled room, with good lighting and acceptable noise levels. Fact is, people are more productive in ergonomically friendly environments. So don’t go home and try to pen your book sat on a wooden crate with a notepad balanced on your knee in semi-darkness in a freezing/baking room.

8. Use your business skills

Forget the stereotypical image of writers as grumpy, unpleasant misanthropes who ignore emails and don’t return phone calls. Publishers and agents like professional people. You’ll be far more appealing to publishers and agents if you appreciate the business realities of the book trade, than if you believe it’s run like a communist collective for wholly philanthropic and aesthetic purposes.

9. Stay positive

Remember why you’re doing this. It’s because the act of writing is fun (and, of course, because you want Steven Spielberg to buy the film rights so you can get a holiday home in The Bahamas). Look forward to the time you spend on your book. Celebrate your milestones. Enjoy the ride.

What She Left by TR Richmond, a suspense novel described by The Guardian as “an extraordinary and bold creation” and The Sunday Times as “strikingly modern”, is published by Penguin on 23 April.

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