The single best piece of writing advice

Give something up.

There you go, that’s it. I did write a longer introduction but so many blog posts like this are click bait and here you can see the advice without even having to open a link on twitter. But if you do want more, and to read about the brilliant teacher who gave me this nugget of wisdom, do please read on.

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I haven’t written a lot about writing here, partly due to feeling unqualified and partly due to seeing too many “the x number of things you MUST do to achieve y” blog posts. However, I am a writer and part of the reason for starting a blog was to share and give back some of the amazing support, advice and laughter I’ve found in the romance community

One of the earliest people to exhibit all this was Julie Cohen whom I met in 2002 online at the Harlequin community forums, and then in person at an RNA meeting which went from bar to restaurant and back to a flat and falling asleep during Fifteen Candles and waking up with a book/wine/John Cusack hangover. Which is actually how most of our most of our meetings have gone. She has links on her blog to much of her brilliant writing advice – warning, she is a Post-It pusher and I have learned many things from her, such as; it’s tricky to inflate a Dalek in the middle of Reading shopping centre, fresh coriander can be edible and even nice, internet searches for “nude Canadian hippies” will bring you more blog visitors than you ever imagined (see also sucking big hairy donkey balls – actually no, don’t try and see that.)

Here’s a photograph of her and an amazing opportunity to get a critique from her and a signed copy of her latest book. You also have until Monday to bid on this auction, although I may well have tried to buy it for myself. A great cause and many wonderful members of the writing community offering superb items.

At some point, probably in our first meeting, before she was published, I asked how she had completed and submitted three books to Harlequin in such a short space of time – she worked full time as a teacher then and I couldn’t imagine how she found time to write with so many claims on her time

She simply said, “I gave things up.” Specifically watching tv and spending any amount of time cooking food.

I had already seen the oft repeated advice of “butt in chair, hands on keyboard,” “you can’t edit a blank page,” “write every day,” “Make it a habit,” “if you don’t respect your writing time no one else will,” and so on. I had listened to the idea of “make time to write” and while I am the very opposite of a morning person I had set my alarm early and tried to write for an hour before leaving for work. It took a while for my sleepy brain to kick in and then when it did I was enjoying it so much I almost missed my bus. I tried writing in the evenings but was frequently too tired. I tried lunchtimes, but again, I would get so caught up in my writing that I would be late back to my desk and have to stay after hours and then fail to recapture the mood when I got home.

So many excuses.

Julie was the first person to not talk about “making” time that wasn’t there. She didn’t spell it out for me this baldly – give up something you love – but the matter of fact way she talked about her writing showed that she absolutely knew what she was doing and that she was going to succeed. I don’t know why it took me so long to follow her advice but she was, and is, a shining example of “if you want it, make it happen, it’s in your hands.” If you want time to write and are working full time and have family or other commitments, yes it’s hard – but if you want to be a writer find what you can cut back on to make it happen.

I balked at Julie’s examples back then as cooking each evening after work was my way of unwinding. I also didn’t watch much telly but did read avidly every night. Only this year when I was determined to finish a book I had been working on for far too long did her words truly sink in. I have only recently managed to carve out some precious reading time alongside life with small children but I switched it to writing time and Finished The Damn Book (another of Julie’s maxims.)

Maybe it had to be that I gave up something I really enjoyed? Giving up housework didn’t seem to inspire me the same way (my partner, Dr J, would argue I don’t do enough in the first place to give up, and he has a point.) Julie’s advice coalesced a lot of the other favourite quotes – by giving up what I loved I valued that time even more, I used it ruthlessly, every second, no re-reading or editing, I just wrote and it did indeed become a habit and it became easier and I looked forward to those hours, longed for them, was plotting all day in my head so that as soon as I fired up the laptop I knew exactly what I wanted to write, no long minutes gazing out of the window wondering what to type next (ok, fewer.) Treating my book and my writing with respect made my view of myself better too, and when over the summer I lost that writing time I missed it and plotted and schemed for how to get it back. It had become more than just a habit, it was a necessity. It was mine. It was me.

I have finished the damn book, I now need to edit it and make sure shit has happened – to (badly) paraphrase another of Julie’s nuggets of wisdom. I believe Nora Roberts is usually credited with saying “you can’t edit a blank page.” Julie’s version was “give yourself permission to write crap, a crappy draft can be polished later.” Sadly one radio interviewer cut her off before she could finish her thoughts and she was worried that it sounded as if she was saying it was ok to write a crap book. Anyone who has read her books knows this isn’t true.

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When I gathered my copies of her books together to photograph for this post I realised that as well as not having yet bought her two most recent books, I need to get back my copies of The Summer of Living Dangerously and Dear Thing. I am also on my second copy of Spirit Willing and my third Honey Trap – this is the danger of lending her books to friends; you may not get them back.

Thank you Julie. Even for the coriander.

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