A couple of years ago I was one of those twenty-somethings who’d spent my teens and early twenties staring at a lot of blank pages. I started novels and then gave up on them after a couple of pages. I wrote bad short stories about girls who dyed their hair a lot and befriended unicorns.
I’d written more bad fiction than good fiction. And I was convinced that I would never become a “proper” writer. A friend of mine had even confirmed my own doomed thoughts. He’d asked me if I wrote every day. I didn’t. So clearly I wasn’t one of those “real” writers.
A couple of years after that conversation I stumbled across a thing called Urban Writers Retreats, a haven for frustrated writers run by Charlie (who used to work at a chocolate factory, but might just be the Florence Nightingale of writing). Over the coming years I booked in for a couple of retreat days at an office space in Shoreditch and at a lovely farm in Devon. There was no internet and lots of cake. It was the perfect environment for a struggling and frustrated creative. During those days I started writing my first novel, the first fiction book I’ve ever finished.
Back then I didn’t let the fact that I knew very little about plotting stop me. It was only after several attempts at actually making something of the story and a rejection letter from a publisher that I realised why most writers keep their first attempt at fiction in the drawer.
Enter Charlie’s and amazing editor Amie’s Six Month Novel Course. Last year I was lucky enough to be part of a group of guinea pigs. We were guided through the novel writing process by Amie and Charlie. Over those six months I learned how to plot, how conjure up believable characters and how it feels to have a regular writing schedule. I developed and wrote my second novel, in English! With Amie, Charlie and the other course-mates holding my hand throughout the process it didn’t even feel that difficult.
Charlie and Amie have now started the application process for their third Six Month Novel Course. I’ve invited them to talk a bit more about the course and what it’s like to start out as a writer.
Why did you decide to start the program?
Amie: The Six Month Novel programme was Charlie’s brainchild. She always had it sitting in the back of her mind as the next big idea. I went to her first residential retreat in Devon (highly recommended by the way because she stuffs you with cake and tea and good food while you focus on writing and relaxing) and when we were chatting in the kitchen one day I said it would be so cool to have a programme where people could finish their novels with motivation and structure and a little bit of prodding. Charlie started beaming and brought me in on her plans. About a year later I contacted her again and we started the rigorous planning involved.
Why do you think writers often need some extra help along the way?
Amie: Writers are artists. And anyone with a creative streak tends to also have a bit of a rebellious streak. That and a lack of self-confidence in their artwork. That rebellious streak is the one we want to grow and nurture to tamper down the unsureness monster.
There are so many reasons a writer won’t do what they want to do: it feels indulgent, it never turns out well in the end, it’s a lot of work, and so on. We are there to make sure you listen to those feelings, accept them, and move on from them. Our job is to keep you motivated and sometimes give you a little bit of a kick to get out of a rut.
What are the things the writers in your course are struggling with the most, what can be done to solve that or those problems?
Charlie: When it comes to writerly struggles, there is the abstract and the physical. A lot of writers say they don’t have the time. If they’re being honest though, that’s not true and prioritization will fix that problem. Practical issues are excuses people use to justify the fact that they aren’t doing something they know they want to do and feel they should be doing.
Writers actually get stuck for abstract reasons. The problem is the stuff that’s in our heads. A lot of writers either believe they aren’t good enough or are daunted by the immense size of the task ahead. Some of our favourite tricks for that are to put yourself in the right mood for writing and gradually develop a routine so it becomes a habit to write even just a little, to set yourself up with some kind of support from family or a writing critique group (or even something like the Six Month Novel) so that you have other people expecting you to write, or to break the whole down into smaller chunks—if you have a to-do list of teeny tiny steps it doesn’t seem quite so intimidating.
What would you say the publishing climate is like today for up-and-coming writers?
Amie: Publishing is one of those industries that will both never change and never be the same. While it looks like it’s so much easier to publish today with self-publishing and e-readers, it’s difficult to be seen among the crowd. Yet there is so much opportunity out there because the choices are broadening.
There are plenty of articles out there on everything you need to know about how to get published, and the different ways of getting your book on shelves, so get to googling! If you think your story deserves to be heard, then fight for it. But one word of caution: don’t ever pay a “publishing house” to do the work for you. You can pay freelancers to edit and create a cover and format your book, but if you are paying a “publishing house” to do all that work, especially if they start asking you to buy copies, run.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write novels, but doesn’t know where to start?
Charlie: Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read newspapers, online articles, short stories, blogs, books… everything. The more you learn how story works, the more you will be able to craft a story.
Then start small. Try a short story first. Write as much as you can in more manageable bites that will allow you to find your voice and style without being stuck in the mire of a gigantic novel. And then? Go for it! Sit down and write. Pick a routine that works for you, whether that’s a block of time each week or 500 words a day and write!
Finally, don’t get discouraged. There will be times when everything feels hopeless and your writing is rubbish and it’s a huge job and you can’t face it. The only way forward is to just keep writing. Before you know it those 500 words a day will be a 60,000 word first draft (in just six months, actually). Accept that first drafts, and sometimes even sixth drafts, aren’t going to be perfect. Writing is a craft, just like painting, and you have to keep practising and refining.
Thanks to Charlie and Amie for the interview! Make sure you check out the Six Month Novel Program if it sounds like something you might be interested in! You can apply until the 17th of May.