13 August 2021
The author of No Such Thing as Perfect describes how she overcame her fear of writing a novel
For a long time, I was a writer who didn’t write.
Well, that’s not strictly true. I did write a bit, in as much as sitting in front of a nearly-blank screen for hours at a time counts as writing. Most of my weekends were spent like that. I had ideas I was excited about, but I found it impossible to just get something down and move on to the next bit, rather than spending months picking away at the same chunk of text – my computer was full of abandoned first chapters. In nearly 10 years of trying, all I managed to actually finish was one (very) short story.
As anyone who’s ever been in that situation will know, it was pretty miserable. And the misery was compounded by the embarrassing fact that, from Monday to Friday, I wrote for a living. I was – and still am – a journalist. At work, the words came more or less on command, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of them a day. But at home, it was a very different story.
I knew why I found it so difficult. I’d never been especially confident about my writing, and worried in every area of my life about the consequences of making mis-steps. Then, in my early twenties, someone in a writing group who I’d thought of as a mentor had repeatedly suggested that I was no good, to the point where whenever I read back something I’d written all I could hear was their voice in my head telling me I wasn’t as funny as I thought I was. But I just couldn’t seem to talk myself out of it.
As the years went on, I thought more and more about the gulf between what I could do at home and what I could do at work, and what it might take to actually shrink it enough to finish something. Even though I found writing features and news stories stressful and worried endlessly about whether what I was producing was good enough, I got on with it because I didn’t have a choice – if I missed my deadlines I would lose my job, and my income. What I needed, I realised, was something to force my hand in the same way with fiction. But when you’re an unagented and uncontracted writer dependent on your own brain for discipline, that’s easier said than done.
Around the same time I stumbled across a Twitter thread posted by the writer Kate Dylan. Every day, she explained, she made herself write 200 words, tracked in a spreadsheet. That didn’t sound like a lot, but in six years it had worked out as three full novels, plus one abandoned one and one work in progress, as well as many rounds of edits, revisions, pitches and so on. 'They’re achievable even on my *very worst day*,' she wrote. 'As a writer your brain is going to spend all its time conspiring to make you feel inferior; don't give it another way to do that by setting yourself up for failure.'
Something about the way she phrased it rang true for me. I’d been mulling over an idea for a novel that I thought might actually have legs, and the idea of it never becoming more than a sketchy first chapter was painful. I did the sums, and worked out that 200 words a day for 365 days was nearly 80,000 words; a first draft, basically. I decided to give Kate’s method a go.
I added some rules of my own. I wasn’t allowed to delete anything I’d written, or leave gaps. I could go over 200 words if I wanted to, but that wouldn’t make a difference to the next day’s total – I still had to do my 200. And I couldn’t stop until I’d finished – gulp – a novel.
I downloaded a spreadsheet (it’s number three here) and started on January 1, 2019. I’ll never know if it was that, the story I was working with or a combination of both, but the effects were almost instantly miraculous. It cured me of my two worst habits as a fiction writer: fear of getting it wrong and endless fiddling.
I wrote first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I wrote on my phone on the bus to work, and in the bathroom on dates. I wrote on benches and in parks and on the train home from my oldest friend’s wedding in Edinburgh with a terrible hangover. I wrote when I had lots to write, and forced myself to get something – anything – down even when I didn’t. It was working. I was writing a book. And whenever I started to doubt that, the spreadsheet with its numbers ticking steadily up forced me to believe it.
It changed my life. By the end of February I had 15,000 words – enough to enter a competition for novels in progress. To my amazement, I was longlisted for it, and then shortlisted. By the time the prize-giving ceremony came around I had written 50,000 words, which turned out to be enough to get an agent. And by November, I had finished my first draft of No Such Thing As Perfect.
This definitely isn’t a 'no excuses, anyone can write fast' story. I’m freelance with no children, the novel didn’t take much research, and I wasn't in the middle of any major life events. And although I made an identical tracking spreadsheet when I started writing my second novel last year, I quickly realised that lightning never strikes twice in exactly the same place – especially during a pandemic. I ended up binning nearly 200,000 words over the course of nine months, before having to lock myself indoors and write furiously to hit my publisher’s deadline. But I think it was the spreadsheet method that made it possible for me to hunker down for a fortnight bashing out 3,000 words a day, something that would have been as inconceivable as going to the moon a few years ago – I knew they weren’t 'there' yet and would need a lot of work, but also that finishing the draft mattered more than any of that.
No Such Thing As Perfect is out now. Its heroine, Laura, is baffled by love – she can’t understand how it comes so easily to other people, and why she can’t seem to get out of the starting blocks even though she desperately wants to. Over the course of the book her view of love shifts: she goes from seeing it as a fraught, once-in-a-blue-moon thing to something less pressured, more everyday and practical. I think the spreadsheet did something similar for me. I still pick endlessly at my sentences and leave blanks, and the thought of anyone actually reading my first drafts still makes me feel physically ill with anxiety. But the fear of writing doesn’t paralyse me in the way it used to. I’m a writer who writes – and I hope I always will be now.
Emma Hughes is a London-based journalist and novelist. No Such Thing As Perfect is published by Century. You can find her on Twitter here
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