7 things I wish I’d known before writing my first novel – Maria Realf

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By Maria Realf

With her debut novel, The One, published by HarperImpulse this month, Maria Realf shares the seven things she wishes she’d known before writing her first novel. ♥

1. It’s harder than it looks

Like many of us, I’d picked up my fair share of books and thought, ‘I reckon I could do that.’ When I finally decided to give it a go – having spent more than a decade working for popular magazines – I secretly assumed that writing a novel would be straightforward (rather like writing a really, really long feature). Boy, was I wrong…

Finishing a book – by which I mean getting to ‘The End’, let alone getting it published – is as much about stamina, discipline and sheer determination as it is about creativity. I hadn’t fully appreciated the fact that writing a novel would be like trying to do nine dissertations, or factored in the writer’s block and self-doubt that was sent to challenge me. There was blood, sweat, tears, panic, caffeine, more sweat and copious amounts of cake.

However, I could also never have comprehended just how much I would fall in love with creative writing: truly, deeply, obsessively. A week without it began to feel as unthinkable as a week without showering, or brushing my teeth.

Even when I couldn’t commit to a full-length session, I’d find myself snatching stolen moments here and there: on the train, at a coffee shop, before bed. It was like having an affair with my laptop.

And that, for me, was the biggest surprise of all: it’s hard to write your novel, but once you get into it – really into it – it’s even harder not to.

2. Don’t write for the market – write for yourself

It’s tempting to write for the genre of the moment, convinced that will make your book more attractive to publishers. I nearly fell into that trap with my first effort, attempting to pen a twisty crime thriller in the wake of hits such as Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep. Unfortunately, about 20,000 words in, I ran out of steam and eventually had to make the difficult decision to start afresh. This time around, I set out to write the kind of romantic, emotional story that I love to read on holiday. The result is my debut novel The One, which sees a bride’s world turned upside down when the one that got away returns with a bombshell…

3. What comes out can be just as important as what goes in

Sometimes you can absolutely love a character/idea/chapter, but for some strange reason it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. Don’t be afraid to ditch things that aren’t working. I had to lose a couple of scenes I liked from my novel, which at the time really pained me – but in the end I love the book more without them, because the pacing is tighter.

When it comes to creative writing, nothing is ever completely wasted. Perhaps that character will work better in a future story, or you could include that extra chapter as ‘bonus’ material when you finally land that sweet book deal. Maybe you’ll never use it again and it’s just been good writing practice. Who knows? Think of your book like a wardrobe. Sometimes you’ve got to clear out the crap to make room for all the shiny new stuff.

4. Writing is not always a solitary sport

While ultimately the putting-words-on-the-page part is down to you, it helps to surround yourself by people whose opinion you trust. When I decided I wanted to pen a book, I applied for the novel-writing course at Curtis Brown Creative, and it was incredibly valuable to get constructive feedback from other aspiring novelists (even though my crime idea eventually got canned!). After the course finished, a group of us continued to meet up regularly for feedback/wine/moral support, and at least four of those now have new books coming out this year.

5. The wait for replies is excruciating

Waiting to hear what a prospective agent or publisher thinks of your submission brings with it a special nail-biting, phone-checking, sleep-disturbing agony all of its own. You’ve poured your heart and soul out on to the page, and now there’s nothing left to do but sit tight and see what someone else makes of it. The sensible part of your brain knows deep down that a) these people are incredibly busy and b) it takes time to read a book, but after about two hours the less rational side takes over, and persuades you that if your book was any good they’d be sending over a contract right now.

I hated every stage of the waiting game, with one exception: while my book went to auction in Germany, I went away with a friend on a short holiday, and spent my time attempting to navigate the Italian rail network rather than trying to check my emails. Distraction, it seems, is the key – so whether you book a break, redecorate your bedroom or simply start on the next novel, find something to keep your mind occupied before it begins to cause mischief.

6. Be prepared to write, rewrite and write some more

No matter how polished you think that manuscript is (and I read mine through at least five times!), be prepared to edit and edit again. Even when you think you’re finally finished, everyone from your agent to your publisher will have their own ideas as to how you can make your novel the best it can be (though never be afraid to make your case if you strongly disagree with something). Each new draft may only bring tiny increments in improvement, but it’s these small details that can make the difference between chart-topping or flopping.

7. Enjoy every second

Yes, writing a book is tough, and there are times when you’ll want to hurl your laptop out of the window. But you’ve also got free rein to let your imagination run wild, to create whole new worlds and characters, and to tell your story in your own words. That’s worth getting excited about. Even on those days when you can only summon a couple of paragraphs, remember that you’re still moving a step closer to your goal. Sentences will become pages, then chapters, then a first draft – and that’s how bestsellers are born…

Since graduating with a degree in multi-media journalism, Maria Realf has worked on a staff or freelance basis for many of the UK’s best-known magazines, including The Mail on Sunday’s YOU Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Cosmopolitan Bride, Fabulous, Marie Claire, Now and You & Your Wedding.


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