Author Charlotte Philby on how to write a novel when you’re really, really freaking busy

I have a life that’s messy and manic – hello three small kids and a Netflix addiction – so let me tell you how I did it and got published too. Can you do it? Yes you can!

The late American author Charles Bukowski famously said about writing, ‘If it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it. Unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your gut, don’t do it. If you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen or hunched over your typewriter searching for words, don’t do it.’ I say bollocks. I also say that Bukowski clearly didn’t have multiple jobs, several children, mounting bills and a demanding Netflix habit to juggle at any one time, alongside his simmering idea for a novel.

Sure, I imagine for some the writing process is an unconscious purging of literary brilliance that falls fully-formed from their fingers. For the rest of us, it’s a slog. Even for practised writers, writing a book is hard as hell. I say that as someone who spent ten years as a daily news journalist whilst raising three children and simultaneously trying and failing and then trying again – and FINALLY succeeding – to get a book deal.

Now working on my third novel, I can attest that it’s worth the pain. Mostly. And it is painful. Here are my top tips for getting your book published – or at least written – when life is messy and busy and there is every reason not to write.

1. Get the words down

There is only one way to write a book and that is to write the thing. I get a surprising number of messages from would-be authors asking how they, like me, can get their books published, when they haven’t actually written them yet. There is only one answer (though it can sound impolite so I try to cushion it with niceties) and it is this: write the bloody book. There is no trick or clever shortcut. I started writing The Most Difficult Thing when my third baby was around a year old and my other children were three and five, respectively. Initially, I was working freelance from home and so the book was written in snatched moments in the evenings or when the baby napped, or when I should have been working or sleeping. By the time I finished it, just over a year later, I was working full-time in an office and editing my copy on the commute to and from work. For me, the book provided an escape from the drudgery and total chaos of balancing domestic and office life. It’s different for everyone but ultimately, there is always a reason why not to write. If you really want to do it, you just have to sit down and get the words out, and then edit the hell out of them. And then edit them some more.

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2. Write when you can

For me, at least, there is no such thing as the perfect time to write. I know some people swear by such as practises as the golden hour (writing first thing, before doing anything else) but for many of us apportioning a specific time to writing, before you have a book deal, is impractical. I say write where and when you can, as much or little as you can, and don’t fret about getting the words perfect in the initial draft. I have written some of my best work on a scrap of paper on the bus while my baby sleeps. And I have written some absolute nonsense whilst seated comfortably at my desk.

3. Carry a notebook

RE the above: you never know when inspiration will strike – and chances are it will be when you’re in the middle of a Very Important Meeting or, possibly, legs akimbo at the gynaecologist. If you think of something worth noting, write it down as soon as you can. I’m still reeling from times when I’ve thought of a plot twist or particular expression and told myself ‘Oh I’ll definitely remember that’ and then promptly forgotten.

4. Get a good editor

And then understand and respect their power. Once you have a book deal, you will be assigned an editor through your publisher. Until then, it’s worth, if you can, finding a good freelance editor whom you trust to read your work before you submit it to agents. There are lots of writing communities online – and in real life – where you will find suggestions for good editors, as well as a much-needed community. When I was on my first maternity leave I did a weekly creative writing course at the local college, and from there joined a local writers’ group for a year or so. Then, years later, when time was more scarce, I did an online Start Your Novel course through one of the literary agencies, Curtis Brown, which cost £200. From there, I made good contacts and connected with a group of writers all at a similar stage in the process.

You should be able to find a good editor for around £500. It is worth every penny if you can possibly manage it. More importantly: listen to what they say. It’s painful having someone tear your work apart, but more often than not, an experienced editor who understands the genre you’re writing in will be worth their weight in gold, but only if you heed their advice (unless you have good reason not to).

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 5. Be brutal with yourself

It’s a continuation from my previous point but it’s one worth reiterating: it doesn’t matter if you’re emotionally wedded to a character, a particular sentence or a plot point. If it’s not working, get rid of it. I tend to trim mercilessly and then paste the edited material into a separate document in case I can repurpose it – and I often do.

6. Approach the right agents

Once you have a manuscript you are reasonably happy with, research agents who specialise in your genre and send your work to them (usually the full manuscript or a three-chapter sample, depending on their submissions policy) along with a thoughtful cover letter. Check out some of the authors they already work with and think about why they might be interested in your work. The agent/client arrangement is above anything else a relationship and you have to make sure you connect with your agent, and vice versa as they will be your greatest advocate/mentor, possibly for your whole writing career.

7. Expect an anti-climax

At every stage of the process, I’ve thought the next milestone – be it finishing the manuscript, submitting to agents, finding a publisher – would be the point when I’d finally feel wholly content and never want for anything again. Turns out I am fickle, and – like most writers – emotionally fragile, as hell. From conversations, it emerges I’m not the only one who constantly shifts the goal-posts for what will satisfy the constant sense of inadequacy. (This leads me to another point: MAKE FRIENDS WITH OTHER WRITERS AND SHARE WITH THEM YOUR WOES ! WE’RE ALL EMOTIONAL WRECKS WITH TERRIBLE AND DELICATE EGOES.) Now that I’m published I worry about a plethora of potential pitfalls from whether I will ever get another deal once this once has passed to the reviews (*shudder*). The trick, trite as it sounds, is to try to try to enjoy the process. Or at least some of it. Much of it isn’t enjoyable at all.

8. Nothing is wasted

My agent told me this when I was in the process of slashing and rewriting 20,000 words that suddenly no longer worked for my first book. I didn’t believe her. Now I’m awaiting publication of my second novel, which is a significant reworking of a manuscript I wrote and had rejected by agents eight years ago, and I know she was right. That’s the problem with finding the right agent: they’re always bloody right.

The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby (Borough Press) is out now. Her second novel, A Double Life, will be published in July 2020. 

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