(I am currently on holiday and so I am replaying some posts. This one originally appeared in February 2010.)
So all week I’ve been counting down my personal Top 5 How To Write Books Books, picked from a sea of such titles (also known as the Reference section of Waterstones Patrick Street) and combed for clues. Ultimately, I want a book that tells me exactly how to go from daydreaming about being a published novelist to actually seeing my book on a shelf, but not one that prescribes such silliness as stream-of-consciousness writing exercises at the crack of dawn.
I loathe those, by the way. I don’t see the point, especially since mine would look something like this:
But anyway, I digress. Back to the Top 5. So far this week we’ve had How To Write Books books that were either funny and practical, or reassuring and practical, or comforting and funny. My No. 1 pick is all of those things and more. But before I tell you what it is, we need a radio-DJ style countdown. (I’m assuming you haven’t ruined the surprise by reading this post’s title.)
“At number 5 we had How Not To Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs Should You Ever Want To Get Published…”
“In at number 4, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need…”
“Number 3: The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club…”
“Just missing out on the top spot at Number 2, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. And now, Catherine’s Number 1 How To Write a Book Book-“
[Drum roll, please…]
Wannabe a Writer? by Jane Wenham-Jones!
(Imagine streamers and party poppers and champagne corks and stuff.)
This book is 258 pages of pure and utter joy and if you only buy one How To Write a Book book – or in fact, any book at all – let it be this one. Having read it all in one sitting – well, not counting coffee breaks, of course – I felt comforted, informed and totally motivated to write. Also, my face was streaked with red and puffy as I tend to cry when I laugh, and I had an overwhelming craving for a bag of kettle crisps. Jane is like the Dr. Phil of writing (only a lot more attractive); she tells it like it is.
“I have heard so many authors tell the story… of how they first got into print. Typically, they woke up one morning with this little idea that they might write a novel. So they dashed one off over the course of a few rainy weekends, found an agent on the Monday, were in a frenzied auction with ten top publishers by Tuesday and banked their six-figure cheque on Friday just before they flew off to the States to discuss the screenplay. They seem touchingly bewildered by their own success. But not as bewildered as I am when I have known for a fact that the author… had written three previous novels before the one that made it and had burst into tears at the Writers’ Circle Christmas party when the twenty-seventh agent had written to suggest she stuck to crossword puzzles instead.”
And so Jane vowed as a much-rejected wannabe that when that dreamy day of publication came, she would tell the truth about the long and difficult road that led to it. With chapters on everything from The Benefits of Alcohol to Richard and Judy, Jane paints a realistic but not disheartening picture of the life of a wannabe novelist in a way that, to my knowledge – and remember, I’ve basically done nothing but read these kinds of books for the last ten years – no other book ever has.
Let me put it this way: have you ever read a How To Write a Book book that had both a hangover cure AND tips on how to avoid Writer’s Bottom?
I didn’t think so.
There is also oodles of practical writing advice, including an extensive section on my favourite problem, plotting, as well as things like grammar, layout and punctuation, or as Jane calls them, ‘The Tedious Bits.’ There’s input from best-selling authors, literary agents and major publishing houses and the story of how Jane went about getting herself her agent will make you laugh so much your family/spouse/neighbours will wonder if you’ve been possessed.
Tip: don’t read this book in a library. You’ll be asked not to come back.
Wannabe a Writer? will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about getting your book published, and a lot of stuff you didn’t. The New Writer called it ‘a must-have book’ and the National Association of Writers’ Groups said it was ‘as refreshing as a fizzing Alka-Seltzer after a big night out.’
This is, in summary, my ultimate How To Write a Book book. Aspiring authors, go and buy it now.
(Well, not right now. Read to the end of this post first.)
Jane has published three novels – One Glass is Never Enough, Perfect Alibis and Raising the Roof – and in honour of this, um, honour, I asked her very nicely (with smiley faces) if she would answer a few questions for us. Being lovely as well as hilarious, she kindly agreed – I didn’t even have to resort to my usual tactics of chocolate-related bribery.
What was your motivation for writing Wannabe a Writer?
I’d been doing my Writing Magazine column – a sort of agony aunt affair called ‘Talk it Over’ – for a couple of years and readers seemed to like it (apart from one particular gentlemen who was outraged when I suggested a good stiff drink to help the inspiration along). My thinking went like this: 24 columns at 1000 words each equals – a quarter of a book! (I’m always looking for short cuts!). In the end, of course, only the odd snippet from my columns made it into the final manuscript but it was the vision of all that material I had already that got me started. Also, I find so many of the existing writing books rather bossy. I wanted to say that it doesn’t matter how you do it – personally I would rather eat own leg than make index cards for each character – as long as you do, and mention the things that nobody else has seemed to, like the knotty problem of Writer’s Bottom and the fact that one can become insanely jealous of other writers getting published when one is being horribly rejected oneself. Stuff like that.
In your book you reveal that you didn’t always want to be a writer but instead toyed with several career options including ‘being Business Woman of the Year with a large desk, two telephones and a young male secretary [you] could send out on errands of a personal nature’. Who or what planted the idea of writing a novel in your head?
A writing aunt/tales of six figures sums and deals for screen rights (HA!)/being largely unemployable doing anything else.
Tell us a bit about your writing method. From what I can gather, it involves Post-It notes, a lot of alcohol – Wannabe a Writer? is the only How To book on my list that includes a (very useful) hangover cure – and eating kettle crisps…?
You’ve summed it up beautifully. Plus there’s the considerable amount of weeping and wailing when it’s not going well. I am trying to become more organized as I get older and (supposedly) more experienced. I try to do that planning thing. I dream of a single sheet of paper containing a grand design. In reality I am still surrounded by notes, lists, folders of cuttings that need to be incorporated somewhere…
Those of us who dream of publication believe (whether or not we admit it) that getting published will change our life, fill the hole in our soul, land us on Richard & Judy, etc. How has it changed yours?
Life is more fun; I am more neurotic. Never made Richard and Judy (though did spend an hour on stage with the lovely Richard Madeley, interviewing him for the Guilford Book Festival a couple of years ago) but have done lots of daft TV and radio programmes that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had some books published. I’ve made lots of lovely friends and have the perfect excuse to wear pyjamas all day.
If you had to sum up your advice to aspiring authors in two sentences and we assumed that ‘Buy copies of Wannabe a Writer? for you and all your friends’ was one, what would the other be?
Marry someone rich.
What are you working on now? I heard through the magical interwebs that a sequel is in the works…
Yes – Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of? comes out in October. (Just the small matter of finishing it first….)
Is being awarded the accolade of Catherine’s No. 1 How To Write Books Book the highlight of your entire writing career so far? Please tick as appropriate: (a) Yes, (b) Absolutely or (c) Without a doubt.
All three – am touched, thrilled, delighted and – hey – any excuse to break open the fizz. Thank you!!
Click here to buy Wannabe a Writer? on Amazon.co.uk:
Click here to read a glowing review of Wannabe a Writer? by Trashionista.
Thanks so much Jane for writing Wannabe a Writer? and for taking the time to appear on my blog. You’re a Starbar.
And so concludes my Top 5 How To Write Books Books. (What the bubbles am I supposed to write about next week?!) Click here to read all the posts or click here to shop for all my favourite How To Write Books Books.