It’s hard to believe that Helen Whitaker wrote her first novel, The School Run on maternity leave (how?) and finished it whilst juggling a full-time job and a toddler (how?). We’re in awe. Obviously I’m thrilled she did it (she’s a fiercely funny writer) and delighted to have here on W&W. Here are Helen’s tips on how to write your first book (short answer: there are no shortcuts, you just have to write) plus the books which have shaped her as a woman and a writer.
Helen’s debut The School Run is a witty, clever take on the intrigue, stress and drama which surrounds that most coveted of prizes: a place at an outstanding (free) primary school. It’s so much more than that: friendship, marriage, terrifying playground politics and devious machinations: how low is too low? Well, it depends on how sexy the vicar is (and the one here is pret-ty hot). It’s also genuinely funny – Helen is one of the funniest people I have ever met with a sharp observational eye. Working with her at Glamour (where she was Entertainment Director) was a hoot.
How To Write a Book
Your muse isn’t going to clock in when you need it to
I would love the luxury of waiting for the perfect sentences to form before sitting down at my desk to write, but unfortunately I have a 4-day-a-week-job, a 7-day-a-week toddler, and am barely capable of forming a sentence once the latter is (finally) in bed. The only alone time I have is the 30 minutes between pre-school drop off and my journey to work (8.15-8.45am), so that’s when I write. Maybe you’re better in the evening, or super-early (sadly I have NEVER beaten my early-rising child out of bed), but work out when you do your best thinking and schedule writing time in. Now it’s a habit I feel itchy if I don’t stick to it.
An entire book is daunting; 500 words isn’t
Set yourself 500-word targets (do-able when you only have 30 minutes at a time, like me). If you write 500 words a day, five times a week (two days off!), that’s 2500 words, and in a couple of weeks you have the foundations for a book. Plus, by the time you hit 500 words, chances are you’ll have got to a juicy bit and won’t want to stop.
Don’t look back
Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect (or good), it just has to be written. And it’s SO much easier to edit an existing piece than to begin. My early drafts are littered with places I’ve written ‘XXXX’ to remind me to go back to parts I need to research later, or notes like ‘put in a line on how she feels weird and upset by this’.
Just let them say it
In dialogue, your characters don’t need to ponder, enunciate, utter or announce. Unless they’re Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennett this level of verbal gymnastics is exhausting to both listen to and read. If your characters are talking, stick to ‘said’– it’s much less distracting.
You’ll hit a wall
Around 30,000 words is a common moment to want to give up, as is just after the halfway mark. But keep writing! While writing the The School Run, the Nativity scene almost broke me. I knew where I was trying to get to but I was just droning on and on – it was the longest Nativity in history. But I kept writing and when I went back to edit it was easy to see where I should cut (and also much less painful to cut 5000 words when I had 90,000 others left).
My Life in Books
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
A memoir about Eggers’ early twenties when he lost his parents in quick succession, leaving 21-year-old Eggers to raise his 8-year-old brother Toph. I love this book, and despite the bleak sounding summary it’s funny, smart and touching.
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
I could have filled this entire list with Atwood’s books, but instead of her better known dystopian future novels have gone for this one about a middle-aged painter, Elaine, reflecting on her childhood in Toronto and her experiences at the hands of bullying frenemy Cordelia. Atwood’s writing is so good on the complex emotions and sometimes toxicity of growing up.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
I am an unashamed Tina Fey fangirl (as well as Amy Poehler, which was embarrassingly apparent when I listened back to my Dictaphone when I interviewed her for Glamour a few years ago) and go back to this memoir – written as a collection of very funny essays covering feminism, Saturday Night Live and LA creeps – often.
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
I devour anything by the Mitford sisters – letters, memoirs, journalism – but Nancy’s comic novel is a perennial fave. Shamelessly based on her own family, narrator Fanny follows the fortunes of the eccentric upper crust Radlett family, and the tumultuous and tragic love affairs of Linda.