Jessie Burton: My Writing Tips

Jessie Burton: My Writing Tips

Writing happens in an absence; physically you are at your desk, but mentally you are elsewhere, for days and months on end. If you put the hours in, then you will truly understand how solitary a job it is. I often say that writing is an exercise in failure. This is not meant to be as negative as it sounds; I just mean that what you see in your mind’s eye is very unlikely to come out identically on the page. Perfection does not exist and accepting that will set you free. And you may be pleasantly surprised! My original idea might have fizzled, but there will be something in the work I’ve done to take me forward.

When you read these pointers, please bear in mind that everyone works differently. When it comes to finishing your novel, there is no template you can follow except the patterns of your own mind. All novel plans are an illusion. Rules are there to be broken. Follow your gut.

1. There will always be someone better than you

I find this comforting. It’s liberating. You just keep doing what you’re doing, and let everybody else get on with their business. Because somewhere, someone is looking at you in awe.

2. Don’t fixate on ritual

There’s a romance about writing that just won’t go away. We have to drink fresh coffee in our turrets, we have to write at dusk to the sound of a trilling blackbird, in a kimono. I wrote The Miniaturist at any hour of the day, in offices, on the train, in theatre dressing rooms. I wrote The Muse looking like someone had just dragged me backwards through a bush, and I mainly ate crisps. If you wait for a room of your own, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Some people need silence, some people need noise. I just needed the words on the page.

3. Write what you want

Do not write for the market and do not underestimate the power of personal passion.

4. First draft blues

Here’s the paradox: you will not be able to truly write your book unless you have written your book. GET. IT. OUT. YOUR. HEAD. Everything will probably change later – that’s fine. At this stage, accept deep imperfection. If it’s a mess, so what? If the characters aren’t behaving themselves, big deal. If the layering and nuance isn’t there, why would it be? You’ve only written it once. You are only human, you simply cannot monitor your pace, your tone, your fifty-five characters, your imagery, your themes, your atmosphere in the first go. All this will come in subsequent drafts. So be kind to yourself in these early days. But don’t stop. Do not stop.


6. Read it out loud

I did this five times with The Muse – exhausting, but helpful. The brain, when you read silently, often corrects things for you. It’s only when you hear the rhythm of your sentences aloud, does your choice of words fall, or clear the hurdle. Muddy images, unintentionally repetitious adjectives, things that just don’t *land*…the list goes on.

7. Accept when something isn’t working

There will be other solutions. If your car was stuck against a brick wall, would you keep revving it in the same direction?

8. You’re going to be rejected

Back up your passion with this acceptance: Not everyone is going to like it, some people are going to truly loathe it, and no one will care how hard you’ve worked. But one day, someone will give you some help, or a chance. And you’ll be ready by then to take it.

9. Ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this?’

It’ll help keep you focused. For me, writing my first novel was an act of hope. I wanted something in my life to change. I wanted to write, and I wanted to be published. I wanted to see if I could make it work. But now I know that it was the act of writing, not being published, that saved me.

10. And finally:

Writing is a leap of faith. But how wonderful that the person you’re putting faith in is yourself.