Harriet Evans: The 4 Stages of Being a Writer

Harriet Evans: The 4 Stages of Being a Writer

When I started writing my first novel, I told no one. I was an editor at Penguin and it felt far too terrifying to admit that writing books was what I really wanted to do. I would get up at 6.30 in the morning and write for an hour or so. I lived on my own by then so I was lucky in that respect and in another, too: growing up in a family who made their living from books (my dad was a writer and editor, for many years my mum edited people like Jilly Cooper and Sophie Kinsella, my uncle writes non-fiction children’s books and The Marmite Cookbook, I KNOW) meant I knew I was allowed to tell my own stories. Too many people don’t think they have the right to go into a bookshop, or use a library, much less sit down and start to write and it’s something I’m passionate about, having had such a lucky start myself in that respect.

Several months after beginning the book, one awful morning I turned on the computer and the whole novel had vanished – a faulty hard drive. I had written over 30,000 words and it felt like a sign from God that I wasn’t supposed to continue. But then I realised I really did want to be a writer and I didn’t care about signs and all that and I blimming well went up the road to Dixons and bought a new computer for £799 on a Buy Now, Pay A Year Later scheme. I didn’t have £799! I had a year to make that money back!

This stroke of bad luck was actually the best thing that could have happened. I rewrote the novel and it was much, much better for it. I don’t mind being edited now because I’ve already done the ultimate rewrite: starting again from scratch. That’s partly what I mean about making your own luck. Rewrite your book. Keep making it better. The computer crash made me realise something. I’ll still be writing even if no one wants to publish my books and all the computers and paper and pens have vanished from earth and I am scratching out a story on a rock. Dramatic? Moi?

The second phase, Part-Time Writer, was after I got a book deal. I was working four days a week, writing on Fridays and holidays. It was super enjoyable, but getting the momentum back every Friday wasn’t easy. Periodically I would take myself off to a cottage (once I went to Miami in January, one of my better ideas) for a week’s holiday and just write. I look back now and wonder how I did it. I went three days a week at work in 2005 which helped a lot. And then, one day, I was cleaning my teeth and I looked at myself in the mirror and suddenly realised: you’re going to leave work and do this full-time (write, not clean my teeth). You’ve known this for a while now. With big decisions, it’s often not a crunch moment, but a quiet realisation of something your subconscious already knew. Enter phase three . . .

Full-Time-Writer phase. This was the best and the worst of times. I left the job I absolutely loved, and was on my own all day, which I hated. I became convinced I had four very different illnesses. I feel sad now when I remember how depressed I was. I LOVED THE OFFICE and working in a team and chatting to my mates all day, but I have always had to be on my own a lot to function, too. Also: I was trying to finish my fifth novel and . . . writing novels is difficult! It gets harder, not easier! In fact, often the more you know the more you are haunted by how much better it could have been . . . and your confidence can be somewhat worn down after years of doing this for a living and horrible Amazon reviews that almost delight in knocking you. I’m really fortunate, I have written ten books and been a Sunday Times bestseller, but it is still tough. Because you are always convinced you’re not good enough, no matter how successful you are. The day I got the call to say I had been selected by Richard and Judy was one of the best days of my life, but the next day I woke about 4am, my teeth chattering: ‘What if they change their minds? How will I write another book as good as that one? What if that book isn’t any good? It’s no good. I’m going to ring them and tell them to take it off the list.’ Etc. What this shows us is that . . . writers are bonkers, and you should be kind to them and give them biscuits. Especially if they are a . . .

Full-Time Writer with Two Children (final stage). My working day pre-children would be something like this:

9.30: sit down at computer

11.00: stop checking Rightmove / Twitter / BBC News websites and email. Think about doing some work.

11.01: Make some toast and coffee.

11.15: Worry about something: mysterious illnesses / some snide remark by someone in an email that you re-read and realise you have misunderstood / a weird buzzing noise that is possibly a nuclear bomb but turns out to be a fly trapped in a web.

13.00: Have lunch. Sometimes persuade someone to have lunch with you in which case do some shopping afterwards for food but then spend ages in Boots by mistake. Either way faff till about . . .

16.00: Flood own body with feelings of self-disgust, shame, horror at literally no work done.

16.15: Suddenly, write without warning for three solid hours and get really into it! Lose self in world of delicious creation until other half comes back from work at about 19.30. Drink and stay up late with ne’er a care in the world until the next morning at 9.30 when . . . it all begins again.

Even if you don’t have children you know 4.15pm–7.30pm are peak childcare hours, so these days I do have to work during the day. I go to the London Library in Piccadilly – it’s a beautiful place to spend your day as well as being much cheaper than hiring an office. I have realised I can’t stand being in the house when I write, I tidy things and then get cross at being made to tidy things instead. Suffice it to say it is all about juggling. It is a great job to have if you have small children as you are flexible but I have learned to value my own career and put myself first too.

So, they are the four stages. Stage one was thrilling and subversive, stage two was jolly and lots of fun but stressful, stage three was a bit tough to be honest, and stage four is sometimes quite hard but my favourite. Everyone is trying to do their best, even writers. I do not know if George Eliot got distracted by the coal man giving her a funny look, or worrying that she might have cholera when she was trying to finish Middlemarch,* but I know at some point she will have banged her head repeatedly on her ink-blotter, cursed softly (maybe a ‘Forsooth!’ or an ‘Egad!’), and sworn she couldn’t possibly finish it, before, ten minutes later, convincing herself that she was writing one of the greatest books in the English language.**

If you are considering trying to write, (or you are considering giving an author a bad review on Amazon), I hope this helps in some small way. Go wrong, rewrite, but just give it a go and be kind to yourself. (And two final tiny things: live with someone nice, and always, always back up your work.)

*Yes I can’t believe I just compared myself to George Eliot writing Middlemarch either.

**This is actually true in her case so is not perhaps the best example.