It’s not a race
Each writer comes to writing at different times in their lives; some people in their 20s, others in their 50s. Never compare yourself with others, i.e. who they are and what they may have achieved by your age and or time in life. It’s all relative. A woman once said to me ‘I’ll never write four books, I wish I could.” This woman had four grown up children. It’s hard to do both. Women are often primary caregivers to children; we tend to get going later in life. Take your time, enjoy the process and never look at another emerging writer and compare yourself. Each writing journey is unique.
By this I mean, own who you are. Old, young, working class, or if you’ve had privilege, trans, gay, get comfortable and find your voice, your style, your influences as a writer. What other writers do you admire? Where do you feel the book you wish to write belongs in the pantheons of styles and schools of books? Magical realism emerged in my writing from the get-go. I realise it’s part of who I am and where I’m from and what I do. Also, writing in non-standard English, also writing about sexuality and also the environment. Be who you are and write about what interests you.
Write what you want, ignore ‘the market’ or what’s on trend
Everything I’ve ever written has been NOT on trend. I was told, early on, that magical realism, for example, simply isn’t commercially viable. I ignored this and wrote it anyway. I’ve written about sex, and survived, I am European-Caribbean too, (not on trend), all of me = risky. This is the best advice I could give anyone. Do your own thing. Write exactly what you want to write. Be individual. Be the dog; wag the tail.
Find a peer group early on and a good teacher
Given that you are going to spend the whole of your writing life, 95% of it, writing alone in a room, then I’m a big believer in some kind of apprenticeship early on, with a solid peer group and with a good teacher, or serval teachers. Early on, I did an MA and PhD in creative writing; it gave my early life as a writer structure, and mentoring. I did classes, learnt how to write. It’s a good way in. I was broke, too, so took a loan for the MA and won a scholarship for the PhD. Both paid off. I now teach on an MA in Creative Writing at Man Met. I believe, for the emerging writer who wants to take themselves seriously, this is a good investment. I always saw writing as a life and a job and a career; it has been, over twenty years. It can be. Find reliable support early on.
Find your groove: time of day
I write from 8am to 1pm. At this time my brain is less guarded; I also write close to my bed, often waking, making coffee and then starting work. For me, this bed-to-desk routine has been right for me. I’ve been doing it for twenty years. Other writers need to get out of the house; they need to sit in a library or a café, or they need to work with a fellow writer friend. Find what works best for you and do it.
A little and often
I have just written a solid first draft of a novel in a year. I did this by doing a little bit of writing often. Even if it’s just 500 words a day. Sit down, do it. Grab two hours if you can, anywhere. Chip, chip away at it. I also don’t keep strict hours. If I need to write on the weekend, I do. I write whenever there’s time. It’s a 365 day a year job. Yes, if the muse strikes, I’ll even write if I’m on holiday. Writing isn’t for pussies.
Research is critical
I thoroughly research all my novels and this research is mostly done first, before I write anything. though often continues too, throughout the writing of the first draft at least. You cannot pull a whole novel from your head. Research is crucial.
Make plans for the book
These days I write a treatment of the novel, a very good outline of the plot. This treatment also evolves and can be redrafted as I go. Most screen writers do this. I’ve borrowed this from them. I also do a lot of work on building my characters, often making a dossier on each one. I also use a huge board in front of my desk; on it, images of the book I think I want to write. I do lots of research and planning before I write a word. I learnt this method from Hilary Mantel, who wrote an amazing essay on her process “Growing a Tail”. Also read Orhan Pahmuk’s The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist. Read books on writing, too. I’ve read dozens.
Experiment with POV and voice before you start
Do as much experimenting as you can before you strike out. Tense and POV is critical. You need to find the right narrator for your story, or narrators, so how do you make them work? For The Mermaid of the Black Conch, it was a patchwork of voices needed, one of the story tellers being a mermaid. Experimenting was key to pulling this off.
About Monique Roffey. Our Novel Judge in 2022
Monique Roffey is an award winning Trinidadian born British writer of novels, essays, literary journalism and a memoir. Her most recent novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch (Peepal Tree Press) won the Costa Book of the Year Award 2020 and was nominated for seven major awards. The film rights were sold to Dorothy Street Pictures and will be developed by Film Four. Her other Caribbean novels, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and House of Ashes have also been nominated for major awards (Costa, Orange, Encore etc). Archipelago won the OCM Bocas Award for Caribbean Literature in 2013. Her work has been translated into several languages. She is a co-founder of Writers Rebel within Extinction Rebellion. She is a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and a tutor for the National Writers Centre.