Ten Things I've Learnt About Writing

Ten Things I've Learnt About Writing

1. To take my time.

I decided at the outset (five years ago) that writing this novel would take as long as it would take. In the past I think I was so desperate to be published I perhaps rushed things. This time I committed to writing the best book I could write, regardless - and it paid off!

2. To push myself and my characters.

It’s sometimes tempting to play things safe and stick with what’s predictable, in terms of plot, language and character. The final scene of Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love came from a writing exercise set by a friend: she suggested I write a scene where a character from the novel does something they would never do. As soon as I wrote it I realised it was the final image of the book.

3. That I’m not always writing about what I think I’m writing about.

I love the surprise of re-reading work after time away from it. I remember starting to read an early draft of Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love thinking ‘I’ve written a novel about home and connection to place’, and finishing it thinking ‘Oh, I’ve written a novel about how difficult it is to communicate’. Of course the book’s about both of those things, but that process of discovering what you’ve put into a story perhaps subconsciously is fascinating.

4. How to bring the other work I do into my writing.

While writing Ten Things I set up an arts consultancy developing projects exploring the relationship between writing and place (www.urbanwords.org.uk), and did an MSc in Urban Studies. While restricting the time I had to write, these things allowed me to explore how we live in, and connect with, cities from very different angles, all of which helped with the novel.

5. That I live differently, more richly, more curiously, when I’m writing.

One of the joys of writing for me is the way it makes me observe and think about the world. I love conjuring up a city through tiny, specific, potentially overlooked details.

6. That hard work and perseverance pays off.

I have been writing seriously for over a decade, and Ten Things is the third novel I have completed. It isn’t easy to keep faith in yourself and your writing, particularly when you are facing rejection after rejection, but I do believe that if you have talent and determination, and you are passionate about the writing above and beyond anything else, then you will get there eventually.

7. What a delight and privilege it is to be well-edited.

I have learnt so much about how to tell a story and how to structure a novel from Francesca Main, my editor at Picador. The book might have my name on the front, but it is much more of a collaborative effort than you might imagine.

8. Not to shirk something just because it’s difficult.

I found Daniel a particularly problematic character to write. I spent months writing diaries, letters and bits of back story, volunteering at homeless hostels, reading books and blogs, all the time trying to find his voice. He is so far away from me – his age, his gender, his situation. I had to work really hard to fully imagine him and his life, and get myself in a position where I felt I could inhabit his character enough to write his story.

9. To take and make opportunities.

There is so much support out there for writers who are serious and ambitious about what they do. While writing Ten Things I benefited from a grant from the Arvon Foundation; a month’s writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle; and a ‘free read’ from The Literary Consultancy via London’s writer-development organisation Spread the Word.

10. That the real joy in getting published is finding readers.

Listening to others talk about what they found in, or felt about, my writing is both nerve-wracking and wonderful – and it allows me to rediscover and reassess my own work. I find it mind-blowing that Ten Things will be published in 13 languages: that through this novel I will be able to connect and communicate with people with whom I couldn’t have a conversation if I met them on the street. That feels like a huge privilege.

Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler is published by Picador. Read our review and read our interview with Sarah Butler.