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Five Things I Learned About Writing Books – Mhairi McFarlane

December 5, 2015

Mhairi burst onto the scene with her first novel You Had Me At Hello selling over 400,000 copies in print and ebook.  Here Mhairi (pronounced Vah-Ree) shares the lessons she’s learnt along the way.

1) It gets easier – but not easy

The best analogy I’ve found for how the process works, once you’re past your debut, is that it’s a bit like childbirth. Only a lot less painful, and less likely to cause tearing of your perineum. After the first book, you recognise the stages of labour, but every time is unique (and it doesn’t get that much more painless.) Your attitude to the workload is perhaps more laidback, but the workload hasn’t got any smaller. The author Lisa Jewell said the only thing that changes is when you think I’LL NEVER FINISH THIS!!!??? you know you probably will. The trouble is, if it was getting easy, you’d probably not be writing anything very good. DAMMIT. Writers have a near-perverted love of pain.

2) Daydreaming isn’t wasted time

You have to unlearn the habits of a lifetime, or at least the advice of a lifetime. You remember how at school, or work, gazing out of a window with a dozy look on your face was considered a bad thing? I remember a humanities teacher, Mr Fisher, known for his affable nature, once stopping his speech to the classroom and going absolutely batshit at me. ‘MHAIRI you are a NICE girl honestly but your DOODLING drives me INSANE!’ Alright, that was more about my attention span. And my doodling. My point is: allowing your mind to drift from the task in hand is essential for a writer, and before you write anything, thinking a lot really helps. Imagining, musing, pondering. Gazing creepily at someone at a bus stop and imagining a back story for them. The murky soup of your subconscious needs you to throw fresh ingredients in, and stay on a rolling boil. Fiction really is playing a neverending game of ‘what if’. I got a B in GCSE Humanities, thanks for asking.

3) Keep notes

It’s true what they say. Whenever I’ve thought ‘I won’t make a note of that joke or idea, because I’ll definitely remember it,’ I almost never do. It’s almost scary how easily something that comes to you in a fever dream when you wake sweating at 2am can completely elude your grasp a day later. I’ve lost things forever, despite repeating them in my head and promising myself they will still be there when I am near my desk.
Write it all down, whatever it is. Then even if you never use it, you end up with a treasure trove of witty remarks and thoughtful observations. A friend described indigestion thus the other day: ‘I feel as if my innards are trying to knit me a beef vest.’ Straight into the Book Four file like a bullet.

4) Expect to hate your manuscript or doubt it, and quite often. Doubt never goes away. Important to remember: doubt does not mean it is rubbish

I wish someone had told me this at the outset. Your relationship with your own manuscript is a very temperamental and sometimes abusive one. You’re in love, you’re out of love, you’re mostly simply indifferent and faintly disgusted by it. You want to talk about it and think about it constantly, but put it in front of you and suddenly you’ll do anything to avoid it. Being a writer is confronting your own weird psychology, every day. I thought as I got more experienced doubt would go away. It recedes, and you have wonderful editors to tell you that you’re being stupid. And nice readers get in touch, reminding you that the most important thing of all is that there are people who enjoy your work. BUT, doubt. Make friends with it. Accept it will live in the spare room. It never grows up and leaves home. It’s why writers can be such bitter, self absorbed, competitive sods. They’re just scared.

5) You’re only ever competing against yourself

Before you’re published, the focus is all on the Herculean effort of getting a book into peoples’ hands they might enjoy. Asking an unpublished author what subsequent books might be like is – let’s return, lazily, to the same analogy – asking a first time mother in her third trimester whether she might find her child trying at school age. So, here is what you do discover, and it’s a little daunting: forget all the anxiety and neurosis about what other authors are doing. Your own worst nightmare, your biggest ally but also your greatest enemy is YOU. Because whatever you did last time, however well it was received, the task never diminishes with the next book. Readers want the same experience again, but more so, so if you’ve raised expectations – well done. But now you have to meet them.

I feel as if I’ve done nothing but scaremonger. Did I mention the part where making up stories for a living is the absolute best job in the world and the incredible, childlike excitement of it never goes away? Well I have now.


What’s the one thing you DON’T do at a wedding?

087043-FC50When Edie is caught in a compromising position at her colleagues’ wedding, all the blame falls on her – turns out that personal popularity in the office is not that different from your schooldays. Shamed online and ostracised by everyone she knows, her boss suggests an extended sabbatical – ghostwriting an autobiography for hot new acting talent, Elliot Owen. Easy, right? Wrong. Banished back to her home town of Nottingham, Edie is not only dealing with a man who probably hasn’t heard the word ‘no’ in a decade, but also suffering an excruciating regression to her teenage years as she moves back in with her widowed father and judgey, layabout sister.

When the world is asking who you are, it’s hard not to question yourself. Who’s that girl? Edie is ready to find out.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Mhairi McFarlane

Published 7th April 2016 | Hardback | 9780007549481 | RRP £12.99

If you’re a bookseller in the UK or Ireland and you’d like an advance reading copy of A Divided Spy, please send your request, along with your name and bookshop address, to Olivia at independentthinking@harpercollins.co.uk.


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