The wretched stages of writing a book, which nobody should do

Ever tried writing a book? Don’t bother, it’s an endless cycle of self-doubt and recrimination. But do buy my new one, Four Stars, says Joel Golby

The idea 

The best part of a book is right before you write the book, when you have that idea. An idea is a beautiful, powerful magnet: it lives inside of your brain and pulls little strands and threads and sub-ideas towards itself, out of the ether. You keep stopping abruptly in the middle of Liverpool Street station to write down a little thought. You feel magical, amazing. You glimmer with promise. What a masterpiece this will be! What a joy it will be to write!

The writing

People say writing is editing, and it isn’t. People say writing is writing, and it isn’t. Writing is quite often just making sure all your pens are lined up even though you don’t write with a pen, you write with a laptop. Go away to the countryside for a week. Find the right coffee shop. Demand absolute silence. Go sober. Avoid work by ‘planning’ a ‘structure’. A book is only 80,000 words – 160 days work at a leisurely pace. Somehow the process takes two, agonising, years. 

The marination

Once you have written a book, you need to let it sit for a while, like stew. It just has to be on your desktop for a bit. Occasionally, you will wander around outside, and think: if I get hit by a bus right now, they won’t be able to publish that book post-posthumously, because the password to my laptop is too strong. This worries you. The book has lived only in your head for 24 straight months (36 if you count the time since you had the idea). You’ve been talking about it in vague terms to everyone you know for the entirety of that time. They are bored of hearing about it and they haven’t even read it yet. All that work, for… You decide to be more careful about crossing busy roads. 

The waiting for the edit

Once you have written the book you have to wait for an editor to read it, and tell you what’s wrong with it. This is a necessary process but you still feel incredibly wounded, like a teenager stomping upstairs. “This sentence doesn’t make sense” — shut up! Shut up! Yes it does! Shut up!

The edit

You read it back in the cold light of day and realise at least 20 per cent of your sentences do not make sense. You have to send a really apologetic email. 

That moment when the book exists and you have sent it out and people are reading it but you don’t yet know how they feel about it

We, all of us, feel great agonies over our lifetime. Huge griefs, humming anxieties, massive crippling worries about money, the future. You know that feeling, when your body reverberates with stress? That is what it feels like to send a book to a Times columnist you sort of know but don’t actually know, hoping they like it enough to say a nice quote about it. It is the longest month of your life.

The quiet weeks ahead of publication

You sit and think about every single one of the 80,000 words, deciding if any of them were right at all, and deciding that none of them were. Absolutely nobody e-mails you to tell you they are reviewing your book. Distantly, you wonder if ‘BookTok’ is going to be incredibly nice about it, incredibly mean about it, or, worst, ignore it entirely.

Have another idea

You stop abruptly in the middle of Liverpool Street station. It’s happened. A clunk of dread, like a radiator dropped into an empty skip. Please no. Please… no. Quietly, you open a new note on your phone. That’s the next three years ruined, then. 

Joel’s book, Four Stars, is out now


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