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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

Writing a novel: It’s not business, it’s personal #amwriting #writerslife

To truly be a writer, perhaps the biggest requisite comes down to ‘skin’ 

Before I started writing a novel, I wasn’t sure if I was capable of doing it. It was such a huge amount of words – 90,000-100,000 words, when as a journalist I was used to writing features of around 2000 words maximum. Was I a sprinter, incapable of completing a marathon? Did I have the sticking power to keep with it, or would I get bored and give up?

Those were the thoughts in my head. Never for a moment did I think that it might be something else that let me down. I knew plotting, pacing, how to hook readers in, thanks to over twenty years’ experience at a national level as a journalist. But the hardest thing about writing a novel was something I didn’t even contemplate until I had completed my manuscript, proudly written The End and was thinking of actually allowing someone to read my words.

The hardest thing was the horrible feeling of vulnerability.

When I write an article I write in the style of that publication. Chat magazine has a totally different way of wording and construction to The Times, for example. But no matter who I work for, I interview someone and then write their story up in the style demanded by the publication. Simple. In other words it is always someone else’s story. I have interviewed a person, taken what has happened to them and therefore does not belong to me, and then put it in whatever style I am required to – so even the words I have written don’t belong to me. Not really. It’s a business. It’s not personal.

A novel isn’t like that. This is my story. It won’t be something that has happened to me, but it has come purely from my imagination. I have created a world so complete that I can lose myself in it for hours; I have constructed characters so rounded that I can see them in my mind’s eyes, and feel what they are feeling in order to pour it out onto the page. It takes it out of a person, I can tell you.

The plot, the setting, the twists and turns, and the characters are all of my making, so in some ways, even though they are nothing like me at all and I wonder where on earth they come from, they are all born of me. It’s not business. It’s personal.

There’s also the time invested, of course. A feature takes a couple of days, sometimes less. A novel? It can take eight months of blood, sweat and tears (okay, maybe not blood, unless I sustain a nasty papercut, but definitely sweat and a whole lot of tears).

All of that means that letting go is incredibly hard. By putting it out there, I am putting myself out there. I feel open and vulnerable, sensitive and raw. And when someone criticises it…oh, my, it cuts deep. When someone praises it, though, I feel as giddy as a puppy.

To truly be a writer, perhaps the biggest requisite comes down to ‘skin’ – it must be thin enough to truly feel every emotion and convey it; and thick enough to lay it bare to the world. It’s scary, terrifying, and rather wonderful.

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