The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Writing your First Novel: Seven Tips - Shama Naqushbandi

“When I retire I’ll write my own novel.” It’s a line I often hear from my colleagues in the city, presupposing that writing your first book were the most effortless task, a vocation for the jobless, privileged and dandied. I would like to shatter this myth if I may, well the first part at least. For me, the journey began one fine spring morning in a moment of existentialist catharsis that Camus might have been proud of, when I stepped into the office of a leading international law firm and told my boss of my desire to escape the maddening mind-forg’d manacles of the city to pursue a long-hallowed dream of writing my own book. My boss muttered something along the aforesaid line about retirement and first novels, but then to my utter shock signed me off for a six month career break. It was the makings of a fairy-tale come true.

Not long after dipping my toes into literary waters though, I got a bit of a reality check. It turned out the world of so-called woolly-jumpered librarians and doe-eyed booksellers was not quite so fluffy as I had imagined. In fact, I soon found myself with my nose pressed up hard against an industry that was perhaps one of the most difficult and ruthless to crack - far moreso than the world of suited bankers - and that the journey I had embarked on was as much one of severe graft as it was of love, that quite frankly left me at times feeling like it was on a par with Arthur’s quest for the holy grail.

Armed with only a Literature degree, I knew nothing about where to begin. Like many other young aspiring writers, I had the vague idea of starting out with pen and paper …. there seemed to be something more apt about a crumpled notepad than my Macbook at that stage. But scroll forward a couple of years, past reams of inscrutable manuscript, post-winning the Brit Writers Best Novel Award and finally making it beyond the slush-pile of woe-begotten manuscripts to the hazy green fields of a publishing contract, I would like to think I learnt a little better … along with a few other things on the way. Everyone’s path is different and doubtless I still have a lot to learn, but for any aspiring writers out there perhaps at least some of these words will ring true, and hopefully not too late either.

Lesson 1. To plan or not to plan. Shelley one said that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. To paraphrase crudely: if it doesn’t gush forth of its own accord, it ain’t worth the reading. Unfortunately, this approach does not resonate with agents and publishers in today’s market. Nowadays, a writer who wants to get published needs to have a premeditated marketing plan even before penning the opening lines of their master-piece-to-be. Apparently, you need to know your target audience upside down inside out, right down to the type of underwear they’ll be wearing in front of the mirror on a Sunday morning.

Lesson 2. Writer’s block – the myth. It took me about six months five days and some considerable countless hours of staring vacantly at a blank screen, to realize that there’s no such thing. As a good friend put it, ‘lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block, doctors don’t get doctor’s block, so why should writers get writer’s block?’ The best cure for this fictitious ailment is a deadline. You can rest assured that once this is prescribed, all negative creativity-sucking germs will zap away just like in the Mr. Muscle ad.

Lesson 3. It’s lonely. I can only imagine (since I’ve not yet experienced it) that the process of writing a book is very much like pregnancy. This is not a short, irresponsible affair, not the product of a one-night stand of inspiration, rather this is a long labour of love that requires time, attention and dedication, quite like the nurturing of an unborn child. The hardest thing I found about writing was ironically maintaining the momentum to write. Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’ll openly confess that there were often times when I felt I’d rather be dining out with friends, or watching Game of Thrones instead of being hovelled up over my laptop in concentration struggling to craft a cumbersome sentence. So…

Lesson 4. Make friends. Not everyone understands the demands of writing a book, not even those friends and family most close to you. For this reason, it’s always good to find others who ‘get it’ and will push you along the way. I began with a literary retreat at the Arvon Foundation, and then made the rather bold attempt of setting up my own writing group. The group admittedly attracted all sorts of characters, some quite frankly more interesting that those in my book, but it propelled me along to the finishing line! Eventually you’ll discover what works best for you. In my case, it was finding another writer to accompany me to coffee shops at random times of day and night. Watching someone else furiously scribbling away pages of script has a brilliant way of focusing your mind. Support others as they support you – one thing I’ve learnt is that writers can be horribly selfish – but as with most things in life: the more you give, the more you get back.

Lesson 5. Carry a pen or alternative writing device on you at all times – I used the latter, to be precise my work blackberry, since this accompanied me everywhere by bad habit in any event. Writing a book does not require you to turn into the hunchback of Notredame. Nor does it qualify you to assume a supercilious disregard for your fellow mankind. You still need to live and engage with the world, and often, in fact, I found my best inspiration came all of a sudden, out of nowhere, in a Shellyan deluge, triggered by random experience. At such times, your blackberry or equivalent should be at the ready, primed to catch those fleeting thoughts before they float up and disappear into the ether.

Finally, once your manuscript is ready to be birthed into the world, Lesson 6. Always go for gold. One of the most important things to remember is that writers and readers alike (including agents) are just people with points of view, granted often strong points of view. The range of reactions you will encounter with your work can be staggering. I was heartbroken by my first rejection letter, though it was kindly worded and the agent had taken pains to write several paragraphs of consolatory advice. Not long after though, I received a response from another agent who told me excitedly of how she had not been impressed by such a debut for years. I’m still learning, but you have to have thick skin. If you have the confidence to put your work out into a public forum, it follows then that you should have the confidence to withstand critique.

Related to this, Lesson 7. Find a champion. Find someone who believes in what you’re doing. In the corporate world, we call it a sponsor. There will be times as a new writer when the industry can be daunting, intimidating and quite frankly scary – those you expected to support you will wither away – and your immediate impulse might be to grab a teddy and hide under the bed. No matter how self-assured you are of your work and its value, there will be times when insecurities come out to play. You are an aspiring writer after all. It is in these moments that your sponsor is most dear. Whether he is an agent, an editor, a publisher or just a friend, this person will hold your hand when you most need it and remind you it’s not all that bad, really. An encouraging nudge can shoot you back to the stars again.

My publisher Indigo Dreams has been absolutely brilliant in this respect. Their personal touch combined with professional depth was a clincher for me from the start, and has doubtless made the uphill journey far less overwhelming. Finding a collaborative and passionate partner is a pearl in the industry, but something especially important for a first time writer.

And always, never forget why YOU wrote the book in the first place. Along the way, there will be many people who tell you what to write, how to write and why to write, and you should certainly always listen and take note, particularly from the experienced (in hindsight, I feel I should have taken more on board from my editor, but that’s a lesson for the second book now!). But also remember, you alone of all people will be representing your book, so this above all: to thine own self be true. Retain your authenticity. Your authenticity is a trademark that should never be for sale. In the end, for me it was this assurance that kept me going: knowing that one day, when all the slog was over, after all the revisions and incisions and decisions, after all the quiet lonely moments of sculpting my narrative and breathing life into the broken pieces - I would have created something, something special, a monument of love that I could share and still call my own.


Shama Naqushbandi, author of The White House

Shifting between the cosmopolitan city of London and the ghostly backdrop of war-torn Kashmir, a beautiful valley in northern India and site of the world’s most militarised territorial dispute, THE WHITE HOUSE tells the story of Liyana’s struggle to retrieve the lost White House of her childhood. No longer the colourful playground of the past, Kashmir decays with conflict while the rest of the world progresses forward at a dizzying pace. The WHITE HOUSE is a story of love, loss and longing - a modern day odyssey that explores the challenge of finding ‘home' in the twenty first century. The book is available for pre-order now and will be released on 1 July. For further information or to register for the launch event at Waterstones Piccadilly Circus, London on 28 June, please visit the novel's website: www.thewhitehousebook.com or sign up to the event group on facebook
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Shama Naqushbandi was born in London in 1983 to parents of Kashmiri heritage. After graduating from Clare College, Cambridge University, she joined one of the world’s premier international law firms and has since been working in the city. In the summer of 2011, Shama took a sabbatical to write The White House. The White House is her first book and previously won 'Best Novel' in the Brit Writers' Awards.