How to write a novel
I wrote three novels before I got a nibble from a publisher, so how did I keep myself motivated, pushing myself to finish each one without any guarantee my work would ever see the light of day? There's no secret sauce, I'm afraid - it very much depends on your personality and how determined you are to see things through to the bitter end.
Only five or ten percent of those who start writing a novel actually finish the first draft, and while I don't consider myself an expert I can at least share my experience. I can't promise these tips will work for you, but they might work for the next writer to come across my web site and they certainly worked for me.
- First things first. Wanting to write a publishable book is no different to wanting to play an instrument in a top symphony orchestra. You need thousands of hours of practice and familiarity with the tools of the trade. In their case, music and instruments. In ours, language and words.
Fortunately writers don't have to pay for our education. No expensive lessons required ... all you have to do is read books. If you want to write fiction, read fiction. The more you read, the more the tricks of the trade will seep in. So, if you suspect your writing isn't up to scratch, haunt the local library.
- I once considered retelling a favourite book just to get an idea of the level of detail needed. I planned to duplicate the characters and plot exactly, rewriting the entire book scene by scene in my own words. I never did it, but I still think it could be a very useful technique. After all, you don't have to worry about plot or characterisation ... that's already been done! (Of course, you couldn't submit the result to a publisher. This would strictly be for your own consumption.)
- try and write something every day, no matter how little. I jot down half a dozen sentences, each of which describe a scene I think I'll have to write soon. When I review them, one of them often fires my imagination and that's what I start writing about.
- some people plot out every twist and turn beforehand, and some people just write. Although I've always been a 'write first and think later' kind of author, I'm slowly coming to appreciate having a detailed outline to work from. One reason is because I now write to deadlines, not just when there's nothing on TV and the wind is in the right direction. Writing to a plot keeps me on track.
Coming up with a plot is a topic big enough for an article of its own, and you'll find my take on the whole process here
- I generally don't have 'good' and 'evil' characters in my novels, just people with opposite goals. The conflict this generates is more than enough to escalate things to a satisfactory climax and conclusion. I don't spend too much time developing bit players, unless they become more important during the writing. If someone's only going to appear in your book for one paragraph, treat them like a piece of furniture. Also, try and limit the number of characters - sometimes you can combine two moronic henchmen into one - and if your book makes it into film, the casting people will thank you for saving them money. (Hey, it worked for Sleuth.)
Want to get on with it?
See my speed writing tips
. Includes progress forms for hourly and daily word counts to keep you right on track.
As a general rule your protag should be sympathetic - someone the reader can identify with. I realise that's difficult if you're writing about a serial killer, but in those cases the 'less is best' rule applies. As in, the less we see inside this monster's head, the more we fear them. If your killer is familiar and the reader starts to identify with them you've destroyed all the tension. That's why whodunits are called whodunits and not weknowwhodunnits. (Someone asked me this, so ... protag = protagonist, the major character.)
are the story units, and there are one or more of these per chapter.
- Don't bother! Okay, what I mean is... finish writing the book. You will have plenty of time for improvements later, and it's easy to kill a book by being too critical during the writing process. You're not trying to produce finished work at this stage - remember, by the time a major publisher releases a book it's been through several drafts and has also had input from a professional editor and a proof reader. Think of your first draft as a block of raw material, from which you will chip your finished work. Throw everything into it! Don't worry about inconsistencies and dead ends, they can be trimmed out afterwards. I can't emphasise this enough: finish the book, then revise!
More on revisions
- Someone emailed to say they're 100 pages into their novel and they know they have to change some fairly major plot points near the beginning ... should they go back and change it now, or soldier on? My response? Keep moving ahead
. It's better to finish the first draft than to tinker. If you know you're going to change something just put a note in brackets right in the text you're writing now and continue as if the change has already been made.
Example: Halfway through your novel you decide it should be set in Paris instead of London. Rather than going back to do a rewrite, you'd just put (tk: Change everything to Paris) in the text and continue as if it WERE Paris.
You see, the problem with going back again and again to change things is that you might come up with an even better idea four chapters on. E.g. you decide to set the book in Madrid instead. All those cumulative rewrites just bog you down, and as long as you're bogged down you're joining the ranks of people who never finish their books. Which, apparently, is over ninety percent.
'tk' stands for 'to come', and because it's a unique letter combination it's easy to seek them out later when rewriting.
Okay, the first draft is done. Have a drink, pat yourself on the back, and get ready for the best part. Revisions
. This is where you mould your lump of clay into a vaguely novel-shaped sculpture, but remember it's still a draft so don't expect the Venus de Milo. (Actually, perhaps you should, given the missing arms.)
When you do get on to revisions, here are a couple of tips: First, when faced with a complex scene with a lot going on, it's best to break it down into the smallest possible fragments with a clear idea of what is going to happen in each. For example, imagine you're writing a scene where the hero arrives for dinner, chats with the guests, then accuses the host of murder, and then explains why and how he did it. Break that into the arrival, the chit chat, the accusation and the explanation, and work on each little piece separately. (yWriter is good for that.) They don't have to go into the finished book as separate pieces, because you can join them up long before then.
Grammar, spelling, language usage
- This is a tough one. When you've been writing a while you can go back and read some of your early work and fall about laughing (or crying) at how bad it is. Well, I know I do. I've been writing fiction for over 20 years, and thankfully I can still see improvement from one year to the next. I think it's important to be natural and let your voice come through in your writing, especially at draft stage. Concentrate on getting the mood, scene, ideas onto the page and worry about polishing later.
Tip: If you're faced with heavy edits on a 500-800 word scene, it's sometimes much quicker to rewrite it from scratch!
- Instead of describing a gun as a gun, some authors will describe the thing as a 9.6mm Wess and Smithon HeadHoler 2000... every single time the hero or antagonist pulls one from the hand-tooled leather holster with six (not five, not seven) silver studs. They will refer to cars by brand, model and engine capacity when it matters not. They will befuddle you with detail because, dammit, they had to research this stuff and they're NOT going to waste all that effort. Meanwhile, back at the plot...
Don't get too attached to a particular story or to your very first novel. Trust me, however good it is your writing will continue to improve the more you produce. They reckon you have to write a million words of fiction before all the pieces fall into place. How much have you done?
runs on Windows PCs, and is free to download and use.
- I use my own software to write books: yWriter
. It's a project manager for novelists - you store your text in scenes and organise them into chapters.
- I don't write to become famous, get rich or impress friends and family with the size of my ego. I write because of an itch, because of an overwhelming desire to tell a story, to entertain with my words. I write because I can't not write.
It does get easier
- My first novel took roughly 5 years to write, with lots of inactive periods. My second novel took about 18 months and the third less than 12. Like many things in life, writing novels does get easier with practice.
After it's done
- Read my article on how to get published