How to write a novel

A short guide by someone who’s trying

On character:

It doesn’t matter what color hair they have, what month they were born or how long their nose is. Ask yourself instead: what do they desire? What have they been wrong about all their life? This advice from Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius came to me like a revelation. It changed everything.

On self-loathing:

When you are failing, look down at yourself like the deity of your choice would. Watch the hunched-over figure staring at her blank Microsoft Word document, and her 23 open tabs, ranging from ‘How to write a novel,’ to ‘How to beat your inner critic.’ Then laugh at the senseless misery you have created.

Laughing beats loathing. Take it from someone who’s good at both.

On time:

Unless you’ve got a magic stream of income or you’re certain you’re the next Stephen King, don’t quit your day job. Take a deep breath and accept that you’re never going to be able to give your novel the time it needs or deserves.  That’s because in your head, it’s the most precious thing imaginable.

Full disclosure: I’ve gone months without writing a word of my novel. In fact I’ve only recently got back into it after a long absence. I had good reasons. Work was crazy, I was feeling anxious and a loved one was sick. Your reasons are probably better than mine.

But do you know what I didn’t do in my fallow period? Abandon the idea. If the idea of writing a novel is something that eats away at you at night, you have no other choice but to believe that it can be done.

On planning:

For every single idea you have, ask ‘why.’ If your story is about a little girl who loses her dog you need to answer the questions: why does she lose her dog? Why does it matter that she loses her dog? Why does she have a dog in the first place? If you answer these questions, you already have lots of scenes to write: the one where you describe how she loses her dog, the one where you describe what her dog means to her and the one where she gets a dog. All of these scenes will create their own ‘whys?’ Asking why helps you get to know your character’s back story. It also boosts your word count exponentially.  ‘Why’ is a magic word.

On publication:

Don’t write to be published. Write because even though you hate it, the torment of not writing is worse. Write because it helps you understand. Write because it’s the greatest act of imagination in the world. Write because without stories, we are nothing. Write because you have no other choice. And when you have done that, to the truest of your abilities, show it to the world. And when it is rejected, rest easy knowing that you wrote for the right reasons.


Write because even though you hate it, the torment of not writing is worse.


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