How To Write A Novel
Illustration by Mr Joe McKendry
Everything you need to know about penning your first book – from getting started to publishing the finished piece.
Many of us – once we’re too old to entertain a reasonable likelihood of being rock stars – dream of being writers. Who wouldn’t want to see their name on the spine of a new hardback on the shelf at Waterstones, or their signing queue at the Hay Festival snaking out past Ms JK Rowling’s?
Be advised: it’s possible. But it’s difficult. And most of what makes it difficult is that it’s hard work and you only get good at doing it by doing it. There’s an old cartoon by Mr Barry Fantoni, – featuring a quote by Mr Peter Cook – showing two men in a bar. “I’m writing a book,” says one. “Neither am I,” says the other. As someone who has written a novel and spent more than two decades in the company of people who have written much better ones, let me offer a few humble suggestions to get you started.
Mr Kingsley Amis said: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” You don’t write a novel by talking about writing a novel or by thinking about writing a novel. You do it by putting in the hours. How many will be up to you. Mr Ian Fleming churned out a Bond by writing 2,000 words a day, five days a week, for two months. Lord Archer once told me a novel takes him 1,000 hours. But you can do it in your spare time. If you write 300 words every weekday for a year, you have a novel.
Find something to enjoy in the process. If you don’t, you won’t do it. Wanting to write a novel, and wanting to have written a novel, are two very different things, and you won’t achieve the second if you can’t achieve the first. In practical terms, that means writing the sort of book you want to read, not the sort of book you think will impress people.
THERE ARE NO RULES
Some writers plan meticulously; others start with an image or a situation. Mr EM Forster claimed his characters told him where to go; Mr Vladimir Nabokov snorted at the very suggestion: “My characters are galley slaves!” You’ll find out which sort you are by writing.
REIN IT IN
Don’t confuse fine writing with fancy adjectives. Is that descriptive passage designed to draw the reader into the story or showcase your poetic sensibility? Mr Stephen King warns in his Danse Macabre about “author intrusion”. Mr Elmore Leonard said simply: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
BE ALERT TO MANNERISIMS AND EVENTS
There’s something you will do too often. Perhaps your characters are perpetually nodding, folding their arms or gazing out of the window. Perhaps things keep happening “suddenly”. Notice you’re doing it and stop.
READ DIALOGUE OUT LOUD
You’ll be able to hear much better if it sounds like something somebody would actually say. In fact, read everything out loud. You’ll find out if your sentences are too long. Cadence – how words fall on the ear – is a vital part of how prose works on a reader. You should have built-in cadence detectors stuck to the sides of your head.
AVOID THE INTERNET
Ms Zadie Smith goes as far as not writing fiction on a machine that’s even connected to the internet. There are various apps that allow you to block specific websites for a period of time, and one called Freedom (also the title of a novel by Mr Jonathan Franzen) that blocks you from going online for up to eight hours.
LEAVE IT TO MELLOW
If you’re stuck, go for a walk (Mr Charles Dickens did) or do the washing up, like Ms Agatha Christie. And when you finish a chapter or a book, put it to one side for a week or two. You’ll find it miraculously more easy to edit when you reread it with fresh eyes.
DON’T BE PROUD
If you get as far as finding an editor, or even a sympathetic friend, pay attention to their suggestions. Mr TS Eliot and Mr Raymond Carver benefited hugely from being edited and so will you.
ACCEPT REJECTION, BUT DON’T GIVE UP
The completion of your first novel – and most first novels aren’t great – doesn’t mark your arrival as a writer: it marks your departure. As Mr Samuel Beckett said: “…Fail again. Fail better.”
SEEK AN AGENT
If you want to approach a traditional publisher with your manuscript, you'll need an agent. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and The Writers’ Handbook contain directories of agents, details of their specialisms, and how they like to be approached. Invest in one. You don’t have to go down that route though. Self-publishing these days is respectable and, with 70 per cent royalties on eBooks, can be profitable. Check out your options.