How to write a novel

A recent commenter wanted some advice on how to write a book. Now, I’m no Jeffrey Archer, but I have indeed managed to marshal 100,000 words into a story that was published in a series of pieces of paper, which means I’m qualified to explain how I did it.

Let’s make the explanation more palatable by configuring it as a list:

1. Have a strong idea. This might seem obvious, but I think it’s fair to say that plenty of people start off with nothing more than a rough concept or situation that they might be able to squeeze a plot out of. If that’s what you’ve got I think you’re going to be in trouble. Create a plot that can be reduced to a couple of sentences and it will concentrate your thinking and make it much easier to answer the essential question, ‘What’s it about?’. You will be asked that a lot, so come up with a good answer at the start and you won’t go wrong.

2. Writing a novel is an enormous amount of hard work (if you enjoy doing it you might not consider it to be ‘work’, but it will still require many hours of writing and revising), so if you’re under the impression that writing 100,000 words is going to be difficult, think again: you’re going to be writing closer to 500,000, or even a million if your book’s going to be any good. You will write a first draft then a second, then a third, then if you’re me, another 40 or so. And by ‘writing a draft’ I mean reading your novel (yet again. That’s another thing – you’re going to read your novel many, many times if you want it to be good, so write something you’re going to enjoy or you’ll never finish it), making changes, perhaps making more substantial changes and reading it again to make sure the changes work in the context of the whole thing. If they don’t you’ll be reading/writing/reading again. There’s an old saying: writing is rewriting. It’s very true.

3. You have to make sure all 100,000 words work perfectly. You may have read my novel, and you may or may not like it, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that it doesn’t work. By that I mean that the characters are consistent, the plot makes sense within its own world/rules, it has a beginning, a middle and an end and, most importantly of all, it makes you want to turn the page (at least a bit). That last point is the most important of all: the only responsibility of the author is to make the reader want to turn the page. Everything else is immaterial. Without the turn of the page the great ideas, the crackling sentences and the intricately symmetrical plot might as well be used loo roll.

4. I think there are two kinds of novelist: the ones that write 300 perfect words a day, and the ones who write 3000 shit ones. Most of us are the latter. The first ones think and revise as they go, which slows momentum and can lead to paralysis of insecurity, but I suppose if you’re good enough then why not do that? The rest of us just get any old shite down (at least for the first draft) to maintain the flow of the plot. Then we repair all the clichéd metaphors and tortuous sentences during the revision process.

5. You might want to think of it like this: you have the central idea (the skeleton) and as you write you keep adding flesh. A scene-by-scene synopsis might be the muscles, a more detailed version of that could be the sinews etc. until you have every necessary sentence written and a proper working body (or corpse, depending on how successful you have been). If you think your hero is going to arrive at the police station and cross the road to the bank you’re going to have to know what car he drives, how he drives it, what time of day he pulls up, whether or not there are any other cars around, when he speaks, what he says, who he says it to, what the reply might be etc. This is why it takes a while.

6. Try to write every day. If you don’t the trail goes increasingly cold until you have to re-read everything you’ve written and then you get caught up in a spaghetti junction of changing things before you move on. Before you know it you’ve spent three days writing nothing. Also, you won’t get to 100,000 words by doing it every now and again. There have been times when I’ve managed 10,000 words in three days, and others where I’ve done nothing for a couple of weeks. While the iron is hot, strike.

7. You will make it up as you go along. You might have the broad outline, or even a tight outline, but as in the car example above, you have no idea what every single single scene will look like. If you’re anything like me you might start with no exact idea of the ending and let the story have a life of its own (I could never work out the second half of Instinct until I gave it a go. Actually, that’s a whole point of its own. 7.5: the way to cure writer’s block is by writing. Go on, write any old shit. It’s much easier to repair something than it is to create a perfect series of bons mots with which to fill a page). Even if you do know your ending you might well find you arrive there via an unexpected route, or arrive somewhere else entirely. Go with the flow.

8. Ignore all the above if you like. There are no hard and fast rules. That’s just the way I’ve done it. If that helps you then great. If not, find your own way.

9. I think that’s it. Any questions?

UPDATE: a tip from Chuck Palahniuk.