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How to start writing a novel

What was your New Year resolution this year? Let me guess. Losing half a stone? Giving up drinking? Actually going to the gym, rather than just joining one? Or is that other hardy perennial – becoming a writer and writing a novel? If you’re still going strong – good for you! But if you’ve fallen off the writing wagon, read on.

The trouble with resolutions is that while making them is quite exciting – the prospect of imminent perfection is lovely – keeping them is rather boring. Which is why crash diets are popular, and reality TV programmes that showcase extreme make-overs. We live in a culture which is obsessed with the quick fix. Far more fun to watch someone having a whole set of shiny new dental implants than to see them having a brace fitted and waiting a year or so to see if it makes a difference.


And the truth about writing a novel is that there are no short cuts. Writing takes time, and rewriting takes even more time. In a typical biopic, the Great Novelist will bang out their masterpiece on a typewriter – usually an old-school Remington – in a frenzy of artistic intensity. This usually takes three or four minutes of screen time. In the next scene, they will either have won the Pulitzer prize or succumbed to alcoholism.


The good news is that writing a novel is an achievable goal, and it really isn’t all that difficult. (This is not to say you will produce The Great Gatsby first time round, but that you can write a workmanlike first draft, and then either revise and improve this, or start on a new magnum opus.)  As with dieting, regular effort and dogged persistence will pay off. As with dieting, you will have off days and sometimes fail to meet your self-imposed targets – and if that happens you just have to grit your teeth and get back on track.


So how do you start? Here are some top tips for the first time novelist:

  • Do the ground work.

    Think about your passions and obsessions. What are your most vivid memories? What is your greatest fear? When were you happiest? What makes you cry? Do you hate someone close to you – or love someone you shouldn’t?

  • Don’t assume that your subject has to be extraordinary.

    Other people will relate to your hopes and fears – the key is to find your own voice, and your own way of communicating with readers. Your subject matter might be the detail and intensity of everyday life.

  • Remember that the best writers are also compulsive readers.

    I teach creative writing, and without exception, the best writers I come across are always those who have an intuition about what works on the page because they read widely and avidly.

  • Learn from the experts.

    Whatever genre you want to write in – and literary fiction is a genre of its own – there are writers out there who are masters and mistresses of the form. Take your favourite novel apart and analyse it, chapter by chapter, to see how the story works.

  • Keep a journal for at least a month.

    Write down your dreams, get up early in the morning and write anything that comes into your head for ten minutes, scribble down any random thoughts that you have. Collect stories from the external world – local newspaper stories, tabloid tales, anything that catches your eye. Write about your family – and friends and enemies. Carry your notebook with you, and jot down what you see and hear.

  • Sift your material.

    After a month, read your notes back. Look for themes and patterns, and for observations or descriptions that you like. See what emerges. Make a list of ideas that emerge from your scrawl. Then start to sketch out your story.

  • Get writing.

    Preparation is essential, but once you have brain-stormed your ideas, it’s time to get down to the hard graft. Set yourself a set of realistic targets and work towards them. If you want to write a plot outline before you start (which is optional) decide how long you want to spend on this. Once you are happy to start on the actual draft, decide how long each chapter draft will take. I find a chapter a month works well for me. Some take less time than this, which means I have a warm glow of achievement.

  • Be ruthless.

    You might not want to go as far as James Joyce, who dragged his family round Europe and lived in rented digs while he penned his masterworks, but you will have to prove to your nearest and dearest that this is serious. Rather than watching The Killing you are writing something of your own. And be tough with yourself as well. If you normally crack open a bottle of wine when you get home from work, the wine will have to go.

  • Find your rhythm.

    Articles like this can often be too prescriptive: there is no right or wrong way to write a book. But you need to find the best way to produce a novel that suits your life and energy levels. If you can write before work, or the children wake up, then fine. If you are a night owl and like to write in the small hours, that’s just as good. The key to success is to find the most productive period in your day, and write at that time. Every day. Five hundred words at least.

  • Find your space.

    As with time, so with location. Where are you at your happiest and most focussed? I like libraries, cafes and trains. Like many other writers I know, I have an office, but prefer to get away from my own desk and write somewhere else, some of the time at least. But if the kitchen table works for you, then use the kitchen table. If you feel stressed and distracted, don’t assume that this means you have to give up – try a new writing location.

  • Lose yourself.

    One of the unsung joys of writing a book is that you can create your own world and go there every day. There’s nothing like it. Forget about the bestseller list, this year’s Booker winner and all the rest of it. Invent your world, and follow the logic of your own imagination, and you will have one of the most rewarding experiences that life can offer. And don’t worry about finding a publisher – yet. That will come later.


Sally O’Reilly is the author of How to Be a Writer: The definitive guide to getting published and making a living from writing. She is also the author of two novels and winner of the Cosmopolitan prize for new journalists. A former Associate Lecturer with the Open University, Sally is currently an Isambard scholar at Brunel Univerity, studying for a doctorate in English and creative writing.