Tips on how to write a novel

The title of this post is laughable really – don’t know why I used it. There is, of course, no ‘way’ to write a novel. You just start writing, learn things through trial and error, work out what works for you. You have to find your own way. Having said that, it’s always useful to hear how other writers go about their processes – sometimes you’ll find something that fits for you.

1.    To plan or not to plan

I don’t plan. Never have. Though I do know a couple of writers who do (most don’t, in my experience), and their first drafts do tend to come out a little nicer in terms of structure and direction. If you’re new to the writing process and feel you need some guidance, there’s plenty of stuff online to help you plan your novel. I did have a crack at Randy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowflake Method’ once and found that pretty useful. Don’t think I stuck to the plan in the end though, but it felt nice to write it out. Comforting.

Don’t worry about having a beautifully planned novel before you’ve started, and don’t get hemmed in by any plan as you start spitting out the words. See where the words take you.

I should say that, once I’ve got the first draft out, I do write the whole thing out in terms of plot/character points and compare it against something like the hero’s journey. But I don’t worry about that kind of thing before or during the first draft; I’d never get anywhere if I did – there’s something paralysing about getting bogged down in all that (but that’s just me).

2.      Do something towards your novel each day

If that sounds like too much hard work, ask yourself whether you actually have the stamina to write a whole book. I’d recommend taking one day off your book per week, nothing more.

If you’re not feeling creative, revise/edit your work. If you’re strapped for ideas, do some brainstorming or rewrite a scene in a different way (eg from the perspective of a character other than the one you’ve been using). There are of course days when you just don’t feel like writing or when you’re too tired or distracted to do anything useful – and even revising stuff you’ve already done could set you back because you’ll change things that are better left alone. On those days, research. All books need research – even those that ostensibly have no historical or informative content. And there’s nothing stopping you writing a synopsis of what you’ve done so far – these can be useful for seeing holes in your book anyway.

Of course, there’s much to be said for taking a prolonged break from your work and then coming back to it with fresh eyes after a month, two, a year. But that’s later. In the initial stages? Just keep writing until you’ve got the whole thing down on paper, otherwise you’ll lose your momentum.

3.      Find your own process

How and when do you write? For me, I have to write in the morning, when my creative brain is at its best. After about midday I get what my godfather refers to as ‘toothpaste brain’ and it’s bloody useless for writing. It’s still good for editing/revising/research though, so I do those things in the afternoon.

I do most of my writing in cafés – I prefer to be somewhere with movement. Others would hate that though, and work in a quiet room at home. Some people like to be somewhere visually stimulating, like a nice park (I’ve tried that a few times myself – it’s worth a crack).

Some people prefer to write long hand and then type what they’ve done. That would drive me insane – I type so much faster than I write and if I try to write long hand, I lose where my crazy brain’s going because I can’t keep up with it. There’s a romance to writing things out though, in tattered, dog-eared notebooks. I wish I could say I did that.

4.      Use the spaces

When I used to work in hospitality and had no customers in my section (and no more napkins to fold or cutlery to roll), I would stand somewhere and pretend to look useful, jotting notes down on my order pad. Sometimes if I’ve just missed the train and need to wait around, I’ll look for things I can make observations about – other people on the platforms, the state of the station house, Melbourne’s weather in June. Whatever. Carry a notebook with you always to record the good ones. Sometimes you’ll strike gold. That’s one of the things I like most about being a writer, using the spaces – nothing gets wasted.

5.      Read

This is part of my process but of course it doesn’t apply to everyone. One of my friends is a brilliant writer and he reads a book about every five years. I can’t do that. I read truckloads of books within my genre, noticing how others do it, working out what I do and don’t like. I read outside my genre of course but I’ve found it best to read the kinds of books that I want to write – the more the merrier. Trust me, it helps. You’ll start to feel like you know what you’re doing (for like a second, before you realise once again that you’re lost in the woods).

6.      Critique others’ work

I’m fortunate enough to have a few writer friends (and I did a writing course not long ago where lots of workshopping was involved), and we often swap work. It is of course so much easier to critique others’ work than your own, to pick up their ticks (like overusing certain words/phrases or starting every sentence with a noun) and see the holes/opportunities for development. However giving feedback on others’ work will open your eyes a bit and make you better at reviewing your own.

7.      Ignore the advice of people like me

Sounds obvious, but there’s no right or wrong way to write. Find your own path. Don’t let people tell you what to do, and certainly don’t get disheartened if others’ writing processes seem more refined than yours. No one knows more than you do about how to write your book, and the process for each book you write may well be different.

I think that’s probably enough from me on this subject for the moment. I might update the post in future as I think of all the things I’ve missed!

I’d be interested in hearing from other writers about their processes and tips.

The final thing I should say is: don’t chuck in the towel. Writing isn’t easy, and the more you do it/more you learn about it, the harder it seems to get. Roll with the punches and just keep writing.


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