How to Write a Novel. Part 1.


To date I have written three novels, of which my wife likes two. None of them has been published in the traditional sense but, whatever their merits, they do exist. If you want to write a novel and have absolutely no idea how to go about it, then perhaps – just perhaps – I can help. Relax: I’m not selling anything, and there isn’t one “weird old tip” that I wish to fail to impart having hoovered up an hour of your life, flicking through a seemingly endless series of pages before, at last, asking you for money. I wouldn’t do that to you.

Getting Started

Writing a novel is a major undertaking that requires endurance and commitment. It is the writing equivalent of running a marathon, and few would realistically expect to be able to cover those twenty-six miles in their shiny new trainers without intensive training and lots and lots of practice. Similarly, most writers will probably need to build up to a novel, by way of diary entries, short scenes, descriptive paragraphs and, finally, short stories. So how does one go about doing all of these things? Well, that’s up to you. Personally, I found the support and expertise of a couple of short courses in Creative Writing (from the Open University) invaluable. Before these courses, all of my attempts at marshalling my writing skills had failed dismally. After them, I had the skills I needed to get started. You might find that you can get started unaided, or with the help of a teaching book or web site (no recommendations, I’m afraid). However you do it though, here are some golden rules to help your nascent writing career. Obviously no such list is definitive, but these things have helped me.

Read Every Day

A writer who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t eat. You should read for pleasure, as a relaxation, but you should also read as a writer. Working out how other writers create suspense, sexual tension, a sense of frustration etc. will help you enormously. Unlike our chef, you won’t necessarily find a recipe for any of these things but, by reading with a critical eye, you will begin to be able to deconstruct the finished product and then recreate it in your own image.

Be an Observer

Everyone you meet will have something interesting about them that you can bring into use for future characters. Everyone has a story, be it real or the one you can only guess at, based on clues in their appearance and behaviour. Be careful though and don’t blame me if clumsy efforts get you into trouble!

Write Every Day

Just like our marathon runner, if you want to get anywhere then you will have to exercise every day and preferably at the same time every day. It is hard to overstate the positive benefits of routine. If you wait for the mood to strike then it probably never will. Instead, the act itself promotes the mood and this – in turn – promotes the act. Regularity will help to bed the habit in. I commute to London every day by train, with a one hundred minute journey each way. As I live a long way up the line, I get a seat every morning, which allows
me to use my laptop. On the underground, I get off after one stop, wait for an empty train from the depot, and then continue with a fresh seat for the last twenty-five minutes. One the way home, things are more unpredictable and I often have to stand on the tube. This gives me some reading time. Then, when I get back to the main line, a little more jiggery-pokery maximises my chances of getting a seat, even if I have to get two trains where one would do. It’s patchy, and not absolutely guaranteed, but it’s a routine and I stick to it.

Generate Little Ideas to Promote the Big Idea

OK, so you’re on the train, or in the potting shed, or wherever; pencil poised or laptop booted. What do you do when ideas refuse to come? Personally, I find that setting myself exercises often helps in this situation. You’ll still be writing and flexing those creative muscles, but you will have freed your imagination from the wilting pressure of coming up with the one big idea that will become your first novel. Don’t view what you write during these little exercises as wasted effort; they’re warm ups, pre-run stretches that will prepare you for therigours ahead. What type of exercise are there? Well, that’s up to you too. You might like to try some of those listed below, or you might like to make up your own. The important thing is to keep writing.


One typical family of exercise revolves around writing a scene while following one or more predefined rules. Perhaps your scene will have to incorporate a number of pre-written sentences (perhaps from a newspaper, or a book, or an overheard conversation) or a set of random objects. Once written, your scene will probably reflect a particular mood, so you can try rewriting it to capture an opposing mood, showing the same actions or thoughts through the filter of love, jealousy or triumph. You could also write around your scene, to flesh it out with ideas suggested by it. Once you get to this stage, you can set yourself a word budget (e.g. a thousand words) and then stick to it, to within five or ten percent (you decide), and be just as unforgiving of going over as you are of coming up short. This will encourage editorial skills. Mark Twain once famously apologised to a correspondent for sending a long letter, pointing out that if he’d had more time, he would have sent a shorter one. All of the examples below are from my first creative writing course, as are my responses. I’m not claiming that they are model responses, and my tutor’s reactions are not recorded, but they do, at least, give an idea of what is required.

Similes and Metaphors

Avoiding cliché, construct striking similes and metaphors.

  • Her hatred had been a spider that had sucked upon her soul until nothing was left but an empty shell.
  • The snowy sky was as white and as full as an American refrigerator.
  • I want to be as bad as a see-through negligee.

A Collection of Objects

Write a scene that incorporates the following objects: A photograph, a stuffed dog, a copy of Grey’s Anatomy, a globe drinks cabinet, a revolver.

The stone-walled space was compact; deceptively so, as no casual visitor would have supposed that such a small space could contain such eclecticism. On the stone mantel, amid unopened letters and half-burned candles, stood a bronze frame displaying the photograph of a faintly smiling old woman wearing a pill-box hat, and holding a Pekingese. The latter’s stuffed remains languished unloved in a glass case under a Louis-Seize chair in the room’s darkest corner. Next to the chair was a globe drinks cabinet, which, bereft of content, stood unopened where it had these twenty dusty years. On the table in the room’s claustrophobic centre, a cramped space was cleared, in which a musty copy of Grey’s Anatomy mutely presented its lecture on the arteries of the brain in pastel pinks. A pair of tortoiseshell pince-nez spectacles in the crease of the page bore witness to an earlier reader as did a lonely cigarette that smouldered in a glass ashtray in the sill of the room’s only window. Just below, on the ancient rug, a revolver also smoked as if in imitation. Slowly, these two agents of death contrived to veil the room, like naughty children trying to conceal what one, or both, of them had done.

So what do we have here? A murder? A suicide? An old, decaying family seat? Who is or was the woman in the photograph? Who was the reader and why their interest? Where are they now? Are they both alive, or is one or more of them dead? Are they the same person? With so many questions, to which you can provide answers, there is a wealth of scope here for practice.

Different Moods

Write the same scene twice, in which a character visits the supermarket both after a promotion at work and after the end of a love affair.

After a Promotion

She had never really noticed the musack before, but today she was running on adrenaline – she was pumped – she was wired. She’d given a bitching presentation today; and afterwards had been pulled aside and told that the new team lead position was hers. With the extra money she could at last look at that new car, and move out of that dingy flat. Still life went on and she still had to eat, so here she was. The lights, high above, gave everything a soft inviting glow. The aisles were packed with her fellow shoppers, with their clumsy trolleys, but she breezed through them, inspecting the ripe, juicy fruit and the crisp vegetables with a keen, appreciative eye. Everything looked and smelled so good. She picked up a melon and breathed its perfume in deep. The heady, honeyed aroma made her head whirl – that was definitely going in. Passing the growing herbs, she passed her hand through the sap green and purple clusters of basil, and sniffed her hand. God, she loved that smell. She picked some up and added beefsteak tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Tonight was insalata Caprese. She’d need some wine – crisp and white, oh and something indulgent – chocolate would be perfect – one of those melt in the middle Belgian chocolate puddings. What the heck, she deserved it, and tomorrow, when there was more time to prepare, she would organize a night out with the girls. She chatted with the cashier as her items were chirped through. As she left, her mind turned to the future and the happy changes it would bring.

At the end of a love affair

She’d never noticed the musack before, but today, its relentless cheeriness wore her down. She was deflated and tired after last night’s stand-up row with Max. What had it been about? She didn’t know exactly; just everything that had happened over the past six months distilled into a moment. Max had slammed his way out of her life and she couldn’t imagine him coming back. The shadowless fluorescent brightness hurt her eyes a little and she quailed at the sight of the packed aisles. Turning to go, she bumped into another shopper and his clumsy trolley. Blurting out an apology, she turned again, directly into the path of another. Extricating herself at last, she determined to brave it out and mooched over to the fruit area. The sweet aromas just made her stomach turn, so she headed instead for the ready meals.

‘For one’ she sighed to herself as she pulled out a frozen microwave lasagne. Sod it; that would have to do. She needed some wine – something strong – and some chocolate for that ‘loved up’ feeling it was supposed to give you. She needed to feel loved right now. Then, at last, she put the lasagne back, keeping the wine and chocolate. Perhaps some of the girls could come over for a good long talk – it’s no good getting pissed on your own. She avoided the cashier’s eye at the checkout and stood impatiently while her bag was packed, cash in hand. As she left, her mind turned to the past and how good it had been at times. She’d get over it, but right now she was a car-crash. A single tear, ambassador for a whole lot more, welled in her eye.

Shopping List

Construct a shopping list and then write a scene to explain it, introducing a final twist.

John noticed a sheet of paper on the mantelpiece. On picking it up, he saw that it was a shopping list. His wife, who lay sleeping upstairs, was due a very busy day, so he resolved to take the list with him, saving her the trouble of shopping herself. Besides, she hadn’t been well recently – occasionally short of breath, and once her face had swollen up only to subside overnight. She’d visited the doctor yesterday, but he had flown in too late to speak without waking her, so he still didn’t know what had happened. He felt bad not seeing her, but she needed her rest, so he quietly left the house. As he shopped, he wondered what his wife was planning, as the ingredients looked so odd together. Perhaps they were for with his approaching birthday. He reasoned that as he couldn’t possibly guess what they were for, he couldn’t spoil any surprises. Back at home, he unpacked the shopping onto the table just as Shirley walked in. She recoiled in horror.

‘Are you trying to kill me?’ she cried. ‘You’ve bought everything on my allergy list! Strawberries, rhubarb, peanuts, sesame seeds, Soya beans, cracked wheat, almonds…’

John smacked himself on the forehead.

‘Allergy list! Crap! I thought it was shopping!’

It was only once he had packed the dry ingredients from his shop into the back of a cupboard, that he became aware that he had kept them, not out of habit, but from some deeper, darker instinct. He might just need them in the future.


Write a scene in which two characters argue. Let the reader see the cause of the argument and how the two characters feel about the situation.

As Will opened yet another fusty old book, Wanda heaved a heavy sigh and ostentatiously surveyed her watch. She knew that he loved old books and, being a good girlfriend, even encouraged him from time to time in his obsession. After all, that was how successful couples tick right? She didn’t suppose that Will was overly fascinated in her ‘rhodie bashing’ weekends or her other conservation work, but he still dragged himself along whenever he could spare the time. Will’s voice intruded into her reverie.

‘What now?’ he demanded.

Peeved by Will’s tone, Wanda spat out her reply, ignoring the faintly disapproving looks from the shop’s proprietor.

‘We’ve been here nearly an hour. We have to get moving.’ If the word “hour” had come from one Will’s dusty old tomes, it would doubtless have appeared in bold italics, such was the emphasis with which it had been formed.

Will never really understood her when she was like this.

‘An hour?’ he asked querulously ‘I could spend a lifetime among these first editions and signed copies. You can’t get this stuff in W. H. Smith’s you know! Can’t you go on and come back for me later?’

‘But we’re supposed to be out together!’ The proprietor looked up again and Wanda lowered her voice to a coarse whisper ‘Remember? We’re buying for the house! Do I have to do everything?’

‘Hey, I’m shopping for the house too,’ Will replied, evidently hurt and surprised. ‘They sell books by the yard here. Imagine how great they’d look in the library.’


In conclusion then, you can kick-start your creativity by reading as a writer, observing those around you and setting yourself exercises to get into a regular writing habit. With regular exercise, your writer’s muscles will soon become used to writing scenes and, like our long-distance runner, you will soon find your distance increasing and your confidence with it. There are still many traps to fall into ,which I will concentrate on later, but for now, give yourself free rein and have some fun.

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