Are you settling down into the new decade by starting to write a novel? Have you been mulling over a good story idea for years but failing to actually get it started? Or perhaps you’re putting words down but feeling unsure of what you’re doing and where you’re headed with it?
Writing a novel can be exciting and hugely satisfying, but at times it can feel like an impossibly enormous task and can plunge you into dark places …
I’m the director of Curtis Brown Creative, and tutor of our Starting to Write Your Novel Course. Here are some of my best tips on how to get your novel going on a sure footing and to feel good about your exciting new writing project:
1. Set aside proper, regular time to write
If you’re serious about doing this, show yourself and your writing some respect, figure out some regular time to do it, and then stick to that. Writing a book is both amazing and also, at times, a difficult slog. It’ll completely fall away if you don’t keep it up. It’s hard to hold your novel in your head, so that you can get down to work quickly and easily – if you leave long gaps between writing sessions and work erratically, you’ll be giving yourself a big uphill struggle and you’re much more likely to give up.
What ‘regular writing time’ actually IS varies from person to person. It could be the famous dawn session that many people wake up to each day; it might mean grabbing an hour to write every afternoon while your baby sleeps, or taking your laptop or notebook on your train journeys to and from work. Perhaps you can manage three hours on a Sunday afternoon but not during the week at all.
For some people, shortage of time is not a problem – but instead the challenge is to create structure in your time and find your focus. Here too, my tip would be to establish a workable and productive routine. Don’t expect yourself to be able to write all day every day – this can be very daunting. Instead decide on designated shorter time slots for your writing – you’ll probably find you can achieve more that way.
In general, my tip is to regularise your writing hours as far as you can – stick to the schedule and make sure others around you understand that it’s important for you to be able to do this.
2. Don’t expect your words to come out perfectly straight away
Lots of people start off enthusiastically writing a first draft, but then when they read over their material, they find it’s not as good as they want it to be, and they just delete it all.
Try to go easy on yourself. If your internal editor gets too dominant, you’ll spend your whole time deleting the material you’ve just written and you’ll never get beyond the first page or two. It’s better to just keep going and not look back too much for a good while. You can sort your prose out and make it read better later on, when you’ve got the rest of your story done.
Remember, great novels are made in the rewrite – and very few writers would dream of showing anyone their first draft.
3. Loosen up your writing and relax
If the big white screen and the blinking cursor intimidate you, take yourself off-computer and try writing longhand in a notebook for a while. If the very idea that you’re writing a novel is choking you up so the words won’t come out, try to limber up with some free writing. By this, I mean just set yourself five minutes, or ten, to write down everything that comes into your head – do it without stopping at all. This helps to lift the filter that sits between your head and your writing hand, and sets you up for the real writing (a bit like stretching before a run).
Writing to prompts can also be helpful. Just take an opening line that strikes you as interesting and see where it takes you. You can also use visual prompts, like a striking photo you’ve seen in the newspaper to write a short story. Here are some prompts you might like to try:
- Every night, when he came through the door, he thought maybe she’d be there.
- She was small for her age.
- Sam wondered what was inside the box.
- There was no safety net.
What kind of writer are you? When you start writing a novel, you will inevitably fall into one of two categories. I have a whole theory about this which you can read, along with my tips to help you get going.
4. Explore your ideas
Write down everything you know about what you want your novel to be. Jot down little half-formed thoughts and ideas and see where they take you. If there is a burning question you want to explore, note that down. If you’re fascinated by a setting or a time period or a subject, scribble notes about it. It’s through these meandering jottings that ideas will take shape.
5. Ask yourself ‘what if’ questions
When you feel you’ve come up with a character who intrigues you, or a striking opening scenario or the vague shape of a story, interrogate your ideas with ‘what if’ questions.
For instance: There’s a woman sitting alone in a restaurant looking sad – what if a man comes up to her and asks if he can join her at her table? – but what if she wants to be alone for a reason – what could that reason be? And how will the man react when she turns him down? What if he thinks he knows her from many years ago …? ‘What if’ questions can take you on a journey that builds story and plot.
6. Get to know your characters
Think about who your characters are – not just what they do in the story and what their names are.
You might like to put together character fact files, create character ‘mood boards’ full of images which relate to them; throw your main characters into difficult difficult situations to see how they’ll react; write some dialogue so you can feel their voices shaping up.
And think about what motivates them. Characters in a novel need to be so much more than chess pieces to be moved about the board according to your strategy.
7. Alternate between plotting and writing
While you’re in the early pages of your novel, I’d advise you do a combination of working out the plot of your story and writing.
Figuring out your plot will help to give focus and purpose to your writing – but conversely, feeling your way into the writing itself will help you to understand your story in a different and more visceral way. Each way of working should help you with the other.
8. Work out your structure
Once you’re making some headway with your story and you’re getting words down on the page, take some time to think about the structural features of your novel.
Will your story span a week, a year, a lifetime? – and will you divide it up into short chapters or just a few long sections corresponding to years in which the action happens?
Will you have a first-person narrator who’s looking back on the events of your story – or is the story unfolding in the present?
Will you tell it in first or third person?
Making key decisions about structure and the means of telling your story can help you get off on a sure footing.
9. Give yourself some targets to aim for
This isn’t for everyone, but lots of us like to have deadlines and goals. Perhaps you’ll decide that you need to try to write 3,000 words per week – or 1,000 words per day.
Maybe you’ll go for some broader deadlines – such as deciding that you need to be a third of the way through your first draft by Easter – or by the time of your Summer holiday – or have the whole of your first draft written by the end of the year.
Think of some deadlines and targets that feel realistic and achievable for you – there’s no point setting yourself up to fail – and be ready to adjust and rethink if necessary.
10. Don’t worry about wasted time
Lastly I’d say that nobody has a good writing day every single time they sit down to work. If you hit a tricky patch where the words just don’t come, take yourself away from it and spend some time with your plotting and planning – or print out what you’ve got and do some reading and editing. Or just go and read a good book to inspire yourself.
Sometimes it’s precisely when we think things are going really well with a novel and we’re producing lots and lots of words that we hit a stumbling block. It might mean there’s a problem with your story that you have to solve – but equally it could just be that your ‘back brain’ – the bit that dreams up the story and controls the direction of travel – needs to catch up with your front brain, where the writing of the words happens. (Disclaimer: I have no idea which part of your brain actually performs these separate functions! This is just my way of articulating the way that writing happens …).
If you’re stuck, you just need the time to become unstuck. If you have to cut whole swathes of your work, don’t delete them – keep them somewhere safe. You may yet find they’ll come in useful. Nothing is ever wasted – not if you’re smart about it.
And for a cheeky eleventh tip? How about signing up for our Starting to Write Your Novel online course. Designed for beginners, this 6-week course will help you kick-start your novel with teaching videos, resources, tasks and a student forum, all hosted on our secure bespoke learning platform.
Or take a look at our full set of 6-week online courses – Write to the End of Your Novel (to get you through that first draft) and Edit & Pitch Your Novel (to show you how to rewrite and pitch your work to literary agents).