How to write a novel

The title of this post might lead you to think I’ve got something clever to say about how to write a novel. I don’t really, but I thought I’d take a break from my attempt at writing one to write a post about it.

I started writing my first novel a few weeks ago, thanks to the 2012 Olympics, which inspired me to follow my dreams (there’s a post about it here). When I checked the date of that post, I was amazed to find that it was only about 7 weeks ago, because it feels as if I’ve been slogging away at this novel for much longer than that.

Every now and then, when I get stuck and don’t know what to write next, I wonder if I’m doing it the right way, or even if there is a right way to write a novel. Certainly, in terms of knowing the storyline, it would seem that despite being the author myself, I’m pretty much in the dark. The initial idea I had about it when I began writing has completely fallen by the wayside now because it’s turned into something entirely different. Is this normal, I wonder?

I remember years ago seeing a documentary about J K Rowling, in which she showed a plan of the Harry Potter stories. From what I remember, she had a large sheet of paper which looked sort of like a family tree. The names of all the main characters were on it and their stories and relationships to other characters were noted down. Her organisation of the whole thing was staggering. I believe it was a period of six years from when she had the idea about Harry Potter to when she finished writing the first book, so perhaps that’s why her storylines seem so well thought out.

She famously wrote quite a lot of the first book in a cafe in Edinburgh, using a pen and paper, and I’ve heard of other authors who do this, to great success. I began writing mine by typing directly into my laptop. I think I had thought that there was no point in trying to write it on paper and then type it up, as that would only lengthen the whole process, but when I tried writing by hand I discovered something quite interesting. Maybe it’s because my handwriting is slower than my typing, but I seem to write more concisely using paper and a pencil (I tried a pen but it didn’t cut the mustard, why, I’ve no idea).

Quite a lot of what I initially write, I then chop out when I read it over, and at the rate I’m going I should imagine I might have to write about three times as much as I actually need for one book. It’s tempting to get annoyed with myself for ‘wasting’ days writing things I subsequently discard, but I think it’s all part of the creative process and you don’t get better at anything without practice.

My first goal on the way to completing the book was to reach 10,000 words, which I did yesterday. I hit that point rather earlier than anticipated in my schedule (I’m giving myself 2 years to write the whole thing), but I’m not getting too excited by that because it could well be that the next 10,000 words take much longer to write. In fact, the first 6,000 or so were quite hard to come by, and then the last 4,000 appeared as if by magic. Mind you, it was at the 6,000 word mark that the the book completely changed direction and it worries me slightly that I might end up going back to that point and rewriting everything that follows it, because I’m not yet convinced that I’m going in the right direction.

The jist of all this is that although I have begun the task and am making some progress, I honestly don’t know if this is how you write a novel. I’ve been wanting to write a novel for as long as I can remember, but until now I’ve never made much of an effort to achieve the ambition.

I’m quite fond of quoting a certain piece of good advice to myself that comes from Agatha Christie: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”. Quite right, if you don’t start something how can you expect to finish it? But it’s not only the starting that’s important, because if I give up now all I’ll have is 10,000 words of text with no middle and no ending. Right now, finishing it seems a long way off, but every journey begins with a single step, and each word I write takes me closer to the end result.

My personal attitude to achieving my goal is simply to crack on and write, even if it seems laboured and dreadful at times, which it does. However, with any luck there will be some gems amongst all the debris.

My mum used to take us shell collecting on beaches when we were small, and the aim was always to find some cowrie shells, which we prized highly because they were relatively rare where we were searching. Writing this novel is a bit like walking along a vast expanse of shelly beach. There are a number of nicely preserved shells of various types, amongst a lot of broken up pieces that have been smashed against rocks and eroded, and every now and then there’s a beautiful whole cowrie shell. A lot of what I write falls into the broken shells category, some into the nicely preserved but common shells department, and every now and then a cowrie, in the form of a neat little idea or a satisfyingly constructed sentence, pops up. These cowrie moments motivate me to keep walking along the beach.

Little white cowrie on the beack – photo courtesy of

It’s very easy to look at people who have succeeded at something you’re trying to do and assume that because you feel you can’t compete with them, there’s no point in trying. I’ve often thought like that about things in life, but I’ve gradually learned that there’s nothing to be gained from it, other than misery and a lack of self worth. J K Rowling was a struggling single mother living on benefits and suffering from clinical depression when she started writing about a young boy wizard. Her determination and drive to succeed are an inspiration. She had no idea her stories would bring her the fame and fortune that they have, she just wanted to write.

Regardless of her huge success, what inpsires me most about her is that she eventually did what she’d always wanted to do: write books. The only thing stopping me from completing a novel is myself, so if I don’t do it I will have only myself to blame. On the up side, if I do complete it, I’ll have a great sense of achievement. It’s a little early to say perhaps, but, after many years of doubting myself, I think I can in fact fulfil my dream.


46 thoughts on “How to write a novel

  1. Some days it’s a monumental effort to write a short blog post! I cannot imagine tackling a novel – but I think it’s wonderful that you are and it’s so interesting to read about the process. I’ve often heard that it does happen – you start off thinking the story will go one way and it turns out completely differently. And this resonates SO much with me Lorna: “It’s very easy to look at people who have succeeded at something you’re trying to do and assume that because you feel you can’t compete with them, there’s no point in trying.”

    • Thank you Annie, I completely agree about the blog posts, I struggled to write this one and, on reading it over, I can see that there is huge scope for improvement in practically every sentence, but you have to hit the ‘publish’ button at some point. What I said about assuming you can’t compete is practically the story of my life, so I can certainly empathise with you. I know that your blog is an inspiration to many people, so keep at it, you’re doing a great job!

  2. what an encouragement to those of us who write, Lorna. I admire your courage to start and keep going. The quote of Agatha Christie is very apt and that will be a keeper for me. congratulations on 10,000 words …. wow! I can relate to having trouble even writing a short blog post. You are miles ahead of me who has only thought of writing a book but you are a great example of someone who not only thought about but is doing something about it. Well done! All the best for the middle and ending. 🙂

    • Thank you Alison, you’re most kind. I’ve spent many years just thinking about doing it, and I’m still nowhere near the finished result, but I’m hoping that writing blog posts about it will help to keep me motivated. Once I’ve told people I’m doing it, I don’t want to lose face by giving up! When I get stuck I go for a walk in the hope of finding inspiration. I did that this afternoon and just got more confused about my storyline, so I can see it’s going to be a long job completing the middle and end. I would encourage you to have a stab at it, sometimes getting started is the hardest part.

  3. After completing 3 novels for children, I certainly am still no more the wiser about how to wite a novel. It sounds like you are on the right track. Some people plan it all out in detail first (I don’t), others just write what comes in their head. Often the story changes direction as you write. Giving your self 2 years is wise and realistic as you will find your self doing a few rewrites. I also like to write parts of the story in longhand and then revise as I put it into the computer. I wish you best of luck. You go girl!!

    • Thank you for your comment and encouragement Darlene, I’m in awe of your writing success, and very interested to hear how you approach it. It’s good to know that not everyone plans a book out in detail, although I do wish I knew how to do that. It seems to take an inordinately long time to write a novel, which is one thing that might put me off, well it would if I wasn’t so desperately keen to achieve it. I think I’ll be doing the same sort of thing as you do, writing part of it in longhand and revising it as I type, that seems to be working for me. I would very much like to read one of your books, perhaps your most recent one in particular because of it being set in England. I’m going to ask at my library and see if they have any of yours – and if they don’t I’ll ask why not!

  4. Lorna you’re so right to just go for it (split infinitive, but what the hay). I’ve written two novels, one of which I think is good, but I’ve never managed to find an agent or a publisher for it, despite having come quite close at times. However, I don’t regret having written either of them at all. The process was somehow necessary for me, and deeply pleasurable although also maddeningly frustrating at times. There’s such a luxury about having a lot of room to explore characters / situations / questions…

    I remember talking about writing by hand vs. typing with Alan Spence, and he said something I agree with very much: “There’s a connection between the hand holding a pen and the heart that you just don’t get with a keyboard”. I find that very much myself. Like Darlene, I draft longhand and redraft by typing. Not that I’ve been able to do any creative writing for quite a long time now, but if and when I do, I will so much enjoy picking up my pen again!

    • Wise words from Alan Spence and Christine Laennec! It’s funny about the act of writing as opposed to typing, but it seems to be quite common amongst authors and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why. Strange that it should be like that though, isn’t it?

      I didn’t realise you had already written two novels, are you not keen to keep trying to find a publisher? Have you thought of trying to get an agent? I believe finding an agent can be more trouble than finding a publisher, mind you, and I think either way it’s hard work and you have to face a lot of rejection (I’m not looking forward to that bit!). As you say, just writing is a most satisfying (and also frustrating) process.

      • Hi again – I have spent a lot of time trying to find both publishers and agents for the novel I think is good, and although I’ve apparently come close, and had various people’s help, I’ve had no luck placing it. At the moment my life is 110% dedicated to nursing my daughter and I haven’t been able to write for well over a year, so novel-writing seems very far away indeed. I don’t know what form my writing will take once I am able to go back to it, but who knows. Do you subscribe to Mslexia? I’d recommend doing that. You can find out a lot about what’s going on in the writing world (all different genres), and they have some good nuts-and-bolts articles on the craft of writing as well.

        • That’s a shame, but perhaps an opportunity to publish it will come up one of these days when you least expect it, I hope so because I’m sure there’s a place for it somewhere. I can understand your lack of time for writing at the moment, you do need time to yourself and a clear space in which to think, and obviously writing novels is not a priority for you at the moment. I haven’t done any writing of mine since I did this post either – too many other things getting in the way! I’ve heard of Mslexia (perhaps on your blog?) but I haven’t subscribed, I’ll check it out post haste, thank you!

  5. now you you know why I take photographs – joking aside – I am very process driven and assumed (with no research) that planning would be everything – this would generate the framework and the structure to keep you on track (beginning middle and end) also to ensure the audience are introduced to the characters and have some structure (even if you want to challenge them by knocking things out of kilter) once the structure in place I thought this is when the constructive piece would kick in – but in honesty – what do I know I have always preferred fact over fiction – lol

    • That was what I thought too Scott, but I found that my brain couldn’t get past the initial stages of planning, i.e. just finding the main characters and getting them to do something. As for finding the middle and end, it’s only a very hazy idea in my mind at the moment, I don’t know quite how I’m going to get there, and I’m not at all sure how it’s going to end. I feel there must be a better way than my approach, but I suppose you can only do what you can do. There is something very reassuring about fact!

  6. Good for you. I think any method of writing that works for you is the correct method. I’ve read that other authors say sometimes a character takes on a life of his/her own and becomes something different than the author originally planned. I admire you very much for working to achieve your dream.

    • Thank you very much, I’ve heard the same thing about other authors, which is comforting to know. The only thing I’m hanging onto at the moment is that I have a central character and at least that’s something, but just about everything else is open to question. I expect it’s going to be a case of feeling my way and hoping it all works out. I have no doubt that many far better writers than me have had to go through the same sort of process, so I live in hope that it will eventually resolve itself!

  7. Lorna, what an honest and impressive post. There are all kinds of books on “How to Write a Novel.” I have several. They have not done me much good in the “progress” department. I’ve also taken multiple writing courses from excellent writing programs. And yet, the best advice I’ve ever gotten is from my husband who, in my opinion, said it best. He said, “All writers, great or not, have one thing in common. They write.” So – you are doing it! You will get there. What an accomplishment to have achieved your first 10,000 words. Who cares what gets thrown out. Writers write. Keep writing. I admire your determination. You keep going!!! I will look forward to following the road you take.

    • What a wonderfully positive comment, thank you Linda! I agree with your husband, if you don’t get going with something it’s not going to happen, so at least I’ve taken the first step on the way. I haven’t read any of these sorts of books about how to write, basically because I’m too lazy and I just want to get on with my writing, but I have read a book about getting published and that had a lot to say about how to write and refine your writing, including this business of having to be merciless in the editing department. I think there’s no denying that it’s a difficult process, perhaps more difficult for some than for others (how on earth some of these successful authors have churned out dozens of books, I have no idea), but it seems like a worthwhile pursuit if you really want to do it. I will continue to bore you with my literary journeys! 🙂

  8. You have made a massive step by starting, and it sounds as if you are really loving it. I am not going to ask questions like ‘what is it about’ because I’d be pretty secretive myself if I was writing a novel, but I have every faith in your abilities and wish you the best of luck – and enjoyment!

    • Thank you Jo, there are times when I love it, but a lot of the time I feel vexed with myself for being so sluggish in the brain. That’s my natural impatience I suppose, and I think that if I told you what it was about today I would have to update you with a completely different storyline this time next week. Right now, I feel my ideas are all over the place and I’m a bit like a shepherd trying to gather up wayward sheep. They all keep baa-ing at me, and I don’t know which one to chase. Happy times! 🙂

  9. Hi Lorna, any accomplishment is one which brings us closer to our goals. 10,000 words is an incredible feat too.

    No happiness ever came from comparisons with people over things we don’t have, their accomplishments or what ‘might’ have been.

    Your future is your own and your painting it now! Amazing things shall happen on those soon to be near horizons 🙂

    • Thank you Alice, very nice of you to say so, and I completely agree about comparing yourself with others, although I still do it all the same. We each have to make our own way in the world and remember that we’re all unique individuals with different paths to success. I’m looking forward to amazing things on the horizon! 🙂

  10. Lorna
    As you know. I am also writing a novel. No, I’m not going to go into detail about what I’m doing, because this is about you. 10,000 words is a wondeful accomplsihment. Don’t worry about writing and then cutting out big chunks-that’s what happens. I’m not sure who said it but “writing is rewriting” is true. I also write better on paper, and I think it’s because I don’t have to think about anything but the story that’s forming in my head. Typing is still a foreign thing. Maybe because we learn to write at such a young age, I doin’t know.

    Every writer does it the way that works best for them. You say you aren’t sure that this is how you write a novel. From everything I’ve read, and heard, there is no “one way” to write-or engage in any creative activity. So just do what you’re doing. I know your novel will be a success, regardless of whether it sells or not. Good luck and hats off!

    • Thank you Kathleen, it’s nice to have contact with other people who are going for the same goal, and I’m looking forward to reading your novel! That’s an excellent thing to remember, ‘writing is rewriting’, how very true, and I do accept that it’s just the way it is, and indeed an important part of the whole thing. It’s funny that you describe it as a creative activity, because I don’t think of myself as very creative, but of course it is and everyone creates in a different way, so I’ll try to remind myself of that.

  11. Keep up the writing, you’ll get there. What a wonderful and inspiring thing to do 🙂 One day I’d like to write a novel too, but until that day I’m trying my hand at screenwriting!

    Are you based in Edinburgh? There are some great writers’ groups in the city if you ever need a bit of chat and encouragement.

    • Thank you Claire, screenwriting sounds even harder than writing a novel to me! Mind you, I know next to nothing about it, I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin. What made you start doing that?

      I’m from Edinburgh originally, but these days I live up in Perthshire. I hadn’t thought about writers’ groups, there might well be something up here although I’m out in the sticks a bit. Thank you for the suggestion though, and best of luck with your writing, it sounds intriguing to me.

      • I find the writers’ groups good fun and they really help to give you a bit of extra oomph when you’re feeling a bit fed up. Hopefully there’s a couple in your area you could meet up with?

        As for the screenwriting, I love films and love writing, so I figured it was a good combo. I’ve tried other kinds of writing; poetry, prose, play scripts… this is the first kind that is really sticking 🙂 Hope to have a feature length by this time next year! x

        • That’s great that you’ve found something you really enjoy writing, and how exciting to be writing a feature length script, to me that seems amazing! Best of luck with it, I’ll be keeping an eye out for your name in the credits of forthcoming blockbusters.

  12. Wonderful post Lorna. I know exactly how you feel as do many budding writers, it’s a totally frustrating process and we’re so wrapped up in our belief there must be a formula to writing a successful book that we are adamant we must be doing something wrong when we veer of course a little. Perhaps the veering is the way forward and the route that your book should take, I am certain that JK must have changed her storyline many times too, (as have I) , it’s called creative writing after all and the fact that you have started your novel, have set goals for its completion and are so determined to succeed means you are well on your way to winning. Go for it!

    • Thank you Eleenie, most kind. It really is very encouraging to hear other writers describe similar frustrations because it’s such a solo activity that you can can easily lose a bit of perspective. It’s a constant struggle to keep going sometimes, but I know I’m not alone in having these troubles and anything worth doing is going to take a bit of effort, after all.

  13. As always, Lorna, your post is very uplifting and motivational! If your novel is written in a similar manner then it will be a delight to read, I can’t wait (no pressure though!).

    • Thank you kindly Leanne! Truth to tell, I’m a bit worried that my novel might be a tad boring, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, or at least I’ll hopefully have more of an idea if it really is as dull as ditchwater when I’ve written more of it. I keep thinking about your tearoom-centred idea, which I very much like, but my writing isn’t veering that way at the moment, so perhaps I’ll keep that in mind for another novel. Another one, indeed, I haven’t even written the first one yet! 🙂

  14. Dorothy Parker famously said “I hate writing. I love having written.” Which hits the nail right on the head, don’t you think? All and all, I’m convinced that accomplishing anything of note is 5 % inspiration and 95% discipline. I’m not sure there’s a right way or a wrong way to write a novel. The most important thing is that you’re doing it, despite all the ups and downs that go with it. So keep slogging through, my friend. You certainly have the talent for it, and I’m among the many that are eagerly awaiting the end result — Lucinda :0) xo

    • What a wonderful quote, I must say it rings big bells with me! I read your comment this morning and then I read a quote of Calvin Coolidge’s which reinforced the same sentiment: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” Quite a chap for a quote, I thought. Thank you again for your encouragement, I will be sure to bombard you with more details than you’ll want as I slog along.xo 🙂

    • Thank you Meg, I’m reading the comments with great interest, too. I think a lot of people wonder about writing a novel at some point in their lives, perhaps particularly bloggers since we’re already writing regularly. I hope that at some point I’ll become wiser about how to do it successfully – you never know!

    • Well, at first it was a murder mystery, but now I’m not so sure because I’ve changed it and there’s no longer a body, which is kind of essential. Thank you for the encouragement Sukirtha, I’ll keep at it, and no doubt have numerous changes along the way before I settle on the final idea.

  15. I feel exactly the same way. I try to write as well, and that is something most writers go through. There is not a formula to write a novel; each writer has his/her own method, and what works for one does not for the other one. The only solution is to write. Keep on practicing, and you will find your way. One day you will fell less insecure and be proud of what you are writing.
    Maybe you find this web interesting:

    • Thank you for your support Noemi, and for the link, I’ll certainly investigate that. I think you must be right about the method, it is down to the individual to find something that works for them. Up till now I’ve been trying to be something I’m not and it hasn’t been working, so I think you’re absolutely right that I should do what works for me. I’m happier now that I’m looking at it that way. 🙂

    • Thank you kindly, it is just a case of keeping going isn’t it? I think JK is a great inspiration to writers and readers alike. There will be a whole generation of children who grew up with Harry Potter, which is a wonderful legacy.

  16. Lorna, when there is will there is a way. If you truly believe in achieving something you will definitely do it. Wishing you success in your endeavors Lorna! PS- You are a very good writer and that can be a start for your future writing!

    • Thank you Aparna, your encouragement is much appreciated. I doubt myself a lot, as most people do I suppose, but you’re right that if you truly believe you can do something and are determined enough, you can make it happen. I need to keep reminding myself of that.

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