Are you writing a book? Maybe you’re starting out for the first time? Twenty years ago, I was in your exact position. My wife was seriously unwell. I’d quit work to look after her. And yes, a lot of my time was spent caring for her . . . but that still left a whole lot of hours in the day.
I didn’t want to do nothing with that time. And I’d always wanted to write a book. (I’ve still got a little home-movie film clip of me, age 9, being asked what I wanted to me when I was grown up. I answered, “I want to be an author.”)
So, sitting at home, and often quite literally at my wife’s bedside, I opened my laptop and started to write.
That book grew into a 190,000 word monster. I slaved at that damn thing too. Worked really hard. Was perfectionist about every detail.
And I got an agent And I got a six-figure book deal with HarperColins, one of the world’s largest publishers. And the book went on to become a bestseller that sold in a load of foreign territories too.
And best of all? I got a career I loved. I’ve been in print continuously ever since, bringing out about a book a year in that time, and I’ve basically loved every second of it. (Oh, and my wife? Yeah, she’s got a long term condition that will never leave her, but she’s about a million times better than she was back in those days. It’s been an up-down ride, but we’ve been a lot more lucky than not.)
But you’re not reading this because you want to know about me.
You’ve got a big empty screen to deal with. A headful of ideas, a desire to write . . . but no structure for putting those ideas into practice. You want to know: what next?
Well, that’s a good question. (One I didn’t think about too hard when I started out, but then again I did end up deleting a 60,000 word chunk of my first draft because it was just no damn good.)
So what do you need to do next? You need to take the following steps, in the following order:
1. Take one fabulous idea
If you want to know how to write a novel, there is only one sensible place to start, and that’s with the very idea of your book – the thing you want to write about.
Concept matters massively. It’s almost impossible to overstate its importance. Stephenie Meyer writes competent prose, but it’s her concept that turned Twilight into a cultural phenomenon. Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, Stephen King are similar. They’re decent writers blessed with stunning ideas.
Agents know this, and – no matter what your genre – a strong premise is essential to selling a book. Given any two broadly similar manuscripts, agents will almost always pick the one with the strongest central concept.
How, then, do you get your amazing book ideas? The answer is that you probably already have them. Your killer idea may be germinating in your head right now. It may arise from a passion of yours; it may come out of a book you love.
It’s not about the seed of the idea. It’s how you develop it that counts.
The key here is
(A) picking material that excites you,
(B) picking enough material (so you want several ideas for possible settings, several ideas for possible heroes, several ideas for basic challenge/premise, etc. You want to be able to make choices from a place of abundance.)
(C) – and this is the genius bit – you need to start combining those ingredients in a way that ensures you have at least one rogue ingredient, one unexpected flavour in your concoction.
So let’s say that you just wanted to write a 1940s, film-noir style, private-eye detective story – an homage to Raymond Chandler and that great generation of writers. If you just replicated all those ingredients, you’d have an unsaleable book. Why? Because they’re too familiar. If people want those things, they’d just buy Chandler’s own work, or others of that era. So throw in – a ghost. A German secret agent. Or set the story in a black community in Alabama. Or . . . whatever. Just make sure there’s one discordant ingredient to make readers sit up and take notice.
(Oh, and if you want more help, grab the “Idea Generator” tool just below. It is incredibly easy to use and it will help you build that book!)
The next essential for any novelist is a story that simply forces the reader to keep turning pages. Fortunately, there are definite rules about how to achieve this.
The three crucial rules are:
I) Give the protagonist a major life challenge very early in the book and don’t resolve things till the very end.
II) Make sure that the jeopardy increases. By the final quarter or third of your novel, your protagonist needs to feel that everything hinges on the outcome of what follows.
III) If a chapter doesn’t advance the story in a specific way, you must delete that chapter.
Well, the principles aren’t that hard to understand, although executing the advice can a wee bit trickier. Meantime, we suggest you go into the subject in a bit more depth via our free plotting advice, plus guest blogger Gary Gibson’s suggestions about what to do when you hit a plot problem.
3. Add an unforgettable character or two
Long after a reader has forgotten details of a plot, the chances are they’ll remember the character who impelled it. The two things you absolutely must bear in mind when constructing your characters are:
I) Make sure that the character and the story bounce off one another in interesting ways. If, to take a stupid example, your character has a fear of spiders, the chances are that your story needs to force your character to confront those fears. You must bring your character into their zone of greatest discomfort.
II) Make sure you really, really know your character. It’s so often little things, subtleties that make characters seem human (e.g. Amy has a passion for Manhattan in winter; she collects a shell from every beach she’s ever visited.) If you want to check if you know your character well enough, we suggest you use our ultimate character builder.
One more thing that matters is where you place your camera. Do you write in the first person? The third person? Do you have one viewpoint or two or ten? These can be quite tricky issues and we recommend that you read more free tips on writing points of view.
Also (and this is a bit more advanced), do peek at Emma Darwin’s (one of our editors) sage advice on psychic distance.
4. Don’t forget to give your character inner life
One of the commonest problems we see is when a character does and says all the right stuff, but the reader never really knows what he or she thinks or feels.
If you don’t create that insight into the character’s inner world, the book will fail to engage your reader, because that insight is the reason why people read. After all, if you just want to watch explosions, you’ll go to a Bond or Bourne movie. If you want to feel what it’s like to be James Bond or Jason Bourne, you have no alternative but to read Ian Fleming’s or Robert Ludlum’s original novels.
This character insight is one of the simplest things for a novelist to do. You just need to remember that your protagonist has a rich inner world, and then you need to tell us about it. Not just the bland everyday things (e.g. “he felt hungry, so he sat down to eat”), but the things that make him different and unique. Get more character development advice.
5. Add drama
Your job as a novelist is to show action unfolding on the page. Readers don’t just want a third-hand report of what has just happened. That means you need to tell things moment-by-moment, as if you were witnessing the event. Consider the difference between this:
Ulfor saw the descending sword in a blur of silver. He twisted to escape, but the swordsman above, a swarthy troll with yellow teeth, was too fast, and swung hard.
(This form of narration is “showing”.)
Ulfor was badly injured in a swordfight.
(This form of narration is known as “telling”.)
The first snippet sounds like an actual story. The second sounds like a news report.
Obviously, you will need to use the second mode of storytelling from time to time. Telling can be a simple way to convey facts and speed things up, but for the most part, your tale needs to consist of scenes of dramatic action, glued together with bits of sparse narration. If in doubt, look up our free tips on the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.
6. Write well
It sounds obvious, but it’s no good having a glowing idea and a fabulous plot if you can’t write.
Your book is made up of sentences, after all, and if those sentences don’t convey your meaning succinctly and clearly, your book just won’t work.
Almost everyone has the capacity to write well. You just need to focus on the challenge. So think about the three building blocks of good writing:
I) Clarity. You need to express your meaning clearly.
II) Economy. Never use ten words when eight would do.
III) Precision. Be as precise as possible. This normally means you need to see the scene in your head before you can describe it clearly to a reader.
If you can manage those three things – and you can; it’s just a question of making the effort – then you can write well enough to write a novel. That’s nice to know, huh?
But don’t do this alone! Don’t kid yourself: writing a book is hard. Most people who start, don’t finish. Most people who finish, never get it published.
But we can help. We have a complete video course on How To Write. And a complete video course on Getting Published. And a supportive writing community. And a ton of masterclasses and filmed interviews and much, much more. What’s more you can get unlimited access to ALL of that by just taking out a simple monthly membership to Jericho Writers. To learn more about our club and what we have to offer you, just hop over here. We look forward to welcoming you.
7. What if I’m writing for children?
Same rules apply, no matter the age or genre you’re writing for, but we’ve put together a collection of our best tips for children’s authors, including help on how to get a literary agent who’s right for you and your work.
Whatever else, write clearly and economically. If your style isn’t immediate and precise, children won’t have the patience to keep with you. If a chapter doesn’t drive the story forwards, you’ll lose them. If in doubt, keep it simple. Write vivid characters to an inventive plot. Write with humour and a bit of mischief.
Oh, and don’t forget that you don’t have to go it alone. We have a great course led by a successful children’s author, which will allow you to learn in company of other writers like yourself.
8. Revise your first draft (with care)
Nearly all first drafts will have problems, some of them profound. That’s okay.
A first draft is just your opportunity to get stuck in on the real business: which is refining and perfecting the story you’ve just told yourself. Now is a pretty good time to go back over these tips and check (and we mean really check) your manuscript.
(You’ll find that a lot of these things are circular: you’ll use the same advice again and again, but make better use of it each time round.)
We’ve seen hundreds of new manuscripts every year, and we’re pretty good at recognising common problems. We’ve even got a checklist of recurring issues we find. Most are fixable, so you don’t need to worry too much if some of those apply to you.
The thing is simply to figure out what the issue is, then sit down to address it. Remember that all successful novelists started the same way as you did: with a bad manuscript.
The difference between success and failure is, as often as not, little more than hard work and persistence. And there’s always our self-editing course, too. If you’ve finished (or are close to finishing) your novel, then this course is a brilliant way to learn vital editing skills.
9. Get editorial feedback
Writing a book is hard work. It’s lonely. Those around you are seldom equipped to offer expert feedback and advice – and, of course, this is a difficult road. Most first novels do not get published.
So please don’t try to go it alone.
If you’ve finished your novel (and finished editing), then the most direct route to improving is to consider editorial advice on what’s working, what isn’t yet working, and what to do to fix it. This kind of feedback is invaluable to your writing, and since our editors are professionals themselves, they know how to add value. Nothing helps improve a novel more than meticulous, constructive editorial advice before it’s sent to agents.
10. Get a literary agent and a book deal
Literary agents only take about one book in a thousand, so before you take this final step, we do suggest that you’ve completed numbers 1 to 9 properly. You should also take a look at our advice on manuscript presentation to make sure you’re really prepared for the next stage. That said, if your novel is good enough, you will find it easy enough to secure representation. Just follow these steps.
A) Select your target agents. We have a complete list of literary agents and you can filter all data by genre, agent experience and more. It’s the most complete source of its kind.
B) Choose about 8-12 names. You’re looking for agents keen to take on new writers. If they happen to represent authors you love, so much the better. (More advice on how to start your agent search.)
D) Write a good, clear synopsis. A process that terrifies most writers, but this is easier than you might think. Just follow these tips.
E) Get your stuff out there.
And there you have it: 10 steps to get you started writing that novel.
Happy writing, Good luck. And keep going!
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)