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? Well, you do this:
If you want to start writing a book, take the following steps, in the following order …
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.
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.
Here are the rules you need to know:
Work with a very small number of protagonists (ie: main characters in your story. These are the ones who propel the action and whose stories the readers invest in.) You probably only have one protagonist, and that’s fine. If you have two or three, that’s fine too. More than that? Not for a first book, please! They’ll make your job too hard.
Start your story by unsettling the status quo very early on – first page possibly, but certainly within the first chapter. The incident that gets the story rolling is called the Initiating Incident, and it’s the catalyst for everything that follows
Give your protagonist a major life challenge very early in the book and don’t resolve things till the very end. The reader basically read the book to see whether your protagonist gets the thing they’re seeking. Does the gal get the guy? Does James Bond save the world?
Over the course of the book, make sure that jeopardy increases. That doesn’t have to be an even progression, by any means. But by the final quarter or third of your novel, your protagonist needs to feel that everything hinges on the outcome of what follows.
End your book with a crisis and resolution. So the crisis part is when everything seems lost. But then your hero or heroine summons up one last effort and saves the day in the end. In general, in most novels, the crisis wants to seem really bad, and the resolution wants to seem really triumphant. It’s achieving the swing from maximum light to maximum dark that will really give the reader a sense of a satisfying book. (More on plot structure here. And try the snowflake method.)
And finally, one more crucial tip: if a chapter doesn’t advance the story in a specific way, you must delete that chapter. How come? Because all the reader really wants is to know whether your protagonist achieves the thing they’re seeking. If that basic balance between protagonist and goal doesn’t alter in the course of a chapter, you’ve given your reader no reason to read it. So vape backstory. Ignore minor characters. Care about your protagonist with a passion.
Well, the principles aren’t that hard to understand, although executing the advice can a wee bit trickier.
So we’ve built you a free plotting worksheet to take you through your plot construction challenge in a really organised and systematic way. Just grab it by clicking that big friendly blue box below. Easy!
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:
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.
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.
Oh yes, and one great tip (albeit one that won’t work for every novel) is this: if in doubt, add juice to your character.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Stieg Larsson could have just written a book about a genius computer hacker.
But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers.
But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers and a hostile attitude towards society.
But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers, a hostile attitude towards society, and who was also a rape victim.
But he didn’t.
He also tossed in a complex parental background, bisexuality, a motorbike, years spent in the Swedish care system, and an aptitude for violence.
It was the intoxicating brew of all those elements combined that created one of the world’s most successful recent fictional creations.
Short moral: if in doubt, do more.
Give your characters 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. So we want to know about:
What the character thinks
What her emotions are
What she remembers
What her physical sensations are
And so on
It’s OK to use fairly bland language at times (“she was hungry”, “she felt tired”), but you’ll only start to get real depth into your characters if you get individual and specific too. See for example how much richer this passage feels, and how full of its character it seems to be:
seeing the meat, she felt a sudden revulsion. The last time she’d seen mutton roasting like this on an open fire, it had been when [blah, blah – something to do with the character’s past]. As the memories came back, her throat tightened and her stomach was clenched as though ready to vomit.
Because the character has thoughts, feeling, memories and physical sensations all combining here, the moment is richly endowed with personality. A simple “She felt revolted” wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact.
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.
It’s probably also obvious that drama is most obviously alive and intense when two or more characters are in dialogue. It’s not just that those characters may be engaged in some kind of conflict; it’s also that the action feels like it’s happening almost real-time on the page. So dialogue is good! And great dialogue is better! Read more advice right here.
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:
Clarity. You need to express your meaning clearly. Of course YOU know what you’re meaning to say, but would a reader understand as clearly? One good way to check yourself here is to read your own work aloud. If you stumble when reading, that’s a big clue that readers will stumble too.
Economy. Never use ten words when eight would do. That means checking every sentence to see if a word or two could be lost. It means checking every paragraph for sentences that you don’t need. Every page for surplus paragraphs. If that sounds pedantic, just think about this. If you tried to sell a 100,000 book that had 20,000 surplus words in it, you shouldn’t be surprised if agents rejected it, because it was just too boring and too baggy. But that’s the exact same difference as a 10 word sentence and an 8 word one. In a word: pedantry matters. It’s your friend!
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. So it’s easy to write “a bird flew around the tree”, but that’s dull and imprecise. Just think how much better this is: “A pair of swallows flew, chirrupping, around the old apple tree.” The difference in the two sentences is basically one of precise seeing, precise description.
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?
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.
But really: if you’re writing for kids, then follow ALL the rules in this blog post, but do the whole thing on a smaller scale. The only really crucial issue that distinguishes children’s fiction from adult work is word count. You just have to know the right kind of length for the specific market you are writing for.
Figure out what age range you are aiming at
Figure out what kind of books you are writing (books about unicorns for 6-7 year olds? Adventure stories for young teens? Contemporary issue-driven books for mid-teens?)
Get hold of some books in the right niche
Take a typical page in those books
Count the words
Multiply number of words by number of pages. Done!
Oh, and don’t rely on internet searches to give you the right answer. Because there is so much age-dependent variability in kids fiction, criss-crossed by a good bit of format and genre variability, the only safe route to follow is the one we’ve just given.
Set up some good writing disciplines
First rule of writing is this: Good writers write.
They don’t want to write. They don’t think about writing. They don’t blog about writing.
Sure you can do those other things too, but they’re not what counts. What counts is bum-on-seat hours and that document wordcount ticking ever upwards.
Now the truth is that different writers approach their work differently. There’s no one set of rules that works for everyone. But here are some rules that may work for you. If they do, great. If they don’t, adapt them as you need. Either way, if the rules help you write, great. If they don’t, discard them.
So. The rules:
Set up your writing space so it appeals. Lose the distractions. Make sure you have a computer, pens, and notebooks that you like using. Get a comfortable chair.
Eliminate distractions. Got a TV in your writing room? Then lose the TV. Or change rooms. Get rid of the distractions that most bother you.
Determine when and how often you will write. If you have a busy life, it’s OK if that’s a bit ramshackle (“Tuesday morning, alternate Wednesdays, and Saturday if I get a chance.”) But the minimum here is that you set a weekly allowance of hours, and stick to it come hell or high water. Pair that up with:
A weekly target wordcount. Hit that target every week, no excuses.
Make some kind of outcome commitment. For example: When I have finished this book, I will get an external editor to give me comments. Or: I will share this with my book group. You just need to have in mind that this book will be read. That knowledge keeps you honest!
Commit to a deadline. Don’t make that too tough on yourself, but do make it real. Almost anyone should be able to manage 2,000 words a week, even with a busy lift. And most adult novels are 70-100,000 words long, so in less than a year, you have yourself a book, my friend. With practice, you’ll get faster.
Work to an outline. I said you needed to sketch your plot, right? (You can get that plotting worksheet by navigating to the top of the sidebar on this page.) Use that outline as your story-compass. If you need to tweak it as you go, that’s fine – but no radical changes, please!
Always prioritise the reader’s perspective. Don’t write to please yourself. Write to please the reader. If you need to imagine an actual Ideal Reader, then do so. Write for her.
Don’t worry if your first draft is lousy. It’s meant to be! That’s what first drafts are for. Jane Smiley said, “All first drafts are perfect, because all they have to do is exist.” Same goes for you, buddy.
Take breaks. If you’re a fidgety writer (as I am), you’ll want to take a lot of breaks. If you concentrate fiercely for twenty minutes and take a break for five or ten, that’s fine. Just keep going that way.
Warm up each day. I always edit my work of the day before as a way to warm myself up for the chapter I’m about to begin. If you like to warm up differently, then go for it. Just remember you may not be able to just start writing fresh text at 9.01 am precisely. Most of us need to warm the engine a little first.
And that’s it. Do those things, and you should be fine.
Revise your first draft
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.
That means checking your story, checking your characters, checking your writing style.
Then doing all those things again. You’ll find new issues, new niggles every time you go back to your work (at least to start with), and every time you fix those things, your book will get better. It’s a repetitive process, but one you should come to enjoy.
Don’t get alarmed by the repetitions: think of this rewriting task as climbing a spiral staircase. Yes, you are going round in circles, but you are rising higher all the time.
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 lousy manuscript.
Make friends, get 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. Here are some things you can and probably should do:
Join a writing group or online writing community. We’re just building our own community, and it’ll be live – and free – very soon. Just watch this space.
Go public with some of your writing goals / achievements. That could just mean updating your Facebook page, or talking with your friends at the office. The main thing is to avoid your book feeling like a dark secret you’re not able to share.
Get friendly peer feedback when you think you’re ready. When you’re book is finished and roughly edited, it can be useful to seek supportive feedback, of the “Wow, you can really do this!” variety. You’ll need to get tougher in due course, but that early support can work wonders.
Get professional feedback once you’ve done as much self-editing as you can manage. There is absolutely no better way to improve a manuscript than to get a rigorous set of comments from an experienced third-party editor. Watch this video for tips on how to process and make best use of that feedback.
Remember, you don’t have to do all of this at once. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So go easy with yourself when setting out your goals. Under-commit and over-deliver, right?
Bonus Tip: Get a literary agent
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.)