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How to chart your plot mountain or plot diagram

The Plot Mountain

What it is. How to chart it. How to find the right structure for your novel.

Plot structure is one of the trickiest and most vital things to get right in a story, but using the idea of a plot mountain can be a great way to solve your plot problems – and deliver a great experience for the reader.

Plot is loosely defined as a chain of events in a story – i.e. this happened, so that happened.

Notice that little word “so” – it means that Y happened, because X happened. That everything in your story is linked together, literally like links in a chain.

A linear, logical chain of events, though, isn’t all that exciting. You need a story arc – a plot mountain – to engage readers, to build tension and excitement.

Here’s what you need to know.

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Use a plot diagram for story momentum

A plot diagram (or plot mountain or story arc) will deliberately look like a triangle, with action and drama building to excite us before subsiding.

It mightn’t sound inspired. To most readers, a story is a living thing and you’re alive in those writers’ very dreamscapes.

Often, though, rules can help keep a writer on track. (And once understood, they can be bent and broken a little.)

Consider a plot mountain your roadmap for sustaining emotional momentum through the story – and let’s cover some points.

Plotting your foundations (your characters)

Any foundation for a good story is character.

It may veer on a cliché, but think of it as inverse pot-of-gold at the start of a rainbow. The more you bury early on, the more you can mine and dig up later over your plot mountain. Character is only the start of good plotting, but it is no less than that. The best stories are essentially character journeys.

Your protagonist will need to be human and compelling. Your protagonist will also be in need for a story arc to take place, so they must lack something. This is your foundation for a good story. Start here and think of both your character’s goal or goals, as well as your character’s motive(s).

This distinction between goal and motive is important.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter needs love and acceptance (motive), having grown up uncared for under his uncle and aunt’s roof. Then Hagrid appears and Harry ‘needs’ to escape to Hogwarts (goal). Harry’s goals change through the books (going to the Quidditch World Cup, winning the Triwizard Tournament). But his motivation is to fight throughout for peace and tolerance – and his overarching goal has evolved by the last book to be the death of Voldemort and peace for the wizarding community.

So map goal to motive as you plan for your character’s growth, their story arc and your plot structure – and take a look at our character building page for help, ditto how authentic characterisation is essential to help drive a plot forward.

Character needs may evolve as your hero or heroine grows, but goals and motive can’t be ‘illogical’ and cancel out the other (e.g. you write in a goal not in keeping with your character’s nature).

And remember any story is born out of your protagonist desiring something, rooted in overcoming weakness to get to a stronger new equilibrium. (We’ll get to this soon.)

Plotting your initiating incident

Having mapped out your foundation and novel beginnings, you can tie in your initiating incident. A good example might be Harry Potter receiving his Hogwarts letter. Out of the Cupboard under the Stairs, onto Hogwarts. And any initiating incident or call-to-action, no matter how over- or understated, must actually throw the character into a worse-off situation than the start in order to set your novel off on the right trajectory.

Story charts are called ‘story mountains’ in schools, after all, because stakes get higher and things need to get emotionally a lot tougher before they can wind down to a happy ending.

So the initiating incident you just kindled should spark drama. It should lead your protagonist into what we’ll (loosely) call a fraught setup where drama will unfold.

It looks as if Jon Snow’s going to the Night Watch will result in a quieter life than the trauma unfolding for his family in King’s Landing. Jon’s choice leads him to danger instead. And it looks as if Harry Potter will be safe at Hogwarts under Dumbledore’s watch. And it looks as if Jane Eyre will be settled and happy at Thornfield.

A good plot subverts such hope. Your drama builds from this.

The protagonist is placed, somehow, in some jeopardy that rivets us and pushes us to read more, so bear in mind your initiating incident carefully.

You’ll later need to subvert our sense of safety as you ‘bridge’ your way to your next plot points and remember your initiating incident should map back to earlier foundations (your character’s nature). Will they take up their call and be right for your plot structure and story arc?

Make sure it marries up to motive, with the person they are at heart. You need a protagonist to actively take this call-to-action up.

This is true even for reluctant heroes, i.e. Arthur Golden’s Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha or Suzanne Collins’ Katniss in The Hunger Games. Chiyo tries to run away at first, fails, but she finds other reasons to train as a Kyoto geisha and remain in her okiya. Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games in her sister Prim’s place, with no choice but to fight to save her sister. Once she’s committed, she’ll fight to survive.

Some protagonists are more proactive and will create their own ‘call’, rather than fairy-godmother-summons. Jon Snow, for instance, opts to leave home and ‘take the black’ in A Game of Thrones. Jane Eyre is at first sent to school, then creates her ‘call’ because, bored years later, she advertises herself as a governess.

Whether your protagonist knows an initiating incident could lead them to danger (as Katniss does), they still can’t help taking up the mantle. They’ll always choose to take up the call, and so it always maps back to intrinsic needs. Katniss needs to save her sister because she couldn’t live with herself if not in The Hunger Games.

And the rest of your plot is about mounting drama and the protagonist reaching their end goal.

Creating plot development

Plot development’s where you get to wreak havoc and brew drama, the clouds and storms gathering up the plot mountain. So play with scenarios and ideas.

Be sure everything is done right when you edit your plot, keeping all that happens to your protagonist relevant and necessary, and don’t meander, but do get your ideas down. Plotting should be fun and, like a first draft, you can edit and hone as you go.

As Edgar Allan Poe wrote, ‘no [plot] part can be displaced without ruin to the whole.’

You also need here to accordingly sketch your antagonist (if not fleshed out yet), and they’ll compete for the same thing as your protagonist.

Yes, really.

According to storyteller John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, a good protagonist and antagonist compete for ‘which version of reality everyone will believe’.

Think of everyone in A Song of Ice and Fire vying for the Iron Throne. This is a story of many people believing they should rule – and George R.R. Martin’s multiple protagonists work as one another’s antagonists. Each has a version of reality they want to assert. And we’ve invested emotionally in all these characters and rivals, which is why A Song of Ice and Fire is so gripping.

Your story arc (or the bulk of it) is in fact about which reality will be established if your protagonist fails and the conflict resulting from this threat is the rising action. This is where your story tension, drama, poignancy and urgency will be born.

And there’s just no point in mismatching protagonist and antagonist, any more than you’d mismatch your love interest in a romance novel, if you want drama ensuing.

Create your character’s very antithesis, then.

Who’d be the worst antagonist for your protagonist to be faced with? Bring them to life. Which gifts would be the ultimate worst-case scenario for your protagonist to deal with? Give them those gifts. Make it personal and keep it human. This isn’t just about plot mechanics, either: a protagonist-antithesis means your character’s journey will end in real growth and change, that stakes will be heightened.

And a face often grips us more than a secret network, machine or monster. There are exceptions, i.e. Frankenstein’s Monster, or White Walkers, but there’s still a ‘humanness’ in really monstrous beings that makes them more sinister. Cersei Lannister is more ominous than Daenerys’ dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire. Cold Aunt Reed and petulant Blanche Ingram aren’t larger-than-life murderesses à la Cersei, but they’re larger-than-life threats to Jane Eyre and Jane’s hopes for happiness.

Bar a gripping (powerful, threatening) antagonist, there aren’t set rules for rising action, but a good story checklist of things to include could be:

  • Create your antagonist with care and add psychological ‘meat’ when setting up an opponent or supporting opponents, something for us to discover (their views, value set, etc.), and write in how something about them hinders your protagonist growing, flourishing, getting where they need to be;
  • Create ‘surprise reveal’ moments with care in your plot structure, sharing new information for characters, and with the result of ennobling or refining protagonist attitudes and goals;
  • Create a protagonist’s goal or plan and your antagonist’s counter-goal or plan, giving equal care to both, no matter your genre (e.g. Katniss Everdeen plans to survive the Hunger Games whilst the Capitol tries to crush her in various ways);
  • Create plot setbacks and comebacks, e.g. Jane Eyre’s seemingly found freedom and happiness on her engagement, before being thrust back (by discovering Rochester’s wife);
  • Create pieces of foreshadowing for readers to pick up on;
  • And create plot events and actions consistent with your protagonist drive, remembering your original character motivation as you weave it through your drama to keep its heart.

You’ll want to throw in allies, true and false, betrayals or misunderstandings, perhaps red herring threats and veiled or surprise threats. And any subplot characters should be dealing with the same issue or issues as your protagonist, or there’s no point to them (at least in your story terms).

If nothing else – be sure you’re building up your character’s desire for their goals. The stakes should be getting tougher. The choices should be getting harder. These things should be building throughout, so the goal becomes more urgent as plot jeopardy mounts in your story arc.

Remember that everything you map here needs to map back to character revelations, to shifting goals. This too maps up to story climax and to your protagonist’s emotional catharsis (when you’re mapping out ‘falling actions’ later).

Pinpointing your character revelations

Character revelations are key to great plotting, as otherwise it all grows rather mechanical – and plotting and characterisation are such infused, melded, twisted-together processes, after all. There isn’t one without the other.

It’s been said we often do the best we can with the information we have. As such, your protagonist needs ‘surprise reveal’ moments where some new information is shared for their character growth and for plot development to happen. So, as mentioned, rising plot tensions should accommodate ennobled motives and, sometimes, slightly altered goals for a compelling story arc.

Again, Harry Potter has several important revelations over his series and these change his goals and the nature of them. Growing up in Hogwarts, Harry gradually grasps his power to make a difference. He starts teaching Hogwarts students defensive magic. Trying to save Sirius, Harry learns even his best efforts ‘playing the hero’ can lead to tragedy. Harry then works with Dumbledore to become less a moving target than an active fighter, as he learns more about Voldemort’s origins, how to anticipate him as Voldemort anticipated Harry’s efforts to save Sirius.

Such revelations should marry up with key plot points (or plot events).

There aren’t set rules, per se, as to when character revelations should appear, how often and which ones. It’ll all depend on story and your characters. But it’s important to punctuate your plot chart with revelatory moments, building in importance for growing urgency.

Revelations are a story’s heartbeat, meat and blood.

Plotting your story climax or crisis

Plot events can be climactic, but there’ll typically be one major climax or crisis. (There are exceptions.) Choose it, build to it, plot it carefully.

It’s Clarice Starling’s showdown with Buffalo Bill, Jane Eyre’s ghostly summons across the moors back to blinded Rochester. In the simplest terms, Robert McKee defines any story climax, in Story, as ‘absolute and irreversible change’. And in John Bell’s Plot and Structure, story crises are transition points called ‘doorways of no return.’

So a story climax is (structurally) also something that’ll set up for a resolution, for falling action and a new order of things. Bear this in mind, especially if you’re feeling confident enough to create multiple major crises (more of a plot mountain range). And whilst your protagonist may have gone through many other big challenges and changes, this should be irreversible, and there should be some self-revelation tied up here.

Clarice Starling’s self-revelation is one of self-belief. She’s not ready to take on Buffalo Bill, but she does. She beats him. And she learns she could beat him. This question of her aptitude hung on Clarice’s many conversations with Hannibal. The story’s been leading us to this point.

A crisis (as above) is the peak of your story arc, and pinnacle of a protagonist’s self-revelation. And the rest is about winding down, dealing with the emotional aftermath.

Plotting your resolution or new equilibrium

Your protagonist’s world is, very simply, either better or worse now the story climax is over. From this, you’ll plot your resolution as your story arc falls.

Your protagonist has either achieved their goals after their battles and evolution and self-discovery – or not – and so there also needs an emotional catharsis. Your story mustn’t lose heart simply because we’re winding down. Your falling action plays a vital cathartic role for both your characters and your readers.

Clarice Starling, for instance, defeats Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, becomes an FBI agent. She has saved her first victim in Catherine Martin, or ‘lamb’, after the lambs’ cries that have haunted her sleep before now (because Clarice couldn’t help or save them).

Think again of Robert McKee’s ‘absolute and irreversible change’, John Bell’s ‘doorways of no return’. Clarice’s door, if you will, has opened onto a new life and Clarice can’t go back to the lesser life experience she had.

This is the new equilibrium. You’ll create the same for your characters as you wind down. In this instance, Clarice is an agent, and Buffalo Bill is gone. But Hannibal is at large. There is still danger in paradise, and scope for Thomas Harris’ sequel, Hannibal.

In A Game of Thrones, the climax is Eddard Stark’s beheading. And with the demise also of King Robert, the new equilibrium is set for dystopia under King Joffrey Baratheon, with Sansa Stark his hostage, and Arya Stark on the run, as Robb Stark rallies in the north. A Game of Thrones sets the stage for its sequel, A Clash of Kings.

In romantic Jane Eyre, Jane is happily united with Rochester. The new equilibrium is a happy ending, but after the novel’s crisis (her refusal to marry Rivers, hearing Rochester calling on the moors), the build-up to Jane’s new equilibrium, her happy reunion with Rochester, is cathartic because it is written as such. The same is true in Memoirs of a Geisha. Chiyo (now called Sayuri) writes readers a dreamy fairy tale end after her final talk with the Chairman, her emigration to America.

So, when you’re ending your tale, think of the new equilibrium you’re establishing and don’t deprive readers of a cathartic end just because you’re in a hurry now to finish plotting.

We know how hard writing is, but we’re rooting for you.

Keep going, and never give up.

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How to write seven basic plots

How to write seven basic plots

Knowing the key plot archetypes can help you get going, so we’re looking at the prospective seven basic plots that underpin all fiction. Whilst your story mightn’t conform consciously to a plot structure, such structures do exist, and knowing them could help keep you inspired and on track.

Pick a plot from The Seven Basic Plots

According to Christopher Booker, there are seven main plotlines, as written in The Seven Basic Plots. If you’re still planning things, why not choose one to place your ideas in so far?

(If you’re at a very early stage in planning, read up on how to have story ideas. Remember, you can mess around a little, too. No story will ever fit only one plotline, there may just be one obvious one. Take subplots, plots within plots, to layer your story and give it complexity and meaning.)

Here are the seven basic plots and how to make each one work for you.

Overcoming the monster

Your protagonist must battle a monster (or a monstrous force) that threatens, probably, more than just your protagonist’s survival in scope and scale.

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Christopher Booker offers the classic examples of The Epic of Gilgamesh or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stephen King’s It falls under this plotline, too, but of course monsters needn’t always be literal. They can be human. They can be ideological.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is (foremost) about the Pevensie children needing to overthrow the White Witch and bring peace to Narnia with Aslan’s help. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is about Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny battling racial prejudice (embodied in housewife Hilly Holbrook) in Mississippi during the 1960s.

To make your ‘monster’ work, you’ll need this threat to chill us. You need a genuinely existential battle of survival to make things work. You’ll also want the monster to represent something beyond just claws and fangs. It needs to be vengeance, or racial intolerance, or something else that really matters.

Voyage and return

Born with Odysseus and The Odyssey (battling monstrosities like Circe, Scylla and Charybdis to journey safe home to wife Penelope) in Greek myth, your protagonist here must journey from home, returning with new strength and experience from challenges faced.

Think of Bilbo Baggins’ journey out of the Shire in The Hobbit. First come trolls, and after (not before) comes the dragon. The key is in your rising action, the threats getting worse as Bilbo carries on, growing in courage.

Your voyage should be getting more dangerous all the time, before your protagonist can safely make a ‘turnabout’ and return (not without transfiguration, since Bilbo comes home braver, stronger). The fact that Bilbo never turns back before the essential point and challenge of the quest is faced is also important. Giving your protagonist chances to turn back reflects growth and heroism when they soldier on, anyway.

To make this plot work, your protagonist is going to be leaving one world, encountering another, ending up transfigured – so raise the stakes. Give plenty of options to turn back (which they won’t take, because something other than themselves is at risk, too).

Rags to riches

The word ‘Cinderella’ sums up this plotline, but the ‘riches’ in this phrasing is relative, and needn’t be literal. The point is that your protagonist should grow in character, strength and understanding, helping them achieve their desire, or better, and be empowered.

Your protagonist should ascend, with newfound strength, from a low point to new heights, sometimes involving romance, and sometimes not.

A good example of ‘not’ would be Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah, where a happy ending simply means being able to attend college.

Other examples include Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, or Aladdin and His Enchanted Lamp from The Thousand and One Nights.

You’ll make this plot work by empowering your protagonist in various ways. Cinderella, in her fairy tale, makes it out of rags to riches but we can assume she won’t still be scrubbing floors at the palace. She’s valued for herself in her new home and free to live on her own terms, so she’s become empowered (inside and out).

This is your key to unlocking plot material.

The quest

In this narrative, your protagonist sets out to find someone, or to find an object, a proverbial ‘buried treasure’.

Famous examples include the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or (broadly) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.

Philip Pullman’s protagonist Lyra in Northern Lights (or, in the US, The Golden Compass) for instance, faces bears, witches and kidnappers to reach her father, before she carries on into another world. Lyra faces worse as the challenges mount up, so she matures and changes with learning and strength.

Ultimately, Lyra makes her costliest sacrifice at the close of her (multiple) quests in His Dark Materials, and so she becomes heroic. We are given final proof of her courage and selflessness as her adventuring concludes in The Amber Spyglass.

You’ll also need to raise stakes, making things harder and harder, before a final ‘good’ deed from your protagonist grants them victory.


In comic narrative, the gist is to create a whirl of misunderstandings for your protagonist that becomes more fraught with time. All will ‘miraculously transformed’ near the end, as your action moves happily from dark to light.

Classic examples include any of Jane Austen’s novels, The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding, or Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

Make your comic plot work by continuing to muddle events, feelings and perceptions as we go, right up to the finish line. Bridget Jones remains confused about Mark Darcy in most of the novel (firstly misjudging Mark, then Daniel, then misjudging how both feel about her) before all is happily resolved.


This is the inverse of ‘Comedy’, moving from light to dark. Your protagonist here has an irredeemable flaw or makes an irredeemable mistake, causing their undoing and ‘fall’.

Your protagonist could be reprehensible, like Humbert Humbert from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, or like the example Christopher Booker gives us, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespearean tragedies give a rich choice of protagonists whose flaws lead them to doom, such as Othello and his jealousy, or Lear and his arrogance.

Other tragic protagonists may be more questionable, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

An example of an innocent protagonist falling to tragedy would be Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s ‘mistake’ being to fall in love and leave her husband for a man who’ll betray her.

You’ll make a tragic plot work by thinking deeply about all the ‘if onlys’ of your protagonist’s situation. Think how we mull over our own mistakes, wishing we’d seen things coming. If only Othello had trusted Desdemona, or if only Gatsby hadn’t fallen for Daisy. How could all have been avoided? How differently could things have worked out?

Give your poor protagonist routes out (which they’ll not take, e.g. Jay Gatsby fails to accept Nick’s warning that the past can’t be repeated, since Gatsby can’t let Daisy go), then seal off exit options to amplify emotion in your tragic plot.


‘Rebirth’ is poised to be like ‘Tragedy’ but with a hopeful outcome. Your protagonist needs a redemptive arc to their journey.

This is sometimes combined with a hero romantically redeemed by a heroine, or vice versa. Classics examples of this trope are fairy tales like Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast or Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and retellings based on these tales, such as Beauty by Robin McKinley or Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

Other examples are The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emma by Jane Austen (also a ‘Comedy’ tale), or The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Make a plot like this work by making a happy outcome dependent on nothing but the ‘Rebirth’ component alone. Identify what this is, because your protagonist’s success and happy ending will hinge on it.

In a tale like Beauty and the Beast, for instance, love can’t be mutual until Bête lets Belle go free. Emma Woodhouse needs to reflect and change before she can marry someone as good as Mr Knightley. Amir risks his life returning to Kabul, but can’t be free of his past guilt in The Kite Runner until he tries to help his best friend’s son.

The question, after all this, is which general plotline feels authentic for where you’d most like to take your story?

Choose more than one plot and add subplots

Sometimes, more than one plot outline will fit your story material.

In A Game of Thrones, there is a tragic narrative for one protagonist, Eddard or Ned Stark, and the ‘fault’ that kills Ned is his integrity in a dark world. However, A Game of Thrones uses various plot archetypes to tell multiple protagonists’ stories over a sprawling scale. It isn’t only a tragic plot.

J.K. Rowling’s stories don’t fit neatly into a single plot idea, either, since Harry Potter’s overarching tale checks several of these boxes.

Harry’s story could be defined as a ‘Rags to riches’ tale, because he goes from an abusive boyhood living under his aunt’s staircase to freedom, to a successful career and happiness with his wife and children at the series’ close.

There’s also a ‘Voyage and return’ element to each book, as Harry attends Hogwarts every year, only to return to his aunt and uncle every summer (though in the seventh, Harry leaves Privet Drive for the last time).

It’s also an ‘Overcoming the monster’ story, because the spectre of Voldemort haunts Harry throughout the series, as do other monstrous beings like the Basilisk or Dementors, or monstrous characters like Voldemort’s supporters (led by Bellatrix Lestrange), Professor Umbridge, and others.

It’s also a ‘Quest’ because Harry’s ‘hunts’ through the series culminate, in the seventh book, with his seeking Horcruxes and Hallows. The existential question of which is right to seek becomes a determinant of Harry’s success, and overall character development.

There are strong comic elements, strong tragic elements, and there are strong elements of ‘Rebirth’, too.

In sum, stories often can’t be boxed and they shouldn’t be. These plotlines are threadbare for a reason, since they’re foremost guides, and exist to help you build upon them.

3 next steps to penning your plot

Too little plot can be as tedious as no structure at all, so plan with care and remember plotting can be your aide. Plot should serve as a creative constraint, existing to help you produce your best work.

A few steps on what you can do from here with the seven basic plots:

  1. Gather your story material. Review characters, the things you want to happen, and pick a plot for your novel.
  2. Map your key plot events. Adapt them to whichever plot you chose. If it’s a quest, map out testing moments where your protagonist can or should turn back – or, if it’s tragic, map out moments your tragic protagonist could have avoided what they’re heading for, and so on.
  3. Link these moments together and create your resolution to the action.

All this will create a core meaning in your narrative (before you add subplots for complexity).

After this, you’ll be needing a plot mountain, too, for adding the fun bits. Story structures are always there to help, not hinder you.

Happy writing!

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How to Write a Book (10 Doable Steps for New Writers)

how to write a book - in 10 simple steps

How to write a book (in 10 steps)

A super-simple step-by-step guide for new writers
Includes free plot worksheet

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 …

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.

Need more help? Then go watch this 10 minute video I put together that walks you through the exact process.

Expert tip:

It also helps to know really early on what kind of word count you should be looking at. The gold-standard way to figure this out is to get hold of five or six recently published novels in your exact area. Then count the words on a typical page and multiply up to get an approximate total. If that sounds like too much work, then just use our handy guide. The gold-standard approach is better though!

Build a blistering plot

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Inciting Incident, and it’s the catalyst for everything that follows. Read more about how to make your Inciting Incident work really well here.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.

Sounds simple?

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!

Expert tip:

Use our plotting worksheet (below) together with a “snowflake method” to building your structure. The heart of this concept is the idea that you should start with an incredibly bare-bones summary of your narrative – one sentence is fine. Then you add something about character. Then you build that sentence out into a paragraph. And so on. It’s a great way of allowing your plot to emerge somewhat naturally. More help on that technique here – but don’t ask my why it’s called the snowflake method. It’s nothing like a snowflake.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Add unforgettable characters

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Expert tip:

Our character development page has got a free downloadable character profile questionnaire that asks you 200+ questions about your character. Those questions basically challenge you to know your character better than you know your best friend. It’ll only take you an hour or two to complete the worksheet – and your character knowledge will be propelled to a whole new dimension of awesome. Honestly? It might be the single most useful hour you can spend right now. Uh, unless you are on a burning ship in a storm. In which case, reading this paragraph is not a good use of your time.

writing a book for beginners - the simple step-by-step guide

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:

  1. What the character thinks
  2. What her emotions are
  3. What she remembers
  4. What her physical sensations are
  5. 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.

Expert tip:

Once you’ve written 20-30,000 words or so, it’s worth pausing to check that your characters seem alive on the page. So just print off four or five random pages from your manuscript and circle any statements that indicate your character’s inner life (physical sensations, memories, thoughts, feelings, and so on.)

If you find nothing at all, you have written a book about a robot and you may need to rethink. If you do find indicators of inner life, but they’re all bland and unengaging (“I was hungry”, “I remembered a barn like that when I was a kid.”), you may want to juice up your character. If you find a rich inner life, then you’re doing great. Just keep at it.

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”.)

And this:

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.

Expert tip:

One of the real drivers of drama on the page – and one of the real pleasures of fiction – is intense, alive, surprising dialogue. Writing dialogue competently is pretty easy – you can probably do it already.

But writing really great dialogue (think Elmore Leonard, for example) is not so simple. That said there are rules you can follow which just make your writing better. For more advice on all this, just check out our page on dialogue.

how to write a great book - how to begin

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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. Need more help? Then you’ll find this article really useful!

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?

Expert tip:

Descriptive writing sounds like it ought to be boring, right? Everyone knows what a coffee shop looks like, so isn’t it just wasting words to tell the reader?

Except that’s not how it works. The reason why writing descriptions matters so much is that the reader has to feel utterly present in your fictional world. It has to feel more real than the world of boring old reality. That’s where great descriptive writing comes into its own. If you can – economically, vividly – set a scene, then all your character interactions and plot twists will come into their own. They’ll feel more dramatic, more alive. And again: there are simple repeatable techniques for strong descriptive writing. Read more about them right here.

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.

That means:

  1. Figure out what age range you are aiming at
  2. 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?)
  3. Get hold of some books in the right niche
  4. Take a typical page in those books
  5. Count the words
  6. 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.

Expert tip:

The commonest mistake made by aspiring children’s authors has to do with writing down to children. And that’s wrong. Children don’t want to be lectured or patronised. They want their world to be taken as seriously by you as they take it themselves. One of the reasons Roald Dahl was so successful was that he wrote about stuff that adults (in the real world, outside fiction) would have disapproved of. A giant who spoke funny? Adult twits who behaved badly? A lethally dangerous chocolate factory? Dahl’s willingness to be subversive put him clearly on the side of kids, not adults. Authors such as Susanne Collins, Veronica Roth, JK Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer all use the same basic trick. Copy them!

how to write a novel or book

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.

They write.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:
  4. A weekly target wordcount. Hit that target every week, no excuses.
  5. 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!
  6. 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.
  7. 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!
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

Expert tip:

Editing your own work can be a challenging and somewhat mysterious process. So we’ve removed the mystery. We’ve put some actual edits to an actual book (by me, as it happens) up on the blog, so you can see how the selfv-editing process works for an experienced pro author. You can find more about all that over here. While you’re at it, you may want to take a look at the various different types of editing that are available. But don’t jump into paid editing until a very late stage. For now, self-editing will improve your manuscript and build your skills.

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:

  1. Join a writing group or online writing community. See our expert tip below.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Build your skills. That could mean taking a course, or working with a mentor, or attending an event. Whatever you choose to do, you will improve as a writer and writing & editing your next book will come easier than it did this first time round.
  5. 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?

Expert tip:

Meet friends in a free and knowledgeable community of writers. I blog there every week and thousands of writers like you meet to share peer-to-peer critiques, gossip, advice and support. And also – friendship. Passion makes friends like nothing else and our community is all about passion. Sign up is totally free. And fast. And easy. Just go here and do what you gotta do.

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.)

C) Write a fabulous covering letter, using this advice and this sample letter.

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.)

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How To Write A Children’s Book: All You Need To Know

how to write a children's book

How To Write A Children’s Book

One author’s guide to writing a children’s book that will actually get published

There are some people who will tell you that writing a children’s book is really easy. I mean – they’re shorter than books for adults, right?

Reader – if you meet one of these people, you should give them a stern talking to and a whole lot of finger-wagging.

Writing books for children isn’t an easy way out. In fact, there are a whole host of new things you have to consider when writing for children that wouldn’t cross the mind of an adult novelist.

How do I know? Well, I’ve been writing books for children and young adults since I was just a kid myself. When I began, I thought it was going to be easy, too. Three dead books, over fifty rejections and fourteen years later – I realised that it was a whole lot harder than it looks.

Then, I sat down and I followed a set of rules to write a book for Young Adults called ‘Outside’. I sent it to an agent, who offered me representation within forty-four minutes of receiving it. And in January 2019, it was published in the UK by Penguin.

It is hard. But you’ve got this. And this blog is going to tell you exactly what you need to write a book that children (and publishers) will love.

And even though it’s going to be a difficult ride, I think you’re secretly going to love every minute of it – just like I did.

So – where do you start?

Know the children’s book market

‘Children’ isn’t a very defined audience.

Within that category, you have babies and toddlers, all the way through to teenagers thinking about university.

Children’s books are as rich and diverse as children are themselves, so it’s absolutely essential that you know exactly what kind of children you are writing for.

The market tends to shift every few years, but in general, the categories within children’s books look a bit like this:

  • Picture Books (0 – 5 years) Between 300 – 1000 words, depending on who the book is aimed at (babies 300, toddlers 500, pre-schoolers 1000).
  • Early Readers (5 – 7 years) Less than 10,000 words. These books can be illustrated and are divided up into chapters.
  • Lower Middle Grade (7 – 9) Between 10,000 – 30,000, depending on the reading age they are best suited for. The lower the reading age, the lower the word count.
  • Middle Grade (9 – 11) Between 30,000 and 60,000. There is a bit more room in Middle Grade to push the boundaries of wordcount and theme, within reason.
  • Teen (12+) Usually around 60,000, but there are books in this category as low as 40,000 and as high as 90,000!
  • YA / Crossover (14+) Over 60,000 words. Fantasy books in this category can push the wordcount to more like 90,000, but usually around 60,000 – 70,000 is the magic number.

As you can see, books for younger children are much shorter. To write picture books, you don’t have to rhyme, or even know an illustrator (in fact, some agents prefer writers to submit text minus any artwork, as they find it easier to match these later). You do need to be able to tell a story that will make adults and babies feel all the feels though, within a very short word count. If you ask me, writing picture books might well be the hardest of all of these to perfect – and is one of the most competitive, too.

Between ages 7 and 11, the reading ages start to shift. You might have an 8-year-old reading a book written for an 11-year-old, and that is okay! At this point, it’s worth thinking about things in terms of ‘Reading Age’ rather than actual age. Early Readers are for children who are just learning to read, and Lower Middle-Grade tends to be lighter, funny reads.

Middle-Grade books are booming at the moment and are often read for pleasure by adults, too (myself included). They can be darker and you can push the wordcount a bit further. You can perhaps take a few more risks, providing the heart of the book is with the characters (more on that later).

Then we have Young Adult (YA) fiction. I like to think of this as two categories: Teen and Young Adult / Crossover. Teen fiction tends to focus on topics affecting teenagers around 12-13 years old. They are lighter, sometimes funny books. Young Adult or Crossover fiction can be anything where the protagonist is under 18. They can be romances set in a school, or dark, chilling tales.

You can find out more about average novel word counts in this article and how long chapters should be, these aren’t specific to children’s books, but make for an interesting read!

Whatever age you choose to write for, ensure you know that market back-to-front. Which leads me to tip number two:

Read contemporary children’s books

The best way to know your market is to read everything you can that fits into it. Yes, adults can read children’s books for pleasure. Some of the most delicious and astounding books I have read have been for children.

Don’t fall into the trap of re-reading the books you enjoyed as a child. The market is constantly evolving and what was publishable ‘way back then’ may not be marketable now. Keep your eye on books that are coming out this year, particularly debuts (as you’ll hopefully be one of those yourself soon!)

When you are reading, make notes on things like sentence structure, characters and plot arcs. Is the language simple or sophisticated? What age are the characters? And what twists and turns appear in the story? This will help you no end when it comes to write your own.

how to write books for children

Have a unique idea

So, now we come to your own book (woohoo!). And I have some bad news, I’m afraid (boooo).

The world of children’s books is incredibly competitive and only the absolute best books stand a chance of getting published.

But that’s okay. Because you can make your story into one of those books using this blog post. And it starts with an astounding idea that will make an agent stop scrolling and forget to breathe.

Think of your favourite stories. You can usually sum them up in one, hooky line, can’t you? Something like:

“Death narrates as a girl steals books in WW2 Munich, as her foster parents conceal a Jewish fist-fighter in their home.” – The Book Thief

“A girl has been trapped Inside her whole life, until one day she finds a hole in the wall.” – Okay, so that’s my book, but you get the idea.

Your concept needs stakes. It needs to be different. It needs to pique interest. Nothing else will work for this market.

Need some help developing an idea like this? Try this free Idea Generator – it comes via an email. You can also learn a lot from this post on How to Get Book Ideas.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Create relatable characters

Okay, so you have your amazing concept that will hook an agent, then a publisher, then eventually a reader.

Want to keep them? Then you’ll need to create characters that children can relate to.

The first rule for this is to think about their ages in relation to the categories we outlined above. Usually, children like to read about characters a couple of years older than them. In Young Adult fiction, I usually make my characters between 15 and 17.

90% of books for children have children as their central protagonists. The other 10% is usually made up of animals and magical beings, but they will nearly always speak and act like children in that age group. They are hardly ever adults.

The next thing is to think about the qualities that children of that age look for in a protagonist. Usually, this is bravery (although this doesn’t mean all characters need to be sword-fighters – there are many different kinds of bravery). Usually they are kind (although not always to everyone all the time). And usually they are quirky in some way – they have some interest or ideals that colour their world and make them interesting.

Let’s take an example protagonist. ‘Charlie’ from ‘Charlie Changes into a Chicken’.

This is a funny Lower Middle-Grade book, and the main character is a boy who suffers with anxiety. Whenever he gets anxious, he turns into an animal. And with his brother in hospital and the school play coming up, there is a lot to worry about.

Although Charlie has something going on that I would hope most children can’t relate to (eg: turning into a pigeon), there’s an awful lot about him that readers want to root for. His anxiety is one – and the book does a lot to normalise this and teach the reader how to deal with it. He’s also a classic ‘good guy’ – always one to attempt to smooth things over with his bully, and worry about his brother. He is brave, kind and quirky.

In terms of secondary characters, this book is great at busting stereotypes, and that’s really something to keep in mind when writing (more on this later). You’ve got a smart, scientific friend, as well as those who provide some comic relief. You’ve got an antagonist bully, who we understand. And other grown-up antagonists such as grumpy teachers, and parents who have the ability to be ‘disappointed’.

In short, these are all characters that children around 8 years old will relate to and enjoy reading about (As well as grown-up writers who have the mind of an 8-year-old, too!).

It’s worth spending time getting to know your characters using something like this Ultimate Character Builder (downloadable via email). This worksheet asks hundreds of questions about your character that forces you to think of answers.

Something else I quite like to do (mainly because it is wonderfully fun procrastination) is to use personality tests. Try getting into the mindset of your characters – including secondary characters – and taking the House and Patronus quizzes on Pottermore, for example. You might find out that your protagonist is a Slytherin with a rare winged Patronus, which might affect the way they behave in your plot. Another great tool can be found at 16 Personalities. This asks you a lot of questions and gives you a Myers-Briggs personality type at the end, with pages and pages of information about how that person would react to things like relationships, family and difficult situations.

It’s worth spending some time doing some further reading on characterisation. Good places to start include learning about the theory of character development and spending some time making realistic antagonists, alongside your protagonist.

how to write books for children

Plot using character arcs

When it comes to plotting a children’s book, it is useful to keep one bit of advice in mind at all times:

Plot is driven by character. Never the other way around.

If your characters are at the centre of your story, then you need to ensure that they are the ones driving it forwards. If you shoehorn them into a twist that goes against everything that your character stands for, then readers will be left cold.

This is why the primary step to writing a children’s book is to get to know your characters back to front and inside out as we discussed earlier. Once you have a good idea about who they are, you can start using this information to plot your story.

There are a number of ways you can plot a book, including methods like the Snowflake Method or using this guide on writing a plot outline. For me, I like to start with something my character wants. This can be simple, like perhaps they are looking forward to an upcoming school trip. Or it can be much bigger than that – like perhaps they want to keep their family safe from being picked for The Hunger Games.

Next, you throw something in their path that means they can’t have what they want. They get framed for something they didn’t do at school and are banned from the school trip. Their sister is picked for The Hunger Games and they must volunteer as tribute to protect her from almost certain death.

What comes next is a series of incidents that raises action and keeps your character on their journey. They try to sneak onto the school bus, but end up on the wrong one, going instead to France. They get off the bus for a wee and it drives off without them. They try to buy a baguette with their lunch money, but it gets eaten by a dog (which they are afraid of) etc etc.

Within this middle point are highs and lows. They meet friends and helpers along the way – usually children their own age, or animals. There might even be other grown-up helpers or antagonists (think about Haymitch and Crane in The Hunger Games).

Usually around the mid-point of the story, what your character wants has now changed. The boy on the school trip now wants to find a way to go home. Katniss in The Hunger Games wants to stay alive.

This all leads up to the climax of the story – where all the issues you have dropped in before come to a head. There is usually a small battle to be won first – perhaps that is getting over the fear of dogs to save a friend in France, or it is beating the other Careers in order to stay alive in The Hunger Games. Then there is a small dip in action before the big beast is slayed – maybe that is as simple as finally asking for help to go home in France, or it is tricking the makers of The Hunger Games so that they can live.

To finish off, we have the resolution. This is where you tie up the questions you set up earlier in the story and resolve differences between characters. Maybe we see the boy return from France and ask his parents for a pet dog. Or Katniss returning home to her family as victor (whilst also leaving something unresolved here with a larger antagonist for book two in the series).

Even if you’re not traditionally a plotter, it is worth spending time thinking about the main beats in your story and how this relates to your character’s central journey. Thankfully, there’s loads of help for useless plotters (like me!). Some useful blog plots for further reading are this one on building a plot mountain (which sounds cool, so must be good) and this one on the seven basic plots. There are also some brilliant masterclasses on the subject by the brilliant Jeremy Sheldon and this one from C M Taylor, all free as part of the Jericho Writers membership.

Find a captivating voice

Okay, so you now have the bones of an exciting story down. Excellent. Now – we need to talk about the way you are going to tell this story.

The first thing to do is consider what point of view you are going to choose, and then stick to it entirely. The most popular ones in children’s books are either third person (He/She/They), or first person (I/We). You do tend to find books for younger readers tend to be third person, and teen and YA are usually first person – but this isn’t a rule. Try writing a scene using both and see which one feels more natural for you and this story.

It’s worth noting that children’s books in second person (You) are few and far between. This is because it’s a difficult thing to do well, and to relate to as a reader. But nothing is ever out of bounds in the world of children’s books, so if you are confident about using this POV, then go for it.

Whatever POV you choose, you must, must, MUST have a captivating voice. By ‘Voice’, we mean the way the story is being told – the language and sentence structure used to tell it. In first person, we need to believe that the person telling the story IS a child. In third person, we need that to a lesser degree, but we still need that sense that we are close to a character and understand who they are through their language.

Let’s take first person as an example to start with, because it’s a bit easier. A first-person voice can contain any one of the following things to make it a bit different:

  • An accent or dialect (eg: Southern American).
  • Short, matter-of-fact sentences, or long lines with little or no punctuation.
  • Complex language, or simple words.
  • A ‘Frame of Reference’ for understanding the world. For example, if your character loves painting, then you would expect their language to be a fountain of colour, using terms that painters would love.

My favourite article on voice is this one from Annabel Pitcher. Do give it a read – she is the master.

When creating your voice, it is worth making a note of all the things that might influence the way your character speaks. So, think about where in the world they come from, and the different words they will use. Think about their age. Think about their personalities. Think about their passions and interests. And use all of this to create a voice that is unique to them.

This becomes a bit harder when writing in third person. You can use some of this to colour the voice of the narrator, which can be particularly important when writing for younger children, who need to be reading ‘simple’ words along with the protagonists. You can also give the narrator their own voice altogether, as done in The Book Thief and Charlie Changes into a Chicken.

Whatever you choose to do, ensure that it is striking and work on it until it feels like ‘you’. It took me around four books to realise what is ‘me’ about my writing – I think sometimes it is one of those things that you need to write to realise! You can find out more about finding your voice here.

how to write books for children

Use settings and experiences kids will recognise

So, now we come on to the setting of your book. There are no real rules here when it comes to setting. Books like ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ is set all over the world, within a rickety old house with the legs of a chicken. But even in this book, there are still things included that children will recognise as similar to their own experiences. A feeling of loneliness from travelling all the time. A parental figure. A feeling of being bored when trapped inside the house.

With contemporary children’s books, the settings tend to be focused on home, school and other familiar places, such as parks and after-school clubs. If you are writing a book set in the real modern world, then you will probably need to include a school in there somewhere. Some authors do this really well, but I personally hate writing schools. If you’re like me, then setting a book in the summer holidays, or having protagonists who are over sixteen can sometimes be a way around this.

For fantasy writers, it’s worth thinking about things like education and home-life when you are world-building, too. Your character may well be going on a huge quest that will take them to the ends of the earth, with no time for school. But even The Hunger Games had lessons in flashback.

As I’ve said before, there are no rules here as such. Children’s books can take you to all corners of experiences. But ensure you think about your settings and how a child reader will recognise them. And if you choose to include things like school, then ensure you get that experience right!

Write and rewrite

Okay, so now we’re getting to the part where you have to put pen to paper. You’ll read a lot of articles all over the internet that will tell you rules here like “write every day” and “don’t look back on your first draft”.

But I don’t want to tell you any of those. Because honestly – writing a book is something every writer does differently, and that’s rather wonderful. Try writing every day, but if you can’t because you have your own kids to worry about, then that is perfectly fine. And maybe try not to spend years perfecting scenes before you get on to the next one (only because you will probably have to delete it later), but if you do need to make something perfect before you can move on, then that’s fine too.

Do whatever you need to do to keep writing.

I will however say this. First drafts suck. They do. And that is okay.

Books aren’t made on the first draft. This is where you let your characters drive that plot, and sometimes they don’t really know what they are doing. Books are made in the next stage – the re-writing. The editing. By getting feedback and working to make something shine.

In fact, I personally don’t even do first drafts any more. I call all my first attempts the ‘ditch draft’, because I know that chances are, I’m going to have to bin most of it and start again. I know that sounds a bit long – but again – do whatever you need to do to keep writing.

When it comes to re-writing, I personally like to open up a new document for my second draft and copy-paste the bits I like over and write the rest from scratch. There’s something freeing about not having words already there in front of you.

For editing, you can try these tips on self-editing your work, and an editor called Debi Alper runs a life-changing tutored course on Self-Editing here. You can also try getting feedback from other readers – either friends and family, or a writing group. Or perhaps through something like a Manuscript Assessment, which are particularly useful if you know something isn’t quite working, but you can’t quite pinpoint what. If you’re confused about the different types of editing, this post is quite useful for navigating.

Books are made in the self-edit stage, so keep going until you have something that is really quite something. Because nothing much less will be good enough when it comes to the next stage…

how to write books for children

Avoid classic mistakes all new writers make

But first – I want to pause and look at some common mistakes. Because these are the things you need to watch out for before you even think about sending out to agents.

Avoid stereotypes.

The cry-baby little sister. The dysfunctional dad. There are certain stereotypes we take for granted. So think when you make decisions about every character in your novel – can they be subverted? Can you show that boys can cry too, and that dad’s can do all the housework? This goes for race, gender, sexuality, disability and pretty much everything else. Write characters, not clichés.

 If you’re writing what you don’t know, get to know it.

 This is becoming increasingly important in children’s fiction – and so it should. If you are writing about a character with an experience different to your own, then you need to ensure you do copious amount of research – including speaking to people who live this experience. This especially goes for anything to do with race, gender, sexuality and disability. There are things you can do to help ensure you are not portraying these lives in a way that is stereotypical or harmful. Sensitivity readers are now becoming a mainstay in children’s publishing and authors can even hire their own if they feel the need to check their facts. You should know however that no amount of research ever makes up for the real experience and you should learn from any feedback you have from readers, rather than challenge it.

Don’t let this put you off writing diversely as this is incredibly important for all children’s writers to do, whatever background they are from. But ensure you do it sensitively.

Don’t start a story where the character is waking up.

If I had a dollar for every story I have read that starts with this, I would be a very rich author. Don’t do it.

Your opening scene should grab a reader by the hand and pull them immediately into the action.

Don’t start a story with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

Alternatively, don’t go the other way and start your story somewhere that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, just because it is more exciting than waking up.

Your opening scene should excite, but it should also introduce the reader to the world that will appear in the rest of the story. So, if you’re story is about a girl’s relationship with her mother, then don’t start your story in the middle of a fist-fight unless that very quickly turns into something to do with the mother.

Of course, this changes if you are writing fantasy where the beginning of the novel is set in the everyday world before the magic is let loose. Still here though, ensure you are spending time introducing us to the characters and situations that will be important throughout the rest of the story.

Don’t mix tenses, or POVs.

Pick one, and stick to it (flashbacks permitting!). There’s nothing worse than reading a story that switches heads or propels us back and forth in time. Try reading this article on Psychic Distance if you need more clarification.

Don’t tell us – show us (for the most part)

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see writers make – including myself. When you are trying to explain a world or situation, it can sometimes be easier to just dump that information on the page. And some of that is fine, but too much can slow action and feel amateur.

Try showing certain things within your writing whenever you can. For example, if your character is angry, have them shout, rather than putting ‘he was angry’.

Don’t rhyme for the sake of making it rhyme.

This one is particularly for the picture book writers amongst you. Rhymes are wonderful when they work, but I’ve seen writers fall into the trap of sacrificing sentence meaning to shoehorn in a rhyme.

If you are struggling to make a sentence flow because of your rhyming structure, then try something else. Or try no rhyme at all! Some of my favourite picture books don’t rhyme – it’s all about the characters and the story you are telling.

Don’t overuse adverbs and adjectives.

All new writers seem to fall into this trap. Perhaps we want to show off how beautifully we can write, so we pen long, languid sentences that dazzle and glitter with sparkly splendour.

Unfortunately, they also weigh down your words. Keep your sentences to the point and I promise that those metaphors and similes that you do scatter in, will be all the more breath-taking because of it.

Avoid clunky-sounding dialogue.

Usually this happens when we want to try and ‘show’ something and not ‘tell’ it. And we might end up with a scene a bit like this:

“Why are you so upset Billy?” Mum said.

“Because my game was cancelled again, like it was last week.”

“Do you mean when you kicked the ball over the fence and it had to be called off?”

“It wasn’t my fault. A dog came onto the pitch.”

“And we all know you’re afraid of dogs.

This doesn’t feel very realistic, does it? That’s because people don’t tend to spend their time reiterating things they all already know. Avoid doing this in your own book – especially with parents and their children, which tends to be where the clunkiest dialogue comes into its own! Try these tips on writing realistic dialogue.

Don’t have an adult save the day.

Finally, we have the ending. There is nothing worse than rooting for a child protagonist all the way through a book, only to have a grown-up step in and save the day at the end. Children want to see themselves as having the power to change the world. Sometimes, that might mean asking for help from a grown-up, but the decision to conquer should always come from the child.

how to write books for children

Get an agent and get published

So that leads us to the last point – how to get this wonderful children’s book you have written, published and on the shelves.

This could be a whole other blog article in itself, and indeed there are plenty around. The more comprehensive overviews are things like this article on how to get a book published, or this one on how to find an agent.

However, the most important things to know are that you will nearly always need an agent to get a publisher. And getting an agent is very, very difficult.

Agents will receive around two-thousand submissions every year and will only have space to take on one or two. Out of these one or two, a third then never find a publisher.

So the odds are perhaps not in your favour. But that’s okay. Because the fact that you have read all the way to the bottom of this blog post tells me that you are serious about writing a brilliant children’s book. And brilliant children’s books are the only ones that get published.

The other alternative to getting your book published is self-publishing. This shouldn’t be seen as a ‘last resort’ option. In fact, plenty of authors create lucrative careers from publishing independently and it is fast becoming the number one option for a lot of writers.

It can be a little harder to self-publish in the world of children’s books. Illustrated books don’t always transfer to eBook easily and the market tends to favour print in general. However, there are authors who are doing really well in the YA genre fiction market, particularly for things like paranormal romance. If you are interested in this option, then you can find plenty of free information here.

Writing for children: Conclusion

Being a children’s author takes an incredible amount of hard work and dedication, but it is the most fulfilling thing you can do (in my biased opinion!) Children don’t like books, they LOVE them. And once your book is published, hearing from those readers makes every step of this whole process completely worthwhile.

I’ve mentioned the Jericho Writers membership a few times in this article, and it is something to think about if you are serious about carving a career for yourself as a children’s author. Reading and writing will take us so far, but sometimes we need a helping hand from the experts to create something at the level it needs to be to get published. You can find out more about that membership here.

I do hope you have found this article useful and wish you every luck (and enjoyment!) in writing your own children’s book.

You’ve got this.

About the author:

Sarah Ann Juckes is the author of Young Adult / Crossover novel, OUTSIDE (Penguin). She is obsessed with children’s books, writing and her cat, and lives in East Sussex, UK.

More about writing for children

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Writers in conversation: Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste

Writers in conversation: Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste

Steve Cavanagh is a human rights lawyer working in Northern Ireland. The Defence is his debut novel, which was longlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and shortlisted for two Dead Good Readers Awards.

Luca Veste, a former civil servant, guitarist and actor, is author of the Murphy & Rossi crime series and editor of the Spinetingler-nominated charity anthology ‘Off The Record’.

Luca – I’m endlessly fascinated by the story of a writer’s journey. I started out quite late – I thought – with my own writing career. I didn’t write stories or anything of that sort until I was 28, so I’ve only been at this thing of ours for a few years. Speaking to other writers however, I know there’s a fair few out there who started writing when they were young, in school, getting attention for having a big imagination. How did it start out for you?

Steve – For me the desire to tell stories started early, but it took me a fair few years to get my ass in gear to do it. My Granda and my Dad would sit around with their friends, most nights, telling stories. I would just sit and listen, fascinated. Neither my Dad or my Granda read much, but my Mum did. She read four or five books a week, and I caught the crime bug from her. When I was young, far too young in retrospect, she gave me a copy of The Silence of the Lambs and that changed everything for me. I read all the books, especially American crime thrillers, that I could get my hands on. But when it came to writing, I didn’t write crime at first. In my late teens I started writing screenplays, mostly comedies. I even got an agent, but he couldn’t get anything sold so I gave up age 21. After that I always harboured the fantasy of writing a book, but never did it. Then in 2011, when I was aged 35, my Mum passed away quite suddenly. She was the only person who ever encouraged me to write so I thought I’d give it one more shot, for her. I started writing The Defence in September 2011, in secret, after a 14-year break. What about you? Starting at 28 doesn’t seem late at all. And you’ve still got your hair!

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Make the hardest part of writing easier

Luca – Yes, although being half Italian, I would be very annoyed if I lost my hair this soon. We’re a hirsute bunch. Like you, I was surrounded by stories in my family. And jokes. Everyone always has a funny story to top the last one. My dad was a screenwriter as it happens and actually made a film back in the 90s. I was a voracious reader as a child as well. Started with Enid Blyton and then went into horror when I was a teenager. I didn’t really read crime until I was around 23 – which was about 7 years after I’d pretty much stopped reading and started doing “teenage” things – and someone gave me Mark Billingham’s first book. I quickly caught up with his series and have read predominantly crime books since. Dead Gone – my first book – started out life as a very different book and came from writing short stories and progressing to something longer. I abandoned the first version of that story – which was a woeful scouse gangster-style cliche of a novel – and wrote a first draft in a few months. Then, redrafted three times to finally land an agent for it around a year later.

How long did it take you to get an agent?

Steve – Well, first, Dead Gone is a blinder of a debut. The work paid off. Getting an agent? Well, that took a while. It took me about six or seven months to do the first draft of The Defence, then I spent maybe another six months redrafting it, polishing it. So I think it started looking for an agent mid-2012. And I finally got one in April 2013 so probably around nine months to get representation. And I tell you, those were a hard nine months. I started off trying to get a US agent, but I didn’t think I was good enough to go for any of the big agencies, so I mainly tried the small and medium sized agencies. And I got a lot of rejections. Then, I got a little hint of light at the end of the tunnel. I started to get requests for the first three chapters, from agents that just wanted a pitch letter, and then requests for the full manuscript. I got a real buzz from this and a bigger downer when the rejections came back. One agency really loved the first three chapters, and requested the full book. I was enthusiastic about this small UK based agency, but I’d been in that situation before, so I thought I may as well try a couple of the bigger agents. I was getting rejections, anyway, so I thought I may as well get rejected by the best.

I remember it was a Monday night, I got the email from the small agency who’d read the full manuscript and who I’d been really keen on. They hated it. It was a rejection which contained the lines, “You can write, but this book will never be published. Write something else and we’ll read it.” Man, I was devastated. I thought, that’s it – this book is over I need to write something else. Then on the Wednesday I had two of the biggest agencies in the UK come back and offer representation for the same book that I’d been told would never be published. It was an amazing feeling. So now I’m very proud to be a Heathen (I’m represented by AM Heath).

How did you hook up with your agent?

Luca – I was quite bullish when it came to finding an agent. I knew a few other writers at the time and there were a couple who always raved about their agent. Now, I edited a couple of charity anthologies around that time, and I think that agent was tipped off that I was writing a novel. He sent me a message on Twitter saying good work on the anthologies, when you’ve got a novel to show people, I’d love to read it. That was back in February 2012. I finished the first draft in about March, read it once, thought it was as good as it was ever going to be, and sent it to the agent.

He rejected it, somewhat nicely, a few weeks later.

I took his notes on board, redrafted, and sent it back in the June.

He rejected that one as well, with the option to resend another draft. I was, similar to you, devastated. I’d worked tirelessly on all the notes and only succeeded in creating new problems.

By this point, I was convinced I couldn’t write a better book, so decided to send it to four other agents. One rejected within a day, as they had decided to concentrate on children’s fiction. The other three agents asked for the full manuscript. As a matter of courtesy, I emailed the original agent, who by now was quite friendly with me, and let him know I was showing other agents the book and was getting some interest. I received an email back straight away, asking if I could speak on the phone. What followed was ninety minutes of the agent telling me exactly what was wrong with the book, what need fixing, and a general tearing apart of my work. The last five minutes of the call was him offering me representation. I pretty much immediately accepted the offer.

Best decision I’ve ever made. I rewrote the book in a month, working almost every hour I was awake (which as an insomniac, is quite a few), and he was happy with the result.

What is bizarre, is that it took only six weeks after that to find a publisher. A year to get an agent, six weeks to get a publisher … shows how valuable a good agent can be, and I have a great one in Phil Patterson.

The Defence is ridiculously good. To the point where I was hoping it wasn’t really a debut, but a new novel from an established writer under a pseudonym. I can only imagine it was picked up the next day by a publisher in a sixteen-way auction?

Steve – That’s class. I love that story. What I hear sometimes from writers who are looking for an agent, or a publishing deal, is that they are quite precious about their book. Which is totally the wrong attitude. When you write your first book you basically know nothing. You learn by writing and then it’s your agent’s and publisher’s job to point out all the shit that you can’t see and make the book better.

Thanks for the kind words about The Defence. It was picked up quick, but only after a lot of work. I got representation from Euan Thorneycroft in April 2013, and he sent me pages of notes on the book; what worked, what didn’t work. I knew we were a good match because everything he thought needed changing really did need changing, but I just couldn’t see that. So I worked on the book flat out, and we got it ready for submission in September.

I remember Euan telling me he was sending it out and that it could take months to hear back, so he would email me in three or four weeks and let me know how we got on. That was on a Monday. On the Friday I was stood in my hall, when I got an email. It was from Euan – there was an offer for the book in the UK. Four offers. He would be conducting an auction. I was completely blown away. I remember running into the living room and telling my wife that the book would be published. At that stage I didn’t care who published it, but I knew somebody would and that was enough. In the end I went with Orion, who publish some of my heroes and things have worked out well.

So in your first book we meet DI David Murphy and DS Laura Rossi. How did you go about shaping those characters and did you conceive the first book as the beginning of a series? If you didn’t, is there anything you would change now?

Luca – That’s my favourite kind of publishing story. Unsurprising, given how good it is, but there’s still an element of doubt with anything regarding publishing!

Well, Murphy happened quite by accident. I’ve already mentioned the discarded scouse-gangster novel, which contained an element of what makes up Dead Gone – the psychology angle, someone killing people based on real psychological experiments etc. When I started over, I kept the psychology bit, and disregarded everything else. I remember I was re-reading one of my favourite books – The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby – and thinking I wanted to write something more like that. So, I started with the woman on the night out, getting in the taxi, and disappearing. Then, I was going to concentrate on her partner, but realised writing those ‘ordinary people in extraordinary situations’ novels were extremely difficult to write! I decided I needed a police point of view, as they could do things ordinary people couldn’t really. My uncle is an ex-copper, so I used him as a basis. He shares his physical size, nickname, some of his qualities, but has none of the baggage Murphy does. Once I started writing about Murphy, I just found he was more interesting to me. Murphy quickly usurped the boyfriend character and became the star.

However, back then, his sidekick was a bloke called Nick Ayris.

Going back to that phone conversation with Agent Phil, he casually mentioned that usually it’s a male/female partnership, and that there was nothing Italian in the book. Which was surprising to him, given I was half-Italian.

Nick Ayris became Laura Rossi and that’s why agents are important!

Rossi is by far my favourite character to write now. I can get all these little things about my Italian family in there – my nan asking me if I’m hungry as soon as I’d walked through the door, before saying hello, my dad swearing in Italian, the quick-temper, etc.

I did envisage a series if it got picked up, but I’d still change things. I probably wouldn’t have Murphy having quite such a lot of baggage to carry, although that worked (hopefully) eventually. That’s about it though. There’s no plan as such, but I have ideas for about seven or eight books total. I’m writing number four now, so I’m halfway through! And those ideas will probably change.

You and Eddie Flynn … always a series as well?

Steve – Have to say I love Rossi; the Italian swearing! She is such a great character.

Ahm, yeah, I had an idea for the character first. A con artist who became a lawyer, because I wanted to explore the overlap in those professions and how a trial works – the art of cross examination and how that really is the art of persuasion, misdirection and manipulation. Before the book got picked up I had an idea for four or five, and I really wanted to start writing them but I knew The Defence had to be the first one. If that book hadn’t been published I wouldn’t be writing about that character because the events in The Defence cause Eddie to fall back into his old hustler ways. No other storyline could’ve achieved that in the same way. Right now I’m writing the third book. I love series characters, so it felt natural to try and start my own. Although, I’ve been hit with several decent ideas for standalone books lately. I don’t know if I’ll write them. Maybe down the line.

Do you ever think of trying a standalone? And how do you go about writing? Plotter, pantser, when and how do you write?

Luca – Can’t wait to read more Eddie.

I’ve got the beginning of a standalone in a word doc on my computer. It’s pretty much plotted out as well, but I’m happy writing the series for now. I’m a big fan of series characters as well, so I’m happy at the moment. I’m a little of both. I plot a little, then just write for a while, before plotting a little more. Usually, this leads to me rewriting half a book, four weeks before a deadline though!

I start with a small idea. Then, I need some sort of theme – with the new one, Bloodstream, it’s about love and media – and I can just go from there. With my books, there’s always an investigation that starts you off, which usually involves a body or the lack of one, so it’s just a battle against making that too samey/cliche and just writing. Then rewriting. Then throwing things at the wall and hoping inspiration hits at some point!

Do you plan much? And the same question about standalones to you… would you consider writing something set in your own country?

Steve – That’s interesting that you start off with a theme. I know Ian Rankin does something similar so you’re in good company. I think doing it that way, with a theme in mind, really helps you focus on what you want to achieve with the book. I’m reading Bloodstream at the moment, and loving it. The whole celebrity thing is well done, and my wife zipped through the book in a day or so.

I tend not to have a theme, and one or two kind of emerge. I don’t plot or plan anything. I write line by line, and then I go back and rewrite the beginning until I have it nailed. Once I’ve got a decent 50 pages or so, I’m off and I don’t tend to look back until I’m almost at the end. Then I stop. Go back and redraft from the beginning before I write the end. It’s a weird process. I tend to have a vague idea, and go from there. The second book, The Plea, touches on white collar crime like money laundering and how it’s done in the digital age, and there’s a locked room mystery done with CCTV. (A word of advice to new writers. NEVER do a locked room mystery, not until you are well down the line with at least a couple of books under your belt. And then plan it all out from the beginning.)

Standalones are very appealing when you’re writing a series, but also scary. I think you have to time it right. That last thing you want to do is release a standalone when everyone is waiting for the next book in the series. It never quite has the same impact.

I don’t know if I’d write something set in Northern Ireland. I won’t rule it out, but the ideas for standalones that are kicking around in my head are set in the US. Although, I did have one idea for a Northern Ireland story, but I sort of think that would work much better on TV than in a book.

Luca – I’ll take the company of Ian Rankin. I saved a penalty of his, in a crime writers’ football match. I don’t mention it very often.

Locked room mystery, ouch. That’s not something I have planned to do any time soon!

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Interesting that Northern Ireland hasn’t really featured much in your planning. When I started out, I couldn’t imagine setting my books anywhere other than Liverpool. I can’t really imagine writing about anywhere else, even with the help of Google Maps. You didn’t just choose a different city, but an entirely different country. How does that work and is it solely so you can pass of US holidays as expenses?

Steve – A US holiday would be very nice.

It’s not so much of a leap really. I grew up watching US TV shows and reading books set in the US, so the language, the rhythms, the pace and the locations, all seem very real to me. Plus, New York fits with the pace and the style of story I wanted to write. And by setting it in New York I can cheat. If I’d set it somewhere in North Carolina, I’d have to take a fair bit of time to describe the place. Whereas, as soon I say New York, every single person reading the book immediately creates their own mental image without me having to help them too much.

If I’d set the book in Belfast it just wouldn’t have worked. Plus, look at all the writers coming out of Northern Ireland, like Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Eoin McNamee, Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan, Claire MacGowan. I just couldn’t compete with that lot.

How important is setting to you? A few of the places and buildings in The Defence are fictional, any fictional settings or are they all meticulously researched? And what does Liverpool add to the series, for you?

Luca – Stuart Neville, now there’s a writer. When I grow up, I want to be as good as him.

Nothing really fictional in my book. Everything exists, with a couple of minor changes here and there, so no one sues me. There’s a house in the first book which plays a major role in the ending and that’s slightly invented. The road it’s on exists, but the house itself is a creation. My police characters work from the real offices in the city centre, they live in real locations (again with some alterations), and I hope daily that it doesn’t get me into trouble!

Liverpool to me just feels natural. It’s a setting not really utilised in crime fiction, so I have that going for me, as it’s somewhere new for readers to discover. It’s big enough, that I have many locations within it to utilise. Plus, there are so many different characters in Liverpool, that I can bring in realism to what is an unrealistic topic. We last had a serial killer in Liverpool back in the 1800s (we’ve exported a couple since then, but never had any on the streets from what I know), which means my serial killer books don’t really conform to the reality of the city. Hopefully, with the characters, topics, and locations, I can make it a little more realistic.

What’s the one thing you want to achieve in your writing career … awards, events, etc.?

Steve – You should set your books in Northern Ireland, we’ve had more than our fair share of serial killers. And I totally agree about Stuart – phenomenal talent.

The one thing I want to achieve? I don’t know if I could narrow it down to just one thing. It’s weird, when you’re struggling to be published you just want to have that moment of seeing your book on a shelf. When you’ve achieved that, then you want somebody to actually buy the bloody book, take it home, read it and enjoy it. Then you want lots of people to do that. Ideally, enough to get you onto the bestseller list – so I think your goals change throughout your career. I’m sure there are well known bestselling writers, who want higher sales, and better chart positions every year.

For me, I have two goals. One is to be able to sell enough books, and make enough money that I could be financially stable and support my family through my writing. That is the big one for me. Second goal, to write a better book than the last one, year on year. Awards are totally in the lap of the Gods. You do your best and if someone wants to give you an award, well that’s lovely. But there are plenty of amazing crime novels that don’t win awards but stay in print and become classics.

The other part of this writing game is getting to meet so many other great writers. There are still a few legends on my list of people that I want to meet – Stephen King for one.

What about you – career goals?

Luca – Similar to you, I just want to write a better book than the last one. Security would be up there as well. I’d love to have a novel in hardback, as that’s something I always equate with quality (for some unknown reason). Awards – I’d like them and I hate people who have them (jokes!), but not a top priority.

I’ll be standing next to you when you meet Stephen King. My literary hero. Which neatly leads me into a conclusion to this conversation.

What’s your favourite book? Mine is by the aforementioned – and soon to be Steve and Luca’s best mate – Stephen King, and is The Stand.

Steve – If we meet Stephen King I’m going ask him to take a photograph of you and me. Just for the Craic. (“Excuse me, Mr King. Could we get a photo?” “Why sure,” says Stephen King.) I’m joking of course. I’d be a complete gibbering mess meeting somebody like him. That would be a cool day, and another reason to envy Stuart who has indeed met the man.

Favourite book? I haven’t read it in years, but The Lord of The Rings used to be my favourite book. I used to read it every Christmas, for about ten years. Now I think I’d have to go with Red Dragon, or The Firm. If you’d asked me last week I would’ve said Every Dead Thing by John Connolly or The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly. My favourites change all the time.

And as a final bit, best bit of writing advice you can give to a new writer?

Luca – Ha! We must do that. Hopefully in the future we’ll get the chance.

I’m awful with advice, but here’s the best I can do … finish. Whatever you’re writing, just finish it. That’s the hardest part of writing, I think. Finishing the bloody thing. Having a complete story in front of you makes things much easier. Then, you can get to the fun part. Rewriting.

Your advice?

Steve – Read and write. Read the best books you can find and aspire to get close to that level. And write as much as you can every single day. It’s the only way to improve.

More about Steve Cavanagh:
Steve was born and raised in Belfast and is a practicing lawyer. He is married with two young children. The Defence, has been chosen as one of Amazon’s 2015 Rising Stars programme. The Defence was longlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and shortlisted for two Dead Good Readers Awards for Best Ending and Most Recommended Book. Steve writes fast-paced legal thrillers set in New York City featuring lawyer and former con artist, Eddie Flynn. The Defence is his first novel. Find out more at or follow Steve on Twitter @SSCav

More about Luca Veste:
Luca is a writer of Scouse and Italian heritage, author of the Murphy & Rossi series. His latest book is called Bloodstream. He is also the editor of the Spinetingler Award nominated charity anthology ‘Off The Record’. He is a former civil servant, actor, singer and guitarist (although he still picks it up now and again). He can be found at and on twitter @LucaVeste.

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