How to write a novel: some tips to get started

You write a novel in several drafts, improving on its structure each time.

Like sculpting from rough ideas. Each draft carves your novel’s shape and structure in greater detail.

I tend to limit myself to three drafts, for the sake of getting the novel to market. But really you can work through as many drafts as you like until you’re happy with the result. As many drafts as it takes.

The following is by no means a comprehensive guide; just some pointers if you need to get started. With new lockdowns in force, this could be your perfect time for that novel you always wanted to write, but never knew how to start. And while it may seem complex or overwhelming, you really just need to start small and take consistent action.

You’re here for quick tips to get things moving. So let’s take a look.

Listen to music.

I dunno about you, but I find music hugely uplifting and motivating. Every one of my novels was fuelled by a soundtrack of cherry-picked songs and movie scores, which transport my mind to a certain state of emotion or motivation. Listening as I write, I’ll channel that musical energy into literary energy; powering through scenes and action sequences I would otherwise find hard to capture in words.

I’ve also found music to be the fastest and most effective way to “fill up the fuel tank” for my creativity. Without creative fuel in the tank, you’ll find it incredibly hard to get started writing your novel. Before you spin any good yarn into words on the page, you’ll really need to have raw materials going into your head prolifically, on a daily basis, to serve as inspiration (AKA “the in-breath”).

I’d recommend writing with music to anyone. I’ve found that the fastest and most accessible way to “download” instant inspiration is with music. Music gives your mind the sense of playfulness it needs to create worlds.

Read, read, read.

It’s received writerly wisdom that if you’re gonna write, you need to read a lot. But don’t just read the really good stuff – read the terrible stuff too. Read everything from fiction and nonfiction to marketing copy and menu wordings, or even YouTube comments. For example, see how the absence of any punctuation in people’s comments makes them sound like raving lunatics, without a single thought for the person reading it. Good writing is, at its heart, an exercise in empathy with the person who’ll be reading your work.

Compare your writing to bestsellers. You’ll quickly learn your place in the hierarchy of writing ability, and once you know where you’re at then you can see where to improve. Me? I’m a terrible over-writer. But I’m trying to improve on my economy of language, while still conveying every image and emotion I want to get across in my fiction writing. It’s all just years of practise, and that process never really ends. But dammit, I love the process – and loving your craft will power you through.

The more widely you read, the more things will come into alignment. You’ll spot successful patterns in different people’s writings, applying those same language patterns in your own work with ever more clarity and confidence. You’ll learn to flow. To use short sentences. And fragments. And start with “And”. You’ll learn lists-of-three, and that big words don’t impress people, and that good writing reads like people speak.

You’ll come to learn that fiction writing isn’t rocket science, but good writing is an art form and takes dedicated practise to earn those five-star reviews. Most importantly, you’ll learn which books and genres you really don’t want to read – and you’ll gain ever more experience in the particular niche you most want to write in. Because the most highly paid writers in the world aren’t generalists. They’re highly trained specialists in one particular genre – and you can be too. But first, you’ll need your writing muscles.

Build your writing muscles.

Now that your mind’s flying high on words and musical brainfood, it’s time to start working out. I believe that creativity is a mental muscle, and like any muscle it can be broken down and built back stronger to become more powerful and effective over time. So set yourself a workout; a daily wordcount. Ideally first thing in the morning, during your first “golden hour” of the day.

Make tea or coffee, put music on while you work, and hammer out five hundred words of your story. Who cares if it isn’t right or good enough. It’s there, and you broke ground on your novel’s construction site. All that matters is that you’re actually typing away, every day, and it’s getting faster and easier to structure creative thoughts and crystallise them on the page.

Repeat this routine over days and weeks, and you’ll rapidly build up the creative muscles you’ll need for the mountain-climb that is writing a novel. And though it may indeed be a mountain to climb, don’t see it as one monolithic challenge. Whether you’re writing a book or actually climbing a mountain, it can all be broken up into small simple pieces. And the way to structure those small simple pieces, is with a blueprint.

Follow a blueprint.

Learning The Hero’s Journey changed everything for me. Not just in writing novels; I see this same blueprint repeated everywhere else in life. Look up the Hero’s Journey, print off the circular diagram for yourself, and stick it to a wall where you’ll see it while you’re writing. The best novels, films and games all make sudden sense when you realise they’ve been written to a predefined formula – The Hero’s Journey – and that the rest of your work in writing a novel is really just naming the names and filling in the blanks as you complete that Hero’s Journey circle.

Another thing about blueprints? They aren’t conceptual or immaterial. They exist on paper, in the real world, and they’re real things. The same needs to happen for your novel. Perhaps the best thing you could ever do for the progress of your novel (especially if you’ve “wanted to write a novel” for years) is to actually set it down on paper and stick it to a wall. This way, it becomes something. And when you look at it enough times, that something will become something you have to get done.

Start now.

There’s never a good time to write that novel. There never will be.

There are never enough free hours; there’s never enough peace and quiet to concentrate. And that’s how novels get left unwritten. So break the cycle, grab the paper, and make a start. You have total permission to write something awful, because every writer in history has to start there before things get better. There are two kinds of people in this world: the ones who do and the ones who wait. Advice: don’t wait.

The process of writing is the process of rewriting. And unless you have a crappy first draft completed, then you don’t have anything to rewrite and polish into a finished novel. So start, start, and start. Get to the end, get to the end, and get to the flipping end.

Start your story on three Post-its: Beginning, Middle, and End. The rest is just filling in the blanks of what happens to get your characters from start to finish. Using Post-its you can grow your novel on a wall or door, and using alarms (or your PC’s timer app) will make sure that you only use the time you have available. Even if you only have ten minutes a day to start writing, then shut the door, ask for peace and quiet, and barrel out as many words as you can. It will always get easier, and this is the only way that any novel ever got written. In tiny steps, tiny wordcounts, written over and over again.

I hope these tips are helpful for you. Let me know in the comments if there’s any more advice I can give you. My novels are my proudest achievement, and if you really want to write novels too then I want to do everything I can to help you get started.

Or, if you’re looking for some blockbuster sci-fi-fantasy, then with absolute bias I recommend my own ebook trilogy. The Tabitha Trilogy is available for Amazon Kindle, and you can find it right here.

Regardless: get some music on, get started with some Post-its, and happy wording. 🤘

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