How to write your novel: top tips

Writers who have lived the dream share their advice

Article

Love writing but feel daunted by the thought of writing a full-length book? Writers who have lived the dream share their top tips.

From Stephanie Lam…

Finishing your first draft

• Keep going until you reach the end. Don’t go back and revise, however tempted you may feel. You’ll get bogged down in perfecting that first chapter over and over again.
• Try to write every day. But because we have to live in the real world and that’s not always possible, try to ‘check in’ with your novel every day. Spend at least half an hour plugged in to the world of your novel, planning scenes or thinking about one of your characters. Then when you go back to actually writing it, it won’t be so cold.
• Don’t write to please anyone but yourself.
• If in doubt, write it in. You can always take it out later on.
• Remember a first draft is never perfect. It is a blueprint for how you want your novel to be, that’s all.

Getting feedback on your novel

• Writers’ groups can be supportive, friendly, and will push you on to write that chapter when you’re more tempted to go on Facebook. However, groups are only as good as their members, so choose wisely before you share your baby with the world.
• Friends will be interested in what you are writing, especially if they are avid readers, but unless they are used to giving constructive criticism, you might either get a bland ‘that’s great’ response – or worse, they might inadvertently put you off your stride. However, if you have a trusted group of reader friends, you may find their responses invaluable.
• There are many writing courses now, from day-long workshops such as those run by Writers’ HQ to masters’ degrees in creative writing, and they’ll all give you the opportunity to meet fellow authors. In addition, a decent tutor will push you into becoming an even greater writer, and can also give you the inside info on the publishing industry. You may even make contacts that will help you when it comes to finding an agent or publisher – or useful tips if you decide to go down the self-publishing route. Do your research, ask previous students for their opinions, and pick the course that’s right for your budget and time.
• Literary consultancies – although pricey – will assign you an experienced mentor to edit your manuscript and give you extensive, supportive feedback on where to go next. You might find this route useful if you’ve finished your novel and don’t know how to progress to the next draft. Again, do your research, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

… and Sharon Duggal

• Don’t be too hard on yourself. Congratulate yourself on what you do achieve rather than punish yourself for what you haven’t because it’s hard to fit it into life. Every small achievement is worth celebrating.
• Keep things. Keep all those journals. One day even if you think you are not going to go back to them you probably will.
• It’s good to either join or start a writing group so you are with other people. You don’t have to pay to go on a course – just find out who in your social network wants to get together once a month to talk about writing and share bits you have written. Those supportive writers’ groups can be really important for feedback, and it is vital to get used to taking constructive criticism because it will only make you better as a writer.
• Find a regular time to write, every day or every week.
• Set yourself goals that are achievable. Instead of 5,000 words a week say 500 words. It is like running – don’t start with 10k, start with 10 minutes around the block.

And courtesy of the BBC, here’s novelist Muriel Spark’s fearless approach to writing:

  • Words: Stephanie Lam and Sharon Duggal
  • Illustrations: AF Fotografie / Alamy Stock Photo
  • Video: BBC Two, clip from ‘The Many Primes of Muriel Spark’
  • Extract from Breathe issue 9 – order your copy here or the digital edition here

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