How to write a novel, according to 10 really good novelists

Tom Nicholson, Miranda Collinge
·6-min read
Photo credit: Thomas Schenk for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Thomas Schenk for Harper's Bazaar

From Harper's BAZAAR

Back in the first lockdown, you probably told yourself that now – right this moment, in the middle of a pandemic – was the perfect time to conceive, plot, write, revise, rewrite, complete and publish a novel which completely transformed what we thought it was possible to express in the English language.

Although a year-long period of isolation and anxiety surprisingly isn't much good for your inner author, there's no bad time to start writing. It doesn't really matter if it goes anywhere. Just write something and see where it takes you.

To help you along, we asked 10 established and emerging writers for the rules of thumb they use to find ideas, to get words onto the page, and to turn an interesting first draft into something more substantial.

1/ Let yourself get lost

"So much of my writing process is in the not writing. I spend a lot of time following my interests, going down Google and YouTube rabbit holes, or immersed in photography books. I always have headphones on and find myself scribbling song lyrics in notebooks. I’m most concerned with feeling and I’m always trying to find ways to map and express those feelings. And what better way than to follow your curiosities, to pursue your loves? Writing, to a degree, is an act of love and should be treated accordingly."

– Caleb Azumah Nelson, author of Open Water


2/ Take notes, everywhere

"Always keep a small notebook and a pen at hand. Any time you hear something interesting, or you have a fleeting thought, or even, you encounter a new word in a book that you don't know – jot it down. A collection of miscellanies may prove most interesting and thought-provoking sometime later."

– Yiyun Li, author of books including Must I Go, Where Reasons End and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

3/ Don't overcomplicate it

"Keep it simple: complexity is the enemy. Task yourself narratively, for example, 'Tomorrow I have to write a particular scene', rather than, 'Tomorrow I must write 800 words'. The plot can be structured as: situation, complication, new equilibrium. And this applies to scenes as well as whole books: the new equilibrium is the hook for the next scene. Verbs are very important, that’s where the action is. Metaphorise them if possible. Write: 'The red-haired man shouldered his way through the door'; not: 'The big-shouldered, red-haired man pushed through the door.'"

– Giles Foden, author of books including Turbulence and The Last King of Scotland


4/ Hit up Wikipedia

"My advice is to use the 'random special' button on Wikipedia as a way to generate unusual ideas for fiction. When you click on 'random article' it brings up a random – but curated – page from the hidden depths of Wikipedia. It might be a page about a grunge band from Vancouver or the World Alliance of Baptist Churches or perhaps Raimo Manninen, a Finnish alpine skier. Keep clicking until you have two pages that interest you and then write a story that makes a connection between those pages. For example, it could be a story about a depressed skier who finds god in the mountains and decides to baptise himself in a hole in the ice of an Alpine lake. Or hopefully something better than that."

– Joe Dunthorne, author of Submarine, Wild Abandon and The Adulterants

5/ Read aloud

"My writing advice would be: read your work out loud, even if you think it's finished; there'll always be something that can be said more simply, or in a clearer voice, especially if you're writing dialogue."

– Paul Mendez, poet and author of Rainbow Milk

6/ Look past your first idea

  1. Your first thought is never your best thought, it's just your first.

  2. Most of your ideas are banal so dig deeper.

  3. Go and find things out; most of the things worth hearing aren’t already sitting in your head.

  4. Stop bothering people with your early drafts. Bother yourself with your early drafts.

  5. Work every day. It’s not an amateur’s game.

– Andrew O'Hagan, Esquire editor-at-large and author of books including Mayflies, The Illuminations and Our Fathers

7/ There are no tricks

"The trick to writing is to pretend there are no tricks. I refuse to romanticise the process. If I did, insecurity would creep in. I would be too preoccupied with thinking, 'But can I do this? Am I a writer?' No time for that. The more dramatic the process seems – Oh I cannot write unless I am wearing my red beret! Oh I can only write before the sun is up! – the more you slow yourself down. It is important, for me at least, to be able to write anywhere, under any circumstance. In your phone notes, in a lunch break, walking down the street. I never said those scraps of writing will be any good. (Although sometimes they are.) But you’re flexing the muscle, building it, teaching yourself that writing is only an action. In other words: stop fucking around and get on with it."

– Rebecca Watson, author of Little Scratch


8/ Distract yourself

"If in doubt, get on with other things. Take the writing away from the page and let life work on it quietly for a bit. Walk, cook, hoover, call your mum, draw a picture, and you will unknowingly (or knowingly) be solving the problem, dismantling the cliche, refining the turn of phrase, finding the right word, and then you go back to the work, armed with this thinking you’ve been doing, and progress is made. Gather other things to bring to the page. Language, time, experience.

"The most significant creative breakthrough I ever had with my writing was standing in the Nando's toilet in Bromley changing my baby son’s trousers after a nappy explosion. Epiphanies aren’t queued up politely in waiting rooms behind Word docs, they’re out in the world."

– Max Porter, author of The Death of Francis Bacon, Lanny and Grief is the Thing with Feathers

9/ Get into your groove by getting into your groove

"My advice would be: 1) establish a routine whereby you write for at least couple of hours each day; 2) keep going even when you feel uninspired; 3) when you're mid-flow don't think about how your work will be received; 4) when you've finished a draft do think about it or, better still, find someone who will give you honest feedback; 5) be prepared to revise, revise and revise."

– Blake Morrison, poet and author of The Executor, The Last Weekend and And When Did You Last See Your Father?

10/ Don't beat yourself up

"Unfortunately this isn’t a good time to ask for my advice precisely because it’s all going rather well at present. I'm not having to force myself to write; I just feel like doing it. How has this come about? I've really no idea but this rare and happy state of affairs is consistent with something Victor Hugo said on the subject (can’t remember where): when you can write it’s easy, when you can’t, it’s impossible."

– Geoff Dyer, author of books including White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, Another Great Day at Sea and Jeff in Venice

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