How to get started on a first novel. Five things I wish I’d known earlier.

There’s bags of advice out there, of course. Hopefully whatever you’ve found so far has been fabulously helpful and you’re ready to get going. As someone who’s started more novels than they’ve finished and finished more novels than they’ve published and is still rewriting those nearly-but-not-quites almost to death, there are a few things that I wish someone had given me all those years ago when I first started.

The first big goal is getting started at all, and a number of narrative theorists go very, very deep on the impossibility of the beginning. The second big goal is giving yourself a better than decent chance of keeping going until the end of the first draft. Getting a draft out, even a crappy one, is a major effort – it’s 80,000 words or more where there used to be 300 blank sheets for Goodness’ sake – that really is a major effort and, make no mistake, anyone who’s written a vaguely readable draft of a real novel deserves to feel proud of their efforts.

The goals after that probably shouldn’t concern those at the stage of a first go, but they might eventually include improvements, increasing readability, harmonising style, squeezing that 5% extra out of all the conflicts and turning points. If you want to get published then there’s a whole array of imponderables and unknowns and lucky breaks that aren’t really about planning or motivation. Like a hole in one for a golfer, you need to be good enough to get close on a regular basis, but the actual drop into the hole isn’t something that can happen just because you want it to. That’s what luck is. When you’re starting your second novel you can get luckier by being more up on the Zeitgeist, being more canny about characterisations and markets and of course being more craftspersonly about those time-honoured conventions of narrative and prose. Some of those  you’ll find out before you start, but, like a new recruit to the army who sort of knows there’ll be assault courses and mess drills but who will find out a whole lot more as they begin the first steps of the journey, there’s a lot to learn just by getting started, by doing, and by accepting that your first go (maybe even your second or third go) will be more about learning than producing.

So, to add to the many other bits of good advice you’ll be getting online or in the many great how-to-do-it booklets, here’s four things I wish someone had told me when I first tried to put a novel together.

Your first novel #1: Give a name to your desired approach to writing

This is something you’ll know but may not have articulated – what kind of a writer are you trying to be? The chances are you’ll love a whole range of writers and styles and periods. Which one (or ones) are you trying to be? Or, if being unique is your aim, which ones are you trying NOT to be?

To illustrate, I studied music in my youth. When it came to composition the kind of music I wanted to make up was the music that was most recently in my head. I’d have a bash at a Mozart horn concerto pastiche and then an hour later I was trying to slap a ground bass and cluster chords into something outrageously modernistic (and, it has to be said, outrageously bad!)

As a music listener you can listen to any music you can get your ears on. You could have plainchant before breakfast and Mahler after the first cappuccino. Grunge before croissants and an accordion cafe for brunch. But you can’t compose like that.

For the book writers you can read all sorts, love all sorts and have your favourites in a dozen different camps, styles or centuries. But what a reader will want is consistency. Even if you want to make a clever shimmy of pastiches part of your thing, there’s a consistent narrative voice that has to hold the thing together and has to have chosen to BE one thing or the other.

This is a really important point here when it comes to keeping your project up. If you start a Rom Com but then read a really good thriller and wish you were writing one of those, what do you do? A Hugh Grant floppy haired hero suddenly gets badass with guns in Act II – then for a real finale, goes all Star Wars for a bit before pulling off his mask to reveal he’s the elf king. Doesn’t have to be anywhere near that extreme to be lethal. The killer blow is if you now hate your initial Rom Com idea and give up on it (but fail to retain enthusiasm for your thriller or sci-if or whatever).

“I can’t help you because I don’t know what it is you want,’ says the character Tre Cooper in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, ‘…one moment it’s the tortured genius creating great art and the next you just want your face on the telly.’ It’s a big thing – you have to choose what you most want to be as an author and reluctantly let go of the other choices of identity.

You’ll have your own names – play with a few more, but get a real handle on what kind of writer you’re going to be. When Rankin came up with the term Tartan Noir – at a publishers party I gather – he’d already known for years that that’s what he was, at least when publishing under that name.

As a writer you might be: the Intellectual, the Stylist, the Dour wit; the Epic Poet; the Classicist; the Dissillusioned, the Funkster, the Observer… just make sure that you’re the same thing every morning when you pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard or speak into the dictaphone.

What’s your type, your style, the label you’d like to be known by when critics choose one word or phrase for your work?  The quicker you can nail it, the better you’ll focus.

Your first novel #2: Don’t (necessarily) make yourself begin at the beginning

It’s a real divider of opinion – do you write your novel as though you’re a reader? A very slow reader of course, but, basically, do you start at the beginning and work your way through, wanting the outcomes that a reader will want and then either satisfying or delaying them in the following pages or chapters?

Or, do you plot out your work first and then, when the structure is established, come in with the scenes, the voices, the dialogues that pad it out?

Or something in between? Do you write the exciting bits and then go back and tie them together? If there’s a crazy denouement and a slow-burn mystery then maybe it starts and the end and goes backwards. One of the best prose stylists and best plotters, Arthur Miller, describes his process for Death of a Salesman as one where he began with the scenes that he knew would be most troublesome, leaving the ones he could visualise most easily till the end. I suspect for most of us it’s often the other way round

Screenwriters are so plot-driven and ruthlessly darling-killing about what is, after all, a ruthless time-is-money industry, that they would not dare do anything but plot out, usually with Post-it notes or similar, swapping bits in and out and testing them first against the paradigms of McKee and then against a live studio audience.

Novels don’t necessarily work in such extreme ways, but it is worth grasping a few of the much talked about elements of the debate:

For example, once you’ve told your story, will you get bored and never finish it? Remember screenwriters are well paid and have an objective. For novelists there’s something about working through the story that’s in their mind, only understanding its twists and potential as part of the process of writing. If you’re prepared to do this with one draft and then throw it away and start with the better plotted version, fine. Good books tend to need more careful plotting than a meandering explorative approach will allow, but if the process is the main thing – and it well might be – no problem and get that peregrinatory head on.  If you’ve got the plot sorted on Post-its, though, will you be fully motivated to go back and fill in the gaps?

Whichever way round it goes for you, be prepared to test out some scenes that are outside the chronological order – whether that’s your writing chronology or that of the narrative. You may find there are useful time twists – a chance to get the more interesting things in a better order and not one that follows standard time. Write test dialogues, odd sentences, phrases or metaphors you want to repeat to make themes. You may find you learn more about characters, you may find that some scenes are just impossible – too tortuous, too complicated, too boring – and need to be written out.

It’s not a hole by hole game of golf you’re playing. You’ve got a chance to do the driving range, the pitching targets and the putting green and then put together your ideal round at the end.

Or, like Mahler’s notes for a symphony, there’ll be a little passage that comes to you that you know needs to be in the middle and to which you’ll now build towards.

Or, as the advice goes that we were once given as undergraduate students. Don’t worry about the beginning of your essay. You’ll all be waffling till the brain engages. Accept this, write it as necessary. Then, when you’re writing the ending, go back and remove what you thought was the beginning. Your new beginning will be where your brain has joined you, fully engaged.

Just don’t forget to go back and fill in the gaps.

Your first novel #3: Characters that know they are characters

There’s a good line in McKee that goes something along the lines that Hamlet is no more a real person than the Venus de Milo is a real person.

One of the biggest hurdles for every writer but especially for the newbie is understanding where reality and fiction separate. The most common complaint from anyone asked to look through an early draft of a first novel is that it has that recognisable and very thin veil of an autobiography about it. Basically, the characters don’t suffer from not being rounded or for being too wooden. The bigger problem is that the characters are too damn real.

Very few people lead the lives of an engaging character in a novel. Human lives are messy, humans are balanced, humans avoid conflict by habit, humans are subtle and take a lot of working out. How often do you sit and wonder about the lightly nuanced quirks in yourself or your best friends or those people who really, really irritate you? Months, maybe years, a lifetime. Real people take a lot of working out.

Book characters are not real, the best ones just seem it.

Think through all the most celebrated fictional characters. Not just Lancelot or Heathcliff, Mrs Malaprop or Robert Buzzard, but those who seem more rounded, Hamlet, Margaret Wilcox née Schlegel etc. They are striking because they can be identified by a few highly visible personality traits.

They seem it because they’re larger than life, however subtly so. They have a narrow range of specific character traits that are designed to put them in conflict with other characters who have specific, challenging traits. While Walt Whitman can accept the contradictory fact of his own being – “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” [Song of Myself] – characters only contain so many multitudes.  Characters who contain multitudes tend to look at best wishy-washy, at worst confusing and unlikeable.

Characters need to change and your protagonist needs to change the most visibly – your novel is after all their journey towards some sort of transformation. They may start vain and selfish and go through something astonishing that makes them very different. You can’t make a character though out of someone with nicely balanced characteristics with occasional self-interest and occasional altruism. There’s no place in literature for the man who sees both sides of both sides. Characters are engaging and memorable because they illustrate a type or represent a characteristic. That’s not to say that everyone can be named after a deadly sin or cardinal virtue like Knowledge in a medieval mystery play (“Euery man I wyll go with the and be thy gyde In thy moost nede to go by thy syde. ” etc…) but even the most rounded and subtle successful literary characters are nowhere near as rounded and subtle as a real person.

That’s one reason why I don’t personally like the idea of developing characters from a kit of life experiences – favourite colour, childhood pet and so on, what Blake Snyder (I think) calls the Frankenstein method. It fills a fun creative writing class while everyone makes up the person they wish they were, but how much of it is really relevant. If you’re devising histories for your characters then the events need to be major and relevant to the bold archetype they will become. Beaten up by grandparents, failed to find love as a teenager, read too much Congreve, played too much Fortnite, whatever… I will admit this much, that it adds a pleasant veneer of realism if each character has an identifiable taste in dress or harps on some former trouble – but remember if too many details are irrelevant to the internal drama then the reader will pick them up as pointless or decorative and it will weaken your overall effect.

Your characters in a novel need to be characters – that way they’ll seem more believably human.

Your first novel #4: Plot or voice – what kind of book will this be?

For me, the most audibly upheld binary devision in the creative writing world is this: plot or voice.

Even if you ideally want a bit of both, you’ll probably have a sense of what kind of books you already like and what the primary excellence of those books might be.

There may not be an absolute black’n’white for any of these (It’s not PG Wodehouse vs Jeffery Archer but maybe Dickens vs James or Shakespeare v Moliere…?) but when you’re starting out, there’ll be one or the other that will be making you want to write.

I’ve known people walk out of creative writing classes because the presenter was teaching plotting techniques when the student was adamant that voice would lead the best works. I’ve known storytellers boast that they’re not much good at the style or the language end of things but they’re gonna be world-beaters when it comes to constructin’ narrative.

If you’re not sure, try and think through some favourite books and what draws you into them and through them. It’s not to say that there’s no plot in voice books or no voice in plotted books, but what’s the main driving feature?

This is a factor made harder by traditional English Literature studies. Literacists would, on the whole, have you believe that the more intellectual reads are essentially plot free and that the ivory tower reader is more interested in quirks of literary device than the mere plots that soap opera viewers crave.

For me, I feel that comedy is largely voice led although the best voices need a plot that does them justice. Ben Elton is read for his voice, surely, despite the fact that his plots are usually engaging. Ditto Stephen Fry, both of whom I’ve loved on TV and page, both of whom are clever and entertaining writers. Frustrating as it may be to those with literary exclusiveness as an aim, that’s why they’re world famous for it. I like the narrative voices and the voices of their individual characters. The plots help give shape but they’re not the end point. P.G.Wodehouse is probably in a similar bracket,  if rather easier to confess a liking to at literary dinner parties. Hang on though, it’s not necessarily a quirky, humorous, instantly recognisable style I’m talking about here. It’s just an approach. What motivates you to write. Why do you think someone would enjoy reading it. I mean, you probably wouldn’t read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the plot, nor James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For me Jane Austen is about plot even though not an awful lot happens, as is Hardy, as is George Eliot. However much you enjoy their style and the overall voice, it’s something else that’s in there that motivates the reading.  The motivation, I believe, is in who does what, when, why and the repercussions. That to me is plot. Sure, Enid Blyton was about plots, although her tone was spot on for the Zeitgeist when she was writing. Harry Potter is its plot with the same caveat.

Plot doesn’t mean page-turner, doesn’t mean anti-literary, the plot doesn’t even have to be marvellously intriguing or twisty as the rides at Alton Towers. The choice doesn’t mean anything except this: do you want your new book to be recognised as one with a concrete and carefully structured plot.

A regular response to this seemingly binary approach tends to be for someone to introduce what they see as the third way and the most intellectual approach of all – character.  That, they say is the Austen, Eliot, James, Shakespeare thing – and it’s what makes them literary.

I see character as something separate though, rather than a third way. Books that are about the analysis of motive and about the incremental shifts of mood and affection as one person slowly moves their index fingers across the table towards the other – they could be driven by plot or voice.

Some people say screenplays are plot and novels are voice, but I think this isn’t necessarily so. It’s certainly not useful to starting some major writing.

What you need is something that will colour your chosen approach and help you focus on being the best you can be at that aspect first and foremost.

So decide:

PLOT: if you’re going down the plot route then there are lots of great books about the science of plotting. How to make readers expect and how to entice them deeper: how to give the antagonist their necessary structural arc; making your heroine want something that the reader sees but she doesn’t; satisfactory conclusions and mid-point lows. While we all have the three act standard structure embedded in our entertainment DNA, it’s worth seeking out and learning all you can. This is an approach I only leaned about later in life, after I’d done literary degrees and read myself stupid and written pages and pages. I liked it and I wanted to pass the message on, as you’ll see elsewhere on the blog: Taking the Scenic RoutePlanning to Keep it UP.

VOICE: this isn’t necessarily the voice of a character but it may well dictate how your book takes shape. It readily suits people who are working with autobiography – either true to memory or semi-fictional. Also those who want immediate effect from the written word – comedic or erotic writing for example, both of which might suit a dip-in just as well as a cover-to-cover read. First person character narratives are often a great place to find great literary voice. The same is true of other atmospheric writing like horror or travel writing. Is style the same thing – perhaps. Okay, not everyone can be Bill Bryson or Jeanette Winterson, but working hard on achieving a likeable or powerful voice may well be your primary aim. There are books and genres where the voice leads and the plot supports rather than the other way round, but neither can quite do without the other.

Whereas there are dozens of excellent and hundred of quite good books and websites on plotting – it is essentially a science, or at least a craft, in that it has learnable rules and a no-nonsense set of reasons as to how it works – voice is something a bit more gifted to you in mysterious ways. If that’s what you want to do then its about practising up those innate habits around word selection, phrasal balance, rhythm, tone, borrowings, pastiches and corruptions. It may be impossible to articulate the particularities of voice and style that appeal to you or that you use best, but if you can it will be a step towards understanding what drives your pages forward.

Me, I went from voice-focused to plot-focused and then back towards voice to something with a bit more balance – I wish I’d considered this divided path when I first started instead. Plot or Voice. Like a ballroom dancing couple they may both prove essential to the final display, but one will clearly lead.

Will you be sculpting the sound and the wonder of the individual page, or will you be focused on the wide canvas of the plot?

Remember, what you’re deciding is not, shall I have no plot or no voice, but which of them will lead and which one will get the focus of your attention in the early days.

Your first novel #5: The three chapter and synopsis test

There’s an interesting example in the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which sets out to demonstrate the need to be freely productive. A class in the States was divided in half for a design project. One was told they only had one chance to build an object for appraisal and that it would be judged on its closeness to an ideal. The other half were told to build as many objects as they could and they would be appraised by the number of objects they turned out.

The interesting fact was that the half that produced the most objects also produced the best objects. Their multiple makings had solved problems and developed efficiencies which led to an improved raw excellence in what they were producing.

Could this help you with your novel?

I’ve sometimes wondered if we (if one, if they) should start a ‘three chapter and synopsis club’, and put it in place of a creative writing class. The aim would be not to work hard at a pre-organised pet project, but to produce as many packages of three chapters and synopses as possible throughout the year. Then you’d go back over the ones you’d done and see if a new level of excellence had emerged. If nothing else – like Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One series where Porridge and Open All Hours first appeared, neither of which were at first glance favourites – you’d have a set of works to examine and see what direction you wanted to take.

Also bear in mind that publishers generally ask for three chapters and a synopsis, so it’s not a bad thing to get absolutely nailed before you go for the long-haul.


Good luck with that first go – or second go or whatever you’re doing. It’s a brave thing, a difficult and time-consuming thing. Some people make it look easy and I suspect that’s because they learnt early what some of us have taken a long time to recognise. Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep editing.