Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Advice on Writing a Novel from the Big Guns


So you want to write a novel? It’s a tough job so how about some advice from people who are successful in the art novel writing? 

Hilary Mantel

·       Write a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? Don't write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book's ready.

·       Be aware that anything that appears before "Chapter One" may be skipped. Don't put your vital clue there.

·       Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

·       If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

Stephen King

I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.



Cory Doctorow

·       Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.

·       Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.



Ernest Hemingway

·       Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.

·       The first draft of everything is shit.

Michael Morpurgo

·       The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.

·       It is the gestation time which counts.

·       Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important.


·       Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!

·       Unless you are writing something very post-modernist – self-conscious, self-reflexive and "provocative" – be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic "big" words.

·       Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst.

Harper Lee

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.


·       Don't look back until you've written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in...the edit.

·       You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

Zadie Smith

·       Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it

·       Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Jack London

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

Colm Tóibín

Finish everything you start.

Neil Gaiman

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.

W. Somerset Maugham

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. 

(This  first appeared in my column, It's All Write in The Voice Newspaper)

2 comments:

t said...

Thank you for this. I love 'you are the only you.'
One of the things Chimamanda has done well is to go after her own topics...

sueddie said...

I laughed at some of the comments... Thanks for sharing. Really insightful comments here. Well done Lauri!