How to write a book: literary dos and don’ts - plus tips from famous authors
Learn from the masters about how to start writing a best-seller
Writing a novel consistently tops the list of unrealised new year’s resolutions, alongside losing weight and drinking less.
But if, ten months into 2018, you still haven’t put metaphorical pen to paper, don’t worry, there is still time to make a start.
See what’s worked for famous authors in the past, or skip down to read the nine most common follies to avoid when starting off.
Have a routine and stick to it
It doesn’t matter whether you work best first thing in the morning or last thing at night, the key is to work out when you are at your most productive, then keep to that schedule.
For writers including Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut, this meant getting up early, around dawn, putting in a hard shift before lunch then relaxing, editing or doing other work for the rest of the day... or in the case of Hemingway drinking.
Another legendary drinker, Jack Kerouac, had the opposite approach, not waking until the afternoon then writing from midnight to dawn. Franz Kafka and Catch 22’s Joseph Heller both had full time jobs, as an insurance agent and ad executive respectively, so were also forced to write at night.
For others, such as Steven King, routine means setting yourself a target of a certain number of new pages every day (in his case six) and hitting that mark no matter what. Authors write at different speeds but almost all set themselves a daily word count.
In a 2004 Paris review interview Haruki Murakami, regarded as one of the world’s greatest living novelists, revealed his daily routine:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometres or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9pm I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Find the right place to work
Truman Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, famously wrote sitting up in bed, his typewriter resting on his knees. Ernest Hemingway often wrote standing up as did Victor Hugo, while Roald Dahl retreated to his shed at the end of the garden. The legendary Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo often wrote and edited in the bath as it was the only way he could get away from his children.
While these may be extreme examples, studies have shown that each of us has an optimal working position which can be affected by as little a change as shifting the direction of your desk so light enters your eyes from a different angle.
On the other hand, some people, often out of necessity, thrive in a challenging environment. JK Rowling does not have a set-in-stone routine, preferring to write whenever and wherever she can.
“Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there” she said. “I can write anywhere. I made up the names of the characters on a sick bag while I was on an airplane.”
Fiona Mozley, who was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, wrote her debut novel on her phone on the train back and forth from London to York.
Disconnect from the internet
A modern phenomenon that will no doubt be familiar to anyone who has ever wasted an hour, or day, lost in the internet.
The writer and essayist Susan Sontag told people not to call in the morning and never answered the phone, however, with the rise of the internet modern authors have had to take more drastic measures to stay focused.
One of the most extreme of these is Pulitzer-prize winning writer Jonathan Franzen, who literally cuts his internet cable when he starts a novel.
Zadie Smith also stresses the importance of getting offline, but her method is to work on a computer not hooked up to the internet. Others use internet blocking software which means their time online is rationed at to give them 15 minutes per every thousand words.
Read, read and read some more
Picasso once said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Every author is indebted in some part to those who have gone before, and whether it is through the classics or pulp, any external influence can only improve and strengthen your own writing.
“Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master” William Faulkner said. “Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
Stephen King, meanwhile, said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time - or the tools - to write. Simple as that.”
“It’s true that to write well you need to read widely and reading diverse books will enrich your own writing” says NowNovel; “but be selective about what references you consciously include because your novel should ultimately be your own story rather than a patchwork of transparent influences.”
Don’t be afraid of bad drafts – they are better than not writing at all
E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, once said that: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
In a 1975 issue of The Paris Review, Steinbeck advises would-be novelists not to focus excessively on the end goal:
“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”
For every budding author, the key then is to just begin. Speaking to The Guardian, Miranda July said: “At some point, I didn’t realise I was writing a first draft. And the first draft was the hardest part. From there, it was comparatively easy. It was like I had some Play-Doh to work with and could just keep working with it – doing a million drafts and things changing radically and characters appearing and disappearing and solving mysteries.”
So get writing.
Nine follies to avoid when writing your first novel
by Robert Twigger
1. The folly of the unattractive narrator
The reader has to like your narrator's voice (not the narrator himself but his voice; they are connected but different) otherwise you don't care what happens. A novel is all about caring what happens. True, Jorge Luis Borges, in his collection of short stories, Labyrinths, does manage an unrepentant Nazi concentration camp boss as the narrator of Deutsches Requiem - but that only lasted four pages. Four pages of flagrant fascistic foulness is all a normal person can stand. Be likeable, be fascinating, be evil if you like - but don't be deeply unattractive.
2. The folly of 'plot' first
Leave 'plot' or structure until last. There are millionaires out there like Robert McKee, author of Story, who have made a fortune telling us 'Story' is everything. They then provide a strict format to follow. To be fair, even some esteemed writers advocate this structural approach but it kills more than it cures. The real problem with plot-driven plotting is that the events of the novel are conceived to fit the plot. This tends to make them contrived. Better to find events you are convinced you need and can render plausibly, and then later weld them together with adequate structure.
3. The folly of facts before relationships
Nabokov informed us, convincingly, that a novel is a world. Reading this, a new writer of fiction hares off and starts describing this world in intricate detail, inventing all manner of places and events. But think of your own world - it isn't about detail, it's about relationships.
To create a world you need a certain number of relationships. And the key is: they must cross age groups and boundaries. If everyone is the same age then you have a subculture not a world. One of the devices always used by Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction author of Memoirs of a Crap Artist, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which was to become Blade Runner), was a three-way relationship between a grandfather, a father and a son. In some of his books the grandfather was a guide figure. You can see how this fits with both Star Wars and Harry Potter - with Dumbledore as the archetypal grandfather.
4. The folly of not being heartfelt
A novel deals with that which is heartfelt by the characters. You can't write about the weather and the state of the nation if your main character has a hang up about sex. Sex is his thing, his heartfelt concern, so get that out in the open. Even a clever scene well done will feel thin and containing too much information if it is not heartfelt, if the character doesn't care that much.
5. The folly of not leaving things out
You're writing about a policeman who plays golf, which is his passion. You know about golf but not much about the police. To prove the opposite you keep putting in references that show you've done your homework on the boys in blue. Forget it. Leave it out. Write about the thing you do know - golf - and skip over the rest. One good tip is to make all policemen (if this is your weak spot) hate their work - that way you don't have to write about technical things at all. Remember an author can miss anything he likes out - and should - otherwise it becomes far too boring.
6. The folly of excessive detail
What level of detail to put in is a frequent concern for the novelist. In fact it's the narrative voice which determines the correct level of detail. 'Voice', when you strip it down, is just a reflection of the one or two basic concerns of the narrator - most usually, what is threatening him either physically or mentally. Depending on what is at stake for the narrator, or the character through whose eyes we view things, we see and take note differently. Just as we notice all kinds of trivial details as we wait expectantly in a room for the results of a medical examination, so the level of detail is intimately connected to the 'level of threat' under which the central character/narrator is put.
7. The folly of mistaking linked events for real plot
One damn thing after another, tied up neatly, is usually called 'the plot'. But real plot exists in the first sentence. It is the sense of tension or expectation in that sentence, not story or event sequence or causal sequence or character motive.
It's about the least understood part of writing - but you can easily develop a nose for it. The best way is to think of a character with a conflict in their personality - say a body builder who works in a library restoring old manuscripts. From the very start there is something to write about here.
Plot is simply that: something to write about. That's how you can feel its presence in the first sentence - are you being pulled by this 'something' or are you pushing an idea in your head out onto the page? You need to get used to being pulled along. The situation you put the characters in - the world, if you like - must exert sufficient pressure on them to give you something to write about.
8. The folly of proposals
It's tempting to try to get a deal before you do the hard work but it's the writing equivalent of a 110 per cent mortgage. You'll have to write a cracking proposal as well as the first few chapters and it will take as long as the book to do this. You will have to do the book anyway, you will have to solve the problems some time - so why not now?
9. The folly of not having an agent
In Naples a lowly thug stands with his hand over a post box - you pay him to remove his hand so you can post your letter. Many writers feel the same way about agents. Don't. Getting your novel accepted is a process of serially convincing people. The first person is an agent. They don't have to be famous. In fact a young gun going all out beats an old lag who thinks life's a drag anytime. But you need to have convinced one person after your mother that your work deserves a readership of millions. Best of luck!
Robert Twigger has published six novels