How Do You Write A Novel?

It’s daunting, turning nothing into something, but it’s also exciting. So how do you do it? How do you write a book?

There are many different ways but they all boil down to same thing: write words, those words form sentences and then paragraphs and then chapters and then, finally, a novel.

Some write their main scenes, the ones they know are going to have the most impact on the story and then they find a way to connect each of these scenes with linking, expository action and dialogue.

Some plot out every little detail of their story before they begin, writing extensive character histories for each character and detailing every beat of the story, creating a sort of blueprint before they get down to the business of writing.

Some start at the end and write their final scene or final chapter before going back to the start and finding a way to direct their characters and the story to that end point.

Some get an idea and just start writing.

I think all of these techniques have their merits and I suggest that when it comes to writing your story – do whatever comes naturally to you. No one can tell you that the way you write is wrong. If it works for you then do it your way.

Personally I’ve tried plotting, I’ve tried planning, I’ve tried coming up with a killer ending and then going back to the start, and none of them worked for me. I’m a ‘just start writing’ writer. I get an idea and I just run with it. It usually makes for a very slow start to each new project I work on.

My “process” – if you can call it that – usually goes something like this: I get an idea and I start to write, it goes very slowly, maybe only 500 words a day for about five days. I realise that it’s not working and I delete the whole thing and start again, this time I find the voice of the character but it’s the wrong starting point, I delete it again after about 3000 words. i start again, this time the character is right and the starting point is right and I maybe get 5000 words in before realising that THIS is the real starting point and I delete it and start again. The first 5-10,000 words are slow and then I pick up pace, by the time I’m at 20,000 words I’m writing 2-4000 words a day and my characters and story are playing in my head 90% of the day, new ideas and twists and turns are coming to me all the time, I’m constantly writing notes on scraps of paper or frantically typing them into my phone. This is my favourite part of writing – when I’m surprised and amazed by the story that I’m telling, it’s addictive, it’s fun, it’s not work it’s play, and it’s amazing.

Your process will probably be different but if when you hit that point where you cannot wait to get back to writing the story you won’t worry about how to write a novel – the thing will be writing itself and you’ll just be enjoying the ride.


@bejamin0liver (the O is a zero)


How Do I Keep From Being Distracted

One of the biggest problems for writers is getting distracted from the work.

I’m not going to preach about how the writing should be the be-all and end-all of your day because the truth is; sometimes it’s really hard to keep on going. Sometimes it takes two hours just to force out three-hundred words, sometimes you have to spend a seemingly endless amount of time researching whether or not you really can climb through a hatch inside an elevator (you can’t, by the way, on some older models you can climb in through the outside but mostly they require a key that only the fire service have).

So, distractions are inevitable.

How do you fight the urge to drift over to Youtube or put on a movie? Well, the way I do it is to remind myself what I want out of this whole writing malarkey. I want a career, I want to get paid to create stories and that’s just not going to happen if I do what everyone else does and spend my free time playing Xbox and watching reality TV.

Don’t get me wrong, there should always be time for these types of activities in your life but remember what your ambition is, remember why you started writing in the first place. When you sit down to write, write. That’s all you should do, add words to your story, grow it, build it and do not let the lure of Fail of the Week videos call to you. Write until you are done writing, whether that means two hours or two thousand words, get it done and then do whatever you want.

The key is to engage fully with what you are doing and to remind yourself why you are doing it, and if you really really want to make it as a writer you’ll keep writing and save the unhelpful stuff for later. Besides; writing is fun enough anyway.

I know it’s cliche to quote Churchill, it seems the man only spoke in parables, but I’m going to quote him now; ‘You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.’ Your destination is Writer, Published Writer, Writer Who Makes a Living off of Words. So do not allow those distractions to slow your journey, keep moving forward.


@benjamin0liver (the ‘o’ is a zero)

How Do I Get Over the Fear of Submitting My Work?

First of all you need to realise that your fear is not of sending your manuscript off to agents and publishers, your fear is of having all of those agents and publishers reading your work and hating it. That is a perfectly natural thing to be afraid of.

By the time you have written your first draft, rewritten it, read it through for spelling and grammar mistakes, rewritten it again, tweaked it, polished it and given it a final read – you have put months and months of work into it. You love the stupid thing like it’s your child! And then you have to send it out there into the world to be judged by people who see thousands of other manuscripts a year and just don’t have the time to give yours a fair chance. Your months of hard work may earn thirty seconds of an editor at a publishing house’s time. They might not even get to the manuscript, they might skim your plot outline and decide that your child is not worth their time. THAT is what you’re afraid of.


To quote the great Bob Kelso from Scrubs: “Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy.”

Sometimes (most times) you have to face your fears to get anywhere. You are perfectly welcome to live your life within your comfort zone but if you do, don’t expect great things to come to you. Send that Manuscript and get working on the next thing. Expect rejection because it’s on its way, believe me, but if you’re willing to wade through a quagmire of ‘this is not for me’ for that one golden ‘I liked this, send me the full MS’ then you will get somewhere. I’m not saying you’ll be the next Stephen King but you might just hold your published novel in your hands one day – and isn’t that what every writer wants for their child?


@benjamin0liver (the o is a zero)

How Do I Beat Writer’s Block?

Writer’s block is sudden drying up of the well (the ink-well?). It’s when ideas cease and that flow of words that you had going turns from a stream to a trickle to dust.

I have never experienced writer’s block to the extent that some have. Some writer’s talk of months and years when nothing would come. I can’t imagine that, I can’t comprehend that kind of torturous inner silence. It would drive me crazy, but I have had long instances of that inner voice turning stubbornly to face the wall and giving me the silent treatment for days on end.

My solution? Write through it. You may say ‘but writer’s block is the inability to write.’ Not so; writer’s block is the inability to start something new or continue what you are currently working on. You can always write SOMETHING, it doesn’t have to be good just so long as there are words on the page that make some semblance of sense. Batter through, use your words like dynamite and blow through the barricade in your mind.

If you are halfway through a project and you don’t know how to continue – just write something, anything. I find my best ideas come mid-composition anyway, why plan it out? Let the characters figure it out for you. The best piece of writing advice I have ever read was by Shannon Hale – an American writer of YA novels, it goes:

“When writing a first draft, I have to remind myself constantly that I am only                       shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles.”

Sounds like something Hemingway would’ve written in A Moveable Feast, but it was actually posted on Twitter two years ago and it’s great advice! Writer’s block can come about because you think that what you’re writing isn’t very good or you’re stuck on a plot point and don’t know how to get out. Stephen King – in his book On Writing – says that he got stuck for months when writing The Stand because there were too many characters, too many loose threads that needed tying up, it was all too big.

The answer to all of these is: just keep shoveling that sand into that box – you might find that the characters figure it out for you, you might find that you struggle through until the writing becomes easier again, you might find that in the second draft you mold that loose sand into art.

What Should I Write About?

The phrase most spoken in creative writing groups and classes is; ‘write what you know.’ I’ve never fully subscribed to this assertion.

I don’t think Terry Pratchett had much experience in flat worlds atop enormous turtles and I’m quite sure that Douglas Adams had never hitchhiked through the galaxy and yet they both wrote legendary books set in those very worlds.

There is a kernel of truth in the advice though; when it comes to emotion, any emotion – write what you know. Or, more accurately: write what you feel.

Emotion and the way you convey it is where your unique voice lives. Emotion is how you truly strike a chord with your readers. It goes for any and all emotions: love, anger, pain, hurt. The way you write emotion will bring your characters and your story to life in a way (if done well) that will resonate with your readers.

‘Write what you know.’ that phrase, when boiled down to what it should really mean is simply ‘be honest.’

So, what should you write about? Absolutely anything you can conceive of. That’s the most beautiful thing about writing fiction. You can do whatever you want; journeys through galaxies or trips to upside-down fantasy lands and – if it’s honest – it might be brilliant.

How Do I Become A Better Writer?

First of all – What qualifies as a ‘good’ writer?

Some of my favourite authors: Stephen King, John Grisham, even the likes of Aldous Huxley and J. D. Salinger were, at one point in their careers, critically panned – only for public opinion and/or soaring book sales to swing dramatically in their favour. So what constitutes as ‘good’? Well, in my opinion, I think you should be a good storyteller. Personally I don’t read a novel to marvel at the author’s ability to utilise imagery and symbolism (although if done well these can be just as powerful as a good story – see Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger for examples that will make your hair stand on end.) I believe these things should be present if they fit like a tailored suit, not if you find yourself hammering them in during the rewrite, forcing them in between the lines just so you can say LOOK, I’M WRITERLY! If you can write a truly fascinating story while loading your book, effortlessly, with stunning metaphors, subtle allusions to real life, awe-inspiring foreshadowing and beautiful imagery then you are Cormack McCarthy… Thank’s for reading Cormack.

‘Good’ writing, the way I see it, should be writing that entertains. Of course: one person’s entertainment is another’s torture, so you have to write what entertains you. How do you become a better writer? By writing, of course.

When I look back on my first attempts at writing short stories I grit my teeth and recoil at just how bad they are. At the time I was sure I was penning cutting edge Pulitzer bait. I was not. I was learning how to write by writing badly. I improved with time and so will you. You will improve by sending your work out to professionals with the hope of being published. At first they will either not respond or they will say ‘no thank you.’, as you improve they will start to guide you with comments, subtle nudges in the right direction. Take this advice and add it to your arsenal.

The second piece of advice on how to improve as a writer is to read a lot, but – I hope – this advice is redundant. If your dream is to become a novelist then I assume you are already love reading and do not need to be told that it’s a prerequisite of good writing. If you don’t read a lot then it doesn’t make any sense for you to want to become a writer, in fact as go as far as to say you don’t have any right trying. If you want to get in it for the money – I’ve got bad news for you; there isn’t much. Fame? there’s not much of that either, but that’s the way most writer’s like it.

Write and read, read and write. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. In the history of the world there have been very few ‘masters’ of writing, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Hemingway – and many would dispute even these names.

No one says you have to match Shakespeare, but 10,000 hours of writing is not a bad place to start if you want to get better.

How Do I Get An Agent?

The short answer is (as it almost always is) hard work.

The hardest part about being a writer without an agent is the daunting prospect of writing an entire novel without knowing whether it’ll be universally rejected by every agency you send it to or good enough to catch the eye of someone on the ‘inside’.

I wrote two full length manuscripts before completing the book which got me and agent and I can tell you that the feeling of every single person on your carefully researched list of agents rejecting you one by one is a heartbreaking and demoralising experience.

The lowest point for me was seven minutes after I’d sent out my second novel to an agent who I won’t name here. I sent the email with my painstakingly crafted cover letter and first three chapters off and left for work. Seven minutes later my phone pinged in my pocket. It was the agent I’d just sent my book to. He claimed to have read those three chapters of the book I’d spent five months working on and decided it wasn’t for him. Those three chapters added up to over 11,000 words, words I had written, words I loved. What this agent had sent back was a ‘form letter’ or, more specifically a ‘form email’ a pre-written rejection that can be sent at the click of a button. seven minutes was barely enough time for him to read my email, let alone the sample chapters. This left me disheartened and perplexed. How the hell was I supposed to get anywhere when the people I needed to get the attention of weren’t even giving my work a glance.

The painful truth is: the bad times will outweigh the good massively during this period (unless you’re the second coming of Hemingway or incredibly lucky).  You will receive a plethora of rejections, a sea of them! Most of them will be form letters and all of them will hurt.


Every now and then there will be something to keep you going. A personalised note confirming that you have talent (you WILL doubt that you have any talent after 25 rejections), or a request to read the next three chapters, or a request to read the full damn manuscript! These are the moments, the ports in the storm of rejection that will keep you going – and that’s the secret: just keep going, to quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own “It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy everyone would do it.” you have to be the writer willing to carry on even though every ‘this isn’t for me’ cuts you like a knife. And the best part of it is: if you’re meant to be a writer, if that’s the thing you HAVE to do, you’ll carry on regardless.

So carry on. Keep writing, keep getting better, keep sending off your work to people who will keep saying ‘no’ until one day someone will say ‘yes’ and then it will all have been worth it.

How Do I Finish My Book?

The thing I hear writers lament about the most is their inability to finish whatever project they’re working on. When asked I always suggest two things: the first is to treat it like a job (because it is) and just keep going, it doesn’t matter if you hate it or if you can’t stand to be around it – just keep going. The second piece of advice – if the first didn’t work – is to throw it away and start something new because if you don’t love your story enough to get through some tough times then it’s not worth writing anyway.

I know that some people’s reactions will be that writing should be fun, if the writer’s not enjoying writing the story then the reader won’t enjoy reading it. This has elements of truth to it but sometimes those good times come in the second draft, sometimes the third. It’s not all patting yourself on the back and marveling at your outstanding turn of phrase (although, I admit, a lot of it is that) sometimes it’s work and sometimes you have to grind out those words until you’re through the quagmire and back onto solid ground.

Others will say that they can’t bring themselves to throw away something they’ve put so much time and effort into. That’s fair but if writing it brings you nothing but misery why bother? I’ve thrown many half-finished manuscripts away that I fell out of love with. The only time I’d suggest struggling on with something you no longer like working on is if it’s your first novel. That’s what I did when I was 21 and had four failed attempts at writing a novel behind me. I looked at my 30,000 word, half-finished book and, like all of my other half-finished books, I was ready to give up and start on something new because I no longer liked the main character, the pacing was all wrong, the love interest was one dimensional and – for a horror story – it wasn’t scary. It had started off so well, fairly original, darkly funny and fast-paced but by page 100 it was losing momentum and by page 150 it was a mess. I dragged the file to the bin and then stopped. I realised that perhaps the reason I couldn’t finish a novel was because I had never finished a novel, (almost paradoxical, I know). So I reopened the file and I wrote twenty-five thousand more words. I wrapped the story up and I had my first finished novel. It was awful and the world will never ever see it, ever. Ever. But it was finished. I had written a novel and I had learned more in those last twenty-five thousand words than I had in the four or five half finished novels I had left behind me.

That book, titled The Angels On The Edge Of Town, was not a good book but the next book I wrote, Rewind, was much better, still not fantastic but good enough that a publisher from a reasonably large UK company wanted to meet me for coffee (just to get to know me because he thought I had potential). My third book got me an agent.

So as much as I know that The Angels On The Edge Of Town is just an awful, terrible book – I’m glad I struggled through to the end. The lessons I learned set me on the path to becoming a better writer.

So, to summarise: Just keep going. Even if the final result is not what you’d hoped for, you’ll undoubtedly learn from the experience.