At the time of writing this, I have just completed my seventh novel. This is on top of the fifty odd chapter books I have had published.
Most of my novels fall between 70k to 110k words. This is a lot of words. Even if you typed ‘and’ 70,000 times, you’d find that it would take you a while.
Writing a novel is a serious undertaking. It involves a great deal of commitment in terms of time and energy – time and energy that many people simply do not have. I read a recent blog that stated that 97% of writers never finish their novel. I understand why.
Whilst I may have written several novels, it’s not to say that I’m an accomplished novelist. In fact, I still think that in many ways I am still at the prologue of my career. Not all of my novels were successful. In fact, not all of my novels were that good (I think five of the seven were, but that’s just me).
Saying that, I have become better with practice. Not only that, I have become better at planning – or not – but I will explain further in a moment. Coming up with ideas is the most important, however.
This is where my top tips come in. The idea or premise is crucial. Your agent (if you have one) won’t be pitching your amazing writing. What they will pitch is the idea. Without a good premise, who cares about your writing (not entirely true, but I’m trying to make a point here). Sure, it’s going to come under scrutiny later, but you have to intrigue people first with your idea.
A good idea can be summarized into a couple of sentences. If it’s good, it will immediately get people’s attention. It’s like being hit by lightning. Perhaps you’ve taken an idea that’s been done before and put a twist on it, perhaps it’s something completely fresh and different (unlikely – as Bono said ‘every artist is a thief’) – it doesn’t matter, it just needs to be good. You’ll know it when you hear it or read it. I often lie in bed at night just thinking of ideas, taking any situation and imagining ‘what if.’ I know straight away when I’ve got a good idea. I feel it in my bones.
Without a good idea, you really don’t have a novel. Your writing might be exceptional but without it being scaffolded around an excellent idea, it won’t matter much. Most people read a book because they like the story idea. If the writing is terrible, they will probably not read any other books by the same author, but at least you hooked them for a moment. Besides, a writer might have shockingly clumsy sentence structure for one or two novels, but after that, it should improve. Being a good writer takes time and practice. In spite of any internal or external limitations, it will get better.
Planning is also vitally important. I’ve heard that some authors don’t plan at all. I think that’s bollocks. If they’ve come up with an idea, that’s planning right there.
I’ve recently discovered a new word for writers who write by the seat of their pants with little or no planning. They’re called ‘Pantsers’. Even pantsers have planned to some degree. They have a premise and an idea where the story might go. They have to have a central protagonist. See? More planning.
I consider myself a combination of both a planner and a pantser. Once I come up with a premise, I think how the story will end. So I’ve got an idea, a beginning and an end. I just have to fill in the gaps from point A to point B in the most entertaining and interesting way possible. Sometimes, I write chapter breakdowns but these are just a guide – sign posts if you will, noting events that I think are important in the development of the story. Most of the time I ignore them. Once I’m into a novel, it tends to take on a life of its own and write itself. Often, things will happen that even I didn’t foresee.
What I’m saying is be flexible. Give the story freedom to move. Give it some air. Don’t restrict it by over planning. If the story goes off on a tangent, it might be a good thing. Just keep your ending in mind. Even if you get sidetracked, it might still be moving the story forward, inexorably heading towards the final scene that you envisaged when you first came up with the story idea.
But that’s me. That’s how I work. It works for me, it might not work for you. It’s up to you to find a method that suits your style. Your goal is to produce a novel – hopefully a good one – and you need to put measures in place that will help you reach your goal.
You don’t want to be one of those writers that starts a novel and never finishes it. When all is said and done, you don’t want to be on your deathbed thinking ‘I wish I’d finished that novel.’
Phillip W. Simpson
Phillip W. Simpson is an author of YA and children's books.