10 Lessons from Writing a Novel
I’ve written 25 books over the past 18 years but I’ve never stopped learning with each book I’ve written – and I never want to. With every book I write I like to push myself out of my comfort zone in some way and this was definitely true for my new novel, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.
Last night, at my writing group, I gave a talk based on the 10 lessons I learned while writing the novel; lessons about every aspect of the writing process – see below. If you’re currently writing a book, or dreaming of writing a book, I hope they help.
1. Know your characters well before you start
I’m always banging on about the importance of character prep when I’m coaching other writers but this is one lesson I forgot when I wrote the first draft of Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. I put way more energy and attention into developing one of the two main characters, Hafiz. Hafiz is a Syrian refugee so I obviously had to do a lot of research in order to prepare to write him. The other main character, Stevie, is a teenage girl from the UK, and much closer to my own personal experience, so I cut corners and got a bit lazy with her. As a result, in the first draft her personality veered all over the place, from ditzy and zany, to sarcastic and wisecracking. Before I wrote the second draft I took some time away from the manuscript, writing pages about her backstory and getting crystal clear on who she was and what she was like.
2. Plan your main characters’ major plot points before you start to write
Before I started writing the first draft I thought it was important to get an over-view of Stevie and Hafiz’s individual stories in the book – where they were starting from, where I wanted them to be by the end of the novel and any major plot ideas I already had for them in between. Then I looked for dramatic ways in which their personal stories could intersect as their friendship grows. It really helped to have a rough idea of where the novel was going before I sat down to write it and I think this is especially useful when you have more than one main character.
3. Use index cards to play around with the plot
I love using index cards when I’m plotting a novel and it really helped with the plotting of Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. I used different coloured cards for the two main characters’ scenes and laid them out on my floor so I could get a bird’s eye view of the story. Plotting on cards also gives you the option to move things around and play around with the plot.
4. Draw upon personal experience for authenticity
You can’t beat authentic detail when it comes to writing fiction. I drew on my personal experience growing up on a council estate where money was always tight for Stevie’s story of living in poverty. The scene where she steals a school shirt from Lost Property was something that actually happened to me, after I lost my one and only school shirt back when I was a teen.
5. Research personal stories, not just facts and figures
Obviously, you can’t always draw upon your own personal experience when writing fiction. When I was researching the refugee crisis I focused on the personal experiences and first-hand accounts of people on the refugee trail. All of the details I use in the story of Hafiz and his experiences as a refugee come from the real life stories I heard.
6. If you’re worried about authenticity, check for authenticity
Football features quite prominently in Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow and although I’m a huge fan of the beautiful game, I’ve never actually played it. My son, however, has played football for most of his life, so I got him to check all of the scenes featuring Hafiz playing football for authenticity.
7. Use location for inspiration
I love reading books where the setting is so vivid it practically becomes a character in its own right and this is something I like to try and achieve in my writing. Rather than setting Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow in a generic fictional town, I set it firmly in my home town of Lewes. It’s so much easier bringing locations to life in your writing if you know them well. The world of the book was vivid to me before I even started writing. I chose specific houses in Lewes where I imagined the main characters would live and I featured real locations like Union Music Store and Ground Coffee House – two of Stevie’s favourite hang-outs.
8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
I wrote the first draft of the novel during a very difficult time in my personal life. As a result, it was probably the scrappiest first draft I have ever written. I felt really embarrassed having to tell my editor what was going on, but I’m so glad I did, as it meant that she was lovely and patient with me and gave me the guidance I needed to deliver a much tighter second draft. If you’re feeling blocked or scared or unsure when it comes to your writing don’t be afraid to ask for help, advice or feedback. Now my book is out there, I’m SO relieved I didn’t give up on it when I wanted to.
9. Don’t worry if your first draft is crap
Coming off the back of the last point, as Hemingway once so concisely said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ It can be so liberating to accept this fact and just pour the story on to the page, grammatical errors, plot inconsistencies and all. Once you have that first draft down you know you have a story. Then the real work can begin. So much of writing is in the re-writing.
10. Have a powerful WHY
It can really help to have a powerful reason for writing your book; something to motivate you when the going gets tough and that pesky word count just doesn’t seem to budge. For me, the fact that so many people in the UK today are living in poverty like the character of Stevie, and so many people have been displaced from their homelands like Hafiz, appals me. I want to do whatever I can to help raise awareness. This is what kept me writing the book and what motivates me now to market it – the hope that it will encourage and uplift any reader who might be experiencing similar issues to the characters in the book and inspire other readers to want to help. Getting clear on your ‘WHY’ can really help you get things done.
“I was stunned into silence at the beauty of this book. It leaves you inspired to help make the world a better place.”
Addicted to Books