How To Write a Novel — Guidebooks

Day 1 of writing my novel in public

Photo by Minh Tran on Unsplash

I’m going to do something here on Medium that has me shaking in my boots. It’s something I’ve done before, but never in public. I have a process that I’m going to follow, and I’d like to share it with you.

Day 1 — Guidebooks

Write the books you want to read

— Austin Kleon

My aim for this process is to write a book I want to read. Seems simple, doesn’t it? But I know that if I just sit down and start writing, what comes out will be garbage. Yes, this is a process and I know some writing advice recommends just pouring out your first draft onto the page and seeing what you have. I’ve heard that advice.

  • Write a shitty first draft
  • Write a zeroth draft, that is just for you — you telling yourself the story
  • All writing is rewriting
  • You don’t know what you have to say until you write it
  • Write yourself into the story, start writing until the story takes off

I have tried this, and my story went nowhere. It wasn’t worthy even to be called a story. I ended up with a pile of words.

So where am I going wrong? Well, it is not for lack of advice. I have read a tonne of writing books. I have a shelf weighed down with them. And another virtual shelf on my kindle.

I have tried many methods, and all of them had something useful to teach me. The last ten years of reading and writing have prepared me. Yet I still feel unsure. I want a safety net. I want to learn from a master, or maybe even two. People who have succeeded in what I’m trying to do and can help point the way when things get tricky, the going gets tough and I feel like giving up.

Write — read — write better

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

— Stephen King

Yes Stephen, I read. I read a lot. But that doesn’t mean I’m picking up the information I need to write. What I want is to be focussed on what I’m reading as an aid to writing. Reading widely is important, but I want to go deep. I need to understand exactly how another writer has constructed their novel and then use that to help me write mine.

This understanding will not come quickly or easily. It is no good for me to just look at someone else’s analysis of a novel and thinking that is enough. I need to do my thinking for myself.

Finding inspiration

The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. Write the kind of story you like best — write the story you want to read.

— Austin Kleon

Didn’t you just say the same thing only briefer Austin? Okay, I get what you’re saying. Write what I like. Let’s start there. What do I like to read? I won’t sit pondering that for the next day. Let’s just get on with it. I’m setting a timer for 5 minutes. I’ll sit down and write a list of all the books that come to mind that I have loved reading. The ones I wish I could’ve written. It won’t be exhaustive, but it will be a sample. Here goes.

Books I love

  • The Hunger Games
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Gangsta Granny
  • The Dry
  • The Night Circus
  • Harry Potter
  • The Hobbit
  • Sword of Shannara
  • Magician
  • The Rosie Project
  • Before I go to sleep
  • The Girl with all the Gifts
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  • The Martian
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea
  • 13 wishes
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • Toad of Toad Hall
  • Paddington
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • The Pawn of Prophecy

I don’t feel too bad. I managed a reasonable list. Of course, it is only a fraction of the books I love, but it is a start.

Choose two

Okay, so that list is still pretty long. If I spend my time analysing all of those books, then I’ll never get mine written. I need to narrow down and focus.

I’m going to choose just two and use them as inspiration to write something new. What was that Austin?

The idea is like genetics. You have a mother and you have a father. You possess features from both of them, but the sum of you is bigger than their parts. You’re a remix of mum and dad and all of your ancestors.

— Austin Kleon

Okay, thanks. So I’m going to create a book-baby. It will have two parent books I love and hopefully will inherit the best traits from each of them.

Thinking about genetics, maybe I need to be a little careful that I don’t end up with some genetic mutant. As royalty through the ages has shown, incest is not a good basis for healthy offspring — their genes are too similar. I will not choose two books in the same series or by the same author. By choosing two books with enough of a gap between them, I’ll have space to carve out something new.

On the other hand, I don’t want to choose two books so far apart that they would never agree on anything. I want my book-child to be raised by two loving parents who bring their own personalities to the mix. I don’t want them to be at each other’s throat all the time. So, for example, choosing Winnie the Pooh and The Hunger Games is probably not going to work. The two books I choose should likely be close together in the bookstore. Maybe on the same shelf, and at least in the same section.

My choices

Okay, I’m going to set a timer again to force me to take action. Five minutes to choose two from my list. I’ll think through pairs and go with the one that feels right.

Done. I’ve settled on

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  • Gangsta Granny by David Walliams

Why I love them

Okay, so I know that the book I want to write will evoke some of the same feelings I had whilst reading these two books. I’m focussed on a particular reader experience that I’m trying to evoke. In order to understand that, I need to look at what that reader experience was for me.

I’m going to set a timer again (cos it’s so much harder to procrastinate when you only have five minutes!) and write down what I love about these two books.

Okay, so here are my chaotic thoughts.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There is a sense of wonder. It includes things that children love — talking animals, a hero, mentor — the lion Aslan. An evil baddie — the White Witch. The magic element of going to another world — a portal fantasy. The dark moment of Aslan’s humiliation. Characters with flaws — Edmund and his temptation by the witch. The idea of deep magic and even deeper magic. The stone table — ritual and sacrifice. A character who is telling the truth but is not believed — Lucy. The idea of a land that is stuck — Narnia is frozen, never able to progress on to Christmas. a problem to solve — how to defeat the White Witch and make Narnia unfrozen. The stone statues. Characters who have moral dilemmas — the fawn Tumnus.

Gangsta Granny

The story is tight. A mystery who is the jewel thief? The humour. The main character is interested in plumbing — a child who reads plumbing magazines. The parents who are obsessed with ballroom dancing. How parents try to force their children to fit their dreams. The clash in the title — how can a Granny also be a Gangsta? The humour — them going down the motorway on a mobility scooter. The audacity of the heist — stealing the crown jewels. Meeting the Queen. The heart of the book — Granny passing away. How the ending ties in well and makes sense of the whole.


Okay, so end of Day 1 and I feel I have made good progress. Through the process above, I have come up with two books that will guide the rest of my writing of this novel. I have explored why I love these books. These will kindle ideas for what I want to write.

Tomorrow I will explore the reader’s experience in more depth and pin down the genre of the book I’m going to write.

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If you want to try the process with me and write your own novel, I’d love to have you join me on this journey. Put in the comments on how you went with this first step.

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