Before you write your novel - Essential skills for the first-time novelist

Before You Write Your Novel

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This new and updated guide on how to approach a first novel is based on two decades of writing, thinking and striving to understand the processes of novel-writing. It's based on the experience of having written nine complete novels (three of them published). It's also based on my supervision of numerous MA Creative Writing students who work hard to complete their own novels.

The single, most compelling, lesson from this combined experience is that writing alone is not the only skill required to produce a novel. Just beginning and hoping for the best is a tactic that has seen tens of thousands of writers produce unpublishable books. Other skills are critical - the skills outlined in this book. They include:

• Understanding your level of readiness

• Having and nurturing ideas that will attract publishers

• Building ideas into stories

• Building stories into plots that thrill readers

• Developing objective tools to become your own best critic

• Learning how to apply these techniques to close reading

This is a book for people who have already mastered the basics of writing and who are ready to begin writing a novel in earnest. It deals with the complex skills of planning and preparation that eradicate many of the issues faced by first-time novelists. If you're serious about becoming a professional writer, this is the book for you.

No easy hints and tips. No abstract generalisations. No hollow encouragement and soap-box rhetoric. This book gets into the real nuts and bolts of writing a novel. It's complex, but it's honest. Serious writers will recognise immediately that it's what they've been looking for.

Why did you write this book?
I was working on an MA Creative Writing course that required students to produce a completed novel for assessment. In marking these final submissions, I found that virtually every single one suffered from the same critical flaw: poor structure. The students could write, but they didn't know how to build their writing into a workable, readable novel. I decided I needed to find a way to teach this. The book grew out of that teaching.

Did it work?
As with any method, success depends how seriously you follow the guidelines. The students who embraced my ideas gained high marks and, more importantly, produced books that could realistically be published. Others shied away from the spectre of planning and wrote flawed novels. I'm not saying it's impossible to write a publishable first novel without planning (usually in endless drafts), but I've not yet seen one. Novels are very complex organisms. It's necessary to understand how they work as a whole before attempting to write one.

How does a novel work?
Every novel, no matter whether it's a pulp thriller or high literature, works because it has a structure. This means a notional beginning middle and end. It means chapters or other divisions. It means structures within chapters. Critically, it means discernible patterns like storylines, narrative flow, character arcs, pacing and engagement techniques. If you don't understand these things and how to use them, you will not write a readable novel. Nay-sayers will bring up examples such as Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" or Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" as exceptions to the rule . . . but almost nobody has finished those books. In my book I apply the approach to my own published novels, but also to a notable literary great. The rules apply universally.

Why does your guide focus on your own books?
It's quite rare that authors reveal exactly how they wrote their books. They like to maintain a veneer of mystery, or imply that each book is a tortuous labour of love that coalesces out of some nebulous aesthetic realm. Perhaps this is true for some of them, but it's useless guidance for the aspiring writer. People want useful information. I don't pretend that my published novels are eternal monuments of literature, but they were published anyway and I know better than anyone how they were written. My advice on how to plan and structure a novel therefore comes from the experience of successfully applying the knowledge. It's practice, not theory.

But different people write in different ways
Of course they do. I'm not suggesting that people write books like mine. The techniques I describe are universal and can be applied to any kind of novel. I encourage everyone to write in whatever style or genre they like, but understanding structure is the same requirement however you write.

In this new edition, you also discuss Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita". Why that book?
It's one of my favourites, but more importantly it's one of the greatest literary novels of all time. It's a million miles from the books I've written, and yet I show that it operates in exactly the same ways. It has a logical structure, a clear chronology and a plot that actually uses many of the tricks we recognise in genre fiction. In this sense, there's no difference between literature and genre - both rely on structure to be readable.

Sell me this book in one sentence
It takes the frustration out of writing a novel and increases your writing pleasure by clearly explaining the things nobody ever told you about structure.

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