How to start a novel

How do you write a novel? I get asked this a lot. Maybe once a week. Our local taxi driver, the window-cleaner, our baby-sitter, mums at the school gate, everyone seems to have a book in them, and why the hell not. Twenty years ago I was at law school and thought I’d one day be making a living writing briefs, not blockbusters. Anyway – there is both a very simple answer to the question How do I write a novel and quite a long one. The short reply, to paraphrase PG Wodehouse, is to put you bum on a seat and start typing. For a more comprehensive outline there are lots of creative writing courses up and down the land that will tell you what to do and lots of people have secured big book deals having done one. To find some half way house I thought I’d run a regular blog post On Writing. It’s just my experience. The things I’ve learned and how I do it….

Channel your inner Carrie Bradshaw and start tapping


About fifteen years I started writing my first book. It wasn’t Daddy’s Girls that was published in 2006. It was bad stab at a chick-lit novel about a girl who couldn’t find a boyfriend and although I was aware my idea wasn’t exactly original, the book industry was still riding the Bridget Jones wave so I thought that was exactly what the market wanted. I took a week’s holiday from work, bunked down in a rural cottage and got stuck into it, but left seven days later with nothing but pages and pages of lifeless prose about bedsits, vodka cocktails and shoes. Truth was, my heart wasn’t it. It wasn’t the book I wanted to write, but the book I thought I should be writing to increase my chances of selling the thing and becoming a professional author. Instead, I didn’t get beyond page forty. I didn’t start another novel for a couple more years or so. I was at the airport, about to go on my honeymoon, and wanted something to read there. I was after something gloriously escapist, nothing too taxing, a perfect accessory for the beach. But browsing the shelves of Smith’s, I realized that I’d read everything by Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins – authors that usually fit the sunlounger reading bill. And all those fabulous airport novels from the 1980’s – Shirley Conran, Arthur Hailey, Sidney Sheldon, seemed to have completely fallen from view. Instead I bought a non-fiction book – a biography about the Mitford Sisters. It was fascinating and got me thinking about what would it be like if there was a group of beautiful, but controversial sisters today. The idea for Daddy’s Girls was formed and I couldn’t wait to start writing it. Within a year I had the first half of my manuscript with an agent, another year after that, the book had reached the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller list. So the first thing I’d say is that to start writing a novel you should find an idea that you fall head over heels in love with. I mean – writing a book takes a very long time indeed. You have to crank out the pages before or after work, or at weekends when frankly, there are lots of more relaxing things you could be doing like, watching Breaking Bad with a five pack of curly-wurlies. So, rule number one. Find a idea you love. Create characters you want to spend time with.

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