Do you want to write the novel you’ve always dreamed of writing and have fun along the way? Costa and Orange Prize shortlisted and OCM BOCAS Award-winning writer Monique Roffey shares her top five tips for writing a novel that keeps your readers hooked – including sketching out your idea, making the most of your research and how to get your first draft down in 90 days.
1. Grow Your Idea.
All novels start with a grain of sand, an idea. But, in order to turn that grain of sand into a pearl, time is needed. Pearls grow slowly. The good news is, time plus active research is a winning formula. Don’t just wait for your idea to grow by itself, also do some research. Books are made from other books, and so read, read, read around your subject. Let your idea mate with other ideas. I own a very large cork board which sits above my desk. My novels, as I research them grow visually, especially, as I start to do research. I find ‘looking at my novel’, as it starts to grow, extremely helpful. It makes me think, it keeps the novel alive, it gives the novel images to work from. Images are scenes. I grow my novel for some time, by reading and creating images until the novel starts to write itself before I’ve even written a word.
2. What Counts as Research?
My novels are made from many things: archives, the Internet, hearsay, gossip, rumour, old legends, folk lore, photographs, other novels, non fiction books, academic books, newspaper cuttings, the back of cereal boxes, magazines, everything and anything, in fact. It’s all good. When I wrote The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, as my PhD, my bibliography was pages long. Political pamphlets from the 50s went down as research, as did old calypsos, and family photos. Use everything you have to hand and then keep digging. You don’t really magic up a novel from only what you know and can think of you. You need to go out there and forage, rummage, harvest, gather and dig.
3. Stepping Stones
Most writers have, at the very least, sketched their story out before they start writing. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, though; but it’s one that works for many. To just start writing and ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ is almost asking to fly your plane into the ground. Try working out the basics of your story first: beginning, middle and end. Look at Freytag’s Triangle and have a think about your rising action, climax and falling action. Do you have the five parts of the triangle mapped out? They are the minimum you need to be starting with. Usually, I have about 20 scenes imagined before I start any book. They are like stepping-stones and I like to have them on cards pinned to my board. There’s nothing more satisfying that ripping these cards up as you write the scene. Many writers plan much more carefully and precisely, including Hilary Mantel. Most genre writers plan very carefully indeed. But doing a lot of research and having a plan or plot outline before you write is one way to make sure you are more likely succeed when you do start writing your first draft.
4. Bash It Out
A novel is, on average, 90,000 words. Think about it, that’s 1000 words a day for 90 days. Don’t shilly shally or fanny about; bash it out. Try for 1000 words a day for 90 days. If that’s too much, then go for 500 a day for 180 days. That’s 3-6 months work, that’s a very very energetic and satisfying way to manifest a first draft. Set your alarm clock to an hour before work or two hours before work, get up early and sit to you desk, and then let yourself go. Enjoy it too. I just don’t buy that writing is so painful or even should be. I have fun writing books. I want to make people laugh and cry, and make magic. Don’t you?
5. Don’t Look Back.
When I say 1000 words a day for 90 days, remember it’s only the first draft. You don’t need to daily produce ‘fine literature’; you need to create something from nothing. You want to get what’s inside you outside of you, onto the page. In short, you want to manifest; it’s like spinning a web. Get spinning. You have done research, you have got a plot outline. Now it’s up to you. If you realise that POV is wrong, change it and keep going. If you want to kill a character off, kill her/him, and continue. If you think you’ve written some bad work, never mind, keep going. Don’t look back. Always remember: it’s only the first draft. When you are finished, celebrate, and print it all out. Leave it for a few weeks; then go back and make edits with a red pen and set to draft two. That’s how I do it, anyway. Good luck.
Image (c) Christine Morillo