How to write a novel
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
The first in a series of posts about my experience on the journey to publication of my debut novel, The Quiet Ones. Follow the post category 'Getting published' to read the rest as they're posted.
I've been deliberately misleading with this post title: I can't tell you how to write a novel. Everyone's process is different and will vary depending on the project, circumstances and approach. What I can tell you is how I wrote The Quiet Ones and what I learned.
Phase one: First draft
The Quiet Ones started life as 22,000-words submitted as my final project for the Masters in Creative Writing, taken at the University of Edinburgh in 2010/11. In mid-2017, I re-read the original manuscript and decided that it had the potential to extend into a full-length novel, around 90,000 words.
There was a lot more to write: the existing characters deserved more action, more thought, and more time on the page. And I wanted to explore more of the setting: the derelict hospital, its grounds and its history.
Over the next few months I pulled apart the draft like a jigsaw puzzle, restructured and rewrote it, then put it all back together again in a totally different shape. In some chapters I filled in gaps and fleshed out what was already there; in other places I added more action and plot, invented new characters and created a richer story.
Phase two: The best writer friends
When I felt like I had finished the draft and polished it up into its best possible form, I sent the novel to a small group of very generous fellow writers for their feedback. Their critique was invaluable: from line edits to structural edits, through to massive re-write suggestions, and most of the time I agreed with them!
This is also a good opportunity to learn from other writers by reading and feeding back on their work too. I learned so much from seeing how other people approach writing across genres, styles and tastes. If you don't have fellow writers in your friendship group, join local writers' groups or online groups.
Phase three: Redrafting over and over and over
When you press 'send' on that email with the attachment 'My_novel_final.doc', the dream is that you will receive a speedy reply which says 'I love it! It's perfect. Don't change a thing!' I'm very sorry: that is not going to happen (unless you only send it to your mum).
Your early readers/friends will have notes and suggestions, then your literary agent; and even when you get a book deal, your editor will have notes and requests. Even after that, there's a copy edit and a line edit before the manuscript is sent to print.
I have lost count of the number of drafts I wrote for The Quiet Ones. It's changed beyond recognition since the first draft: many ideas were abandoned, or changed so many times that they're unrecognisable from the first iteration. There was one sad day when I had to delete 7,000 words from the manuscript, but it was unavoidable: I'd found a way of accomplishing the same thing with only 700 and it became a much better book because of that.
What I've learned
Love your novel: When you start writing, make sure you love your characters, love your plot and love your setting. Because you're going to spend a lot of time revisiting them, probably for years. If you don't love them, it's going to be an impossible, miserable task.
Receiving feedback: when an early reader tells you that something is unclear, listen carefully. You're allowed to disagree with them or ignore what they're telling you, but it's useless to reply with "well, you see, what's happening on that page is X, Y, or Z". When your novel goes out into the world you can't sit down each reader to explain yourself. Make sure your intentions are clearly written on the page.
Not one author: even though there's only one name on the cover, The Quiet Ones' final manuscript is a combination of the feedback, guidance and patience of many, many talented and insightful people. Each time when I thought the novel was finished and that I'd done everything I could to make it the best book I could write, someone would make a suggestion which improved the story even more. Even though I was the one typing at the laptop, The Quiet Ones wouldn't have got here without those people.