How to write a novel (ahem)


It’s nearly February! And that means it’s nearly time to kick off my creative writing course. As the auspicious day draws closer, (I can’t wait to meet my students, they’re all so shiny) I have been thinking, how do you write a book? I mean, seriously. How?? I found the answer (thank heavens) over on Baxter Street (my other blog). Here is the article, with a few tweaks and updates. I hope you find it helpful. I’m looking forward to elaborating on it in person with my students. Have I told you how much I LOVE talking about writing? Hmm? Have I? 😉

Basically, there are two ways to write a novel. You can follow your nose. That is, you can choose to write organically. Plant the seed, stand back and let your story grow (watch out though, you might end up with a triffid and those things can be hard to rein in). It’s a scary approach but this style of writing has plenty going for it. Moreover, its champions (who are generally quite militant) will tell you it’s the only way to achieve a genuinely spontaneous story full of quirks and surprises. This is the purist’s way. The Creative’s Way.

The other approach is to plot your story in advance—to make like an accountant and figure it all out before you begin. The idea is that with a bit of planning you’ll have a blueprint to back you up  when the going gets tough, a guide that will save you from writing yourself into corners. By plotting in advance you’ll have more control (supposedly) over characters and events and a clearer vision of where you’re headed.  However, detractors will tell you this is a pedestrian way of writing that sucks the energy out of a story. This is creative writing in a shirt and tie. It is the CPA’s Way. Incidentally it is also the way taught by most creative writing schools. Why? Because this is the most teachable method. It’s the most left-brained and (arguably) the most quantifiable.

When I first began writing I was convinced that ‘organic’ was the way to go. Being rather dewy eyed, I passionately believed it was the only truly creative approach and was quick to defend it. I wrote Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children in this manner. I simply found a character that intrigued me and I jumped in and began writing (while at work on a Tuesday afternoon if my memory serves me well). It took four years to write that book. Admittedly I was working (and parenting) full-time for most of those years, and Tensy was my first major piece of fiction. Perhaps I can be forgiven for being a slowcoach. By the same token, I did waste a lot of time. I went down many blind alleys. I backtracked endlessly because as I delved more deeply into the story I began to understand the characters and their world in greater detail. With each new insight there was no choice but to backtrack, rewrite, cut, embellish, throw entire chapters at the wall. Even when it was finished and accepted for publication, it was miles too long. Here I was, toting a one hundred thousand word story aimed at an eight+ readership. Poor little peanuts. I had to cut the final draft by thirty thousand words. You all know the knitting metaphor. Oh yes, this sweater needed serious unpicking (and I don’t mind admitting there were times when I got in a terrible tangle). Those four years were stressful. The most stressful I’ve endured as an author. And yet I will still defend the organic approach, at least in that instance. It taught me a whole bunch of things including patience, perseverance and the astonishing magic of an unfettered imagination. Creative writing is after all, experiential.

Several years later I was commissioned to write ‘chick lit’ for prepubescent girls. Those books (the Crystal Bay Girls series) had to be written quickly because, well, I had a contract and there were people with big sticks waiting in the wings. The series was contemporary drama with none of the whimsy of my gothic fiction or fairy tales. I wrote those books with extensive plans (and I might add I was quite sniffy about it). I reluctantly plotted in advance, chapter by chapter. Sigh. But do you know what? It turned out to be entirely joyful. It was incredibly reassuring to know that I had things figured out before I started scribbling. It took away mountains of anxiety and, ironically, freed me up to enjoy the process and really connect with the characters. With a detailed plan less energy was consumed by doubt and worry and there was more available for actually writing.

Having written using both approaches, what is my opinion these days? Well, both ways have their merit. And I do think that the genre you’re writing in and the circumstances surrounding your work can influence your decision. (I couldn’t plot fantasy in advance if my life depended on it.) However, there is a third way. ‘What?’ I hear you say. ‘Give me a break, Jen. This article is nearly over and now you’re bringing in a new idea? That’s breaking ALL the rules.’

I know, I know.  I said at the beginning there were two ways to write a book. But quite frankly that was just to lure you in. Two choices are manageable. But three? Aie, aie, aie. You might have flicked me off and gone in search of knitting tips.


So what’s the third way? Well, it’s the Swedish Chef’s combo. That’s right. Combine both approaches. Mix it up, plot and freefall, all within the same story. Oh, the delight. The daring. The parody of the safe risk. This is the writing rollercoaster with personalised speed control and comfort stops. I’ve already used this method in the last few Truly Tan books. And it’s the method I used in my latest fantasy novel, The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack.

Using the Swedish Chef’s combo, I start with a map. Then at some point, when I’ve spotted  major diversions up ahead, I  loosen the reins and let the story run, trusting it will take me somewhere magical. Then I stop for a time, study the map again and carefully consider the best way forward, penciling in more twists and turns that I might like to explore.

As I said, creative writing is experiential. You have to get in there and do it in order to understand it, to get a feel for it, and to develop and test your artistic intuition.

If you are an aspiring author I urge you to mess around. Don’t hem yourself by thinking there is only one approach. Take risks. Trust the magic. It’s the only way to discover what works best FOR YOU.

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