How to write a novel: a 10-point battle plan

fury-brad-pitt-shia-la-beouf-in-tankA few people have told me they’d like to write a novel but don’t know where to start. With one novel published, a second being considered by publishers and a third underway, I’d like to pass on what works for me.

Like all forays into unknown territory, you’ll need a battle plan, some stalwart buddies, and a map.

  1. Think about what you want to write about: a story you’ve always wanted to tell; a world you’ve always wanted to explore; a character that won’t leave you alone; a period or subject that you love.

I had the idea for Paris Kiss on my honeymoon when I visited the Rodin Museum and was captivated by the love affair between the great sculptor and his young student, Camille Claudel.

2. Take a sheet of paper and scribble down some ideas. I find mindmapping useful at this stage.

3. Do some initial research but careful not to get stuck and use it as an excuse not to write the novel. Research – from books, visits to locations, interviews, the Internet – will throw up plotlines and characters.

For Paris Kiss, I visited a sculptor’s marble studio, went to Paris (not a chore!), and read memoirs, biographies and guidebooks from the period, the 1880s. I researched before and during the writing and rewriting.

4. A shadowy cast of characters will begin to emerge. Ask each one: what do you want? What is stopping you? Who among the other characters are helping or hindering you? This will bring them to life and they’ll begin to drive your story. Some of them will get out of hand and demand whole subplots and threaten to take over the story. It’s up to you whether you want to rein them in or let them have their moment in the spotlight.

In Paris Kiss, Jessie’s love interest Georges and the cross-dressing artist Rosa Bonheur started off as bit players but soon loomed large, bringing light into a dark story.

5. Write a one or two page synopsis telling the story. This is also a good time to decide from whose point of view you will tell your story – is it a first person (I) narrator or third (he/she)? First person seems the easiest option for a debut writer, but it can be limiting.

I wrote Paris Kiss in the first person, from the viewpoint of Jessie, Camille’s best friend. My second novel is written in third person, alternating between the points of view of two main characters. This allows you greater freedom to tell your story – but be careful not to chop and change between different points of view too abruptly or often as you risk losing your reader’s empathy. An experienced writer like Jonathan Franzen moves effortlessly between multiple points of view but it isn’t an easy trick to pull off.

6. Break the plot up into scenes or chapters and write an outline on index cards of what is going to happen in each of them. This is your map that will stop you getting lost. Some writers claim not to plot but I find the more you plan before you start writing, the less work you have to do at the rewrite stage.

7. Set yourself a target of how many words you are going to write in each session – for some it’s 500 words, for others 2,000. I’m somewhere in between. Find a time and place that suits you to write and make it a regular date – some write every day, early in the morning or late at night, others like me are weekend writers. I also give myself ‘writing holidays’.

8. Keep writing and don’t stop for revisions. Writing a novel is a marathon and you may hit ‘the wall’ at 45,000 words – write through it and keep going until you get to the end. Well done! But there’s still a long way to go.

I was ready to chuck Paris Kiss at the halfway mark and had lost faith in it. I was desperate to get on with my second novel, which was bubbling away in the back of my mind and seemed so much more interesting. But my writing tutor had a stern word with me and I’m glad I listened to her otherwise Paris Kiss would still be languishing in a drawer along with three other abandoned novels.

9. Print out your novel and leave it alone for as long as you can before tackling the rewrite(s). Re-read with fresh eyes, making notes, rewrite, and show your MS to a few readers you trust to give constructive feedback. Rewrite as many times as you think necessary but don’t hold onto your novel forever. Send it off to several suitable agents listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, following their submission guidelines to the letter.

I re-wrote Paris Kiss three times – twice after I’d secured a wonderful agent who had some great if tough-to-hear insights. Whole scenes (and sections) were cut, new scenes created and characters radically changed.

10. Cross your fingers, light a candle, wish upon a star, and start writing your second book.







  • shelley day

    March 26, 2016 at 11:51 am Reply

    Thanks for this Maggie! I have to remind myself continually what I have to do. It’s good to have such clear signposts! I loved Paris Kiss and I am v much looking forward to your next one … and the next!

  • Maggie Ritchie

    October 31, 2016 at 4:15 pm Reply

    Thanks, Shelley, that’s great to hear. All the best with your writing. Maggie x

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