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.







SILENCESilence is golden but rare these days.

While I love living in bustling, lively Glasgow with its friendly, chatty inhabitants. it can be hard to find a silent place to write undisturbed. I’m always on the lookout for quiet corners where I can set up my laptop and lose myself in the world I’m creating. As a journalist, I’m used to busy newsrooms and constant interruptions and can cheerfully block out background noise to write a feature. But I can’t do this when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. That’s when I need complete silence.

Some authors like JK Rowling like to write in coffee shops, but I find them too distracting. Others, like Louise Welsh, hire artist’s studios. Another I know takes the train from Glasgow to London and back just to write. I tried this on a recent trip to Aberdeen but became engrossed in a fascinating conversation between two women about designer labels – conducted in the Doric.

Public libraries used to be a haven for writers seeking peace and quiet. The Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson likes to write at her local library. Remember all those fierce librarians who enforced silence? Well, that’s no longer the case. My local library does great work with children and puts on a homework club, free movie screening and a nursery rhyme session for mums and their tots. All to be applauded – but what a racket!

Even Glasgow’s wonderful Mitchell Library is a noisy place since it’s been modernised. Last time I was trying to write on its ‘silent’ study floor, the walls were leaking a thumping bassline from a dance competition in the theatre. I had to flee to my bolthole – the tenth floor of Glasgow University’s library. It’s a great place to concentrate, except during exam time when it’s impossible to find a seat. So, the hunt continues. I’ve recently found out that the Mitchell hires out silent study carrels and there’s a writers’ room at the CCA.

Anyone have any ideas? Or should I just buy a pair of noise-cancelling headphones?


How to be a Time Bandit

timebandits02One of the questions I’m asked most often at author events is: how do you find the time to write? Most of us feel we don’t have enough time in the day for work and family commitments, catching up with friends and the constant buzz of social media, let alone to write a 90,000-word novel. Well, I’m a busy working mother and I have written two books in between school runs, emptying dishwashers and running my own business.

The secret is to become a Time Bandit.

If, like me, you need to earn a living, then you have to steal it from other parts of your life. I wrote Paris Kiss in four hours stints on Saturday afternoons at Glasgow University library while my husband looked after our young son. It took me two years to complete the first draft, but I got there chapter-by-chapter, week-by-week. I did my research in the evenings when I stole back hours from the biggest time thieves of all: television and social media.

Some writers stealthily get up at dawn before their families and the working day get started – that’s what  E Annie Proulx did when her children were young. Others write in the evening after the kids have gone to bed, although I’m always too exhausted by then and want to catch up with my husband over dinner and a glass of wine. Some – fast writers no doubt – write in their lunch hour. Stephen King wrote Carrie like this while he was teaching in a High School until he could afford to write full time. Like me, some work on their days off – Val McDermid wrote her first four novels on Monday afternoons while she worked as a Sunday newspaper reporter. And a great tip I’ve learned is to take a week’s ‘writing holiday’ from work.

To write, you do have to sacrifice a chunk of your free time but, as most writers will tell you, writing is a labour of love. So, if you want to write that novel, there’s nothing to stop you. Go for it!

Inspired by Art

Research is one of the great joys of writing an historical novel.

When I worked on my debut novel, Paris Kiss, I didn’t confine myself to reading dusty tomes on 19th century Paris.

Art from the period helped fire my imagination about what life was like for my two heroines, Camille Claudel and Jessie Lipscomb, who were protégées of the great sculptor Rodin.

300px-Edouard_Manet_-_Luncheon_on_the_Grass_-_Google_Art_Project-2As well as poring over history books, biographies, fashion plates and memoirs, I looked closely at the work of Camille Claudel, Rodin, Seurat, Renoir, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others.

Artists at the time were working en plein air, capturing the every day lives of Parisians.Continue Reading

Lessons I’ve Learned as a Debut Author

(This post was originally published in May 2015)

The day I had dreamed about finally arrived when my debut novel Paris Kiss was launched earlier this year.

But like most long-held ambitions the reality was entirely different from the daydream that had sustained me through writing a first novel, finding an agent, rewriting, and securing a publisher.

I’ve loved every minute of it – and this is what I’ve learned from my author debut so far.Continue Reading