Reading about how other novelists write is a bit like being shown inside someone’s bathroom cabinet. This is a collection of anecdotes from novelists – some household names, others less well known – who describe what works for them, and the things that sometimes go wrong. Here they divulge the little tricks, the lessons learned and the daily routines that help them through the process of writing a novel. Everything from choosing character names, researching, using detail from real life, plotting, using social media, turning off the wi-fi and inspiration. What becomes clear is that what works for one writer, doesn’t work for another. So experiment, learn from the masters and find your own way.
Irish novelist Sebastian Barry remembers writing the first sentence for Days Without End.
“I love beginnings,” says thriller writer Lee Child. “I love starting a book. The first sentence is unique in that it’s the only one that doesn’t follow another. It has to capture the mood, to give a sense of what’s to come. I’m very happy if I get a good start, and then it grows. Reacher has no idea what he’s going to do when he starts, just like in real life.”
Why novelist Jilly Cooper warns “You have to be very careful not to use real people’s names.”
On killing his secondary characters, author of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel Dicker, explains, “The question I asked myself all along is: ‘Could the book work without them?’ and if the answer was yes then they had to go.”
Little Deaths author Emma Flint on creating a multi-aspect character.
Self-pitying characters are a turn-off warns Gail Honeyman, author of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Nicole Krauss on imagining herself into the skin of her characters in The History of Love. “The only way I could write about these things was projecting them into the character of this old, isolated, charming but difficult man. I could express things that I simply couldn’t in my own skin, in my own life…”
Fictional characters are “like people you know well in real life”, says Wolf Hall novelist Hilary Mantel; they are ever-changing.
When he was writing Time Will Darken It, first published in 1948, author William Maxwell said, “A set of characters seized me, and ran off with me.”
“I don’t think fiction always recognises the lives of genuine people,” says JoJo Moyes, author of Me Before You and its sequel After You.
Olive Kitteridge author Elizabeth Strout uses her own emotions to create characters. “I learnt a long time ago to just sit down and take whatever emotion was most pressing in me and transpose it into a character.”
When A Woman of Substance author Barbara Taylor Bradford starts writing a new book, she begins with a memorable character.
Don’t be afraid to let the autobiographical creep into your fiction, it worked for Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
“I had all of this euphoria running through my veins, but I couldn’t tell anyone,” says award winning author Jane Davis on her 2019 Selfies success with Smash all the Windows.
Write snappy dialogue, advises Irish writer Roddy Doyle. “The best way to get characters alive is to get them talking.”
“I gave the first book the wrong ending” says Allison Pearson on writing a follow-up to her bestseller I Don’t Know How She Does It.
“There is no Idea Dump,” Stephen King famously said. So how does the best-selling thriller writer get his ideas?
Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Sashenka, says “For writers, wasting time is as vital as working, so it is essential to sit all day without doing anything.”
Writers live a kind of dual existence, says The Gustav Sonata author Rose Tremain. “We live in a day-to-day life, but our minds are always turning over the possibility of the transmutation of that life into something else.”
Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Anne Tyler keeps her ideas organised on index cards. She writes one note per card, sometimes a possible character’s name, other cards may be more detailed.
Bestseller Celia Brayfield says “fiction without its darker side is like a Miss Marple mystery without its murder.”
Add a spark to the plot, like American author Bill Clegg. His incendiary idea was inspired by an ordinary everyday fact .
The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins says, “The set-up is often the fun part.”
Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, says, “I have to have faith in good stories and good characters winning through.”
Crime writer Donna Leon never knows how her books will end. “What keeps me going is that when I start a book I have no idea of what’s going to happen.”
Put ordinary people into extraordinary situations, advises thriller writer Chris Pavone.
For Irish writer Colm Tóibín, everything not cut when redrafting must have drama in it. “I didn’t write a great deal that I erased but I did think of a great deal that I put aside because everything had to, in some way or other, have a drama in it.”
Set up drama and conflict, advises award winning novelist Rose Tremain. “If you’re not setting up jeopardy, if you’re not setting up conflict, love, humour you [will not] be borne along.”
British writer Sarah Waters does not write crime stories but she uses the closed room setting, mastered by Agatha Christie, to add mystery and tension. “I’m very interested in the dynamics of relationships [that occur] within houses and it seemed like a bit of a pressure cooker.”
Advice on structuring scenes, from Diane Setterfield, author ofThe Thirteenth Tale, Once Upon A River and Bellman And Black. “I think of the scenes as beads. There are lots of beads, and you can line them up next to each other and it looks just like a necklace.”
Penny Vincenzi, who sold seven million books starting with Old Sins in 1989, had a relaxed approach to plotting: “I haven’t the faintest idea what is going to happen, ever. I just get the kernel of the idea… and then the characters wander in.”
POINTS OF VIEW
How do you approach a multi-POV narrative? Claire Dyer explains how she changed viewpoints between drafts of The Last Day.
PROMOTION FOR WRITERS
Sara Baume shares her panicky moment when answering PR questions about A Line Made by Walking.
More writers need to celebrate new writers, says Chris Cleave. “I was the last generation of writers given one chance; the generation before had two chances; the generation now doesn’t have a chance… More writers need to celebrate new writers: This is my protege, I want you to read their books.”
Social media is a great way to connect with readers, says best selling author Freya North.
READ A LOT
Write a lot and read a lot, advises Chocolat author Joanne Harris.
“Write a lot, but read even more. Learn to be open to criticism,” says Amanda Hocking, author of Frostfire, the first in the Kanin Chronicles series.
A book comes alive in the reader’s mind, says journalist and novelist Caitlin Moran. “You are the electricity that turns it on.”
Kate Atkinson writes historical novels but says, “I am not a historian.”
Tracy Chevalier is famous for her in-depth research, for At the Edge of the Orchard she researched trees.
Thriller writer Helen J Christmas researched British life and culture across the decades for her ‘Same Face Different Place’ series.
Author of The Mare, Mary Gaitskill, on learning to ride a horse while writing the novel.
Research can become an obsession and a distraction, warns crime writer Sarah Hilary.
Get away from your desk and research real places and events, like romantic novelist Caroline James.
Knowing the Cathar history for her novel In Another Life, American author Julie Christine Johnson “dove in and began writing the story. I layered in the research as I wrote.”
Novelist and journalist Kevin Maher says it’s important to recognise when its time to stop researching, rather than get carried away and write too much.
“Do all the research, then close the textbooks and just write a cracking good story,” says Karen Maitland, author of medieval thrillerThe Vanishing Witch.
Research is a compulsion for author Lucy Prebble. “What ideas grab you? Meaty controversial issues based on real events. Topics that frighten and thrill you.”
AJ Pearce, author of World War Two novel Dear Mrs Bird, immersed herself in the music of the 1940s and watched air raids on You Tube “with the volume turned up as loud as possible, trying to get some idea of what on earth it was like.”
SENSE OF PLACE
Why Belfast-born novelist Michèle Forbes set Ghost Moth in the city. “I was born there, grew up there, and I felt I had to reconnect with the place.”
THE BUSINESS OF WRITING
“Writing is an art, but it is also a business,” says Hanif Kureishi. “I’m trying to be an artist but I’ve also got to send my kids to school.”
“If I published my first three novels now, I wouldn’t have a career because no-one would publish my fourth novel based on the sales of my first three…” says crime writer Val McDermid.
“I can say now that the lean years focussed me on what I really wanted – in that nothing-to-lose way that is often motivating,’ says novelist Deborah McKinlay.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Jeffrey Archer’s writing routine is ruthless. “I wish there was a shortcut but there isn’t.”
Don’t make up your mind too early what it’s about, advises Lynn Barber.
Dorothea Brande recommends isolating the functions of the two sides of the mind.
A classic piece of advice from American author Truman Capote. “Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”
Loud noise does not stop double-Booker Prize winner Peter Carey from writing.
If it feels right, write outdoors says YA novelist Natasha Carthew. “When I started writing my first novel Winter Damage I found myself drawn to the outside countryside around me out of necessity. It was a way to clear my head and immerse myself fully with the world that my characters inhabited.”
What did poet and novelist Jill Essbaum do when she hit a difficult spot while writing Hausfrau? “When I was writing this book, whenever I sort of hit a wall I stopped trying to think with my head, I tried to think with my ears.”
Spy novelist Frederick Forsyth says all authors are only half in the room, they stand aside and take notes. “I’ve always preferred not to join in, so I joined nothing… I used my separateness.”
Write about the credible now and the implied past, says Janice Galloway, author of All Made Up.
Take risks, advises How To Stop Time author Matt Haig.“The quickest way you could kill books in their tracks is to stop taking risks, because when risks pay off, they pay off with dividends.”
Thriller writer Paula Hawkins on that difficult second novel.
Listen to the rhythm of the words like Emma Hooper, author of Etta and Otto and Russell and James.
How Vanessa Lafaye wove together historical fact & invented characters in her debut novel Summertime.
Don’t allow yourself to be distracted from writing. Maggie O’Farrell, author of This Must Be The Place, remembers writing while nursing a newborn baby.
Setting a daily wordcount encourages the words to flow for American author Jane Smiley.
Children’s detective novelist Robin Stevens uses spreadsheets when plotting her murders. “I do a massive spreadsheet of the murder, with the time of the murder and where everyone was in five-minute chunks leading up to it.”
Every writer makes mistakes, says American novelist Anne Tyler. “I would say it’s like if you’ve ever painted a room and you have to sleep in that room at night and you can see you made a mistake here, and here, and here.”
“Write every day even if it’s rubbish,’ says thriller writer SJ Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep.
Writing never stops for author Jeanette Winterson.“I never think: ‘I’m not at work now, so I’ll relax.”
A Little Life author Hanya Yanagihara says she didn’t worry the novel’s darkness would deter readers. “My opinion is that readers will go with you much further than you think… and if they don’t, then they don’t.”
Avoid routine, says Lincoln in the Bardo author George Saunders. “Part of me wants to go through life on autopilot. I have to lure out the crazy person in me who’s honest and intense.”
Holly Bourne, author of How Do You Like Me Now?, It Only Happens in the Movies and Am I Normal Yet? talks about world-building. “People think that world-building is something you only need to do in fantasy novels.”
USING WHAT YOU KNOW
Kate Atkinson on using your own life and family, then fictionalising it.
Tessa Hadley, author of The Past, on using personal memories. “When I started I thought I wasn’t a person with a good memory but you tap into uncanny places where you have things saved up that you didn’t know you did until you got to that level.”
Lauren Owen, author of gothic mystery The Quick, on family inspiration. “I think family relationships are very interesting; the idea of what you tell the people who are closest to you and what you don’t tell them.”
WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION
Philippa Gregory, author of the Tudor novels, says, “What is so wonderful about fiction, especially if you write it as I do, in the first person, is that you are there. In a sense it’s not as though I’ve taken the history and given it to the reader.”