Saturday, 23 April 2011

Writing a Novel (Part One): What to Write?

I'm not sure about that title – I don't wish to mislead anybody arriving here hoping to find a guide to writing a best selling novel. If you were, then I apologise and wish you well in your search for wisdom. I will however direct you towards Stephen King's excellent book On Writing, and Nicola Morgan's website – you will find many nuggets of writerly advice available from both. Other than that I would suggest you switch off your internet connection, open a new word processing document and simply start to write. Do this every day and you'll be surprised how quickly the words build up. I don't mean to suggest that writing a book is easy, it isn't, but you can read as many how to books as you like, it is the act of sitting down and actually writing that will get you there in the end. 

Okay, now that's out of the way, for those still reading, I thought it might be interesting to look at the process of writing a novel – at least my experience of it, which is all I am really qualified to talk about. You never know, a few scraps of useful information might emerge along the way. 

One of the most common questions asked of writers is where do you get your ideas from? It's a question that many will struggle to answer. Not me. I know exactly where my stories originate. I'll let you into the secret, but don't go spreading it around – this is just between us, OK? On my desk there's a metal box, 18cm wide by 9cm deep and 8cm high. I call it the Word Tin, and it contains all the words I need, stamped into small strips of metal, like dog-tags. To build a story, I simply delve into the box, pull out a handful of words and put them in the right order – easy. OK, see you next week for part two … 

The Word Tin – where stories come from!

Sadly, I’m joking (but imagine if such a tin existed – now there's an idea for a story!) The tin is real though, if not magic, and I have once or twice tried to conjure a story the way I described and produced some interesting, if not exactly publishable, results. 

So where do ideas for stories come from, if not a magic tin or mail-order story depository? The answer to that is – everywhere and anywhere – a memory, an overheard snippet of conversation, a location, a news story, the list goes on. But as Philip Pullman said, 'the initial idea is much less important, actually, than what you do with it.' Often a single idea isn't enough to make a story, but combining two seemingly disparate concepts … that's when you strike gold. However, I believe there's another important consideration – the reason most of the ideas I scribble on scraps of paper will never become stories.

The late, great Robert Cormier
For me, Robert Cormier explained it perfectly when he said, ‘to work for me, an idea must be attached to an emotion, something that upsets, dazzles or angers me and sends me to the typewriter’. The spark that sent me to my notebook to scribble the start of the story that became 15 Days without a Head, came from an incident I witnessed in a pub one afternoon. A very drunk woman arguing with a stranger at the next table – much to the embarrassment of her sons. It made me wonder what life was like for those two boys, what would happen when they got home. 

It takes time to write and revise a novel, and I find that if the characters and their story don’t mean anything to me, they won’t sustain my interest through the months of writing. If you care, it also brings with it a sense of responsibility, a desire to do justice to the characters and their story, which can be a great motivation – especially in those dark hours encountered with every novel, where the story won’t come and you find yourself reaching for the Word Tin. 

You will often hear writers speculating what the next big thing will be, asking what publishers and agents are looking for. The answer that usually comes back, is that they don't know. What editors want is something special, something captivating and original, and the best chance of writing like that is to be honest – write what excites you. If it's fun to write, chances are it will be fun to read. 

So maybe the place to look for inspiration is not here, or in the next how to book, but inside yourself. Work out what it is that excites or unsettles you, which are the ideas that gnaw away at your subconscious, disturb your daydreams and keep you awake at night. Find out what it is that drives you to the typewriter … and start typing!


  1. I love the idea of a word tin! And the quote from Robert Cormier is so true. Ideas are a dime a dozen - until an idea is refashioned into a living breathing story, it's only a gag. Thanks again for your wise words.

  2. Yes, I loved that quote too - and the tin!

    Can I have a borrow please? Great post, thanks Dave.

  3. Thanks folks, glad you enjoyed it. Robert Cormier is one of my writing heroes. As for the Word Tin, let's keep that one a secret, just between us!