The Five Stages of Writing a Novel

11/05/2016 22:09 | Updated 11 May 2016

Few things in life are more daunting than attempting to write a novel. Leaving aside the amount of words you have to write (novels are usually around 80,000 - 100,000 words), there's the enormity of having to create an entire world, peopled by characters that have come straight out of your imagination. Most difficult of all, you have to keep that world spinning; keep it interesting, keep the twists and turns coming, right up to the very end.

Like any major undertaking, the easiest way of novel-writing is to break it down. Rather than thinking of it as Everest, give yourself five separate stages to hit. Not exactly baby steps, more individual, knuckle-clenching hikes. Remember. No-one said this was going to be fun.


Stage One - Base Camp
This is where it all starts. Day One, a blank screen, maybe just the germ of an idea. There are myriad ways to proceed from this point. Some writers advocate planning your entire novel from base camp; outlining all your characters, working out your plot, writing a chapter structure, pretty much having the entire route of your book planned out. If you have the right sort of mind; methodical, ordered, this may be a good way to proceed. But starting out with only a vague idea of where the path will lead is not necessarily a bad thing. Trust your imagination. Once you start to create your world and know your characters, new paths will appear leading to unexpected plot twists and unforeseen developments. Just don't tip over into a crevasse.

Stage Two - several weeks later
You've started. You've crossed Go, collected £200. The first few chapters have been almost effortless; your characters are alive, the locations are coming together, you can see where it's going. It's a breeze, this novel-writing lark - why doesn't everyone do it? If you carry on at this rate, you'll have the whole book down within six weeks and it'll be on the shelves in Waterstones by Christmas. Why did you put off doing this for so long? Why does everyone say it's so hard?

Stage Three - several months later
Ok, so you haven't actually looked at the novel for a week. Maybe two. But you've got about 40,000 words down and you just need space to think¸right? About where it's going to go next. And, frankly, you're just a bit tired of sitting endlessly at your laptop. Alone. In silence. And you think you're getting carpal tunnel syndrome in your wrists. You really should buy a laptop stand. That's what you need. Once you've got the laptop stand, you'll start writing again.

Stage Four - several more months later (or possibly years)
You can't write. The book is rubbish. You're 60,000 words through and all your characters are dislikeable, the pace is wrong and the story just isn't credible. You're going to keep going, even though it feels not just like you're climbing a mountain, but that you're trying to push a piano up it at the same time. But you're going to carry on because you've got this far and, well, because you've got this far. But it's rubbish, obviously. No-one will read it. Why on earth did you ever think you could write a novel?

Stage Five - Somewhere in the Dim and Distant Future

Somewhere in front of you, just visible through the clouds, you can see the peak. It's there. Possible. Realisable. You start to think about your character's final conversations, tying up some of the ends. Leaving others loose. You pick up speed. You flick back through the early chapters and think actually, this isn't bad. Why did I think it was so rubbish?

And then, one morning, it happens. You type those two seminal words; The End. You've done it - the literary equivalent of sticking your flag into the ground and declaring the mountain yours. You close the lid on the laptop and wonder if it's too early to open a beer. Or a bottle of wine. Or two bottles of wine. It is a giddy, euphoric moment.

Enjoy it. Because the truth is it won't last. No writer is ever totally happy, even with their final draft. In the future there will be agent's revisions, editor's revisions, proof-reader's revisions. And even when it's published, you'll read it and every so often you'll think, oh my God, did I really write that sentence?

But this is all to come. You've climbed the mountain. Sit back, breathe, and soak up the views. You're an author.

The People We Were Before is out now, available from Amazon and all good bookshops.
And yes, it took me years.