7 tips for writing a novel – Lucie Whitehouse

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By Lucie Whitehouse

The longer I write, the more I suspect no one ever thinks they’ve got this novel-writing thing under control. Keep You Close is my fourth novel (and my favourite so far) but as I start thinking and gathering ideas for a fifth, I have exactly the same feeling of setting off into the dark as I did with my first. ♥

When I started, I read everything I could about other writers’ processes. How did they do it, in concrete terms? Did they start early or stay up late, revise as they went along, write by hand? These days, I rent a desk at a writers’ space, and one glance around the room here tells you that everyone works differently: some desks are spartan, just a laptop and a lamp; others have stacks of books and photographs, pages torn from magazines, all sorts of inspirational curios. Some people are here however early I arrive in the morning; one woman writes only at night. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers.

That said, there are things I’ve found that always work for me and the other writers I know. Here they are:

1. Work on an idea you love. A book written with passion has an energy you can’t fake. I’ve seen it with my own work – the things I loved writing are the things people most enjoy reading. Like marathon running, novel-writing is an endurance sport. There are joyous times when it feels effortless but there will also be the Wall, when will and commitment come into play. An idea that excites you will be most likely to excite other people but it will also sustain you when the going gets tough.

2. Go easy on self-criticism – at first. There is nothing more deadly to creative thinking than the internal critic. Try not to ask yourself whether what you’re producing is any good until you’ve done enough that it’d really hurt to throw it away. Editing is the time to be tough.

3. Walk. Simple but incredibly effective, walking and letting your mind wander is a great way to solve problems and percolate new ideas – it works every time. You’ll notice things, keep in touch with the seasons and it also helps address a perennial writing problem, at least for me: excessive biscuit-eating.


4. Find your time of day – but don’t become rigid. Given the chance, I’d write from 4pm to midnight – it’s when I naturally feel most imaginative. Since we’ve had a baby, though, my husband and I – he’s also a writer – work when we can and actually, we’ve found a different sort of enjoyment in knowing that we can do that – there is no magic hour.

5. Small pockets of time can be incredibly productive. In fact, I’ve had some of my best runs when I know I only have half an hour. I think it’s about taking the pressure off – there’s a limit to what you can do in a small window. If you get stuck, try telling yourself you can only work for thirty minutes or even twenty – you may well blast through whatever’s holding you up.

6. If you get stuck, another good trick is to try writing by hand. Again, simple but very effective. There’s a link between the movement of the hand across paper and the creative side of the brain. Start by writing anything at all – rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, maybe – and you’ll likely soon find a way back into your story. A change of location is also useful here so it’s a good excuse to take your notebook for coffee.

7. Remember: if you’re writing for publication, the finished book is for the reader. It’s a fine balance because good fiction is personal – the good stuff comes from experience, deeply felt emotion and belief – and yet if you’re writing for others, your work shouldn’t be therapy for you but about giving your readers an experience: holding their attention, making them care. I studied Classics at university and I always like thinking about the storytellers who, in the time before the Iliad and the Odyssey were ever written down, went from settlement to settlement to tell them. Over several days, people gathered around to listen and I like to imagine how the travelling poets span out the stories, making their narratives so rich in drama and conflict, magic and tragedy that everyone there was held in thrall.

Lucie Whitehouse read Classics at Oxford University and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her new novel, Keep You Close, is out now (Bloomsbury).

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