Writing a novel: the secret formula – Cass Green

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By Cass Green

You see, that kind of headline is writerly catnip for me. If I had a pound for every book I’ve snapped up that promises to reveal the big secret of HOW TO DO WRITING … well, I wouldn’t quite cover the cost of them, but it would certainly help. ♥

My shelves are groaning under the weight of titles like How To Write A Bestseller and All You Ever Needed To Know About Writing Fiction. I read everything in this vein that I can find online too, plus I have lost count of the number of plotting graphs and spreadsheets I downloaded/drawn up myself. Want to know anything about Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet? I’m your gal.

And as for the stationery…

I was already a notebook junkie but when I first learned about other writers using notecards for plotting out a story I thought, ‘This is IT! This method is going to change my life!’ I invested in multiple packs of lovely, crisp new cards, a pack of Sharpies (you’ve got to love a Sharpie) and a beautiful cork board that took up exactly half the space in my already-crowded office.

Then I sat down and stared at them for some time, waiting for inspiration to strike me as some sort of heavenly lightning bolt.

A bunch of hours and many cups of coffee later, the whole lot got quietly put away, only to make me feel guilty every time I stubbed my toe on the giant board. (Which is really often, as it happens.)

But then I had an epiphany. There was something too permanent about notecards. I didn’t feel as though I could muck them up with a bad idea, or throw them away. What I needed was Post-It notes! I went and bought multiple packs along with a pad of A3 paper to stick them to.

This time, it actually worked. When I was plotting my new book In a Cottage in a Wood, I had a bunch of ideas that needed to be woven together and the Post-It notes plotting method worked like a treat. So much so, I truly believed I had cracked this writing-a-book thing at last.

However, the time came when I needed to start work on the next idea. I dutifully sat down with a load of Post-Its and some fresh new sheets of A3. And waited…

It didn’t work at all. Nope. Not happening.

This was so incredibly dispiriting. I was convinced I had finally Found My Method and now it was all… balls.

I went back to basics and read all my favourite books (John Yorke’s Into the Woods, Stephen King’s On Writing etc), websites (This Itch of Writing by Emma Darwin and The Zoetrope) and tried again. But the truth was, this idea wanted to emerge in its own way, which turned out to be endless pages of hand-written notes and a lot of headaches.

So I guess I’ve had another breakthrough, in a funny kind of way.

I have decided that, just as every book is unique, we shouldn’t expect a creative process to happen in exactly the same way every time. There is simply no one way for how to ‘do fiction’. Creativity isn’t neat and tidy. It’s a messy, wonderful business that refuses to be shaped into a perfect catch-all formula.

And this, my friends, is the secret of ‘how to write’. Just sit down and do it. Use the many, brilliant tools available to help but don’t expect them to work every single time.

Sorry for that headline. But you’ll thank me for it, I’m sure.

(Now…if I can just crack Scrivener…)

Cass Green is the pseudonym of Caroline Green, an award-winning author of fiction for young people. She is the Writer in Residence at East Barnet School and has been a journalist for over twenty years. The Woman Next Door was her first novel for adults, and her second novel for adults, In a Cottage in a Wood, is out now, published by Harper Collins.



  1. SJI Holliday

    October 18, 2017 at 11:17 pm

    This is so true! I keep thinking I have cracked it, but it has been different for every book. I am trying so many things with this one that I am overthinking it all and not writing at all, so I need to stop that immediately 🙂

  2. Cass Green

    October 19, 2017 at 12:40 am

    It has been really liberating, to understand that there are a variety of tools you can use. That it isn’t a failure just because something that worked once, isn’t working this time!

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