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How to write a novel

06 December 2007


I've written 17 tips on novel writing. There are many more experienced people offering advice on how to paint a scene or structure a plot, so I've just focused on the logistics. In all the guides to novel writing I've seen, there's relatively little attention paid to organising ideas and time, which are key challenges for most writers.

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Sean,

What you've described as "wasting time", we software developers describe as "prototyping". I think that even though you discard the tangible results, the time is far from wasted.
 
That's a good point: you do have to go through the early stages to get to the later stages. You do have to experiment with what works in certain sections, and you probably do have to go down some blind alleys as you shape the plot.

But it's hard to think of it as prototyping when you realise you've just spent days writing something that's no use.

When you prototype software, you've usually got a pretty good idea of the finished product, and reasonable confidence you have the skills to complete it. You rarely prototype features that are completely redundant in the finished product.

When you're writing your first novel, you might not have a clear idea of the shape of the whole plot and might not have confidence that you have the skills to write a novel (since most people start without any training or prior novel-writing experience). You probably will write chapters that you have to delete outright.

That's when people need to accept that they will waste time, because sometimes it'll feel like they are. If people can't accept that some time is wasted, they'll treasure their time too highly to delete scenes that really should go, too.

I think it's easier for people to accept that they'll waste time (or at least, that it will feel like it), than it is for them to think of everything as a positive step towards the final book. With hindsight, it's possible to see everything as progress. But when you're in the middle of a big project, where you have no experience and are unsure you can even finish it, it takes extraordinary confidence to see failed drafts as prototypes.
 
hello mr. McManus i've read your advice and it helped me a bit to write more about my story but i just had few questions what should i do if they dont publish it? should i rewrite it or leave it and write another one? or should i start another career?
 
Thank you for your comment and sorry for the delay in replying, Zania. If your first story gets published, you'll be doing much better than average. Most people can't get their first story published. I recommend you keep trying, at least as long as you enjoy writing and creating stories. If you can see a way to radically improve a story, it's worth editing it. Otherwise, it's probably better to press ahead with a different story altogether. Otherwise, the risk is that you spend all your time working on one project. You will have a greater chance of publication if you have a wider range of stories to pitch.
 
I have just read your advice on novel writing and may I say first of all that I found it very encouraging because this is my first attempt at creative writing and I haven't been completely sure if I'm doing it right.
Secondly, I am over fifty thousand words in to my story and one of the central characters is a well known celebrety who is still alive. What are the implecations of this? He is so central to the theme that I fear my story will lose a lot of impact if I am not permitted to mention his name.
I would appreciate any advice you can give me on this. Michael O'Shea.
 
Hi Michael. Thanks for your comment. You might be able to get away with some celebrity cameos, and I included a few in my novel University of Death to help create the texture of the music industry, and to tell a few jokes. With a central character, it might be tricky, though. There's a risk of committing libel if your character does or experiences anything that would make someone think less of them (however big their role), and there's the risk of passing off if it looks like you're using the goodwill in the celebrity's name to sell your work.

Generally, authors tend to fictionalise the celebrity. In Ben Elton's Past Mortem, there's a character that is a bit like Richard Branson, but who isn't actually Richard Branson. There was a novel written by one of Syd Barrett's former girlfriends which includes a musician character widely believed to be inspired by Syd, but who isn't actually Syd. I'm sure there are other examples too.

It's probably safer not to use a living person for a central character. You might be able to do it, and it might be creatively and artistically valid, but ultimately you're dependent on the celebrity not taking action against you (for whatever reason), and they probably have more resource than you to fight a case, whatever its merits. I'd be wary about having something as substantial as a book depending on someone's goodwill to that extent. One idea might be to get the approval of the celebrity concerned, although that can be very hard to do (not least because they probably don't have time to read the book).

That said, if you're 50,000 words in, I suggest you finish writing it, and then look at how you can fix this (if you decide to) during revisions. You've come a long way, and it's always better to finish something than to leave it hanging. Sounds like you're doing very well for your first attempt at creative writing!
 
Dear Sean,
Thank you for your prompt response, your advice is very helpful. The Character in my story is not actually the celebrety but an apparition of him generated by an alien super computer. Furthermore it is not an apparition of him in person but a character he played in an eighties sit-com. Does this make any difference?
Michael O'Shea.

 
Hi Michael. It's not possible to libel a fictional character, although you might run into problems with the copyright in that character and depending on the context, I guess there is a possibility you could libel the actor and/or the writer. That doesn't seem very likely, though, unless you're using the character in a way that is obviously counter to how it's been previously portrayed, and in a way that would make someone think less of the actor or writer.
 
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