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WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Two: People in Pencil

WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part One: Character in Action

As we all know, thousands of people would love to write a novel but can never find the time. And without wanting to ignore the real fears, anxieties and griefs that we are all living with, a great many of us have suddenly got time at home that we didn't expect - if only the time we're no longer spending travelling to work, walking to the gym, going to church, and so on.

However, I suspect what people really may not be able to find is actually the way, or the courage, to start. So this is the first in a series of posts which will try to break down into manageable stages one way - not the way, because there's no such definitive thing - but one way, to set about writing your first novel. I am aiming to keep the posts short, concentrating on prompts and processes, not explanations, and as much as possible I'll try to give options that leave room for you to work in ways that suit you and your material. As it grows, the full series will appear here.

One more thing before we start. Everything on the Itch is free; I don't monetise it through advertising or clicks or affiliations or anything else, but simply put it out under a Creative Commons Licence (and if you'd like to re-use any of the material, please check that link for how the Licence works). But, for the first time I'm going to ask that if you find the series useful, you pay it forward by donating to the UK National Emergencies Trust Corona Virus Appeal, to Unicef, or to your local foodbank or other charity working to help cope with this unprecedented crisis. 


Somewhere to start

Many people reading this will have had an idea - maybe several ideas - which they itch or ache to do something fictional with. But if you don't think you have An Idea, it may just be that you don't realise that the starting thing can be tiny - a seed - a scrap - a whiff. If you're really blank, I suggest you give yourself time, and keep open to those scraps floating up as you go about life: the things you hear or see or remember which have an extra resonance, which make you think what if?, which seem like seeds with all that DNA packed inside, waiting to be germinated.

Every novel starts somewhere, with something. Your starting thing is probably one of these:

  • a person (completely fictional, or based on someone you know or encounter)
  • a place (very familiar to you or completely strange; a real place or a made-up one)
  • a situation or event (a battle real or made-up; a stranger in town; a birth; a mugging) 
  • a premise (What if X came together with Y? What if Z hadn't been invented?)
  • an idea or theme (Those whom the gods love...; toxic loyalty; "He broke my heart so the next year for Christmas I sent him one in a box") 

You will also need something to write on, and with. At this early stage you're recording what your imagination comes up with, so you want tools which will respond freely and naturally to your mind's movements. Which is also why I think it's helpful to let go of the difference between "plans", "notes" and "drafts" for a while, and recognise that all the mark-making you do in working on a novel is really imagining on paper

Many - even most - professional writers would say they start with a notebook, not least because they don't need a charger, can write in it on the bus and read in bright sunlight, but also because creative thinking itself is analogue: messy, free-form, disorderly, not easily broken down into rows and columns and the click of digits. But if you prefer a laptop or tablet, don't let me stop you, just make sure it backs up automatically really, really frequently. And try not to leave that notebook on the bus.

Today's Writing

All novels are stories about one or more people doing things: acting. (Indeed, sometimes in this series I'll call your characters act-ors). So the first thing you're going to do is to think about how your starting thing might become a story. Staring into space for this is good, lots of writers go for walks, others do cleaning or ironing or lie in the bath. Personally I need a huge mug of tea in my left hand.

Let your thoughts run, then try to jot them down (or record on your phone if you’re walking or cleaning) as they come into focus. Crucially, don't censor them at this stage: don't let your practical, "rational", left-brain* judge and weigh and delete. Just let your mind go where it goes, and record everything.  

  • if you have a person: Who are they now? Who are they potentially? Who or what would challenge them or put them under pressure? Who would support them?
  • if you have a place: Who would be here by nature? Who would be surprising here? What might happen to affect how either of them related to this place, how they acted?
  • if you have a situation: Who would it suit? Who would be miserable? Who would resist? How might the situation develop and change, and who would be challenged, pressured, encouraged by that?
  • if you have a premise: Who would be closely involved in some part of this what if? situation? What about it would challenge or energise them them or put them under pressure? Who might not seem likely to be sucked into it - and what might happen if they were?
  • if you have an idea or theme: What person might embody this idea? What's the story behind that overhearing? Who would be changed by it coming into their lives? Who would embody the opposite theme or idea?

If another person - or another kind of thing - occurs to you, then by all means play with that if you have time.

That’s the first step. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll think about what’s next. Meanwhile, if things occurs to you, make a note.

* I know the left-brain/right-brain thing is far more complicated than that really, but it's useful shorthand for the difference most creative workers know, between the right-brain - free-form, simultaneous, intuitive, which feels the imagined as real and the real as a dream (and in my case is prone to spelling phonetically) - and the left-brain, sequential, orderly, rational, and in charge of making sure all that messy stuff is shaped into something which works and which can be communicated (which is why left-brain is also in charge of spelling and punctuation)


Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD. This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University, is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader, and mentors and tutors individual writers. For more about Emma, click through to her main website.