WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part One: Character in Action

WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Two: People in Pencil

This new series on The Itch is aimed at people who've always wanted to write a novel, but have struggled to find the time, or the way in, or the courage - or all three. I am aiming to keep the posts short, concentrating on prompts and processes. And since this is only one possible recipe, of hundreds or even thousands, I'll try to give options that leave room for you to work in ways that suit you and your material - and I hope, too, that some of these may be useful new ideas or prompts for more experienced novel-writers too.

This is a first time for me, too, since I've never attempted to break down the processes of writing a novel into such short, frequent steps. So I'm not sure exactly how this series will pan out, though since nothing in creative writing is wholly predictable in time, length or topic, I am used to living with creative uncertainty of the sort that Keats called negative capability. But whatever happens I hope that the posts will lead you, small step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. 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.


Daily check-in

So, what happened after Day One? When you put away your notebook and set out on the walk or the washing-up, did any of the things you'd just jotted down itch to be thought about? Tickle your emotional engagement in some way? Just glow with some indefinable specialness? If you haven't already, make a mental or physical note of these personalities, places or ideas: they're likely to be where your natural, easy energy as a writer lies.

On the other hand, was there anything which showed up on the page (or didn't even get that far) which you recoiled from? Shut down? Pushed away? Make a note of those as well. I'd suggest that they're likely to be where your most exciting and potent, if difficult and even dangerous, energy as a writer lies, but don't worry about them for now, unless you want to.

Today's writing

You may have noticed that yesterday's post was titled Character-in-action. That's because stories are driven by the characters doing things - even if what they're doing is lying apparently passively on a lilo as a way of actively resisting being hauled out of the water and sent to do the washing up. By the end of yesterday you should have generated some notes about one or more people, with some challenges and pressures, perhaps in some places. So once you have one or more characters pinned in your writerly gaze, the next thing to do is to get to know them better. And, as in real life, we get to know people by seeing what they do: how they act

Just before we start: if you began with themes, ideas or premises, don't worry, we will come back to work on those. And whatever you started from, do please remember that all of this is written in pencil, playing with stuff, thinking aloud: wholly provisional. We're imagining-on-paper here, not making a 5 Year Plan with exile to Siberia waiting for any commissar who fails to fulfil the quotas on time.

1) Now take the first or most solid of the people who emerged on yesterday's paper, spend a moment bringing them to the front of your mind (it might help to close your eyes), where they're at home or going about their lives, and then jot down:

  • Ten verbs for your character's characteristic physical actions:
    • (e.g. jump, dash, crumple, push, snarl, nibble, taste, wolf, leap, flop)
  • Ten verbs for their characteristic mental or emotional actions:
    • (e.g. consider, avoid, hunger, dream, enroll, crumple, flinch, rejoice, puzzle)

These are very new people to you, perhaps, so if you find it hard to produce ten verbs, just be patient, try not to let your mind give up and go back to Twitter, just jot things down as they occur. If they don't "make sense" with each other don't worry: you're using your pencil to draw stuff from your mind and find out what it is, so accept whatever happens. And in my experience it's the later things that are the most interesting.

Did you notice how mental actions are often expressed as physical metaphors - crumple, flinch? That's because the human brain works most effectively with physical and concrete things, so when it's trying to express abstract concepts - like someone's personality or thought-processes and emotions - it will always look to the physical word for something to borrow if it can.  

2) And, of course, that physical world also holds material objects which say a lot about the people who own, buy, borrow, sell, throw away or destroy them. Many writing teachers get you to list clothes, cars, favourite music or hairstyles, etc., to pin down your characters, so I wouldn't stop you if you wanted to do that. The risk, however, is that at this early stage, when you don't know these people very well, you give them the off-the-peg, standard-issue things which everyone associates with someone of that age, job, class, sex, ethnicity, gender, (dis)ability, etc. You end up with characters who are themselves dull, off-the-peg, standard-issue. 

So before you get into deciding whether they drive a Smart Two, or a disintegrating vintage Cortina, try these to help you "jump the tracks" of the usual route of imagining such people:

  • Ten things they would naturally own.
  • Ten things you’d expect them to own - but they don’t.
  • Ten things you wouldn’t expect them to own - but they do.

3) And characters aren't just creatures-in-action, like an ant or a tiger: humans are self-aware: 

  • Ten things they like about who and what they are.
  • Ten things they don't like about who and what they are, which they would like to change.
  • Ten things they don't like about who and what they are, that they (perhaps cheerfully, perhaps miserably) accept they can't or won't change.

I know that ten things can take some holding-out for. But if you look at your lists so far, you may well see that while the first few of each are pretty much what you'd expect - not necessarily clichés, but standard-issue, off-the-peg - it's when you wait, when you stay in the imagining zone, that much more interesting things begin to float up.

That's it for today. If you have time and want to, you could repeat this exercise with any other people who you've been imagining in this new, still fuzzy story-world, or you could go back to Part One, and do a bit more imagining-on-paper with more people, places, ideas and so on. And as you go about whatever your days are like at the moment, do go on keeping an ear pricked for whatever else occurs to you about this project and the people in it.

See you tomorrow!


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.


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This is good stuff. Thank you. Do you think a writer should write to a deadline to finish a first draft? And if you do, what amount of time should a diligent, albeit neophyte writer set for themselves to complete a said draft?

Thank you again.

Priscilla Bettis

Great post. I'm going to do these exercises for a protagonist I'm having trouble with.

Alison Baxter

Just got round to this exercise and it really made me think. My Victorian protagonist is so poor I doubt if she she owned as many as ten things, apart from basic items of clothing, but I decided to give her a little box of unexpected treasures. So far it includes a button and a scrap of lace, and I wonder where they came from?

Emma Darwin

Glad you like it, JR. I think it depends entirely on each writer's individual relationship/response to deadlines. With anything which is important, but not in one sense urgent, it can be very hard to hold on to its importance and its need for your time, in the teeth of things which may not be more important, but are more immediately and directly demanding - or just easier and more fun. In which case, saying "But I promised myself I'd have the first draft done by Christmas" or "I will have 100 writing days by the end of the year" might be what you need to stick to your resolution. Some people find that saying they must write 1000 words an evening, say, has the same effect.

But no one knows how fast a new writer will be able to write - and only you know how counter-productive it will be if you find yourself not meeting a self-imposed deadline or word-count; some people find the self-loathing that the "failure" to meet such a deadline toxic and in itself procrastination-breeding.

I tend to think - each writer's mileage may vary - that the best kind of goal is one which you know you can, actually, meet. Whether the words come isn't entirely in your gift, but whether you give them the chance to come if they're going to, is. So a goal like "I will spend four hours every Saturday morning" or "I won't do anything else for one hour, every single day", is always achievable.

For what its worth, when I'm in first draft mode, I write for four hours a day. Because my first notebooks fitted 130 words a page (double-spaced, big handwriting), I decided that 20pp was do-able, and so I would hope for 2,600 words, and that's still what I hope for in that time longhand, or 2,000 on the computer because it's less efficient: it's hard not to tweak more. But wordcount is only a hoped-for side effect of the time I commit. The funny thing is, except very occasionally when I hit a major plot snag, the 2,600 words always do arrive.

Emma Darwin

Sounds good. Anything that can be useful in pre-first-draft or training mode can also be used later, to sort out something which isn't work. Good luck!

Emma Darwin

Oh, lovely! The best feeling!

David Hunter

What I particularly like about this post is that it emphasises that the process of doing any writing is not a simple, pre-planned process and can't be written to a blue print. I think that's what discourages many people, in that they start off with a rigid plan, get so far with it and then get lost and frustrated and abandon it. This happened to me when I first started writing work in creative writing classes and I had to learn to accept the idea of working my way through a tangled mess of words and rescuing usable sections and re-arranging them. I've hung onto some work that I suspect is useless in the hope that it will help generate ideas when I come to look at them again, perhaps a forlorn hope but that's how it goes.
I've noticed a lot of books appearing which promise to tell you how to produce a "brilliant novel in a month" - I hate to think how many people buy these and feel a sense of failure when this secret formula doesn't work. These texts are much more down to earth and workmanlike and support beginning writers without making false promises.

Emma Darwin

Yes, I think people who are used to learning to do things where it's clearer what the outcome is going to be, and what the path will be to get there - which is most people - can find it very weird, spending time in the ambiguous, uncertain spaces of creative work, where you have to keep going forward with faith, as it were, even though you're not at all sure which direction "forward" actually is, let alone whether you will figure it out, even though you don't know what "is" is, but somehow, sort of...

A friend of mine did a Creative Writing PhD based on taking one of those Novel in a Month books, and doing exactly what it said, and seeing what happened. I think they may work, in a way, if you embrace the Shitty First Draft principle - the NaNoWriMo idea of sketching out a plan, and then just diving in and scribbling, "Building without tearing down" as the NaNo folk put it. What you won't get in a month is a book that's anywhere remotely near being worth sending out to find a publisher...

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