Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Four

So, in parts 1-3 of ‘Confessions’, I’ve covered the pitfalls of writing a first novel, how to avoid falling foul of ‘writer’s confusion’ (that’s my own phrase, thank you very much), and how to stick to the target of completing your novel.

Today’s blogpost is brought to you with the collaboration of fellow writer Tom Benson, and the number 4 (that’s Part 4 to you).

With a little help from your friends

Recently, I approached Tom Benson, self-published author of Ten Days in Panama and Beyond the Law to ask if he had any useful tips for helping with the novel-writing process.   He said that, for him, making use of certain tools and ideas makes the whole concept of writing much simpler.  He passed on this list, which he produced during the writing of his novels, which I thought you might find it useful too:

*Make a simple timeline, whether it is set as days, months, years or whatever suits you best. A timeline combined with a synopsis is a real asset from beginning to end.

*Cast of Characters may sound obvious, but keep it handy:

    It will help avoid the duplication of names or similar sounding names.

    It will also help to remind if a character appears once for no good reason – get rid.

*Zodiac signs book. If you haven’t got one, it’s a useful tool for ideas on characteristics, personal likes, dislikes – and even star signs.


*Baby names book. A good one will give a range of nationalities.

*The Yellow Pages is good for both names and trades/professions.


*Body Language book. Say no more, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, fingers crossed.


*An atlas.

*Fashion Catalogue. In case you’re no good at putting together an outfit.  (Though remember, don’t describe too much of what your characters are wearing.  Your reader doesn’t care.)

*Be aware of the ‘chewing gum on the mantlepiece’. This is where the writer makes a mention of something, (like the aforementioned chewing gum), but it serves no purpose in the story, and is only mentioned in one scene. It could be a person, a vehicle, animal, anything. If it doesn’t serve a purpose – leave it out.

chewed gum

Big chewing gum on big mantlepiece (outside)

*Page Numbers from the outset. They work in your favour in two ways:

    As a navigational aid when editing on screen.

    As a navigational aid when you’ve printed off several pages or a manuscript for editing.

*Obtain a perpetual diary. You can use it to define any date with the correct weekday.

* is a great site for checking out information.

*Consider writing the beginning and end, then work on the rest. It may work for you.

*Know every detail of your main characters as if they were real. You won’t be telling everything, but you must know everything.

*If you intend to use a location in the past, double-check its situation/condition at the time.  I had to alter a date, because a meeting place I used was closed for refurbishment when the two characters would have met there.

If you want to check out more about Tom, his e-books are available on Amazon, or you can view his website at and his blog at

From my perspective, I particularly like the idea of the zodiac signs book, the body language book, and the baby names book.  I spend too much time fretting about names, and gestures, and characteristics when I’m writing.   These are great tools which will surely help.  I’d also say that when you’re flicking through the books, they’ll also generate ideas for future characters.

So, stop distracting me.  I’ve got a novel to finish

My own novel is approximately half-way there, though I’ve got lots of concerns about how I’m going to tie up all the individual strands and subplots together.  It’s in my head – can I get it onto paper?  Will it all fit neatly together? I’m putting all that to one side for now, though.  The writing’s the focus.  Improvement later.

In the meantime, I hope that both mine, and Tom’s, experiences and advice will help you with your own novel writing.

I’ll let you know how I get on with the second half of my novel, which will (hopefully) be finished in December.

Watch this space.


Filed under Novel, Writer's resources, Writing

6 responses to “Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Four

  1. Tom

    Hi Sal. Thank you for the mention and all credit to you for tackling the discipline required to deal with a novel. This post has a nice friendly, chatty feel to it – and of course a wonderful selection of handy hints. I’ll be watching your progress. Enjoy.

  2. Ah, I had not heard ‘chewing gum’ on a mantlepiece, only chekhov’s gun rule – if a gun appears at any point in an early act, in a later act it must be fired :-). I hope the novel is going well 🙂

    • Chekhov!!! You are too highbrow for me!!! The novel’s on the backburner at the minute, though I was 60,000 words in and do want to finish it. I’ve just completed my writing course and hopefully going to collaborate on a comedy script with a friend. How’s things with you?

      I’m going away this week (and getting ready to go right now) but looking forward to checking out your site properly when I get back, Stephen. Thanks for popping over. Appreciate it 🙂

      • Ah I don’t have any point of comparison, but I think that sounds a healthy approach…we are writing some new songs in the band at the moment, and hearing them so often I become too close to them, desensitized, don’t have any emotional response. Its good to set them aside for a while, maybe it is the same with the novel?

        The writing course sounds great, I tried an online course but parts of it seemed lazy…like ‘read this wikipedia page’…all 20 pages of thanks. And the collaboration sounds another interesting, fun undertaking…be interested to hear how that goes if you were to blog about it…i find it quite tricky getting used to balancing/absorbing 5 peoples opinions in the band…think secretly i want to always be right and for all my ideas to be green lighted…but of course it doesnt work like that 🙂

        All the best, have fun wherever you are off too 🙂

  3. If you fancy a good online course, try the accredited creative writing one with Lizzi Linklater at York Uni. It’s excellent, and brought my writing on leaps and bounds. The focus is on writing and feedback and though not a degree course, is at a high level.

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