Category Archives: Novel

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

Great Advice by Roxane Gray (link): Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves.

Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

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Filed under constructive criticism, Novel, Short fiction, Uncategorized

Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part 3

Last week, I talked about how thorough planning can help the inexperienced writer to swim more confidently through the murky depths of novel-writing.   I also talked about the particular methods that worked and didn’t work for me, and where I might improve in the future. Today, I’ll take a look at some techniques that I found useful when trying to stick to my target.

WHAT?  5 o clock in the morning?  Are you mad?

Well, as I described in my previous post, my planning methods haven’t always been perfect, but the changes I’ve made have led to an improvement in my writing output.  Each day I’ve managed between 1000-1300 words, and I’ve maintained this for over a month now.

My system for achieving this was:

1.       To have a clear time for writing.   For me it is 5am.  Though it’s a struggle to drag myself out of bed, my brain isn’t fully engaged yet, so I don’t spend so much time worrying about the quality of what I’ve written.  There are also fewer distractions.  ‘Mum, can I have my breakfast?’ or ‘Where’s my tie?’ come to mind.


2.       To have a clear word-count for each day.  I actually gave myself a relatively low daily target initially (500 words a day), but found that I was exceeding this regularly, so my target now is 1000-1300 words.  Most days I manage 1300.   See what fits in best to your schedule.  Give yourself a realistic target and stick to it.

3.       To not worry too much about what I am writing, but instead to simply move the story forward.  If the story is in print, I can go back and improve it in subsequent drafts.

4.       To write a brief synopsis at the end of each writing session, so that I don’t have to churn through every word written when I’ve forgotten a detail.  I find synopsis-writing exceedingly dreary, but it does cement the story into my memory.

5.       NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, GO BACK TO RE-READ ANYTHING IN DETAIL, OR EDIT YOUR WORK.  Not until you have finished your first draft.  If you do, it will prove to be your undoing.  At the moment, I am clearly aware that entire sections of my story are weak, certain character’s behaviours are incongruous, and the plot is, at times, repetitive or doesn’t fit.  I’ll sort it out later (hopefully).  I know if I try to sort it out now, I’ll be taken away from my objective – to complete a novel.  So, if this is your objective too – DON’T GO BACK.

6.       If you have any new ideas to fit into the story while you are writing.  Note them down.  If you’ve gone too far in the story to include them, you might be able to fit them in on the second draft.  If your ideas are overflowing and you’re confusing yourself trying to include them in the plot, maybe you need to write another novel?

Some days my writing flows and I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.  Other days, my characters don’t do what I want them to do, or the pace is all wrong, or I’m finding what I’ve written is dull (which usually means it is, and the reader will think so too). It’s hard to carry on, especially when you can’t think of where to start, or the words won’t gel.  Usually, however, once you start, even if it’s not perfect, the words are there and the story’s progressing.  Your novel’s not set in stone – it can be changed later.

tearing hair out

So, be strict; adhere to the rules you set yourself.  Find a time that suits you, set yourself a wordcount, don’t make excuses, don’t keep going back (for me, it’s another form of procrastination when I edit before the story is completed), and make sure you write a brief paragraph of each chapter as an aide-memoire.  Your chapter synopsis will hold your hand through the whole novel writing (and re-drafting) process.

And finally, rules are your friend.  Stick to them.  Above all, remember to be kind to yourself about your first draft.  It’s never easy for anyone, and if you don’t believe me, here’s a link to Austin Kleon’s blog.  He’s posted excerpts from John Steinbeck’s diary, which the author wrote while grappling with his novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Anyway, I’d love to hear from you about your first draft experiences.  What successes you’ve had, any pitfalls you’ve encountered.  Has your novel writing experience gone like a dream, or like me, have you spent many hours in despair, wondering who is in control.  Is it you or is it really the novel?

Novel and writer

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Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Two

In the first part of this blogpost, I talked about some of the pitfalls of writing a first novel and how the inexperienced novellist (ie. me) can find themselves swimming around in a sea of confusion; getting nowhere fast.  This often leads to the said novellist (again, me) giving up.  In today’s post, I’ll look at how, in my second attempt, I went about planning my idea before I set off on another writing journey.

Look everyone.  I’m writing a novel.  Pass me a floatation aidsea

As I explained yesterday, after the disappointment of my first novel-writing effort, I couldn’t bring myself to dive into the whole process again.  Oh no. It wasn’t for me.  It was far too big a venture.  I’d stick with short stories, thank you very much.

But slowly, curiosity got the better of me.  As my writing skills improved, I wondered if this time I could manage it.  Maybe.  Maybe, I could.

Of course, being of a tentative disposition, I decided that, if I put my toe into the waters of creativity again, it would require an enormous pair of artistic armbands.  This came in the form of some sensible research – what I probably should have done the first time.  I bought James McCreet’s Before You Write a Word.  Having come across his articles in Writing Magazine, I had faith that he would guide me safely through all the treacherous procedures, and show me how best to plan my novel.

An extremely useful book, McCreet advocates strict and thorough planning (giving really clear examples throughout).  If I’m honest, I read the book but struggled to follow everything he recommended.  It’s great advice (though the subject matter, at times, is as dry as planning itself), and though I’m sure it makes everything easier in the long run, personally, I needed a much looser method of structuring my ideas. My creativity doesn’t work in the same way as McCreet’s.  Until I start writing, my imagination doesn’t fire up.  By this I mean, it’s in the practical process of producing a story that the characters come alive for me; their relationships, actions and motivations becoming clear in my mind.  I couldn’t possibly plot an entire story in diagram or chart form before writing a word.  Not at this stage in my writing experience, anyway.

In a further search for guidance, I also checked out Randy Ingermanson’s The Snowflake Method on the internet.  In this approach, the writer builds up the story – in words – from one sentence defining the initial idea, into more detailed paragraphs, then into something much larger – pages and pages of character descriptions, and a synopsis, that is the basis of a book. McCreet’s method is mainly linked with charts and diagrams.  The Snowflake Method seems more concerned with planning through words.  At this point in time, I’m happiest with a combination of both.  However, I’m also aware that, in future, I need to rein myself in from the urge to write, and spend more time thinking the story through.

Got an idea?  Yee-haw!

So how did I go about planning my novel?  Initially, I started with a couple of characters, and from this came an idea – this was the way it worked for me.  I know, for others, it works in different ways.

1.       With my characters in mind, I got an A3 sheet of paper, and produced a spider diagram, starting with my main characters at the centre and all the jobs/places/characters connected with them, (and showing how they are inter-related) spinning off the main body. The advantage of this is that it’s easy to look at, and you get a handle on who’s who whenever you need to.

2.       Next, I wrote a list of all possible conflicts/resolutions linked with any of the characters in the story.  Although I ended up with lots of possibilities and storylines, which can be confusing at times, it also meant I could pick and choose which routes I wanted to follow and which I wanted to discard.

3.       For each main character I wrote a monologue.  This gave me a ‘feel’ of what I wanted the character to sound like in the book, making them distinct in my mind from the other characters.

4.       I wrote a loose plan (synopsis) of the story of about four A4 sides – which has helped me to visualise the plot in its entirety. 

5.       As I started to write, I could then pad out the original spider diagram (and the conflicts/resolutions) with more characters, as plotlines and situations arose.

Slow down, you move too fast

My planning methods have been far from perfect.  I now understand that I should have written a character monologue for most of the characters involved, not just the main ones.  Some of the minor personalities seem very weak; two dimensional representations of real people.  If they don’t feel real to me, then how on earth can a reader be fully drawn into the story?  writing-novel

I admit, I didn’t think I had to be too thorough, because I already had a clear mental image of each character’s behaviour and personality in advance.  But still, had I spent more time getting to know the intricacies of the characters (their likes, dislikes, mannerisms, musical tastes, figures of speech, etc) the novel-writing process would have been much smoother.  Instead, characters have evolved as I’ve been writing, and now, I shall have to go back and change a lot of the initial story.  Occasionally, my ideas haven’t worked out because I didn’t consider that a certain character’s behaviour might make a situation unlikely, which has taken me off track. 

Basically what I’m saying is, I know you’re in a rush to get writing, and yes the planning process is a chore, but try to spend as much time as you can focusing on the plot and characters before you even begin. 

As I’ve already said, part of my problem is that I find it difficult to define the entire plot until I actually get some prose onto paper, but this is where my character monologues come in.  When I’m writing a monologue, it’s actually a short story – an autobiography of one of the people who will make an appearance in the novel.  It’s written in the first person, and in their voice. 

Writing from the perspective and voice of the people in your story makes them more real to you, so take the time to get to know them.   It’s like you’re getting to know someone you’ve just met – the more time you spend with them, the more you absorb information about what makes them tick. 

It’s all part of planning, and the stronger your planning, and the more you know the characters, the easier it will be to write.  

And if you’re novel’s easier to write, you’re more likely to stick at it, aren’t you?

I’d be interested in hearing your tips for making the writing process simpler.


Filed under Novel, Planning, Writing

Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part One


Remember, remember, it’s NaNoWriMo

Yay!  It’s November.  The month when writers globally take part in NaNoWriMo.  And no, I’ve not lost my mind.  Or talking utter gibberish.

For those of you who don’t know – it’s National Novel Writing Month, where writers get their teeth into a story idea and bash out a novel in a month.  Although I’m not taking part in the challenge, I have now surpassed the mid-point of the first draft of my first novel – that’s 54,000 words to you.

In terms of writing endurance, it’s not been such a long journey – I started the first chapter on the 16th September 2013 and I’ve been writing virtually every day since.  If I keep up at this rate, I’m hoping to complete the entire first draft by the beginning of December (unless it ends up longer than I expected).  By posting this, it means I can’t back out.  It’s a challenge I’ve set myself, and you are all witness to it.

Now, you might say that, by pounding away at a keyboard every day, with no real regard to quality, my novel’s not going to be up to much.  And you’d be right.   You can be certain there’s no way I’d show anyone anything I’ve written up to now.  However, as I’ve been far more productive this time than during my first attempt at writing a novel – halting abruptly to an end at 14,000 words – I’m not in any rush to alter my method.  I still weep when I think about the energy expended on those  words – back in 2011 – for them to be simply locked away, abandoned and unread.

How hard can it be?

Looking back at my original attempt, there were a number of flaws in the methodology of my writing, which meant I was doomed from the beginning:

1.       No plotline – I was starting off without any real thought as to where I was heading.

2.       No character planning – I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about the characters in my story.  I also hadn’t considered how these things would impact events within the story, which led to confusion as I tried to untangle the jumbled mess.

3.       Too much exposition – I was constantly explaining instead of showing characters behaviours and motivations, which I was aware would lead to inevitable reader boredom.   This was because I didn’t know my characters well enough.

4.       Constantly seeking writing perfection – ie. going back to edit and re-edit instead of focusing on the story ahead.

5.       Forgetting what I’d already written – as a result, expending time and energy having to check and re-check the story.

6.       Failing to set a specific writing time – I was either constantly interrupted or found excuses not to write.  I could always ‘do it tomorrow.’

7.       Failing to set a specific writing target – if I had writer’s block that day, it gave me an excuse to stop.

8.       Getting too involved in a minor character’s story or point of view – sometimes the internal dialogue of my characters were extraneous to the plot.  I was constantly veering off at tangents, unsure of what was important (or not) to my story.


Practise makes… er… it better

The hit-and-miss/write it-as-it-comes method is probably why many of us, as novel writers, fail, unless we have particularly amazing memories, imagination and skill.  Some people are that lucky.  But not me.

After attempting a novel once, it took a long of energy for me to try again. In all honesty, I was disappointed with the way I handled it – I’m a perfectionist, and hate it when things aren’t right. So, basically, I gave up.  This time, however, the more pragmatic side of me knows that my first complete book is likely to be less than I want it to be.

Remember when you first wrote a short story?  It wasn’t that great, was it?  Oh alright, show off.  Yours might have been, but mine wasn’t.  I had to practise over and over to improve.  And I’m still improving now.

If I’m really lucky, my completed novel will be of a publishable standard, but it’s much more likely that it won’t be.  Is this a reason to stop?  No.  The next time I attempt to write a full length book, it will be a much improved experience, because I should have learned from my mistakes.

Not that I’m being negative – I’d love to be published.  But if I’m not, I’ll be following that age old adage… If at first you don’t succeed.

Writing a novel isn’t about half measures.  It’s about motivation, energy and commitment.


Filed under Ideas, Imagination, Novel