How to write your debut novel, according to Penguin authors

Charlie Mackesy, Bonnie Garmus, Caleb Azumah Nelson and more on the most useful piece of writing advice they’ve ever been given, to help aspiring authors get started.

Black and white Image of a hand writing in a note book
Karl Tapales / Moment via Getty Images

If you love reading books, there’s a chance you’ve thought about writing one, too – which is where some words of encouragement can be handy.

Here at Penguin we love exploring this topic, from our How I wrote it series, which centres on the logistics of writing a book, to Lightbulb moments, which is about the inspirations behind specific novels.

But it's our regular 21 Questions interview series that offers perhaps the simplest and most to-the-point writing advice out there, as we ask authors a very simple question: ‘What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?’ Below are some of our favourite answers from global bestselling authors who have been publishing books for decades to our debut writers who are launching their first novels into the world this year.

Read, read, read

“You can’t be a good writer without being a good reader first.”
Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series

'You can’t be a good writer without being a good reader first'

“Somewhere back in my early music-making days a mentor once said to me in respect to being creative: ‘You can only vomit what you eat.’ It has always stayed with me, that line." - Sam Lee, author of The Nightingale

“In Doctor Dolittle he tells the parrot, Polynesia, that it’s important to be ‘a good noticer of things’. It's an idea literary critic James Wood expands on in his 2008 classic, How Fiction Works: ‘Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life.’ Before I write, I only feel strong if I have heaps of notes with all the little details I caught on the road.
- Sophy Roberts, author of The Lost Pianos of Siberia


Losing your inhibitions and adapting

"I once read an interview with Rebecca Watson, where she said ‘don’t ritualise your writing’. I really liked this, as I think waiting for the perfect conditions to write before you start, ultimately makes you procrastinate and build it into a big deal."
- Olivia Ford, author of deubt novel Mrs Quinn's Rise to Fame

“I can’t remember where I read this advice, but: write like your parents are dead. I remind myself of that sometimes, as a way to let go of inhibitions when I’m writing, to not worry about how a certain scene will be perceived. It was easier to do when writing my first novel, because I really didn’t think anyone would ever read it, let alone my parents!”
Ashley Audrain, author of The Push

"This isn’t entirely writing related, but I would say to follow your gut. Sometimes you just get a feeling about something, and in my experience, it is best not to ignore that feeling. If some part of you is telling you, you need to delete that scene you really like but doesn’t drive the story forward, you probably should!"
- A.B. Poranek, author of debut novel Where the Dark Stands Still

“The best advice I’ve ever been given, full stop, was, ‘Make an effort to talk to the person in the room who looks the most uncomfortable or left out.’ This was given to me by my friend and bandmate Daragh, and is generally good advice that I’m pretty sure has also helped my writing.”
Patrick Freyne, author of OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea

'Write like your parents are dead'

“When I was working on my first novel I remember going to watch an event with Sarah Moss, whose writing I really love. Sarah spoke about the way she writes a novel, which is to write an entire draft and then delete every word and begin again. Though she was not necessarily suggesting everyone followed her lead, I think what she taught me was how to delete, how to love every draft and then let it go.”
- Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters

 “My first newspaper editor told me, “You write beautiful descriptions. Now pick one.”
- Jess Walter, author of The Cold Millions

“Write what terrifies you.”
- Rivers Solomon, author of Sorrowland

Harnessing your emotions

 “‘Writing is fictionalising memory.’ My work isn’t often autobiographical, but it’s always personal. I’m always trying to delve into feelings I have known.”
- Caleb Azumah Nelson, author of Open Water

“Don’t be afraid to move people.”
Kathleen MacMahon, author of Nothing But Blue Sky

“For me, finishing a book feels like a version of what death will be like, when you’ve just done everything. Making creative choices is so finite; you’re letting go of other possibilities to say one thing. You have to let things go, let them die.”
- Alison Bechdel, author of The Secret to Superhuman Strength

“Write about what you know and really feel.”
- Charlie Mackesy, author of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse

The technical stuff

“Start the scene as late as possible and get out as early as you can. Perfect for nailing pace. And subtext, subtext, subtext.”
Jodie Chapman, author of Another Life

"The state of your manuscript in its current draft is the worst it will ever be. It can only get better from here."
- Ela Lee, author of debut novel Jaded

"Stop for the day in the middle of a paragraph that you’re having fun with. That way, when you come back to it the next morning, you’re excited to get to work."
- Holly Gramzaio, author of debut novel The Husbands

There's a writer in the United States, Laura Kasischke, and she told me if you're going to write humour, balance it with darkness – it's called ‘duende’. I took that really seriously, and I think it has really really helped my writing.
- Bonnie Garmus, author of Lessons in Chemistry

'Start the scene as late as possible and get out as early as you can'

“Don’t keep digging where the soil is hard. In other words, when you’re revising or rewriting your work, avoid exploring characters or scenes in the same way again and again. The repetition can pull the life out of your work. There are countless ways to enter a specific moment in a book, and it’s important to remain open to different options.”
Avni Doshni, author of  Burnt Sugar

“Probably also one of the best pieces of general life advice I’ve ever been given: ‘Never compare two things as though one were complex and the other were simple.’ Also: ‘first drafts are shit.’”
- Jessica Moor, author of The Keeper

“Write something you’re passionate about, but also think about your audience and why they read. Without a fundamental understanding of story, I think it is very easy for a book to meander. No matter how good the writing itself is, if the story isn’t strong enough, many people will struggle to read on.”
- Sarah Pearse, author of The Sanatorium

Write, write, write

'You can’t edit a blank page – it’s infuriatingly true'

"The main thing I’d encourage starting writers to do is to find obsessions, find curiosities; be fascinated by the people you write about, be a little in love with them, even the terrible ones. Especially the terrible ones. Nothing takes me out of a story faster than reading a character that the writer clearly despises—it makes the writing flat, makes you careless because it’s easier to write hatefully about someone ‘bad’."
- Yael van der Wouden, author of debut novel The Safekeep

“Write every day. I don’t always manage it, but I do find it helps me to have a consistent writing routine.”
- Natasha Brown, author of Assembly

“Copy the whole thing out again in long-hand.”
- Paul Theroux, author of Under the Wave at Waimea

“You can’t edit a blank page. It’s infuriatingly true.”
- Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series

"Finish the bastard. You never know how good it is or how good it's gonna be until you're finished. So just finish the story."
- Irvine Welsh author of The Long Knives

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