On writing

How to write a novel in 4 steps

It could be time to realise those literary ambitions. Award-winning Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy reveals her 4 golden rules for a successful novel writing experience

1. Plan

Really. You wouldn’t stand up to speak to an audience of complete strangers for an hour without knowing what you were going to say and why. If you read your novel aloud to those poor strangers it would take – for a short novel – 10 hours. You would just wing telling a story for 10 hours? Plan. What is it you want to say and why and about whom? The reader is going assist your prose as they read it, give you hours of their precious and unrepeatable lives. Maybe they have interesting hobbies, cool friends, sexy lovers – are you sure you’re going to be better than most of the things they could be doing? Planning is a sign of respect for your reader. And should the reader’s life not be blessed with wonderful people and activities they deserve top notch prose and storytelling from you – be kind. If you have, in the past, tried to write a novel/novels and found they just crumbled underneath you by around page 100/120 – lack of planning is what scuppered you. Your subconscious just gave up the attempt to busk through something that actually takes effort. And if you do plan and you do find out what you really long to say, what would set you alight every time you grind away at pages and you make fictional people who seem real? Then you’re teaching yourself how to work at the top of your game and improve as you go. Your plan helps you know what atmosphere and tone you’re looking for, what the music should be at each stage, what psychology you’re conjuring up and moving forward, what revelation should be next. Respect yourself – plan.
 

2. Keep going

If the novel prospers you will forget all those times you really wanted to do something else. You will no longer resent those evenings, weekends and holidays blighted by typing, pondering, or fretting. You will perhaps be able to say to your children and other loved ones, “See? It was all worth it. I wasn’t just being insanely selfish, I wasn’t just staring witlessly into space while your heart shattered into wet pieces, or ignoring your urgent needs for rescue and medical attention when you were being savaged by that escaped puma in the kitchen in a bizarre and ultimately heart-breaking incident that massively increased my online sales. It’s all fine now. Isn’t it? Why are you crying?”


'If the novel prospers you will forget all those times you really wanted to do something else.'
 

3. Accept criticism

If you’re lucky, your novel will be good enough to get serious comment and criticism while it’s being prepared for publication. Try and distance yourself from your emotions about the whole thing and work with people of good will to perfect what came to you – lucky you - to be expressed. Self publishing – sorry – makes you the victim of your own impatience. Going down the self-publishing route almost always involves expensively failing to be read. People who want your money will tell you the handful of success stories, concealing the ocean of unread, under-edited nonsense. In that ocean, your potentially great piece could drown silently. One day, established writers may form self-publishing collectives. Meanwhile, no short cuts.
 

4. Be kind

Be kind to yourself, novels are a marathon for their authors – there’s no need to get blocked if you support yourself well and plan. All work and no play really is a bad idea for Jack – he ends up trying to murder Shelly Duval with a fire axe, remember? And be kind to other people. The people you love and the people you may come to love actually do rank above any mark you will ever make on paper. Make sure you stay in touch. And although you may wish to steal your family’s, friends’ and acquaintances’ lives, their most important moments, write them down and make money out of them – a) that genuinely makes you an unpleasant person and b) this gives you no range of imaginative techniques, no practice in creating your own fiction. When you run out of people to steal from, what then? Be kind, be kind, be kind – to your reader, to others, to yourself. In that order.

More about the author

Related features

Never miss a story...

Sign up to the Penguin newsletter for more reading lists and book recommendations.