What is it like to write a novel?

aka ‘The difficult second blog’

The idea of these blogs—the first few anyway—is to answer the most common questions I get asked about writing.

The question for the first blog was easy: “How is the book doing?” Pretty well! Sales are solid. Need word-of-mouth to get it to a wider audience. It's given me some unique experiences. Thanks for asking!

The questions in the second blog are much harder. “What is it like to write a novel and how do you do it?”

How do I answer that without sounding like I’m seriously overrating my credentials?! Who do I think I am? Sally Rooney? Bret Easton Ellis?

No, I don't. I'm a guy who's written two novels, describes his sales as 'solid', and is trying to create enough time to write Novel #3 while juggling a full-time job and family commitments.

So, I’ll keep it simple. I’ll re-orient the question by emphasising a particular word: “you”. Because that’s what people ask me. Not: “How does one write a novel?”

They ask me: “How do you write a novel?”

And by answering how I write a novel, I don’t need to concern myself with whether my answer is right, only that it’s mine.

Ok: enough caveats.


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Have you ever thought about writing a novel or short story? Ever had an idea for a story and wondered what to do with it? Or have you just been intrigued by how it’s done?

I don’t have definitive answers, and they’re not as authoritative as they would be if I was Margaret Atwood or John Le Carré. But then, their answers wouldn’t be definitive either. There are no definitive answers, because there’s no single way of writing a novel, any more than there’s a single correct way to draw a painting or build a house.

There are plenty of wrong ways, of course …


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Here are some things I do know about what’s it been like to write my novels:

  • Each novel I’ve written—including the one that I abandoned in 2021—has been different from the others. The starting point has been different. My approach has changed each time. The circumstances of my life have evolved. For whatever reasons, they’ve all felt distinct from each other.
  • I struggled to get going with Inertia, my first novel, which I started aged 19. I hadn’t read enough to know how to write, to understand how stories were told or how books worked. I didn’t enjoy books at school—they were written by dead guys about worlds I couldn’t relate to—and I didn’t start reading for pleasure until university. Only after reading a few dozen novels did I start to learn what I was doing.
  • People probably need a reason to write. That’s been the case for me, anyway. When I truly knew what I wanted Inertia to be about, I wrote it relatively quickly.
  • I believe anyone can write fiction of some form—notwithstanding my recommendation to read a lot first—but most people find a reason to stop, or to never start at all.


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Because my approach to each novel has been different, specific examples may be instructive.

When I set out to write Inertia, I knew three things: how I wanted it to end; that it would be based over a summer in my hometown (write what you know); and that it would include an extramarital affair.

While that may have been what I started out with, it didn’t really end up being about any of those things at all. There was a lesson in that: writing reveals what’s truly on (and in) your mind, and you can learn from it.

The title came to me in 1995 when my university Biomechanics lecturer described inertia as ‘resistance to change’. It fitted my needs in several ways and was the most useful thing I took away from those Biomechanics lessons. With the exception of the opening chapter, Inertia is told chronologically and in the first person, both of which made things easier. I wrote the first four chapters in 2000-01 and the final nine in 2004. Then, because I had no real ambitions to be published, I put it in my drawer for nine years …

In short, it was largely unplanned and done when the notion took me.

My second novel, Salvation, came in phases. I decided I wanted to write again, and this time I did want to be published. I was at a phase of my life where I was interested in the changing nature of friendships and the extreme things we’ll do for love. It was more complex than Inertia, largely through design—it has a zigzagging timeline, lots of plot reveals, far more characters—and as a result had to be written in the third person.

Planning took a while. I wrote the first words in 2012 but quickly realised that, without proper plotting and thought, I’d write myself into multiple dead-ends. I completed the first draft in 2016. I sent it to agents though 2018-19. I stepped back during Covid and submitted it for publication in 2022. It was a long process and having a full-time job and young daughter lengthened it further.

One other thing about Salvation: I wrote 55 drafts of it—10 large, substantive rewrites and 45 minor ones.


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A segue:

The other question I get asked about writing which is obliquely related is: “What’s it like to write a novel?”

Well, it’s a lot of things.

Firstly—and perhaps most importantly—it’s exciting to create an alternative world, invent and develop a host of characters, and then tell a compelling story about them. It’s like giving your brain some playtime. We encourage our children to foster their imaginations, because we know it’s healthy. Why not us when we’re adults?

Playtime has a price, though—some good, some more challenging.

The obvious one is time. A 350-page novel that’s gone through 55 rewrites isn’t something you knock up over a weekend. It’s a solitary pastime for the most part and a big commitment, which is particularly difficult in the time-poor days of having a young family. To combat that, I’ve found that regularity trumps binge-writing. It’s a better bet to write for an hour a day, five days a week, than it is to hold on for a mythical weekend when I’ll get ten uninterrupted hours to devote to writing and nothing else.

Creative writing is also a revelatory process, which I didn’t expect. As I’ve said, Inertia ended up exploring things that were different from the original plan. I realised that a big part of that was me figuring out what I felt about some things that were going on at the heart and periphery of my life and bouncing around (and lodging themselves) in my brain.

This makes creative writing a test of honesty, in a way. How honest will I be with myself about my feelings, my fears, the things that excite me, the doubts I carry, the questions I’ll never have answered? None of this means that my writing is autobiographical, but in day-to-day life, there are elements of me, my background and beliefs laced through every act I commit and every word I say. Why would writing be any different?

Writing a novel is a lot of things. The short version is it takes dedication but is worth it.


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Here’s how I approach writing my novels:


  1. First, an overarching principle: don’t at any point give up. Take a pause if you need to—sometimes things need space to percolate—but not for too long. Whatever you’ve written is probably better than you think and getting it out of your head is helpful.
  2. Decide what you want to write about. For Inertia, it was male emotional inarticulateness; for Salvation, it was how relationships change throughout our lives; for Novel #3, it’s memories and how quickly time passes. It helps to have reason to start—and keep—writing.
  3. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can to tell your story in an interesting way. I find it helpful to think of them as scenes in a movie.
  4. Spend time thinking about your characters. Plan out who they are, their backstory, and how they’ll be different by the end of the book compared to the start.
  5. Using Post-Its or Index Cards, write down all the scenes you need to tell your story—one scene per Post-It / Card. Spread them out on the table or floor and play around with the sequencing of them. Your story will start to take shape.
  6. Start writing. Don’t edit as you go; just get it out of your head.
  7. Leave the first draft for a few weeks once you’ve finished it ... and then go back to it.
  8. Read it through once without making any notes.
  9. Read it again, this time taking notes along the way. Which parts do you like? What doesn’t feel right? Where is there repetition or inconsistency? Does the pace sag?
  10. Edit and rewrite based on your notes and repeat the process until you’re almost comfortable letting someone else read it (I say almost because you may never be fully comfortable, so you may have to get comfortable with that discomfort).
  11. Share it with a couple of people who will give you honest, constructive feedback. Go easy on yourself—and them—when they give you that feedback. They’re rooting for you and will probably be just as nervous giving you feedback as you were giving them the book.
  12. Read it again, edit it again, read it again, share it again. And repeat until you feel like your story has been told the way you want it to be told.


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How does all this sound?

Like I’m making it up as I go along, hoping I’ll stumble across some answers on the way?

Or a useful insight from someone who may not be an expert but has experience to share?

Maybe it sounds tortuous and you’re thanking me for convincing you to never start!

Perhaps it encourages you to believe—if you’ve ever sat in front of your laptop or with pen in hand, wondering whether you’re worthy of capturing the words and thoughts that have made their way into your mind—that there’s nothing to be lost and that its worth a go.

Whichever it is, leave a comment or a question below.