How I Write: Starting a novel

JK Rowling's plan for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Category: Writing

Welcome to How I Write, our monthly dose of inspiration for writers. This month, we've got some tips on how to start writing a novel from author Catherine Simpson.

We'd love to hear from you about tips and tricks related to planning a novel or making it up as you write. Please, please, please post them in the comments below for others to find.

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To Plan or not to plan your novel

I was telling a friend the other day I’d found a publisher for my debut novel Truestory and I was working on my second novel. ‘That’s ok,’ he said, ‘you’ve done it once; you’ll know how to do it again.’

I felt a lurch of panic because just then I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I’d started Truestory, and the whole ‘Writing a Novel’ thing suddenly seemed as mysterious as ever.

The 'flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants' approach

I hadn’t told my friend that so far ‘working on my second novel’ only entailed gazing at a blank screen with nothing but a vague plot idea, three sketchy characters and a partial setting.  Words written so far: zero.

This is the ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ approach to writing and it was frustrating because I wanted to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer - setting off with my characters and seeing where they led. This sounded exciting and edgy and, well, creative, like something a real writer would do. Only, so far, I hadn’t written anything.

With short stories this approach works fine; I start and see where it goes. It’s good when my imagination throws up surprises, but if it goes nowhere, well, it doesn’t matter – I haven’t wasted long and I can start again. If they happen, the unexpected turns are fun and writing does feel like a journey of discovery.

Trouble was, I’d been sitting in front of my computer for ages and I hadn’t journeyed anywhere or discovered anything.

I decided to find my early Truestory notes to see how I actually got started.

The 'preparing the groundwork' approach

What I found was a file of preparatory work done before I'd even put pen to paper on Chapter One.  I’m not sure how I’d forgotten about all this thinking - what I tend to remember about writing Truestory is the 1000 words a day I produced once I got going.

I was on an MA in Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University when I started Truestory and here is what I was making notes about:

  • Thoughts on questions like: Whose story is it? What do they want? What do they need? What’s stopping them getting it? Do they get it? How?
  • Monologues in the voices of the main characters.
  • Attempts at summing up the story in a sentence, then extending that to encapsulate the premise in a paragraph. Was the story strong enough to keep me writing and the reader reading? Was it novel length?
  • Practice paragraphs experimenting with tone and point of view.
  • Notes about the novel’s genre, possible themes and purpose. What was my story for? What was it aiming ‘to challenge, to reveal or to disrupt?’

It was a lot of digging and it seemed a long time ago. But, it had made it possible for me to start to write.

That’s not to say this prep work solved all my problems – oh no! But it did help me produce a first draft and stopped me staring at a blank screen day after day. In producing a second draft I realised I had a whole heap of new problems to solve - but that’s another story.


For more writing advice, take a look at, our Agony Aunt for writers, Miss Write's archives.

Catherine Simpson

Catherine Simpson received a New Writers Award in 2013. Her novel Truestory will be published in 2015 by Sandstone Press.

Find out more at or follow her on twitter @cath_simpson13