How I write a novel and how you can write one, too

I start writing when I start. There’s no specific time. But we are up early because of the dogs. And my wife is very disciplined and gets to her desk by 8 a.m.

The office is a summer house at the bottom of the garden. Books and papers are piled everywhere. There’s a chair each for the dogs, and it’s got heating, too. Very cosy in winter.

After drinking a second cup of coffee, I meander to my desk.

Deadlines are vital for me. This is stems from my days as a journalist. Like Duke Ellington said, “I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” That’s me. Just like Duke.

I write a novel in six months, from start to finish. For the first draft, which is quite messy, I have a weekly word target – 8,000-10,000 a week.

A weekly target is better than a daily one. If you miss your daily target, you feel irritated. But miss a day if you’ve got a weekly target, and you can always catch up.

Sometimes I’ll write seven days a week, sometimes four – as long as I hit 8,000-10,000 words, it’s fine. It’s what weightlifters call auto-regulation. Go to the gym on Monday and you feel great – hit a max on your squat. Go in Wednesday, maybe you’re tired, do fewer repetitions. You workout depending on how you feel. Just the same with writing. So long as you hit those targets.

I work from an outline, the product of about a fortnight’s work. As I say, I plough through the first draft. I write straight on the computer in Arial 14pt. The draft is ugly. Very rough. I write notes as I go along. I put “blah blah blah” if I can’t think of anything to write, and just move on to the next scene.

If I need to check something – like the make of a car or the name of a street – I’ll just put “xxxxxxxx” in the manuscript where the make or the name should be.

My day finishes when I feel like it. I’ll try to do a decent amount of words, at least 1,000, but it’s not essential when you’ve got a weekly target. By lunchtime, I’m done. I might squeeze a few more words out after eating, but to be honest, I’m ready to do something else: read or watch TV, or take the dogs out.

The first draft takes me eight-to-ten weeks. Then, I’ll take a week out. Write something else maybe. Think about my first draft. Do some research. Check out those car makes and those street names.

After that, I’m ready to attack the manuscript. It’s a job of honing, of sculpting, of chopping, of cutting, of adding. The Arial 14pt becomes Times New Roman 12pt. The mess is divided into chapters and the chapters are usually given titles, though when you’ve got over 100 chapters that can become a challenge.

Draft two for me is the most difficult part of writing a book, but the most honest part. It’s where your story is unearthed, where you excavate it from the debris of draft one. I’ve learned never to trust a first draft. The second draft is where you find your truths.

Draft two can take up to eight weeks. I’ll then spend a few weeks tidying it up, producing a third, perhaps a fourth draft.

Then I take a week off before starting on the next book.

I was a journalist for 20 years so I’m used to deadlines. It can get tough, though, and I feel the pressure sometimes. But then I think, I’m a writer not a refugee fleeing war and oppression or a surgeon carrying out life-saving operations – that’s pressure. And after all, writing is what I love doing.

People ask where I get my inspiration from, but to be honest I don’t believe in inspiration. To me writing is a job. A trade or craft. A carpenter can’t wait for inspiration. Neither can a plumber. And Philip Pullman’s quote is pinned to the wall of our study:

An amateur thinks that to be a professional, one must wait for inspiration. A professional knows that if one waited for inspiration, one would be an amateur.

That inspires me. It gets me to my desk. It makes me sit down and write even if I’m not in the mood. You can always write something – even if it’s “blah blah blah”. I think a lot of novice writers worry about their first draft. They try to polish the first page without ever getting to the end of it. They fret over things, over every word, the small stuff.

Well, forget the small stuff. Let it go. Just finish your draft. Get to the end and love the mess you’ve created. Take a few days off before going back to it and then you can start to chisel and craft.

I love writing and telling stories – however, I love other people reading them more. Some people say, Even if no one ever published or read my stories, I’d still write.

I’m not convinced by that. The point of a story is to share it. You don’t tell yourself a story. That’s self-indulgent, surely. Storytelling is about readers (or listeners, maybe) as well as writers. Without readers/listeners you don’t have a story. I write to be read. I write to entertain. I love hearing from readers, and so far all the responses I’ve had have been positive. Most of the reviews I’ve received have been good.

I also like to share my writing process, and help other people, if I can. That’s why I wrote How To Write A Novel In 6 Months. Using some of the guidelines I mention in this article, I take you from blank page to book in 26 weeks. I would also be happy to come and talk to your writing group or creative writing class and run you through my ideas on how to finish your novel. Email me on thomasemson_info (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk if you’re interested, and we can talk terms.