Obviously, don’t trust any article with a title like that. Creating any work of art – whether it’s a novel, a poem or a painting – is not like following instructions for changing a tyre or a recipe for baking a quiche. If you read interviews with novelists, you’ll know that they all have different approaches, are inspired by different things, and have different attitudes towards their work, from those who live and breathe what they do to those who describe writing as a bitter struggle. You have to find what works for you, and have the confidence to stick with it.
You’ll come across all sorts of advice – often given quite forcefully – including advice that promises a magical “secret to success”, and even advice that you have to pay for. Take it all with a pinch of salt. Some people insist that you have to write a thousand words a day, or some such arbitrary target; that’s useful for training yourself to type fast but probably not for producing quality writing. Some people will tell you to write an “outline” and then fill it in with fancy phrases using a thesaurus; fine if that works for you, but to me there’s nothing more deadening than churning out a dull story in florid prose. Don’t even get me started on template writing, and the idea that there are only “really” seven (or eleven, or five, depending on which clickbait website you look at) different types of story, and every book ever written is nothing more than a variant of one of them. All of this nonsense seeks to crush the creativity out of writing and the joy out of reading.
A novel isn’t just a story, it’s not just a plot, it’s not just a beginning, middle and end… it’s a way of thinking about the world, a way of understanding life, a mirror to our souls, experience put into words. It should be creative and exciting and passionate.
Find your own way. Maybe planning is important to you. You might want to work out a complex plot in advance. You might want to describe your characters to yourself in such detail that you can almost hear them speaking to you, and picture locations until you can smell them; or you might want to come upon places and people as you’re writing, allowing the narrative to carry you along. You might write the ending before the beginning. You might not plan at all – you might start with a place, or a person, or a scene – a moment in time – and the whole novel might grow from that point, sprouting organically as you write.
And find your own working practices – you might write a little every day, or every night, or before dawn; or you might take two weeks off your day job and write intensively. You might write on paper with a beautiful fountain pen, or you might type into a dodgy old laptop; you might write in a bustling cafe, or a quiet garden, or curled up in bed. And your inspiration might come from anywhere – from reading, from music, from long walks in the country, from long walks in the city – some writers are inspired by Cornwall, some writers are inspired by New York.
Above all, don’t let anyone put you off, or tell you you’re doing it wrong. There is no wrong way to write a novel. You might take a lifetime, writing small segments from time to time when you’re in the mood; you might write a hundred drafts, tumbling out your ideas in one go and then re-writing and refining over and over again until your novel has become part of the fabric of your mind; or you might write notes on scraps of paper, ideas and fragments of text that you eventually stitch together to make a masterpiece. Don’t lose faith. Never give up. And enjoy it.