How to write your first novel, according to experts


Everyone’s got a novel inside them, right? According to Richard Skinner, director of the fiction programme at the highly-esteemed Faber Academy, and author of one of several new books offering advice to aspiring novelists, while this may be true, “very few manage to arrange themselves and their lives well enough to get it out”.

Thank goodness for that, judging from the mountains of novels that do get written, mostly rather badly, which daily arrive at literary editors’ offices by the sackload. If ever there was a good reason to keep it inside you forever, a week spent watching how ruthlessly we dispatch books like so much waste paper should do the trick.

But that’s not the prevailing wisdom. Nowadays, even if mainstream publishers reject your manuscript, you can still be a novelist, thanks to the proliferation of self-publishing companies and creative writing courses, both booming businesses.

According to Arifa Akbar, head of content at crowd-funded publisher Unbound: “Forums like ours have enabled people to think of themselves as novelists. As long as you have the idea, the networks and the gumption to crowdfund your project, no one can judge the quality, and successful books have come out of it, which proves that even if they’ve been rejected, they may still have mass-market appeal,” she says.

While the benchmark for excellence in creative writing 20 years ago was the University of East Anglia’s MA course (producing Booker-winning novelists Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan among others), today’s market is radically different. “Publishers are competing with Netflix and social media for people’s time and most readers want something snappy and exciting, not beautiful prose,” says Akbar.

Richard Beswick, publishing director of Little, Brown agrees. “The market for literary fiction has shrunk and there’s big money now in ‘high-concept’ novels,” he says. A cursory glance at the type of fiction publishers are fighting to get their hands on — currently domestic noir and near-future dystopias with a feminist twist — amply proves their point.

You don’t need an English literature degree, you don’t even need English to be your first language; anyone from investment bankers to IT consultants can throw their hat in the ring as long as they’re prepared to pay the fees.

The Faber Academy offers a range of courses including Writing a Novel (£4,000 over six months), which has gained a reputation as one of the best. Having notched up an impressive 80 publishing deals for first books since it started in 2009, it’s not surprising that the course is oversubscribed. “We can offer the best possible route towards the potential masterpiece in everyone,” boasts the website’s blurb. It also dangles the carrot that “there is no better way to get going on the road to publication than to meet the people who make that happen every day. Hear talks from Faber’s publishing directors and sales managers, then read to a room of London’s top agents once the course is over — unrivalled access to those who know…” The implicit promise is that if you’re going to make it, this is the place to do so.

Ian Ellard, director of the academy, concedes that the selection process is not just about writing ability. “It’s about finding the right groups of people to work together. Sometimes we find people who don’t have the writing experience to benefit from the course right now, but equally we’ve turned people away for being too experienced. The group dynamic is absolutely vital.”

Now, Skinner has written what is in effect a condensed version of his course. With its carefully branded “join our gang” subtitle and 30-step programme, the book covers basics from how to generate ideas to the importance of plot, character and timing. But his main message is to read — and keep reading.

Fay Weldon takes a more light-hearted approach in her memoir-cum-handbook, which weaves similar literary lore with her considerable experience as a successful writer. She beadily reiterates the fact that “these days marketing rules the roost”, sadly always trumping “fine literary quality”. She also pushes the point that “finding out what your novel is about… can require some quite painful introspection”. Admirably, Stephen King’s excellent guide, On Writing, tops her recommended reading list.

Academic Joe Moran’s book, published at the end of September, is less about how to write a saleable novel, more about how to write a graceful sentence. “Caring about how a sentence slots together can feel like a lonely and rarified occupation… A good sentence gives order to our thoughts and takes us out of our solitudes,” he writes. And he believes it is worth taking the time to do it well.

Perhaps if more aspiring novelists were to take these words to heart, the sacks in our offices would be smaller, or at least a little more enjoyable to open.

Writing a Novel: Bring Your Ideas to Life the Faber Academy Way by Richard Skinner (Faber, £9.99), buy it here.

Why Will No One Publish My Novel: A Handbook for the Rejected Writer by Fay Weldon (Head of Zeus, £12), buy it here.

First you Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing… and Life by Joe Moran (Viking, £14.99), buy it here.