How to Write Your Novel

Dylan Thomas' writing shed. Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Dylan Thomas’ writing shed. Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

When I was younger I used to love the books of Roald Dahl. I remembering borrowing Boy from the school library and keeping it for months. When I got a bit older I learned that the adult Dahl had a very particular writing ritual. He would go down to a shed in his garden and write in longhand on yellow paper, keeping six sharpened pencils on his desk. No more, no fewer. It was an odd ritual, I thought, but it worked for him.

Many successful writers are asked about their routines, in the same way that people who make it to the age of 100 always get asked for their ‘secret’. They might be clichéd questions but they are fair ones – there’s no set route to literary success nor to longevity.

I haven’t yet made it to being a published author, nor am I pushing 100, but here is what I do when I sit down in front of my laptop:

Get your plan in place

I’ve already talked about two strands of planning. Here are two more:

  1. The overall plan
  2. The chapter-by-chapter plan

The overall plan

This is your map to success. Here is where you detail what happens in the plot, chapter by chapter. Each of your chapters should have a point: something should happen to move the plot along to its conclusion. Write this main point down with any subplots you plan to develop here. This doesn’t have to be long; it just has to be complete. You can refer back to this plan whenever you’re not entirely clear in your mind where your prose is heading next, or whenever you’re so invested in writing a particular few paragraphs that you need to take a step back.

The chapter-by-chapter plan

Before I start each new chapter, I write a more detailed chapter plan. In the overall plan you’ve said what happens in chapter four, now you say how this will happen. You’ll put down what your characters will do and say to each other. You’ll note the appearance of any plot devices that come into action here. When you’re done, you should have a sketch of the chapter from beginning to end.

The writing ritual

You have your overall plan and your chapter-by-chapter plan at the ready. Here are my 21st-century equivalents of the six sharpened pencils.

  1. A spare hour, preferably in the morning
  2. Headphones and house music
  3. Coffee

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Work in one-hour chunks

An hour is the best rhythm of time to write with. It’s long enough to force you to get some words down on the page, for the sake of your sanity if nothing else. Try staring at a blank screen for an hour. You will have written something by the end, I can assure you. But the hour is also short enough to make it a realistic target for you to put in a shift regularly. I get Google’s timer and put it on the far left of my screen. It ticks down and beeps at the end of my hour. This has been so effective that I do it in my journalistic work as well.

I usually work in the mornings, before work. There are fewer distractions this way, and makes my writing time independent of my working day.

Headphones and house music

When I was at university I wasn’t sold on the idea of working while listening to music. In fact, I wasn’t sold on the idea of doing anything while listening to music: reading, studying, running or working out. Now, I’ve realised that I was actually listening to the wrong type of music for constructive activities.

I was listening to music with words. The lyrics of the song mess with your concentration on the words on your page. The two don’t mix. So I went out in search of wordless music, and found mixes like this:

I’m no expert on house music. I don’t listen to it for fun. I just know it helps me focus. It’s also very useful for working in noisy environments such as coffee shops or trains. I’m currently looking around for some noise-cancelling headphones to upgrade my battered earphones. Currently I’m thinking of buying the AKG Y50.


If you like coffee, do yourself a favour and buy a cafetière and a coffee grinder. It tastes so much better!


Establish your routine and stick to it. There are days when I don’t, and they bother me. But using this technique I can write about 700 words while working a full-time job that involves writing a few thousand more words every day. Keep that up and you’ll hit a good word count within a few months.

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