How to write a novel: 30 things I learned from Janet Ellis

I recently posted about my Brush Lettering workshop with The Lovely Drawer at Stylist Live on Saturday 15 October, which was one of two booked inspiration sessions I attended on the day.

My second session was a talk entitled: ‘How to write your first novel (and actually finish it)’ with Janet Ellis, ex-Blue Peter presenter, actress and author of The Butcher’s Hook. I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember and, one day, I hope this will translate into the form of a novel. However, I booked onto this talk with no novel in mind. In fact, I have never even attempted one.

So, at 3.45pm that afternoon, I found myself seated in a room surrounded by fellow would-be authors, waiting for some words of wisdom from a woman who had actually made her dream come true.

I felt like a fraud – would any of these ladies suss me out and realise I had never even started a novel? I was sat next to the only woman in the room who had not only begun, but finished her first book. I wasn’t even at the start of my journey, and she was nearly at the end.

Listening to Janet speak was an absolute pleasure. She chatted away as if she were talking to a hundred good friends; warmly, with affection and ease. She answered questions, gave advice, and reassured us all that, if we wanted to make it happen, our books would get written (regardless or not whether they would actually make it into the big wide world.)

I felt like this was the best advice session I’d experienced on writing. This was good, honest stuff about hard work, tears and tantrums, and the process of birthing a book.

I’ll leave that image there with you for a moment.

I was frantically making notes the entire way through so I wouldn’t miss an ounce of wisdom, and this means I now have 30 nuggets of advice from Janet herself which like to share with you today.

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Janet Ellis’s tips and tricks for writing a novel (and actually finishing it):

      1. When you start, have a clear understanding of whether it’s worth it for you.
      2. Read as a writer. Understand the nuts and bolts of what you are reading, and why certain things work better.
      3. Take evening classes and creative writing courses if possible.
      4. Edit other people’s work.
      5. Make sure you understand the difference between criticism and creation. Learn to deal with feedback.
      6. Help fellow writers to be brave, take risks and learn from each other.
      7. Find the time to write, whenever works for you; whether that’s first thing in the morning or at midnight. Everyone works differently.
      8. Meet with others; if you can’t start a course, create your own group for creative writing. Discussion with other would-be writers is vital.
      9. Look at your work until you physically can’t any more.
      10. Simply try writing and see where you go.
      11. Set yourself achievable goals, whether that’s 1,000 words a day, or 6 hours of writing.
      12. There may be certain things which you know have to happen in your story. Write these first.
      13. If you’re really stuck, write a more exciting scene or imagine something else for your character, then go back.
      14. Writing and imagination are muscles you have to keep using.
      15. Admit when you have to give up on something if it doesn’t work; try a new way of phrasing it. If it’s that difficult, you should find another way through it, or take it out and put it somewhere else.
      16. Go for a walk if you need to clear your head.
      17. Consider researching after you write; history is the backdrop to the important stuff like characters.
      18. Make sure the book is your voice.
      19. Shed imitation, and write what comes easily.
      20. Read it aloud, especially dialogue.
      21. When it comes to motivation (when there feels like there’s no point if nobody will read it), you must have a mixture of self-belief and the knowledge that what you’re writing could be really, really crap.
      22. Writing is voluntary self-torture. Keep doing it.
      23. You are writing for yourself, first and foremost, and you are your reader.
      24. Use adverbs sparingly; they have their place.
      25. When it comes to editing, let someone else read it; it’s the next best thing to publication.
      26. When it comes to clichés, a cliché is a cliché because it is true. To avoid them, try to find a new way of telling a story, but remember there are limited storylines. You have to trust that you want to tell the story so much that you don’t care if it’s been done before.
      27. When you hit the right tune, you’ll know it.
      28. Writing is improv on the page.
      29. A good book is bomb-proof. If you do it right, you’ll be confident in it.
      30. Trust yourself, and be brave.
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