How do we get started?

How do we find the story? Wool-gathering and potholing

The perfect novel isn’t going to land on your page any more than it did for Tolstoy. Books don’t write themselves. What imagery works best for you about this? Would it help to feel that you need to hunt your book down? Gestate it and give it birth? Hew it from its rock, chip by chip, like Michelangelo’s prisoner sculptures?

One of my favourite images for starting a novel is catching a horse in a field. I used to know horsey people and found myself standing in a field in Kent one day with a head collar in one hand and a carrot in the other. The minute the pony became aware of me, she’d prick her ears and alertness would shiver the length of her body. If I took a step towards her, she’d spring away into the depths of the field and hide among the trees. Later I learned that if I held my body at 45 degrees to her and looked askance while walking up to her, she would stand still and dip her head for me, and let the head collar slide over her muzzle and ears without any need for the carrot at all.

It can be the same with our stories: if we stride after them too firmly, they run for cover. Sometimes we need to bide our time and let the story come to us as gently as we go toward it. It’s the act of writing day after day that brings us and our stories together.

Be kind to yourself while you’re developing these muscles. If you find you can’t just face it one day, don’t give up. Just go back to 15 minutes a day or so for a while. If you’re a true writer, you’ll still long to write and will always feel better writing something than nothing. The only bad writing day is one when you don’t write at all.

What do you write during these limbering sessions? It’s a big mistake to think that your book will arrive with you in a state of perfection and all you have to do is catch it. Now and again, if you’re very blessed, that can happen but mostly we redraft. Everybody redrafts. Even the mighty Hemingway said that all first drafts are shit, and he knew his job. So when I’m limbering up, I go wool-gathering.

This is easy, and helps you feel that being in the company of your book is fun. You’ll feel too that your book is coming along wonderfully, even if you haven’t got a page to show for it yet. You’re interviewing your characters and getting to know their secrets, prowling about in your book’s world, sniffing the bins, enjoying the meals and sea views, sitting in your fictional bars and gym locker rooms, generally getting to know what you’re going to write about. Here’s the good news: you can’t get this wrong. If you go back to something the following day and produce something different, just choose the better one. Even happier news is that while you’re relaxed and happily wool-gathering, there will be times when you’ll write something that shines with life and can go straight into your book.

Potholing is a variation on wool-gathering and is about you. What do you want out of this book? Why are you writing it? What excites you most about it, and why? Something doesn’t work; any idea why? If you pot-hole around it, you might find a way to make it the most exciting bit of all.

It’s all just scribbling but I believe that wool-gathering and potholing are the biggest shortcuts of all. They do so many things:

  • They give you an invaluable sense that writing is fun, easy and a joyous place to be.
  • They make it easier to develop your regular writing practice.
  • You get a sense of pages stacking up. Even if they’re not publishable yet, you have something to work on.
  • They induce a sense of excited relaxation, a sense of adventure that can produce freer, better writing.
  • You can produce whole sections that will be useful when you start to work on your first draft.

Wool-gathering and potholing don’t stop once you start your draft; you can keep doing them for as long as you like. They always help.

Happy scribbling!


Three rules for writing a novel

Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage) said, ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

No, but there are a few powerful guidelines and here’s one of mine:

Any time writing is coming at you fast and hot, demanding to be written, haunting your sleep, dominating everything else you try to do, drop everything (including this blog) and write it as fast and as fully as you can. If you really don’t have time to write it now (you are critically ill in hospital, for example), take notes as fully as you can. You can still have a happy writing life but that particular burst of inspiration may not come again.

Things not to worry about

when you’re starting your novel –

The Perfect Start

To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start.’ TS Eliot

The perfect first sentence is the last thing you need to worry about. You will be better equipped to work out where you start your story, how, why and with the slant you need, after you have finished your first draft. There is no point in sweating about your perfect first sentence until then, or even later. If something wonderful comes to you, note it down but if nothing comes, don’t worry.

In Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947) the character Joseph Grand is a 50 year old city clerk, lovely man, who spends so much time honing the first sentence of his novel that by the time the plague gets to him, he has nothing written but lots of versions of it. Camus shows us cleverly how no matter how Grand shuffles his sub-clauses, the sentence just gets worse.


When you’re ready to start on your first draft, get cracking – start somewhere, anywhere – and at all costs keep going. Tidy as you go, then press on. Keep notes of afterthoughts but do not let them hold you back. Once you have a finished first draft, you have something to work on.

Your voice

Some How-to-write books talk about ‘finding your voice’ as if it’s something you need to summon up before you start on your book. Your writing voice is nothing more than the way of putting words together that’s special to you alone. It includes all sorts of things like the sort of subject you choose, your personality and tone, and your unique way of building a scene. When we hear a stray phrase on the radio and go ‘Ah yes, that’s Dickens’ even when you’re not sure which of his books it comes from, that’s you recognising Dickens’ ‘voice’.

Your voice is everything and nothing and is not something you need to think about at this stage. The more writing you do, the more you’ll settle into confidence on the page. Just let yourself get used to writing being a happy, low key place where you can play with your characters and story, gather your skills and ideas, try this or that while all the time – and you’ll hardly notice it – the flow of your words grows more and more secure. Occasionally you’ll produce something that feels right, something you know might work in your first draft. Off it goes into that first draft file, waiting for other pieces like it. In no time, your pages are stacking up, some of them spot on, some less so, but the trick is to keep writing because it’s only by keeping that flow going that the good stuff can come.

Let me tell you a secret: this way of writing, this process is very common among writers. We experiment and play with the story like this, and you are no less a writer for doing it too.

Brilliant writing (‘Is my writing good enough?’)

Here’s a paradox: the less you worry about the quality of your writing and write lots around your book, the happier you will grow in the act of writing and the more likely you are to hit seams of the good stuff. Your critical faculties will have their turn later but while you’re discovering your first draft, let that wait.

Kindly criticism

Most people (some writers call them ‘civilians’) think that books are delivered to the writer’s pen or screen in minty fresh perfection in as much time as it takes them to read it. That is not the case. All published writers, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners too, redraft many times.

Just keep reminding yourself that the civilians mean well and please do NOT be tempted to show them your workings. You’re building up your confidence in your own voice with your page as your playground: an assault of fault-finding at the wrong time could kill your desire to write. The time for criticism will come; your first draft is not it.


Whenever people ask how your writing is going, thank them for asking. Say that your book is fun and it’s going well but books do take time. Did they know that Hilary Mantel took ten years to write her first book, the French Revolution one? Reassure them that they’ll be the first to know when you get a publisher and no, they’re not in your story. (They won’t believe this last bit and will be desperate to buy it when the time comes.)


Doing everything in the right order

Should you worry about doing everything in the right order? There is no right order.

Lack of finished pages

You are writing around your book like mad and have a general idea where your story might be going. In fact, it all feels really exciting and you have more confidence in it, in everything, than ever before. But you don’t feel like a proper writer because proper writers have megabytes building up of warm-as-fresh-bread, perfect pages ready to send off to an agent. You’ve got no pages at all.

Rome wasn’t built in a day or even in a whole wet weekend. Don’t worry, it’ll come.

It’s all been written before

No, it hasn’t. There may or may not be a limited number of stories we enjoy (more on this another day) but every day writers are producing something ‘new under the sun’ because never in all the millennia of human existence has anybody ever had your life. Nobody (not even your twin) has grown up in your family with your personality, your struggles and joys, in your time with your particular take on things. That brings a unique spin to everything you write. Even Shakespeare used other people’s storylines in his own distinctive way. Keep challenging yourself to write only what feels true, not second-hand or hackneyed, and keep it engaging.

So don’t be afraid. Go for it!


What holds our writing back?


Making time to write is the main thing that distinguishes writers from other people, especially from the ones who say that they’d love to write a book if only they had the time. We make the time. We write it into our hearts and diaries and keep to it, there is no other way. In unavoidably busy times, even five or ten minutes a day keeps the writing muscle supple for when things are calmer.

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The trouble is that now and again life throws some really big obstacles our way and we are forced to stop and deal with them. I’ve found that, up to a point, life’s difficulties can help us write. Everything is ‘material’ and no material is more useful than our own lives. I’m not wishing horrible or extreme experiences on anyone but sometimes we write more deeply at those times. When two or three of those big things arrive in quick succession, however, writing can get squeezed out. I don’t just mean writing time; I mean that the words won’t come right.

Don’t worry about it. Wait. Be kind to yourself. Deal with what’s happening, and keep doing a bit of daily writing if you possibly can, even if it’s just a few snippets and observations. When, like crocus shoots in spring, your writing does come back, you’ll be ready to welcome it.

High expectations

By this I mean the high expectations of the people you live and work with. As soon as you say you’re writing a book, it starts:

‘Can’t I have quick look, I can check your grammar for you, wouldn’t that be nice?’

This person means well and is trying to be helpful but the simple answer is no. The kinder one is ‘No thanks, I’m just limbering up at the moment, discovering my first draft, so it’s not ready to for anybody else to see yet.’

There’s the other sort who don’t always mean so well:

Fifty Shades of Grey, is it, nhar nhar,’ they go, ‘need any help with research?’

‘Great news, you’re going to be the next Hilary Mantel / Stephen King / George RR Martin. So your other half’s going to retire and let you keep the two of you in luxury?’

It takes a lot of time and effort to write a publishable book. By the time you’ve been working on your book for a while, this kind of pressure can have you sending off your first three chapters and synopsis to agents, to be ignored by all of them because they are not sufficiently polished yet. How could they be? You might have even have tried a couple of big publishers and been ignored by them too and you’re losing the will to write.


Maybe previous centuries had a more realistic view: Dickens worked himself to an early grave, Scott Fitzgerald drank himself to death, Hemingway, Plath and Woolf killed themselves. It took years for the Bronte sisters to get published and Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter and William Blake published their own. Nobody assumed that their books came easily to them. Publicity for today’s success stories gives the impression that JK Rowling knocked out a few stories on a napkin in a café with the buggy quietly beside her, and that EL James’ Fifty Shades was the product of a few nightly scribbles on the internet. Why wouldn’t readers think it takes as long to write a book as it does to read it?

I suggest that you have your answers ready: smile and say that it’s going well, thank you, no big news yet but you will let them know. Have your ten or twenty-word summary of your plot ready – that’s always good practice – and listen to which bit of it grabs them most. If they say they love the sound of a character you haven’t thought much about, or their eyes light up at a battle scene, it might be time to bring that into your draft more. If they say they have a cousin who’s an agent or publisher, listen even more carefully and take a note of any details. And if they make you feel miserable for having nothing to show for all your effort yet, just say that Rome wasn’t built in a day and walk away. Anything else they say, however well meant, could be damaging. If you find yourself having to justify your writing ambitions to people you work with or your family at home, the best course is to say as little as possible about it. Tell your writing group and nobody else.

The cure is the same as for that inner perfectionism of yours that comes from years of homework, school reports and grades: practise easy private writing whenever you can, be kind to yourself and persist. It’ll come back.

You’re living with a darling who never asks to see your writing in progress? Just runs you a hot bath and says ‘Never mind, love, it’ll come, just keep going’ when you’re struggling? Marry that person immediately, if you haven’t already.

Getting started

Your novel (short story, memoir, biography) is in that place of perfection in your head but somehow isn’t on the page yet. Why is that? What stops us just getting on with it? Writing isn’t fire-fighting after all or dangling from a wire over churning seas as the coastguard. There’s no actual danger to life if we just sit down somewhere peaceful and write.


Many things hold us back and for good reason. For some people, it’s the cumulative effect of too many homeworks. Years of red markings on whatever we write have scarred our brains (somehow the ticks seem to do this just as much as the crosses) and our creativity gets paralysed. Another word for this is perfectionism: the feeling that whatever we write won’t be good enough, can’t be good enough.

For others it’s fear that our grasp of grammar won’t be adequate. Well, that’s easily fixed. Grammar is the Highway Code for us writers and some of the Recommended Reads in the Better Writing section here will help you.

Lots of us are caught between the drive to write and a feeling that writing, while fun, is a waste of time in the grown-up world. Writing is self-indulgent, not quite permissible as long as there is money to be earned, children to be looked after, meals to be made and so on.

Yet that buzz at the back of your brain just won’t stop.  ‘Write,’ it says, ‘go on, you’re a writer, you won’t be truly happy until you write’.

Being a writer is no guaranteed path to happiness – I’m just saying that if you’re a writer, you’ll always be happier writing than not writing. As long as that story of yours stays inside your head, it will never have a chance to live and breathe in the outside world and you will regret it, heart, body and soul.

Your story is a living, pulsating thing, I truly believe that. It will haunt your dreams and generally torment you until you have given it the space it deserves.

War and Peace wasn’t written in a day and there must have been a time when even Tolstoy said to himself, enough of this dithering, it’s time to make a start. So, make a commitment to yourself to write something relating to your novel every day, if at all possible.

I’m a great fan of writing around our stories. By that I mean a sort of discussion on the page or screen between me and myself about what’s working and what’s not. What do I want out of the book? Why is one character evading me and another trying to take over? That sort of thing. For some reason, I find that this has to happen in written words; just thinking about it isn’t enough. There’s something about the physical act of writing that takes us deeper, so that eventually our mind and spirit are so steeped in our writing that the book begins to push forward.

The trick in getting started is to lower the bar of your expectations. Try writing about your book in bursts of five or ten minutes at a time. Time yourself and congratulate yourself each time when you’ve finished. You’ve made an important start and you’ll take it further tomorrow.  If you can’t think what to write about, try any of the following:

  • ‘I love writing because …’
  • ‘The best fun in writing is …’
  • ‘What I love best about my book is …’
  • ‘What I love/loathe most about this character is …’
  • I want my book to end with …

Find a piece of writing you’ve already done and feel proud of. Read it as if it’s by somebody else and highlight anything that sings out at you as having special energy. Use one of those highlights as your first line today.

Open a poetry book or novel at random and choose any line. Use it as your first line for your free writing today.

Remember that nobody is going to see these pieces of writing but you. They’re your private playground where you can do whatever you like.

These little sessions do several things for you. They limber up that writing muscle of yours – it might help you to think of them as like curls in the gym or a yoga stretch. They develop your sense of your book’s purpose, and where your characters are going. Sometimes you’ll find yourself writing something that can go straight slap bang into your draft. Don’t expect that every time though, it’s not the point.

The point is to get past that inner critic of yours, the one that tells you that what you’re writing is no good or you’ve no business writing at all, or it’s all been written before so what have you got to contribute. Any time you hear that voice (which afflicts most of us), say to yourself, ‘it’s just a first draft, I’m getting something to work on’.  Or you can just tell it to shut up, you’re busy.

Try and write around your book like this for at least five minutes every day. If you find that the writing is gathering power, taking hold of you and pushing towards something you never expected to be writing, keep going. That’s the richest adventure in writing and it’s wonderful.

There’ll be more about getting going and keeping going in my next post.


Since 2011 I have been helping groups of new writers find their feet, first in Bermondsey, then Greenwich and Cambridge. My posts here are going to summarise our sessions over the years about conjuring up characters that feel true, finding out why some plots and structures work better than others, and studying those writing techniques that make all the difference.

Usually my groups look at character in the autumn, classic plots through the winter months (plenty of excitement to keep us warm) and in spring and summer it’s all about tricks of the craft from handling dialogue and point of view to editing your pages and finding a publisher. These posts will try and follow the same calendar.

For years I longed to write but hadn’t the confidence to start. That’s why I take a particular interest in people with a strong wish to write but who feel that something is holding them back. In my next post we’ll look at how we can just get started.