How to write a novel

Warning: Only follow these guidelines if you have no ambition of completing the novel or of ever being published. Otherwise, think of them as what not to do.

I've broken these non-tips into three sections, under the following headings:

  1. Readability Doesn't Matter!
  2. Publishing Is For Shmucks!
  3. The Greatest Books are Never Finished!

Readability Doesn't Matter! top

  1. Don't get hung up on learning how to use the English language correctorately. If you spend any time studying grammar then your artistic spirit will be crushed and your writing will be stale. Use words in whatever way pleases you, this will allow the reader to enjoy the sport of choosing their own meaning for each of your sentences. In particular, avoid Strunk's Elements of Style at all costs.

  2. Always tear down "the fourth wall," that separation between reader and writer. For example, in chapter one Janey gets shot. "No," screams Janey. "I can't die! I'm the main character and we're only five pages in!" This kind of self-referencing trick is clever, original and very post-modern. The critics will be quite impressed.

  3. Don't bore the reader with a straightforward narrative voice. Mix it up a little! Go from first-person to second, from past, to present. Go from thick Irish accents to Jamaican street slang. Let the story zig-zag back and forward through history by hundreds of years at a time. Keep the readers on their toes.

  4. Golden rule: the bigger the vocabulary, the better the book. Every now and then you should beflabbergastimate your reader with a shimmerglitzering showray of innovational superlatative cogitations.

  5. Sometimes when you're redrafting a book you might find that there's a whole section that doesn't really belong. One way to deal with this is to carefully cut it out and see if the story is improved without it. According to that line of thinking 'if it's a good idea, you can always use it later.' Well in response to that theory let me say this: BALLS! That's all it is. A load of balls! It ignores the vital fact here: by removing a section from your book you are decreasing the size of the book, and therefore making your book worse. And besides, the parts of a book that readers enjoy the most are the parts that are completely irrelevant to the plot. This is a fundamental concept of story writing and if you don't understand it then you really don't know a thing about anything, you idiot. This exmple only reinforces the important notion that it is wrong, wrong, wrong! to revise your work.

  6. The Blue Rule: Description takes precedence over action. A character crashes into the room, with a gun in his hand. Before telling me he's got a gun in his hand, or that he crashed into the room, give me a five hundred word description of what he's wearing and what he had for breakfast last night.

  7. I'll say this for jokes: too much is never enough! Why put in a few mediocre jokes when you can pile in a hundred of them.

  8. And I'll say this for cliches too: too much is never enough! Cliches provide a handy sublanguage between the reader and you. When you say 'hung like a horse' you know that the reader understands exactly what you mean.

  9. Stick to the facts. Readers like to be free to imagine scenes any way they see fit. Rather than say 'Captain Hirsuit walked into a big green room', just say 'Captain Hirsuit walked into a room.' That way the reader can picture anything they want. Maybe they'll picture a small blue room with flying ducks nailed to the wall. Or a Spanish banquet hall bedecked with sixteenth century mahagonny timber and dappled in rich medieval tapestries. See what happens when you let the reader's imagination run free? Literary dynamite!

  10. Metaphors are like cocktails: they're better when they're mixed. Can you hear what I'm showing you? Do you see what I'm telling you?

  11. If there's an important point in the story and you don't want the reader to miss it, then say it twice. If you're very clever you can introduce some subtle changes in the way it is said the second time. Also, if there's an important point in the story and you don't want the reader to miss it, then say it more than once.

  12. I want lots of tautologies and plenty of them.

  13. The Green Rule: Don't worry about inconsistencies! If Jenny is a Jewish left-handed circus midget on page one and a Portugese right-footed carnvial geek on page twenty-six, who's gonna notice?

  14. Modern audiences are sick of books. What they demand is an interactive multimedia experience. Even if your novel is a serious work of historical fiction concerning the spread of the plague throughout Avignon, it will benefit from having a few cartoons. And throw in lots of emoticons. Example: "Bijoux's boils were getting really serious now. :+(". And instead of a final chapter just leave an empty box, with the caption. "How do you think it ended? Give your feedback here."

Publishing Is For Shmucks! top

  1. Don't occupy yourself with the boring, mechanical task of proof reading. This is best left for the copy editors who will see your work once it has been accepted for publication.

  2. Publishing houses are fond of pumping out 'manuscript submission guidelines'. But I think you'll find that they don't mind if a really great piece of literature breaks those guidelines once in a while. For example, if you're writing a romance novel, I suggest you submit in a //scriptive// font, single-spaced on pink paper. For action manuscripts, try IMPACT font, all capitals, in red ink. That will reach out, grab them by the collar and say "Hey buddy! You'd better pay damn good attention to this book! It's a ripper!"

  3. Hey don't you think your diary would make an excellent novel? Think up a funky name and rush it down to the publishers. Resist the temptation to edit it. Readers prefer a raw emotional feel over having an engaging story-line any day.

  4. Mixing genres is a sure fire way to create a brilliant and creative work of fiction. Romance is trite, but has anyone written a sci-fi/western/romance set in ancient egypt? And starring a monkey called 'Boatie' who works as a singer onboard a Russian paddle steamer? If your premise is clever enough the book actually does write itself.

  5. If you're going to 'loosely' base any characters on real life people, then try to change their names a little. For example, if your real life enemy is called 'Bill Pecker' then name your character 'Will Willy.'

  6. And if you do base any characters on your friends or family, don't worry about their feelings. They'll be only too happy to see a caustic depiction of themselves in print. It will provide them with an invaluable insight into other people's opinion of them.

  7. No one likes it when bad things happen. Only write about the happy stuff.

The Greatest Books are Never Finished! top

  1. Always start writing the book before you have determined the plot. A plot will come to you when it's good and ready. It's smarter to work one in later than to waste time on one right at the start.

  2. Your book is precious. People who offer criticism are fools who've never written a thing themselves. The only sensible reaction to criticism is to cover your ears and yell "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" until the critic goes away.

  3. Try to avoid submitting your work. Submitting your work will only invite soul-destroying criticisms that a genius like yourself does not need to hear. No good can possibly come from it.

  4. Alcohol is a writer's best friend. It provides inspiration and confidence, it allows your fingers to fly fluidly across the keyboard; it cheers you up when you're down. It worked for Edgar Allen Poe, it worked for Stephen King and I just bet it will work for you. A coupla slugs of whiskey should do the trick, and if not, have you considered experimenting with peyote or tincture of laudanum?

  5. Try to immerse yourself in real life. Put your typewriter in the noisiest room in the house, with the television just a turn of the neck away. Think of all the inspiration this will provide.

  6. Indeed, distraction is what life is all about. If you use a computer for writing your book then make sure you've got a good internet connection, and stay permanently connected. The internet is an invaluable research tool and every time you surf you will find hours of non-stop inspiration.

  7. Before writing a book, it's a good idea to start planning the sequel. Better yet, plan a whole series of books. Once the book is done you don't want to get caught short without any follow up material.

  8. Now is also a good time to start planning what you're going to say to the interviewers. How will you handle Dave Letterman, for example? And what will you say to Oprah?

  9. Never sit down to write unless you're gripped with a brilliant idea. The book should be an expose of pure genius, not some dilligently crafted piece of hackwork.
  10. Seriously, I can't stress the following point enough: avoid crafting a plot at all costs. Plots are old fashioned, they went out with hipster briefs. (Wait a second? Are hipster briefs in again? I keep forgetting...)

  11. Before writing any more on your novel, you should catalogue, analyse and break down every other novel in your library. Only by being able to dissassemble every known piece of fiction into its constituive elements can you ever hope to write a thing.

  12. Always keep your target audience in mind, ie: Everyone. To be a truly great book, your novel should be no less than all things to all people. This means you must know every single fact there is to know and understand every single feeling ever experienced by anyone on earth, no matter how subtle. If your knowledge or research are any less than this then you're really not trying. Time to tear the whole thing up again.

  13. Here's a neat way to get past writer's block: Try getting really angry with yourself. Ring your hands together, pull at your hair, clench your teeth and thump the table. Repeat little phrases to yourself, such as "God! I'm such a terrible writer!", "By my age Alexander the Great had already conquered the world!", or the classic: "I suck! I'm a failure! I'll never be a writer!" If this doesn't cure your writer's block then I have to tell you: nothing will.
  14. Have you read James Joyce Ulysses? Why not try and write a sequel to that thing. How excellent would that be?

  15. Do you have any old poems lying around? Slip them into the story somewhere. Just anywhere in fact.

  16. Books are like penises: the longer the better! And why not cut it into three pieces? (the book that is). Trilogies like The Lord of the Rings are always on the best seller list. So don't waste time writing a novel; write a trilogy instead.

  17. Make a pact with yourself that once you've written a page you won't go back and change it. This way you can be certain you won't waste time tinkering. Remember, Charles Babbage never finished the difference engine because he wasted so much time tinkering.

  18. React violently against any suggestion that you follow a formula. True art should be utterly original right from the first word to the last. If your story in any way resembles anything else that anyone has ever written, then tear it up and start again. No one likes a plagiarist.

  19. On the other hand. There are some damn fine novels out there and you might sometimes think 'Jesus, I wish i'd written Catch 22' for example. Well, no one can sue you as long as you change all the character names and try to slip at least one original word into each sentence. And this will produce a top selling book a lot quicker than the original seven years it took Heller to write the stupid thing.

More suggestions?

For a more serious list of tips for struggling novelists, see How to revise a dog ugly manuscript

Agent Required!

Personally, I've written a cracker of a novel, but haven't found a suitable agent for it yet. If you know a good literary agent for a satirical, sci-fi crime novel -- email me,


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