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How to write a bestselling novel

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« on: February 28, 2021, 04:36:32 am »

How to write a bestselling novel

Everyone has a book in them, but how do you get it out? Here are some great tips from the ‘book doctor’ Philippa Pride

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A hand holding a pen above a blank page of a spiral notebook.
The ‘book doctor’ recommends writing whatever comes into your head in longhand for at least three pages. Photograph: Aki/Alamy Photograph: Aki/Alamy
Emma Cook
Thu 11 Sep 2014 04.00 EDT

Last modified on Wed 20 Sep 2017 07.08 EDT


Every time I tell people that I’m trying to write a thriller, I am reminded of Peter Cook’s quip: “I met a man at a party and he said, ‘I’m writing a novel.’ I said, ‘Really? Neither am I.’”

I haven’t been trying to write a novel for more than a year now. I have a synopsis, a few characters and, I think, a half-decent premise. I consume thrillers – studying them for clues on how to write the perfect one – as well as many self-help books on writing in general, from Dorothea Brande’s inspirational guide Becoming a Writer to Stephen King’s On Writing via Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year. They are all diversions, of course, from the vexed business of writing itself: simply putting one word after another until chapters magically emerge.

In my mind, I continually entertain myself with fragments of narrative, dialogue and plot twists but as soon as I’m in front of a blank page, they evaporate. I feel stuck. Sometimes I think I should give up, but I have convinced myself that if I can find a way to write more freely and suppress my inner critic, I could finally finish that first draft.

Is it too much to hope for? Not according to the “book doctor” Philippa Pride, who is a writing coach, King’s UK editor and something of an expert on getting “into the flow”.

Over the course of our session together, Philippa listens to my problems, then suggests exercises and offers advice to help free me up. The great news is that these are simple techniques anyone can try so give her tips below a go.
Make it a daily habit

The only way to improve your writing – or get started at all – is to do it daily. Brande recommends 15 minutes. Philippa says seven minutes, because it’s very achievable but also enough to make progress. The real test is whether you can commit to the routine. Usually, I find any excuse not to sit down, even if it is only for seven minutes. But as Brande declares, “If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.” Realising this is a great motivator to write.
Silence your inner critic

As well as committing a small amount of time to writing your story each day, stream-of-consciousness writing is key to freeing up your creativity. Philippa recommends writing whatever comes into your head in longhand for at least three pages. Or try answering a question about a desired outcome, as in “How can I make more time to write?”

This isn’t about quality of thought or honing style, and certainly isn’t meant to be read by anyone else. “It’s a way of unburdening yourself on paper. It’s writing therapy, to help you suppress that inner censor,” Philippa says. She makes me practise, and at first I panic about what I am going to write. But gradually I feel myself relax and begin filling page after page with random thoughts, expanding on ideas and writing dialogue. It felt like I was letting go of my inhibition and, by the end, I didn’t even feel self-conscious reading my mad ramblings aloud.
Find an image to inspire you

If you are stuck for ideas, paintings and photographs can help inspire a story, says Philippa. Choose an image, ideally figurative, and ask questions about what’s happening. “Imagine a scenario, decide where the characters are and what they’re doing, their names and relationships,” says Philippa, handing me a photocopy of Degas’ Les Repasseuses. “You’ve got 15 minutes to write a story about this. Try to include some dialogue – then read it out.”

At first I stalled, wondering how on earth I could weave a compelling story about two 19th century French women ironing. Then I began to scrutinise their features, their expressions, gave them names, and a scenario sprang to mind. I couldn’t wait to read it out.

“If you’re writing a novel, think about finding some images related to your story and putting them on a pinboard or desktop as inspiration,” says Philippa.
What if?

A really useful technique for generating new ideas, or testing a more developed storyline, is to use the “what if”. As King says: “The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a ‘what if’ question: what if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot). What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo).” Come up with three different “what ifs”, suggests Philippa, then choose the one you feel has most potential and start writing. Begin with a situation, then add the character and see where the story leads you.
Hone your narrative

Now that you have devised a handful of “what ifs”, try to sum up your storyline as though it were a blurb on the back of a book. “The cover blurb is a conversation with a reader and is key to selling any book,” Philippa tells me. “Writing it at the start of your book will help you to clarify what it’s really about and what makes it compelling.” Go to your bookshelf and pull out a selection of books in a similar genre to one you’d like to write. Use them as a model for your blurb and see what you come up with.
Push on

Most agents want to see a full story from a novice, so my goal is to finish my first draft. Philippa also tells me to start thinking of an outline for a second book, so any potential publishers see me as an investment.

A few weeks after the course, I’m much more committed to writing. I start each day with five minutes of free writing and spend 20 minutes on the thriller. The aim is to finish three chapters by Christmas. I am quietly confident. If nothing else, it’s certainly the most productive I’ve been at not writing my novel so far.
Win a place on a Guardian Masterclass with Philippa Pride

• Philippa Pride is hosting a Guardian Masterclass to help aspiring novelists overcome writer’s block, find their voice and enjoy the writing process. The course will be held on 27-28 September 2014, 10am-5pm. For details, visit Enter to win a place on the course at

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