John Irving’s Tips to Write a Novel

creative writing literary how write novelToday is John Irving’s anniversary and we would like to share with you some of his most important recommendations to write a book:

‘The building of the architecture of a novel — the craft of it — is something I never tire of.’

People write for different reasons: one has an unique story to tell; while others want to challenge themselves. If you want to become a novelist, it is important to fall in love with the process of writing: you have to dedicate yourself to your story and put a thousand pieces together to form your novel.

From the starting point to the outlining and to the first draft of revisions, and every surprise that happens in between, to write a novel is a long and challenging process, that you should take with excitement and commitment.

‘I don’t want to write that first sentence until all the important connections in the novel are known to me. As if the story has already taken place, and it’s my responsibility to put it in the right order to tell it to you.’

Write every day but start your novel only when you have a clear vision of how you want it to be, from beginning to the end. Detail major character’s bios in a long character for each one, describing their physical traits and motivations, where they begin and how they end in the novel.

You should understand the important connections and events that will take place, as if you have already lived the story and now you just need to find the right way to put it on paper.

‘I write very quickly; I rewrite very slowly. It takes me nearly as long to rewrite a book as it does to get the first draft.’

One of the reasons for aspiring writers to fail is to work really long and slow on the first drafts of their novels, instead of finishing it. An incomplete novel is nothing compared to a crappy novel that has an end and, slowly, from this point, can be shaped and set into something remarkable.

‘When I love a novel I’ve read, I want to reread it — in part, to see how it was constructed.’

As novelists we should always be open to learn from other talented fellow writers. Make a selection of great novels and dedicate some time to understand the craft of the book, ask yourself: what is the plot? how does the tension evolve?; why does the author choose these words instead of others?. Answering these questions will inspire you and will make you discover strategies that will help you become a better writer.

‘Your memory is a monster; you forget — it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you — and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!’

As we wrote before, a clear vision of your novel can be its own fuel. When you know what you want the scene to be, your subconscious takes over and you just have to follow: characters start to speak for themselves in a way and your memories will often appear when you least expect in a scene that resembles a moment from your real life.

Irving’s idea is very simple: if you can use writing to access your memories, your writing will be even more authentic and powerful. 

‘More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.’

It is a great feeling to finish the first draft of your novel. However, be aware that, sooner or later, you need to begin the second draft… and so on! Revision is a long and tiring process, frustrating sometimes. Yet it has to be done! As Irving said, you will need to dedicate time to revising and to rewriting. And the most talented writers are the ones who have this stamina. Work on it!

Develop your writing skills with our Fiction Writing course and start now to write your novel!