How to write a book

Nothing new under the sun? Why originality is always possible

Here’s something to think about. Around 97% of the time you ever spend with your parents will be before you are 18 years old.

Maybe you’ve already heard this statistic, and apparently there’s more than one variation. But I heard it just this week. Dave heard it first, told me.  

We boggled.

Then, after a moment’s marvelling, we thought about it properly. Of course. That period 0-18 is so intensive. It’s even obvious.

But still, we were flabbergasted, and so we told friends, who marvelled also, and so did we, all over again. Then we all talked ourselves through the facts.

This is one of the things art can do. We all live on the same planet, and we tread through the same constants of life, and there’s nothing new under the sun, blah blah, but at the same time, there is. There are inventive people, billions of us, with language and paintings and poems and crazy, curious hearts and minds.

Here are a few of my favourite things in writing that keep my faith in the concept of originality. (Tell me yours in the comments, if you feel so inclined.)

1 Narratives that go backwards.

I’ve loved backwards narratives ever since I read that Peter Ustinov wrote a play that opens with the characters jaded and faded, then they age backwards into bright young things, and the audience is overwhelmed by the great tragedy of time passing. Another example is Sarah Waters with The Night Watch, where the characters are seen at four stages of World War II. And my favourite example is Martin Amis with Time’s Arrow, which is the life of a concentration camp doctor, from death to birth. Reversing the chronology is a devastatingly rich device. The ugliness of the Holocaust is turned around as victims are drawn down out of the clouds, and sent into the world healthy.

2 Novels with peculiar and powerfully metaphorical worlds.

Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History Of The Dead, where there are two main settings – our world now, and the afterlife, where people stay until no one who knows them is left alive. When all of the Earth’s population is killed except for one woman, everyone disappears from the afterlife except for the people who have met her. It raises so many ideas about memory and the traces we leave on others. Your takeaway, if you have read it, will probably differ, and that’s exactly what a metaphor should do. And it will stay with you from that day on, as part of your thinking.   

3 Personal essays, memoirs and other creative non-fiction.

Whether it’s a big adventure or a humdrum journey, I love a writer who can take me on a personal quest. Jean Hannah Edlestein’s This Really Isn’t About You, about grief and inherited cancer. Alexander Masters’s A Life Discarded, 148 Diaries Found In A Skip. Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me. A quest can be anything you like. Anything that has meaning can illuminate a new truth for us all.

4 A particular kind of creative non-fiction – idiosyncratic travel writing.

I have shelves of books by writers who’ve taken the road less travelled. Waterlog by Roger Deakin, a swim through the British Isles. Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein, a journey at the sea end of the River Thames. Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital is, perhaps the opposite – a road that is well travelled indeed. He takes an epic walk around one of the UK’s biggest motorways, a place that thousands of people travel every day in an oblivion of speed. Iain Sinclair walks it step by step, finds what is there when you look closely and slowly, feels the vibes of history and the places that were there before and have disappeared under concrete. His sensibility creates a new M25 for us. If you really want to think about things that have been on this planet, under your feet, for a long, long time, read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. (Keep some chocolate handy for the chapter about utter darkness.)

This is the artistic nature. We are people on a constant journey of discovery. We can say, look at this. It’s been here all along, but if I talk about it in just this way, I can reinvent it. It might become a whole book, or just a poem, or just a line, or even a number.

So go out. Follow your curiosity. There is plenty new under the sun.

Let’s find it.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

How to write a book

I wish I’d written… Five novels that make me raise my game

Sometimes I put a book down and am left a tad envious. These are books that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.


Night Work Nail Your NovelNight Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Jonas wakes up one morning to find he is the last person left alive. There are no bodies. No animals or birdsong. He is completely alone. He searches the city, leaves messages everywhere, dials stored numbers in the phones of offices and shops, gets drunk a lot, develops forms of madness and strategies to stop himself feeling so alone.

A lot of people on Goodreads didn’t like it, and I can appreciate their reasons. Basically it’s a book where hardly anything happens. I usually don’t like that either, but this kept me intrigued. I wanted to see what the author would do with the idea, so perhaps my curiosity was metafictional. I found it to be like a dream, an unravelling of everyday life and what could happen if the world breaks. And this is where I think it really works – not as a story, more as an environment to run in your mind. Next time you’re pleasantly alone in a wood, imagine there is only you. Anyway, my review is here.

The Long View Nail Your NovelThe Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The portrait of a marriage in five sections. I was drawn to it by when Hilary Mantel said Elizabeth Jane Howard was the novelist she recommends most frequently. I found Howard’s style too muddled for my tastes, especially in the early sections. Infuriatingly so. But there were two things I liked it for very much.

First, the structure. The five eras of the marriage are not presented chronologically, but backwards. I’ve long been a fan of backwards narratives (Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace,  The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer ) ever since I read about Peter Ustinov’s play The Banbury Nose, which is the story of an English upper-class family written backwards in time. I’m intrigued by the poignant possibilities of characters growing younger, and perhaps more or less themselves.

In The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard uses the backwards narrative to increase the story pressure. Her characters become more accepting with age, but if you wind them backwards they are more raw.
The second reason I’ll forgive her is her central male characters – two immaculately selfish cads who are explored in fine detail and have left many reviewers hopping with indignation. I galloped through the final part, mesmerised by them. My review is here.

Angel - Nail Your NovelAngel by Elizabeth Taylor (not THAT Elizabeth Taylor)
The story of a romantic novelist who is wildly successful but a horror in person (long before Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I was drawn to it by a poor film adaptation that made me suspect the original might have a lot more nuance. I was not disappointed. Not only is there nuance, but Elizabeth Taylor is a complete master of pace and tone – able to be humorous, tragic, tender and keep you riveted to the page. It’s also a fun look at the publishing industry (which is why Peter Snell and I devoted one of our radio shows to it ). Here’s my review.


Round The Bend by Nevil Shute
Read the intro on Goodreads and you have a good example of a blurb that smothers the book at birth:round

Okay, here’s what it really is. A beguiling story of love, faith, loss and missed opportunities, told in exquisitely controlled prose. The narration is cool, but somehow agitates you to turbulent emotion. The main setting suits the subject matter like a stage backdrop. It is an airstrip in Bahrain – a stripped-down place of sand, hangars and engines. The main characters hop between the continents, delivering goods, setting up more export bases, leaving behind personnel who spread the influence of their engineer friend Connie Shaklin, who has become a religious guru. Shute would never be so clumsy as to make the comparison with angels, these people who spend so much time in the sky in their machines, but you are drawn to entertain the idea. My review is here.

MASH Nail Your NovelMASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
You think you know MASH from the film and the movie? Join me in a chorus of ‘the book is better’. Read it for the tone. Richard Hooker has created a style that allows his world to be both hilarious and haunted – the characters are raising hell, but also repairing the sad ravages of it.
My review is here.

Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?