Get Started on Writing Your First Novel

Posted on Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Cambridge-based author and former doctor Carol Cooper shares her tips for getting started on writing your first novel, as her latest novel, The Girls from Alexandria, is published. Carol spent her formative years in Egypt and returned to England to study Medicine at Cambridge University.

Writing a novel is one of the most satisfying things you can do, but it’s easy to get wrong. I should know. A trunk in my loft contains the evidence. While there’s no magic recipe for a great novel, here are 10 tips that I learned the hard way.

1. Don’t begin at the beginning as the Victorians did. Your story will be more gripping if it kicks off mid-action with the principal character’s dilemma.

2. One scene should only have one character’s point of view. Many newbie authors head-hop from one person’s perspective to another, which can ruin a reader’s experience. 

3. Every scene needs to work hard. I wrote a fabulous few pages in which a character visited a fire station, learned about search and rescue, and flirted with a fire officer. As fun as it was for her and for me, I binned it because it didn’t move the story on.

4. Drip information in subtly rather than as one big paragraph or more. Someone’s appearance, occupation, previous spouses, and so on can all be trickled in gradually. So can location details.

5. Use all five senses. Readers will have a more immersive experience of a day out if you show not just what the beach looks like, but how it sounds (maybe there are children playing), smells (sun lotion, perhaps), tastes (sand in the sandwiches), and feels (when you step on a razor shell).

6. Write now, edit later. Resist the temptation to prune and pick as you produce a first draft. Just concentrate on getting it down.

7. Keep dialogue tags simple. Characters rarely need to cajole, exclaim, or snarl, let alone say enthusiastically, doubtfully, and so on. He said/she said is plenty if the dialogue itself hits the right note.

8. Vary your sentence structure. If you like, start some sentences with a dependent clause. Vary the length too. Short sentences are good for conveying action.

9. Carry a notebook. You never know when inspiration might strike or when you’ll overhear a priceless snippet of conversation. Keep it by you at night too. A genius idea may arrive in the wee hours.

10. Don’t put everything you can think of into your manuscript. You may like to keep something back for your second or third novel.


Novel: The Girls from Alexandria

Nadia, 70, is stuck in hospital with an ailing mind. Faced with the prospect of being moved to a care home, and armed with little more than a handful of cryptic postcards, she takes on what some would say is an impossible task that might be her only hope: finding her sister who´s been missing for 50 years. Part contemporary mystery and part historical fiction, this is a sweeping tale set across England and Egypt that´s full of heart, and partially inspired by Cooper´s childhood in Alexandria and by her time working in the medical field.

Follow Carol @DrCarolCooper / ISBN:9781913099701

Cambridge creative writing course

If you are based where we are in Cambridge, and interested in studying creative writing to write your first novel, the University of Cambridge's Centre for Creative Writing offers courses open to all which are taught at the beautiful Cambridge area venue of Madingley Hall.