So you really want to be a novelist? Here's how to begin

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The Independent Online
OK. SO you've decided to write a novel. That's good. It doesn't matter why you've decided to write one, it could be for any reason. It really doesn't matter. Well, let's say that you've read a Melvyn Bragg novel, and you thought to yourself, hey, I could do better than that.

Or maybe you read a Julie Burchill novel, and you thought, hey, Melvyn Bragg could do better than that. Or maybe you read a novel by Tolstoy, and you thought to yourself, hey, I could write a novel as good as that while Julie and Melvyn are struggling to and from Broadcasting House for Start the Week.

Maybe you saw a profile of Julian Barnes's sitting-room in Ideal Homes and Writers and you thought to yourself, hey, I'd like to have cushions like Julian Barnes's . . .

Yes, there are millions of different reasons why people get drawn into this wonderful world that we call churning out a novel. The exact reason you're drawn to fiction doesn't matter. What matters is that you have decided to became a novelist. Join the club. There are only five million of us. And there are no club rules, except one - whatever you do, don't get interviewed by Lynn Barber.

However, before you get that first novel on the bookshelves, you have to make some decisions. Here's one, for a start. Do you like your own name? Or have you always hated it? If so, can you think of a good name for the novel to appear under? Something like H E Bates or Catherine Cookson? No, that would look like plagiarism. Let's say E H Bates or Katharine Cookson.

Above all, don't be afraid to experiment with names. After all, when you come to write your novel, you're going to have to make up plausible names for everyone in it.

Another big decision. Do you want there to be people in your novel? No, there don't have to be many or any. Robinson Crusoe has only two, neither of them particularly interesting. The Wind in the Willows has mostly animals. I once read a book set in Canada in which the only character was a dog trying to cross from one ocean to the other. And a lot of science fiction doesn't have people, only robots with names like Zufluog. So you see, it can be done. After all, a lot of Jeffrey Archer's novels don't have people in, only androids called Graham. Just joking, Jeff.

If you do decide to have people in your novel - and most people tend to - you will have to make up your mind whether you want them to be nice or nasty. This is quite important, as otherwise critics may have difficulty in classifying the end result. A novel without nice people, for instance, is usually called gritty, or school of Amis (Kingsley or Martin).

A novel where there are nice people to begin with but they all get killed is called the new Ruth Rendell. A novel with no nasty people is usually one published by Mills & Boon - well, there may be some nasty people in it, to start with, but they all turn out to be nice eventually, especially that hospital doctor with the dark eyes and softly threatening eyebrows . . .

A clever idea that many novelists like to use is to have a mixture - some nice and some nasty people. A bit like real life. But your troubles are not over yet. If you have a mixture of nice and nasty people, you then have to decide whether you want the nice ones or the nasty ones to win. If the nice ones win, your novel will be called uplifting, hopeful or even comic. If the nasties win, it is more likely to be called moral, realist, modern urban or even (with luck) comic.

Incidentally, it is quite normal in a modern novel for some of the characters to make love to some of the others during the course of the story, and also for one of them to kill one or two others. In fact, it is unusual for them not to. (Unlike real life, where you never meet anyone who gets killed, and hardly ever meet anyone who makes love. Certainly not you.)

So if you get to the end of your novel and find that you have left all your characters still alive and chaste, I'm afraid you'll have to go through it again, changing everything.

This can be very awkward if, say, a character who was alive at the end suddenly gets killed off halfway through - especially if you happen to forget to remove him from the end . . .

(More about how to write your first novel tomorrow.)