How To Write A Novel From The Girl That’s Already Done It

Tips from Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, also known as the book of the summer


by Alexandra Heminsley |
Published on

Anyone who has had a brilliant idea for a novel, only to sit down and have a go at writing it before realising they have no idea what they’re doing, has felt the need for a few tips. But while there are plenty of courses out there offering the best way to edit, find an agent or research the market, we thought we'd just cut to the chase and ask someone who actually did it. Jessie Burton, author of this summer’s break out debut novel The Miniaturist, has shared her rules with us. After all, she’s the one with a book in the Top Five Bestseller list.

Don’t look at it as ‘writing a novel’

'Novels are such enormous, unwieldy things that if you think of them in their entirety you can really burden the process. Work from the ground level up. Begin with a character, begin with a scene, and don’t panic. I spent time writing monologues in each character’s voice for The Miniaturist, which helped. What they were thinking then manifested itself in the book.'

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Don’t write to please anyone other than yourself

'Satisfaction being elusive is a part of writing a novel, terrifying though that is. So you do have to please yourself first. I am only just learning that the negative worries are normal, just a part of it, and you have to be quite bloody-minded to get that first draft out. You have to accept that it’s going to be raw. It’s not going to be the final product. But you CANNOT write a book unless you’ve written a first draft.'

Don’t do nothing if you only have half an hour

'You can get a lot done in half an hour, perhaps even more than if you’ve set aside six hours. Use whatever you have, be it early morning, lunch breaks, whatever. Five or six hundred words, or even just a paragraph, could end up being all you need to get you going for a great session the next time. If you keep notes all day when you’re busy and a notebook or iPhone to hand, you’ll always have something to go back to. The 20% of the time that I tell myself: "Oh I’ll remember that for later," I never remember.'

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Rules are a myth

'Some people like that edgy buzz of a hangover. It can somehow switch off part of the brain, so you stop worrying. Some need coffee. I just like a pot of tea and a teacup. The trick is that there are no rules, the whole “I am now writing a novel in my silk kimono” thing is a myth. But it does help to do stretches. Get the blood flowing in your body. Stretch your back, and your eyes and get some fresh air in your head. Don’t just sit there for seven hours. You’ll be surprised what comes along.'

Choose a good displacement activity, aka get a steam press

'I use programmes such as Write or Die, or Freedom, to keep me off the internet for 120 minutes at a time. But I need a good displacement activity for during my breaks. I got a steam press after using one in the cottage where I edited The Miniaturist. It’s one of the first things I bought with the money from the book; it’s the best thing ever, like using a different part of my brain. Writing is so nebulous, like staring into a murky well. You shove a bucket down there and half the time you don’t know if what you’re going to pull up will be a pile of crap. But when you’re ironing a tea towel, the relationship with your activity is simple and it has an immediate response. It’s absolute: my tea towel is flat.'

The Miniaturist is out now

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Follow Alex on Twitter @Hemmo

Picture: Ada Hamza

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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