Big Book,  YA

How NOT To Write A Novel

I can’t tell you how excited we are to be hosting this fantastic author as she promotes her latest book, Black Cairn Point. Not only is she responsible for a thrilling dystopian novel (we are still keeping our fingers crossed for a sequel to Bombmaker), she is also the author of Caroline’s favourite paranormal novel, Ferryman. Without further ado we will hand you over to Claire McFall
b c pTwo survivors, one terrible truth.
Heather agrees to a group camping holiday with Dougie and his friends because she’s desperate to get closer to him. But when the two of them disturb a pagan burial site above the beach, she becomes certain that they have woken a malevolent spirit. Something is alive out there in the pitch-black dark, and it is planning to wreak deadly revenge.
One year later Heather knows that she was very lucky to escape Black Cairn Point but she is still waiting for Dougie to wake from his coma. If he doesn’t, how will she prove her sanity, and her innocence?
How NOT to write a novel…

I was talking to a friend the other day about a project she was working on. She told me all about how she used Post-it notes to keep her ideas organised, how she had a timeline with deadlines to ensure she never got behind, how she planned steps in detail so that she could work her way methodically to a positive conclusion. Then she turned to me and said, “Well, you must do all this every time you start working on a new novel, right?”
Eh, yeah. Sure.
Or, you know. Not.
I think I must be a bad writer. Not a bad writer (I hope)… a naughty one. Because I really don’t like planning. You know those people who get ready to decorate a room by putting down dust sheets, moving any breakable objects, laying out all of their equipment beforehand? I don’t do that. I grab that bit of wallpaper – that bit that’s been ever so slightly hanging off the wall and bugging you for ages – and YANK! It’s a bit messier, and you’re likely to get stuck when you come to slapping the paint on in three days’ time and discover you haven’t prepped the walls right… but you know what, when you’re finished, it looks just as good!
And that’s kind of how I write.
When I get an idea, I get an idea. I’m filled with enthusiasm and I just want to get in there and start bashing away at my laptop before I lose it. That feeling. The one that gives your story an edge and makes it come alive. You can’t plan that, it’s got to sink its way in through your writing. I’m always afraid that, if I plan every little detail, I’ll lose the excitement. After all, if I know exactly what’s going to happen, exactly where it’s going to go, what’s left to discover?
The downside with that is that I have several novels which have gotten to, oh 25,000, maybe 35,000 words and then… died. It’s like one of those maze puzzles. You start out enthusiastically with your pen, get halfway through and realise that you’ve gone the wrong way. Some people might get out the Tip-ex and start again. Me? I just turn the page over. There’s always another puzzle.
Please note: this is a stupid, stupid way to write. It’s frustrating, leads to wasted time and it’s, well, stupid. It’s also my way. Doh!
What else do I fail to do that other, smarter, writers do as a matter of course when beginning a new project? Make character profiles.
That’s not true, actually. I usually start with good intentions – giving each main character a page in my notebook, creating a mind map with their name in the centre – and I dutifully fill in mundane details like their age, hair colour, rough height. That sort of thing. The problem is, I don’t keep it up. As the novel progresses I flesh out their characters, add in new people, and my notepad remains woefully under-filled. And then I find myself, and half eleven at night, eyes burning because I’ve already been writing for six hours, searching through seventy five thousand words of manuscript because I can’t remember if David had green eyes or brown. The air is blue, my wineglass is empty and I’m muttering to myself “Why the hell didn’t you write this down?” Why? Because I’m a bad writer!
As every author know, writing a novel is actually only about 30% of the process. And it’s definitely the most fun bit. Unfortunately, after writing come editing. I despise editing. Now, I can’t knit, but imagine you made a jumper and when you were finished and proudly showing it off to your mum (because mums always seem willing to point out faults, or mine does anyway!) she picks out five places where you’ve gotten the pattern wrong. A bit where the hem’s not quite right. To me, it looks fine. Not perfect, but fine. And my mum’s giving me that you need to fix it so that it’s right look. That’s the relationship my agent and I have with editing. I think it’s fine… he wants it to be perfect. And I know, I know, it’ll be much better after I fix it, but just like with knitting (I imagine, I can’t actually knit), it’s not a case of fixing those little bits you can see. As soon as you pull on that thread, there are eight more threads that will need adjusting.
Maybe it’s more like a Rubix cube. You get one yellow facing the way you wanted, but you’ve thrown six other little squares out with that move, so now you have to change them too!
It’s important to be methodical when you’re editing. To keep track of changes. You know what’s really helpful with this? Word Track Changes (it does what it says on the tin and all that). Do I use it? No. Why not? Well, it makes things go all funny coloured and it looks messy and I get all confused and…
Another things it’s really important to do, is keep track of your versions. There’s often a bit of back-and-forthing between me and my agent, me and my editor, me and my agent and my editor. Things can get confusing, fast. My agent’s always really careful to label anything he works on. You know, like Black Cairn Point v1.0… Black Cairn Point v 2.2 (I had to get a wee plug for the novel in somewhere!) Me? I label my manuscript stupid things like Bombmaker_fixed or Ferryman_for_Helen. You know, helpful names that will enable me to remember which one’s the latest version… at the moment I’m saving it. Three hours later when I’m looking at the manuscript folder and trying to remember which one to email? Not so much.
So there you are. A “how not to write a novel”. If you think about what I do…. then do the opposite, you’ll be all right. 😉
Thank you to the lovely peeps at BigBookLittleBook for having me on today so that I can share my little pearls of wisdom!
Claire xxx
Posted by Claire McFall
User commentsClaire McFall grew up just south of Glasgow in the heart of Celtic and Rangers country. She teaches English in a secondary school in Peebles, Scotland, where she lives. Her debut novel, FERRYMAN, was long-listed for the Branford Boase Award, nominated for the Carnegie Medal and won a Scottish Children’s Book Award. Follow Claire at or on Twitter: @mcfall_claire
Black Cairn Point was published by Hot Key Books on the 6th of August 2015


  • Joan Pratt

    Claire, Hi. Thanks for the great bigbooklittlebook. You’re an inspirational writer. It made me want to go out and buy Black Cairn Point.Also must finish my own book – all I need is a beginning, middle and end – what could possibly go wrong? I heard you speak at last year’s Kelpies Awards. Hilarious.You made me laugh so much I forgot to be nervous.
    In the meantime, I’ll just go and do some writing.

  • griselda heppel

    Ha ha I’m SO relieved other writers struggle like this! Your description of being overwhelmed with creating new characters felt very familiar. I start knowing a lot about a handful of main characters and then others appear and demand attention. I vacillate between just carrying on for now and seeing how they develop and stopping to flesh them out, not knowing how big a part they’ll play at this stage… all part of the fun I guess. Thanks for this great article.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: