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Sally O'Reilly
Sally O'Reilly

Sally O'Reilly has worked as a freelance journalist, writing for the Guardian, Sunday Times, Evening Standard and New Scientist, and is a former Cosmopolitan magazine new journalist of the year. She was a runner-up for the Ian St James and Cosmopolitan short story awards, and has had short stories published in Australia, South Africa and the UK. Sally is also the author of two novels published by Penguin books, and is now studying for a PhD in creative writing at Brunel University. She has taught creative writing at Brunel, the Open University and Portsmouth University.

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Top Tips for the First Time Novelist

Sally O'Reilly

  • Do the ground work. Think about your passions and obsessions. What are your most vivid memories? What is your greatest fear? When were you happiest? What makes you cry? Do you hate someone close to you – or love someone you shouldn’t?
  • Don’t assume that your subject has to be extraordinary. Other people will relate to your hopes and fears – the key is to find your own voice, and your own way of communicating with readers. Your subject matter might be the detail and intensity of everyday life.
  • Remember that the best writers are also compulsive readers. I teach creative writing, and without exception, the best writers I come across are always those who have an intuition about what works on the page because they read widely and avidly.
  • Learn from the experts. Whatever genre you want to write in – and literary fiction is a genre of its own – there are writers out there who are masters and mistresses of the form. Take your favourite novel apart and analyse it, chapter by chapter, to see how the story works.
  • Keep a journal for at least a month. Write down your dreams, get up early in the morning and write anything that comes into your head for ten minutes, scribble down any random thoughts that you have. Collect stories from the external world – local newspaper stories, tabloid tales, anything that catches your eye. Write about your family – and friends and enemies. Carry your notebook with you, and jot down what you see and hear.
  • Sift your material. After a month, read your notes back. Look for themes and patterns, and for observations or descriptions that you like. See what emerges. Make a list of ideas that emerge from your scrawl. Then start to sketch out your story.
  • Get writing. Preparation is essential, but once you have brain-stormed your ideas, it’s time to get down to the hard graft. Set yourself a set of realistic targets and work towards them. If you want to write a plot outline before you start (which is optional) decide how long you want to spend on this. Once you are happy to start on the actual draft, decide how long each chapter draft will take. I find a chapter a month works well for me. Some take less time than this, which means I have a warm glow of achievement.
  • Be ruthless. You might not want to go as far as James Joyce, who dragged his family round Europe and lived in rented digs while he penned his masterworks, but you will have to prove to your nearest and dearest that this is serious. Rather than watching The Killing you are writing something of your own. And be tough with yourself as well. If you normally crack open a bottle of wine when you get home from work, the wine will have to go.
  • Find your rhythm. Articles like this can often be too prescriptive: there is no right or wrong way to write a book. But you need to find the best way to produce a novel that suits your life and energy levels. If you can write before work, or the children wake up, then fine. If you are a night owl and like to write in the small hours, that’s just as good. The key to success is to find the most productive period in your day, and write at that time. Every day. Five hundred words at least.
  • Find your space. As with time, so with location. Where are you at your happiest and most focussed? I like libraries, cafes and trains. Like many other writers I know, I have an office, but prefer to get away from my own desk and write somewhere else, some of the time at least. But if the kitchen table works for you, then use the kitchen table. If you feel stressed and distracted, don’t assume that this means you have to give up – try a new writing location.
  • Lose yourself. One of the unsung joys of writing a book is that you can create your own world and go there every day. There’s nothing like it. Forget about the bestseller list, this year’s Booker winner and all the rest of it. Invent your world, and follow the logic of your own imagination, and you will have one of the most rewarding experiences that life can offer. And don’t worry about finding a publisher – yet. That will come later.


Sally O'Reilly is the author of How to Be a Writer: The definitive guide to getting published and making a living from writing.


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