How to write a novel: make the time to write

Step 3: Award-winning novelist, Lucy Atkins, says a mental shift is needed this month – your writing should be a top priority, not an afterthought


How to write a novel: make the time to write

In our last step, we talked about finding your plot or, more specifically, why you shouldn’t despair if you haven’t. My advice was to play with characters, scenarios or settings that interest you. The problem is that this can feel rootless. It is hard to have faith if you don’t know where you’re going. The best way to keep believing is to carve out a regular writing slot.

You will have heard this before. Writers always advise you to ‘write every day’. This used to chill my blood. I wasn’t a ‘proper’ writer because I didn’t feel a burning need to write daily. I didn’t have the time, or the energy. I still don’t. Mostly, I write during school terms, on weekdays. I head for my writing shed in the garden and stay there from 9am until 12.30pm. Later, I do other work – but the morning is for fiction.

Early bird or night owl?

When I am in the most intense, later stages of a novel, I might be at my desk at 5am, but this early-bird routine isn’t sustainable as I get more weepy and ‘deranged’ as the week goes on. However, I know myself: I’m at my most energetic early in the day, when I’ve had a double espresso and nobody interrupts me. If you are working and/or running a home and family, you may be thinking, ‘It’s all right for her!’ – but, when I wrote my first novel, I didn’t have a publishing contract that let me devote mornings to fiction; I had young children; and had to make a living from journalism.

It’s a deal

The big shift came when, in the chaos of daily life, I made a pact with myself that I’d write fiction for the first couple of hours of most weekdays, regardless of other deadlines. I’d juggle commitments to keep that slot, rather than the other way around. An hour is fine. The point is to shift your thinking. Writing a novel is hard work. It can be mentally exhausting, unrewarding and dull. It requires determination and discipline. Ask yourself if you’re a morning or evening person, then find a slot and make it your top priority.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t write five days a week. I still have days when other tasks take me away. The crucial thing is to make a mental shift. Your novel is no longer your lowest priority – it is at the top of the list. This might feel crazy because nobody is waiting for it or paying you. But, for me, that switch was huge. It turned me from someone who wrote a bit, into someone who wrote a novel.

Lucy Atkins 

Lucy Atkins is an award-winning author, journalist, Sunday Times book critic and Costa Prize judge who tutors at Oxford University’s Creative Writing Master’s degree course.  Lucy’s fourth novel, MAGPIE LANE, a literary thriller in which the daughter of an Oxford College Master goes missing, is just out – to rave reviews. Buy the book here: 


Photograph: iStock

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