Want to write a novel but don’t have a plot? No problem. You don’t need one.

Discovering your ‘secret novel’ involves three easy steps: climb into the roller coaster, strap yourself in and hold onto your hat!

Before we begin the wild ride, let’s look at two terms. People who write fiction fall into two broad categories: plotters and pantsers.

Plotters plan their books in advance. The plot determines how the events interweave, how the characters behave and what happens at the end. Plotters write detailed profiles of each character, from the sexual proclivities of their grandfathers to what they snack on at midnight. Plotters may get a few surprises as they write but mostly they know their story. It’s comforting. And potentially … dull.

Pantsers write ‘by the seat of their pants’. They’re keyhole peepers who have no idea what’s on the other side of the door. Their novels and their characters are a mystery to them and they discover the story by writing it. It’s a wild ride. Scary and deep. It’s also serious fun.

Your Secret Novel

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The quote from Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) says it all: The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. Each one has crossed a border which I myself have circumvented. Beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about.

Wow. The characters are going places the writer hasn’t been. That’s why the novel is a secret – a secret the writer must discover. Not by plotting, by writing. Roller coaster time!

One Sentence and You’re Away

Sit down at a blank screen and wait. When a sentence pops into your head, write it down – even if you know it’s rubbish. It might be rubbish, it’s too early to tell. At the moment you’re in discovery mode and you won’t discover your secret novel if you keep deleting the first sentence.

Write Quickly Without Judgement

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One sentence leads to another and another. It’s called writing. Let your fingers reveal the first glimpses of your secret novel. Fill a few pages, letting the thoughts flow.

Schmooze that Voice

Every writer – you’re a writer already – has a ‘who-do-you-think-you-are?’ voice. It nags at you to give up and retile the bathroom or raid the fridge. Schmooze this voice by promising it a turn later – when you’re redrafting. Back to the book.

Be Sociable

Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) wrote: I don’t create characters, I meet them.

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This is such a liberating way to discover your characters. Just like real people turn up in your life, let your characters gradually reveal themselves. Write dialogue without knowing what the characters are going to say. They’ll shock you – perhaps with their grandfather’s sexual proclivities or what they snack on at midnight. They’ll take you to those wild places on the other side of the door, beyond that border you circumvented. Hold onto your hat!

Two Steps Forward One Step Back

Each time you write, reread what you wrote last time and tweak it. You might resave each session’s work as a new file so you don’t lose anything. This is part of the drafting process – cut things you don’t like and expand the good things with extra detail, paring back and fleshing out as you go.

Let It Ride

When ideas pop into your head, pop them into the manuscript and let them niggle away until you know why they’re there. Keep a notebook by your bed. Your sleeping mind will join some subconscious dots – the dots your waking mind has circumvented.

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The End

You’ll get glimpses of the end, but hold them lightly. Playwright Maria Irene Fornes said: The moment you start pushing them to go in a certain direction, your characters stop talking.

Keep them talking by pantsing your way to the last page. The ending will blow your hat off.


Would you write a book? What would it be about? Have you started?