How to write an award-winning bestselling first novel | Nathan Filer | [email protected]



on a rainy spring day in 2009 I shuffled into a lecture theatre at the University of Bristol to listen to a presentation entitled evidence-based approaches to positive psychology I was deeply deeply miserable depression ironically was my bread and butter at this time I'd spent the last three years of my life surrounded by filing cabinets in a cramped office where I helped to administer large scale trials comparing the efficacy of talking therapies looking at side effects of antidepressants that sort of thing and it was good work and it was important work the problem I wasn't any good at it my aptitude first statistics was woeful I was slow with databases and spreadsheets I'm not especially imaginative with PowerPoint as will become evident I needed a friend to even help me with this my heart was elsewhere locked away in my drawer at home were the first 20 pages of a novel which I've been meaning to write for years only where was the time then slumped at my desk on that rainy spring day an email arrived reminding reminding us that everyone was welcome to attend the lunchtime lecture I read the title again evidence-based approaches to positive psychology these things tend to suffer from a lofty verbosity translate how to be happy I grabbed my coat the notes I made during that lecture remain pinned to the the cork board which this represents above my writing desk five years and one novel later they contain no insights in how to shape a compelling plot there's nothing on writing convincing dialogue or characterization there are no well-worn wisdoms on the importance of cutting adverbs though you should you should cut your adverbs but writing a novel demands far more than the words we place on the page so today I present to you how to write an award-winning best-selling first novel or at the very least to be happier whilst trying this is a seven step guide it's guaranteed to work step one have a specific goals the operative word here is specific my paella page is hidden away my desk my intention to be a writer one day it was a star but it was too vague it didn't bother me that I would put my manuscript aside for a week a month six months at a time and why should it I'd get there eventually the problem when our goals aren't specific is that it's all too easy to convince ourselves that we're getting there when actually were not then at the other end of the journey it can be difficult to truly savor the attainment of ill-defined goals because it's not so clear when we've achieved them so here's what they did I replaced I want to be a writer something I'm still not actually sure I've achieved with I will write something to date that's pretty specific yeah on the first day in a frenzy of positivity I wrote a page the next day I deleted that page but I also wrote a paragraph that paragraph went to at the end of the first week I had written 2,000 words that would never make it into my novel but I'd also written what would become the first line it was there waiting step to make sure your goals are achievable as my novel progressed as I knew with greater certainty my central character and how his story would unfold myself tougher goals today I will fix that work some issue with the chronology this week I'll finish chapter four next week I will send off a sample of my writing to a literary agent etc my vague desire to be a novelist to be a writer had been replaced with these very clear very specific goals and it felt great because they felt achievable all too often in life we we set ourselves unachievable goals and we feel really bad about ourselves for failing many writers set themselves a word claim target and and and I tried this as well it can be helpful for some people like I said I need to write a thousand words a day and that's not so much but still I struggled with it so I set myself an achievable goal instead I told myself do you know what it doesn't really matter if all I write is ten words it doesn't really matter if I delete fifty words what I need to do is spend a time at my computer trying a lot of time I couldn't quit my job but I could spend two hours every single evening I could spend five hours over the weekend and this worked for a while too and I progressed and and I was moving the novel on but writing can be hard and lonely and disheartening I'd sent off a sample of my work to an agent and then the rejection letter arrived I took that day off of course I took that day off I took the week off I stopped step three be prepared to fail I mean it sounds obvious doesn't it but we can all do with a reminder from time to time and I'm pleased that I still have these notes pinned above my desk the important thing is to see failures along the way for what they are there step backs in a longer journey but they're not at the end of the road I don't think there could be a writer and I don't think I can be a person alive but I certainly don't think there can be a writer alive who hasn't run into some sort of failure in that career a rejection letter well that's a hiccup three rejection letters well as three hiccups what about 30 rejection letters I would suggest to you that if you get 30 rejection letters for your novel there's a chance that your novel isn't any good but that's not the same as you not being any good however much of ourselves we pour into our writing it's never the whole of us and besides you're not trying to be a writer remember you're trying to write this specific novel if it doesn't work out why not try writing another one my debut a book which is garnered a great deal of attention and praise it wasn't the first novel that I wrote it was just the first novel that I got published years before I wrote a children's book it had a talking worm in it that novel got a whole heap of rejections they weren't all automated rejections some of them were but some of the publishers took the time to write to me with a few words of encouragement to say there was something about the style of it they liked I was being told that I wasn't bad the rejection letter for my second debut went a step further it's good it said it's not for us but it's good step 4 base your affirmations in fact good isn't great but good is good and good might just be good enough I think it's important to give ourselves a pep talk from time to time err a few words of encouragement writing on the whole is a solitary experience and it can be a long time before we hear praise from anyone else but the important thing is to base the praise that we give ourselves on facts if you tell yourself you're the world's most remarkable storyteller you've got a pretty long way to fool but that sentence you wrote the other day that sentence when you captured the precise moment your protagonist realized the truth that was really really good that would stand up in any novel you need to savor those moments it may be your private burden for suffer the anxieties of writing but it is also your unique privilege to be the first in line to enjoy what you create step 5 be flexible in how you get that a hundred pages in I hit a wall writing a novel is an enormous undertaking and we learn so much about ourselves along the way sitting at my desk even with the private pep talks was no longer working out for me so I changed tact I enrolled on a creative writing course a master's in creative writing right here in bath I never planned to do that from the start but that doesn't matter what matters is your specific achievable goal I'd set out to write this novel not to doing so without help and for me doing the creative writing course was very helpful but they can present their own challenges too when we share our work with lots of people it's all too easy to be buffeted around in the winds of conflicting advice so step 6 take responsibility this is your novel if it does get published well it's going to have your name on the cover you can't write a book by committee that doesn't mean we should ignore advice from other people far from it say you are you write a chapter and you share it with 10 friends and all 10 of them come back to you and say the scene with the meringue it doesn't work I think it'd be a good idea to revisit the scene with the meringue but if only one of them says the scene with the meringue doesn't work well your opinion counts too if a reader is able to fully understand what you've tried to achieve and can tell you why you haven't achieved it that is really useful advice if they just don't have a taste for meringue and you do you need to take responsibility and keep the delicious meringue the final step is to focus on what you control one way into publishing is to is to get a literary agent that's a that's a way that many people go on to have a book on the shelves and if you want to get a literary agent you can be sure to select an agent that is accepting submissions in your genre you can look at their submission criteria and you can fastidiously adhere to them these are the things that you control what you don't control is whether the agent chooses to represent you if the agent does choose to represent you what you don't control is whether or not you get published if you do get published what you don't control is what the novels cover will look like what you don't control is whether the novel will be reviewed if it is reviewed you don't control whether those reviews will be favorable you don't control which shops will stock it you don't control if any shops will stock it you don't control how many people will buy it and you don't control how they will receive it so don't give another thought to writing a best-selling novel and don't think about writing an award-winning novel focus instead on what you control think about the next sentence and you might just be going in the right direction five years on from that rainy spring day my novel is on the shelves and and and it has been it has been well received it's been better received than the talking worm but that doesn't mean that it's all a breeze I keep those notes attached to the pinboard above my writing desk and I refer to them often and I should probably refer to them even more often because writing you so hard and and I often fucked her and as for being a writer I think that's always a work in progress I was asked to write this this TED talk and to come and speak to you today and I didn't really know where to start or what I wanted to say so I set myself a specific achievable goal to spend an hour at my keyboard here's wishing you are every success with your own first novels if you want to write a personal wall or in theatres wishing you every success with whatever your goals are and much more importantly every happiness thank you very much

47 thoughts on “How to write an award-winning bestselling first novel | Nathan Filer | [email protected]

  1. "…Fiction Writing is a very noble occupation. But do it alone, and make sure you wash your hands afterwards!…" -Robert A. Heinlein

  2. J. K. Rowling got rejected countless times before she got published.

    She had a hard life and a busy schedule.

    Now she is one of the most successful authors in the world.

    Never give up.

  3. JK Rowling couldn't get published at first either – she was denied 12 times. Now look at the Harry Potter fanbase…it's huge, and even years after the final book is written and even the movies were done Harry Potter merchandise is still popular.

  4. Nathan, you are a jewel and a sweetheart- all my best to you in 2019. Now, I’m going to go look up your book.

  5. Write well. Take droplets of ideas from a few thousand cups and make it less than 1% of what you structure. I was over the moon with a publisher contacting me but I'm yet to see anyone making more money from actually writing than using youtube or social media to tell everyone how to write. I matched a years worth of my salary on the book in the first year sales, dream goal but that doesn't mean much considering pouring time into it, if money is your thing. One year writing set back three years careerwise even after doubling a years salary. Write well. Enjoy.

  6. Brilliant. Just started my first novel and now feel better about the feelings and hesitations I have. Thanks Nathan

  7. This guy deserves a more responsive audience, what a basket of cold fish. I enjoyed the joking as well as the encouragement and the advice.

  8. I'm six and about to start my fist novel about detectives and dinosaurs; the dinosaurs were hats- yellow hats.

  9. I love TED talks. the lectures are always so helpful and for lack of a better word, you hear straight from the horse' mouth

  10. He is right though that you're more likely to get somewhere by setting smaller goals more frequently than having just one huge goal. I mean to get somewhere really worth getting in the areas of skill that are truly worth having it takes a lot of TIME and practice, so learning how to practice most effectively for yourself is a huge part of that but for me I know for a fact that setting smaller goals and maintaining reasonable expectations for yourself is not only healthier for you psychologically speaking, you're also more likely to get further on your journey (and faster, too, I imagine) than if you just like, say "I want to be a rockstar who plays lead guitar so I will go buy a guitar and lock myself in a room for 8 hours a day like I heard Slash or <insert guitar player here for this metaphor> did and only practice scales" good luck staying motivated, that sort of thing drains the fun right out of it it would seem like. That's just one example though you can apply it to anything though I imagine.

  11. A good revisit and understood in a new way. Less how to, more cherry picking ideas to find sparks of meaning related to my path.

    I cannot imagine gathering the energy to actually write a novel or other sorts of books. It’s a shared dream but the power of procrastination preparing me for the right moment. The moment is now, for so many different things.

  12. This was great, been searching for "sell freelance writing" for a while now, and I think this has helped. Have you heard people talk about – Fiyyan Freelance Fraternity – (Have a quick look on google cant remember the place now ) ? Ive heard some amazing things about it and my neighbour got excellent results with it.

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