Books Magazine

How Do You Know If a Novel’s Worth Writing?

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

How do you know if a novel’s worth writing?A few weeks ago I was walking along Newport Sands in Pembrokeshire with a clear head and a feeling of serenity – unfortunately it didn’t last long.  I recently had a big breakthrough in the first draft of my new novel and want to do nothing but write, but a couple of very stressful things have cropped up elsewhere and my concentration is shot to pieces.  But actually, this conflict between writing and real life, the things you want to do and those you could completely do without, is relevant to this week’s impromptu subject.  I’d only just noticed there was a gap in the schedule when a friend mentioned on Twitter that she’s been mulling over an idea for a novel for seven years and is still trying to decide ‘if it’s worth writing’.

Ah, I thought, as someone interested in all things motivation.  That’s an interesting question to look at.  Like almost everything about writing, it touches on some very personal and complex factors: our individual value systems – the different ways to measure worth and find meaning; what each of us considers a good use of time and a satisfactory ‘return on investment’. This is an opinionated post but my thoughts and experience are just to get things started – I’d love to hear yours.  And whilst this is not advice, if any of it makes you want to start or keep writing, great, because I hope that’s always the message you get from me!

Let’s get the ugly one out of the way.

What is anything worth?  As I became all too aware during my years as a stay-at-home mother, we live in a society where worth (and self-worth) are primarily measured in monetary reward and visible achievement.  Money’s an especially touchy subject when it comes to writing and creative endeavour generally.  A few authors do earn serious money from writing, some make a good living; sadly most of us do not.  I’ve written three novels so far (optimistically including my WIP, since it’s passed the point of no return), one of which has been published and sold respectably. If I were to divide what I’ve earned by the number of hours I’ve ever spent on them, not only would I not be making anywhere near the minimum wage, I’d be running a huge deficit.  Many times I’ve questioned what I’m doing – with the logical mind set I’d apply to anything else it makes no sense – and yet I’m always saying it’s worth it.  Clearly millions of people, published or not, think it’s worth writing novels with no guaranteed outcome.  Why is that?

A different set of factors enter into play.  The storytelling impulse in humans is very strong; we think, talk, dream in stories.  We crave story, whether it’s gossip, books, movies (I recommend reading screenwriting books to find out more about this – it’s fascinating).  It’s the means and the term we use to describe our own lives.  If you love the written word and have an idea for a story, it’s natural to consider writing a novel.  The right idea won’t leave you alone.  It grows bigger and brighter and won’t stick to your waking hours.  You get a rush just thinking about it (well, I do).  People often say, and I’d agree, that by the time they started writing their novel it was something they simply had to do, or at least try.

Once you’ve got an idea, how hard can it be?

My personal answer: it’s not as easy as it looks but nor is it as hard as it’s sometimes made out.  When I’m reading something really good it feels as if that book couldn’t have been written any other way.  I now know the huge amount of belief and determination and hard work that goes into making that happen, via trial and error.  I know the grit it takes to learn to manage the self-doubt, blocks and frustrations that are an unavoidable part of the process (my recent piece on Resilient Thinking and First Drafts was popular, if you haven’t seen it.)

People who don’t write often think coming up with ideas is the hard part – it isn’t.  But when it comes to knowing which idea to invest in, it’s enough of a challenge to write a novel which will keep the reader entertained for a few days; as the author you’re living with that story for a year, two, maybe even longer. My first rule is not to bore myself.  I want the process of writing a novel to mirror the experience of reading a good one:  starting from an enticing premise, fueling my curiosity, dragging me in deeper all the time, compelling me to stay with it until the end.  If the writer is passionately engaged in their story and the telling, it ups the chances that the reader will be too.

That all sounds very lovely, but reality will eventually kick in if you are seeking publication.  Just about the only writing advice I have consistently taken and passed on is to write the book you want to write.  I would find it very difficult to do otherwise.  Despite all those tedious ‘How to write a Bestseller’ articles, there is no magic formula, no computer programme where you can enter your book idea and find out the odds; there are just too many intangibles, like luck, timing, coincidence, trends and whether key individuals think your sweat and tears add up to anything which might sell and which anyone would enjoy reading.  (Note: these are seen as two separate issues.  Unfortunately.)

If your premise or subject is really original and makes everyone who hears it quiver with anticipation, that is promising.  But being aware that it isn’t is not necessarily a bad thing – let’s face it, most stories have been told before in some form.  Knowing that the premise of my published novel Paris Mon Amour is an out and out Mrs Robinson style cliché didn’t put me off, it made me work harder to bring something of my own to it.  There are a couple of themes that I feel I’ve encountered too often, and then a book comes along which makes me forget that entirely.

Apologies if anyone read this hoping for an answer.  My feeling is that it comes down to instinct in the end: do you feel driven to write this book?  (If not, fine, write something else!) Will you regret it eternally if you never do?  Writing is a transformative process which goes beyond quantifiable output.  You can’t write fiction without thinking beyond the limits of your own experience, without taking risks, without learning something regardless of where it leads (if anywhere).  I’ve heard a lot of writers rant about a lot of things but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘writing that was a waste of time’.  As I said to my friend – one of the many I’ve made through writing – I believe any novel you can be bothered to start and finish is a book worth writing.


Next week I’ll be writing a review of former junior doctor Adam Kay’s memoir This is going to hurt, following tonight’s event at my local Big Green Bookshop.

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