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A novel approach

How does one write a novel? Short Course alumna Rachel Mann gives us the low-down.

Since the publication of my first novel, On Blackberry Hill, this past summer, many people have asked me: How long did it take to write? I find this seemingly simple question hard to answer. Maybe what they mean is: How did you do it? This is what people really want to know, isn’t it? How does one write a novel?

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are novelists. Here’s how I did it. In the winter of 2008, I was working as an editor in educational publishing in New York, when my husband accepted a job relocation to London. With two children under five, I decided to focus on helping them adjust, while also taking the opportunity to do something I had long wished to pursue: creative writing. Enrolling on City’s Novel Studio course (then called the Certificate in Novel Writing) felt like signing up to climb Everest. I had never written a story longer than ten pages.

The course began with a focus on reading novels of all genres, and on the fundamentals of strong stories. I felt excited and ready to undertake the task of writing my own novel, as I began to evaluate writing from a writer’s perspective, not just from a reader’s. The tutors broke up the monumental process into manageable chunks, guiding us through small goals. As Anne Lamott explains in her influential book, writing is accomplished “bird by bird.” In other words: one image, one scene, one sentence at a time. The camaraderie and the ritual of meeting with other writers for hours each week really drove my commitment to spend the time necessary to complete the novel.

I decided to set my novel in an American summer camp, a setting deeply familiar to me, but foreign to every one of my classmates. Having a thoughtful audience for my earliest drafts helped to push me to make the story accessible to a wide range of readers. I finished the course with an outline and 50 pages. We had a reading for friends, family, agents and publishers, which pushed us to think of our novels as real products, not just class exercises. By the following spring, I had a complete first draft.

So what happened next? Life. My family moved back to New York, and we had a third child. I networked, went to conferences, wrote new pieces, and revised and revised my novel. There were long stretches of time when I didn’t look at the manuscript at all, as other pressing concerns took hold. In the end, it was my Novel Studio classmate and friend Justine Solomons, founder of Byte the Book, who helped me to publish the novel at long last.

As you see, writing a novel, at least for me, was a meandering process that took almost 8 years from first scribbles to printed book. It’s been so rewarding to hear reader feedback, from old friends to other writers, to young readers who relate to the teenage characters. Writing and completing a work is its own reward, but having readers respond to one’s writing is a greater thrill yet.

I remain grateful to the community of my City Novel Studio course, many of whom gathered together to share and critique writing even after the course ended. We continue to share and celebrate one another’s successes to this day.

City’s Novel Studio 2017 will be open for applications in February.

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.