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Anthony Horowitz's Guide to Writing a Novel

Anthony Horowitz's Guide to Writing a Novel

Anthony Horowitz's Guide to Writing a Novel
12 November 2014

Anthony Horowitz – bestselling author of current Sherlock hit Moriarty and the next James Bond book – gives his personal tips

“I want to be a writer.”

A lot of people have said this to me and every time I hear it, I’m afraid my heckles slightly rise. Maybe I’m getting grumpy as I get older, but it seems to me that nobody wants to be a writer – they just are. Speaking personally, I knew from the age of 10 that there was no plan B for me. I only felt complete when I had a pen in my hand, and if my career hadn’t taken off with Alex Rider (after 15 near misses… I was far from an overnight success) I don’t know what would have become of me.

But let’s imagine that you’re reading this because you are about to embark on a novel with the serious aim of being published and you want some guidance. If so, read on. I’ll try to encapsulate my thoughts into eight simple precepts. It’s lovely to think that maybe someone out there will read this and become the next JK Rowling. And why not? JK was just a single mother sitting alone in a café until she wrote the right book.


I have at least a dozen ideas every day. There isn’t a single thing in the world that doesn’t have a story attached to it, and all you have to do is ask the right questions. An example: there’s a black telephone box outside my house that’s never actually had a telephone installed. What’s it doing there? Who paid for it? This could be the beginning of a sci-fi novel (it’s a portal to another university), a spy story (it’s an MI6 dead letter box) or a satire (it’s a costly mistake by an incompetent council… possibly true). It could be the start of a novel, a short story or a TV episode – a remake of The Avengers, perhaps.

You can find an idea anywhere. The trick is knowing what to do with it and being sure that it’s a good one. Ask yourself – do you want to live with it for the next two or three years? That’s the acid test.


You’ve decided on your idea. Next comes the structure. I spent longer structuring my last book, Moriarty (a dark, twisty thriller) than I did writing it. The structure is the street map that will guide you round the city that is your novel. It doesn’t force you to go in one direction, but it makes sure you always know where you are.

I believe books have a shape. You have to see them before you can write them and my notebooks are filled with doodles, scribbles, arrows, dotted lines – I’ll even draw (bad) pictures of a scene before I write it. Sometimes I’ll surprise myself. I’ll forget the structure and head off in a completely new direction. But I still know where I am and where I have to get to.


For me, characters often begin with their name. This is something I learned from Charles Dickens. After all, if you were taught by someone called Wackford Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby), you wouldn’t have particularly high hopes. I think of the role of a character – hero, friend, victim, investigator, lover – and attach a name that starts the process of characterisation. Then I start asking questions: how old are they? Where do they live? Are they rich or poor? Where do they work? Are they married or single? Gay or straight? What will they be doing on a wet Saturday afternoon? The more questions you ask, the fuller and richer they will be.

A little short cut: I often base my characters on people I know and on people in the news. For example, Clarence Devereux – the villain in Moriarty – is based on a very famous politician. His name comes from a friend of mine. Bringing the two together has created an impossibly unpleasant human being, but one who is essentially real.


It helps to write from a position of authority. Don’t bore your readers with endless facts, but just nudge them now and then to let them know you know what you’re writing about.

I often use historical facts or current events as the basis of my books. For example, my James Bond novel has a story that comes straight out of the Fifties and I’ve spent months pinning it down, visiting libraries, talking to people, using the internet. Having a villain who wants to blow up the world is fine and dandy, but all good stories are based on some sort of truth.


Every writer is different – but not for me the strict regiment, so many words by lunchtime. I may be wrong. This system works for some authors, but I’ve always believed that writing is more a way of life than a job. I like my days to be varied, intuitive. I never sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper. If the words aren’t coming, I go out for a walk, visit a museum, see a film. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never worried about writer’s block that I’ve never suffered from it.


Anywhere, any time, as often or as little as you like. I now have an office dedicated to my writing but I’m just as happy working on a train, in a café or wherever I happen to be. I wrote several of my first novels in Brompton Cemetery (it was quiet and the residents never complained). Roald Dahl wrote in a shed at the bottom of his garden. Sir Walter Scott apparently wrote on horseback.

Here’s something that Margaret Thatcher once said and it’s great advice for new writers: “Never underestimate what you can achieve in an hour.” It’s absolutely true. One hour a day and you could have a novel within a year.


My advice is never show your work to anyone until it’s finished. If your partner flatters you, that may not help (they just don’t want to offend you), while criticism can make you doubt yourself. Finish the book, then show it to your nearest and dearest. Fear flattery but embrace criticism. Remember that, ultimately, the only opinion that matters is yours.


Why are you writing a novel? Do you want to be published? Do you want to self-publish? Do you want to be rich? I write because I love telling stories and because there is nothing else I want to do. Even if no one bought my books, I know I would go on writing.

And that’s the best attitude. Don’t worry about publishers, agents, critics, partners, friends or even readers. Believe me that deals and bestseller lists are the part of writing that I enjoy least. Immerse yourself in your work. Believe in yourself and enjoy what you’re doing. There is nothing quite as fulfilling as the act of writing. The rest can look after itself.

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz is out now, priced £19.99 (Orion)


(Images: Rex)