How Not to Write a Novel

My Journey Through Failure

My First "Novel"

I recently threw out the first book I ever wrote. It was from year one, when I was five going on six. I wrote a series of seven books that year. The longest was four pages with two or three sentences on each and some illustrations. In year five I wrote the start of a choose-your-own-adventure type book and numerous short stories.

My First Magazine Articles and Dungeons and Dragons

In year eight I “started” a computer games magazine and wrote some articles about my favourite computer games of the time. Through the rest of high school, I ran several Dungeons and Dragons games where I developed my own world setting complete with creation myth, cataclysms and prophecy.

Short Stories for Grades and Prizes

In year eleven I wrote a short story explaining vitamin B for my chemistry report and another short story for my physics final assignment. I got an A for physics and a B+ for chemistry that year. In year twelve I won a short story competition and got a story published in a state schools compilation book.

Joy in University

It is fair to say that despite my love of computers and all things technical and science related, I found joy in writing. I could express my dreams and explore scenarios and ideas that simply weren’t possible in reality. I carried this joy into university where I studied literature and psychology as my double major in arts.

Writing Gave Way to Money

However, it didn’t take long before my older brother graduated with his Master of Economics degree majoring in actuarial studies and landed a high paying job. I dreamed of when I finished university and went into the world. There wasn’t much on my horizon in the realms of literature, and psychology would require six to nine years of study and experience to be qualified to do anything. I changed major and stopped creative writing. Or did I?

I Didn’t Know How to Start

All through university, through business school with a double major in computing and marketing, I ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign set in the world I’d created in high school. On and off I took notes about a possible story, but I never started it. I didn’t know how to structure it, where to start or what to do if I did finish.

My Dad Wrote a Book

Fast forward past numerous years until I found myself sitting on the train reading books on my hour-long commute. I checked my phone and found an email from my father. He’d written a novel. I read it cover to cover and inspiration struck me. I had a one-hour trip in the morning and another in the evening where I sat on a train with my laptop. I wrote. Slowly at first but then with increasing vigour. Before long I’d written around forty thousand words. I was understandably proud of my achievement, so I was especially disappointed when I had to toss them out. The story was going nowhere, I didn’t know who the characters were, and I didn’t know how it ended.

I Was Burnt Out

That first book took me another two years to complete. I’d started twice after the first time and cut more words. I had half of another novel in cut pages and chapters. I worked hard rewriting and trying to get it to work. At the end, I had a story that mostly worked but to this day I am not satisfied with it. I wrote most of book two before I got a bit sick of it. I wrote sixty thousand words of two other novels that were unrelated to the first two. I started a blog and wrote several short stories and my observations of writing. Then children came along causing my brain to flip out and I left the writing behind.

I Changed

With my beautiful children grown to the age where they were both in school, I started getting the urge to return to writing. This time it would be different. I’d learned the tough lessons and I was determined to not repeat my mistakes. I’d been listening to audio books in the car as I drove my errands and when I rode my bike to the train station each morning. I loved the way the audio books transported me to new worlds. Having run out of audio books I turned to an audio streaming platform that I got unmetered data for with my phone plan. I discovered podcasts. Audio drama podcasts. They are like audio books but with voice actors playing different roles and sound effects and music taking the place of narration. I really wanted to create one.

I Learned

My wife and I had been, for quite some time, talking about business ideas and working on various schemes to earn money for ourselves. She had taken up a multi-level marketing company and was doing well. I had started an online clothing retail store. With plans to grow our respective businesses, we enrolled in an intensive business coaching course. Leading up to that course I gave up on the clothing retail store, finally admitting that it wasn’t floating my boat. I started writing an audio drama script. At the business training I realized that the only way I’d be satisfied with business would be if it was a creative business centred around science fiction and fantasy. I’d already written season one of my audio drama Exit Plan and so went with that.

What Did I Learn?

What was different this time around? How come I had finished this script and then gone on to write two more seasons and three novels? The difference was the business training. I learned what I should have already known: trust the process. The process is what others before me have established, but I was too stubborn or afraid to take heed of. We all think we can do it on our own or that we know better. We don’t. I didn’t.

To write and complete these three Exit Plan novels I researched how to do it. I researched the various structures and tools that have been developed by great storytellers over time. Those tools, frameworks and ideas merged in my brain and I developed a step by step framework I could use to reliably create working stories.

And that is key: reliably create working stories.

It is possible, as I demonstrated with my first novel (as yet unpublished as it needs some work) to just sit and start writing and end up with a novel. But it is not a reliable way to create and it often leads to fatigue and burn-out. I spent somewhere around three years dealing with that first book. After my research and after the business coaching it took me just under twelve months to write and produce forty-two episodes of the Exit Plan audio drama and write three sixty-thousand word Exit Plan novels. That level of creative productivity was unthinkable for me prior to putting everything together.

Here I am now, sharing my research, continuing to develop my frameworks and producing more books.

Surrey's urban / contemporary fantasy trilogy, Exit Plan, is based on the audio drama podcast of the same name. The books are available now on Amazon in Kindle and print format. The audio drama is available at

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