Do You Know Where You're Going? The Art of Writing a Novel

Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O’Connell (English Lit and Theatre Studies, 1995, Lonsdale) talks about how the process of writing her debut novel Beauty and the Bin demanded a similar, creative headspace to the one she enjoyed during her time at Lancaster.

The early, deeply creative stage of writing the first draft of a novel can be intense. Many people suggest allowing yourself time to daydream. There’s a lot of advice about how you need to ‘get into character’, to listen carefully to how others speak, and to work almost when you’re half asleep. All of which pretty much sums up how I spent my time at Lancaster. 

Writing a piece of fiction is a different process to other forms of writing. I’ve spent twenty years as a journalist (writing for the Guardian and others), running content sites for lawyers (such as and writing copy for food brands. This kind of writing is fast paced. There are tight deadlines but it’s straightforward: you’re working to a detailed brief; you know where you’re going.

But when you’re writing a novel, however much you plan, you don’t always know when you’re going. And when I was at Lancaster, I didn’t know where I was going either. Not career wise, anyway. This is partly because in the early nineties, we weren’t connected in the way students are now. We didn’t have the internet let alone smartphones or streaming services – we actually rented a television. So, I didn’t often think about the world beyond the duck pond (or Lonsdale Bar). I didn’t want to imagine being as old as I am now (shudder!), and I had no idea where I’d end up.

And it didn’t matter. Now, when I look back on my student experience – it was 25 years ago – that time seems like such a luxury, and it’s one that I hugely value, personally as well as professionally. All those hours spent laughing with friends led to life-long friendships (plus, I’m married to my university housemate!), rehearsals in the Nuffield Theatre helped me to ‘get into character’. And as for working while half asleep what better training than an all-night essay crisis? 

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