Claire Douglas, winner of the Marie Claire Debut Novel Awards and author of ‘The Sisters’, gives her tips on writing a novel.
How did it all start?
I’d already written the first chapter (about 2,000 words) of The Sisters, when I saw the competition in Marie Claire. So I carried on writing and submitted the first 6,000 words and a two page synopsis. By the time I found out I’d won, I’d written about 20,000 words of my first novel!
What happened next?
My prize was an introduction to an agent – Juliet Mushens from The Agency Group (who was one of the judges). She went on to represent me, and has been amazing! The other part of the prize was a publishing contract with HarperCollins and a £5,000 advance. I worked with an editor, Martha Ashby, and a publisher, Kim Young, at Harper.
I submitted by finished draft to them in April 2014 and they’ve worked on it with me ever since. I think the editing process was about a year in total. I feel so lucky to have been given the opportunity to work with such a supportive, talented team.
Rule Number 1: Get the story on paper
I wrote the first three chapters of The Sisters for the Marie Claire competition, so I spent ages going over and over those first 6,000 words, holding them to within an inch of their lives. Yet when it came to writing the rest of the novel, I couldn’t stop going back over my work, all the while worrying that I wasn’t writing to the standard of the first three chapters. I realised that if I was going to keep polishing the same chapters, I would never finish the novel. So, with great effort, I resisted the urge to edit until I’d reached the end, and as a result I wrote the novel much quicker.
Rule Number 2: Accept that the first draft will be awful
It doesn’t matter how rubbish the first draft is, how ineloquent the phrases are, or how clunky the dialogue may be; it’s important to get the story down, and then in the editing stages go back over the words and polish. Write down everything you want to say in the first draft, even if you later take it out. Once you have the story down on the page, it will become much clearer what needs to be refined. The magic is in the editing!
Rule Number 3: Have the confidence to write the novel you really want to write
Before I started writing The Sisters, I had several other unpublished pieces of work, mainly because I was trying to write romantic comedies instead of what was in my heart, something much darker, mysterious and twisted. The characters fermented in my mind for months until I knew I had to get them down on the page.
Rule Number 4: Try not to plan too much
I wrote a two-page outline for the novel and I knew what the major twists would be and how it would end, I was just unsure how the characters would get from A to B. But the fun part is when the characters actually start to take on a life of their own, rather than saying, or doing, what I tell them to.
Rule Number 5: Write, even if you don’t want to
There are times when I had flashes of inspiration that I couldn’t wait to get down on paper, and others when I was faced with a bank screen as well as a blank mind. Those were the times I had to really force myself to write, instead of sloping off to watch Mad Men.
Rule Number 6: Read a lot
Reading is research (that’s my excuse anyway!), and writers learn so much from reading and re-reading. How did the author keep your attention? What made the dialogue so realistic? How did he/she manage to make you cry/laugh/terrified?
Rule Number 7: Keep a scrap folder
I learnt the hard way, by deleting a scene I thought I hated, only to realise that I didn’t despise it as much as I thought I had. It could have been worked on, but it was too late, it was long gone. Now I put all my deleted scenes or chapters in a scrap folder, just in case.
Rule Number 8: Use social media
I never used Twitter before I started writing, but I’ve now connected with so many other writers, readers and bloggers who love all books as much as I do. Writing can be lonely business, so making new friends and having that support network on Twitter or Facebook is invaluable.
Rule Number 9: And most importantly, don’t give up
Keep writing. If the first novel is unsuccessful, then write another. I wrote three before The Sisters was published. Writing is a craft and you never stop learning and improving. Believe in yourself and your talent.
The Sisters by Claire Douglas is out now.
For your opportunity to learn from some of the UK’s most distinguished writers on the essential components of novel writing, over the course of an intensive weekend join us at Creative Writing Weekend (October 22-23). Read more at: https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/creative-writing-weekend-the-essential-components-of-novel-writing-1747#2qqQfqbb7e8lpRqh.99