When I started writing The Other Daughter in 2016, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d tried to write a novel several times before, and I once finished a complete manuscript which was in hindsight pretty bad. So starting what would become my debut novel felt like going back to the beginning again. Thankfully, I learnt plenty along the way.
1. Read lots
If you like to write, you probably also like to read. But if you want to write a novel, try to read in a different way. How do your favourite authors develop character? How do they segue seamlessly from a section of present-day action to a paragraph of flashback? How do they show their characters’ feelings through dialogue or action? When I started writing The Other Daughter I re-read books I admired and tried to understand how they were written. And if I was stuck for how to do something, I’d look to see how they did it. This isn’t about copying the prose or the story, but understanding techniques that will help you develop your own.
2. Know your characters
For me, story comes from character. Who is your main protagonist? What do they want and why aren’t they able to achieve it (if they can achieve it easily, you haven’t got a story)? What are their hopes and fears, quirks and habits? I don’t think you have to know all this straight away, and I’m not one for writing out character CVs or entire histories before I start a novel (I know some writers do this) but I do need to know essentially what kind of character I'm writing about. With this as a starting point, you’ll discover more about them and what happens to them (ie, the plot) as you go.
3. Learn the rules (even if you break them)
I’d never done any creative writing courses before I started The Other Daughter, and I knew very little about the ‘craft’ of writing a novel. Then I read John Yorke’s Into The Woods and it was a bit of a revelation. It’s not about novel writing exactly, but stories as a whole, explaining why most successful films and books work. It introduced me to character arcs, inciting incidents, three-act structures, crises and resolutions, and by applying these concepts to my novel, I suddenly had a structure (not something I’d ever thought much about before). I don’t think writers should follow ‘rules’ to the letter, but I do think it’s useful to know about them, because they are well-used story devices for a good reason. You might even find you are following some of the rules already, without even realising it.
4. Just write
The blank page is a scary thing, but you have to start somewhere. Try to put words on the page each day, even if you don’t manage many and they aren’t very good. You can always go back and edit them later, but you need something to work with first. A writer is like a ceramicist: you start with a big ugly chunk of clay and gradually work on it and refine it until something wonderful (hopefully!) appears.
5. Thinking is writing
Having said that, for me the thinking process is just as big a part of writing as actually putting words on a page. If you’re stuck, don’t just sit there trying to force words out. Take a break, go for a walk or a swim, and think about it. Why are you stuck? Is it because you don’t know what your character wants (this, for me, is usually the problem)? Is it because your structure isn’t quite right? Are you writing in a tense or from a point of view that isn’t working? Give yourself some serious thinking time and go back to the screen when you have an idea of how to solve your problem.
6. Plan a little (but not necessarily a lot)
When I was floundering in the sticky middle of The Other Daughter, someone very wise told me to create a document containing a brief synopsis of each of my chapters and scenes so far. Doing this clarified a lot in my mind about my novel’s structure (or lack of) and helped me look ahead to the next scenes and chapters. I’m not a big planner – I like to discover the story as I write – but when I started to plan just a chapter or two ahead, it really helped me to see where the novel was going and actually get to the end of that first draft.
7. Make stuff happen
It sounds obvious, but something should happen in every scene of your novel. Don’t get bogged down in reams of backstory. Don’t have whole chapters where characters sit around pondering their lives. Make them ponder their lives while something happens. Weave in their backstory around a point of action. Your novel will be far more interesting for doing so.
8. Don’t despair at your first draft
When I look back at early drafts of The Other Daughter, I cringe. But it’s also really heartening to read them, because it shows me how far I’ve come. Maybe some authors write a publishable first draft, but I’m certainly not one of them. But it doesn’t matter. First drafts are when you shove all your ideas down on a page (some writers call it the vomit draft) and see what happens. It’s that ugly chunk of clay. But who cares? You’ve got something to work with now.
9. Edit, edit, edit
I love editing far more than writing a first draft. It’s when you get to turn a collection of words and ideas into the marvellous creation in your head. Well, you might never attain those heady heights, but you can try and get close. Editing isn’t just about correcting typos and changing the odd sentence here and there. Really analyse your story. Does each chapter and scene move the plot forward? Does the story flow? Are the characters well rounded? Does the plot hook the reader in and make them want to keep reading? Are there any dull parts? In his book On Writing Stephen King instructs you to ‘kill your darlings’. For a long time I didn’t know what that meant – get rid of every line or word you’re proud of? Not at all. What I think he means is that every sentence, every paragraph has to serve your story. So if you love the way you’ve written that section of backstory or flashback but it does nothing to move your story along or develop a character, then be ruthless and cut it.
10. Don’t give up
Some writers manage to get published with their first novel at the age of 23, but many others are finally published when they’re 50 or 60 with their sixth, tenth, fifteenth manuscript. I’m somewhere in the middle. I first started trying to write a novel in my late 20s, and my debut will be published when I’m 43. I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m glad my first attempts at novel writing weren’t published because they weren’t very good. The key is to keep going, keep improving, keep learning. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published. Write what you want, not what the trends tell you to. And one day, you might just see a book with your name on it on a shelf in a bookshop.
The Other Daughter is published in February 2021. Pre-order it here.