How to write an award-winning first novel

A few months back the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook approached me asking if I might contribute an essay for the 2015 edition. They suggested theWAYB2015 title: “How to write an award-winning first novel”.

Naturally I recoiled at this because I do try, wherever possible, not to sound like a dick. However it did strike me as a rather catchy title and, well, I did write an award winning first novel.

Also, I thought it might provide a nice excuse to talk about mental well-being and other important issues like that. If you click on the image you can order your copy. It’s a terrific book packed full of invaluable, practical information for the aspiring author and published authors alike.

Here’s my contribution:

On a rainy spring day in 2009, I shuffled into a lecture theatre at the University of Bristol to watch a presentation entitled ‘Evidence-based Approaches to Positive Psychology’. I was deeply, deeply miserable.

Depression – somewhat ironically – was my bread and butter. I’d spent the last two years of my working life surrounded by filing cabinets in a cramped office, a short walk up the road from the lecture theatre. Here I helped to administer large trials – comparing side-effects of antidepressants, the effectiveness of talking therapies, that sort of thing. It was good work, important work. The problem: I wasn’t any good at it. My aptitude for statistics is woeful. I’m slow with databases and spreadsheets. My heart was elsewhere.

At home, hidden away in a cardboard box, were the first 20 pages of a novel that I’d been planning to write for years, only where was the time?

Then on that rainy spring day, slumped at my desk, composing a newsletter, I noticed an email arrive: it was a reminder that all were welcome to the lunch-time lecture, starting in 15 minutes. I reread the title. Evidence-based Approaches to Positive Psychology. These things tend to suffer from lofty verbosity. Translate: How To Be Happy.

I grabbed my coat.

The notes I made during the lecture remain pinned to the wall above my writing desk, five years and one novel later. They don’t contain any insights on shaping a compelling plot. Nothing on characterisation or how to write convincing dialogue. There are no well-worn wisdoms on the importance of cutting adverbs. Writing a first novel demands far more than the words we place on the page. Here are my thoughts on how to do it, and moreover, for the experience to be a happier one.

Have specific goals

The operative word here is ‘specific’. My stack of pages hidden away, my hope to be a writer one day – were a start, but it was too vague.

It didn’t bother me that I would often put aside my manuscript for a month, three months, six months at a time. Why should it? I’d write it eventually. The problem, the lecturer explained, is that when our goals aren’t specific, it’s too easy to convince ourselves that we’re getting there when we’re not. Then at the other end of the journey, we tend not to properly savour the attainment of ill-defined goals, because it is less certain that we’ve reached them.

Here’s what I did. I replaced ‘I want to be a writer’ (something I’m still not convinced I’ve achieved) with ‘I’ll write something today’.

That’s pretty specific.

The first evening, in a frenzy of positivity, I wrote a page. The next day I deleted it. But I also wrote a new paragraph. That went too. By the end of the week I’d written 2,000 words that would never make it into The Shock of the Fall, and I had also written a sentence that would become the opening line. It was there, waiting.

Make sure your goals are achievable

As my novel grew, as I found the voice of my central character and knew with greater certainty how his story would unfold – I set myself tougher goals.

Today I will fix that irksome issue with the chronology. This week I will complete chapter four. Next week I shall write to an agent, etc.

My vague desire to write a novel had now been replaced with the clear intent to write this novel, to tell this specific story. That felt great, because now it felt achievable.

All too often we set ourselves unachievable goals. Then we feel bad for failing (more on failure in a bit). Many writers set themselves word count targets, and for some this is helpful. I tried it a few times – setting out to write 1,000 words a day. That isn’t so much, but I still struggled. I’m precise. I edit as I go along. My style isn’t suited to generating work quickly. So I set myself an achievable goal instead. I told myself that it didn’t matter if I only wrote ten words, or if I deleted 50. All I had to do was spend the time at my desk. A lot of time.

I couldn’t quit my job, but I could write in the evenings. Two hours every evening, without fail. Five hours on a weekend. That was achievable. It worked for a while too, but writing can be hard and lonely and disheartening. I’d written to an agent, sent off 30 pages. Then the rejection letter arrived. I took that day off, took the week off. Stopped.

Be prepared to fail along the way

I’m glad my lecture notes are pinned to my wall. It’s obvious, I know, but we can all do with a reminder sometimes. ‘The important thing,’ the lecturer had explained, scanning the room before fixing her gaze on me. ‘The important thing, is to see failures along the way for what they are. Set-backs in a longer journey. Not the end of the road.’

I wonder if there is a novelist alive who hasn’t run into some kind of failure in their career. A rejection letter is a hiccup. Three rejection letters – that’s three hiccups. What about 30?

I’d say if you get 30 rejection letters there’s a chance that your novel isn’t any good. That’s not the same as you not being any good. However much of ourselves we pour into our writing, it’s never the whole of us.

Besides, you’re not trying to be a writer, remember? You’re trying to write this specific novel. If it doesn’t work out, consider writing another one. My debut – a book that won me a big prize and garnered much praise and attention – wasn’t the first novel I had writtten. It’s just the first one that got published.

Years before, I completed a children’s book. It had a talking worm in it. That manuscript got a whole heap of rejections. But they weren’t automated rejections. Not all of them, anyway. There was encouragement amongst them, kind words about the style. I was being told that it wasn’t bad. The rejection letter for my ‘second debut’ went a step further: It’s good. It’s not for us. But it’s good.

Base your affirmations on fact

Good isn’t great. But good is good. Good might be good enough.

I think it’s important to give ourselves a pep talk from time to time, a word of congratulations, a pat on the back. Writing is, on the whole, a solitary experience. We could be waiting a long time to hear praise from anyone else.

The key is to base our affirmations on fact. If you tell yourself you are the world’s most remarkable storyteller, you’ve a long way to fall. But you can be good. That description you wrote earlier, capturing the precise moment when your character realises the truth – that was bloody good. It would stand up in any novel.

Savour these moments. It might be your private burden to suffer the anxieties of writing, but it’s also your unique privilege to be first in line to enjoy what you create.

Be flexible in how you get there

Nearly a 100 pages in, I hit a wall.

A first novel is a huge undertaking; we learn about ourselves as writers along the way. Sitting alone at my computer – even with the pep talks – was no longer working out. So I changed my approach and enrolled on an MA in creative writing. I didn’t plan this at the outset, but that doesn’t matter. The specific, achievable goal is what matters. I had committed to writing my novel; not to doing so without help.

For me, to be in a place with other writers sharing feedback and encouragement was very useful. Also useful was to be reminded that my novel wasn’t the only one being written. I could contribute positively to other people’s work. I could help other writers enjoy their successes. That felt good.

But writing courses bring their own challenges. When sharing early drafts with people, there’s a danger of being buffeted around by conflicting advice.

Take responsibility

So remember, above all else, this is your novel.

If it is published then it will be your name on the cover. You can’t write a book by committee.

That doesn’t mean we should close our ears to all suggestions. If we share an early draft of a chapter with ten friends, and all ten come back saying that the scene with the meringue doesn’t work, then probably it’s worth reworking the scene with the meringue. But if only one person says it doesn’t work – well, your opinion counts too. I saw people who forgot this, who afforded other people’s ideas a greater weight than their own.

I was fortunate. By the time I enrolled on the course I had a clear sense of the story I wanted to tell, and this made it easier to be selective about the advice I took. If your reader fully understands what a scene is intended to achieve, and can explain why it’s not achieving this – that’s valuable advice. If they just don’t have a taste for meringue, but you do – that’s not so useful. Take responsibility. Keep the (delicious) meringue.

Focus on the stuff you can control

If we’re seeking representation from an agency, we can buy the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook; we can be sure to select agents who are accepting work in our genre; we can carefully read submission guidelines and fastidiously adhere to them. These are the things we can control. What we can’t control, is whether or not the agent chooses to represent us, and if our writing gets published.

If our novel does get published, we can’t control how it’s received or how well it sells. Heck – we new authors rarely even get a say on what the book cover looks like. There is so much in the world of publishing that is beyond our influence.

Put it all aside.

Don’t give another thought to writing a prize-winning first novel. Think instead about your next sentence, and you might just be on the way.

Five years on from that rainy spring day, my debut novel is on the shelves and has been well received (better than the talking worm, anyway).

But that doesn’t mean it’s all a breeze. I keep the notes from that lecture pinned to my wall and still use them.

Writing is hard and I falter often.

As for being a writer – I think that’s always a work in progress.

The other day, when I received the request to write for this Yearbook I wasn’t at all sure how to go about it or what I wanted to share. So I set myself a goal: ‘Spend an hour at the keyboard’. This article is the result. Here’s wishing you every success with your novel, and more importantly, every happiness.

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