Claire Kendal's top tips for debut authors
Fans of psychological thrillers will love Claire Kendal's terrifying debut novel about obsession and power - perfect for fans of Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep.
After many years helping thousands of students to craft their work, Claire recently published her own debut novel - The Book of You. It's already a Top 10 Sunday Times bestseller and has been selected for the Richard and Judy Spring Book Club promotion.
Here Claire offers budding novelists her advice on writing and how to get started.
Ten tips for debut novelists
1. Don't be hard on yourself about your writing routine
Writing lives come in all shapes and sizes. Many writers have day jobs and families. I'm one of them, so I find this tip especially important. If you can write a little something each day – even if it's only a few sentences for ten minutes – then you will make progress. The daily contact with the writing will give you a kind of momentum. You will get better at stealing time and more determined to use it.
I always feel like this is a bad confession to make, because so many novelists I know say that they always wanted to write. But I never set out to be a novelist. Even as a young child, all I wanted to be was a reader. As long as I can remember, I was plotting my way towards a life that would let me read. Looking back at it, though, I don't think it's an accident that I ended up as a novelist. Reading is the best training you can possibly get to become one.
3. The opening is incredibly important
This may be too obvious to say, but the beginning of a novel really needs to grab the reader. Agents get huge numbers of submissions, so they need to make quick decisions. From the first sentence, they are looking for a reason to set the manuscript aside and move on to the next. This can be true of general readers too. If a reader doesn't love the opening chapters that they've downloaded to their e-reader, they won't click on Buy Now.
4. Your story probably begins later than you think
It isn't always easy to see the true and best opening for your novel. Sometimes you can't do this until you've finished several drafts. (Very rarely, the perfect beginning comes to you with your first sentence.) One trick that I find helpful – and you may need to take a deep breath before you can try this – is to cut out the first chapter, or better still, the first two or three chapters. It's understandable that you needed to find your way in and set things up, but your best opening will often be the moment when the action really kicks off.
5. Rewrite, edit and revise - repeat this process so many times you lose count
You will need to be disciplined, and ruthless, to do this effectively. You may need to make drastic changes, and accept that doing this will not be quick or easy. Is your favourite scene boring? Is your hero or heroine credible? Is the central strand of your story far less engaging than a minor subplot? Would the story be more compelling if told by a different character? Is his or her voice as powerful as you can make it? Another confession – these are all questions I have had to ask of my own writing.
6. Keep the action going and make it interesting
I should start with what is probably an obvious qualification: there are so many different ways that novels can be brilliant – not everyone is writing a fast-paced thriller. But there is some truth in the principle that if you're writing your debut novel, it will be much harder to sell if it isn't gripping. Is your plot reaching moments of crisis frequently enough? Are there too many descriptive passages? Even if the precept of 'show don't tell' gets repeated so much that you are tired of hearing it, there's a good reason why it gets said so often.
7. Rejection hurts, but there is a silver lining
Before The Book of You, I wrote three novels, all of which were rejected. It is difficult and disheartening to move on from a novel you've invested time and love in, but eventually you will. You should feel proud of each of those novels that didn't make it. They are proof of your passion for writing and your commitment to doing it. You will have learned something from each of them, and become a better writer in the process. Like me, you may come to feel glad that those novels didn't make it into print – I wouldn't want anybody to read them now.
8. Criticism is a gift
It may take a little distance and an entire jar of Nutella before you can arrive at the detachment you need, but try to look objectively at the feedback you get. My own experience is that pretty much any problem a reader has with something I've written points me towards a way of improving my work. The essential thing is that a flaw has been identified, and you are the best person to figure out how to fix it. There's a kind of magical thing about good criticism. It can unstick you when you're stuck. It can help you see a way forward that wasn't visible before. It can get you really excited about what you're doing and re-energise you.
9. Tell the story you want to tell, in the best way you can think to tell it
Genre matters, yes, and very much. But it may surprise you if I say that I didn't set out to write a psychological thriller when I began The Book of You. It was simply that that's the genre that most closely fits the novel I produced. It's the genre that best contains the kinds of intense, intimate stories I'm drawn to writing, and the difficult subject matter that I want to explore. But mixed up in The Book of You, at least to my thinking, is the realist novel too. In the end, you simply want your book to be as good as it can be, whatever genres you draw on and splice together to make it that way.
10. Don't approach too many literary agents at once
People have differing views on this one, but I never put a novel on submission with more than three agents at any one time. This was a strategy for learning whether the novel was working, and for gaining expert feedback. Most importantly, I didn't want to ruin the novel's future chances with every agent in London. I wanted the opportunity to fix any problems and try a revised version on agents who would be in a position to read it with no preconceptions. I wanted them to pick up my book with no knowledge of its previous faults. What I wanted most is what you want too – for the right agent to fall in love with it.
More about Claire Kendal
Claire Kendal was born in America and educated in England, where she has spent all of her adult life. The Book of You is her first novel, and it will be translated into over twenty languages. Claire teaches English Literature and Creative Writing, and lives in the South West with her family. She is working on her next psychological thriller
Last updated: about 3 years ago