How to write your first novel

First time authors are being recognised in Scotland with the Dundee International Book Prize and Saltire Society First Book Awards. Some of those rewarded – Martin Cathcart Froden and Helen McClory – speak about breaking through in the world of publishing

Article by Alan Bett | 20 Nov 2015
  • Authorial Intent

The legendary Knopf editor Sol Stein said that the only duty a writer has is to ‘serve the story’. A great piece of advice, suggests Adrian Searle, publisher at Freight Books in Glasgow. Writers up and down the land serve their own stories each day – with laptop on coffee shop table, locked away in bedrooms or studies clacking at keyboards, perhaps even pen in hand.

Adrian also warns that 'many novels deserve to be written but don’t deserve to be read.' So while unleashing your creativity onto the page, expecting a publisher to sacrifice time, money and trees to your work, there are considerations to chew over. Including dirty words – commerce and marketplace – that many creatives choose to spit out.

Two emerging writers who have experienced the highs and lows required to place their collections of words onto bookshop shelves are Martin Cathcart Froden and Helen McClory. Martin recently won the Dundee International Book Prize, which alongside a cash sum provides a publishing deal for his debut novel Devil Take The Hindmost, a thriller centred around velodrome racing and the criminal underworld in 1920’s London, set to publish in March 2016. 

Helen McClory has been shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year award for her outstanding collection of short fiction, On The Edges Of Vision. Strange, brave and experimental, they reveal the monster within us all. As telling from the gaps they leave on the page as much as the words carefully sculpted upon it, these are tales told in the half-light.

Both writers spoke to The Skinny to share their journeys of slog and perseverance, which arguably sit equally alongside craft and creativity during the battle to be published. And of course, that uneasy compromise between art and commerce.

Authors On Rejection

Martin Cathcart Froden: I was kind of joking that I have a drawer of rejection slips but I do have quite a few of them… They’re a painful reminder. It’s not like I have a wall and I throw darts at them or anything.

It’s not easy, any type of rejection in any part of life isn’t easy and I guess you need to remember that it isn’t personal. Your work is probably great, but if a publisher only has ten titles a year then nine of them are going to be people who are already selling. You know, it’s going to be Ed McBain and you can’t really compete with that. Or it might be completely personal reasons, the people reading it might have had a bad day or they’ve just had a book in about unicorns so we can’t do another one.

Helen McClory: I don’t delete any of them [rejection notices], and some of the really harsh ones I look at occasionally. Although, ok, I actually learned from a rejection which was really helpful where an agent said the end part of that novel – still unpublished – needs a lot of work. So I went away and changed it all... But then there were others who were saying weird things like, 'Take that novel and rewrite in in a realist fashion.' They didn’t like the fact that I had written minority characters and had set it in Scotland, didn’t believe minority characters lived in Scotland, this one person who was considering it. They said I should remove them and only have locals.

Authors On Feedback

MCF: I really enjoyed workshops or reading groups which I was lucky enough to have at uni and I thoroughly recommend. Every two or three weeks you send in a chapter to the group and you get their feedback. You can show it to your partner and your best friend and they’re probably going to be quite nice, but it’s great to have some kind of opinion that you don’t have to then take home with you. It doesn’t have some sort of implication in your daily life.

My wife reads pretty much everything. She’s really good but that’s years of practice I think, from both our sides. For her to be as honest as she wants to be and can be and should be, and for me not to take it personally. But it is something very personal… I have to take this personally because I’ve been working on it for hours and I’ve been putting my heart and soul into it, and then you say, ‘Oh the first chapter is rubbish, it doesn’t work.’

HMc: I let my husband read it after it was all done [On the Edges Of Vision]. Because it came out in a rush this one… I like that he doesn’t have any kind of literary connection so he just comes to it as a reader… for two or three extra stories he said, 'That’s not doing anything for me,' and I’m like, 'Ahhhhh, you’re probably right.' So he’s quite honest but he doesn’t add too much. I get him after it’s gone through multiple drafts and say, 'Is this a book? What’s this I’ve written? Is this ok? Can you read it? It’s not gibberish?' So that’s really reassuring, it’s amazing to have someone so supportive.

On the Editorial Process

HMc: Oh, it’s absolutely amazing. I think editors and proof readers are the best people in the world because they can take something and just help you push it past what you can do on your own, just that little bit, so it comes into focus. Like putting a pair of glasses on your eyes. You’re suddenly like, 'Ah ok, I was trying for this and I didn’t quite get it,' so they nudge it that way. They’re so essential.

MC: I think you almost have to forget that you have written this. I think it’s really healthy to write something and then leave it for a day or a week or however long that you have, so it doesn’t feel like something you’ve just created, or you remember that this paragraph took six hours to write and this person is going to say it doesn’t work. You have to look at it with one eye objectively and one eye personally, and that duality can be quite tricky. The best thing to remember is that it’s not personal and your editor wants the same as you: for other people to read it and enjoy it.

On Commercialism

MC: It’s not necessarily my job to know the trends... But, hopefully it’s in your interests. I guess commercial is a tricky word if you put it in contrast to art, because regardless, if you are able to give this book to five of your relatives or if you’re selling millions and millions, I guess you just want people to enjoy it and read it. Hopefully that is the editor’s main objective rather than, 'Let’s make your really beautiful artwork into something super commercial.'

I think it’s probably helpful to think of a readership. They always talk about going into a bookshop and imagining what shelf your book could sit on. If you get too bogged down in that it could inhibit your creative freedom with your own work.

On the Craft

HMc: Almost everyone could be a writer but it’s really mostly about keeping going… Just writing all the time, even when you don’t feel like it because sometimes, even when it’s a slog, you’ll come out with at least one line that’s useful, and go back to and build something else on another day.

It’s a job, it’s a craft. If you look at a hand-made table, somebody put in a lot of effort… They looked at the design of what they wanted to do, they tried to make it and it came out wonky so they either scrapped the whole thing or worked on the bit that didn’t work. And slowly they made this table and it’s this physical thing that exists. And that’s how I try and see writing, it’s a physical thing that exists that you have to work at to make. It doesn’t just spring out of nowhere… You just get up some days and you’re like, 'Urrggh no.' But you have to go, 'Ok, the page is waiting.'

Top tips for aspiring writers from Writers' Essentials

1)     A lot of people don't realise how much hard work is involved and they either give up part way or end up with something that needs a lot of editing, and don't want to go through a time-consuming, and often quite painful, rewrite. Specifically, this translates into undeveloped settings, two-dimensional characters and plots that tend to sag in the middle. All of which is fixable, so long as the writer is committed to working on their writing.

2)     It helps to think commercially, not necessarily in terms of how much money a book will make, but in terms of the end user. Knowing from the start what kind of book you're writing, who you're writing it for and why someone would want to read it helps give the writing process focus and structure and, although that does create some limitations on creativity, it will help you create something someone else wants to read, and even pay for.

3)      Getting published as a first time author is incredibly difficult, so, if your book doesn't get taken up it doesn't mean it isn't worth publishing. Be as professional as you can in terms of knowing what each publisher wants, accepting and applying constructive criticism and being prepared to rewrite and rewrite, to make something as good as it can possibly be, for its own sake, and you are more likely to get it published.

On The Edges of Vision is out now, published by Queensferry Press, RRP £10.87

Devil Take The Hindmost will be published by Freight Books in 2016

Writers' Essentials run a free 12 part creative writing course in person and online. Part 2, on getting published, begins in January 2016