Is there anything worse than staring at a blank page? You have all these ideas but the minute you open that notebook or Word document, you don’t know where to start.
I think the main problem I face when starting a book is that I want everything to be perfect. I want that first line to be brilliant, quotable even. I want that opening page to shine. But usually at this point I just have some random thoughts that have no coherence. I don’t want to make a mess of that first page.
The solution to the blank page? Start writing. Don’t worry about the quality. You can come back and fix that later. Don’t worry if you’re not starting at the beginning of the story. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make much sense. Just write whatever comes into your head. It may not make the final cut but that’s fine. The important thing is to get the words out.
Tell yourself this is draft zero, the ‘vomit draft’, and that everything will be edited many, many times. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to exist.
I started my new book on Monday, 1 August. It’s a novel I first started writing in 2018 but I abandoned it after 30,000 words. I know where I went wrong and my main character – Kelly – has been in the back of my mind ever since, wanting me to tell her story.
So how do you start a novel? Well, every writer is different, but I started by re-reading some craft books. My favourite is How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermason. I don’t follow this method to the letter but it’s the one that works best for me. You alternate working on your plot and developing your characters so when you get stuck on one you shift over to the other. You also start with the synopsis and then expand out which works for me as I don’t always write chronologically.
This time around, I am reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. This was recommended by a writing friend of mine and it’s the first time I’ve read it. It’s a bit intimidating but it is making me up my game.
The first thing I did was sketch out what I know about the plot so far and the main characters. I sort of know what is going to happen at the beginning, middle and end although I’m not 100% sure how I am going to structure the story yet. There are three chunks of time in the novel and I’m not sure whether to present them chronologically or have two timelines running concurrently. I’m going to worry about that later.
I put together 20 plot points which will take me from the start to the end, but I may move things around a bit. This is enough for me to start writing. 20 plot points is 20 scenes and, at around 500 words each, that will give me the first 10,000 words. I will then go back and expand each scene and add others in between.
I don’t always start writing at chapter one. I write whatever interests me at the time, so I may write later scenes, but I do try to keep them in some sort of order.
I write in a Word document, and I label each scene with a heading so I can easily move them around. Some people use Scrivener for this, but I prefer Word. I usually number my scenes but for some reason, I want to name them this time. That may well change, but it feels right for this book at the moment.
I am aiming for 4,000 words a week, but I managed 6,175 words in my first week. This was largely because I transferred some across from my original draft. I knew I wanted to keep at least two scenes even though the rest of the book is going to change. At this stage I am not doing much research, but I keep a running list of what I need to find out about.
In between writing sessions, I keep a notebook with me at all times, and every time I have a spare 20 minutes or so, I sketch out ideas. Sometimes these are lists of things I want to include, or they might be snippets of conversation between the characters or free writing when I write whatever comes into my head.
I am aiming to complete this first draft before Christmas (4,000 words a week for 20 weeks) but I know other things will get in the way, so I just have to hope for the best!
Amanda and I first met at a local writing group. She’s been so supportive to me over the years and is a brilliant writer! She writes novellas, short stories, flash fiction and poetry.
Please introduce yourself and your published works
Hi Sarah, thanks for inviting me over – I’m honoured that you’ve asked me to be your first interviewee!
I’m an author and travel writer currently based in West Yorkshire. I was brought up on the North Yorkshire coast and after living in London in the 1990s I headed back north and ended up ten miles from Leeds.
I’ve published two novellas, Crossing the Lines and All Our Squandered Beauty, and four collections of short stories and poetry. Both novellas won the Saboteur Award for Best Novella, in 2021 and 2022 respectively, and my poetry chapbook, The Collective Nouns for Birds, also won a Saboteur Award in 2020.
All Our Squandered Beauty is a coming of age novel set mainly on the Yorkshire coast, and was developed from the title story of my first short story collection, Separated From the Sea.
The blurb: Kara’s father died at sea – or did he? She has spent her teenage years struggling with grief and searching for answers. When she accepts her art tutor’s offer to attend a summer school on a Greek island, she discovers once again that everything is not what it seems, and on her return she faces several uncomfortable truths. Could Jake, a local trawlerman, be the key to uncovering the past, and will Kara embrace the possibilities her future offers or turn back to the sea?
My second novella, Crossing the Lines, was based on my story ‘Red’ which was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award in 2018.
The blurb: When Sherman Rook walks into the Jupiter diner, Mollie’s mama is instantly smitten. Despite her daughter’s reluctance, they leave the New Jersey shore behind and move to his isolated farmstead over a thousand miles west. Fifteen-year-old Mollie distracts herself from Rook’s cruelty by befriending a stray dog she names Hal, but when Rook crosses a final line Mollie realises that sometimes we must leave behind those we love in order to save ourselves. With only $20 to her name, she sets out from Oakridge Farm, relying on luck and the kindness of strangers as she makes her way back home across five state lines.
When did you start writing? Can you tell me about your journey to publication?
I was around eight when I had the not-very-original idea for my first ‘novel’, an equestrian tale called Silver Brumby which I wrote by hand in a spiral bound notebook with a shiny red cover. My first writing success was with a love poem written to George Best when I was eleven. It won third prize in my grammar school’s literary competition. I’d like to say I never looked back, but shortly after writing a lot of angst-ridden sixth form poetry, I put my literary ambitions aside for quite a long time.
Around ten years ago I started writing again with serious intent – travel articles at first. I sent a piece to The Telegraph every week until they accepted one! I had further success with my non-fiction in the years that followed, including winning the British Guild of Travel Writers New Travel Writer of the Year Award in 2014, and being shortlisted twice for the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award. Then fiction – or more specifically, short stories – captured my attention, and I soon started submitting and entering awards, and went on an Arvon course to try and hone my craft. I achieved quite a lot of success in competitions, and had a short collection of flash pieces published by Chapeltown Books. I then submitted my first full-length collection, Separated From the Sea, to a few indie publishers. I got some great feedback from one or two, but I knew in my heart it needed more work. After a lot more editing, I sent it under a pseudonym to Retreat West Books and it was accepted. They then went on to publish my second collection,Scratched Enamel Heart.
Around that time I’d also completed All Our Squandered Beauty and had my first poetry chapbook published by Maytree Press. Suddenly it was all happening!. I was then on the hunt for a new publisher, as Retreat West decided not to continue commissioning new books due to financial and time constraints. I submitted to around half a dozen indie presses before Victorina Press accepted my novella, and they have since published Crossing the Lines as well.
What were the pivotal moments so far in your writing career and what you have learned from them?
Having a piece of travel writing published in The Telegraph was a pivotal moment for me – it gave me the confidence to keep going. Then when I started writing fiction I sent the very first short story I completed, ‘All Stations to Edgware’, to Jo Derrick at the Yellow Room magazine. To my surprise, it was accepted, and Jo said some lovely things about my writing which really encouraged me. I think these small affirmations are really significant when you start out – it’s important to know you’re heading in the right direction. That said, it’s just as crucial to learn to accept rejections with grace, and I’ve had far more of those!
Being shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award was a real biggie – I can still remember my shock and disbelief when the email arrived. It was such a great night at the awards – I was a runner-up rather than the outright winner, but I still got to add the iconic Costa sticker to the cover of Scratched Enamel Heart! And I have learned that these are the things which grab the attention of bookshops when you haven’t got a mainstream publisher behind you.
Seeing my name on the cover of a book for the first time was also a real pivotal moment – I think that’s when I finally gave myself permission to call myself a writer.
But something else that felt really important to me was the first time a reader got in touch to say my writing had made them cry and that they were worried about what happened to my characters after the story ended! When someone thinks of your characters as real people then you know you’ve done the job you set out to do.
Who are your favourite authors?
I have so many, it’s hard to know where to start. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my all time favourite authors, and The Remains of the Day is certainly in my top five favourite novels – the story of a life sacrificed to duty; beautifully written and heartbreaking. Other all-time favourite books include Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Siege by Helen Dunmore, and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. More recently I’ve loved Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. And this year’s favourite novel so far is Trespasses by Louise Kennedy – intense, honest and heart-wrenching. But these are just off the top of my head today – tomorrow you’d get different answers!
I read a lot of travel writing too – I love Dervla Murphy, Alex Kerr and Pico Iyer in particular – and I really enjoy short story collections. When I’ve finished a novel I often pass it on, however I usually keep short story collections and return to them over the years in the same way that I do with poetry. I have countless favourites, many by established authors, but also a growing number by emerging short story writers. The collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Lucy Caldwell, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, A L Kennedy, Wells Tower, Miranda July, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Angela Readman, and A M Homes.
I’m a huge fan of Japanese writing — novels, novellas and short stories. Japanese literature is often poetic, quiet, unhurried, and that way of writing suits the short story form. Sparing and effective use of language, subtlety and nuance, a certain elusiveness, all demand that the stories are read slowly, and that they are re-read and savoured. These are the qualities that draw me back again and again, and the tales of yearning and loss, of not quite belonging, all resonate with the themes I explore in my own fiction. I admire Murakami’s short stories, and really enjoyed his collection, Men Without Women. Murakami is renowned for his surreal writing, yet I prefer his stories when he writes of single men and smoky bars, lonely hearts and enigmatic women. I also love the short stories and novels of Yoko Ogawa. Like Murakami, her writing is often surreal, and can be unsettling and even grotesque. She is adept at self-observation and dissecting women’s roles in Japanese society. Taeko Kono explored women’s roles too, burrowing deep beneath the routines of daily life to reveal a disturbing underbelly — and who could resist a collection called Toddler Hunting and Other Stories?
What advice would you give to other people wanting to write?
I would never offer up sweeping statements like “write every day even if you’re not inspired”, as people can feel so pressured by this type of advice that it can end up hindering instead of helping. That said, you do need to actually write – your novel or poem is no good in your head!
What I would say – because I’ve been around the block a few times! – is only write if you really love doing it and would be diminished by not writing. Fame and riches are hard to come by and are not the best motivator.
Network: talk to other writers at events and festivals, join a writing group. It’s a lonely business, and your partner will soon get tired of your writing babble.
Never expect friends and family to read your stuff – they probably won’t.
When you start out, submit to lots of places at once – that way you’re not waiting on tenterhooks for one response. When a rejection hits it won’t feel as bad if you’ve got another ten other pieces out there. I think this actually matters less when you’ve had a few things published and have become accepting of the high rejection rate!
Finally, what are you working on now?
I’ve just sent the final edits of my poetry collection, Talk to Me about When We Were Perfect, to the publisher. It’s out next March with Victorina Press, so that’s exciting. And before that, I have a short story collection out in October, An Unfamiliar Landscape, which was commissioned by Valley Press last year.
So now I’m moving on to the next book, which is a collection of all my stories set in or about Japan, with accompanying essays on Japan, poems, and journal entries from my travels. A lot of it is already written and/or previously published, but I’m working on three new stories for the collection, and now have the pleasant task of going through all my Japan journals to select some excerpts. That will be out in early 2024, and the working title is The Shadow Architect.
But there’s a new novella bubbling under too…
Thanks Amanda! You can catch up with Amanda’s latest news on her website:
All my books so far have been set in Yorkshire, and Book Three is no exception!
Book Three, provisionally called The Challenge, is set in the city of York. York has a special place in my heart as my grandma used to take me as a child to see the daffodils around the city walls.
It is a place steeped in history and full of iconic buildings, such as the magnificent York Minster. You can find out more about the history of York on this website: https://www.visityork.org/history-of-york
The Challenge sees Libby and Peter (from The Wedding Murders) reunited to investigate the mysterious death of a teenaged boy in York.
As part of the research, I made several trips to the city, looking for good places to set key scenes.
The Museum Gardens and St Mary’s Abbey
The River Ouse
The Challenge is currently with my agent, awaiting her feedback, before we submit it to my publisher. Fingers crossed they like it!
In February 2022, I read an eclectic mix of books: three psychological thrillers, a classic and a couple of non-fiction titles.
Two Wrongs by Mel McGrath
The Weekend Escape by Rakie Bennett
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Monk who sold his Ferrari by Robin Sharma
Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars
The psychological thrillers all had very different settings – Two Wrongs is set in a fictional university and involves a spate of suicides among female students; The Weekend Escape is set on a stormy island off the coast of North-West England; and The Sanatorium is set in a creepy hotel, a former sanatorium, in snowy Switzerland. I enjoyed them all, but The Weekend Escape was my favourite as it was so fast paced!
I bought Dracula on a recent trip to Whitby. I hadn’t read it before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly liked the character of Mina and the use of setting and atmosphere to add to the tension. I thought Stoker made effective use of multiple narration and I liked how the story unfolds through different perspectives.
I read The Monk who sold his Ferrari by Robin Sharma after reading The 5AM Club. There is quite a lot of cross-over between the two books, but both are worth reading, particularly if you are looking for some focus in a very distracting world! At the heart of The Monk who sold his Ferrari is a rather odd allegory involving a garden, a lighthouse and a sumo wrestler (!) which is, at the very least, memorable! I have tried to adopt some of the principles Sharma advocates, but I am finding the early starts very challenging to stick to.
Lessons in Stoicism is quite a short book and very much an introduction to Stoicism. It was an enjoyable read but I would have preferred something more in-depth as I was familiar with most of the concepts in it.
I am now turning my attention to The Dying Day by Vaseem Khan, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers. This is the second in the Malabar House mystery series set in post-partition India and it is really good so far! I love the main character, Inspector Persis Wadia, and all the historical details which feel meticulously researched.
You’re invited to the wedding of the season…but you might not live to tell the tale!
The cover of my second book was revealed on social media this week and I love it!
I love the striking contrast between the red, white and black. Coincidentally these were the colours of my own wedding which makes it extra special.
Some of you will know that I originally called the book The Wedding Guest, but the title was changed after discussions with the publisher, One More Chapter.
The Wedding Murders features Libby Steele, a plus-one at a celebrity wedding. She’s the guest of her boyfriend Matthew who used to be in a Britpop band with the groom. It’s the first time the band have been reunited since their acrimonious split in the 90s and Libby soon realises they all have secrets to hide.
When a bridesmaid goes missing just hours before the ceremony, Libby suspects there’s a killer on the loose…
I was lucky enough to get an endorsement from the amazing Sophie Hannah which blew me away. This is what she said about the book:
‘This gripping murder mystery will keep you riveted from start to end. Fans of Lucy Foley and Agatha Christie will love it.’
You can’t get much better than that! But here are some of the other lovely endorsements I’ve received from published authors:
‘An intensely compelling, riveting story with a nail-biting climax!’ Abby Davies, author of Mother Loves Me
‘A fast-paced thriller with plenty of twists and turns’ Sophie Flynn, author of All My Lies
‘A gripping tale with plenty of twists and turns making for a most enjoyable read!’ Roz Watkins, author of The Devil’s Dice
I really enjoyed writing this book. It will be published as an ebook in February 2022 and a paperback in April 2022 and is available to pre-order now.
If you’re a book blogger, you can request a review copy on Netgalley.
In October 2017, my husband and I embarked on a backpacking trip around South-East Asia. It was a place we had visited a few times before but always on holiday. We sold our house, gave up our jobs and spent seven months exploring Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore.
In my backpack was the first draft of a novel, which was then called The Pact. A psychological thriller about a student who goes backpacking with her friends after leaving university and is involved in a tragic death. Five years later, she receives a photo that proves she lied about what really happened that night…
The story (and the title) had changed quite a bit by the time my novel was finally published in February 2020, but I hope these photographs give you a flavour of how our travels inspired the novel.