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How to write a best-selling debut novel: top tips from 'Before I Go To Sleep' author S J Watson

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Many of us harbour an ambition to write a novel - preferably an overnight bestseller that will have the critics raving, the prestigious awards rolling and people storming Amazon in a clamour to download it. Ah, how we'd relish the glory...

In reality of course, the cut-throat world of publishing is such that just getting your manuscript past the slush pile of a literary agent would be an enormous triumph.

Writing a book is a bit like climbing a mountain; there are so many unseen pitfalls and challenges along the way. Finding time to eek out a few first words is just the very first step, never mind the rigmarole of forming characterisation and plot, conjuring up a convincing ending, doing several thousand re-writes and then finding an agent.

But fear not kids, for fairytales do exist and Steve "S J" Watson is one of them. Five years ago, this NHS audiologist-turn-lauded-author enrolled on a Faber Academy "Writing a Novel" course, where he met literary agent Clare Conville. She liked the premise of his first book idea and soon enough Before I Go Sleep hit our shelves.

"As the book started to take shape the characters almost seemed to develop a will of their own," says S J Watson

SJ Watson's thriller is based around a woman who suffers a head trauma and can only retain memories for 24 hours at a time. He wrote it between shifts at London's St Thomas's Hospital and it was an instant success on publication, becoming a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller and selling millions of copies in 42 countries around the world. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year. And that was all before Ridley Scott’s production company secured production rights to it and turned it into a blockbuster movie (out this Friday), starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Clearly, this is a man who knows how to write a book.

Here, he tells us how he came up with the idea for Before I Go To Sleep and what he did to make it a success. He also shares a few precious tips for all you aspiring authors out there - basically, be prepared to write a lot, and badly, before you get anywhere...

How did you first come up with the concept of Before I Go To Sleep?

It sprang from an obituary I read about a man called Henry Gustav Molaison, who died in 2008. He’d been unable to form new memories since undergoing surgery for epilepsy in 1953, and it occurred to me that he must have woken up every day thinking he was still in his twenties. I thought there might be material there to write a novel, and sure enough over the following weeks more and more ideas started to develop. I think the best ideas are magnetic, they attract other ideas to them.

Did you use any specific routines to help you write from day to day?

I tried to work on the book every day, without fail. I’d aim for a thousand words, but even I only managed one hundred it was better than nothing. I’d gone part time and taken a demotion in my NHS job in order to free myself up to write, so I told myself I wasn’t going to waste the extra days watching daytime TV or lying in bed.

You have to be ready to do a hell of a lot of bad writing before the good stuff starts to flow

Was it daunting getting started on your first novel?

Not really. It was something I was determined to do. I’d been building up to it my whole life whilst at the same time telling myself that now wasn’t a good time to devote my energies to writing. Finally I’d got rid of all the distractions and excuses and I felt free.

Did you take inspiration from other authors out there?

Of course! Every time I heard a writer talk about their work or their routines I’d try to work out if there were any tips I could use. But also a lifetime of reading has inspired me in countless ways, to try and get better, to try and move readers in the same way that books move me. Every time I read a great book I try to work out how the author has made it work.

"Write and read as much as you can and never give up!" - SJ Watson's tips to aspiring authors

How useful do you think it is to go on creative writing courses?

For some people it’s incredibly useful, for others it would be a disaster. The course I did [SJ Watson was accepted onto the first Faber Academy Writing a Novel course in 2009] came at the right time, and was the right kind of course. It helped me to focus, and gave me confidence. But I also know people for whom a creative writing course had the opposite effect, and almost killed their writing.

Did you ever stumble over storyline/character details and what did you do to overcome that, if so?

As the book started to take shape the characters almost seemed to develop a will of their own. I would write whole sections that just didn’t work, and then realize it was because I was trying to force my characters to do something they just wouldn’t do. So really it was a process of trying to let my characters influence the plot and lead me through the book.

How did you go about getting a publisher for Before I Go To Sleep – was it difficult?

I met Clare Conville [of Conville & Walsh literary agency] on the course I did, when she came to talk to us about her role as an agent. She liked the premise of my novel and asked to see it when it was finished. Luckily she loved the finished book and then her enthusiasm sold it to publishers around the world. For me that part was easy, but that’s because I’d worked extremely hard to make the book as good as it could be before I showed it to anyone.

Every time I read a great book I try to work out how the author has made it work

Did the premise of the book change much between its first draft and final version?

Not at all. The mechanics of the plot changed, and whole scenes were rewritten or removed completely. I even lost a character. But the start and end of the book were unchanged, and the central premise remained the same.

How did you feel when you first realised how successful it was?

It was a gradual realization. First I learned that my agent liked it, then that publishers did, and then my hope was that readers would too. But there was nothing like the moment I first saw it on the shelf in a book store, and the first time I saw someone reading the book was a really special moment. I felt tremendously excited, and also relieved.

What advice would you give to our readers trying to write their first book?

Just to be prepared to be in it for the long haul. You have to be ready to do a hell of a lot of bad writing before the good stuff starts to flow. You’ll have to work incredibly hard, sometimes when you’d much rather be doing something else. People won’t always encourage you. Ask yourself how much you want to write this book.

Before I Go To Sleep has been made into a Studiocanal film starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth

What do you think helped in making Before I Go To Sleep a success?

I didn’t write for a market, because I don’t think you can, but I tried to write a book I’d really want to read. I love mystery, and suspense. I love books that have twists and turns, that are hard to put down. I tried very hard to write a book that wasn’t boring, and that also had something to say.

If you could give three crucial tips to aspiring authors out there, what would they be?

Write and read as much as you can. Don’t worry about publishing until your book is as good as it can possibly be. Never give up.

What’s up next, are you working on your next book?

I just finished my next book, Second Life. It’s another psychological thriller, and will be out next February. So now I’m taking a month off, then diving into book three.

Studiocanal's Before I Go To Sleep starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, is out in cinemas on Friday 5 September

The book Before I Go To Sleep is available to buy now from Black Swan .

Photos: Getty Images and Studiocanal

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