Sitting on an idea for a bestselling novel, but not sure how to get the words out? Award-winning author Elizabeth Day tells Stylist how to make your novel idea a reality – from getting to know your characters to the best way to banish writer’s block
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Have you always dreamed of putting your own story to paper? Perhaps a compelling crime thriller, or a love story for the ages? Whether you’ve already got a killer plot idea, or it’s a pipe dream that feels too far away to reach, it’s tough knowing where to begin. With the publishing industry announcing a surge in manuscripts as soon as the pandemic hit last year, the competition is as fierce as ever, and expert advice is sorely welcome.
Enter Elizabeth Day. As well as hosting her own hit podcast, How To Fail With Elizabeth Day, and interviewing fellow authors for BBC Sounds show Open Book and Sky Arts’ Book Club Live, Elizabeth has written five novels and two non-fiction books to accompany her podcast series. She started writing her first novel, Scissors Paper Stone, aged 29 while working full-time as a feature writer at The Observer.
After more than a decade of writing novels and even longer interviewing the best authors in the biz about their work, she has a lot of wisdom to impart. Her fifth book – Magpie – is a twist-filled thriller centring around a young couple, Jake and Marisa, their lodger Kate, and the disturbing events that unfold when Kate becomes involved in Marisa’s pregnancy.
One of Elizabeth’s aims with Magpie was to tackle the storytelling around motherhood in a way that hadn’t been told in a novel before, drawing on her own personal experiences that she “passionately wanted to see reflected in fiction”.
Her relationship with books and novel writing has been personal her entire life, beginning with the “intimate bonding time” she shared with her mother, who taught her how to read before she started school. By the age of four, her ambition to become an author had taken root.
After spending most of her 20s grappling with “deep intimidation” about the prospect of writing a novel, Elizabeth credits the decision to “suspend my internal critic” as the catalyst for getting started. Of course, that’s easier said than done – but the good news is she’s given Stylist her top tips for starting to put pen to paper.
For her, novel writing at its core is all about “helping you and your readers understand the world, and see it in a new way”. Here’s how to achieve this, and more, when you sit down to write your book.
Don’t try to plan every detail
Elizabeth stresses that planning can be more intimidating than it needs to be, especially if you try to be really specific about where you’re going with every single chapter, character and plotline. “It can feel like doing a revision timetable, so you put off the act of revising,” she says. “While it is helpful to have some idea of where you’re going to start, and where you’re going to end up, it’s also important to allow things to flow as you write.”
If it feels like your plot is becoming too complicated for you to keep track of while you write, or you’ve written the first draft and want to tighten things up, Elizabeth suggests trying something visual to keep track of things. “When I was writing my fourth novel, The Party, I plotted the story chapter by chapter on a big roll of brown paper,” she says. “I had a grid for each chapter, and I colour coded what was happening to each character. Seeing what was happening visually was really helpful.”
You could even create a mood board for your novel, she says, to explore how you’d like your characters and settings to look.
Commit to your writing and what you produce
When it comes to getting started, Elizabeth says it doesn’t matter so much what you write, more that you are committing to writing itself and seeing what comes out. “When you write anything, there’s something of a natural, physical unblocking that happens,” she says. In the beginning, the words you write “don’t even need to make any sense. It doesn’t need to belong to a novel or be a fully formed idea.
A part of this process, she adds, is the time where you’re not writing – and it’s important to not berate yourself for that time as that is when your best ideas could be percolating. “If there’s something within you that doesn’t want to write, it’s possibly because the idea is taking hold,” Elizabeth says. “And you can nurture that by being compassionate with yourself. A large part of being an author is thinking and creating a space for those thoughts.”
Once these thoughts are on the page, you shouldn’t berate yourself if they don’t seem beautiful or perfect, or exactly what you want to say, Elizabeth says. What counts is starting, and this beginning point can be revisited, repurposed and re-angled during your editing process.
Nailing the editing process can help fight writer’s block
By Elizabeth’s logic, refining your editing method and promising yourself that you’re going to trim back – and sometimes repurpose – your writing later will give you full license to really unleash all of your ideas without the pressure of writer’s block, which is often stemmed in the crippling need to come up with your best ones on the spot.
She adds that the editing process is a huge part of writing your novel, and works best if you’ve already allowed yourself those unbridled stages of writing (descriptive words and all). “Your exposition is a key part of your drafting process and is what leads you on to other thoughts and plot points,” she says.
Once you’re ready to edit, Elizabeth has a great top tip for getting down to the nitty-gritty.
Particularly for passages that contain a lot of description and adjectives, she suggests asking yourself how each sentence would read if you took one adjective out – a nugget of advice that she was originally given by novelist Sebastian Faulks.
“You don’t necessarily need endless paragraphs of flowery description,” she says. I always keep at the forefront of my mind that just because I think a word is useful doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes the sentence more powerful.”
And she advises not to be afraid to “kill your darlings”. “I’ve learnt that nothing is ever wasted,” she says, adding that ideas and passages that you cut from your novel may also appear in your next piece of work.
Take time to get to know your characters
“For me, a brilliant novel starts with character,” Elizabeth says. “I can read a novel that I will absolutely fall in love with, and nothing has happened, but the characters are so beautifully drawn.” She insists that characters are perhaps the most crucial element of your plot, so it’s important to get them right and perfectly clear in your mind.
“It all starts with characters, and they inform the plot. I find that the best novels are the ones that have really taken the time to get to know the people that they’re writing.”
So how do you go about getting to know these characters? “Make a note of key details: ages, what colour their hair is, what their surnames are,” Elizabeth says, so you can build a catalogue of who this person is and really step into their skin.
Then, step further into their everyday routine. “Imagine what they might have in their handbag, or do they even have a handbag? I always dress people differently and give them different physical appearances,” she says. “What clothes would they wear? I think what someone chooses to wear says a lot about a person, and how they act.”
You need to be able to know how they would look, act and sound in any situation as your plot unfolds, and the best way to do this is to really explore and note the elements of your characters’ personalities.
Writing from your own experiences will make your novel unique
As a budding novelist, think about what you can bring from your own life into your story. “Very often what you think of as your most personal experience or feeling turns out to have the most universal resonance,” Elizabeth says.
When she was searching for an idea before writing Magpie, she was told by her friend – and Fleabag star – Phoebe Waller-Bridge to really think closely about what she was going through in her life, and she encourages anyone looking to create a special connection with their readers to do the same. “I asked myself: what was happening in my life right now, what are my concerns? What am I thinking about?”
Once you’ve unearthed these core dreams or thoughts, you can use them to imagine what could happen in a fictional universe. “Fiction is an incredible vehicle for truth,” Elizabeth adds, encouraging writers to “really lean into the vulnerability of it – that’s where you forge the greatest connection with your readers.”
And while looking to other writers for inspiration is totally understandable and can help with your writing process, she encourages you to prioritise bringing “the uniqueness of your life experience” to the table: “After all, no one has your voice.”
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Elizabeth Day, author, journalist and podcaster
Elizabeth Day is an award-winning author, broadcaster, journalist and host of the chart-topping podcast, How To Fail, which has featured guests including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Gloria Steinem and Andrew Scott.
Her debut novel, Scissors, Paper, Stone, was published in 2011 and won a Betty Trask Award. Her latest book, Failosophy: A Handbook For When Things Go Wrong, is out now. Her new novel, Magpie, is published on 2 September by Fourth Estate.
Images: Alex Cameron, Getty