Write a novel and have it published in a year? Louise Doughty tells how.
Stuck in a rut with your novel? Kentish Town novelist Louise Doughty has written a no-nonsense guide that could help. Bridget Galton talks to her. WHEN columnist and author Louise Doughty told literary friends she was encouraging readers to write a no
Stuck in a rut with your novel? Kentish Town novelist Louise Doughty has written a no-nonsense guide that could help. Bridget Galton talks to her.
WHEN columnist and author Louise Doughty told literary friends she was encouraging readers to write a novel, there was a collective groan.
'That's all we need - more Daily Telegraph readers writing about their lives,' was the consensus.
Doughty admits she was "winging it" and had no idea how Novel In A Year would develop - or whether she would get any response.
"I had a good feeling there were a lot of people who wanted to write but basically didn't have a starting point," she says.
"People go around for years thinking about doing it. But the problem is they can't find a way into the maze."
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In the event, Doughty's mailbag and the newspaper's internet message board was inundated with thousands of responses.
"If a columnist gets a dozen letters, it's considered a flood. I gave the message board managers a collective nervous breakdown because every response had to be vetted. It was fascinating to see how far people were prepared to go - how much they threw themselves into it."
Doughty didn't set out to offer a blueprint of novel writing but instead showed some ways into the maze. (Or out of it for people who had started but got stuck).
She set exercises to generate ideas and material, included instructive anecdotes about how writers write and gave tips on plot, character development and structure.
Her no-nonsense advice included warnings about how hard it is (for the record, Doughty, who has also written several radio plays, thinks novels are the most difficult form of writing) and canny advice to concentrate on producing a good book before worrying about publishers and agents.
"There is a whole period sometimes lasting many years before you even start writing when you have to let it brew.
"A lot of new writers leap into writing before they have enough material or know where it is going. They write up the small part of the idea and don't know where to go next. So I told them how to think laterally and develop raw material from notes, photographs or scraps written on tissue paper."
Doughty was amazed at the number of contributors who said they didn't have any ambitions to become novelists.
"They enjoyed using the creative bit of the brain that is woefully underused in everyday life," says the Kentish Town mum-of-two, who is a great believer in the therapeutic nature of creative writing.
Witheringly dismissive of literary snobs who condescend budding writers, she is proud of democratising and demystifying the writing process.
"A lot of established authors are very snooty about creative writing.
"It's a dreadful, snobbery borne of insecurity. A lot don't like newcomers or helping others up the greasy pole. They pretend they have learned nothing and flatter themselves it's all about innate genius. But once you establish a precedent where people can be shown and facilitated, it undermines their genius.
"I wasn't saying everyone who followed the column or read the book was going to publish a novel - it was just a way of getting started."
Although Doughty thinks technique can be taught, she agrees good literature requires "raw talent".
"A few people are exceptional
- Beckett was a genius. No-one could learn how to be Beckett. But those people are a tiny minority of published authors.
"The rest of us may have a certain amount of raw ability. We work extremely hard and we have been extremely lucky."
Doughty sees her column and message board as part of a centuries-old tradition for writers to club together for mutual support, advice and criticism.
"What was the Bloomsbury group but a creative writing evening class with trust funds?
"Creative writing groups today have made it available to people who traditionally had no access to it and hooray for that. I have had a fair amount of hostility to the whole idea of teaching creative writing. There is a certain horror at a book about the writing process that's emphatically not for the literati. I really want this to be read by a 17-year-old in Macclesfield and a 60-year-old in the south. Everyone has a right to try to write a novel - you can learn so much about yourself in the process."
Doughty herself had no literary contacts until she blagged her way into a reviewing job for the Literary Review. After a stint in arts journalism, including two years as the Mail On Sunday's theatre critic, she took a creative writing course at East Anglia and eventually got published.
Now writing her sixth novel, she puts her desire to write down to a "geeky" adolescence spent in libraries and a strong family tradition of storytelling. Her ancestors were Fenland travellers until her grandfather settled in Peterborough.
She penned her first book - a sub-Watership Down animal saga about a horse - at the age of eight and says she "never wanted to do anything else."
"I am still amazed I get paid for it and pinch myself that I am a professional writer.
"Novel In A Year has been one of the best things I have done in my career. It has reminded me of my early days struggling with the anxieties and the newness of writing. It has reminded me how lucky I am and it has put a bit back into the industry. Even if one person ends up finishing a novel or getting published as a result that would make me very happy."
A Novel In A Year: A Novelist's Guide To Publishing A Novel published by Simon&Schuster is £11.99.