Writing a bestselling novel is definitely #lifegoals for many of us. However, the hard reality of putting pen to paper, finding time to write, wrestling with characterisation and plot – not to mention the pitfalls of eventually finding a publisher – have left plenty of great stories off the shelf. But don’t be daunted. The dream of headlining the Hay Festival or topping the Amazon books chart can happen – and Cecelia Ahern is a woman who should know. Best known for her debut novel, P.S I Love You, which was written when she was just 21, she’s turned out to be quite the prolific author. Thirteen books later including a YA novel and a rumoured erotic TV screenplay under her belt (yes, you read that right) she’s just released her latest novel, Lyrebird. Here, Ahern shares her secrets for how to turn that story you’re itching to tell into a literary smash.
Discover your most effective way of writing
Find what works for you. Because I have children, I’m a very structured writer. I sit down from 9-5, four days a week and write a chapter in each sitting. I’ll walk into my office and light a Jo Malone candle, such as Blackberry & Bay or Grapefruit; it’s the moment I can go ‘aah’ and be creative. I write longhand first so I can see how ideas develop and then I type it up. I edit as I go along so I immediately have a second draft. I start writing in January, edit in the summer and it’s published in autumn. That’s my routine. You might think that it doesn’t sound very creative but it’s about setting out a time and sticking to it.
Creative writing courses aren’t for everyone
If you’re a person who needs structure and motivation, then great. But I did creative writing classes at college and I found it was forced creativity. To be given a topic to write about was too restricting and was frustrated I couldn’t write the things I wanted to. I’m a lone ranger. I work best alone.
Sharing your work is good – but only once you’ve finished
Even now sharing my work is daunting. My mother was the first person who read my work and I remember giving it to her and hiding behind my hands. Which I still do to be honest! What’s needed at this point is encouragement. For me, it’s not about pointing out spelling mistakes or repetitions. It’s all about motivation. Writing a novel is a long process. Sometimes I think, ‘can I finish this?’ So encouragement and praise is important to help you complete your story. Then you can be critical.
Ideas first. Character second.
I always know the beginning and ending of my books. As with Lyrebird, I knew it was about a girl with an ability to mimic sounds. From there, my characters grew. Writing is very visual; basically, I write what I see. It’s like a movie: I watch and write. I’ll have conversations with the characters in my head. Then sometimes an idea will just strike from nowhere. The other day my brother-in-law made a comment and suddenly ‘bam!’ I could see my next book – the story, characters, everything!
Write what you feel, not what you know
I have a love/hate relationship with the phrase ‘write what you know’. I think you should write how you feel. Sometimes what you know isn’t that interesting. I love my allotment, but as the basis of a story it might not work. But how you feel about your allotment could work as part of a story.
Find an agent before pitching to publishers
I wouldn’t have had a clue how to go directly to a publisher, even now. My advice would be to pick up the Writers’ Handbook. I was recommended to my agent by a family friend, and was told to send in three chapters and a synopsis. After that I was asked for more chapters, so I was writing on demand. After ten chapters, she asked to meet me and two weeks after that I had secured a deal with Harper Collins. I was so encouraged that someone liked my first ten chapters it gave me faith to go on and finish the book.