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Louise Dean on what it takes to write a bestselling novel

·4-min read
Photo credit: Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in 'Becoming Jane'. Blueprint/Ecosse/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in 'Becoming Jane'. Blueprint/Ecosse/Kobal/Shutterstock

"Theres's this idea that you can only write a novel alone and struggling," says Louise Dean. "It doesn't have to be like that."

Dean should know. The successful novelist is not only the winner of The Betty Trask Prize and a Booker long-listed author, she is the founder of The Novelry, a remarkable world-wide writing school.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

During one of her own particularly gruelling book deadlines, she decided to mix things up; to write her novel in 90 days in the company of other writers. The experience of creating in a collective inspired her to found the school - which she now runs from her houseboat in Chelsea. The Novelry's online courses are currently catering to over 700 writers, with classes run by tutors including brilliant authors and former editors from Penguin Random House.

Here, Dean shares her expert advice on just what it really takes to write a novel...

Bust the myth of the artistic genius

"What I find most objectionable about the perception of writing a novel is that it feels so very exclusionary. There is this myth perpetuated that writing a novel is something innate and you can either do it or you can't - it is the result of some sort of natural genius. This makes you feel you can't be a writer, that you're not clever enough. It's just not true, there are plenty of things that can be developed or taught when it comes to novel writing."

You don't have to write alone

"Literature as an art form gets viewed as something you can only do by yourself, but through The Novelry, and my own writing experiences, I have seen how enriching it is to write with others.

The generosity of other writers is utterly humbling, and really has blown me away. When I started our community area where people could share work, I put lots of sort of provisos in about being kind and giving positive feedback but I just really didn't need to; because it's all writers writing, they really understood how damaging it could be to get very negative feedback early on. So they're incredibly caring, thoughtful and generous. The feedback you get from others is very exciting as a writer, because you're always getting fresh insights and making connections."

Preparation is key

"Before they start writing with us, our writers will have four to five weeks of looking at how their story works and shaping up their idea. Because actually, the best investment of your time is to get the idea into killer shape before you start the book. Planning like that makes any story much easier to write."

It's all about storytelling

"What I see time and again at The Novelry are great writers who need help when it comes to storytelling. You can absolutely teach storytelling - and it is vital that you do. Storytelling is a rare skill and it is a well-crafted story that will, ultimately, get your book published. We teach many approaches to that; one being the idea of taking a story that you love, and that resonates with a lot of people for similar reasons, but then adding to that something about your experience - about where you live, your background - that seems slightly at odds with that. The tension between the two will not only drive you to write the novel, but it'll excite readers as well, because it's asking questions - and the best novels keep asking questions."

It is more than just the writing...

"One of the main things we want to do is make the whole process of getting a book published more accessible. In that way, we see ourselves as a finishing school for authors. We take people from the beginning all the way through, but they get the opportunity to meet with agents and publishers and talk about their work quite early on. And we drill them quite hard on all the aspects of publishing they may not know that go far and beyond just writing the novel.

One example of this is the 'one line pitch'. I had no idea when I started writing how fundamental the sentence is that explains your book, because our publishing editors have explained that, essentially, the sales team at whatever house you're with will have a minute in front of the book store buyer and they've got 60 books to pitch in an hour. So, if you can't explain what it's about in one line, they don't stand a chance and they may not take that risk."

Get ready for it to take over your life

"A novel is a jealous god. It wants absolutely all of you. I often think you're in a dance with a ghostly stranger that you haven't met before, and you don't know where the dance is going. Because it's so absorbing, I'd say, when you prepare for it, to try and do it in two or three months. At some point, you've got to come back to real life."

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