How to write a novel – tips from Daisy Goodwin

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Friday 23rd September 2011

“If you want to write a novel, it’s never too late…”

Those were the inspiring words from TV producer and novelist Daisy Goodwin when she gave the annual (and free) creative writing lecture at Oxford Brookes University last night (September 22). It was the first day of term for the university’s new creative writing students, who scribbled frantically in their notebooks and tapped away on laptops as she spoke.

Over the next hour Daisy proceeded to give such great advice to the scores of would-be novelists in the audience that she should probably turn it into a book. Or, considering she’s the creative genius behind a string of hit TV shows (from Grand Designs to The Nation’s Favourite Poems), make it into a TV series.

Daisy started her writing career at the age of 43 with Silver River, a family memoir, before turning out her bestselling novel, My Last Duchess. She’s now in the throes of writing her second novel and admitted she feels “very much a novice” in the writing stakes. But many of the lessons she learned from working in TV are applicable to the art of novel writing too. She’s learned, for instance, that “the audience is king. You have to grab them and make sure they don’t go anywhere else. Your first chapter is all-important and you have to sell your book on the quality of your prose.”

She also reckoned that series like Grand Designs have a “novelistic format,” which she gleaned a lot from. The Grand Designs programmes start in a muddy field with people talking about their hopes and dreams. Midway through, the protagonists are still standing in a muddy field and at each other’s throats, but by the end of it all they have a wonderful house. “Along the way they have risk, drama, jeopardy, caravans and screaming kids,” she said, “but people watch the programme for the fairy tale ending, the moment when it’s clear that all the suffering has been worthwhile.”

At the end of the talk, Daisy, resplendent in a scarlet dress and mostly speaking without notes, reeled off a list of valuable tips on writing fiction.

1. Read, read, read. You can’t read too much.

2. Find a subject that fascinates you and that you are excited about.

3. Hard work and stamina are essential. Write 1,000 words a day. “That is the minimum,” she said. “If I can do it, you can. It’s tough but it’s true.”

4. Don’t give up the day job (or certainly not until you’ve had at least three books published.)

5. Don’t immediately show what you’ve written to “your partner, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or dog.”

6. Don’t worry that your novel isn’t all plotted out. Just keep going. Get to the end – and then go back and write a second draft.

7. Remember a book is never going to be perfect or finished. Even now, she said, when she gives readings, she pulls out adverbs and tightens up construction as she goes along.

8. Most importantly, she concluded, “if you want to do something, you can. You can realise your creative dreams.”

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