Writing a novel in 2021? Tips and guidance from a successful 2020 debut author
“It took 17 years from typing the first word of the first manuscript to finally being published last year. There were three unpublished manuscripts before my debut Precious You eventually, miraculously, fought its way off the slush pile and all the way into bookshops. I began many a new year hoping this might be the year. If this is you today, here are some things I’ve learnt along the way.”
These are the words of Helen Monks Takhar, a journalist, copywriter and magazine editor prior to the publication of her debut novel, a psychological thriller called Precious You. Described as “dark, disturbing and compulsive” by Adele Parks and “enthralling” by The Sunday Times, the audible version of her book is a bestseller. Born in Southport, Monks Takhar lives in North London with her husband and two daughters. Here she writes for Northern Soul.
Getting published is about listening to other people
The author’s name is on the cover, but there are so many people who make a book, even before the design, manufacture, and PR and marketing campaigns kick in.
First, my agent suggested the many ways I might lick Precious You into better shape before submitting it to publishers. Next, my UK and US editors escorted it through multiple rounds of amends. This was before a copy editor pushed me on clarity and continuity, and a proofreader found typos I was mortified to see were still lurking.
Writing is a solitary pursuit, getting published isn’t
If you don’t do it as a matter of course, share your work this year. Ask for feedback. Take the praise but seek the pain – the scene that isn’t plausible, the character who doesn’t leap off the page, the mistakes that stop your manuscript from appearing professional.
In producing Precious You, my editors (for very good reasons) rejected some of my characters’ traits, elements of their back stories, certain scenes and many turns of phrase. Although there’s been a positive critical and reader response to Precious You, few published writers get a clean sweep, myself included.
Some reviewers have questioned my motives in writing such a divisive story, a narrative where two women of adjacent generations tear each other down. Meanwhile, a number of readers have rejected my book by leaving tough reviews online. If fear of rejection threatens to stop you from writing, know it really is part of the creative process, not a reason to stop it.
Writing makes you a writer
I drafted my first two manuscripts under a pseudonym because I was too embarrassed to admit, even to myself, that I dreamt of becoming an author. Who did I think I was?
These days, I’m mentoring a talented young storyteller who, despite having written tens of thousands of words, struggles to see themselves as a writer. And I’m currently editing book two which, in common with most manuscripts, has involved moments of feeling distinctly unwriterly, this one because I must have produced about 250,000 words in its name, of which only 90,000 will make the final product.
My point is this: feeling valid can be ongoing work for anyone who tries to write a story. Whether or not you receive apparent sign-off from the cosmos of publication, internalising your right to write will help you to keep going. I tell my mentee (and myself on a dark day) that if you’re compelled to put yourself through the often-not-always-particularly-pleasurable process of committing a story to page, you’re entitled to consider yourself a writer.
By the way, on pseudonyms, they might prove helpful if acute self-awareness is blocking your ability to write. When I started out, ‘Hannah Marks’ proved very liberating.
Eyes on the prize
If you’d told me in 2003 when I started manuscript one that I’d be published one day, I would have been astounded. But it did happen (eventually) and it could happen to you.
So, for the avoidance of doubt, if you’re coming to the new year feeling that you have something to say, know this: your ambitions are valid and they only have a chance of being realised if you keep writing. And keep writing.
By Helen Monks Takhar
Precious You is published by HarperCollins Publishers and is available to buy now
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