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Unleash your lockdown novel. Travel writer and author Annabelle Thorpe tells you how

Updated: May 19, 2020

Annabelle Thorpe lives in Sussex and has been writing about travel for two decades, in The Times and elsewhere.

She has also written two highly-acclaimed novels and is currently writing her third.

I talked to her this week to get some tips and hints for anyone who has a lockdown masterpiece inside them waiting to burst forth.

So, you’re sitting there with an idea for a book, not even really a plot to start with…. what are your first steps?

I think what you’re doing when you write a book is creating a whole new world. So, find a room, or a corner of a room, think about where you’re going to set your novel and print out some images of that place. Who are your characters? Even if you just have a few in mind when you start, who would you like to play them? Print out those pictures.

Start with a space where you’re building that world and where you can go to be in it when you want to write. The more you can feel you’re going to that place, the more the book will be real and credible from the beginning.

I always cast my characters. It doesn’t have to be someone famous but it can be. It just makes them real. So, for example, in my first novel, I had the actor Goran Višnjić in mind for the role of the son, but it took so long to write, that by the time it was published he could have played the father! I did actually find out who his agent was in Los Angeles and sent him a copy of the book but never heard back, funnily enough.

In my second book, I had an acerbic septuagenarian, a glamorous ex-traveller who lived in La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech. That was Maggie Smith.

When you start writing a novel do you know what the end will be?

I think it’s important to have an endpoint, yes. If you think about the classic story arc, the beginning and endpoint define its shape. If you’re vague about what happens between the two, that’s fine, that will come as you go along but I think you do need to begin with a conclusion in mind. That may change as well though – basically, everything alters as you write a book.

When you’re writing do you find you might be going down a cul-de-sac and you have to go back and start again?

I think often what you’re doing is trying stuff out and it doesn’t always work. For example, you might introduce a character and then decide that they don’t really do anything or achieve anything.

If you think about someone’s life, with a book you come in at a certain point, say when they’re twenty, but you still have to have an idea of what’s happened to them in the preceding twenty years because they might reference it or it’s what’s shaped them.

So sometimes you write things for yourself about stuff that won’t really go into the book but it is your character’s background. You can write great long scenes and reminiscences that don’t make it in, but they’re really useful in terms of the character’s back story.

Sometimes I’ll write a scene between two characters that’s more for me, just so I know how a particular conversation or interaction would have gone. That means that when my characters refer to it, even if you don’t see it as a reader, it feels more real. I think you have to see the story you’re telling as part of a longer arc; there’s always an unseen before, and after,

It’s about coming up with some background…where did they go to school, who was their best friend, what did they do after university, that kind of stuff will make a more believable, more rounded character. If you’re not sure where your story is going, the more you know about your characters, the more that will come.

Can you explain the role of agents and publishers?

The traditional route is still to get an agent, particularly if you want to be conventionally published with a mainstream, big publisher. For that, you need to have written at least three chapters and a synopsis to send off. Ideally, you want the whole thing written because if they like the three chapters, they’ll say right I want to see the rest of the book. If you haven’t written it, that’s a year for them to forget who you are.

Getting an agent is the biggest thing because it means you’re not on your own any more, you’ve got someone on your team. Their job is to get you a contract with a publisher and that’s how they make their money. When a publisher pays to buy your book, that’s when an agent takes their commission.

An agent could be with you for life but publishers may come and go. You may get a two-book deal, but then if your sales aren’t good enough they may not renew it, or you may decide you want to change publishing house. Your agent, though, is the person in your corner who advises you, the one who’s on the inside of the publishing industry.

What do you think about the self-publishing model? And how much do you have to push your own book or do you get help doing that?

I’ve found publishing a really tough industry because even once you have a deal, you realise there are more hurdles to cross – and PR is one of the biggest. Publishing houses buy a lot of books and don’t have the capacity to put major PR campaigns behind all of them. There’ll be a few titles that get taken on roadshows around all the independent bookshops and pushed to the broadsheets, but most authors have to do a lot of the PR work themselves.

I think self-publishing is great but probably you’ll do as much work on publicising your book as you did writing it. There’s a huge online book blogging community that is really supportive of self-published authors. But it all takes an immense amount of time.

How much do you have to rewrite and how much pushback do you have on that if you don’t agree?

When you first start out, you write your book and you think oh it’s marvellous, I love it! But your agent and definitely your publisher will be looking at it as a saleable commodity, whereas you’re looking at it as this lovely creative thing you’ve produced and there’s a gulf between those two things sometimes.

There’s always rewriting to be done. An agent will always want it to be in the absolute best form they think it can be before it’s sent to a publisher. But then a publisher will inevitably have changes too.

In terms of pushback, usually, your instant reaction is no! I don’t want to make any changes. But it’s important to take time to really consider what’s being suggested. If I continue to feel strongly that I don’t want to do it I will say no, but sometimes a change doesn’t make a huge difference, so I’ll agree to it. You can’t pushback against all of it.

How much do negative reviews on say Amazon affect you?

You don’t get that many really. But I did have a couple. With Amazon, there’s something called Vine where they send certain reviewers free products - anything from books to cat food. The more reviews you place, and the more ‘helpful’ ticks people put against those reviews the more free stuff you get sent.

They can review books before they’re published, so the two worst reviews of my second book came out before anything else. This meant that when people were looking at whether to buy it, all they saw were those two two-star reviews. I was absolutely devastated. But then I’ve got some lovely reviews too.

When you get a bad review, you sometimes think ‘fair point’ or this book just didn’t sing to them, but then sometimes they just have an issue or want to make a point. Someone said ‘well Annabelle has been a journalist for 20 years so I can see why she got a book deal’ and that just made me incandescent because being a travel journalist did not help me whatsoever. But then someone leaves a positive review and it’s just lovely.

What’s an average length of time between sitting down to write the first word and the book appearing on a shop shelf?

That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions. The absolute quickest I would say is probably two and a half years. You’ve got to allow about a year to write a book and then it’s a long slow process getting it published.

There are times of the year they want to bring out debuts or lesser-known novelists. September onwards is a really bad time of the year because it’s all about the Christmas market and August isn’t great either. So, there’s a window between February and July that’s the best time to get published and sometimes you have to wait till the following year for that window.

If someone had an idea for a novel what would be your two top tips for them?

Write every day, even if it’s just ten minutes and even if you think it’s not very good. Sometimes you’re writing and it’s a linking bit, you know it’s not very good but it’ll get you over that hump and then you’ll write a really great bit. It’s about being in that world that I mentioned at the start, keep in that world.

My other tip would be to make it the last thing you think about at night before you go to sleep and the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning. If you’ve got stuff you want to work out, your brain will tick over while you’re asleep - and when you wake up is the best time to think about plot and development because your brain is at its clearest.

(c) Will Hide 2020

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