How I write my novels – Debby Holt

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By Debby Holt

The origins lie in a clutter of unrelated stimulants. With my latest book, these are a great holiday in Scotland, a neighbour’s online research of her ancestors, a conversation with my younger daughter, and a friend’s suggestion that I tend to shy away from writing about bad people.♥

The story begins to emerge along with three or four characters. The more I think about them, the clearer their features become as do the strands that connect them to people and places I hadn’t previously considered. I still have my basic storyline but it’s changing now because the characters have grown and do not necessarily suit the decisions and choices I’d made for them.

Sometimes I have good days and feel I’m the luckiest person in the world and sometimes I have bad days when I seriously question why I waste my time trying to write. Eventually I finish the last page of the first draft and feel like I’ve run a marathon. (Big confession here: I have never actually run a marathon partly because I can imagine only too well what it must be like.)

Now comes what I always presume will be fun: re-writing. I’ve done the hard work, I’ve created my characters, I’ve set them in a particular time and place, I’ve worked out all the twists and turns, I’ve engineered a suitable conclusion. All I have to do is correct my glaring errors, delete whole pages of pedestrian dialogue and unnecessary exposition and polish the manuscript. With every novel – this latest is my eighth – I think the process will be easy and with every novel I find it’s almost – but not quite – as painful as writing the first draft.

Five or six drafts later, I read the manuscript and, if I enjoy reading it, I know I’m there. And this is when the magic happens. I thought I was just writing a story. But now I see that those initial and apparently unrelated stimulants weren’t unrelated after all. I had thought my story was inspired by a series of random experiences. In fact, my mind had been sifting through all the sundry incidents, observations and small dramas in my life and carefully selected these particular ones.

My latest novel, The Dangers of Family Secrets, is a story about a family that is devastated by long-buried family secrets. I see now that for some time I have been thinking about the importance of communication. Martin Amis once wrote about writing that “Your unconscious does it all.” It is a sort of magic and it is one of the reasons I love writing.

So finally, my main piece of advice to any aspiring novelist is not to worry about investigating big, profound themes. Don’t try to analyse your thought processes. Just tell your story and enjoy getting to know your characters. With luck – and a lot of perseverance – you might just surprise yourself.


Debby Holt was once a History teacher. She has had over sixty short stories published at home and abroad and is the author of seven novels, the first of which, The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide, was published in 2006. Her eighth, The Dangers of Family Secrets, is published by Accent Press and is out now. Debby is married with five children and five grand-daughters.

debbyholt.co.uk

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