On the 6th September I attended a Guardian Masterclass titled How to Write a Bestseller. The course consisted of a series of talks by Matt Haig (on Characterisation), Alex Preston (on Creating a Sense of Place and Atmosphere), and Evie Wyld (on Writing Fact and Fiction), followed by a general Q&A led discussion with Sebastian Faulks (which was very exciting as he’s one of my all-time favourite authors). It was a really enjoyable day, and all of the speakers were extremely charismatic and funny. They all had so many insightful things to say and I found it to be really useful, so this is a summary of the notes I took in case it’s of interest to anyone else. I’ve broken it down into the individual talks, but check the tags or links at the bottom of the page to see all four parts.
The 1st person point of view has limitations – you need to have the narrator in every scene, and you can’t get into other characters’ heads without speculation or their use of dialogue.
Write with conviction about invented places. Write with accuracy about real places. Select certain details or particulars when creating atmosphere, but don’t use too many. How do you choose what’s important in your imaginary landscape? Don’t make it sound too much like something/somewhere else.
Reading out loud helps you to find repetitions in your writing, but isn’t as necessary for dialogue as people think.
Look out for clichés – if something can’t be said without using a cliché, don’t say it at all!
Endings – it’s good to have optimism, but the ending doesn’t need to be happy. Throw the reader off-balance. Use dislikeable characters, then let the reader decide they like them by the end.
Storytelling is giving the reader the information you want, in the order you want, at the time of your choosing. (A sense of storytelling makes the difference between a story and an anecdote?). You need to have a fairly strong structure of the story in your mind, but don’t worry about using specific structure formulae such as the 3 Act Structure. Themes won’t emerge without plans. Develop the tone of voice first. You need the tone to be established on the first pages, then the structure and flow tends to happen more easily.
Keep the reader with you, and keep the reader surprised. Give the reader time to assimilate ideas, but not with a fanfare. Be a bit unreliable – don’t let the reader trust you too much.
Recommended reading: Living and Loving by Henry Green.
Take yourself seriously! You need arrogance (to a certain extent), but also a sense of self-criticism.
You can read my reviews of Sebastian Faulks’ A Fool’s Alphabet, A Possible Life, Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel, and The Girl at the Lion d’Or. See also How to Write a Bestseller: Matt Haig on Characterisation, How to Write a Bestseller: Alex Preston on Creating a Sense of Place and Atmosphere, and How to Write a Bestseller: Evie Wyld on Writing Fact and Fiction.