How I wrote my first published novel – Barbara Copperthwaite

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Barbara Copperthwaite author
Barbara Copperthwaite author

This month’s author chat is with a psychological thriller writer who started off self-publishing before she got a publishing contract based on the success of her novels.

I particularly loved what she had to say about first drafts – it resonated with me and I can tick off every one of the items she mentioned! In fact I might just print out her final comments and stick them somewhere to keep reminding me that all the problems in my draft are fixable.

I hope her story and advice give you a bit of encouragement to carry on whatever draft you’re on.

How long had you wanted to write for before you began?

I’d spent almost twenty years working as a journalist, so had always earned a living through my writing. But it didn’t enter my head to try to write a book until I got an idea that simply wouldn’t go away.

Over a period of about two years, it developed into a storyline, but I didn’t honestly think I’d ever get round to writing a book as I was too busy in my job until one weekend I bought a laptop, and started writing my book during snatched lunchbreaks, and on my commute on the train. It still wasn’t about writing a book, though, it was more about doing something I loved, and that stubborn idea for a book seemed as good a thing as any to work on.

Within six months, though, I’d written enough to know I really wanted to finish the story. I still didn’t know if I could, as I’d never produced such a large body of work before, but the desire to type The End became all-consuming

What was your first published novel? 

The novel I had been working on during lunch breaks and on my commute started to become more and more important to me. Eventually, it became my first published novel, Invisible,  which became a bestselling psychological thriller in the UK and US.

Writing it had been hard work, but so much fun. First, I’d written a very simple outline of the plot. I’d also picked the title early on – choosing  Invisible because it helped consolidate in my own head what the theme of the book would be:  the twisted journey of a woman who starts out feeling ignored and unnoticed in her own marriage and friendships, and later becomes one of the most hated women in Britain. She is the invisible victim of a series of horrific crimes; someone everyone sees but no one cares about.

After eighteen long months, I finally finished it. It had gone through various drafts and revisions. After years of being able to write features that were published in national magazines unchanged, it was a culture shock to suddenly have to go over and over and over (and over) my work to get it right. I didn’t bother with writing forums. I know this may draw shocked gasps, but I was so certain of my idea that, right or wrong, I felt other people’s input would simply confuse me.

Then I contacted agent after agent. Though rejected by them all, the vast majority went to the trouble of saying they had enjoyed Invisible; that it was well-written, different, imaginative…it just didn’t fit in with what they were looking for at that time. I could have got hung up on the rejection but instead I took it as a great sign. The experts liked it, I liked it – if I published, hopefully others would like it…

I’d read about self-publishing from magazine articles. I chose Amazon as it cost nothing and has global reach. My partner is a professional artist, and I’d spent years working on magazine covers, so together we created the striking image for the book’s jacket.

Invisible wasn’t an overnight success, but after a few months it hit the charts. I built on its success by writing a second novel, Flowers For The Dead. This second psychological thriller was also a genre bestseller here and in the US.

How did you find your agent? Was that an easy process?

The success of my self-published novels had been noticed by a publisher, Bookouture. They expressed interest in seeing the next manuscript I completed. When my third novel was finished, I sent it to them and a few other publishers, and a handful of agents.

Several got back to me. But I loved Bookouture’s innovative, modern approach and its friendly persona. I’d read and enjoyed a lot of their authors’ works, and knew it was where I wanted to be.

At the same time that I signed with them, I was taken on by my agent, Jane Gregory, of Gregory and Co. Jane has an incredible reputation, particularly in the crime genre, as she helped found Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, and represents the likes of Sarah Hilary, Belinda Bauer, and Val McDermid. As soon as I met Jane, we clicked.

Once you had an agent/publisher what did you learn through the editing process?

I had employed an editor for my previous books, so I’d already learned an awful lot about pacing, structure, characterization, etc. But my new editor at Bookouture, Keshini Naidoo, is brilliant. It’s so important to have a good relationship, and trust your editor, so the two of you can work together to make the book even better. She’s always so upbeat, positive and energized that her suggestions never feel like criticisms.

What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

The thing I probably hear most when people are writing their first book is that they get disheartened because it’s a mess, so they give up. Or they spend ages going back over that beginning, rewriting it, honing it, but never doing anything else.

My advice? Don’t worry about editing as you go, just push forward and get the plot down.

The first draft will be a mess. There will be bits that make no sense, characters who change name halfway through because you decided you didn’t like their original moniker (or forgot it), and plot holes big enough to drive a bus through. That can all be fixed – but at least you will have a story entire to fix. If you keep polishing those first few chapters you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of your book.


USA Today bestseller Barbara Copperthwaite is the author of psychological thrillers INVISIBLE, FLOWERS FOR THE DEAD, and THE DARKEST LIES. Her latest book, HER LAST SECRET, was published on 13th October.

With over twenty years’ experience as a national newspaper and magazine journalist, she’s interviewed the real victims of crime – and also those who have carried them out. That’s why her novels are dark, realistic and tackle not just the crime but its repercussions.
When not writing feverishly, she is often found hiding behind a camera, taking wildlife photographs.

To find out more about Barbara visit


Twitter: @BCopperthwait


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