How I wrote my first published novel – Clare Swatman

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Author Clare Swatman
Author Clare Swatman

This month’s author is a journalist whose debut novel was published by Pan Macmillan last year. Before You Go is a poignant love story that made me laugh and cry.  I was so pleased when Clare said she would love to answer a few questions from me and particularly interested to hear how she fits her writing in with her journalism and a young family.

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

I’ve always wanted to write and have actually been a writer since I started my career in women’s magazines back in 1997.

What stopped you from writing a novel?

A number of things. I always longed to do it, it was my dream, but it felt like a pipe dream. Part of the reason was that I spent most of my day writing, so the last thing I felt like doing after that was writing in the evening. But the truth is also that I spent my 20s enjoying myself in London, and then my 30s having babies, so there never seemed to be the time, and more importantly it never seemed like the right time.

Before You Go is the first novel you wrote – how did you write it?

I decided one New Year’s eve that I just had to do it – that the next year was going to pass whether I started writing my novel or not – and so I just got on with it. I’d had the idea bubbling away for a while but had been unsure what to do with it so I sat down and tried to work out where I wanted it to go. I plotted out chapter by chapter (it changed during the writing process but it was a great place to start).

At the time my children were only five and two, so I didn’t have much time to put aside. I’m no good at writing in the evenings so instead I decided to ring-fence every Thursday when my youngest was with his childminder. It meant I earned less money as I only had two or three days a week to work anyway, but it was important to me. And so every Thursday I went to my local coffee shop and sat and wrote. I wrote as much as I could before I had to go and pick the kids up, and then I tried not to worry about it until my next writing day. And amazingly, by the end of that year, I had a whole first draft written!

Of course it’s changed a lot since that first draft, but it was the basis of what became Before You Go and I was very proud of myself! That first draft then sat on my computer for a few months before I came back to it and started trying to edit it. The trouble was, I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. So I paid my friend and fellow writer Katy Regan to read it and give me detailed feedback. It was a good way of finding out if it was actually any good at all. Luckily, she thought it was great and after incorporating a few of her suggested tweaks, I finally had the courage to send it off to some agents.

What was the most difficult part about writing it?

The middle bit! People always say the middle bit is the hardest as you lose the excitement of the first few chapters and the adrenaline of nearly reaching the end, and it’s true. And of course, being so limited on time, it meant I had to produce something every time I sat down to it. Some days it flowed and some days it just didn’t want to come. They were the days I felt like giving up.

How did you overcome that?

I’m very stubborn, and don’t like to give up on something once I’ve set my mind to it! I’m also a firm believer in just writing through it. It’s better to get something down on the page and then move on to the next bit when you’re struggling, and then go back and edit it or even completely rewrite it later. But sitting waiting for inspiration never works for me. You could sit there forever!

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

I did it in a very traditional way. I sat down with the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and marked all the agents who accepted manuscripts like mine. Then I went through them methodically and looked at their websites for more details, as well as submission guidelines. I then whittled my initial list down to about 12 agents that I thought were the best fit and took a deep breath and sent it out. I was very careful to follow their submission guidelines because they’re there for a reason. And then I tried (and failed!) to forget about it for a while. It was two days later that I was asked for the full manuscript, and a week later Judith Murray had taken me on and I got on with more edits. It was VERY exciting!

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

Loads. Judith knows far more than I could ever know about how to sell a book, but she also trusts her writers to know how to make the changes in the best way. I went away and took on board all her advice and did my very best to improve it. As a journalist I learnt a long time ago not to be too precious about anything I’ve written – and so I was happy to accept constructive criticism from her and trust that she knew what she was talking about. And I’m glad I did because the book sold to a publisher a week after she sent it out for auction!

What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

It sounds obvious, but just write something. I spent far too long thinking ‘one day I’ll write a book’. It doesn’t matter if your first draft is a load of nonsense. You’ve started, and you have somewhere to go from there. But do make sure you’re realistic when working out when you’re going to fit your writing in. And just do it! What have you got to lose?


Clare Swatman is the author of Before You Go which has been translated into 21 languages, and her second novel, The Mother’s Secret, is coming out in February 2018. She has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for women’s magazines. She lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and two boys.

To find out more about Clare’s work visit her website.


Next month’s interview is with Barbara Copperthwaite who writes psychological crime thrillers. She has self-published and is now traditionally published. Her books sell internationally and she is a USA Today bestseller.

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