I met Emily at a Faber author chat last year and she was incredibly helpful and with lots of good advice for us writers wading through our first drafts. I will always remember her saying to me: “Just remember that the first draft is the worst state that your novel will ever be in,” which I found to be a really useful way of looking at it.
Shortly after, I ready Emily’s book, The Sleeper. If you want an example of how to build up tension and suspense in the first half of a novel this is a brilliant example of how it should be done (I’ve popped a link to this book at the bottom of the post if you’d like to read more).
She’s written many novels now and made the leap into YA too. Here are her thoughts on writing that first novel.
How long had you wanted to write a novel for before you began?
I think I’d always wanted to write a novel! My dad is an academic, and I remember his books (about film) appearing in the house from time to time, so as a very young child I knew that writing books was something people did. As a teenager I was a voracious reader and longed to write a book but was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to because it felt impossible to keep so much in my head at once.
The book Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood somehow changed my perspective. I wanted to write a book just like it. I was so inspired that I made copious notes for a book that would no doubt have been a pale imitation. It gave me an extra determination, but it was still about a decade before I seriously started writing a novel.
What stopped you from writing a novel?
For a few years I worked at the Guardian, and everyone wanted to write a novel. I thought I couldn’t really do it, that it was just a dream everyone had. I was always thinking about novels, but I never really got very far because I didn’t have the confidence, and also, until I started writing my first book I didn’t have a story I was burning to tell.
What was your first published novel?
Is this the first novel you wrote?
Yes it is. It’s not the first novel I started, but it’s the first one I finished.
How did you write it?
I’d been travelling for a year, and I’d started Backpack while I was away. So at that point I had the huge luxury of time and absolutely no commitments whatsoever, beyond a fortnightly travel column I was writing. When I got back with a load of scrawled notes, it was a bit of a crash down to earth, as I had to work (mainly doing freelance journalism) and pay bills and things. However, I carried on writing. I was lucky enough to get an agent at an early stage, and he helped me immensely. I did lots and lots of drafts of the first 20k words, and worked hard on a synopsis, and my agent, Jonny Geller, got me a deal with Headline on the basis of that (which is something far less likely to happen these days than it was back then, in 2000). So I had to write the other 80k words very quickly, under immense pressure, following my own synopsis. It was intense.
And what was the most difficult part about writing it?
As above, it was was knowing that I had to write the other 80k words in a matter of months, when the longest thing I’d written before that was a 2,000 word article. I had no idea whether I could do it or not, but I had to either way, so I did.
How did you overcome that?
Just by writing through all the horror and terror.
How did you find your agent? Was that an easy process?
It was. A Guardian colleague put me in touch with Jonny Geller. He took me on. I was extremely lucky (and times were different). I’m still with Curtis Brown to this day.
Once you had an agent/publisher what did you learn through the editing process?
That when you think the book’s finished, the editing process has barely begun. You have to be incredibly unprecious to get through it all.
What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?
Just keep writing. In my experience, everyone gets stuck at about 30,000 words. There’s only one way through that, and that’s to keep writing. If you give up, actually no one but you will really care (harsh but true). If you write the book, people are going to read it and enjoy it. So do it.
Emily Barr is the author of The One Memory of Flora Banks and The Truth and Lies of Ella Black, both YA books published by Penguin Random House. She has also written 12 novels for adults and a novella for the Quick Reads series. She lives in Cornwall with her partner, their children, and two guinea pigs, and spends a lot of time looking out of the window at the rain, planning the next ‘research trip’.