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How to write a novel: Best-selling author Erin Kelly tells us how she does it

Erin Kelly

It might be the fact that Natasha and I are journalists, but we are both incredibly fascinated with the process of writing. And, more specifically with the process of novel writing. Just how do authors translate their ideas onto paper? It’s harder than it sounds. I know. I’ve tried it. And so, partly for purely selfish reasons and partly because I think that a lot of people would love to write a book (or at least know how an amazing author does it) we asked the very talented Erin Kelly to tell us her (writing) secrets.

Born in London in 1976, and raised in Essex, she is the author of three acclaimed psychological thrillers, The Poison Tree (a Richard and Judy bestseller and a major ITV drama), The Sick Rose and The Burning Air. Her work has been compared to Ruth Rendell and Daphne du Maurier, and praised by the master of suspense Stephen King. I’ve read them. They’re brilliant. Buy one (or all) now.

A freelance journalist since 1999, Erin has written for Red, Psychologies, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Daily Mail, Elle, Marie Claire, Glamour and currently has a column in Mother & Baby magazine. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters.

If you’d like to know more about Erin, please see her website You can also follow Erin on twitter (@mserinkelly).

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The Poison Tree; The Sick Rose; The Burning Air, Erin’s latest novel is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99.

And, now for the good bit. How Erin writes….

How did you make the transition from someone who wanted to write a book (maybe even started one) to someone who actually finished a book and had it published?

I always wanted to write a novel, even when I was little. In fact, I only became a journalist because I thought it might help me get a book deal. I did a handful of creative writing courses, and formed a writing group with my friends where I drank lots of wine and talked about the book, but never got further than a couple of paragraphs. Then, in 2008, I got pregnant, and realised that it was now or never. I suppose I realised that no one was going to write the book for me. I buckled down and wrote all day, every day, until I had a 70,000 word manuscript. I was lucky – the story that I’d been daydreaming about for so long just fell out of me fully-formed. (I’ve since learned that while this is often the case with first novels, this sensation of a lifetime’s worth of inspiration pouring out is generally a once-in-a-lifetime event).

As for getting published, I did it the old-fashioned way, by writing off to agents and getting rejected and depressed and wondering why I had bothered. Eventually, just before I was about to give birth, I signed with a brilliant agent who ‘got’ me and my writing, and she then took the book to publishers on my behalf.

Was The Poison Tree the first book you started or were there others that fell aside along the way?

It was the first novel I attempted, but it had a very long gestation period – I thought about it for three or four years before I actually put words on the page. There were two ideas that wouldn’t leave me alone – the first was the idea of a love triangle between a young woman and a brother and sister, and the second was a twist on the traditional murder mystery, the idea that the book would open knowing who the killer was, but not the victim.

You must have a lot of ideas, how do you know which one has potential?

Ideas pass through me all the time and I used to make a note of every tiny one, but now I realise that while that works for many writers, for me there’s no point. If an idea has real potential, it will return and develop and new layers will form. In short, the books that are meant to be haunt me until I write them.

How do you develop the initial spark of an idea into a full book? Do you plan or does it happen organically as you write?

I don’t plot or plan before I write. I have a vague idea of who my characters are and what will happen to them, but I have to write them to find out.

How long does it take you, from the first idea to the last line, to put a book together?

It varies from book to book. What I have noticed is that the longer I spend thinking about the book beforehand, the quicker it is to write. The Poison Tree had years to ferment and took about eight months to write. The Burning Air, my latest book, was conceived one day and begun a week later. It took me about sixteen months to write, because the mistakes that I might have made in my head were set down on the page, meaning they were harder to spot. I deleted thousands of words that I might never have written had I had longer to think about the story. Ironically I started it so quickly because I had a deadline to meet, and then missed that deadline because I’d painted myself into so many corners.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it? Are you very disciplined?

There is often a point about halfway through the novel when the skeleton of the plot is in place but there are flaws and holes and contradictions that I need to solve and this is when I feel like bashing my head against the computer screen and giving up. When this happens, I actually take a week or so off and read books by authors I love – nothing is as inspiring as revisiting a book that reminds me why I wanted to write in the first place.
As for the question of discipline, I always think it’s strange when people ask that question, or tell me that they admire my willpower. It took great resolve to write the first book, back when I didn’t have a publishing deal in place, but ever since then, it’s like any other job. You wouldn’t tell a teacher or an engineer that they must have great discipline to get up and go to work every day. Writing is my profession – ok, it’s something I enjoy, and I set my own hours and work from home, but the bottom line is that if I don’t write, I can’t pay my mortgage.

How does being a mother affect your writing?

The most obvious difference is in the way I structure my working day. Children narrow your focus – I’m typing this one-handed with a sleeping newborn on my shoulder – and I’m less inclined to waste time than I was before.

How do you balance work and family life?

I try to get up early and get a couple of hours behind my desk before my family are awake. I get more, and better, work done before breakfast when the day hasn’t had a chance to intrude than I do in the six hours afterwards. At the weekends, I try not to write a word, and avoid even looking at a screen or checking my emails. I’m supposed to stay away from Twitter but I don’t always manage that. Even when I’m busy, I’ve realised that writing seven days a week just leads to burnout.

I’m lucky in that my husband is taking a career break to look after our home and our daughters until they’re both in full-time education. Even so, I don’t always feel that I am balancing it. Does anyone? I’m always dumping work to look after the kids, or missing out on spending time with them because a deadline’s looming. Even when work is flexible, it’s hard to get it right.

IMAGE: Domenico Pugliese

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  • Reply
    March 27, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Thank you for this. Genuinely interesting and useful for wannabe novelists like me.

    Your content is such good quality – can’t believe it’s free!

    • Reply
      March 28, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks Lucy! Pleased to hear from more members of the wannabe novelists club.

  • Reply
    May 10, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Stephen King, who writes so well, could write a novel about a peanut butter sandwich and it would be great.

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