Erin Kelly – guest tutor on our next Six-Month Novel-Writing Course – is the author of stylish psychological thrillers The Ties That Bind, The Sick Rose, The Burning Air and The Poison Tree (turned into a primetime ITV drama last year) – as well as the official novel of the Broadchurch TV series. Her fifth novel, He Said/She Said, was published by Hodder earlier this year. She tells us about how she became a novelist and shares her top tips for debut authors.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always done it – from to awful teenage poetry to journalism. But I only got serious about writing fiction about six years ago.
You were a successful journalist for many years. At one point did you decide you wanted to be a novelist?
I actually only became a journalist in the first place because I’d heard someone say it increased your chances of getting a book deal further along the line. It remained my intention to write a book, but I got a bit seduced by the job. I loved what I did, travelled the world and learned so much. Then, in 2008, I got pregnant and used that biological deadline to spur me on. The book that would eventually become The Poison Tree was written in six months, during my first and second trimesters.
Was your first novel your first attempt at novel-writing – or are there other, unfinished manuscripts in your bottom drawer?
No. I’m lucky that my first book was picked up.
Tell us about how your book deal with Hodder happened.
I did it the old-fashioned way, by submitting three chapters and a synopsis to half the agents in the Writers & Artists Yearbook. Most of them didn’t even acknowledge receipt of the manuscript, but eventually it fell into the lap of my agent. I was nearly nine months pregnant at the time, so we rushed the book out to seven or eight publishers and, while there was a lot of interest and the book got taken into several acquisitions meetings, ultimately they all rejected it. They all gave similar reasons: they weren’t sure whether it was literary, crime or women’s fiction, and the cliffhanger ending that I thought was so clever was at odds with the tight suspense narrative I had created up to that point. So with my agent’s guidance, and with a newborn baby asleep on my shoulder, I polished the novel, ironing out some wonky characterisation, tightening the pace and adding a new ending. Around six months later, she shared it among publishers again. This time everyone said it was crossover fiction – appealing to the literary, crime and women’s markets – and the book went to a four-way auction.
How would you sum up your debut, The Poison Tree, in one sentence?
I honestly find it easier to write a novel than to précis it like this. In as small a nutshell as I can manage, it’s a psychological thriller heavily influenced by Daphne du Maurier and Barbara Vine, which opens with a young woman and her daughter picking her partner up from prison after a 10-year stretch for a double murder. The story is told mainly in flashback, set in Highgate in the summer of 1997, and as it unwinds we find out who the victims were. It’s a coming-of-age story and a document of an iconic summer as well as a mystery.
The Poison Tree was adapted for television. How did it feel seeing the characters you’d created on screen?
I found the whole thing fascinating and a really useful lesson in storytelling. I was lucky because even though I (deliberately) had nothing to do with the process, the production company let me see it in action, from an early draft of the script to cast read-throughs and a set visit. So by the time I saw it on screen, I’d had plenty of time to prepare myself. I decided as soon as the rights were sold that I’d be pragmatic rather than precious. Some very big changes were made to the plot, but actually that helped me accept the transition. It’s more important that a drama works in its own right than it panders to the author – or indeed the readers. And when I saw it for the first time, I was delighted with the performances. I’ve still got a picture of the three leads on the wall in my study.
Once your first novel had been published and you began work on the second, did the writing process feel different to you? More workmanlike, perhaps?
The books are definitely becoming less instinctive and more about the craft as I go on, although I’m not sure I was aware of that when I was writing my second. I was just so ecstatic to be writing with the safety net of a book deal underneath me that the whole thing was a pleasure.
Could you give us a short summary of your second and third novels?
The Sick Rose is about a young boy from estuary Essex who witnesses a murder and goes into police protection. In hiding, he begins an affair with an older woman who’s on the run from her own dark past. It’s set partly in London in 1989 and partly in the present day in largely in a fictionalised version of Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire and, although it’s definitely contemporary, it plays with some of the conventions of the gothic novel. It’s my favourite of my books so far.
The Burning Air is about an extended family weekend away in an isolated barn in Devon that is shattered when the youngest member, a nine-month-old baby, is abducted. As they search for her, it emerges there’s a stranger in their midst and that someone has been plotting revenge on them for a generation. There’s a huge, quite audacious, twist in the middle of the novel that was great fun, but technically very challenging, to write.
You worked on the novelisation of the first series of TV drama Broadchurch. How did that happen?
Jade Chandler, an editor at Sphere, wrote to my agent, saying they were developing the drama into a novel. Half the publishers in London pitched for the privilege of working on Broadchurch and the job wasn’t handed to me on a plate either: I was up against three other writers and we all had to audition, writing the first act of episode one in book form. There followed a nail-biting month while I waited to see whether I’d been picked.
Was your writing approach different for that project?
Naturally. Aside from the obvious fact of not having to devise an original plot and characters, Broadchurch is bigger than anything I’ve attempted before in that I’m dealing with twice my usual cast of characters and a lot more scenes with much more dialogue. The biggest challenge has been restructuring; things that work to great effect on screen, such as jump-cuts and an omniscient camera, don’t translate onto the page. But seeing my own book adapted for television has been invaluable, giving me the confidence to make bold structural changes and cuts where they were needed.
There’s a different kind of pressure. I don’t have to carry the plot, but I do have to do some stunning performances and beautiful photography justice with my writing, although that’s been a challenge I’ve relished. And it’s a collaborative effort, which I’m also really enjoying. This experience is much less lonely than an original novel! Chris Chibnall, the series creator, has given me free rein to do what I like, but I still need to run any big changes past him – and he has to take ITV and Kudos’ (broadcaster and production company respectively) interests into account.
What’s your top tip to those working away on their debut novel?
Read. Read widely – classics and contemporary bestsellers. Nobody writes in a vacuum. You can learn something from every novel, even if all it teaches you is what not to do. Read everything that inspires you at least twice. Take it apart and put it back together so you can figure out how the engine works. It’s as important as the writing.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).