As the closing date nears for the next of our online creative writing courses, now seems a good time to talk about the phenomenal success of Nicholas Searle – a student on our Spring 2014 online course – whose debut novel, The Good Liar, was published in February 2016 to immediate success. Nicholas was named one of The Observer’s New Faces of Fiction 2016, and the movie rights to The Good Liar were swiftly snapped up by New Line, with a film adaption on its way. Nicholas, you’ll remember, impressed Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller with the stylish novel he’d been writing on the course, and the book was then sold at auction to Viking in the UK, to HarperCollins in the US (after a substantial pre-empt) and to other publishers throughout the world. Here, Nicholas talks about his time at Curtis Brown Creative, the experience of studying online and his writing process.
Had you done much writing before signing up to our online creative writing courses?
I’d written a bit of fiction but never shared it with others. Certainly nothing that ever appeared in published form. In fact, me having something published seemed like a dream (still does!). I always wanted to write but never found the time or headspace to do it properly. I know many will regard that as pathetic – if you have that urge to write you’ll find the time – but, in my defence, I was doing a fairly challenging job that consumed not only time but focus. And I guess it’s a matter of taste, but for me the idea of the writerly writer, fiercely and single-mindedly pursuing her or his art at the expense of fripperies like sleep, health, family and friends seems a bit self-flagellatingly self-indulgent.
What convinced you to take the CBC course?
I’d stopped working a couple of years before and I was taking baby steps in learning this familiar but essentially strange craft. I looked around for creative-writing courses and frankly didn’t want one that involved investigating one’s own fundament or researching the square root of diddly squat. I was looking for something that offered a real outcome in the real world. The CBC course seemed to fit the bill ideally, and I have to admit that a major part of it was the access it offered to real agents here and now. Given my age and the number of ideas I have running through my head I’m a man in bit of a hurry. I was convinced that I’d be in awe of everyone else on the course and scuttle away with my tail between my legs. Nothing could have been further from the truth: while I admired the work of several of my fellow-students, I quickly came to the view that this was for me.
What stage was your novel at when you joined the course?
If we think of a completed first chapter as a Himalayan base camp, then I was in bed at home thinking of buying a pair of sturdy boots. I decided to throw away my previous false starts and begin again, with a fresh idea the day I decided to apply and a first chapter carved out very quickly before I submitted it as part of my application in December 2013. I just started with a mental picture of a person, then a short series of scenes involving him and had no idea how the story would end or how I’d get there. But once I’d been accepted on the course all those things were in my head within a week or so.
How did the sessions with CBC tutor Chris Wakling help you to make your novel better?
It must be incredibly difficult to be a tutor on one of these courses, reassuring yet at the same time questioning. Chris balanced these two things beautifully. His questions improved the novel immensely. He was also great at gently pointing out purple patches – those rare moments when the writer feels totally confident and misguidedly turns the descriptive volume up to 15.
How did your experience of online learning compare to face-face interaction with fellow students?
Our course had incredible diversity – geographical, cultural and thematic – which I’m sure couldn’t be achieved in a face-to-face course without huge expense and effort. Among the 15 of us there were people from all around the world, in various time zones, with varied backgrounds, diverse outlooks and completely different books. That was great. And the online nature allowed for greater objectivity in feedback on our various assignments, which was sometimes more bracing than it might have been if we’d been sitting in the same room afterwards. That’s a good thing overall and it suited me fine.
What was the most memorable piece of advice you took away from the course?
There were a number of technical things – for example I’d never been so acutely conscious before of perspective and point of view, and interiority and exteriority. (It wreaks havoc with your own reading, I can tell you.) But the main thing was the idea of control, which seems simple but isn’t – developing a facility to hover, at the very point when you’re churning the words out, constantly thinking of alternatives. Should I be using a different word for that? Should I construct my sentence/paragraph/chapter/whole novel differently? Should I be using first person/third person/second person even? Should I use a different tense? Should I simplify it (usually yes in my case) or make it more complex? Should I add in a bit of back-story (probably not) or forward-story? All the time, about everything, testing for effect on the reader but not losing your thread or voice.
What happened when the course finished and how did you motivate yourself to finish the novel?
That motivation was quite simple. I’d written much more than half the novel and had had some encouragement to finish it. I knew I had to, otherwise I’d be kicking myself. I’d written the ending and had the plot in my head, as a series of scenes or episodes. So I just knuckled down and finished it in July and August 2014. In early September I did my first sweep through the whole thing to edit. Then I left it completely for a couple of weeks before editing it twice more in the ways prescribed by Doctor Wakling, which was precisely the best way – for me anyway – to do it. Then I decided to be impudent and pitch it to Jonny Geller.
The book deals you’ve landed since Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown took you on have been fantastic. How was your experience of that?
Disbelief to begin with. This sounds trite but it’s true: I was happy just to finish the book and think that in my own terms I’d done all right. Then for one other person to read it and enjoy it was wonderful. For two people to like it was almost more than I could expect. And so on. I’d hoped for a book deal but certainly not imagined anything like what’s happened, to have such a stellar agent and two brilliant publishing editors at such prestigious houses as Viking/Penguin and HarperCollins.
What is your writing process?
I’d love to say it’s highly organised. I’m put to shame though by some of the people I met on the course who have everything completely structured, with copious notes of characters and events in their lives, plot points, chronologies etc. I’m afraid I’m much more of an intuitive writer. Don’t get me wrong: it’s all there in my head and I do produce a plan of the book – what I tend to call a map rather than a plan – but that is completely subject to change. And yes, my characters do surprise me and different things happen than I first imagined.
Do you find it easy to write – or is it something you have to continually work hard at?
It’s one of those odd things. I do have to work at it but it’s not like real work. In my previous career I’d have harrumphed at the notion of this being at all hard, and anyone who’s ever done a tough manual labour job (I’ve done several) will know it’s not genuinely hard graft. But I do at times find it difficult to generate the words, and strangely exhausting. I don’t especially find that feeling good or geared up to the job of writing has any noticeable effect on the quality of what the sausage machine of my mind produces (and that purple-patch syndrome is definitely true); but there are days when I’m so listless and clueless I give up after a while and depress myself by reading someone else’s brilliant writing. Depress myself at my own abilities, that is – not theirs!
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give aspiring novelists?
It sounds silly but I’d say remain conscious throughout the process (it’s easy just to let yourself be pulled along by the momentum of what at the time seem wondrous insights and brilliant descriptions only to find later that they’re a bit hackneyed and overblown and you didn’t have a clue), and to be in control (you can write something and feel it’s absolutely on the money only to discover that others read something quite different to what you think you’ve written). Above all I’d say: tell a truth. Write not because you dream of the writer’s lifestyle, with all the kudos, glamour and money that means (ha ha); write because you can’t do otherwise. If writing’s just a hobby or lifestyle or career choice, choose something different.
The plot catalyst in your book (octogenarians on a dating website) and the pasts of your characters are really interesting – what kind of research did you have to do?
I stumbled across the octogenarian dating. I had a pretty good general knowledge (I hope!) of the historical background. But I had to check a number of things; and there were things I still couldn’t verify completely – for instance how (and indeed if) overnight express trains travelled between Paris and Frankfurt in the 1930s. Some of the things I found I had to research were remarkably obscure and I had to delve all over the place for them (thank goodness for the internet). I found it strange often to be researching the abstruse practical detail rather than the historical fact.
How’s the second novel coming along? Is it anything like your first one?
It’s going all right. I don’t think it’s anything like the other one – the setting and the tone are completely different as is the narrative progression. It’s more conventional in that regard – at the moment. But the same themes are likely to raise their heads. And I do like my twists and turns… I can go no further without giving away chunks of both books; but I’m especially interested in how characters develop, their resilience to events, and where truth lies.
The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle was published by Viking in February 2016.
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