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Ally Wilkes: 'You want to be constantly tantalising your readers'

BY Katie Smart
21st Oct 2021

Ally Wilkes was a student on our six-month Writing Your Novel course in 2017. We're thrilled to count her in the growing number of over 140 students that have gone on to get major book deals. Her debuthistorical horror novel All the White Spaces will be published by Titan Books in the UK and Atria in the US next year.

We caught up with Ally to talk about her time on the course, her approach to research and how she tackles writing atmospheric horror…

You studied on our six-month Writing Your Novel course in 2017. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

I started the course with a first draft – really a ‘draft zero’ – of what’s now become my debut novel. While I’d spent a long time thinking about characterisation, setting, and plot, I’d never really thought about structure: how a story fits together over the course of a novel. Like so many writers, I’d always assumed that a pleasing or interesting structure would emerge miraculously from the act of writing, and struggled with stories (including a string of unfinished novels) which sometimes felt like a chain of “and then...” events.

My time on the CBC course introduced me to different ways of thinking about the architecture of novels, in particular the five-act structure proposed by John Yorke in Into the Woods. It was a real lightbulb moment for me, and I’m now absolutely fascinated by how stories can be mapped out by looking at their component parts. I wish I could say that I always plan my novels in advance, but even having a framework for what ‘works’ can be very helpful when you’re figuring out how to better craft and shape the story in rewrites.

What was the best piece of advice you received during the course?

My tutor, Simon Wroe, was extraordinarily insightful (and generous). I learnt so much from his group sessions and tutorials that it’s almost impossible to pin down one particular bit of gold dust. So I think the single piece of advice which had the biggest impact on my novel-in-progress came from Anna Davis – everyone on my six-month course had a tutorial with her towards the end of the course in which we shared 6,000 words and discussed this from an agent’s perspective. At the time, I was writing my novel in diary format, and she pointed out (not unreasonably) that most diaries in fiction never feel like ‘real’ diaries because of the level of description and verbatim conversations and so on: did I need to encumber myself with this mode of storytelling? While I was very attached to the idea of a first-person narrative, she was absolutely right that my choice of framing convention was holding me back, and I ditched the diary format shortly after...

Many of our students form writing support groups. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes! For a couple of years after the course we met very frequently, and a group of us even went away for two ‘writing retreats’ in Devon: a shared house with plenty of desks (and sun loungers), wonderful scenery, shared meals and evenings in front of the fire. Glorious – even if I have to confess I didn’t get very much writing done! I still count some of my fellow CBC students amongst my closest writing friends and early readers; they’ve seen my novel in all its various awkward iterations, offered help and advice, listened to my sob stories, and always been there to cheer me on.

Your debut novel All the White Spacesis to be published by Titan Books next year. The novel is a post-WW1 ghost story that follows an Antarctic expedition. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and the inspiration behind it?

All the White Spaces follows Jonathan Morgan, a young trans man who’s lost his two older brothers on the Western Front. With the help of their best friend, he stows away aboard an Antarctic expedition, hoping to experience some of that masculine world for himself. But when disaster strikes, the expedition is in grave danger as they prepare to overwinter in an eerie spot on the frozen landscape. And in the darkness, something terrible has been waiting to play on their weaknesses and pick them off one by one.

I’m absolutely fascinated by the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. There’s something so brave yet foolhardy about it: groups of men armed with seemingly nothing but noble ideas of heroism and sacrifice, pitting themselves against some of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. It makes for a fantastic adventure setting. But there’s a phrase that’s always stuck with me from Fergus Fleming’s introduction to my much-thumbed Penguin Classics edition of Ernest Shackleton’s South: 'the concept of heroism evaporated in the trenches.' I wanted to really explore how all those Edwardian certainties – the stiff upper lip, duty, what it means to be a man – interacted with the horrors of the First World War.

Jonathan was my key to this world. He’s been on the outside looking in, trapped by his assigned gender in a life he doesn’t want, and seizes with both hands his opportunity to enter this rather archaic setting of hero-worship and grave peril. Of course, it’s not what he expects it to be. I was excited to approach the story from this fresh perspective: I wanted Jonathan to feel as real and authentic as possible, so I worked with several sensitivity readers to make sure I was portraying his identity accurately and sensitively within the constraints of this very different time period.

The novel’s isolated Antarctic setting really feeds into the chilling atmosphere of the narrative – do you have any tips for writing horror?

Antarctica is such a wonderful place to set a horror novel: I was always struck, when reading some of the Polar greats, how spooky they made it sound. Here’s Apsley Cherry-Garrard (from Scott’s doomed expedition) talking about spending the night in some abandoned huts: 'The whole place is very eerie, there is such a feeling of life about it. Not only do I feel it but the others do also. Last night after I turned in, I could have sworn that I heard people shouting to each other...'

I adore isolated settings in horror, whether it’s the deep dark woods, an abandoned spaceship, or the freezing darkness of the Polar night. I think there’s something inherently creepy about the knowledge that you’re alone – in the sense that you’ve got no way of calling for help – but also that you also might not be alone. For supernatural horror in particular, it’s important to find ways to create that fleeting impression or illusion of a presence, but without giving too much away. Can you use sounds, artefacts, mood, smells, or second-hand reports ('I thought I saw something...') to make your reader feel there’s something just around the corner, half-glimpsed?

You want to be constantly tantalising your readers, making them wonder how much of what the characters are experiencing is real – right up until the moment you’re ready to answer that question in earnest. And the best way to pick up these skills, of course, is reading widely in the horror genre. Keep seeking out whatever it is that you find really scary!

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

At the moment I’m lucky enough to be writing full-time. I have a desk set up in the corner of my living room, and you can find me there most weekdays, unless I’m out at circus school (I’m a keen aerialist, and discovered my love of silks and rope when doing a rather niche bit of research – if a novel is set on a sailing ship, eventually your protagonist might want to climb the rigging...)

I’m currently working on my second novel, What Passes Through, which is another supernatural thriller set in the age of exploration, this time exploring another gruesome fascination of mine: survival cannibalism. While there are no typical days, I spend a lot of time editing and revising what I’ve already written; poring over contemporary accounts to get the ‘feel’ of a different time period; and covering my floor with index cards whenever I want to have a good deep dive into story structure. I don’t set myself target word counts, as I don’t feel they’re particularly helpful when (for me) so much of writing is revising and rewriting: I set myself targets for how many hours I’ll work in any given week, and track my progress on a huge wallchart. Of course, sometimes those targets don’t get met, but I think it’s important not to beat yourself up about it. Writing is a creative process, after all, and there’s only so much you can control!

What words of wisdom would you like to share with the aspiring authors reading this?

Write what you love. You’re going to be spending a huge chunk of your life with your novel, whether writing, rewriting, editing, pitching, or proofreading. Seriously, I can’t stress enough how often you will have to read it. So it helps to set out to write the sort of story you would gnaw your own arm off to read. Find something that makes you really excited, and start there.

Pre-order All the White Spaces.