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08 December 2020

Caroline Day: ‘It is important to understand what the hook of your story is from the outset’

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Caroline Day studied on our Writing Your Novel – Three Months course in 2016. Now she has a two-book deal with Bonnier Books UK. Her debut novel Hope Nicely’s Lessons for Life will be published in March 2021.

We caught up with Caroline to find out more about her time on the course, her essential writer’s muses (two beagle-cross rescue dogs) and her journey to publication…

You were a student on our three-month Writing Your Novel course in 2016 – how did the course change your approach to writing?

A big eye opener for me was the quality of writing of my course mates, who were a super-talented bunch. The course gave me an insight into just how much of the material which lands in the inboxes of agents and publishers has genuine flair and potential – and that if, as a writer, you want to give your work the best chance of being a submission that sings, you need to know precisely what story you are telling and why you are telling it. Good writing is a given. Self-awareness and strategy are more important – and so is luck. 

What was the best piece of advice that tutor Charlotte Mendelson gave you?

Charlotte is a great writer, and her being tutor was one of the reasons that I applied for the course. As a journalist, I’d spent many years writing other people’s true stories, but in terms of envisaging my own novel the what to write had been proving more elusive. I applied to the course because I wanted to hone my fiction-writing, however I had no specific work in progress to submit so what I sent in was conjured up at short notice. For my one-to-one with Charlotte, I wrote a scene – out of order – which I pictured as coming near the end, but without a full notion of quite how the narrative would lead me there. I was quite proud of the emotional resonance of this ‘chapter’. Charlotte has this uncanny way of seeing right into your soul. “I think we both know that you can write,” she told me. “Now let’s talk about the book as a whole…”

Charlotte made me conscious of how a writer should always be watching, noting, ready. I loved her own tales of taking surreptitious pictures of strangers or grabbing her notebook whenever the world offered up a nugget of inspiration. She helped me to see how an author is always ‘collecting.’ Any encounter; those people we meet or we view from afar; the conversations which we have ourselves or which we overhear –  all may feed into our creations. So we need to expose ourselves to as varied a stimulus as possible. Visit. Meet. Watch. Listen. Experience. A writer is constantly finding pieces that they will later jigsaw into a new whole in their stories and characters: the dress sense of a contestant on Bake Off, the break-in attempt next door, the shadows in a photograph, the melancholy of a piece of music, the postman’s nose, the accent of a politician on the radio, the kindness of a childhood friend on Facebook…

Many writers find a group of trusted readers on our courses, are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

I was lucky to be with a superb group of writers and we tried hard to keep the momentum going by meeting up regularly afterwards for workshopping, feedback and exercises (along with more social nights out). But – even pre-Covid – the predictable obstacles of work and family commitments, travel disruptions and generally busy lives meant it became difficult to keep it going as a regular thing. It’s a shame. When – touch wood- life reverts to something nearer normal, I’d love to see them all again. 

Your debut novel Hope Nicely’s Lessons for Life will be published next year. Can you tell us a bit more about your debut, and the inspiration behind it?

With great pleasure! Hope Nicely’s Lessons for Life will be published in March 2021 by Bonnier Books UK.

Hope Nicely believes that writing her autobiography will help her to find the birth mother who abandoned her. Hope has never minded that she was left on a church doorstep as a newborn baby – otherwise she might never have been adopted by the wonderful Jenny Nicely – but she does have some unanswered questions. Hope has  FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) and other people have not always been kind to her. Now twenty-five, Hope has signed up to an evening class so that she can be taught the rules of writing. But when Jenny is taken ill and Hope finds herself alone in the world, she will discover that there are other important lessons to learn too.

Placing my novel within a creative writing class gave me a closed circle of characters with a diversity of personalities that readers would find recognisable. And having plenty of experience of writers’ groups (including the CBC course) it was an opportunity to have some fun writing about writing in a relatable setting.

Hope Nicely’s Lessons for Life is a book about friendship, acceptance and hope. It began life two years ago as a National Novel Writing Month (Na-No-Wri-Mo) exercise. Initially, it was just my challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days, but within a few pages I realised that I’d created a protagonist that I cared about deeply. In terms of inspiration, what came first, actually, was Hope’s name. For me, names feel important and I’ve always felt that a good writer should search for hope in any story. I found the name: Hope Nicely. It felt a natural premise that she might be writing a book, since this is what I was doing. But who was she, why was she writing it and what might make this difficult (yes, those basics of plot-building!)? Asking these questions of my character gave rise to Hope’s distinctive voice. Everything else followed. The fascinating thing is that in hindsight, I see how my own previous personal and professional experiences have had a bearing, but at the time of writing, what drove everything was Hope’s voice.

You’ve talked about how CBC MD Anna Davis introduced you to ‘interiority’ – please tell us a bit more about the feedback she gave you and how it helped you develop your protagonist Hope Nicely …

‘Interiority’ is a term which I hadn’t encountered before Anna used it about an extract of my writing. It resonated because I do like a narrative point of view which brings the reader inside the protagonist’s head – and Anna’s giving this a name helped fortify a sense of my own identity as an author.

Some years ago, I had a medical condition in which my calcium levels became too high – and as calcium plays a role in neurotransmission this can lead to neurological effects including anxiety, forgetfulness and confusion. I was lucky in that this was a temporary experience for me, but I do feel that it left me with a sense of how physical our thought processes actually are, if that makes sense, as well as a great respect for how differently each person’s brain works.

When I came to write Hope Nicely – which I wanted to be a character-led novel written in the first person – I was consciously aware that this would be writing that would benefit from that sense of ‘interiority’. Hope is a young woman who is never quite certain what she is thinking and what she is saying out loud, and what she is going to say or do next – I hope I’ve succeeded in bringing the reader inside Hope’s head to experience that with her.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Mornings start with a dog walk. I’ve worked mostly from home for 20 odd years and Snoopy and Charlie Brown, my beagle-cross rescue dogs, refuse to begin their writer’s muse duties until they’ve done a few miles in the local woods. Currently, my husband is working from home too, which means we’re a pack of four for the walk. I’m a real believer that your brain works better after fresh air and exercise – but I also know that I’m lucky to be able to integrate it into my working day. Afternoons are writing time. I used to sit at a desk to work, but these days I’m more likely to be sandwiched between the dogs on a sofa, which feels too snuggly to claim as real work and is also not good for my back.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

My protagonist, Hope, would tell you that the golden rule of all writing is show, don’t tell. That in itself will take you a very long way.

Also, know your story. I’m not the sort of writer who needs to have an intricate plan before I begin, but it is important to understand what the hook of your story is from the outset. This avoids flabbiness. And for me, the most difficult thing is not to edit as I go along. I’m a terrible perfectionist – which sounds like the sort of thing you ‘humble-brag’ about in job interviews, but can actually be quite restricting in that you constantly feel there is a better phrase out there or that your character might be improved if you  rewrite them in a different way. I have to force myself to write first and edit later, otherwise, I’ll be on the same page forever.

Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?

I am lucky enough to have a two-book deal with the brilliant Bonnier Books UK, so I am currently working on book two. I’m far too superstitious to go into details, but it will be another novel in the contemporary reading group genre.

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