16 March 2020

Cecilia Lyra: ‘The two main ingredients are: a strong voice and a high-stakes central conflict’

Cecilia Lyra, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Cecilia Lyra took our online novel-writing course with Lisa O’Donnell in 2014. Now Cecilia has a two-book deal with Bookouture. Her debut novel The Sunset Sisters has already been a number one bestseller in Germany and we’re excited for it to be published in the UK.

As well as being an author Cecilia is a literary agent, so she has an interesting two-fold perspective on storytelling. In this interview she tells us all about the inspiration behind her debut novel and what she thinks makes a compelling story …

You were a student on our online novel-writing course back in 2014 – how did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

The online novel-writing course led by Lisa O’Donnell was an invaluable experience. It gave me the structure and support I needed to write. The weekly lesson plans provided practical, expert-verified advice that helped improve both my story and the quality of my writing in an efficient, measurable way. And the feedback from the workshops was gold! Lisa and my classmates challenged me to think of my work from multiple perspectives and motivated me to make my WIP as good as I possibly could. By the end of the course, I compared my old draft (the one that got me the spot in the class) and my new draft (the one I’d revised after feedback from Lisa and my peers) and I was delighted with how far I’d come. Here’s the thing about writing a novel: it’s endless in its possibility. It’s long-form fiction, after all, so it’s easy to get lost in all that it can be. The course helped keep me on track, but also offered me space and freedom to stay true to my story all while connecting me to a group of people who were going through the same experience as I was! I am so grateful to have been able to take the course. This book wouldn’t exist without it.

Many of our students find their writing community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

I am! We stay connected on Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch and root for each other. It’s so special to see one of us reaching a writing milestone, whether it’s finishing a first draft in a new project, getting a short story published, or becoming an international bestseller. I’m very fortunate to have such talented, supportive friends.

I also follow Lisa O’Donnell on Twitter. In fact, when my book deal was announced I reached out to express my gratitude for her wisdom and encouragement years before. We hadn’t spoken in five years. Still, I wasn’t surprised when she responded with warmth and praise. But I was extremely surprised that she still remembered my story to the point where she referred to the main characters by name and shared her feelings on their predicament! That kind of validation and encouragement is priceless.

Your debut novel The Sunset Sisters is to be published by Bookouture. The novel follows two estranged half-sisters who are forced to spend the summer together in order to secure their inheritance. Can you tell us a bit more about your novel and the inspiration behind it?

A bit more about the novel…

The Sunset Sisters tells the story of Cassie and Julie, half-sisters born two weeks apart who have been estranged for fourteen years. In order to inherit their grandmother’s summer home in the Hamptons the same house where, at the age of nine, Cassie and Julie first met each other they must spend a summer there together.

As children, on their first summer together, Cassie and Julie agree to keep their father’s affair with Julie’s mom a secret, a decision which shapes their childhoods and strengthens their bond as sisters. But when they’re seventeen, tragedy strikes, and the two young women stop speaking to each other.

Now, at ages of 31, they must spend one month in the same house.

Both women are in difficult places in their lives. Cassie is a couples’ counsellor who grew up bearing witness to her parents’ unhappy marriage, which is why she’s vowed never to tie the knot herself. Except now she’s in love with a married man who used to be her patient. Julie grew up confused by her mother’s role as the other woman, dreaming of marriage and stability. Except now that she is married, she finds that she barely recognizes herself. The question rattling in both their minds is: How did I get here? And, of course, they both miss their grandmother very much.

But a grandmother’s power does not end with her death. Their mandatory stay at the Montauk house unleashes the regressive power of summer memories, forcing Cassie and Julie to confront their shared past and helping them navigate their present.

My inspiration behind it…

In writing a book, I start with main characters. They grow and develop in my mind long before I come up with the plot. 

I love stories about dysfunctional families. This isn’t at all because my own family is dysfunctional. (Psst: it totally is.) And I’ve always been drawn to the topic of siblings, arguably the most innately complex bond two people can share. And so, when I set out to write a book, I decided that it would be about two sisters. I wanted their relationship to be unique, loving, and messy half-sisters born two weeks apart felt right. They had to be closer to each other than they were to their parents guarding a secret together is a powerful bonding experience. From this, Cassie and Julie were born.

In terms of the story, I wanted to explore how secrets can travel through generations, particularly those kept by children throughout their lives. I also liked the idea of investigating how two people can share the same parent in this case, a father and yet experience him in completely different ways. And, of course, because I am very close to my sister (move-to-a-different-continent-to-live-in-the-same-building close), I also wanted to celebrate the magical bond of sisterhood.

You’re in a unique position in that you are (as you so brilliantly express on Twitter) a storyteller and a storyseller. As well as being an author your work as a literary agent – for you what makes a compelling story?

There are many things, of course, but, for me, the two main ingredients are: a strong voice and a high-stakes central conflict. Plot is the story. Voice is the storytelling. Storytelling is as important as story, though it’s much harder to develop. Also, if the novel has a dog, the dog cannot die I can’t handle it.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

It begins with a special type of bookish meditation to help clear my mind (it’s as nerdy and as embarrassing as it sounds). Then I sit in front my laptop, put my phone on DND, and set a timer for myself anything from three hours to six. Then I write until the timer goes off. I take breaks, of course, but I always pause the timer first. When inspiration strikes, I’m always surprised to hear the timer go off time flies! But that doesn’t always happen. If I only wrote when I felt inspired, I’d never finish a book. Inspiration is like finding money on the street: it’s great when it happens, but you can’t count on it. On most days, it’s about being disciplined. It’s about allowing myself to write whatever I can in that moment. I think it was Jodi Picoult who said, ‘You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’ That advice is gold! Another nugget of wisdom I swear by came from Elin Hilderbrand: when she feels uninspired, she reads a few pages from a book she loves. I find that really helps, too. At the end of a good writing day, I feel like I spent hours in the setting of my novel, talking to my characters. It’s the best feeling in the world!

If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring authors what would it be?

Learn to read as a writer. Go back to your favorite novels and read them again, but this time as a writer. Pay attention to how the author lured you into the story (was it an incredible first line? The narrator’s distinct voice? A shocking revelation?) and how they developed the story in a way that kept you wanting more (dissect the pace, note the POV choice, observe how tension is created and escalated). Keep this in mind: storytelling is seduction. The author is inviting the reader to put aside everything they’re doing and nowadays that’s a lot! and give them their undivided attention. It’s a big ask! And that only works if it doesn’t feel like an ask at all. It should feel like an irresistible invitation.

Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?

I am absolutely thrilled to have found a home with Bookouture. My editor, Emily Gowers, is a star! She offers me insightful, big-picture editorial notes on my story tackling character development and major plot points as well as sharp line edits. Right now, we’re working on my second novel, which comes out in September 2020. The pitch: A sexual harassment accusation threatens to dethrone the CEO of the country’s sweetheart footwear brand, prompting an uproar on social media and jeopardising a family’s long-buried secrets. Think of it as SUCCESSION meets BIG LITTLE LIES with a #MeToo angle. As I mentioned before, I’m a sucker for stories about dysfunctional families.

If you want to work on your novel with like-minded writers and publishing professionals, take a look at our spring three-month novel-writing courses, which are open now for applications – study online with Suzannah Dunn or in London with Charlotte Mendelson

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