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31 January 2020

Charlotte Northedge: ‘Get a first draft finished. It doesn’t have to be perfect …’

Charlotte Northedge, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

We are ecstatic to share the news of our 80th former student with a publishing deal! Charlotte Northedge studied with us in London in 2015 and was part of a lively group of novel-writing students which included Ella Dove – whose debut novel Five Steps to Happy was published by Trapeze in 2019. Now Charlotte’s got an exciting two-book deal with HarperFiction for her debut The House Guest – brokered by C&W agent Sophie Lambert.

Find out more about Charlotte’s journey to publication…

You worked on your debut novel The House Guest during our three-month Writing Your Novel course in London in 2015. Can you tell us a little bit about how the novel changed during the course?

The House Guest was at an early stage when I started the CBC course. I’d had the story in my head for a long time, about a new arrival to London, drawn in by a strange group of women and invited to stay with one of them. But the course really helped to shape the direction it took and the way the characters developed. I started with a different title, a particular story arc in mind and a third-person narrative. When I rewrote it in the first person, everything clicked into place, and the ending changed significantly. Sharing chapters with the course tutor, Anna Davis, and the other group members gave me so much insight into the writing process: how to pace a novel, and how the tense and perspective you write in make a huge difference. Anna really emphasised plausibility – that the reader has to believe every moment of what they’re reading – and she helped me shape key characters. Most of all the course gave me the confidence to keep writing and the belief that I could actually finish.

Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes, we still meet regularly. One of the best aspects of the course was meeting a group of like-minded people who were all working towards the same goal – finishing a novel. We still exchange chapters and critique each others’ work. It makes such a difference to have that outside perspective, and to have other people cheering you on.

You are represented C&W agent Sophie Lambert. Can you tell us little bit about your process of getting an agent? And how you knew that Sophie was the right fit for you?

At the end of the course we had the opportunity to share our opening chapters with the agents from C&W and Curtis Brown, and then to meet them over drinks. I had a great conversation with Sophie about my book and felt that she really connected with the idea, so I was thrilled when she got in touch to say she’d like to see the whole manuscript. I hadn’t finished it at that stage, but knowing that she was waiting to read it really focused my mind, and when I eventually sent it over to her she got back to me with such insightful feedback, she helped me to see the story in a whole new way. Sophie has worked really closely with me on the manuscript and at every stage she’s been able to pinpoint exactly what needs to develop or change.

Now you have a major two-book deal with HarperFiction for The House Guest. What was the first thing you did when Sophie told you the news?

I was at work when the offer came through, but by the time it was all finalised, I was at home, pacing around in a state of disbelief. I’d spoken to my editor Phoebe Morgan earlier in the day and could immediately hear the passion and enthusiasm she had for my book, which felt unreal after all the years it had existed only inside my head. It was the last day before the Christmas break, so it was an amazing start to the holidays.

The House Guest explores the destructive nature of envy and desire and the complexities of female friendship. Can you tell us a bit more about your novel and the inspiration behind it?

The House Guest tells the story of Kate, who arrives in London at twenty-five and is drawn into a group of young women, all of whom have something missing in their lives. They’re brought together by Della, a life coach who gradually singles Kate out, inviting her to the family’s holiday home in France. It never occurs to Kate to question why she is there, but over a long hot summer, the tension builds and things begin to unravel.

The idea first came to me when I moved to London and was starting out as a journalist on women’s magazines. I was interested in all these young people feeling lost and searching for something in this sprawling city, and also in female friendships and group dynamics. I’d always written short stories, and I’d started a few longer projects, but I kept coming back to this particular one – about a young, naive woman and her relationship with an older, mentor figure. When I was on maternity leave after having my second child I felt suddenly gripped by a desire to do something creative, that was just for me, and I decided to apply for the CBC course and really focus on writing this story. By then I’d become fascinated by family dynamics as well, and that’s when it occurred to me to introduce another strand, having Della invite Kate into her home and for her to gradually become part of the family, albeit in an unexpected and ultimately devastating way.

Do you have a writing routine and what does it look like?

I work three days a week as joint Editor of Guardian Review, so I do my writing in the other two days and try to grab the odd hour in the evenings and weekends, as much as family life will allow. I was lucky to be able to take on my role as a job share, but it means that on my writing days I’m quite focused and will try to spend four or five hours writing between school drop off and pick up. When I first started on the novel and had gone back to work full time, I was writing in my evenings and at weekends – and even on holiday. I remember spending a week in a cottage in Norfolk with my husband and young children and writing every single evening after the children were in bed. Once I’d started, I felt so desperate to get the story out, and I enjoyed writing it so much, I almost couldn’t stop myself.

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

Get a first draft finished. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but once it’s on the page, it exists, and then you can start the work of refining it. For me, having started novels in the past, the biggest hurdle was the belief that I could actually finish one. Proving to myself that I could was a major milestone, and I discovered that the process of revising and editing it was enjoyable in a very different way. Oh and stop watching TV – those are the hours when you could be writing!

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

By the time Sophie submitted The House Guest to publishers I’d already had an idea for another book and had started writing. I had lived in the world of The House Guest for a long time, and I was itching to start something new – to feel those first sparks of excitement for a new project, and the rush as the story spills out onto the page. Luckily, Phoebe asked if I had another idea, and offered me a two book deal, so now I have the exciting, and slightly daunting, experience of writing a book with publication in mind. It feels like such a privilege to be able to spend whole days writing, rather than having to fit it around everything else, and I’m rediscovering the joy of the first draft all over again.

Get your hands on a copy of The House Guest.

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