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06 April 2021

Damhnait Monaghan: ‘Keep polishing until your prose sparkles’

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

Damhnait Monaghan studied on our six-month online Writing Your Novel course back in 2014. Her debut novel New Girl in Little Cove is out now in Canada (HarperCollins) and will be published in the UK and US next month.

We caught up with Damhnait to talk about the writing community she met on our course, the inspiration behind her debut and the advice she has for aspiring authors…

You studied on our six-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2014. What was your experience of studying online with us like?

It wasn’t feasible for me to travel to London to attend a writing course so I applied for the online version. I wasn’t sure what it would be like, but as many have discovered during the pandemic, online learning can work brilliantly. My fellow students lived in a variety of countries and time zones but we quickly established a mutually supportive network. And the course materials provided an excellent blueprint on how to write a novel. I still refer to them.

What is one piece of advice from your tutor Chris Wakling that has stuck with you?

Chris was a fantastic tutor who gave us plenty of wonderful advice. But it was actually a casual comment he made in one of his feedback emails that I clung to: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised to see your novel on the shelves in a bookshop one day.’

In 2017 I finished a very different version of the novel that is now New Girl in Little Cove. I was unsuccessful in finding an agent or being accepted by an indie publisher. I came close on both fronts (five requests for full from agents and making it as far as acquisitions with a publisher), so it was even more gutting when I didn’t succeed. I shelved the manuscript, moving on to other projects. Eventually I returned to it, partly because the story and characters stayed with me, but also because of the bits and pieces of encouragement I’d stored up over the years, with Chris’s comment at the very top of the list.  

I’m looking forward to seeing New Girl in Little Cove on bookshop shelves in the not-too-distant future. (Maybe Chris will too!)

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

Absolutely. Some of us continue to act as beta readers for each other and we still share writing news. I emailed the gang to tell them when my agent Hilary McMahon offered representation and then again when she sold the manuscript. They were all delighted for me. And I was so touched when a former classmate posted on Instagram that he’d bought my book in a Canadian bookstore and said to the cashier, “My friend wrote this.” 

Your debut New Girl in Little Cove is out now from HarperCollins Canada and is available for pre-order in the UK. Can you tell us more about the book and the inspiration behind it?

As a friend said, ‘It’s a fish out of water romantic comedy with real fish!’ My novel tells the story of mainlander Rachel, a brand-new teacher who arrives in an isolated fishing village and experiences acute culture shock. The inspiration was the Canadian province of Newfoundland & Labrador. It’s a place of stunning natural beauty and friendly, welcoming people. Music and stories are a huge part of its culture. And the language is something else: it has more dialects of English than any other place in North America as well as its own dictionary ‘The Dictionary of Newfoundland English.’  A few readers have commented that the setting is almost a character itself and that is exactly what I’d hoped to achieve.

To a certain extent Rachel is inspired by my own experiences as a novice teacher. Like her I taught French in outport Newfoundland in my early twenties. Unlike her, I was not newly arrived on the island. But it makes a far better story to drop a complete outsider into a unique setting and see how she copes (or doesn’t as the case may be!)  

Do you have any top tips on creating believable characters?

For me, the best way to create believable characters is to have a core of truth running through them – quirks, habits, or mannerisms lifted from real people – which are then exaggerated or tweaked. Also really get to know your characters – write their entire backstory, even if only a small percentage is dripped into the plot.

On the course, Chris recommended we complete a character questionnaire and I find this useful, too. You might not answer every question, but enough to give you a solid understanding of how a particular character would react in a given situation. And sometimes an answer will even spark a plot point.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors reading this?

There’s so much advice out there for aspiring authors, much of it conflicting. I think you have to do what works for you. But I recommend building a supportive writing network. Find other writers who will read your work, cheer you on and chivvy you along. And as for the words themselves: write, edit, repeat. Keep polishing until your prose sparkles. Find a way to get some distance from it – set it aside for a while or change it to a different font or read it aloud to see where you stumble. Then read it again.

Most importantly though, don’t give up. If you’re frustrated with a project, try something new. When I shelved my manuscript in 2017, I didn’t stop writing. I began writing flash fiction and found a wonderfully supportive community of flash writers. I also wrote another novel and had a novella in flash published. But if you truly believe in a particular project, if its characters are singing in your ear, and the story is tugging at your heart, go back to it. I firmly believe that tenacity is as important as talent in this industry.

Finally, what is next for you and your writing journey?

I’m still basking in the afterglow of the Canadian release of New Girl in Little Cove. Next month I have US and UK releases to look forward to. But it’s also time to crack on with my next novel. It’s a rough and scratchy first draft, but I’m excited to dive in, which is fitting since it’s set on a lake in mainland Ontario. But there’s a little nod to Newfoundland and Labrador thrown in. Some places are hard to let go of.  

New Girl in Little Cove is out now.

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