Heather Darwent has studied on two of our online courses; our six-week Edit & Pitch Your Novel course and our selective three-month Writing Your Novel course. We were excited to hear the recent news of her book deal, her debut thriller The Things We Do to Our Friends is to be published by Viking in 2023.
We caught up with Heather to find out about the inspiration behind her debut and her time studying with us…
You studied on our three-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2020. What was the best advice you received from your tutor Chris Wakling?
It was a super course and intense in the best possible way. I think some of the best advice was focusing on the specifics in descriptive writing, so instead of sweeping descriptive statements, really honing in on a vignette within the scene to draw the reader in. This really helped me amp up some of the scenes to bring my setting to life.
Also, it was really great how the course had lots of different types of genres from other students – I loved that.
You’ve also taken Edit & Pitch Your Novel. What did you enjoy most about this course?
I took the Edit & Pitch Your Novel course, and it was really helpful. The course made me really focus on making my query letter and synopsis as succinct and easy to read as possible, which turned out to be easier said than done! There is so much competing advice on the querying process, and it can feel a little impenetrable, so that was great.
It also forced me to make spreadsheets of my work (I am not a planner in the slightest) which I didn’t enjoy, but I now see it was very necessary. Something I’m working on is trying to be a bit more structured in how I write.
Many of our students find their writing community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course-mates?
I’m still in touch with both groups, and it’s been great to follow each other’s journeys. We’ve swapped work and chatted through the querying process, submission process etc., even though we are all at different stages.
How did you feel (and what did you do to celebrate) when you heard that Viking were going to publish your debut novel?
My lovely agent, Emily Glenister from DHH Literary called me, and I dropped and smashed a glass (such a cliché to drop something in surprise…). It was a Friday afternoon at around 5 pm, and it had all happened really quite quickly in a rush of calls, so it was such an exciting week. However, it was also quite overwhelming, which I wasn’t expecting.
It took a while for it to sink in, but I was also really excited to get to work. I’d already had a chat with my editor, Vikki Moynes from Viking, so I knew a bit about her plans for the manuscript and chatted with her which made it all the more enjoyable. Then it was my birthday the week after, so a bit of a dual celebration.
The Things We Do to Our Friends is a gripping thriller set in Edinburgh; can you tell us a bit more about what inspired you to write this story?
I had a nugget of an idea early on around students living in Edinburgh and taking on a very ill-advised business idea. It stayed just that, an idea, for a few years then I just kind of started it and didn’t stop.
Setting is a big inspiration for me. I had feedback early on to really amp up the setting and this was a bit of a turning point, and where the manuscript started to diverge away from some of the interiority of a classic domestic suspense novel and began to really start to form around the glitter of a certain side of Edinburgh.
This Edinburgh is dark and wintery – callous but also seductive with balls and strangers, the haves and the have-nots.
I think what I didn’t realise is when you start something like this is it’s really a marathon and a total slog at times. I feel a lot more disciplined with my time in a way I didn’t need to be before – saying no to things and prioritising hitting word counts where I could. I spent a good year writing pretty much every weekend and feeling like the end was so far away, and I’d never get there, but then once the first draft was finished it was all a lot easier. Everything becomes a lot easier when you have that first draft.
Do you have any top tips for writing suspenseful fiction?
My tips aren’t particularly unique – I’ve seen them passed around pretty widely, but I guess that’s because they work!
Read outside your genre as much as possible. I love memoirs – they are great for showing the passing of time, and I also adore nonfiction about tech start-ups and sci-fi too. It’s so tempting just to read in your specific genre, but I think if you read widely then it makes the work richer.
Done is better than perfect. Just keep on at it even if it feels like the initial work isn’t great. If I can steal a CBC quote that I love: Great novels are made in the rewrite. This is such a mantra for me. The edit is where the real magic happens and where you can inject more suspense.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
There really is no typical day, but I do find my mind is clearer in the mornings. I write very rough first drafts (often not even in full sentences). The first draft is more like a plan of actions and thoughts with dialogue sitting in script-like form. Then I tinker and tinker in successive drafts and spend hours deliberating over adjectives etc. That’s the fun part!
Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?
I’m just about to embark on my edits which is daunting but also very exciting. I also have a plan for book two that I can’t get out of my head, so I’ve been working on that a bit too.
Also, on my post-lockdown list is to get a decent headshot in front of a lovely colourful bookcase… Once I have that, then I think I’ll feel like a real author!
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