Talking to novelist Sarah Hilary about writing

23 Jun 2021

Sarah Hilary

Award winning crime author Sarah Hilary has been compared to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. Her most recent novel Fragile, a psychological thriller with a gothic twist, is beautifully written. Sarah shares her writing tips here.

Lucy: How do you begin a new book – do you start with an idea/ a plan and how does that turn into a novel? 

SH: Nothing so concrete as a plan. Often something as flimsy as a feeling, or an image. Usually, I’ll avoid looking at it too closely, let it play at the corner of my eye, see how it takes shape. When it becomes a character’s voice, that’s when I’ll start writing. I write fast for the first draft to get a backbone (plot) in place. The editing comes later, and is nearly always torturous.

Lucy: So, what do you find the most challenging thing about writing fiction, and how do you overcome it?

SH: Telling the deepest possible story in the shortest number of pages. I love words but have always aspired to brevity, with mixed success. I’m getting better at it. I think each book we write helps us to make fewer of the same mistakes. 

Lucy: What tips would you give to a writer struggling with self-confidence? 

SH: Embrace your mistakes. Be patient with yourself. If you’re really struggling, seek out the support of a writing group

Insta Live Creative Writing Class: Get Published

3 Jul 2020

You can catch up with this class and others on Instagram

What is a Literary Agent?

> They help prepare your work for submission, help you find the right publisher and negotiate a deal.
> Represent your book abroad and submit to film companies
> Represent your book abroad and submit to film companies
> Support you through the ups and downs
> If self-publishing – you don’t need one.

How do you find an agent?

1. First, get your book into shape. Some people find it helpful to hire an editor to help (but you don’t have to do this! Lots don’t). I can recommend:
2. Make a hit list: Look at Writers and Artists Yearbook  
3. Submit to about 5 agents at once. Expect rejections. Be systematic. DO YOUR RESEARCH 


> Look at novels that are similar to yours and turn to the acknowledgments page – the writer’s agent will be there.
> Find agents who might have a personal connection to your subject matter.
> Personal recommendations: use any contacts you have
> Target newer agents who are building their lists
> Follow literary agents on Twitter or Facebook – they often ask for submissions. The big agencies like Curtis Brown also have Twitter pitch days
> Can you do a writing course? (expensive, but some have bursaries, some online). 3 good ones: Faber Academy, Curtis Brown,Arvon Foundation
> Enter writing competitions
> Try Jericho Writers who have conferences and ‘meet an agent’ days


Follow the guidelines on their website!!! Most want:
1. A short query email (or covering letter; they mean the same.) I’d do 4-5 sentences about yourself, plus brief elevator pitch about the novel (just a couple of sentences!)
2. 3 chapters, 10,000 words, or 50 pages
3. A synopsis

Three Tips for Success

1. Keep it Brief in the covering email – mention any writing credentials (journalism, advertising etc) you have, or well known courses you’ve done, or prizes you’ve won
2. Present your work professionally: double spaced, justified, in a sensible font, page numbered, your name and title on each page. No typos/spelling errors or grammatical mistakes. No funny colours or gimmicks.
3. Write a Good Synopsis: this is a brief statement of plot and main characters. It’s not a blurb. Don’t use excitable language to ‘sell’ the story. Make it however long they want it (Usually 1-2 pages double-spaced, 12 pt)

Things that might put off agents before they’ve even read your submission:

Email tone: gushing, exclamation marks, emojis, showing off or false modesty. Simply state who you are, any relevant credentials, what your book is.
Gimmicks: Making own book jacket or marketing material or attention grabbing tricks eg. shiny wrapping, free gift
Errors: Getting their name wrong/agency/authors they represent or spelling anything wrong.
If they turn you down don’t write back telling them why they’ve made a mistake. LOTS of authors are rejected by agents but submit again, another book, and are taken on.


Insta Live Creative Writing Classes to watch now

6 Jun 2020

Here are the most recent instalments of Lucy’s creative writing classes, which happen on Instagram every Friday at 1pm (UK time) on Psychologies magazine’s Instagram account here. They’re free, anyone welcome.

Tension, Intrigue and Suspense

Tension, Intrigue and Suspense

Where To Set Your Novel and Why

Where To Set Your Novel

Complex Characters

Complex Characters

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and Endings

Insta Live Creative Writing Class: Beginnings & Endings

5 Jun 2020

To watch past creative writing classes on Instagram go to @psychologiesmagazine’s account (Click on ‘IGTV’). These creative writing classes are free and happen Live on Fridays at 1.30pm (UK time)

How to Begin

People will tell you the opening line of a novel must be amazing, startling, completely original, but trying to do this can lead to you sound desperate or overwritten. BUT opening lines do need to make the reader perk up.

GOOD Openings: Give us the sense that we are on a journey. We don’t need to know exactly where we are yet, but we need to feel we’re going somewhere, and want to go somewhere with the author.

KEY INGREDIENT for all openings: INTRIGUE . To do this, your opening needs to raise a question (maybe more than one).

Other ingredients

-A strong, distinctive voice
-Detail – anchor us, make it feel real and immediate
-Strong sense of place or character

Do you need to know where to begin before you start writing?

NO! Beginnings might change as you deepen the novel. Flexibility can be key, especially if you aren’t a planner.


-If the beginning poses a question, the ending answers it.

-If an ending fails to answer it in some way, the book can fail

-In really good novels you get the feeling that the ending grew organically out of the opening.

-Endings bring a sense of completion BUT can leave some room for the reader’s thought process – for the story to continue afterwards.

-If you tie up the loose ends too soon then just continue to waffle, the ending falls flat.

Tip: You don’t need to know your ending from the start

If I’d felt I needed to know the ending before I wrote, I’d never have written a novel. My endings evolve as the book gets written.

4 ways to open a novel:

1 With a feeling/setting/theme (Jane Eyre ‘There was no possibility of a walk that day’)

2 With a question.

3 With a crisis.

4 With dialogue (Muriel Spark’s Ballad of Peckham Rye: ‘‘Get away from here, you dirty swine’ she said.’)

With a statement   (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’)

5 Ways to End a Novel:

1 Circularity – you’re back at the opening, seeing things in a different way.

2 Echoing: you bring back an idea or theme that appeared in the opening

3 Surprise: you end on a twist or shock

4 Reflection: you survey what’s happened, and feel sense of completion and of having learned something about life

5 Open (ish): when you don’t tie everything up neatly and the reader is left to fill in the blanks.

Try this: Take your 5 favourite novels, read beginning few pages and end few pages. What’s the writer done? Why does it work?

Insta Live Creative Writing Class: Character – basics

29 May 2020

Good characters matter more than you might care to know. 

Think about your favourite novels –ones you read years ago. Can you remember the details of the plot? Maybe. But it’s likely to be the characters you really think of. Often writers focus on getting the plot right: we obsess on making it all hang together, on coming up with something surprising and ‘new’, perfecting the twists and timings. But no amount of clever plotting or elegant sentence structures can compensate for weak, dull or clichéd characters. 

– Usually you’ll have 1-2 main characters, some secondary ones, maybe a background cast
– You can find lots of advice online about creating character ‘templates’/ fleshing out what colour your character’s favourite knickers are, or what they have for breakfast. Many people find this useful. I don’t.

I can’t think in the abstract about my characters, certainly not before I’ve created them. Sometimes I just have to write and rewrite and redraft, questioning and exploring a character until I begin to get under their skin and find their voice – think like they think. It took me 5 months of frustration, re-writing endlessly the first 4 chapters of Magpie Lane until I had Dee’s voice. Then one day I got her – I knew who she was, and we were off.

You know it’s working when: they do and think stuff of their own, and lead you in directions you might not have thought of.

Do they have to be likable?

Publishers do sometimes say they want your character to be likeable but I think there are WAY more interesting things for a character to be. And what people want is interesting characters they feel are real, and in whose psyches they feel invested.

Characters need to change – they need AN ARC: they start in one place, go through things, and come out changed.


-Work on dialogue, how they speak

-Find the details: Edna O’Brien once said that the telling details, like the way someone opens a handbag, can tell a reader more than pages of writing.

-Work on what they think of OTHER CHARACTERS – how they react to them, how they feel about what others do.

Four Things to Avoid:

1/ Stereotypes and cliches

2/ Blandness – watch out for the tyranny of ‘likable’ characters

3/ Inconsistency (unless it’s deliberate on your part)

4/ Stasis (they need to change…)


1/ Research. What do they do for a living? Where do they live? What do they know? Find out everything you can about their world so you can inhabit it. In Magpie Lane, Mariah is a wallpaper restorer so I spent hours looking at wallpaper, talking to experts, engaging in the detail. Only a tiny amount made it into the book, but it helped me to know Mariah’s daily life and her inner world.

2/ Find the voice – write, write, write – try things in different ways until they start to take form, until you can hear them in your head and they aren’t you any more.

3/ Stick them in an odd setting – see how they react.

Insta Live Creative Writing Class: Settings

29 May 2020

If asked to break down writing a novel into 3 areas you’d probably say: plot, character and place. Many writers spend vast amounts of time on the first two, but neglect the third.  Big mistake. Setting isn’t just a backdrop for action.

Setting creates mood, meaning, resonance. It does a lot of invisible work. It embodies your themes, deepens them, and also CREATES THEM. Think about the moors in Wuthering Heights, or that attic in Jane Eyre.

Settings can be characters in their own right: in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Manderley is basically the main character.

Place, when done well, makes a book feel REAL to the reader.

Settings aren’t just fixed spaces to be described, they’re malleable entities, and novelists can consciously manipulate them.  The Cobb at Lyme in Persuasion is very different from the Cobb at Lyme in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

How I choose my settings:

I need to feel really strongly about a place because I know I’m going to be living in it for a long time. I think I choose a setting for one of two reasons: Either I feel strongly about it, or I am interested in it in some obscure but powerful way.

Four Questions to ask yourself when thinking about where to set a novel:

1/ Where do I long to be?

2/ What place has deep meaning for me?

3/ What place do I never want to visit again?

4/ What place do I have really mixed feelings about?


Go there. Walk around. Note smells, feel, details (among other things, I went on two Oxford ghost tours while writing Magpie Lane)

Go there virtually if you can’t physically. Use streetview etc

Get info: endless Googling is your friend.

Five things to bear in mind as you write each scene:

Surroundings  – think about what aspects fit your themes in this scene?

Seasons and weather – make conscious choices – eg. Venice in winter.

Specific Visuals – what can your characters see from where they are? This roots them. Make them notice things that reflect the mood of the scene!

Sounds, smells, sensations (ditto)

Significance of the place – cultural, political (you may never reference this directly)

3 Tips for writing about place:

1/ Don’t over-describe – just pick a few key things to focus on. You don’t have to tell us everything about a place. But…

2/ Pick these details carefully because they’re meaningful, not just because you wrote something poetic

3/ Watch out for cliche – if you’re going to have a climactic storm, know you’re doing something that’s been done before and make sure you do it differently in some way

Two exercises to help you get your head around why settings matter:

1. Write a short scene in your chosen setting.

Now re-write it, changing the weather. What else changes because of that?

2. Write a short scene about a trauma – make the setting dark/alarming.

Now re-write the same scene, putting the characters in an idyllic setting.  How does it change?

Insta Live Creative Writing Class: Complex Characters

22 May 2020

Your main characters need to do much more than act out the plot. They are the novel’s driving force. The reader doesn’t need to like them, but does need to be curious and deeply engaged.

If your character ends the novel in the same state as she began it, you have work to do. Characters need to CHANGE  – ie. Grow and develop –  as the novel progresses (this is called a ‘character arc’).

A powerful character is rarely simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m most interested in odd, complex individuals, usually misfits. Figure out who interests you. Your job is to seek out complexity.

Five questions to ask about your character:

1. What are her deep-seated needs and desires?

2. What are her secrets and flaws? 

3. What are her contradictions? (eg. does your ex-con psychopath watch Loose Women? Does your cruel businessman visit his granny every week?)

4. What is her backstory? (how has her past shaped her emotionally).

5. What are her goals?

Four Places to Start

1 Think about characteristics – obsessions? Tics? Odd habits? Interests?

2 Get to know them physically – you don’t have to describe everything about them but give hints. Embody them.

3 Give them interests that interest YOU

4 Seek out the unexpected – in real life, people are often surprising or contradictory (eg. In Magpie Lane, the nanny is a mathematics genius)

Give your villain a deep backstory

How to Create a Villain

*Don’t think of her as a villain – villains are people too

*Know her as well as you know your main protagonist(s)

*She will have her own morality – what is it? Understand it.

*Know what happened to her to make her this way. Generate some sympathy/understanding (think about the movie The Joker: now that’s a psychological backstory!)

*Make her powerful – reader needs to feel her power, viscerally

Try this:

Choose an event from your character’s distant past and write a page exploring it


Choose one of your character’s main personality traits and write a list of how it shows up in the ways they behave (eg. Anxiety: She fiddles with her rings, she never looks people in the eye etc.)

Insta Live Creative Writing Class: Tension

18 May 2020

All great novels are powered by tension, whatever their genre.   Tension, intrigue and suspense are important in ANY novel.

readers want to be surprised

‘Every story needs an element of suspense or it’s lousy’ Sidney Pollack

One of the most gripping scenes in the whole of English literature for me is in Jane Austen’s Persuasion when Wentworth slips Anne a passionate, confessional love note after overhearing her talking to a mutual friend. Nothing actually ‘happens’ in this scene. But it’s VERY tense.

The ability to captivate – to keep us reading late into the night – seems effortless in great novels, almost magical.  But what’s behind the magic?  And how do you do it in your own book? Here are six steps to start with.

Step 1: Figure out where the tension lies

Develop an ‘elevator pitch’ – a brief summary of your novel. This helps you figure out what really matters.

Step 2: Raise the Stakes

 You need there to be a lot at stake in your book – in Persuasion, it’s a lifetime of happiness. What’s at stake in yours? Is it enough to make the reader care? You can also gradually up the stakes as your plot unfolds – revealing more and more information as you go, and allowing things to get complicated and unravel so the reader thinks ‘oh, that’s not good.’ Then a bit later – ‘oh, that’s really not good’.

Step 3: Add obstacles

For Anne and Wentworth the obstacles are social, cultural, circumstantial, psychological. Obstacles can also be more basic (think of a character running from a villain, throwing chairs, wardrobes, doors in the way as they run – you want your reader to feel a bit like the chaser). 

Step 4: Add a ticking clock

In James Bond the villain is going to blow up the world but not next month – it’s happening VERY SOON. A ticking clock lends immediacy, fear, urgency.

Here’s a simple example: in my first novel, The Missing One, we have ticking clocks AND high stakes: a mad stranger has the narrator’s toddler on a remote British Columbian island. Will she get to her child before something terrible happens?

Step 5: Withhold information

It is much more compelling and intriguing to drip feed information to your reader as the novel progresses: offer hints and allusions, raise unanswered questions and your reader will be desperate to turn the page to find out more.

Step 6: Add dilemmas

You want the reader to be weighing things up – what’s right, what’s wrong, what would THEY do?

Four things to avoid:

1 Unrealistic events or people – nothing punctures tension like implausibility – the reader thinking: ‘but that would never happen’.

2 Weak characters – the more the reader cares about or believes in your characters, the more tension you can generate

3 Waffle: make every moment/scene/event in your book count. Know why it’s there. Cut it if it isn’t adding anything, no matter how gorgeous the prose happens to be.

4 Too many twists and turns: that just gets exhausting. The reader feels manipulated. You need a variety of paces. And you need to make it plausible (see 1 above).

‘Mystery is an intellectual process… But suspense is essentially an emotional process’ Alfred Hitchcock

Insta Live Creative Writing Class: The Crap First Draft

8 May 2020

It took several years to write my first novel, The Missing One. At least nine months of that was spent finessing the opening three chapters. I obsessed over every sentence, word and description. When I sent the book to Judith Murray, who is now my agent, she said: ‘I like it, it needs a bit of work. I have notes’.

 Her main note? ‘Lose the first three chapters, you don’t need them.’

This was my first lesson in ‘kill your darlings’.  I slashed the first three chapters – and the book came alive.

What I’d been doing there was working out who my characters were, their backstories, where they lived, how they spoke. I didn’t realize that those chapters really belonged in the crap first draft (CFD).

Writing them brought the characters and set up alive for me, but the reader didn’t need to be led gently into the story. The reader needed the story to reach out, grab them by the throat and yank them in.

The Missing One by Lucy Atkins

Writing, for me, is a process of (often brutal) editing. It took me more than three years to write Magpie Lane, but most of that was spent cutting, rethinking and reshaping, rewriting.  I can only really do this when I have the CFD. This first clumsy, intense, wild attempt will be something like 70-80,000 words. And it really will be crap.


1. Adopt an attitude of experimentation and recklessness – YOU DON’T NEED TO START AT THE BEGINNING. Try writing random scenes.

2. Ignore the voice that’s hissing ‘this isn’t a novel’ (it’s right: it isn’t. Yet). 70,000 words may sound like a lot, but if you aren’t crouched on your own shoulder criticizing every sentence you type, it can be surprisingly doable.

3. Forget about elegant prose or your plot hanging together. Ignore clichés, allow hackneyed crap.

4. Try to stop on a high each day or at least not on a total low – stop before you run out of juice completely.

5. Vow never to show it to anyone.

Your CFD will contain moments that quicken your heart, characters that feel alive. These are the bits you’ll develop.

5 ways to get the CFD DONE:

1. Try a daily word count target – I don’t do this, many writes I know do

2. Devote actual time to it: Anthony Trollope wrote 47 novels, mostly whilst holding down a job. He swore by 3 hours a day and called writers ‘literary labourers’.

3. Find your best time of day. Create optimal writing conditions. For me it’s early mornings, with coffee.

4. Switch off the Internet and all social media during your writing time.

5. Spend time – when it’s not your optimal writing time – researching and reading. This gives you inspiration and energy, the fuel you need, for the next day’s work.

The CFD gets you over the massive psychological hurdle of the blank page. For me its the path from buttoned up, hypercritical, conscious mind into the fertile subconscious where the story is hiding.  

Conversation with Mick Herron

17 Apr 2020

Planning a novel: A conversation with Mick Herron.

Mick is the author of the bestselling Slough House series of spy novels. Val McDermid has called him ‘the John Le Carré of his generation’.  He is also my dear friend. We meet regularly in Blackwell’s café in Oxford and talk about writing – our own and other people’s. Before lockdown, we were due to run a creative writing masterclass together at a literary festival. We decided to have the conversation on email instead, and to publish it here.

Mick Herron

How much should you plan a novel before you start?

LA: I always thought you had to have an idea that included a beginning, middle and end before you started writing a novel. It took me years to work out that this isn’t the case. All four of my novels have evolved from the vaguest of nuggets – a place, a character, something I’m just weirdly interested in (eg. killer whales or beetles or priest’s holes). The end result has been almost unrecognisable from the first idea. Is this something you find too? I have a feeling you might set out with a bit more of a road map than I do?

MH: More like a sat nav: I ask for a destination, and it takes me on a route of its own devising. I was remembering a line from the movie Sunset Boulevard the other day – it’s a long time since I’ve seen it, but the line’s delivered by the screenwriter character, played by William Holden, and goes something like “The most beautiful script I ever wrote was all about Okies in the Dust Bowl. By the time it reached the screen, it was set in a lifeboat.” He was complaining about the iniquities faced by the writer in Hollywood, but it strikes me that it’s not such a bad image of the creative process, and the way the original idea behind a novel – say – can become transformed or even discarded in the course of the book’s being written. I’m thinking of some of the talks we had when you were first planning Magpie Lane. A lot of those original ideas never made it to the final page, but they remain part of that novel inasmuch as they were necessary to its creation.

LA: Yes, I’m trying to figure out how it all does develop without a plan. I think I tend to get interested in a setting, and then find the character’s voices (with Magpie Lane I spent 5-6 months rewriting the first five chapters till I got Dee’s voice). Then I’ll start researching a few bizarre things that fascinate me – in this case, I remember getting very into wallpaper restoration and Oxford’s secret graveyards. I don’t write chronologically. I think I generally stay one small step ahead of myself, but often something will become really interesting to me, and then I’ll find it turning into a whole section, or even a bigger theme, and the whole novel shifts and goes in a different direction.  This means I expand the book from within. For a long time the opening line of Magpie Lane was: ’That was the day I found her in the priest’s hole eating dead bees.’ Now that’s at the start of Chapter 18. 

MH: And a very striking line it is too – I remember thinking it should be slapped on the front cover to pull readers in . . . I’m with you on character being key to a novel’s development, but I’ve also found, over and above that, that every novel has its own voice, even when it’s being written as part of a series. The mood, the tone, the colouring, has to be distinct from what’s gone before. Writing standalone books, as you do, requires even more of a tonal shift, and these ‘bizarre’ interests you follow help you achieve that, both in Magpie Lane and The Night Visitor. I love it when authors invest their books with unexpected enthusiasms, whether that’s old wallpaper or exotic beetles or whatever, and when such interests are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling, the results can dazzle. I assume that the development of such ideas in itself helps shape the novel, pointing out directions that didn’t seem available at the outset?

LA: Yes, it definitely does. I think it really leads the way. So, what about you? You don’t think of a plot in advance, but you know the destination. How does that actually work when you sit at your computer each day? Do you have a sense of a scene you want to write next?  How do you actually progress? I’m also interested in how different it must be when you’re deeply familiar with characters from the outset.  Do you feel they have a life of their own? 

MH: Not a life of their own, exactly – I find I still have to do all the work – but their paper-bound existences do at least have defined parameters: I know what sort of things they might do, what things they might say. So that helps. As for plotting, I do as much as I can before starting to write, but that falls far short of being an actual detailed outline. It’s more a series of disconnected events, like an overlong trailer for a movie. In doing the writing, I find the connections (I hope). The daily work often feels like looking for the solution to a problem I had no idea existed before then, which is sometimes trivial (where is this character’s car parked?) and sometimes not (how does this character know this other character is lying?) It’s not that I prefer to work this way; it’s more that this is the only way I seem able to (with this series, anyway). Is it like that for you? Or do you feel you have choices?

LA: I generally feel like things are wide open. The strange thing is that as I try to answer these questions, I realise how little of my writing happens in the conscious brain. It’s all a bit hazy. A lot of it is about sitting down, day after day – getting past my self-doubt, and the intimidating fact of this blank page – and playing around, watching scenes take shape. This doesn’t seem to happen in my conscious mind. This is going to sound totally pretentious, but when it’s really working well it’s a bit like what I imagine lucid dreaming would be like  – I’m kind of steering, but not in control. The serious, conscious work happens later in the process when I have to tighten it all up, and think hard about plot, and what information is revealed, and when, and the logistics of it all  – those parked cars. 

MH: And there’s the elephant in the room . . .the degree to which we don’t actually know what we’re doing; or, more accurately, how we’re doing what we’re doing. A lot of the problem-solving, I find, goes on in the back of the brain – if the plot mechanics are seizing up, I don’t sit at my desk and force myself to focus, I go out for a walk. By the time I get back, I’ve generally found how to get things going again. This sounds oddly passive, but I’m sure it’s common to many writers. All the really hard work has long since been done by the time we pick up our pens. We were doing it without knowing it: it started when we picked up our first story books, without a parent or teacher there to put it in our hands.

Or it started when we put those books down, and let the story continue in our heads. . .

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