Writer's Toolkit

Top tips from experts on how to start your novel

Interested in entering Discoveries but not sure where to start? We’ve got you! 

Along with Discoveries partner Curtis Brown Creative, we hosted a special event to help writers get started on their novels, featuring Discoveries Chair of Judges and Women’s Prize Founder Kate Mosse, winner of Discoveries 2022 Sui Annukka, Discoveries judge and author Kiran Millwood Hargrave, literary agent Viola Hayden and Anna Davis, Founder of Curtis Brown Creative.

We’ve gathered some highlights from this panel’s treasure trove of tips – from advice on how to write a great opening that will hook the judges to how to approach your synopsis. You can also catch up on the event in full here for a limited time only.

Discoveries, our writing development programme, is completely free to enter and invites unpublished women writers from the UK or Ireland to submit the opening of a novel in English, of up to 10,000 words.

Sui Annukka on writing her winning Discoveries entry…

I wrote those 10,000 words as a bit of a challenge to myself. I approached it like a writing exercise and I really listened to what the judges were saying. I listened to the webinars like this from last year, and the judges were saying, they were really interested in a strong voice, in characters you could really kind of care about and not to worry about it being perfect.

I started writing it this time last year during October half term, exactly this time last year. And I thought, I’m just going to give it a go and wrote something quite quickly. I think it was very liberating to be told you didn’t have to have a whole finished manuscript and that it didn’t have to be perfect, it was more the kind of the energy of it. And I really, really enjoyed writing it. I think that probably came through on the page because I had fun and I desperately wanted to spend more time with these characters.

I cared so much about them as I was writing them. So, it felt like falling in love with them.

The panel on planning and consistency…

Kiran: I am what we call a ‘pantser’, which is that I write by the seat of my pants. One of my favourite things about writing is in the first draft, growing my characters and having them really drive the plot.

Until I know my characters, they don’t act. So I need to know them first. It’s all quite an organic hippie, trippy, instinctive, floaty process.

But I would say if I were entering a competition, I would definitely have a strong idea or at least make it look like I had a strong idea of where I was headed. The wonderful thing about Discoveries is that you have still got time to play. And I do think that time to play is important. There is space to write 10,000 words, look at it again and think: ‘oh, that’s where I’ve ended. It is not where I started and maybe I need to go back to the start and rewrite and make it work with what actually I’ve decided to do.’

There will be those among you listening to me thinking ‘you are mad, I am not starting anything before I have a plan.’ And that’s great too. There are many plotters, brilliant plotters in the world.

Kate: I write historical fiction and gothic fiction. I also write memoir and history and what I would say is that I know the texture of the book. I know the big tent arc of the book, but I don’t actually know what’s going to happen necessarily. With historical fiction I know the historical backdrop, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to my family in front of the historical backdrop.

Like you Kiran, I have that big arc and then I think, ‘okay, I’m going to start now and I’m going to learn who they are and I’m going to learn the story’.

But the only caveat I would give with that is that the first draft can be all emotion, but the second draft is intellect and structure. So, get it down and then I think, okay, what book is this? What am I doing?

You don’t necessarily have to have it to start with, but you do need to then impose that sense of discipline on it.

Anna: If you’ve planned a lot and you’ve made lots of decisions before you start writing, then it’s easier to be consistent because know what you’re doing. Whereas if you’re feeling your way in, it might be a lot less consistent in its first draft.

It needs to end up consistent however you work, whether you are someone who likes to write a scene and then perfect it and then move on to the next scene and then perfect that, or whether you write a sort of messy draft and then work further into it and further into it. You ultimately do need to end up with consistency.

Viola: In the Discoveries realm, we do ask for a synopsis, so it would be helpful to have certain elements of your plot planned out before you do write, or you know where it’s going. I think otherwise if you write just the 10,000 words and you go: ‘Great, I’ve got that, but I have absolutely no idea where it’s going. You might find yourself not in an unsolvable pickle, but just think, okay, what is my story?

For the synopsis, it’s hard to get an entire book summarized into just under a page, around 500 words. But for me in a synopsis that grabs me is where I can really feel there is one kind of clear story coming through.

There are always, within a good satisfying novel, different narratives, little B strands C strand stories going along and different sort of characters having their own kind of separate dilemmas. But I think it’s really important to be able to know what the heart of the book is. Be that the plot or the main character journey.

On prologues and openings…

Viola: I do like it when I’m dragged in immediately, be that by a hefty emotional situation, a question posed, or an inciting incident – if something’s gone wrong. Or perhaps a flash forward to something that will happen later in the book – a very short prologue and then flashing back.

I like to be gripped from the first page and I love depth of character and emotion. You have to have those things. I like to see a plot in action and know that there’s both an emotional drive and that character arc journey driving a story, but also that there’s a propulsive plot going alongside something as well.

On what stories the judges are looking for…

Anna: We want to see a really broad range of people entering. We want to feel that we’ve reached as far as we can reach with Discoveries and that people don’t feel that there is a barrier to the mentoring for whatever reason. We have no idea what’s going to win.

Kiran: Your entry will be received in the best possible faith. Like everything we’re saying, including a synopsis that might not be the most polished. We are rooting for you, and we are not looking for things to mark you down on. We’re looking for things to raise you up. So don’t overthink and psych yourself out on that basis.

Kate: This is about women standing shoulder to shoulder. That’s it. And everybody who is brave enough to write and to submit their work, all of it is read. It’s read properly by professional people. Everything, every 10,000 words are read. People don’t read a synopsis and think, ‘Oh, I won’t bother.’

This is about brilliant writing and all of the people in the future that will be on everybody’s bookshelves that might be on this call tonight. It could be you.

Feeling inspired? You can catch up on the event in full here for a limited time only.

The Women's Prize Podcast

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