Samantha Tonge is a contemporary women’s fiction novelist whose debut, Doubting Abbey, was shortlisted for the Festival of Romantic Fiction Best Ebook award. She has also won the Love Stories Awards Best Romantic Ebook award, and is a Top Ten Amazon Kindle bestseller.
Learning the craft of writing is a task with no end. After eight years of writing manuscript after manuscript, and receiving numerous rejections (yes, a couple from Darley Anderson!) my debut finally came out in 2013. Since then I’ve had 11 books published. My 12th is out soon. And during the last six years every new project has taught me something new.
Thank goodness. Because if I ever got to the complacent point of thinking I knew enough, it would make for one very boring career – and probably wouldn’t produce my best work. Part of the joy, for me, is a sense that I am always improving and that there is fresh knowledge to take from each new book.
Here are my five top tips.
1 – At all times work to propel the reader forwards to the next page. To do this make sure the end of each chapter is gripping. This doesn’t have to mean a series of big cliff-hangers. In the first manuscripts I wrote (before getting published) I eventually noticed that I used to tie up each chapter nicely at the end, as if each one was a complete short story. This was satisfying for me as the writer, but where was the hook for the reader? Why should they carry on turning pages? I soon learnt to always leave the reader wanting more.
Then a fellow writer shared a tip a prospective agency had given her – to begin each chapter with a hook as well. Again, this doesn’t have to be anything momentous, just enough of a hint of intrigue in the upcoming chapter for the reader to keenly plough ahead. Or it might just mean a really tightly-written, crisp first paragraph. Don’t ever get lazy and feel that because you are a few chapters in you can take your foot off the pedal. Yes, pace needs to wax and wane – otherwise the reader will feel exhausted – but this doesn’t mean the intrigue needs to disappear.
And don’t forget the crucial first line or lines of the whole novel. It/they must grab the book browser and reflect the tone of your story. Here are examples from some favourite books of mine.
“Even before stepping into the cottage, Gary knows that this is bad.” The Taking of Annie Thorne by C.J. Tudor
“The thing about lying to your parents is, you have to do it to protect them. It’s for their own good.’ Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella.
“From the very beginning there was not the slightest doubt that Olga da Polga was the sort of guinea-pig who would go places.” The Tales of Olga da Polga by Michael Bond.
“I am old. That is the main thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe.” How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.
2 – To really grip the reader – and any agent/publisher considering your manuscript – begin where the story really starts. In other words, cut the backstory. My 2018 novel, One Summer in Rome, is about a woman fed up with her London life who decides to escape her problems and move to Italy. Originally my opening chapters were about her life in England and what was wrong with it. But as my agent pointed out, the story is really about her trip abroad. So the final published version actually starts with her sitting on the aeroplane and all of that previous set-up is instead threaded through the following chapters.
3 – Raise the Stakes – you want the readers to really be rooting for your main character and to become totally invested in their story. For this to happen the stakes need to be high. My 2019 women’s fiction novel, Knowing You, is about Violet, an unassuming young woman taken under the wing of a domineering new best friend. The result of this threatens a romance, threatens her friendships… but I realised, after feedback, that this wasn’t enough to really pull the reader into the story, and might produce an almost “so what?” reaction. Therefore in the final version her whole career and livelihood are put at risk as well.
4 – It’s all in the detail. Really explore the five senses whilst writing your novel, in order to offer your reader a fully escapist, satisfying, realistic read where they can imagine the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of the literary world you are inviting them into.
My upcoming release, The Christmas Calendar Girls, is my 3rd festive book and in those novels I work hard at creating that magical December atmosphere by describing the smells – of pine needles, mulled wine, roasting turkey… the sounds – jingling bells, children’s laughter, Christmas music… and so on.
Readers don’t just need to know how to simply visualise your characters and settings – after every paragraph you write consider if you’ve offered a full sensory experience.
5 – A brief one here – yes, you often must “murder your darlings”. You know, the parts of your novel that you think are outstanding, those paragraphs or ideas that you’ve harboured and held onto and possibly lifted from a previous unpublished work, that you’ve polished and re-read hundreds of times because you think they are so good (or is that just me!)? Often you’ve become too attached to them and they need to go. But no matter. As I’ve learnt from experience, the mind of a creative is a fickle thing and you’ll soon replace them with something new.
Don’t give up – and good luck!
The Christmas Calendar Girls will be released on the 3rd of October and is available to pre-order here