Louise Dean is a British novelist, the author of four published works including Becoming Strangers, This Human Season, The Idea of Love and The Old Romantic.
Becoming Strangers was long-listed for the Man Booker prize while The Old Romanic was an Oprah book of the week. Dean also teaches aspiring novelist how to write fiction and secure book deals via the Novelry.
In this interview, she explains:
- The one skill every writer must learn (this applies to fiction and non-fiction)
- Why 90 days is the perfect amount of time for first drafts
- How she approaches writing and business
- What it’s like when your works becomes an Oprah book of the week
- Her radical approach to fighting writer’s block
And much more.
Bryan Collins: Louise, it’s lovely to talk to you today. Maybe you could start by giving me a bit of background information about your career as a writer and how you got started with novels and then moved into the online coaching and teaching business.
Louise Dean: I’ve been writing for a long time now. Gosh, I’ve been writing for about 25 years I suppose, but formally about 20 years. I never thought I was good enough as a person, I mean morally, or clever enough to be a writer, so I automatically disqualified myself. I was an ardent reader, and I went to work in advertising, and I ended up in New York. I wrote a very English little novel almost by accident when I was there, and a very nice editor at [Fire, Strauss, and Drew 00:00:57] was very encouraging. It wasn’t the right novel. And I do think writing novels is a little bit like making pancakes, and the first two are a bit fatty.
Louise Dean: I threw the first two away, and then I decided to really get serious. I was working in advertising, I was running a little ad agency downtown in New York, and I’m surrounded by creative people, but it wasn’t entirely fulfilling, you know. I knew I wanted to do, so I just mainlined Chekhov and Raymond Carver, who I still absolutely adore for the lucidity of their writing, and Hemingway, but Chekhov and Carver mostly just to clear out my system.
Louise Dean: And then I wrote alongside a book by Graham Greene called The Heart of the Matter. And as I was writing, I would very often look at what I was writing and match against it and say, “Is this anywhere in the same league? Is it even close?” That’s kind of the basis of how I teach right now. We have an idea of a hero book at The Novelry to accompany you with deep study while you’re writing. I love the idea of sort of leaning on another book, not so much for content but just you know, match yourself and pace yourself. So I wrote a novel, first novel of mine was Becoming Strangers, and it didn’t read very well. It won the Society of Authors Betty Trask prize for best novel under 35. I just scraped in and and it went on the Man Booker longlist and it won a couple of other prizes, and suddenly I was sort of catapulted into being very well reviewed and quite well regarded writer and had lovely accolades and a claim.
Louise Dean: I was deep work on my second book, which is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles. That was an extraordinary ride. I went to live in [Provence 00:02:54] But was spending my time flying into Belfast. I spent week a month there for about a year researching for it. That book was very much a love affair kind of book. I absolutely was passionate about it, [inaudible 00:03:11]. and then a couple of years later I wrote a very sordid story based in Provence, not quite the other side of Provence, probably what you’d expect. And then I wrote most recently, but sometime ago now in 2010 of books set in the Southeast of England called The Old Romantic, which is about a man’s obsession with an undertaker of a portly size. I think slowed down a little bit after that. My children were in their teens and were very, very demanding, and I lost my way.
Louise Dean: About 2016, 17, I thought “Right, I’m going to write another novel, but I’m going to make it very hard on myself so that I get it done, so that I focus. So I’m going to write it, Stephen King says in a season, which is great advice. I’m going to write it in 90 days, but I’m going to make sure I do it by having quite an audience with me.” So the bookseller kindly ran a feature that I was offering to write alongside other writers and I thought “Crikey, I’d better make a course or something out of this.” I recorded myself writing and teaching for 90 days. In 2017 I was up at five writing and I was recording. I had a day job, so I was recording the lessons in the car on the way to work, which I like to seem to find both amusing and sort of like real life. It’s how life happens. And how novels get done at The Novelry is, you know, you take an hour a day, stick to it, you write it in 90 days.
Louise Dean: The course, people liked it because it was very sort of down to Earth and realistic and fun and quite irreverent and it’s a real life novel working practice. So it’s grown since then. Now we’ve got 150 writers at the moment writing with me, but we’ve had hundreds through, we’ve got people agents and publishing contracts. Now I’m really kind of a mum and a manager to my writers. I look after them from the very beginning when they join us, look at their career and where they’re going. And I aim unashamedly to get them mainstream publishing contracts. Mostly novelists, we do have memoir writers to some nonfiction because The Novelry is completely focused on story. Nearly all of my writers like me can write, you know, they write very well, but like me not so hot on story. And I teach really to remind and refresh myself daily about, you know, things have to happen and then I’ll go in the right order.
Louise Dean: That’s the story. So yeah, that’s what we do. We tell stories and we support each other and it’s a very vibrant worldwide group now.
Bryan Collins: That’s fantastic. Yeah. I was struck by what you said there about story because a couple of years ago I took some creative writing classes specializing in fiction and nonfiction, and we talked about about great sentences, but we didn’t talk about storytelling, which looking back was a serious omission. Something I had that study later after reading books, like story by Robert McKee and so on. I was just curious, you talked to her about leaning in and not necessarily copying the work of other writers, but who have gone before, just about just studying what they’ve done. Could you elaborate on that approach a little bit?
Louise Dean: Well of course, if I was brave. I’d be stealing. Cause TSL said, you know, “Don’t borrow, steal.” But no, leaning on great books is really important. It mirrors the act of faith when you’re writing. It’s a key tenet of the process and not worry that you stick with one book for 90 days, that you read it nightly. Almost like taking medicine before bed. You put the perfect prose in your head, and hopefully you’ll mimic it in the morning, but also your inwardly digesting how story works and you’re kind of thinking, “Well why am I carrying on reading those? What is it? Oh because I wanted to find out what happens to her next.” It’s a very simple way of digesting story as you’re writing.
Louise Dean: As for prose, you know, it’s lovely to put perfect or great prose in your head. And when my writers say “Well, what if I end up in a writing like [inaudible 00:07:28]?” I said to them, “That’s great problem to have and we’ll cope with that one when we get there.” But no, I generally … If I’m writing a novel, I’ll fixate on one book, and often actually one tune as well that I’ll play over and over again. The obsession, the sort of fixation shines really well with writing a novel.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I like that. Sometimes I listen to instrumental music under a piece. You talked also there about 90 days, so could you talk a little bit more about how you came up with 90 days and why you feel that that’s a nice block of time for focusing on the novel? And why not … The opposite being, you know, went out spend years on a novel?
Louise Dean: Yeah, absolutely. 90 days is a lovely number. There was a little bit of science about the 90 days being the period to form a good habit. And you know, that’s often touted with people giving up drink and things, but you know, 90 days and you cracked it. And what I try and form a habit in my writers is writing daily, because I do think that’s how writers have prodigious careers with a number of books behind them. It was Graham Green’s habit to write daily, just 500 words an hour and a half. And he produced many beautiful books that way. Most working writers from Hemingway, Steinbeck, would work mornings to a regular amount of writing. The regularity, almost the monotony and the routine of it, does you more favors than inspiration ever will. Showing up to that page to, to finish the scene after being away from it for 22, 23 hours, and having looked at it in a different way. There’s a magic to that that no sort of poetics will ever, ever beat.
Louise Dean: 90 days is lovely cause you’re in a season. So atmospherically, writing in the same place with the same sort of lighting and feeling. I have written novels over years, and they have just stayed sort of in the shallow ends where … The worst thing a writer can do, in my opinion, when writing a novel is binge writing. That gosh, you get a week or a weekend and you write thousands of words and then you don’t write for weeks. It’s purely pointless. If you were writing, you know, a novella in a weekend or a short story, then good on you. Or a poem. But novels don’t happen that way. They can’t. They need that regular, they need the space in between the daily writing for you to layer up, nuance the story. It’s all the thinking in between the writing and the tryst, the relationship that you’re having with the question at the heart of your novel. That’s, critical to getting a book out.
Bryan Collins: So your subconscious can work on the stories and on the book, even when you’re not sitting at your desk or in front of the computer.
Louise Dean: Yeah, and that’s the most important part of it. In a way when you write, you’re just making notes of everything, all the conversations and visions that you’ve had in your head for the novel in the last … in a few hours. Whether you’re out shopping and you overheard something funny that you think is just right for what she’s going to say in the next scene. All that stuff. And it’s so transformative of life, and it’s why I think many of us write, because it makes life much more valid, valuable, and magical. Everything that happens to you, you’re seeing how you can use it in the novel, what it means, what different light it throws on things.
Bryan Collins: And is that from first drafts to finish drafts in 90 days?
Louise Dean: No, absolutely not. A first draft in 90 days, that’s what we want to get done. For me, I like my writers to write to a very high standard. The first draft doesn’t get shared with anyone, apart from with me and their buddy. You look at the story together as we go and make sure it’s all sort of commercially viable. But no, I tell them I had to spend a month at least away from it to raise their game again with great reading, to think about what the story is, and then we go back and we edit it together. That takes about a month, and there can be many rounds of that, one or two for most of my writers. Then I pitch for them to literary agents. We have a lovely list of 10 leading agents worldwide, and I’ll take my writer’s work to them when they’re ready. For instance, I’ll write easily 10 drafts of a novel. A novel will take me about a year. The last one has taken about a year at a good lick. It’ll be a year. But now I’ve got this method down, and I’m having to live with it and I’m loving it. I’m hoping that will be quite a lot more productive, and I’m hoping that it will be a novel a year.
Bryan Collins: And are you writing your novels on a computer, or a pen and paper, or through some other method?
Louise Dean: I say to my writers, do a bit of both. I have a notebook where I write scenes as they come to me, but yes, I use desktop cause I like a really big page to look at, and I like to have a rolling manuscript so that I can go back and get myself together before I carry on with the scene.
Bryan Collins: You also talked there about commercially viable novels and stories. In your experience, what’s commercially viable these days? Are there any key things that a novel needs to include or exclude?
Louise Dean: Again, it’s, you know … I say to my writers, “Ask me any question now.” It’s pretty much been the same, which means [inaudible 00:13:07] company, which is story, story, story. It’s what people read for. Your prose can be lovely, and as I say, nearly all of my writers prose is lovely, but if the reader doesn’t want to know what happened next, it’s purely pointless how lovely your prose is. I’ve got writers at the moment. One of our ladies has just won an award and she’s on short lists for the [inaudible 00:13:33] novel award. She writes beautifully. But the story, you know, you want to know what happens next. That’s the focus all the way through the first draft, but particularly we’ll have our nose to it from second draft and onwards. And we will gut the novel at second draft, and when I show my writers how to get the storylines sorted, we’ll start with that. That’ll be the bones, and then to reattach the flash of the story to those bones. We don’t leave story out. That won’t happen to my writers. It will be at the heart of what they’re doing.
Bryan Collins: So when you are fleshing out or editing the beats of a story, are you using index cards or are you writing outlines for chapters or do you follow some other method?
Louise Dean: I have a course called The Big Edit, and we have a process of storyline that goes back to Aristotle’s poetics. That’s based on, we just call it the five acts. It’s very simple. And once you see it, you see that most stories work that way. Then I get my writers to work in Scrivener, or I show them how to use Microsoft Word documents to set up five acts and then they bring their material to those and attach them. Whether they’re writing memoir or whether they’re writing novel fiction, they’ll use that story structure and pin everything to it. They will have seen from the 90 day novel course how that works in all the great novels, the five acts. So they will understand it at quite a deep level.
Bryan Collins: I like that. I like that. I’m also curious about how you’re balancing the creative work that you do in the mornings, and then it sounds like your business is quite time consuming. You talked about editing people’s drafts on all the students that you’re mentoring. How do you balance both?
Louise Dean: Oh, it’s just so lovely. I honestly feel so privileged to be part of the work I’m doing with my writers. And the two things work beautifully together. But I write in the morning, so I will write until about midday, too. I have a dog who keeps … he runs pretty much my life. It tells me what to do when. Between walking him I’m writing, and then you know it’s my students from two o’clock through to that nine in the evening and I work with them one by one. I’m online.
Bryan Collins: And does your early morning routines still start at 5:00 AM or do you start a little bit later?
Louise Dean: [inaudible 00:15:55], it depends what the dog says. About 5:30 or 6:00, and then I’ll get to try my hardest. You know how it is not to look at emails and things but go straight into the novel and spend a couple of hours. I walk my boy and then come back and do a little bit more.
Bryan Collins: So writers talk about how the craft can be a little bit isolating. Are you okay with spending time alone for several hours each morning or each day?
Louise Dean: Totally agree with you. I became so isolated in the dark years after my fourth novel, before I started The Novelry. I noticed I was becoming really sort of grumpy and misanthropic, and I thought that can’t be good, can it, for writer for writing novels, which you know is so driven by empathy for characters in it. This is dangerous. And that’s why I started it principally, with The Novelry. I wanted company, I wanted contact, and I wanted other writers and I wanted to talk to writers about writing. But I didn’t want them in my house, and I didn’t want … We’re wonderful writers. I mean, my first book’s called Becoming Strangers. We love to have friendships that kind of are arm’s length, so that we can look at these curious specimens of people, but then go home and write about them. The Novelry is perfect for that, cause you can dip in and out, get as much support and friendship as you want. I’m never lonely. I’d love to be lonelier than I am in some ways. But having my dog and going into forests with him every day is like deep, deep peace. He, perhaps, and The Novelry, of what saved my writer’s backside.
Bryan Collins: I like that. One thing that struck me with The Novelry is it’s very different to other courses related to writing books. Like a lot of those courses, and my own included, talk about self publishing, but you’re very much focused on traditional publishing.
Louise Dean: We are. I just want the best for my writers. I say to them right at the beginning, “Look, in this small part of your life, you get to play God. Okay, this is the only part of your life you play God. So let’s start with what you really want.” We talk then about how the story is going to honor their intentions, their deepest intentions and wishes. But we talk also about what they want from writing, so we’re very clear. Some pretty much, I’d say 90%, would love a commercial contract, would love to be published by one of the big five. And so we shape up, from that very first phone call, we get them on the path towards that, towards getting an agent. So for my writers, when that’s what they want, that’s what we’ll be aiming for. However, I have writers who write literary fiction, award-winning already for short stories, who as they have said to me, they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a mainstream publishing commercial contract.
Louise Dean: We’re friendly with Galley Press, for instance, and we know the folks at Salt. And we have some news, I’m not sure when this is going out, but we’re launching our own publishing in print as well. Traditional methods, we’ll give advances, we’ll publish beautiful copies and we’ll publish both to retailers and online, because we want to win awards for those writers who wouldn’t get a mainstream contract. I hope that I can offer my writers a really broad range of options to publishing. And of course, if writers say to me, and I’ve got some, “I just want to self publish,” I’ll say to them, “Cool. Let’s get that story really, really good and see. You you crack on with the self publishing, but we’ll get the story as good as any commercial work.”
Bryan Collins: Speaking of commercial books, you’re book The Old Romantic, excuse me, was an Oprah book of the week. What did that do for your book?
Louise Dean: It sold really well in America, which was hysterical, really, because it was such an English book written in such English vernacular. I never look at my online reviews, so I dread to think what American readers made of some of the turns of phrase, which are quite unpalatable in places. But yeah, that was, you know … There’s always a surprise in writing. You never know what’s going to happen with a book, or how it’s going to turn out.
Bryan Collins: So when a book selected for Oprah book of the week, does that mean Oprah’s actually read the book, or is it by her team?
Louise Dean: I’ve no idea. And you know, the funny thing is, I don’t know if it’s the same for you or writers that you know. I don’t care about my book very much, once it’s published. I couldn’t give a stuff. I really, for me … I love writing, but when it’s done, it’s a little bit like giving birth. You sort of don’t remember the pain, you don’t think about it. I’m kind of onto the next one. I don’t really read reviews and I don’t pay that much attention.
Bryan Collins: What would you say to a writer who hasn’t made it that far yet? Perhaps they’re feeling blocked, they’ve got writer’s block or they can’t get the ideas flowing when they sit down.
Louise Dean: Well, I’m a bit of a school mom with my writers, and I work quite counterintuitively and tease them. I say to them, “Write less.”
Bryan Collins: Write less?
Louise Dean: “Write a lot less. Tomorrow when you go sit down, just say to yourself, ‘I’m going to write a hundred words I’ve got to do today,'” which is very, very little. Once you start being able to tick off small goals like that, your confidence comes back and you’ll be raring at the bat to right. So work counterintuitively almost got to be like you’re the golden goose and you’ve got to pat yourself. Most writers are so nasty to themselves, and mean, and they get sad. It’s a story. You’re creating a story. It’s not about you or your personality. It doesn’t mean anything about any of those things. It just means you more … it just means you need more thinking time, that’s all. So just take the pressure right off yourself.
Bryan Collins: Take the pressure right off yourself. I like that. When you say more thinking time, does that mean doing something that’s nothing to do with writing? Does that mean reading books that inspire you or does it mean something else?
Louise Dean: Yeah, I mean it can be both. With my writers, I say you’ve got two pedals, luckily came with two. One is reading and one is writing. When one isn’t working, when it runs out of juice, turn to the other one. I find that if I’m stuck, if I read something completely different, I’ll start writing in the margins all over that book and ideas would me for the one that I’m working on. But you know, if you’re struggling, write less.
Bryan Collins: Okay. And what about time spent writing? Is there an ideal amount of hours or minutes that you just spend working on something that’s creative?
Louise Dean: Yeah, definitely. Hemingway said don’t keep something in the well, keep something in the tank. This is the problem. This is why you need routine more than you do inspiration. You’ve got to put that pen down where you’re really excited to write tomorrow’s scene, and that you jump out of bed tomorrow because you can’t wait to get back in there. But unfortunately writers will write, write, write, write, write six, seven, eight hours, and then they feel exhausted and they don’t want to go back to that tomorrow. They’ve done it all. That’s really a bad, bad method. And I get my writers out of that within the first week, they’re literally drilled. I would only let them write 250 words a day for the first week, so that, they’re on a very short of short leash if you like. It’s an hour a day. And I have some great published writers, some bestseller writers, who use our method because they said to me, they just assed around all day otherwise. A writer can find so many ways not to write. It’s hysterical. If you’ve got a novel to write, your fridge would be really clean.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I like that. There’s a lot of information and materials on your site. Do you write much nonfiction or do you get people to help you with the older materials and copywriting that goes alongside your business?
Louise Dean: Oh no, I do absolutely everything with the business. It’s got to come from me, because I’m going to be there for all of my writers all the way through. I take enormous pride and pleasure and it’s just such a … it’s a very moving job to do, when someone’s wanted to write something or say something for years, and you’re getting it done with them. There’s nothing about The Novelry that isn’t done by me. Nothing.
Bryan Collins: It was great to talk to you today, Louise. Where can people find more information about your books, or The Novelry?
Louise Dean: The Novelry is thenovelry.com. We have also writershop.co.uk, where you will find lots of the books that I’ve mentioned and all the ones I recommend, and some, as you were saying, [inaudible 00:25:17] story book. Great books for writers there. Mine are all on Amazon, but yes, head to thenovelry.com, and the blog goes out every Sunday and has really useful, I hope, but certainly quite provocative advice for writers. You can get that to your inbox by signing up at any one of our pages at the website.
Bryan Collins: Okay. Thank you.
Louise Dean: Thank you very much, Brian.
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