Subtle and profoundly touching. Isabel Ashdown

S.V. Berlin’s debut novel The Favourite is a compelling story about rivalries and secrets as siblings Edward and Isobel are thrown together after a long absence by the death of their mother and the need to sort through the family home. She shares her tips for realising your writing ambitions.


1. Read, read, read
Novels about nebulists, books on ballistophia, stories of scanderoons – however clever you are, reading improves knowledge, widens vocabulary, and makes you better at parties. As a writer, reading also lets you to discover, in the most organic way, what works and what doesn’t, what bores and what excites, what’s already been done and what – excitingly – is yet to be tried…

2. Ditch your phone, avoid social media
Are you an ER doctor on call? If not, seize any opportunity to get your ears and eyes out of your phone. ‘Tis a thing of great wonder to look up from your work and find that many hours have passed without your even realising it. I quit Facebook in 2010, which – go figure – is exactly when I was able to make real progress with writing. As with sugar, after a few days you won’t miss all the likes and clicks and winky faces and will wonder at all the time you wasted on them in the first place. If you do miss it, don’t fret. Once you’re published, social media will be your best friend again…

3. Set targets, create rewards
You won’t always feel like writing. No one does. But for those times when you absolutely, categorically must find a way to get down to work, set aside a block of time, however modest, and set an alarm. Once the time’s up, you get to reward yourself with whisky, a run in the hills, a shouting match with your spouse, or whatever wicked treat floats your boat.

4. Write what you want
It’s your book, no one else’s. Your work will be so much better and more interesting when you go your merry way to write about the people, places and events that fascinate you. Speaking of which, have fun. You are not Byron. Writing should not be an agony. If it isn’t fun, do something else.

5. Eavesdrop, take notes
Are you struck by brilliant ideas at 3am, but can’t remember them in the morning? Keep a pen and pad of paper by your bed, just in case. Also, as GCHQ won’t tell you, conversations overheard can give rise to all kinds of ideas. The chat of random strangers is brilliant for dialogue and character. So take notes everywhere you go – on the bus, in the queue, and even in the bloody loo!

Think like a psychologist or serial killer profiler and ask: How do they speak? How do they walk? Do they have any weird hobbies or interests? Bad habits? Good habits? Jermyn Street or Top Man? Waitrose or Asda?”

6. Guard your time
There are never enough hours in the day, so when you can steal away a few minutes to yourself, guard them with your life. It is not precious to shut the door or to say no to tedious social engagements. Do your work. If you find yourself on a roll, and don’t have to be at your day job, keep going!

7. Who do you think you are?
Your characters should come across like people you might meet in real life, even if you’d cross the street to avoid them. Think like a psychologist or serial killer profiler and ask: How do they speak? How do they walk? Do they have any weird hobbies or interests? Bad habits? Good habits? Jermyn Street or Top Man? Waitrose or Asda? Like an actor doing their ‘preparation’ for a role, your carefully crafted details won’t all make it to the final cut. They don’t have to. You have done your research and you will know. And this will come across to your readers in the richness and depth of your characters.

8. Don’t be that person
You know the one – always yammering on about the unfinished opus in the back of a drawer. You are better than that and you will write all the way to the end. It’s not easy, believe me, but how you will feel if you don’t write it? In a year? In ten years? On your deathbed? As my mum used to say, it is far better to regret what you did than regret what you didn’t do. Ignore doubts. Don’t overthink it. Don’t keep going back to make edits. Just bang out your story as a rough draft, however rubbish it sounds in your own head. Once you’re done, put it aside for a few weeks and set a date to go back and make your cuts, edits and changes then. Your second draft will be so much easier, I promise.

9. Beware of good intentions
People are full of them, aren’t they? Is your critic an agent or publisher who avidly reads and promotes the kind of stuff you write? Excellent. Maybe they’d like to publish your book. But of course I am referring to all that good, bad, ‘helpful’ and generally unsolicited ‘feedback’, whether from your dad, your spouse, or your most trusted friend. As with fictional and non-fictional characters everywhere, the things people say should always be taken in the context of who is saying them. Your critics may speak from ignorance, multiple biases or, worst of all, good intentions. Interestingly, there are also going to be those who, for whatever warped reasons of their own, do not have your best interests at heart. Ignore them all.

10. Read it out loud
I have often managed to weed out most (if not all!) of the real clunkers this way. If you have any sense of decency or self-respect this exercise will have you cringing and squirming like mad, so tell yourself it’s good practice for when your work is published and you’re on your book tour reading it out to all your adoring fans…


SV_Berlin_290S. V. Berlin was born and raised in London. She has worked as a copywriter, facilitator, speechwriter and wilderness search-and-rescue professional. She lives in Manhattan. The Favourite is published in paperback by Myriad Editions on 3 August.
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