You only have one debut novel, says tutor Paul McVeigh. Ahead of his upcoming clinic, we talked to Paul about how to take the pressure off and be prepared for its release.
You sometimes teach workshops on how to give a debut novel the best chance for success – is there anything you wish you’d known, or done differently, when ‘The Good Son’ was released?
Oh, just about everything LOL. There were a lot of things I found I had been doing naturally (e.g. building an online profile) and I'll be talking about those, but there are so many other things you can do to save yourself time, take the pressure off that high anxiety release period, increase your chances of finding readers and to stay in control of the narrative of your novel's journey. Being prepared also means you have less regrets - you only have one debut novel.
You say that it is essential for a novel’s first chapter to grab the attention of readers, agents & editors – do you think each of these audiences is looking for particular elements when they begin reading a novel? In what ways are they similar or different?
I think your book buyer is usually reading without thinking about it but all readers are looking to be engaged - hooked and reeled in to the finish. I think the industry readers are looking for the same things a reader is but with a professional eye that goes beyond enjoyment. Agents and editors are placing you in the market and which publishing house you fit with, for example. They are also looking for skill, style and voice.
You began your career writing plays, comedy shows and short stories – what made you decide to tell the story of ‘The Good Son’ in long form fiction?
‘The Good Son’ began as a short story - my very first piece of prose! The voice that came out when I wrote the story had so much more to say. Mickey came out fully-formed and had a whole life to tell me about so it demanded the longer form. I also wanted to address The Troubles in Northern Ireland (this context was missing from the short story) and to do justice to this complex subject matter I need to write it as a novel.
What books can you recommend for aspiring writers which effectively demonstrate a ‘killer first chapter’?
Crime fiction do these really well. Have a look at Irish writer Liz Nugent whose two novels are taking the UK and US by storm. They launch you write into to the middle of the story. If you look at the Graham Greene classic 'The End of the Affair' so much is achieved in the opening - backstory, character, voice, tone...
The voice of Mickey Donnelly, the 10-year-old narrator of ‘The Good Son’, is a key element that draws readers into the story – what inspired you to create the character, and what is required for a character to best capture the reader’s attention?
An editor had seen a comedy show I'd written and asked if I'd consider submitting a short story to a new anthology. Having not written prose since I'd been at school (I'd been writing for the stage and to commission) I had no idea what to write or how! The most common piece of advice I'd heard was 'write what you know' so I thought of an event from my childhood and began writing. A kid that was not really me started narrating, he was already living in me somewhere. Over time he changed and became even less like me.
I think it's what makes them unique, married with their 'everyman', that connects with the reader. Who that character is depends on who you are as writer and the story you want to tell. Creating an emotional connection (positive or negative) between your character and your reader is one way to capture your reader.
What are some of the main mistakes that debut novelists make nearing publication of their first book?
Lack of preparation is by far the main mistake and it covers a huge number of things - from knowing how the industry works, knowing what's expected from you by your publisher and reader, knowing the amount of time you have to devote to your book in the lead up and release and how to manage that... we'll going through a huge array of topics in the class, which is packed with information.
About Paul McVeigh
Paul McVeigh’s debut novel, 'The Good Son', won The Polari First Novel Prize, The McCrea Literary Award, was Brighton’s City Reads 2016 and part of the UK’s World Book Night 2017. His short stories have appeared in journals and anthologies, on BBC Radio 3,4 & 5 and he is the founder of London Short Story Festival. His work has appeared on TV, on stage in London’s West End and has been translated into 7 languages.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.