How I Wrote Guest, by SJ Bradley

SJ Bradley’s second novel, Guest, published by Dead Ink is out now. She tells us about her inspiration for Guest and gives some top tips on how to write your own novel. Guest will be launched on Thursday 27 July at Waterstones, Leeds. This is a free event but please register your attendance here.

Guest written by SJ Bradley2001: student days. Days of outrage, of Blair and Bush, of hand-drawn photocopied fliers. It was the pre-social media age. The closest thing we had to Facebook was MySpace, an eye-aching repository of HTML and hormones that allowed you to set a soundtrack to your personal page, and choose “top 8” friends, if you were into that sort of thing.

I’d been politicised by Bush and his hawkish advisors, by illegal wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq. If you were the sort of person who got around a cause, there were plenty to grab onto. Increasing globalisation, increased PFI deals allowing private companies to run public services, Blair’s apparent love of neoliberalism… demonisation of Muslims as terrorists. It was the era of “see something, say something.”

It was in this climate that I first came to DIY and punk culture. I’d moved to Leeds and found it awash with great bands and amazing gigs, houses that were full of people putting on gigs and art parties. People were making their own ‘zines and selling them out of carrier bags at gigs, and half of the ‘zines were full of articles telling you how to put on your own gig, or how to screenprint your own t-shirts. So, in that spirit, I’m going to use this article to tell you how to write your own novel.

1. Have an idea!
Sometimes this is the easy part, sometimes it’s the hard part. Some people have an idea fully formed before they start, other people develop their story ideas as they go. Either way is fine. The key thing is not to start a novel with one idea, then abandon that novel when you think of another one. Your aim should be to finish everything you start.

2. Research!
Does your novel have a cast of characters with different jobs, or people who perhaps have a different background to your own? Does it in any way draw from true events? (Mine does: it was partly inspired by stories of undercover cops having relationships and children with genuine activists, who didn’t know they were cops.) Then you will need your old friend, Research. Find out what you can. Speak to people who know more than you do about the subject. Learn about different cultures and places. Read whatever you can get your hands on. Don’t just make stuff up and think it’ll be ok. Your aim should be to have a good enough grasp of your subject to be able to write about it in a novel. (please note: you don’t have to aim to have a PhD level of expertise, just good enough to be able to use it authoritatively in your fiction.)

3. Write!
There’s definitely no getting around this part. You will need to write early, you will need to write often. Do you suddenly think your idea is terrible and your novel is stupid? Tough! Keep writing! Thinking it is all ridiculous is a part of the process!
For what it’s worth, I’ve developed a routine over the years. I have my writing days, and stick to them. Some writers write every single day, I don’t, because it’s not what works for me. I have days off from my day job, and I use those instead. On those days I write my word target for the day, and I keep brief notes in my notebook (that pocket hero!) with short chapter summaries, which help me keep track of plot. Your mileage may vary. Every writer does things differently. The key is, don’t stop when it gets hard. There is no better recipe for failure than stopping altogether.

4. Finish it, then don’t look at it for a while.
Though the writing process varies from writer to writer, almost every single writer I know does this fourth step. You put your finished manuscript away, then don’t look at it for a while. It gives you the opportunity to look at it again with fresh eyes later.

5. Rewrite and redraft.
An essential, and for me, very enjoyable part of the process. No first draft is perfect, and many are terrible. I made the mistake of sending my editor the second and third draft of Guest. I’m sure he thought they were terrible, because they were. Don’t get too disheartened during this part of the process. Every writer goes through it. You have to negotiate a million leagues of bad writing to get to the good stuff. Keep going!

6. Type “the end” and pat yourself on the back.
Even finishing a first draft of a novel is something to be proud of. Many aspire to do it, not everybody gets on and does it. Fewer still rewrite and polish their novel into a state that they can be proud of, and getting it published – that’s another story, one for another day.

Have you written your novel? Had your idea, written your 70,000 (or thereabouts) words, and typed “the end”? Then you should be proud. You’ve done something few others will ever do.


Join Leeds author SJ Bradley for the launch of her second novel, Guestpublished by Dead Ink Books, at Waterstones Leeds, 6.30pm on Thursday 27 July.

Sarah will read from and discuss her book before taking audience questions and signing copies of the novel. 

SJ Bradley is an award winning short story writer, recent winner of a Saboteur Award for her work editing the Remembering Oluwale anthology, novelist of Brick Mother and founder of Leeds based Fictions of Every Kind.

Tickets are free but places must be reserved in advance. To reserve your place please email leeds@waterstones.com, ring 0113 244 4588 or tweet @WStonesLeeds. More information here.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend Festival. Fiona is the Festival's Coordinator, helping to bring the whole festival together.

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