Monday, 3 October 2011

The art of writing a novel - Penny Vincenzi at the Henley Literary Festival

After snapping up tickets for loads of literary festivals in quick succession, I’d resolved not to blog about them for a while. But then I went to a talk by Penny Vincenzi at the Henley Literary Festival and she came up with such good advice for would-be novelists that I’m reneging on my promise.

Vincenzi is a big hitter in the novel-writing stakes. A former journalist who cut her writing teeth on the Daily Mirror (her great mentor was the legendary agony aunt and columnist Marje Proops), she writes massive tomes about love and loss, hope and despair. Her first novel, Old Sins, was published in 1989 and since then she has written 14 cracking bestsellers and sold more than seven million books. Whether she’s writing about the aftermath of a terrible motorway pile-up, as she did in The Best of Times, or about a child caught in the middle of a harrowing divorce, as she does in her latest, The Decision, her books are heartrending (they often make me cry) and utterly compelling.

A tiny figure with hair cut in a chic blonde bob and wearing an elegant cream jacket, Vincenzi charmed the audience who’d assembled in the echoey hall at Henley Town Hall on Saturday.

The Decision runs to 757 pages and took her 18 months to write, but she admitted that it had originally been 70,000 words longer. “I write too much and I talk too much – it’s all the same thing,” she said self-deprecatingly. Down-to-earth and highly disciplined, she works at her desk – either at her home in Wimbledon or her cottage on the Gower Peninsula – seven days a week and writes from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon. After lunch and perhaps some additional research, she returns to her laptop and doesn’t break off again till The Archers starts on Radio 4. When she finally gets to the end of a novel she pours herself a very large whisky – “whatever time it is” – even though she never drinks whisky at any other time.

The best bit of the talk came when interviewer Philippa Kennedy asked what advice she’d give to budding novelists. Quick as a flash, Vincenzi offered the following three suggestions:

1. “Characters are all. If you get your characters right they will sort out the plot.”

2. "Every book has an Act Three, a turning point when something happens that means nothing can ever be the same again.”

3. "The monster in the cupboard” - a secret that the readers are in on but the characters have no idea about – until, of course, the monster springs out of the cupboard, often with devastating repercussions.

PS: Vincenzi doesn’t read other people’s novels when she’s immersed in writing but her favourites are Maeve Binchy, Jilly Cooper, Joanna Trollope, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. The book she first read as a teenager (and which inspired her to write) was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

The Decision by Penny Vincenzi (Headline Review, £19.99)

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