1. “What is your reader waiting to find out?”
This came from my dissertation supervisor, the novelist David Belbin, during my Master’s in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent. I remember him advising me to ask this question of every chapter, and I’ve done so ever since. Sometimes readers may be waiting for answers, information or clues; sometimes waiting with bated breath to see what will happen in the scene, or how the character will react to whatever conflict you’ve set up. But they should always be waiting for something, big or small, and invested enough in the story and the characters to be happy to do so. The writer's next crucial task is to not disappoint them once the waiting is over!
2. “Unsettle your reader”
This was a nugget of advice I got from a masterclass in writing suspense fiction, run by the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and taught by the thriller writer Lucie Whitehouse. I’ve been to lots of workshops on writing, and I always take something away, which might spark an idea or encourage me to up my game. This was one of those: “Unsettle your reader at every opportunity.” I started thinking about each scene in my novel, each description or piece of imagery, and how I could make it more unsettling. This really helped build tension and atmosphere in The Downstairs Neighbour. I also considered it in a wider sense – how you can unsettle your readers by wrongfooting them, i.e. by overturning their assumptions or beliefs about your story or characters.
3. “Raise the stakes”
This one came from my agent, the super-wise Hellie Ogden. She always encourages me to raise the stakes in terms of what my characters have got to lose. I’ve learned how important this is, but also how easy to lose sight of when you’re plotting and layering. Now, when I’m writing about characters with secrets, or maybe suspicions about others, I keep in mind another important question: “How bad will it be for them if their secret is discovered/ if they find out this thing about someone else/ if such-and-such happens?” And the answer, ideally, should be very, very bad!