If ever an author could distill a big cuddle and a warm cup of tea into book form, it’s Beth O’Leary! The Sunday Times bestselling author of heart-warming and hilarious books including The Flatshare, The Switch, The Road Trip and The No-Show, Beth O’Leary creates quirky main characters we could all imagine having as best friends, and epitomises everything we love to love about the rom-com genre – romance, hope, emotional depth, personal growth, charming suitors, delightful friendships, a dash of mystery, and, of course, the perfect happy ending.
Beth O’Leary’s first novel, The Flatshare, was a global phenomenon and has been adapted into a hit TV show for Paramount Plus. It depicts the blossoming relationship between two flatmates who share a bed but never meet. Leon’s job keeps him working the night shift, while Tiffy works more regular hours at a publishing house. Their lives slowly but surely intertwine, and Tiffy manages to expunge a no-good ex from her past and her future to make space for a new romantic adventure. Readers around the world fell in love with both protagonists, and the cast of engaging and hilarious secondary characters who surround them.
Her latest novel is The No-Show, in which we see the very different lives of three women: Siobhan, a quick-tempered and confident life coach who’s keeping lots of plates spinning; Miranda, a tree surgeon who pals around with the guys she works with; and Jane, a much softer-spoken volunteer in a local charity shop with zero sense of self-worth and a mysterious reason for leaving London. And, on Valentine’s Day, each of these women makes plans with a man they’re involved with in some way – and none of their plans fall into place. Described by Sophie Kinsella as ‘ingenious, heartwarming and romantic’, and Emily Henry as ‘surprising and deeply satisfying’, if you haven’t read it yet, it’s time to get your hands on this fantastic book!
About Beth O’Leary
Celebrated rom-com writer Beth O’Leary studied at Oxford University and, after graduating, moved to London where she spent a few years before eventually heading back to Winchester. It was during her train journeys between her London job and her home in Winchester that Beth wrote her first novel, which published in 2019. Since then, she’s managed to publish a book a year, with The Switch following in 2020, The Road Trip coming out in 2021 (the same year Beth had her first baby!), and The No-Show in April 2022.
In each book, Beth masters the art of showing protagonists slowly falling in love, while making us wait and guess what’s going to happen. They’re often awkward, quirky and always endearing, and the stories are wholly contemporary. In all of the books, the romance is organic, true to life, and incredibly fun to read. It really is like a big hug!
Watch our writing class with Beth O’Leary
We’re thrilled that Beth joined us for a fascinating writing class with our members of The Novelry. If you’re signed up to one of our courses, make sure you watch back over the recording! If you’ve not yet joined us, have a look over our fiction writing courses to find the perfect one for you. With live writing classes every week, expert guidance from a Booker Prize-listed author, and personal coaching from bestsellers and award-winners, you can turn your bright ideas into hardcover books.
In this article, we’re lucky enough to hear some of Beth’s advice and glean an insight into her writing life. Whether you’re working on your own charming rom-com, intrigued by writers who execute humour on the page, or just want to hear how bestselling books come to be, this is a great read!
Advice for messy writers from Beth O’Leary
I occasionally hear about writers who sit down, plan, and then write their book. That’s it. They just write it. And I am filled with such visceral jealousy, because no matter how much I try to work that way, I just can’t.
My writing process isn’t a straight road, it’s one of those windy country roads your sat nav thinks will be sixty miles an hour, but then in reality you get stuck behind a tractor and take a wrong turn and end up having to do a U-turn in a teeny tiny passing place, and it takes you four hundred years to get where you were trying to go.
That’s what it feels like, anyway.
My writing process isn’t a straight road.
I plan multiple times – usually at around 10k, 30k and 60k of a novel – and then ignore all of those plans. I start writing with characters who are entirely different people by the end of the first draft, so when I go back to the beginning, I have to fully re-work the two-dimensional weirdos I started with. I’d say, as a rule, I write and discard about 100,000 words for every 100,000-word novel I complete.
See? Windy road.
If this sounds like you, don’t feel pressured to plan
I do get there in the end. And, actually, as well as being wildly frustrating and maybe making me a little car sick (humour me, I want to overextend this metaphor and you’re not going to stop me...), the journey is beautiful. There is a heady, wild joy to writing messily. For every day when it feels like you’ve just realised something that unravels your whole plot, there is a day when your character quietly reveals the inner workings of their heart, and you feel like you’ve understood something, connected with something, discovered something. It’s magical.
So if you’ve tried planning meticulously and then diligently following your structure, and it just doesn’t work for you, here are some tips from me on how to embrace the chaos.
- Believe that the words still matter
- Embrace the unknown
- Listen for the alarm bells
- Give yourself space
- Hand over control
1. Believe that the words still matter
I have now learnt that I cannot fully know a novel until I have finished a first draft.
That means I have to embark on chapter one in the understanding that I’m going to get it wrong. I start typing with absolute confidence that I will shortly delete the words I have just written, and that’s just… depressing.
Novels are long: it takes a lot of strength and energy to get to the end of a first draft. So sometimes, you just need to tell yourself you’re getting it right, even if you know that logically you’re probably getting it wrong, because otherwise it’s too hard to hold on and keep going.
I truly believe that every line I’ve deleted helped me to reach the ones I ended up with, too, so they really weren’t wasted.
Because the truth is, yes, you might delete every word you write today, but you might not. There are lines from my very first drafts that ended up in my final ones. And some of them are beautiful and charming – some of them are my favourites. I truly believe that every line I’ve deleted helped me to reach the ones I ended up with, too, so they really weren’t wasted.
Believe that the writing you’re doing matters, even if it’s not quite right yet.
2. Embrace the unknown
I am a person who likes certainty. I want to know where I need to be and when; I want to have my future all mapped out. It fascinates me that my writing process is so different from all my other processes – here, it seems, is the place where I am messy and unruly, where I’m willing to embrace the unknown.
But it does nag at me. I want to have it all figured out. It takes a sort of mindfulness to say to myself, okay, I don’t know where this is going yet, but I do know the next scene, so I’ll just write that one. And I find that I enjoy writing so much more when I can embrace that instead of fighting against it.
My favourite moments when writing are the ones when things are revealed to me like wild creatures stepping from the fog. Those magical moments of serendipity when a character who’s been there all along turns out to be absolutely crucial in a way you never predicted.
My favourite moments when writing are the ones when things are revealed to me like wild creatures stepping from the fog. Those magical moments of serendipity when a character who’s been there all along turns out to be absolutely crucial in a way you never predicted, or when you finally understand why your protagonist behaves in the way they seem to insist on behaving. You can’t have those moments without the fog, so try to love it – even if you’d rather be able to see where you’re going.
3. Listen for the alarm bells
Your gut knows when the story has gone awry.
I remember as I wrote The Road Trip, I kept finding one of the characters, Marcus, saying things like, ‘Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ and I really had no idea why. It just felt right for him to say it. At the time, there was no particular history he was alluding to – I hadn’t figured that part of the novel out yet. So really, I should have deleted those references. They didn’t make sense.
I have slowly learned how to listen to the novel I’m writing.
But instead, I listened. The story was telling me it needed something. And the secrets Marcus knew turned out to be absolutely key to The Road Trip.
I have slowly learned how to listen to the novel I’m writing. For me, when a story is heading in the wrong direction, I start to feel a little anxious, almost uncomfortable in my seat. My characters act out – they don’t seem like themselves. I find hitting my daily word count a lot harder, and every corner I turn reveals a new problem. Things don’t feel right.
4. Give yourself space
When the above happens, the absolute best thing to do is leave the desk. Go for a walk with the dog, have a bath, cook dinner, watch a film. When you’re writing headfirst without a real plan, you can’t expect your brain to work out all the details as you type.
You need space and time as your book evolves. Some authors spend months planning before they start writing, but if you’re not one of those authors, then perhaps you still need that time – just during the writing process instead of before it begins.
When you’re writing headfirst without a real plan, you can’t expect your brain to work out all the details as you type.
I am absolutely terrible at this, by the way. When I can feel there is something going wrong in the story I’m writing, I want to sit glued to my desk and fix it. I usually have to be pried from my seat by my very patient husband who reminds me repeatedly of my own advice until I go for a walk in the woods and sort my plot problem out within about an hour.
5. Hand over control
I notice, even as I write this, that I talk about writing as though it’s something that is largely out of my control. I get to know my characters, I find the plot, I let the story tell me when I’m going the wrong way.
I find it really helpful to conceptualise novel writing in this way. Not to say, I need to come up with a great story, but to say, there’s a great story here and I just need to discover it.
I know this is a bit strange, because of course it does all come out of my brain. But I find it really helpful to conceptualise novel writing in this way. Not to say, I need to come up with a great story, but to say, there’s a great story here and I just need to discover it. It takes the pressure off, perhaps – but it also fits with my methods. If I’m trying to find something, then of course the journey is taking me all over the place. Of course I cover more ground. Of course it’s messy unearthing the story.
So take solace if you’re stuck behind the tractor or attempting an eight-point turn in a passing place. Maybe the obstacles and the misdirections are exactly what you need.