Beth O’Leary: Writing With Heart

Report by Sarah Noon

At the time of speaking, Beth O’Leary’s latest book “The No-Show” is number 5 on the Times Best Seller list.

She admits that her 18-year-old self would not have read any of her books and would definitely have scoffed at the idea of romantic fiction.  However, she says, there is no shame in the genre of Romantic Fiction – something that “people devour and read and enjoy”, and she wishes she’d realised that earlier on in her career. Originally inspired by Sophie Kinsella, she was the writer of the first romance fiction book that Beth read.

She reads us the opening pages of “The No-Show.” It is well received by the listeners, who smile and chuckle as the story unravels.

Beth has always been a writer. She explains that she has been inventing stories since she was a child.  She says she feels “out of sorts” when she’s not writing. She recalls sending her first query letter when she was 17.  She had her first agent by the time she was 25, when she pitched The Flat Share. She points out  that whilst this is quite young, she had been working hard on her writing for 8 years. The Flat Share has been a huge success and is now being made into a TV series.

She remembers the outfit she wore for her first meeting with her agent, and how it felt to hear someone talking about her characters “as if they mattered”. She said that although the continual bombardment of “no’s” can be a bit soul destroying, she reminds us that it only takes one “yes” and then you have an agent and someone “…fighting your corner with you.”

On the subject of agents, Beth advises us to consider what we want from a relationship with an agent. She remembers getting off the phone following that first call from her agent, telling her then boyfriend, and both laying down on the floor and listening to the playlist that she listened to whilst she was writing The Flat Share on the train on her way to work (noise cancelling headphones are the best thing she ever bought).  She tells us that she still writes in short bursts even now. Whilst she was “over the moon,” she was also “afraid and vulnerable” (“…you’re putting your work out there”).

She points out that “…it’s your heart on that page.” The idea that you can’t please everyone is a painful truth for Beth who says she wants to do exactly that, when she is writing something to be enjoyed by everyone.  She goes on to advise us not to read reviews! 

She was plagued by self-doubt when writing her second novel The Switch about “connection & community.” In the novel, a grandmother and granddaughter swap places for a month.  Beth felt the pressure of people who loved The Flat Share.  She was plagued by “… tricky second album” comments and the weight of expectation following the success of her debut.

Beth had struggled to write The Switch and had to make several structural changes during the process.  It was not always a happy experience for her as she wrote it.  However, she tells us about the value of her author friends, which are a great support in what can be “… a lonely job”.  This struggle though, Beth believes, has not impacted on the joy of the book for the reader.  She urges us to remember that readers cannot sense that the writer is unhappy. Over time, Beth has come to love this book as much as her others.

The third novel, The Road Trip, was easier for Beth,  as by this point, she “… felt like a writer.”  She’d had the idea for the novel for years, and she says, it was “brewing” for a long time. She was inspired by a stay in Provence – the setting for her story and explores the ideas of a separated couple having to be in a confined space for a considerable time.

Now that her writing career had taken off, she remembers how at one point in April 2020, she was working on 4 books at the same time – promoting, editing, writing etc. This led her to looking at how she approached the planning for her novels.

This was especially the case for book number 4, The No-Show.  As this is an ensemble book, Beth has had to be very organised. She talks about her world of many spreadsheets and how they can be the antithesis of creativity.  However, through the development of The No-Show, she felt the book was not working despite being 70000 words into it.  She then had an idea that “… hit her like a bolt of electricity…”  (she won’t tell us what this is for the benefit of those of us who are yet to read it.) She then changed the spreadsheet – making it prettier! Beth says that one can’t underestimate the impact of a new colour and font!

Beth talks about her novel openings and how they are often the weakest part of her stories when she begins the process, choosing instead to spend time setting up the characters etc.  She reminds us how important it is to begin a story at the point of something exciting or important happening.  This, Beth says, is how she likes to introduce the characters.

Finally, Beth explains that the genre she writes in gives her that fizz and she asks us to consider what gives us that “fizzy feeling”. There is no doubt that anyone who picks up one of Beth’s books will indeed feel the fizz…

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