Write Advice – author Ayisha Malik explains characterisation and getting published

Ayisha Malik
6 April 2020
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Mo Harber-Lamond

Characters are at the centre of almost every novel, so getting them right is essential for keeping your reader turning the pages. Here, we speak to author Ayisha Malik about how she creates engaging characters, the process of getting published and what tips she would give to budding authors.

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Q – Hi Ayisha, and thanks for joining us. To start, what drew you to writing – is it something you’ve always done, or did you find it later on?

Ayisha Malik – Thanks for having me. I always wanted to be a writer – it’s how I made sense of the world and my own perception of it – but it took me a while to find my voice, so to speak. That came with practice and experimenting with different styles.

Q – Did you begin by writing short stories with characters you knew, or did you have a full novel in you to begin with? How can you avoid being daunted or overwhelmed by attempting your first novel?

AM – I wasn’t very good at short stories, but I had started several novels that I never finished. I think with my debut novel I wrote a lot of it based on my own experience – I wrote what I knew, so in that way it wasn’t as daunting. There was less imagination required, I suppose. It’s not advice I would give to everyone, but it was what I needed to do in order to also realise that I could actually finish a book.

This is also why I try to write the first draft without editing. I find I lose steam editing as I go along, and once I have the first draft it gives me a good foundation to then build upon.

Q – Do you create characters based on people you know or start completely from scratch? I often find it hard not to let characteristics of people I know feed into my characters.

AM – With my first book I drew a lot from people I know, but with subsequent ones I’ve started afresh. A good technique is to make a list of qualities for each character – their likes and dislikes, what they were like as a child, their ideals etc. – in order to understand them.

However, I think it’s also natural for one to draw on their experience of others. It’s how you shape those characters that matters; the way you develop them to be someone of your own making

Q – What’s your planning process, from idea to realisation?

AM – If you saw my living room right now you’d see how I’m planning my next book! I get a noticeboard or use a wall and start putting my ideas on post-its.

Then I add to these ideas as they occur to me. It’s quite a piecemeal approach – characters, plot, prose that I think of, I put it all down. After a month or two of this I try to make sense of it all and start creating arcs for the characters and do a graph for the plot.

Writing-wise, I’m often able to write the first few pages through inspiration, so to speak, but after that I stop and then think about what the story will be. For example, with my third book I knew what the idea was and I wanted to figure out how it would begin, so I wrote the first few thousand words. Then I took a break and tried to figure out what the plot would actually be.

It’s not always the same thing to be honest – it varies from book to book. For my next book I wrote 12,000 words and realised I didn’t actually have a plot, so I stopped and I’m now working with those post-its planning it. I usually have the seed of an idea – the hook – and then take it from there.

My stories usually start with the germ of an idea, and then I use that noticeboard technique to build on it.

Ayisha Malik

Q – How easy do you find it to develop your plots? I’ve heard a lot of writers say they’re full of stories, but I often struggle to create that initial idea.

AM – My stories usually start with the germ of an idea, and then I use that noticeboard technique to build on it. It’s hard to just come up with a plot at once, so if you add to your ideas daily, hopefully after a few weeks or months you should have something to work with.

Q – Do you know how your books are going to end when you start writing? Many authors let them grow organically, but there’s always the risk of getting lost along the way.

AM – I don’t always know how a book will end, but I usually get a pretty good idea early on. I’m not a hugely organic person with story writing because I get nervous about the middle getting baggy. For me, a good structure is really key to storytelling.

There’s no feeling like when you feel you’ve written something good. It’s euphoric – but also, that feeling can be a rare one…

Ayisha Malik

Q – Do you have any suggestions for writing exercises to get going on those days where it feels hard?

AM – That’s a tricky one! I try not to force myself to write if I don’t feel like it. When I’m suffering a bit of writer’s block, I tend to take a break, or brainstorm with my previous boss about ideas. I also read lots which can help.

Sometimes writer’s block is the result of you having run out of steam with the story. If you’re finding it really hard then maybe write some scenes that aren’t necessarily linear – perhaps the ending, or just a superfluous scene between your characters. You might not use it, but it can be helpful to get the flow going.

Most of all, though, I do think a break is important when writing, as is allowing your brain time to rest. However, if writing is going well, I try to stop in the middle of a scene where I know how it will end.

Q – What are the pros and cons of the lifestyle of a writer?

AM – You create your own schedule – I’d never want to go back to an office job! But it can get lonely (although I like being alone) and you can go days without seeing or speaking to anyone.

There’s no feeling like when you feel you’ve written something good. It’s euphoric – but also, that feeling can be a rare one…

If I’d tell my pre-published self anything, it would be to enjoy writing the first novel and not be so obsessed with getting published.

Ayisha Malik

Q – How did you get your first novel out, and how long did it take from conception to being fully formed on paper?

AM – It took me two or three years to write my first book, on and off, and then not long to get an agent because I’d met her via my work with Cornerstones Lit Consultancy. I was rejected a fair few times but then got an offer from a publisher, and after that things happened pretty fast. I’d say it took about five years from conception to actual publication.

Q – What would you tell your pre-published self?

AM – If I’d tell my pre-published self anything, it would be to enjoy writing the first novel and not be so obsessed with getting published. If you’re in it for the long haul then hone your craft, become a great writer and the publishing will come.

Q – Who do you go to for feedback on your drafts? Do you get friends and family involved in the process?

AM – I only go to professionals for help, or sometimes author friends who are published. I often speak to Helen who used to be my boss at Cornerstones.

Getting published is great, but if you’re in it for the long haul then think about the type of career trajectory you want.

Ayisha Malik

Q – Have you ever felt under pressure to develop a book in a certain way because someone told you that it needed something specific to sell/sell better?

AM – Not as of yet. I’m fairly open to suggestions though, and I like to know what other people’s thoughts are. If they chime with mine, then I can explore that. I think after much trial and error you begin to trust your gut more. However, it’s always a good idea to keep the market in mind and how your book would fit into it

Q – What’s your top tip for a budding author?

AM – There are so many, but top of the list is to read lots. Another is to allow yourself time between writing something and revising it. Putting it in a drawer for a few weeks for a fresh perspective is very helpful.

Enjoy learning the craft of writing. Getting published is great, but if you’re in it for the long haul then think about the type of career trajectory you want. I know it might sound mad, but having a few more ideas about other books you might want to write is a good idea. It shows an agent that you’re focused.

Q – What are your favourite books?

AM – I love anything by Nora Ephron, David Nicholls’ Us is wonderful, and Nick Hornby’s The Long Way Down is also great.

A character’s humanity comes before their cultural identity. If you start from that point and then research the rest, making sure you check with others when you’re uncertain (and even when you’re certain), then you should be okay.

Ayisha Malik

Q – Have you ever transplanted whole characters, situations or plots from unfinished novels into ones you’re currently writing? Do you think this cut-and-paste approach can work?

AM – I haven’t done that personally, but I do know authors who have. I think it can work because sometimes the character you might have created doesn’t fit the story or vice versa.

Q – How close are your characters and their environments to yourself and your own environment? How confident are you in creating something that’s very different from you and what you’ve lived?

AM – My first book was very close to my own experiences, my third book not so much, and my next book which I’m planning and have yet to write is very different. However, I felt confident writing the characters who were removed from my own personal experiences because I felt like I’d done my research and I’d also asked various people for sensitivity reads.

When I wrote about an Irish family in my second, I didn’t want them to adhere to a stereotype, so I got my Irish friend to read. For me, a character’s humanity comes before their cultural identity, and if you start from that point and then research the rest, making sure you check with others when you’re uncertain (and even when you’re certain), then I feel you should be okay.

Q – Thank you for your great answers, Ayisha.

AM – Glad to help! Good luck.

Ayisha Malik

Ayisha is a former publicist at Penguin Random House, turned managing editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, turned full-time writer. Her debut novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, and its sequel, The Other Half of Happiness (Zaffre), were dubbed the 'Muslim Bridget Jones’.

Sofia Khan was a 2016 WH Smith Fresh Talent pick, selected for World Book Night, and a 2019 CityReads London bookHer latest novel This Green and Pleasant Land,(Zaffre) is ‘an inquiry into faith, identity and the meaning of home’ (Guardian).

Ayisha has contributed to the anthology A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes Publishing), commissioned in response to the lack of diverse voices in UK publishing, and the collection A Match Made in Heaven (Hope Road Publishing). She is also known for ghost-writing Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain's adult books. Ayisha has been shortlisted for Marie Claire’s Future Shaper’s Awards for contribution to diversifying the world of women’s fiction, the Asian Women of Achievement Award and the h100’s Award.

As a writing mentor, Ayisha has worked with bestselling authors for Cornerstones Literary Agency, lectured at universities and on the Oxford University Creative Writing Summer School and delivered workshops at literary festivals, including Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sharjah. She has judged the Young Muslim Writers Award and the Bath Short Story Award. She tutors the online Kickstart Your Novel course at Faber Academy.

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