This week I’ve been invited by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn to take part on this blog tour, where writers take turns to answer four standard questions about their writing and their writing process. Lindsay’s excellent contribution to the tour can be found here. I’ve invited Essie Fox, Catriona Troth and Sharon Zink to join the tour next week, so look out for their posts on 17th March (you’ll find more details about each of these wonderful writers at the end of this post).
So, here goes!
Question 1: What am I working on?
|The commissioned cover for the story collection|
Currently two projects take priority: the first is a historical novel which I’ve been writing for a couple of years, a story of journeys, secrets and consequences. It’s a dual narrative set in the 1830s and 1880s in Scotland, London, Spain and Canada. I’ve absolutely loved writing it and the first draft is nearly complete, but there’s a lot of work still to come in terms of revision. In the meantime, I’m hoping to publish a collection of short stories about famous writers in the next two or three months, called Informed with Other Passions. The stories are told from the sidelines, presenting fresh insights into the trials and triumphs of literary greatness. The title story was actually written a number of years ago. It deals with Dickens’ affair with Ellen Ternan, so when in January I learned that a film on that topic was about to be released, I thought it would be a good idea to get my story out too – and then I thought it would be a good idea to write more stories for an anthology …
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Question 2: How does my work differ from others of its genre?
|The paperback cover of The Chase|
I swear that everyone who’s taken part in the blog-tour has wrestled with this question! I think it can be hard for writers to define the individual quality of their writing – plus this question uses the ‘genre’ word and to try to locate your work in a particular genre can be a challenge, as I found when I wrote my first novel, The Chase. It was originally published by Bloomsbury and I republished it under my own Fictionfire imprint last year. When it came to categorising it on Amazon, I struggled: the novel has historical flashbacks, it has relationship drama, it has suspense elements and supernatural elements, it is satirical … it is all of these things but none in totality. So the ‘literary fiction’ category is all that it would fit, which reduces visibility to readers who are searching. It’s something of a relief, then, that currently I’m writing what can clearly be defined as historical fiction!
My Bloomsbury editor described the books on her list as ‘literary fiction with a commercial edge’ and I think that’s what I aim to produce: I love to use precise imagery, evoke atmosphere, consider challenging questions, but I also hope to write stories which are page-turning and emotionally involving. The Chase is set in France and I’ve described it as Joanne Harris meets Daphne du Maurier – it’s Chocolat, but with a darker bite!
Question 3: Why do I write what I do?
|The magical location of Cornwall|
Writers notice things. Writers make connections. Writers are always saying to themselves ‘What if ..?’ I’m no different. I’m also drawn very strongly to history – how it informs location and event. Contemporary life is influenced by the layers of the past. People of the past were people, in the end, just like us, even though influenced by different ways of behaving or of seeing the world. In the new novel (I’m not giving away the title just yet!) and the short stories, I feature real people interacting with characters of my own invention. In The Chase, historical vignettes reveal the past of Le Sanglier, the French house to which the central characters retreat – and that past reinforces the messages of the main story. Everything is interwoven – that fascinates me. I’m also a writer for whom location works as an inspiration, so I love to anchor stories in both time and place. Even in my as-yet unpublished children’s novel, Hinterland, which was shortlisted for Pan Macmillan’s Write Now prize last year, location (Cornwall) plays a huge part in not just providing a setting but triggering plot and atmosphere. Location should never just be wallpaper.
Question 4: How does your writing process work?
Staying true to my own writing is a challenge: as a literary consultant, I live with other people’s stories in my head and sometimes, because I have to think of their plot issues and possible solutions, they push my own stories out of the way!
I constantly have ideas, whether they’re first lines, newspaper reports, details in biographies, or places I’ve visited, and I keep an Evernote record of every one, plus a notebook, because ideas are slippery customers and will slither out of your brain as quickly as they slipped in, if you don’t watch out.
I know 90% of those ideas will not come to fruition. Some, though, start to burgeon and send out shoots. When it comes to historical writing, once I have my notion and a rough shape of the story, then next process is steeping: reading in and around the topic and the period until I start to think in the cadences and language of that era, until it is as natural as breathing. The risk is that one steeps too long! Research is both friend and enemy: you need to do it to make the work ring true, but too much of it is displacement activity and the story is endlessly postponed. With the new novel, I pushed the story along without knowing all I might know about the subject – as I write, I put in square brackets what I need to check or reinforce with research later.
I’m a night owl: after midnight I find I can enter a different mental state and the words and ideas flow, so that’s when I prefer to write, even though on occasion I have literally fallen asleep while writing – yet the fingers kept moving over the keyboard! When I write, I write fast. There are two techniques I recommend here: one is to set a word quota for each writing session – for me it’s normally 1,000 words. The other is not to worry about the quota so much as the regularity of those writing sessions, so the key to that is to pin a calendar on the wall and draw a big red cross on every day on which you write, even if all you produce is a couple of hundred words. This works brilliantly: as those lines of red crosses accumulate, you really don’t want to miss a day – you don’t want to see a blank, like a missing tooth in a dazzling smile!
Finally, I don’t worry too much when I’m writing that first draft: never try to edit as you write. There are times when the wind is in your sails and the words flow with ease and precision, but frequently when you’re composing you hate the words, they’re coming out in the wrong order, they’re derivative, they’re plodding, and where the hell did your plotline go! Or at least that’s what The Critic inside your brain says to you. Shut The Critic up and let The Creator set to work first. The Critic can join you later as you tackle the next stage in the process – refining the work to publishable standard.
The current programme of Fictionfire Focus Workshops is here.
Details of upcoming Fictionfire Day Courses at beautiful Trinity College Oxford:
May 10th Writing Fiction: Get Inspired and Stay Inspired - see more here.
May 11th How to Publish and Market your Book - see more here.
Early Bird booking discount on these available until March 16th.
Here are my lovely writer friends who’ll be answering these four questions on their blogs next week:
Essie Fox: http://www.virtualvictorian.blogspot.co.uk
After a career in publishing and then in the world of art and design, Essie Fox now writes Victorian novels which are published by Orion Books. The Somnambulist was shortlisted for Debut Novel 2012 at the National Book Awards and has now been optioned for TV/film by Hat Trick Productions. This novel was followed by Elijah’s Mermaid. Her latest, The Goddess and The Thief, is an exotic tale of theft and grief and obsession that combines ancient stories of Indian myth with the fraudulent trade in spiritualism taking place in Victorian parlours. Follow Essie on Twitter @essiefox and on Facebook at Essie Fox Books. Her website is www.essiefox.com
Catriona Troth: http://catrionatroth.blogspot.co.uk
Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven, and the novel, Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer, a regular contributor to Words with Jam magazine, and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective."
Sharon Zink: http://sharonzink.blogspot.co.uk/
A former literature academic with years of teaching and editing experience for consultancies and publishers worldwide, Dr Sharon Zink’s first poetry collection, Rain in the Upper Floor Café was published when she received the title of Shell Young Poet of the Year at the age of seventeedn. She has also been named as Writers Inc. Writer of the Year and shortlisted for the Raymond Carver Prize and in The New Writer short story competition four times running (including being named as Editor’s Choice). Her fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK, US and in translation in Mexico and a production of her work at Edinburgh Festival received an award from The Scotsman. Her first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, is being published by Unthank Books in June 2014. You can find more at www.sharonzink.com