Ask Academy with Joanna Briscoe

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

First up was Joanna Briscoe, with advice on research, character development and writing through self-doubt.

FA: Right, let’s get things kicked off, shall we? Welcome, Joanna! And thanks so much for joining us. Our first question: ‘I’m writing a novel set in a particular period of history which I know will require a lot of research but I’m worried that’s going to distract me. Should I do the research before I start or afterwards?’

JB: OK, interesting. I see this a lot. I’ve seen students being completely weighed down by research, to the point where they barely write their novels at all. I’m quite strict about this – think in terms of the characters, plot, narrative arc, as though the novel were not historical, unless what you are writing about is incongruous with the period you’ve chosen.

You will, however, need to get a sense of the dialogue of the time. Do just basic research that will show you that what you’re writing about is historically valid but then focus on the novel as a whole. You can certainly read at the same time as writing, and steep yourself in the period. It can be particularly helpful to read literature from the period, if it exists. You can leave a marker – XX or whatever – where you know you will need to fill things in with historical research later. It’s possible to write and research at the same time, of course, but above all, make sure the novel works as a STORY.

FA: That’s a really good tip re reading literature from the period! And dialogue too. Do you have any thoughts about fictionalising real people/events? (I’m thinking of The Crown of COURSE, but a student asked me about this recently too)

JB: My advice would be: be careful! There are too many rules and laws on this to cover here, but often writers use a real event or a real person in history as a starting point, and then let their imagination take off.

FA: Very wise words! Okay, let’s move on to our second question. Something a little more general this time – one of our newsletter subscribers asks: ‘I’ve been told that my characters feel underdeveloped. Do you have any tips on how to fix this?’

JB: I certainly do! I think many characters are underdeveloped until you get to know them. In many cases, it’s simply a question of real character work. You get to know your characters over time by being curious, much as you get to know someone in the real world.

Simply put, characters are fleshed out over time. It’s worth doing exercises. I now make myself do the character exercises I set my students, and the most useful is one where you look at the character completely objectively, as though they’ve just walked into a room. Describe them in real detail. Get a sense of their walk, even their smell, their voice, and every aspect of their physical appearance. That can lead into a greater sense of who they are inside.

FA: I love that, especially the exercise – I can happily spend hours filling in questionnaires about characters’ biggest fears/earliest memories etc but actually having a physical sense of them is so important isn’t it… Do you have any all-time favourite characters?

JB: Hmmm… yes… I love Tess Durbeyfield but I find myself drawn to the minxes you don’t really want around in real life – Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly.

FA: Alright, this one will feel familiar to so many of us: ‘I’m really struggling with my confidence after a previous manuscript failed to sell to publishers. I’m finding it impossible to finish a first draft without worrying that this one isn’t good enough either. Do you have any advice on writing through self-doubt?’

JB: I sympathise. It’s very, very common to be rejected, but heartbreaking after so much work. And of course it affects confidence. Remember, rejection is the norm. You have to deal with it in this industry. And remember that the really good writers are the ones who have crises of confidence. It’s the over-confident ones who are usually no good. Published writers nearly all struggle with confidence. It goes with the territory. You do just have to continue and break through the pain barrier.

FA: That’s a really good way of thinking about it. It’s so true re the over-confidence! Do you find setting yourself eg word targets helps you on doubtful days, and is there ever a point where you think taking a break from the manuscript is necessary?

JB: Yes, I set myself word targets and hour targets on different days depending where I am, and other times I am less disciplined. Taking a break can clear your head for sure. I find a walk nearly always helps me to think better.

FA: YES, the power of a walk is really something, isn’t it? I also find the shower to be some kind of mystical source of plot fixes and inspiration!

JB: Interesting. I’m a bath person. Perhaps I should try the shower. Good to hear this tip!

FA: I can’t recommend it enough! Okay, last question for you – and it’s a tough one! ‘I find titles so hard! How do you choose yours and do you do that first or once the book is finished? What do you think makes a good title?’

JB: Titles… Yes, titles are tough. I’ve done both – known the title immediately, and struggled with it. My usual technique is to note down potential titles as I’m going, however ridiculous they sound – and there are some corkers – and then go over them much later. There’s sometimes some treasure among all the dross, even if it’s one word that sets off another chain of thought. My title Sleep With Me was actually in the ms, and I hadn’t noticed it. A character says it.

Good titles are often quirky…who would ever dream up Hideous Kinky? Yet it’s a great title. And they are often the perfect summary of the novel’s entire theme. I think they mostly just take a lot of work, and trying them out on your friends. Good luck.

FA: I like that technique! Do you have any almost-titles for your books that you still look back on wistfully? Or can you only imagine them with their final titles now?

JB: Good question. I don’t, really – I tend to forget all those misses and near-misses and screaming bits of rubbish on my lists. Oh, except my novel Skin. Four books with that title came out the same year.

Joanna Briscoe is the author of the novels Mothers and Other Lovers, which won the Betty Trask Award; SkinSleep With Me, which was published in eleven countries and adapted for ITV by Andrew Davies; You, which was published by Bloomsbury in the UK, USA and through Europe, and Touched, which was published by Arrow. She works as a literary critic for the Guardian and has written for all the major national newspapers. She broadcasts on Radio 4, and has taught for the Arvon Foundation, and for the Birkbeck and City MA degrees in Creative Writing. Joanna is one of the tutors on our flagship six-month Writing a Novel course. 

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