Book Haunting

by Rachel Morris

Has there ever been a book that has taken so long to be written?

For years the idea of it haunted me like the flicker of a shadow, a repeated, bittersweet realisation that there was something inside me I needed to say – if only I knew what it was.  So vague was this sensation – although also piercingly painful – that I didn’t even know what I was trying to write. Was it fiction or non-fiction, a novel, a short story, even a poem?  I had had two novels published (a long time previously) but they were relatively straightforward.  With them I knew from the start what I was writing.  Nothing had prepared me for being haunted by such a shadow of a feeling. 

And so I decided to forget about that slippery, indefinable something and to write instead a book about museums.  Museums are my day job so why shouldn’t I write about them?  

But although museums are full of solid things, they are also remarkably slippery to pin down, and the more I tried to do so the more they resisted me.  Until one day the book began to write itself and then I knew what it was that I wanted to say.  It was this, that just as museums are about making meaningful patterns out of the chaos of the universe, so – when it comes to our pasts, to our memories and the things that we inherit – we are all museum-makers, all seeking to make sense of our histories.  This was the slippery scent of something that had haunted me for years.  It was the mystery of my childhood, saying, Please write me.  

From this I learnt the first rule (for me) of storytelling. Never tell a book what to do.  The more you boss it around and tell it that it is this and this and this, the more it will resist you and the more formulaic it will become.  The book knows what it wants to be. Write from the heart and let the book take over.

That first realisation drove the first draft of the book.  Now at least I knew what I was writing – part memoir, part history, a quest, a detective story, an elegy to a lost past. There followed the most painful part of this process – the twenty-three agents to whom I sent that first draft, every one of whom sent it back with a ‘no’ – although about a third of them were helpful ‘no’s’ – enlarging on why it didn’t work, even regretting that they couldn’t publish it. 

I made myself read it again and found myself agreeing with them. It was indeed muddled, overblown, incoherent. Where to go from here?  With hindsight I did the best thing possible.  I signed up for a creative writing class – in fact to be exact a one-week writing course at the Faber Academy, led by Julia Blackburn.  

Julia used to give us a writing task and about seven minutes in which to do it.  Inevitably you spent the first two minutes in a panic before an idea came to you. From this process I learnt to trust my subconscious.  More particularly I learnt my second rule of storytelling: to keep it simple, keep it truthful and be prepared to edit. It’s amazing how much better writing can be when you take things out, not put them in.  That was the best money I ever spent.

After that I took a year and rewrote the book again.  But now I had a problem.   It is hard to enough to get an agent to read a book once; it was all but impossible to find anyone who would read a second version.  I had sent the book out too soon and had scuppered my chances.

Somehow  I came up with the solution which was to send it out to one of the new independent publishers that are springing up across the UK.  They, unlike the big publishers, will (at least sometimes) look at your work even if you don’t have an agent.  The first one I sent my book to was September Publishing. Hannah Macdonald is the publisher there. She snapped up my book within three days. 

And so I thought – of course I did – that the book was more or less finished.  I soon learnt how wrong I was.  Working with Hannah and Charlotte Cole, September’s editor, the book was edited from top to bottom; from the big questions, such as the narrative arc, down to the specific details of paragraphs and sentences.  This was the third thing I learnt, that there is a lifetime’s worth of skill and craft in the simple act of using words to tell a story.

The book is called The Museum Makers and it was published on 27 August with endorsements from Julia Blackburn and Dina Nayeri.  (Thank you, Julia and Dina.)  

Every book has its own journey to publication and some are long and some are short. Sometimes I wake in the night and think, If I’d known how long it would take would I ever have written this book?  And then I think, Well yes, of course I would, without a moment’s hesitation, just as – no doubt – I will write the next one that comes along to haunt me.

A director of the museum-making company Metaphor, Rachel Morris has been part of the creation, design and delivery of some of the most exciting displays, renovations and museums of the last few decades. Rachel is also the author of two novels. She was a student on our Five Days to Write a Life course. 

The Museum Makers is published by September Publishing and out now.

Q&A with S J Watson

In the latest in our series of Q&As over on Twitter, we were joined by bestselling superstar and Academy alumnus S J Watson. We celebrated the publication of his third novel, Final Cut, and had a good old natter about writing and the inspiration behind the book.

FA: Alright, let’s get started! Hi @SJ_Watson and huge congratulations on the publication of #FinalCut! Are you having a good publication day so far?

SJW: I’m having a great day, yes! Such a weird day – it’s a bit like having your birthday, Christmas day and your driving test all on the same day. But good!

FA: This is such a perfect description… Let’s start by talking about #FinalCut – can you tell us a bit about the story?

SJW: Yep! Final Cut sees a documentary film maker go to a remote seaside town to make her new film, which she intends to be an investigation of ordinary life, using footage shot by the people who live there. But, she learns of a girl, Daisy, who took her own life some years previously, and another who disappeared around the same time. Some of the villagers seem to think something went on, and might still be going on now. Alex gets sucked into the story and starts to notice some disturbing elements in the films people are sending in…

FA: Such a *brilliant* pitch. I know this is often a bit of a tricky one to pinpoint but do you know where the idea for it started?

SJW: A number of things came together for this one, rather than it being a ‘lightbulb’ moment. I was thinking about documentaries, and in particular true-crime docs, and how they’re often more unbelievable than fiction….That tied in with my thoughts about the modern-day urge to document and record everything, on Instagram, Twitter etc which led me to the film Life in a Day which came out a few years ago and consisted of footage sent in by people from all over the world. I then started thinking about other documentaries, and watched an amazing one called ‘Three Salons at the Seaside’. Then there were some photographers that did some work on voyeurism and surveillance. I made a short video about all these different things.

FA: It’s always so interesting hearing about those elements start layering themselves in… we’ve had a couple of questions about the writing process for the book. What’s your writing routine like, and has it changed between first, second and third novels?

SJW: Great question! It has changed, yes. I’ve become more of a planner with each book. #beforeigotosleep was pretty much unplanned, and I did a lot of work in the edit. #secondlife was kind of half and half and now with #finalcut I planned it in quite a lot of detail. As for my day-to-day routine, I work better in the mornings, so I try to get my creative work done then, and the afternoon is for admin etc. I aim for 1000 words a day when I’m writing; when I’m editing, things are much more fluid and it can really vary. I used to work every day, but that was EXTREMELY UNHELPFUL and I now allow myself a weekend. And the new thing with #finalcut was that I started doing street photography. I would write for a few hours, then take photos for a while. Each thing seemed to feed the other (if you’re interested, you can see my photographs on my Instagram page).

FA: That’s so interesting. Also, I love your photos on Instagram – I didn’t realise that was part of the process (you’re REALLY good at it!). Okay, we’ve just had another #FinalCut question pop in from @Jamesfan2: is the novel set in a fictional town?

SJW: Thank you! It’s really great having a creative outlet that isn’t my day job. And thank you @jamesfan2 for the question! Yes, it’s set in Blackwood Bay, which is entirely fictional… BUT heavily influenced/based on Robin Hood’s Bay, which is a beautiful village near Whitby. I decided to change the name and fictionalise it because some pretty terrible things happen in Blackwood Bay, and some pretty bad people live there.

FA: Haha I’m sure the people of Robin Hood’s Bay will be grateful! Okay, a qu now from our own lovely @JoannaBriscoe, who says: ‘I’d like to ask about the mental strength it must have taken to follow up a global bestseller’. How did you go about starting #SecondLife?

SJW: Actually, to be serious for a moment – it was kind of difficult. You have to write the first draft as if no one is going to read it, which suddenly became very hard to do. So I had to learn how to shut those voices out. It was tough, but, as I reminded myself, as problems go, ‘following up a global bestseller’ is quite a nice one to have!

FA: That is such a nice way of looking at it as yes, it must have been incredibly tough to shut that all out. Let’s skip back to before Before I Go to Sleep for a second: is there anything about the writing process you know now that you wish you’d known then?

SJW: Yes…

1. It’s OK to take a break
2. The answer isn’t going to reveal itself by staring at the screen
3. You’re not a morning person, but set that alarm because being half-asleep sometimes helps
4. Done is better than perfect
5. Head down, driving as fast as you can is one way to get there. But occasionally taking a look at the signposts will probably get you there quicker
6.
@ScrivenerApp is amazing
7. There’s more to life than books you know (but not much more)
8. Poetry is your friend

FA: These are GREAT. #3 is so true (and #2 is something I really need to hear right now). Ah, here’s an interesting one from @shauneley: ‘As photography played an integral part to this book, would you give another creative medium a go to influence and help future ones?’

SJW: GO FOR A WALK (it helps…). Thanks @shauneley – I think I’m going to stick with the photography. I really love it, and I think it helps with writing. My theory is that with writing I’m using a story to try to create an image in the reader’s head whereas with photography I’m trying to use an image to create a story in the viewer’s head. So they sort of complement each other. Also, I can’t draw or paint, I can’t play the guitar due to an injury, no one wants to hear me sing…

FA: I’ll remember that… And I love that idea of how those two mediums complement each other. That’s all we’ve got time for! Thank you so much @SJ_Watson for such brilliant, generous answers. And now is the perfect time for me to remind everyone that #FinalCut is out now… 

SJW: Thank YOU for having me! And thanks everyone who sent in their questions.

S J Watson’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, became a phenomenal international success and has now sold over 6,000,000 copies worldwide. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year and has been translated into more than 40 languages. His second novel, Second Life, a psychological thriller, was published to acclaim in 2015, and his third, Final Cut, was published earlier this month.

Final Cut is published by Transworld and is available now in hardbook, audio or ebook. You can find S J Watson on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Keep going: how to power through a draft

You’ve got your novel idea. You’ve named the characters, you’ve figured out some or all of what’s going to happen to them, you’ve nailed your first line. You’ve put in the hours and, slowly but surely, your book is starting to emerge. It’s all plain sailing from here, right?

Probably not, friends. Hardly ever, in fact (although we live in hope). It’s incredibly common for writers to stall in the middle of their first draft, whether it’s their first book or their fifteenth. If that’s you – if you’re having a crisis of confidence in the story or finding the words just aren’t coming and you don’t know why – don’t panic. Here are some tips which might help:

Revisit your plan

You might have meticulously plotted your novel out or perhaps set off with at least the main story beats clearly mapped in your head. You felt confident that the story arc was set, that everything was in place. But now you come to write it, you’re stuck. It’s hard work. Getting from point C to point D on the plan is not the easy task you’d expected. Don’t worry – this is really normal. You’ve spent some time with your characters by now, and so your understanding of them has probably changed. Suddenly the thing you need them to do feels… wrong. It doesn’t work with the picture of them that’s still developing in your head. Instead of trying to force your way through, go back to the drawing board. Are there little changes you need to make to the plot to make everything fit together in a different way? 

And if you didn’t set out with a plan, now could be the time to think about making one. Getting started with an exciting new idea with no real plot in mind is thrilling and a great way to immerse yourself in the world of the story, but it’s also easy to lose your way. Giving yourself permission to plan ahead for the next bit might help you find that enthusiasm again and get you back on track.

Revisit your characters

On the flip side, it could be that the plot’s all technically working fine but you’re struggling to get the words down because you don’t know your characters well enough yet. This could be on a practical level – you need to uncover their backstory to understand why they’re going to do or say the things you want them to – or something deeper; you’re still figuring out what it’s like to be inside that character’s head, how they see the world around them (and, if you’re writing in the first person, what they sound like). This is all part of the process and something that will happen naturally as you continue on writing and editing. But if you feel like it’s really holding you back, maybe now’s the time to pause and do some exercises to build up those character profiles in your head. Richard Skinner often gets his Writing a Novel students to write a letter from their main character to themselves, or you can use character questionnaires as an easy of deepening your understanding of each person in your story (we’ve got one of those here, in fact).

Set a target

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to go about this. Think about your daily routine and the other demands on your time and be realistic: is a set amount of writing time the best thing to aim for, or a number of words? Would a weekly or monthly target be better than a daily one so that you can be more flexible with how you reach it? Or would a stricter set of goals be more helpful for you?

If you started the process with a target in mind, think about how that might be affecting things now – are you disheartened because you keep missing it? Under-motivated because you feel like you could be doing more? Change things up and keep a record for extra accountability (we’re not saying you have to use a star chart, but, you know, consider giving yourself a star chart).

Look at your routine

On a related note, now might also be time to reevaluate your routine. Do you have one? Is it helping? For some people, having a particular time of day (or day of the week) set aside as writing time is really helpful. It can make it easy for your brain to switch into story mode, particularly if you’re sitting down to write in the same place every day. If that’s not something you’re currently doing, think about the ways in which you could find a bit more structure, signalling to yourself that this is book time and that you’ll be closing the door on the rest of the world during it.

But not everyone’s brain works best like that, and it could be that trying to stick to a regimented writing schedule is the thing that’s slowing you down. If that’s the case, think about how you could switch things up to re-energise yourself. Maybe stick with the time of day you like writing best, but take yourself to a different space. The pressure of the blank screen can feel overwhelming; would it help to switch to notebook and pen in the park for a bit?

Find the mood

Once you’ve started getting into the nitty-gritty of your story – the point where that perfect Shiny New Idea has started to grow plot complications and character hold-ups and sentences that just won’t do what you want them to do – you can lose sight of the things that made you fall in love with the idea in the first place. Pinterest is your friend! (Other moodboarding apps are available). Spend a day curating images, songs and objects which make you think about your characters and capture the mood you want in the novel. You can either stick them around your desk or just make a file on your laptop or phone; the goal is to have something you can dip into whenever you’re feeling frustrated with how it’s going or as if you’ve lost your way. You’re looking for an emotional connection; the things which trigger the feelings you had about the story when you first sat down to write it.

Celebrate

It’s very easy to feel daunted by the sheer size of a novel – which is why people often have a wobble around the 15,000–30,000 word mark. You’ve been working hard, the pages are filling up… and then you look at the wordcount on your screen and realise just how far there is to go. Like anything in life, it’s much easier to break that down into several, smaller tasks. Mark each milestone as you go, whether it’s every 10,000 words or every chapter or reaching the end of each of the three or five acts you’ve mapped out; whatever works for you. And celebrate when you reach them! There are authors who actually buy and wrap themselves little gifts for each milestone in their draft, but it could be anything: a day off, your favourite dinner, a film you’ve been dying to rent. Enjoy each of these stages instead of it becoming a race to the final line. It’s great to keep your eyes on the prize but the process becomes a lot more fun if you get actual prizes on the way there.

Reread old favourites

There are plenty of writers who won’t read fiction by anyone else when they’re in a middle of a draft. That’s okay but for others, there’s nothing like reading a really great book to spur you on to write yours. If you’re feeling really stuck in the middle of a draft, consider going back to books you’ve loved in the past. The kind of books that made you want to write in the first place. And remember: those books all started as difficult first drafts too, once upon a time. We promise.

 

Q&A with Holly Race

We always love chatting to our alumni and we were thrilled to welcome Holly Race back for one of our Twitter Q&As last month. Holly’s debut YA fantasy novel, Midnight’s Twins, had just been published and we talked about the inspiration behind it, the process behind planning a trilogy and how she uses her experience in script development when plotting her character arcs.

FA: Welcome, Holly! Thanks so much for joining us and congratulations on the publication of Midnight’s TwinsDo you want to start by telling us a bit about the book?

HR: Thanks! Midnight’s Twins is a YA fantasy set between our world and the dream world. 15-year-old Fern and her twin brother Ollie discover that there’s an army who protects dreamers from their nightmares – because if we die in our dreams, we die in real life too.

FA: It’s SUCH a great pitch… Where did the idea come from? And how long did it take you to write?

HR: I’ve always had very vivid dreams (& nightmares!) which made me wonder what would happen if those dreams were real in some way? If the dream world was an alternative reality we entered every time we went to sleep? Everything else stemmed from there. I had that idea about 10 years ago, so it’s taken a while to come to fruition! I spent a LONG time planning it, then my husband snapped at me to write the thing already & prompted me to apply for Faber Academy, & I haven’t looked back since.

FA: And we’re so happy you came to us! Ten years is an amazing amount of time to spend immersed in that world – the novel is the first in a trilogy, did you have the other books already planned out at that point?

HR: Me too! You guys & @JoannaBriscoe definitely gave me the confidence to get stuck in! I actually originally had it mapped out as a five part series, until I started taking it out to agents, who told me that this was maybe a bit… ambitious. They were right in the end (as usual!). 

I re-mapped it out as a trilogy as my agents were taking the book out to publishers, and it’s a lot stronger, even if some of the smaller threads I’d wanted to explore have had to be cut. Having said that, I’ve tweaked some things in the plans for books 2 & 3 over the last year. One character got a reprieve. Two more are getting the chop…

FA: I love that – ruthless! Actually that leads in well to another question we’ve had about the editing process for Midnight’s Twins… how much did the novel change? And are you someone who edits as they go or do you prefer to get everything on the page first?

HR: Having spent years planning the first novel, I ended up going off piste in the second chapter! Originally, Fern was going to be recruited into the knights directly, but when I was writing it made more sense for it to be Ollie who’s recruited instead. That had a huge impact not only on the plot for the first half of the book, but also on Fern’s emotional journey, because she spends a lot of time trying to prove herself, and believing that she doesn’t belong. Once I’d written that, though, I didn’t go back to re-plan. I decided to power through and get a very rough first draft, which worked well for me in the end. I accepted that I’d end up doing a lot of editing, but I definitely prefer to have words on the page as soon as possible, even if most of those words end up in the bin. 

It also helps to have been through that rather painstaking process already when your editor gives you notes, I think. My editor, who is *incredible*, turned up to our first meeting (before I’d even got a publication deal!) with reams of questions. Midnight’s Twins is now very different from the version that was sent out to publishers. It’s more ambitious, gallops through more plot and the relationships are more complex now. It’s a much better creature for having gone through a ruthless editing process.

FA: That’s so interesting – I think sometimes even the most meticulous of plotters will find the characters pulling them in another direction once they sit down to write! I love how important that emotional journey is to you too, and the relationship between Fern and Ollie – could you tell us a little bit about how you developed that, and do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get to know their characters better?

HR: I have an old system that I used to use when I was a theatre director (yonks and yonks ago!) and was tracking relationships and character arcs in scripts. It’s a bit difficult to describe on Twitter, but it involves making a sort of graph of my characters’ key ‘want’. I map how close or far they are from achieving their goal as the story progresses – ideally I’d end up with a nice variation of curves. If anyone wants to see in more detail how I do this, it’s on my Instagram stories (@holly_race) under ‘character arcs’. I use variations of this for mapping multiple characters, their relationships with each other and also what the reader wants for them. I find it easier that way to see where something is missing, or where they hit a boring plateau.

As for trying to get to know your characters better: there are a lot of brilliant resources online with questions you can ask your character, or ideas for scenes that you can write, and I think a lot of people do find those exercises very helpful. I am not one of those people! Personally, the only way I can get to know my characters is by writing the story – maybe it’s because I’m writing fantasy, but until I can get them into that world, I can’t truly anticipate how they’re going to react.

FA: Oh wow, that’s brilliant – you may well have just sorted out my Friday night plans for me, as I’m at this stage with my WIP at the moment! Okay, another question: Which books helped/inspired you while you were writing?

HR: Ha! Nothing like trying to work out a character arc over a Friday night glass of wine! The main inspiration for Midnight’s Twins is an epic poem called The Faerie Queene, which I fell in love with at uni. It’s set in a gorgeous fantasy world and features horses, knights & battles. I think I’ve probably also been influenced a lot by books like His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games & The Sword in the Stone. Someone told me that the book reminded them of Buffy, too, which was the ultimate compliment as I binged on BTVS as a teen.

FA: Yep, that is *definitely* the ultimate compliment if you ask me! Okay, time for one more question before we let you go… or actually it’s a combination of two (sneaky). On Facebook, you’ve been asked: ‘I got to know Fern a lot in this first book. Will we get to know Ollie more in the next?’ We’ve also had a couple of people asking if you can give away any spoilers for Book 2 – so are there any secrets you can share with us?

HR: The story is still from Fern’s POV, but we definitely get to know Ollie better in book 2. We spend more time unravelling some of the insecurities that led to him acting the way he does in book 1, which I’m really excited about. As for the rest of book 2? Weeeeell… there’s a lot more romance & more at stake because the Big Bad is growing stronger, in this world and in the dream world. We’ve got an influx of new characters, including someone who had a cameo in book 1 (feel free to send me your guesses!)

FA: Exciting!!! And hopefully you’ll come back and chat to us again then. Thanks so much for all your answers, you’ve been brilliant – off I go to start mapping my arcs…

HR: Thank you so much for having me! Good luck!

Holly Race is now a full-time writer, but she used to work in TV and film script development, for companies like Red Planet Pictures, Aardman Animations and Working Title. She is a graduate of our Writing a Novel course, and Midnight’s Twins is her debut novel and the first in a trilogy. Holly lives in Cambridge with her husband and daughter. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, trying not to kill plants, and travelling to far off places at short notice.

 

Midnight’s Twins is published by Hot Key Books and is available in paperback and ebook now. 

Q&A with Joanna Briscoe

This week we were delighted to host brilliant Joanna Briscoe for the latest in our series of Twitter Q&As. Joanna popped by to celebrate the publication of her sixth novel and to answer questions about the writing process from some of our followers. Here’s how the conversation went:

FA: Alright, we’ve had some brilliant questions coming in, so let’s get started! Hi, Joanna! Thanks for joining us and congratulations on last week’s publication of The Seduction. Our first question from one of our Twitter followers: ‘What is your writing process and do you have a particular favourite place and time to write?’

JB:  Good question. I wish I had one, very disciplined process. I do hypothetically, but the reality can be messier…. I do try to get up, and get dressed and ready by half eight in the morning, and then – pre-lockdown – I’d go to the British Library to write. I try to put in a normal day there, but friends are usually there as well, and they’re vital to the process. A carrot to dangle in front of me after a proper session of work…. lunch, anyone? I just try to get on with it, counting hours or words.

FA: Lunch is a very important carrot! Okay, our second question via DM: ‘Where do your ideas come from?’

JB: Lunch, coffee, a sudden desire to visit the bookshop… plenty of carrots in my life! Well, for me, ideas are the one thing I don’t struggle over. Believe me, I struggle terribly with the execution of course, which is entirely normal #WritingIsHard. But so far, ideas just seem to land in my head. I have the next two or three novels’ worth of ideas. They can be very different in origin – a person, place, scene, situation. And from there, the process begins. 

FA: Our third question is one I’m sure lots of us (…me) would also like to know the answer to… ‘Do you experience writers block and if so, how do you deal with it?’

JB: I do experience bad days, certainly, where the process is like trying to wade through mud. But I refuse to believe in writers’ block. If you sit there for long enough, you will write something. I definitely think it’s more about perspiration than inspiration. Don’t wait for the muse. The muse will eventually find you. You have to push through the pain barrier and just keep going. No doubt about it. Treat writing as a job. As if there’s no choice and you have a boss standing over you.

FA: Great answer, thank you! Definitely going to be imagining my boss next to my desk from now on… Here’s another, not unrelated question: ‘Has lockdown influenced your writing? Has it made you think more about certain themes?’

JB: Lockdown is a funny mixed bag for writers, isn’t it? It’s so vast, tragic, extraordinary, what’s going on out there that lots of writers say it renders their work trivial. But we can’t all write about pandemics. It’s made me think about slower lives, nature, and the past… I’ve found I’ve both written more in lockdown, and found it hard to concentrate. But I do have pretty ideal conditions, i.e. no young children to school, and so I’m determined to get on with it.

FA: Yes, absolutely to all of that! Okay, a really great question just in from Instagram: ‘What is your advice when a writer discovers a fantastic opening scene and character but isn’t quite sure how to write the rest of the book…’

JB: Interesting. I’m a bit of a strict ‘Get on with it’ person, as my students will attest… So, I’d say, capture that fantastic scene and character as quickly as you can. And then be really disciplined about thinking about the rest. Don’t give up too soon. If it’s TERRIBLE, you  might want to give up and start something else, but odds are that all you need to do is really start thinking about the plot. I’d say that you should get down what you have – it sounds as though you’re inspired at that moment – and then start the brainstorming, making notes as you go. The other characters, the essential situation, the arc, plot, twists and turns, will come with time, but you have to open your mind. I write and I keep a Notes file simultaneously. So I get on with the prose, but I keep the plotting etc notes too.

FA: Great advice, thank you! Let’s have one last craft question before we move on to publication and The Seduction: ‘Do you have any advice for making sure your dialogue is natural?’

JB: Dialogue’s a big one, and of course we all want natural sounding dialogue – in most genres. My best advice is to write dialogue very very quickly first of all, no inverted commas, just a real go-with-the-flow session, then go back and edit. You will achieve more of a flow. I also think that reading your dialogue out loud is vital. There is more of a chance of picking up the stiff, unnatural sections then. DBC Pierre said ‘Dialogue is pace’, and I agree that we need it to speed our eye down the page. You can give people a verbal tic, I also often have people interrupting each other, not quite finishing the sentence, as long as the sense is there, because this happens so much in real life. Also, keep each person’s section of dialogue relatively short. Listen to strangers. Keep your ear in.

FA: ‘Dialogue is pace’ – I love that! Okay, this is an important one for a lot of writers: ‘Have you had many rejections during your writing career and how do you cope with these?’

JB: Rejections. Argh. The most common experience in a writer’s life – almost universal – and yet it feels so personal and terrible. Yes, I was lucky enough to get my first novel published, which was a huge moment of excitement, but after a lot of years of work. It was my THIRD novel that was rejected. It felt really terrible. I was in a real state about it, before I picked myself up and wrote Sleep With Me. And that one was a bestseller etc, so it just goes to show. I think sometimes, as long as you can find a way to stay strong, that writing in adversity can actually be inspiring. There’s an urgency and desperation that can fuel the work. I thought, I’ll show you. And I did! I also had an early version of another novel turned down, but that was quite right. I re-wrote and that helped and it was published.

FA: That is really, really inspiring – thank you for sharing. You sure did show them! Okay, let’s talk about the new book! We’ve been asked via DM: ‘Which character did you most enjoy writing in The Seduction and why?’

JB: I liked writing about the charismatic, dangerous Dr Tamara Bywater, the shrink in the novel, as she was the most fascinating to invent and then flesh out. She’s so not what she appears; she pulls people to her. She’s so unlike me, I liked inventing someone very different.

FA: Yes, I can imagine that being great fun as a writer… On a related note, ‘The Seduction is such an addictive read – how do you keep a reader turning the pages?’

JB: I REALLY think a lot about keeping the reader turning the pages. I absolutely think it’s my duty not to bore them. One of my main rules is – if I’m slightly boring myself, i.e. there’s a section that causes faint heart sink, or which I skim over – then it goes. If I bore myself, then certainly readers will be bored. I also try to come up with the unexpected. I twist the obvious, and like to think about characters doing something different from the thing I’ve first invented. Shorter chapters help. And I set up lots of questions that need answers.

FA: Brilliant advice – I think that sense of faint heart sink is familiar to most of us… We all need to be ruthless with it! Okay, let’s have one more question before we let you go: ‘The press response to The Seduction has been amazing – how does it feel?’

JB: It’s been amazing. I’ve had so many reviews, a couple of stinkers among the good ones, but the main thing is to get coverage! It’s been exciting, and a bit nerve wracking. It’s thanks to
Philippa Cotton who did the whole campaign, and now Ella Harold has taken over. I’m grateful.

FA: It’s been really wonderful to see it making its way out in the world so brilliantly. All of us at the Academy are very proud!

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. 

The Seduction is published by Bloomsbury and is available in hardback and ebook now. 

What are you writing for?

In these unprecedented times, many of us have found our relationship with writing has changed – whether in a practical sense, as we try to fit our wordcounts around the demands of new working or childcare arrangements, or in terms of our own needs, as we turn to fiction to understand and escape the world around us.

No matter where you are with a work-in-progress – about to begin the first page or finishing the fifteenth edit – there is always value in taking a step back and thinking about why you’re writing as well as how. Here are some things that are worth considering:

What am I writing?

It’s a deceptively simple question, and perhaps not one we can always answer at the start of a project. But different genres bring with them their own goals and expectations, and understanding where in the market your work might sit can help clarify what you should be writing towards. Ask yourself which other authors’ work you feel may be similar to yours. What do you admire about those texts? How can you learn from that and apply it to your own writing? And what do you want to add to the conversation?

Who do I imagine reading this?

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about writing your first draft with ‘the door closed’; writing, in other words, entirely for yourself without the doubts and pressures of a perceived future audience. But at some point – and where that point comes varies from writer to writer – you do have to start thinking about who you might be writing for. Who is your dream reader? What kind of person do you imagine falling in love with this story? And how can you make it speak to them, connect with them?

How do I want that person to feel when they finish reading?

Having that ideal reader in mind may particularly help if you’re struggling through the later sections of a draft; if you feel you’ve lost your way with the story. You don’t have to be aiming for something huge or profound here – are you trying to entertain? To move? To surprise? To make someone laugh or rage or realise that they feel differently about a character than they did when they started out? The best writing can do all of those things and more – but if you can choose the single emotional note that’s most important for you to hit, the one you care about above all, it will help you stay on track.

What do I want from the process?

Finally, close that door again for a minute and think about your own reasons for beginning. So often we say ‘It’s a story I just had to tell’ – but can you dig a little deeper? What was it about these characters, this plot that excited you in the first place? And how can you keep that in sight as you put it down on the page? As writers, we are always learning – whether that’s facing a new technical challenge (can I write an entire novel in the second person? Can I pull off stream of consciousness here? Do these flashbacks work?) or evolving the kinds of stories we want to tell entirely. Maybe you just want to see if you can get to the end of a novel-length manuscript or if you can write a short story or a novella or a perfectly formed piece of flash fiction for the first time. Whatever your goals and aims for this writing time might be, try and keep hold of them – and always make sure you celebrate when you achieve them.

Is your idea a novel yet?

So. You’ve had that lightning strike, the first Eureka! moment. You picture a character, or a situation, and you think: there’s a story there. Maybe it’s the concept that comes to you first, something that feels exciting and innovative. It’s X meets Y, you think – doesn’t that sound amazing? Why hasn’t anyone written this yet?! 

You rush to get started… but then things stall. 

Before you try and wrangle that perfect idea onto the page, here are some key questions to ask yourself.

Does it have direction?

I have this one never-written novel which nudges its way back into my brain every so often – usually when I’m a third of the way into a draft of something else (the magical point when all good novel ideas reveal themselves as terrible, flawed troublemakers, surely best ditched for something shiny and new). I can see the elevator pitch so clearly, and every time I remember it, it turns my head. I start thinking it over again, maybe jot down notes. But then I remember why I didn’t keep running with it the last time it popped up – because there’s nowhere for it to go. It’s a fun concept, a good elevator pitch (an ‘Imagine if you could…’ type easy hook) but when I start thinking about a character and where that if would lead them, I hit a blank. It’s a starting point, something I know I’d have fun setting up, but there’s no and then… to come next, to drive the action, to take the story onwards. 

Narrative momentum comes from lots of things, but conflict is a key one. This can be minor or major, external or internal; it can be a protagonist at war with the forces of evil or one who’s too shy to tell their friend they’re in love with them. Introducing conflict is how you push your characters on and how you hold them back from their desired goal. Because for our story to flow, we need that spark of a starting point and we need to end up somewhere else, but the journey between those points isn’t necessarily linear. The route your novel takes may be meandering, it may be a rollercoaster, but it needs to move. That idea has to be your jump-off – it can’t be all there is. 

Does it have logic?

A simple one, this, but one that’s really worth thinking about now (*ominous voice* while there’s still time…). If you’re satisfied you have a sense of direction for your story, think about the steps involved to get you there. Even at this early stage, it’s sometimes possible to see that it won’t make sense for Character A to do X when they could just do Y, or that Character B can’t make that life-changing decision when you need them to, and thus the plot won’t support the weight required to get you from beginning to end.

Even if you’re not a natural plotter, taking a little time at this stage to consider and stress-test the sense of any crucial turning points in the story can save you the heartache of discovering, 20,000 words in, that Character A would never actually rent a canoe in the first place, thank you very much, and thus the whole premise has come crashing down. 

Does it have space?

Not the final frontier kind (although sure, why not).

As much as your idea needs to have enough plot to drive and sustain a novel, a lot of that legwork is also done by the characters. Ensuring you have complex, developed characters helps (why not give our ultimate character questionnaire a go for that) but you also need space within the story for the characters to undergo some kind of growth or change. This, as much as rising action and mid-point turns and all that important structural stuff, is what gives your novel the sense of a satisfying arc. Change is a bit of a nebulous term here, really – it could be big or small, tangible or more existential (learning to ride a dragon or learning to accept a mistake they’ve made), and it doesn’t even need to be positive – a character can happily be ‘worse’ by the end of the novel (serial killer origin story, anyone?). But it’s essential that the story allows room for your protagonist(s) to come out in some way different than they were when we met them. If you don’t see that in your idea at the moment, you’re setting yourself a difficult task: keeping a reader engaged by concept or hook alone, for the entirety of a novel, isn’t easy.

Does it have the potential to surprise?

This is important not just for a future reader but for you, the author, as you begin to write. If you’re starting with a What if? and you knew the answer the second the question popped into your head, you probably aren’t going to have all that much fun letting it play out over thousands of words and many writing hours.

That doesn’t mean you can’t know the answer immediately and stick to it, but there needs to be potential for the plot to go a different way, for you and the reader to wonder how the novel might turn out if you took one of those other possible paths. A reader may keep turning pages because they want to find out what happens next – and that should never be far from our minds – but it may help you to keep writing them if you’re aware that the ending wasn’t a foregone conclusion the moment you began, that the elements of the story are coming together in a way that you’re choosing, and that it’s all the stronger for it.

~

Don’t lose heart if you’re starting to realise that your initial spark doesn’t quite stretch to a novel yet. Some ideas need a bit longer on the backburner; keep them bubbling away there while you get on with other stuff and you’ll be surprised how often your subconscious finds that extra thing – that subplot or character or slightest of shifts – that mean you’ll hit the page running. Ideas are fragile things. Handle them with an informed and critical eye, but also with care; given time to breathe, they often turn into the thing you need all by themselves.

Five reasons you might need to rethink your structure

It’s a crucial part of your novel; the architecture that holds the whole thing up. There are theories and nifty diagrams and entire books written about the ways stories are structured – but how can you tell when yours is going wrong?

A secret: I’m not that big a fan or rigorous follower of the three-act or five-act structure. Don’t tell anyone. Many writers find it incredibly helpful to think about story in these terms, and it is absolutely something I come back to as I edit. But as someone who has sat down with a stack of post-it notes to plan several novels’ worth of inciting incidents, mid-points, crises and denouements, I know from bitter experience that it doesn’t work for me when it comes to writing the novel in the first place. I’m not a pantster by any stretch of the imagination either, and I do plan, but I need a bit more freedom within the form during a first draft. I lose interest if I start thinking about the building blocks of a novel too early on; I need to lose myself in the story first. 

But whether you’re a writer who knows all their beats going in or someone who writes first and asks questions later, there’s still every chance you’re going to need to take a second look at your structure at some point in the process. Here are some of the reasons why it might not be working for you.

You’re front-loading

We’re told time and again that a book needs to grab an agent’s/editor’s/reader’s attention as soon as possible, so it’s a normal impulse to put lots of exciting or interesting things in your early chapters. And while that might keep someone turning the pages, a novel that feels too top-heavy can also mean your audience doesn’t have time to connect to the characters or your writing, leaving them less invested – this is especially problematic if you’re then leading us into a quieter second half where our interest in events depends on us caring about what happens. We need that early, deeper engagement with the story – and that’s harder to achieve if there’s too much action to keep up with.

You’re saving the best… for too long

Conversely, it’s also very easy to spend the first half of your novel setting up all your thoughtfully drawn characters, your immaculately built world – meaning that you end up rolling out the actual plot, where things start happening in earnest, far later than you should be. Generally this will result in an overly-long manuscript or a novel with a really uneven pace: a slow-burn start followed by action-action-action without enough breathing room for those plot points to hit their mark. 

There are too many people trying to speak at once

Novels with multiple narrators are particularly tricky beasts to structure. You’ll need to figure out how you want to weight the narrative – do their storylines have equal importance, and are they given the same amount of page time? Is there a ‘main’ story and one/some smaller, secondary threads? – and make sure that these are well-balanced throughout in a way that serves your plot and pace best. One problem that’s particularly common here is an overcrowded opening, where you may feel the need to introduce the reader to all the narrators/threads as soon as possible. Resist this – you risk losing their interest if you skip about too much in those crucial opening chapters. Make sure you’re allowing time for your audience to get their bearings with a character/situation before you hit them with the next. But equally, make sure you’re returning to each of your narrators regularly enough that we don’t forget about or lose interest in them.

You’re getting lost in time

Similarly, if you’re making use of multiple time strands or employing flashbacks for some of your exposition, it’s easy to get yourself in a structural knot. Keep careful track of what each of your characters – and your reader – know if you’re showing us those people at different points in time, and think about where any reveals or turning points come in the novel – are they well spaced? Do they make sense to the story, particularly to its pace, there? If you’re working with a dual narrative of two entirely separate time periods, where the stories are interwoven but don’t cross over, again, ensure you’re giving the reader enough space to enjoy and engage with each, but without neglecting the other. 

The dreaded baggy middle

It’s a writer’s rite of passage to struggle with this one. You’ve nailed your arresting, intriguing opening; you know exactly how the novel reaches a climax and then heads into a satisfying resolution. It’s all the middle stuff that’s causing the problem. If you find that you have lots of chapters in the middle where your characters are drifting, or where you become bogged down in all the exposition you need to get them towards that rising action, then you might need to reconsider the subplots and character development you could be doing to make those connecting points more engaging.

 

The good news is that identifying any of these problems is half the battle. Sometimes you need to take a step back and consider the novel as a whole before gaps or overcrowded bits become obvious. You can do that with the aforementioned post-its or index cards (I like one per chapter, but you can also separate by character or plot strand) or by using software like Scrivener which has a brilliant storyboard function making it particularly easy to move chapters or scenes around. Sometimes it’s a process of trial and error, sometimes you have to move a whole load of blocks to find the one that’ll hold the rest up. When in doubt, think of these very wise words from a dear Faber favourite.

Got a fictional world to build? Start here

Whether you’re already working on a novel or have decided to give fiction a try during this period of staying at home, you’ll probably be familiar with the concept of worldbuilding. From Westeros to Wuthering Heights, our best fiction paints us a picture so vivid that we’re transported to a world we can almost walk around in. A world with a fully realised geography, its own specific sights, sounds and smells; an infrastructure we can see and understand and characters who are shaped by that world and in turn engage with it.

If you’re taking your imagination for a stretch this weekend, whether your novel is fantasy epic, children’s adventure, historical romp or dystopian thriller, here are some essential questions to ask yourself about your world:

How does it look?

  • What can I see from my main character’s window? What are the predominant colours? What does the skyline look like?
  • And from the end of their street? Is there a street?
  • And from a plane/drone/broomstick/dragon flying overhead?
  • What can I hear? Smell?
  • What’s the weather like? How much does it change during the year (are there years?)?
  • Might I see any wildlife if I took a walk around?
  • If I went to the nearest city, what would I see on the streets? What might be advertised to me? What might I be sold?
  • What about people – how many people will I see? What will they be wearing? Will I hear more than one language being spoken? Will people greet me? How?

How do people live?

  • Let’s step back inside our character’s home – how many rooms are there? What are they for? How are they furnished/decorated?
  • How does that compare to the homes of the people around them?
  • How big is the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in this world? What percentage of society sit at either end of that scale?
  • What do people do for work? What’s the most common industry in the nearest town/city?
  • And what do they do for fun?
  • Are holidays a thing for some/all of the people who live here? And if so, where do they go? Do people know much about the wider world beyond this place – are they interested? Afraid? Hostile?
  • Do they have pets? What kinds?
  • Is there religion? More than one? Where do people go to worship?
  • What about history – do people know much about how their civilisation formed? Are they interested? Are there statues, history books, public holidays?
  • Turning to technology – what’s the most advanced item your character owns? What about the richest person they know? What level of technology do people use in their daily life?
  • How do they stay in touch with friends?
  • If I had dinner with strangers here, what might we talk about? What topics would we avoid?

How do things work?

  • Who is in charge here? How are they chosen/elected? What powers do they have?
  • How long has that been the case? Do people like the system or do they hope for change?
  • How do people get around? What’s the most common mode of transport – does it change depending on who you are?
  • What natural resources are nearby, and how are they used?
  • Is there crime? How is it punished? By whom?
  • Are people educated? Where does that happen, and who is responsible? Is education something that’s respected? Is it available to all or a few? What might I learn if I went and sat in the nearest school for a day?
  • What’s the currency? Are there banks?
  • Where does food come from? Where is it sold? What would I eat if I wanted a real treat? Can I buy alcohol? Where?
  • What other trade happens in this society? Are things sold and bought from far away, or is this place self-sufficient?
  • Is there a sense of culture – a value placed in art? Who makes it? What kind of stories do people want and how do they consume them?

How to keep writing while we stay at home

As the end of the first week of UK lockdown approaches, we’re all trying to adjust to a new, unusual way of life. And while it might seem like the perfect situation to get some writing done, for many of us it’ll actually prove quite hard. We’ve got some tips for you if you’re struggling to get the words down – whether it’s a novel you’ve been working on for a while or you just fancy trying something creative to keep yourself busy.

Start small

If you’re anything like me, it’s probably taking a superhuman level of effort to concentrate on anything at the moment. Whether it’s because you’re adjusting to the routine of working from home, or have taken on childcare and homeschooling since schools closed, or you’re just struggling to stop refreshing news sites’ live updates and your Twitter feed, there’s all kinds of demands on our attention at the moment. Even when you do sit down to write, it might be difficult to stop other thoughts crowding in. So be realistic. Go easy on yourself. Setting a target for your day or week (a word count you’d like to hit, say, or a chapter you’d like to write) may add some much-needed structure – but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet it. Aim for small bursts – half an hour first thing or after dinner, or a quick, no-thinking-allowed hundred words jotted down each time you have a coffee. It’s probably not realistic for most of us to aim for thousands of words each day at the moment, so don’t set yourself up to fail.

Try using prompts

With so much else going on, it’s usually the getting started that’s the hardest part – it’s not easy to switch your brain into writing mode at the best of times, let alone now. But using a prompt just to get the words – any words! – flowing can help, and once you’re in the swing of it, you can always swap back to a project of your own. We post prompts on our Instagram each week so you can use one of those, or join in with one of the daily writing clubs that are running at the moment – we particularly like Laura Dockrill’s

Find a space

As we settle in for several weeks of staying home, personal space is obviously at a premium – and you might be sharing yours with more people (and pets!) than you usually would. If you’re used to writing while you’re out and about – we know there are lots of coffee shop writers among you! – then this is probably going to be a bit of an adjustment. If you can make a little space for yourself to sit down and write (even if it’s one particular corner of your kitchen table) then do. A bit of routine can go a long way, even if it’s using the same mug, the same playlist or the same ten minutes in the morning when that spot of the table catches the sun.

Mix it up

As humans, we’re not really cut out for uncertainty. And at the moment certainty is one thing we’re all lacking; we don’t know how long these measures might be in place, or what the next few weeks might bring. It’s entirely normal to feel anxious about that. When it comes to your writing, though, try and see this unprecedented situation as a chance to experiment. With everything else straying so far from the norm, maybe now’s the time to try writing outside your usual genre. Maybe now’s the time to take a closer look at that idea you’ve been secretly harbouring but have always dismissed as too hard or too different or not commercial enough. Uncertainty is your friend: write something for the sheer pleasure of it, without caring when or whether you might show it to the outside world.

Oh – and it’s fine if you want to write about a city in lockdown

No matter how many snarky tweets tell you otherwise. For some people, writing will be an escape from what’s going on in the world right now – for others it’s an outlet to try and make sense of the things they’re seeing and feeling. Both approaches are perfectly reasonable and to be embraced. Yes, sure, agents are probably going to have a wave of post-apocalyptic and pandemic-themed submissions coming their way but these are extremely unusual times. Write whatever you want. Seriously.