Rich Hall Comedian – Interview – Writing & what you should NEVER do with a good idea

Rich Hall is one of my favourite comedians. Alongside stand-up he’s a firm fixture on TV panels shows, especially QI. In 2000 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in the guise of his country singing ex-con uncle Otis Lee Crenshaw.  This week I was lucky enough to see him live where he combined comedy and music in a show that was so funny my stomach muscles still ache from laughing.  During the first half he talked in his trademark drawl, taking an interest in the audience, randomly asking people where they were from, how long they’d been married and what they did for a living.  The second half kicked off with Rich singing a song based around an audience member’s life. I was utterly in awe of how quickly he’d pulled the song together over the interval and my writer mind instantly questioned, how had he done it? As time marched on he sang song after song using new information about different people and I knew these hadn’t been pre-written. How did he, seemingly easily, come up with ideas.

At the end of the show I asked if I could ask Rich directly and blog about his process. Thankfully he said yes.

Rich, I’m in awe of the way you put songs together so effortlessly tonight.

Thanks it’s not always as effortless as it appears.

I thought you’d used the interval to write the first song you sang in the second half but then you carried on singing about audience members. You must make them up on the spot?

Not entirely. The interval helps, trust me. In the interval I’ve got a bit of information to work with. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it but at least I know. I knew that guy drove a mini metro and I could think about it.  I guess it’s a little like you planning books?

I tend to wing it!

Hehe I wing it too but even then I’m thinking ahead wondering what could come next. Sometimes shows are shorter without an interval and then the pressure’s really on but some writer’s work better under pressure. You one of those?

God no! I don’t like too much pressure but I’m beginning to think I’m better with a deadline of some sort. I don’t have one at the moment.

 Yeah sometimes it stems creativity having to produce something. It sucks the life out of it. But sometimes you need that kick up the arse.

A couple of the songs you sang tonight I’d heard before. How do you approach song writing?

Often I work on the structure first and then I sit and teach the band – here’s what I want you to play – then we’ve got a good feel for it and I fill in the words. It comes easier with experience. Writing is writing whatever it is. Practice definitely helps.

 How long have you been writing?

Thirty five years now. I studied journalism at college and then went to work for the Seattle newspaper writing columns. I hated it. I’d always wanted to be a comedian. One day I just decided to go for it.

It’s not only jokes and songs you write is it?

No there’s plays, books and documentaries. All sorts.

Do you write on the road? Are you structured with your approach?

If inspiration hits I’ll write. I split my time between the UK and my ranch in Montana and I tend to do a lot of writing there.

Do you have any rituals?

I wish I did. I wish it was like a tap that I could do something and it would come. Sometimes I get really stuck, don’t you?

I do but I tend to only work on one project at a time so I have to work through it somehow. What do you do?

 I walk away. Writing’s pretty much the same, jokes, stories, whatever and sometimes you have to walk away from it.

If you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

When you get an idea you know in your gut if it’s a good one and if it is don’t beat it into the ground. If it doesn’t flow and you force yourself to keep working on it you lose confidence in the idea and it becomes old. You’re a writer, Louise. You know what I’m talking about?

Absolutely. I’ve had to put the manuscript for my latest novel, The Date, away so many times because it wasn’t coming and I knew it was too good an idea to let go.

Yeah that’s the thing. You give something space and it could be good.  If you’re sick of thinking about it let it go for a while. That’s what I learned. I was very frustrated when I started out because I thought I had to sit and work on something until it was finished.  Sometimes you’ve got to mix it up. What gets you through the hump?

A mixture of pure panic, cheese and too much wine.

Hehe, I might try that!

It’s been lovely talking to you Rich. Thanks so much for your time.

It’s been a pleasure.

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US publication day & over excited characters…

It was well over a year ago now that my fabulous agent called to tell me that Grand Central Publishing in the US were to publish my backlist and my forthcoming books, starting with The Sister.

‘Goodness. Grace and Charlie will be SO excited!’ I said.

There was a short pause before he continued running through the details. He, along with everyone else who knows me, have long since stopped pointing out that the characters in my debut novel aren’t real. Even though I’ve written three books since I penned The Sister, Grace and Charlie are still fully formed and ever present in my mind.

Proofreading the US version was like I’d never been away from the characters and even with the US spellings, and the tweaks to fit the market, it was so familiar to me. It doesn’t seem five minutes since I started writing the story, utilising the thirty minutes I had spare every day while my son had independent reading time.  I started writing to see if I could lift my mental health after acquiring a disability, and subsequently clinical depression in my 30’s. I never once dreamed my new hobby would lead to a career and I feel so blessed.

Today, it’s finally US publication day for the trade paperback of The Sister and admittedly Grace and Charlie aren’t the only ones who are excited! Much of my family live in Texas and they couldn’t be happier that my books will be in stores there.

As well as being available in bookstores, I’m delighted to learn that Barnes & Nobel and Target have some special promotions lined up.  Early trade reviews in Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly have been very kind and I can’t wait for my story, set in a little English village, reach a whole new readership.

Publication day & why I feel so vulnerable

 

Today is publication day for my fourth psychological thriller, The Date and although early reviewers are unanimously calling it my best book yet, my emotions are mixed; excitement and nerves. Fear and hope. This is the story I never thought I’d finished after several false starts. My main character, Ali, suffers from Face Blindness and it took me a long time to really get to grips with the emotions she feels after acquiring this condition in her 30’s.  I first heard of Prospagnosia through a BBC documentary featuring Hannah Read who suffers from the most extreme case in the UK. (You can read about that in a previous blog here). I often approach difficult subjects when I write and it’s so important to me to remain sensitive and empathetic. A book may predominately be entertainment but real people are living very real lives within the subjects I write about and I want to remain respectful of that at all times. This is the time I feel most vulnerable. Of course it’s inevitable that not everyone will love a book, but I never want anyone to think I’ve taken the emotional side of my story lightly.

Three years of trying to get Ali right, and much research later the book is today in the hands of readers who I hope will enjoy the story and perhaps learn a little about a condition that is far more common than you’d think.

Order The Date from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google.

If you want to hear directly from Hannah about what it’s like to live with Face Blindness and the challenges she faces, check out our short YouTube interview here.

In the meantime, here’s the blurb: –

One night can change everything. 

‘I know it as soon as I wake up and open my eyes… Something is wrong.’

Her Saturday night started normally. Recently separated from her husband, Ali has been persuaded by her friends to go on a date with a new man. She is ready, she is nervous, she is excited. She is about to take a step into her new future. By Sunday morning, Ali’s life is unrecognisable. She wakes, and she knows that something is wrong. She is home, she is alone, she is hurt and she has no memory of what happened to her.  

Worse still, when she looks in the mirror, Ali doesn’t recognise the face staring back at her…

 

Face Blindness – why this is the subject of my new novel

Next week on 21stJune, my latest psychological thriller, The Date, will be published. This is a novel that has taken a long time to write and several false starts before it was completed and there is a very special reason for that.

With my previous novels I’ve written about a subject that interests me. The Gift was about cellular memory and the concept that the heart, when transplanted, can retain memories from the donor. In The Surrogate I became fascinated with the laws (or lack of) surrounding surrogacy and what might happen if either party didn’t follow the agreed plan.  Through The Sister I explored the impact of grief and how far we would go for our family and friends and the secrets we keep.

The idea of The Date sprung from the unlikeliest of sources – ‘My Life’, a long running Children’s BBC documentary series featuring children with unique stories. Around six years ago, my family and I watched an episode featuring Hannah Read, a girl who acquired the UKs most severe case of prosopagnosia at the age of eight after an infection caused inflammation of her brain.  Hannah’s story was equally heart-breaking and inspiring. In one scene she was led into a room containing her family and friends but also some strangers. She walked around the room and studied each face intently and you could feel her panic as she was unable to identify anyone she knew. Hannah was also shown a selection of photographs and became extremely upset she couldn’t recognise her own picture. Hannah said ‘she felt cut off from the world around her’ and her anxiety whenever she left her house was palpable. The documentary makers introduced her to other teenagers with the condition and a university who were carrying out a research project who subsequently taught her coping strategies. By the end of the programme Hannah felt less isolated and more positive but her distress and her story stayed with me long after I switched off my TV. Imagine waking up one day in a world where everyone looked like a stranger? How utterly terrifying.

A year after watching Hannah often crept into my thoughts. I knew I had to write a story about Face Blindness. After I finished The Sister I started playing around with an opening but I didn’t know how to progress it, there was almost too much scope and so I put it to one side and wrote The Gift instead. The time came to write my third book and instantly, I thought of Hannah again. I pulled out my notes and this time wrote the first 10,000k words and sent it to my editor. ‘How are you going to progress it?’ she asked. I was at a lost to know how to sensitively approach a story surrounding a subject that had really touched me. Again, I put it to one side and instead, wrote The Surrogate. By the time I’d finished my third book, my main character, Ali, had been brewing in the back of my mind for four years and I was determined to have a third attempt. This time I felt more confident I could write a pacey, unnerving thriller, but also stay true to the emotions and challenges faced by those who have prosopagnosia. I wanted Ali to show the same courage and determination that Hannah did.

Having a person act as the inspiration behind my new novel has been terrifying but as soon as I’d finished the book I knew I wanted to let Hannah know how her programme had not only introduced me to a condition I’d never heard of but had also propelled me to want to raise awareness of it too.

I managed to track down Hannah’s mum and I’ve since spoken on the phone to her and with Hannah. Next week I’ll be interviewing Hannah for my YouTube channel and asking her what it’s really like to live with Face Blindness. Do join us!

You can preorder The Date as ebook, paperback or audio via your local Amazon here.

Writing – Using the senses to make your scene sing

There was much excitement when my lovely friend Emma sent me a huge box of retro sweets for my birthday. 10am Saturday morning found my husband and I in bed, dipping liquorice into sherbet, reminiscing about our childhood. Instantly I was transported to the time my childhood best friend Clare and I would rush to the shop at the end of my street clutching shiny ten pence pieces. We’d deliberate long and hard. Should we buy chocolate mice at two for a penny or black jacks which tasted delicious and kept us amused for hours as they stained our tongues and teeth.

At the sight of the love hearts lipstick, the taste of Parma violets, the smell of sherbet lemons I was seven again. The long summer holidays stretching endlessly before me as we rode our bikes under a clear blue sky and shimmering sun. 

Bringing senses into a story is guaranteed to make your scene sing. Whether it’s creating nostalgia or a creepy atmosphere, you want to set your reader firmly in the story. While the first draft is often focused on getting words down, the edit is the perfect time to pause. Put yourself in your characters shoes. What can they hear, see, taste, touch, smell?

Often when I’m out I’m observing my environment. What shade is the sky? How does the wind feel on my skin? What sound does the rain make? Small things I can use in my stories, and often the small details can make the biggest difference. The longer I spend being in the moment. Watching. Listening. The less time I spend staring at a screen. My mobile remains in my pocket and I feel infinitely more creative.

What colour is your sky today?

Novel writing – What I’ve learned from an 8 year old’s story.

Last night I was sent a story written by 8-year-old Abigail. Her father was (rightly) proud and wants to encourage her writing. I was captivated by her story of the Midnight Sky which was speckled with such gorgeous descriptions that I was immediately transported to the village where the story is set.

I adore reading stories from children. There’s something very special about the way they don’t worry about structure, plots, arcs. They write the story they want to tell and there’s a huge lesson in this.

I’ve wrote back to Abigail telling her the parts I enjoyed and encouraged her to keep going but I realise now I should have added a thank you, because reading her unfiltered words which had come straight from her imagination and her heart has reminded me of a very important lesson.

First and foremost you should always write for yourself.

When I began writing The Sister the best advice I ever received was ‘write the story you want to read’ and that served me well. I had no expectations of ever finishing a novel, let alone it being published and I wrote unselfconsciously.

Writing The Gift was a different experience. The Sister was No. 1 in the kindle charts and the reviews vast and varied. I desperately wanted to please every single reader moving forward. Based on feedback I upped my pace, and then slowed my pace. Added more description. Less description. My days were spent endlessly rewriting , fighting a losing battle to this time write the perfect book.

There is no perfect book.

Releasing The Gift was even more nerve racking than publishing my debut and the relief when it reached No. 1 was immense and that brought with it a welcome change in circumstances. Writing was to be my full-time job but this came with an added pressure as it was now to be my sole source of income.

After The Gift I read the reviews and realised it’s impossible to try and please everyone and I had a period offline where I shut myself away to write The Surrogate. The reviews for this book have been amazing and I allowed myself to relax a little. But not enough.

Now, awaiting publication of my fourth psychological thriller, The Date, I’ve a new idea brewing at the back of my mind but I haven’t yet started writing and it wasn’t until reading Abigail’s story I realised why. Lately, my mind has been clouded by doubt. Is my new idea commercial enough? Will people read it? Enjoy it? Impossible questions to answer and rather than letting a story naturally evolve I’ve had potential readers at the forefront of my mind which, for me, isn’t conducive to creativity.  Thanks to the timely reminder from Abi, I’m going to write from my heart, the story that I would like to read.

My new book! Cover Reveal!

I am RIDICULOUSLY excited to reveal the gorgeous cover of my fourth psychological thriller, The Date, which will be published June 21st and is now available to pre-order from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo & Google!! This is my darkest, paciest book so far, and also my most emotional. You’ll need a cushion to hide behind AND a box of tissues. I’ve lots to say about this story and why I chose to write about Prosopagnosia (Face Blindness) but for now, here’s the blurb: –

Something bad has happened to Alison Taylor.

Her Saturday night started normally. Recently separated from her husband, Ali has been persuaded by her friends to go on a date with a new man. She is ready, she is nervous, she is excited. She is about to take a step into her new future.

By Sunday morning, Ali’s life is unrecognisable. She wakes, and she knows that something is wrong. She is home, she is alone, she is hurt and she has no memory of what happened to her.

Worse still, when she looks in the mirror, Ali doesn’t recognise the face staring back at her. She can’t recognise her friends and family. And she can’t recognise the person who is trying to destroy her…

 

You can find The Date via your local Amazon here.