An evening with Louise Doughty (this is how she writes) & a return to prison?

 

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to a private event hosted by Laura Devine Solicitors (I first met Laura in prison but more of that later) which featured Louise Doughty speaking about her new book, Platform Seven, as well as raising money for The National Literary Trust.

Before I continue I’ll say I was saddened and shocked by the statistics quoted by Fiona Evans who was there representing The National Literary Trust relating to the reading ability of our children. SHOCKED. You can read more about their fabulous work and how you can help here.

Fiona introduced Louise and I settled back with a glass of wine and the most delicious canapés I’ve ever eaten, eager to find out how she approaches novel writing, nine novels in (9!!).

Firstly, Louise publishes a book roughly once every three years but she’s still hard at work in the period between each publication. Currently on a book tour for Platform Seven, she admits that sometimes she wakes up and wonders what city she’s in. The work promoting each book, plus other projects such as her involvement in the TV adaptation of her novel, Apple Tree Yard, has kept her busy but she also spends a lot of time researching each novel before she begins writing. With Platform 7 she spent the night on Peterborough station to see how it felt. Grim, I should imagine.

The thing that interested me most was the way Louise spoke about planning a novel and, being permanently obsessed with how other authors approach the first draft, I did grill her about this afterward, topping her glass up with wine, hoping she’d become so relaxed (drunk) she’d give me the magic formula. But of course, there isn’t one.

Louise says she starts with a rough idea of what the book might be about and makes notes (and like me she can never later read her own handwriting) but for her, the story is all about character. She explained that she feels if she outlined her stories before she began writing them they wouldn’t have that authentic feel. In her (vast) experience she believes that if characters are written to act a certain way to fit a planned plot then the characters may not feel realistic. She cares about the characters she writes, and for her, she lets them lead the way through the story as they naturally evolve. She told me, ‘If I didn’t care about my characters, if they were behaving in a way that didn’t suit the people they had become as the novel progressed, just to suit the story, why would readers care about them?’

Using the character first, plot second approach eventually leads Louise to a point in her book where she has key scenes and chapters and research to use and then she lays it all out before her, and pieces it together like a jigsaw.

This is a method that clearly works for her with her huge success.

Later on that evening, I found myself catching up with Neil Barclay, the librarian of HMP Thameside. I first met him when I eventually visited the prison’s book club after declining his invitation to visit many times due to The Fear, you can read about my visit here.

He’d been following my career since with interest and asked me lots of questions about past and future books. He also asked if I’d go back and teach some creative writing workshops in the prison.

‘You’ve changed.’ He told me pointing out that before I was hesitant in talking about writing, not convinced I was a ‘real’ author. Not sure I had anything valuable to say. I’m still not sure I have anything valuable to say BUT events like last night help me to grow in confidence.

Louise Doughty’s approach to writing the first draft is very different from the approach Sarah Pinborough takes which I learned about last week during an event we did together – you can read about Sarah’s approach here.

Each time I listen to another author, my layers of self-doubt shrink a little. I’m not doing it all wrong. There is no wrong. As writers, it’s trial and error to find the right process for us and that may process may change day-to-day, book-to-book, and that’s okay.

Knowing this, understanding this gives me confidence in the way I work but it doesn’t stop my curiosity into how authors write.  It’s something I will also find fascinating.

Thanks to the always inspirational Laura Devine and her amazing team who are such an incredible support to the literary world and charitable works.

 

 

What I learned from Sarah Pinborough – Novel Writing

 

Yesterday evening I took part in an ‘In Conversation’ event at Waterstones, Milton Keynes with Sarah Pinborough. I love events such as these, not only because it’s a chance to shed my pyjamas, put on some adult clothes and leave the house, but because it’s a chance for me to learn from other authors and last night I did exactly that.

Sarah is a writer I have much admired – if you haven’t yet read her books you really should , ‘Behind Her Eyes’ was one of my favourite reads last year and I was keen to know EVERYTHING about her writing process.

One thing I often struggle with when crafting my novels is my inability to plan. I’ve bought SO many books on the subject, signed up for online courses, but still find the concept quite bewildering. With experience in scriptwriting and twenty novels behind her (20!!) I couldn’t wait to hear how Sarah approaches a first draft.

She plans.

‘I’ve tried to do that with my last three books,’ I told her. ‘It’s failed each time. I don’t think my mind works that way.’

‘How long did you try for?’ She asked.

‘A morning.’

‘It takes me six weeks to plan a novel.’ She said.

SIX weeks!

Instantly, I broke out into a sweat. The thought of six weeks not actually writing the book induced an ‘I’m going to fall too far behind my schedule’ anxiety.

Sarah told me that was where I was going wrong. ‘Thinking about the story, the twists, the reveals is valuable time spent. It matters just as much as hitting that word count.’ She went on to say that once she has spent her six weeks planning, she writes the book in roughly five months.

We differed greatly in our approaches to work. I am structured, at my desk for eight hours a day. Sarah prefers to write in the mornings and then step away from her laptop. This is when she finds the ideas flow best.

I realised, on the journey home, that each time I open social media and read another ‘I’ve written XX words today!!’ post by an author that I was feeling inadequate about my own daily word count (approximately 1500 words) and I haven’t been allowing myself time away from my manuscript to think properly about where it should go.

Since ‘The Family’ was released two weeks ago I’ve had so many lovely reviews about how tightly plotted the story, featuring a Mother & Daughter who find themselves lured into a creepy commune and find themselves unable to leave, is, and how many unexpected twists there are, but the truth was I became completely stuck writing my fifth psychological thriller.

I needed a dead body for the story (this is in the blurb so not a spoiler) and I didn’t know who the body should be. I wrote several chapters with one character but then realised I needed them later on. I deleted those and rewrote with a different character dying but that didn’t feel right. For weeks I rewrote the same chunk of story with virtually every character being the body until I settled on the right person. Reader reaction to the reveal has been how clever it is that the body ties up all of the strands of the subplots but it wasn’t an easy write.

Thanks to Sarah, I feel a certain sense of freedom now in knowing that even if I don’t write for a period of time it will allow me to think creatively and it won’t be wasted time. Each writer approaches the process differently, there really is no right or wrong, but I’m very open to trying something new.

I’m going to be chatting to Sarah more about how she actually plans so watch this space…

The Family’ is currently in a Kindle Monthly deal and you can buy the Ebook for just 99p on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or Google Books.

You can find Sarah’s novels, which I highly recommend, here.

 

 

 

Novel vs Song Writing – In Conversation with Fairhazel

 

I’m a huge music fan, HUGE.

When I write my books often scenes, chapters, characters and, in one instance, an entire forthcoming novel, have been inspired by song lyrics.  My son Kai and I share the same taste and when he messaged me last year ‘I’ve found a new artist you’re going to LOVE ‘ I was curious. Before he sent me the track, Steady Man, he sent me the opening lyrics ‘I don’t remember anything but if I did I think that I would love you’. In an instant, I was hooked, and that was before I’d heard the melodic guitar and soothing vocals of Hugh Macdonald – currently recording under the name Fairhazel. His genre-defying music (although I’d say its core is in folk) crosses generations. In our house you can frequently hear his songs drifting out of Kai or his brothers’ bedrooms, playing in my husband’s car as he heads off to work, streaming through the Sonas in my study as I write.

Not only is Hugh an extensive traveller who studied at the Berklee College of Music, he’s super talented – his creativity spans not only music but graphic design for his quirky videos and Instagram posts – his work ethic is admirable. The payoff, his forthcoming album ‘Home Movies’ has been worth it. It’s a fabulous collection of songs inspired by the people he has met on his travels, each one a mini-story.

Ever curious about others writers’ processes I couldn’t wait to chat with Hugh about the differences and similarities between novel writing and songwriting. We all have a story to tell and Hugh says of his, ‘I want to use stories to promote things I believe in, and things I want to see changed in this world, and sometimes these stories are just used for entertainment, like a four-minute movie.’

So how does he create a song? Let’s find out… (you can read the interview below or scroll down to watch the video).

Hello Hugh, I Googled you online and I read something that said songwriting was really effortless and you knock out a couple of songs a day?

Yes, I set myself a challenge from November of last year until May of this year to write a song a day and after about 2 months it became easy and I could just tap into it and so I’m riding that wave for as long as I can.

WOW! What comes first for you the lyrics or the melodies?

Either, although they usually come together. I pick up something maybe a line or a melody from being out and experiencing something. Then I have to figure it out from there.

Are a lot of your songs based on personal experience?

Sometimes but mainly about other things and other people and less so about me.

When we write novels we write many versions, is it like that for songs?

I think it’s meant to be but once I have something I’m attached to it. If I have to change it then it ruins the whole thing for me, so I usually keep it. If something isn’t sitting right it goes into a bank of songs never to be seen again.

So you have a lot of songs sitting around – what are you planning on doing with them?

I have an album, which hopefully will come out soon.

Which I’ve heard and it’s amazing!

Thanks! I’ve recorded 9 more songs since then but I don’t know what to do with them all.

I’m curious as to whether they’re similar. When I first started writing I wrote completely what I wanted to write and followed my heart but now I have a publishing deal, I’m marketed in a certain genre. I have to think about what people want from that genre. Do you find the songs you write are purely for yourself, for other people a bit of both?

 A bit of both I think. It’s hard to write purely for myself because I think people expect some level of pop, even if it isn’t pop they expect a standard length and some catchiness but more and more when I write, I write a song I would like to listen to. I figure if I’d like to listen to it then somebody else out there would like to listen to it too.

And how does it feel as a songwriter when people are listening to your music? As an author, it’s always a nerve-wracking time when we release new books into the wild.

I love hearing feedback. I think it’s more nerve-wracking playing to an audience of people who may not be steroid typical of my music, who may not like it.

In that situation do you assume they won’t like it or are you quite confident?

Sometimes I’ve played bars where I think it will go badly and sometimes it does!

Haha. Tell me a little about bringing out your new music. Is that with a label?

It’s by myself. I’m embracing being independent.

So you have full creative control?

Yes over everything.

But also all the work. I see your schedule on Instagram and it’s insane! Sometimes I think mine is unmanageable but then I look at yours and think well, actually…

Yes! I’m doing everything myself, graphic design, organisation. There’s only me.

What’s next for you?

I have a lot of gigs coming up.

And more writing! So who are your influences?

 My no. 1 is Harry Nilsson and people from Beatles era.

 Fabulous. And you’ve travelled the world so are you also influenced by different cultures?

Yes. I lived in South Africa when I was younger and I love the way African music makes you feel so I’m trying to incorporate that a little bit more in the new stuff.

I can’t wait to hear it!

After we’d finished recording our interview we chatted about the inspiration for our writing. I shared with Hugh that a couple of years ago I had spent so much time inside writing, but not getting out and experiencing life, that I felt I had nothing left to say. He told me that he often comes up with songs after meeting new people. One of his songs, Shallow Grave, came about after Hugh was in a cab and the driver started to tell him some crime secrets but didn’t finish his story, instead saying ‘But… if I told you too much, you’d be in a shallow grave.’ Sounds like a great thriller plot to me!

I’ve learned there are lots of parallels between songwriting and novel writing. Writing every day helps it become second nature. If you write the story you’d like to read, the song you’d like to hear, you can guarantee that someone else will enjoy it too. We have to write for ourselves but also consider the market.

The only thing left to do now is to convince my editor that I’m too attached to my first draft to change it. Wish me luck!

You can find out more about Hugh on his website here.

Find him on Spotify & iTunes.

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook & YouTube.

Hugh’s new single, ‘In the Morning’, will be released on August 16th. It has such a chilled out vibe. Do give his music a listen. He deserves every success.

You can watch our full chat on YouTube below.

3 years in publishing, 10 lessons I’ve learned

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This week marks three years since my debut, The Sister, was published. There was no gentle easing into the publishing industry because, and I am eternally grateful – my first novel soon rose to No. 1 in various countries, spending almost the entire summer in the top spot in the UK. It quickly sold over half a million copies and was snapped up for translation by twenty-five territories, nominated for the Goodreads best debut award, and became the sixth biggest selling book on Amazon in 2016.  As lovely as all this was – and it was – there was no time to sit back and enjoy it, the pressure was on to finish writing my second book, The Gift.

Fast forward to now, over a million sales later, and publication of my fifth thriller, The Family is imminent and yet I still feel as though I’m finding my feet. Often overwhelmed with the thought of having to write more books and yet heartbroken at the thought that one day I might not be in the fortunate position of writing full time. Creating stories is my passion, my reason for getting up in the mornings but, sometimes (generally during a first draft) the cause of my insomnia. Thoughts of ‘how can I make my next book better than my last’ all-consuming.

I have a sense that I know nothing about writing, about publishing and yet I know infinitely more than I did and these are the ten lessons I try to bear in mind.

  • There are readers who will love my story. No matter how daunting it is releasing a new book into the wild, I write stories I would love to read myself and it stands to reason that if my story is one I would love to read, someone else will love it too.
  • There are readers who will hate my story. Negative reviews are inevitable. It doesn’t mean – as I once thought – I should stop writing books because Sandra from Basingstoke doesn’t like them. Not every book will resonate with every reader.
  • The pressure I have felt has been the pressure I have burdened myself with. My agent, my publisher, my readers want future books but no one is chaining me to my desk and forcing me to write (note – that might make a good plot)
  • The world will not stop turning if I don’t ever write another book. My world would be darker, sadder, but if I couldn’t think of a single plot again it really wouldn’t cause the sun to explode.
  • Some books are easy to write. My third – The Surrogate – literally fell from the sky on to the page and I thought I’d finally found the magic formula.
  • Some books are impossibly difficult. My fourth book – The Date – took several false starts and was shoved into the bottom of my drawer multiple times.
  • Social media sometimes brings me down – if I’ve had an unproductive day I avoid twitter as I know that seeing other writers ‘I’ve written thousands of words since breakfast’ posts leave me feeling inferior.
  • My editor is mainly right. Mainly. Not always. Ultimately it is my name on the cover and if I feel strongly that a suggested change is wrong for my characters I will stand up for them. It’s a suggested change, not the law. That said I’m so lucky to have an editor and I’d be a fool to ignore her expertise. A fool!
  • EVERY writer has highs and lows but it’s often only the highs you hear about. No matter what level of success someone has there are still disappointments. Still times the words won’t flow. Self-doubt is ever-present for most creatives. I don’t think that ever fully disappears and nor do I think it should.
  • A dip in sales does not mean the end of a career. Some books sell more than others, some books gain better reviews. All I can do is set out to write my best book every time and never become complacent. I love what I do and I never forget how fortunate I am.

I’ll be giving away some signed copies of The Sister this week so do follow me on my Facebook page for a chance to win one.

 

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The joy I felt holding my first book is something I shall never forget

 

Revisting my primary school where I wrote my first ‘book’ made me feel ALL the emotions, including anger…

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This weekend I went along to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of my former primary school, with a set of my books to donate to the staffroom and a heart full of gratitude for the teacher who encouraged me to write.

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Mr Townsend made a huge impression on my seven-year-old self. Never confident, I could usually be found curled in the corner of the library reading a book. He encouraged me to write my own stories. Patiently reading them, offering kind words and constructive advice. It was him I turned to when I penned my first novel – all seven pages of it which I’d illustrated and had stuck together with sellotape and love. ‘The Fabulous Five’, in no way ripped off from Enid Blyton.

**totally and blatantly ripped off from Enid Blyton**

We were allowed to check out one library book each week but, but always a fast reader, and incredibly careful with the pages, treating the books like the precious treasure they were,  Mr Townsend allowed me to borrow as many as I wanted to. He wisely said ‘the key to learning to write stories is to read as many as you can’ and those words have always stayed with me.

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I was thrilled my two favourite childhood books were still here (albeit newer editions)

It was emotional being back at primary school, trailing through the still familiar classrooms with my sister who had been in a different year to me, sharing memories, trading stories and occasionally disagreeing over whose classroom we were currently standing in (well we are sisters – there has to be a little conflict).

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The 70’s have such happy memories, it’s made me more determined to write a nostalgic novel one day.

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As I stood in the original 1960’s floor with its parquet flooring I remembered the smaller me who had sat crossed legged, listening to stories while drinking her free bottle of milk, dreaming of the day she’d be an author – writing those stories and I felt something else. A fleeting moment of anger for all that came after. The secondary school where I was told it was ridiculous to think I could forge a writing career. Who gradually tore apart my dreams, and replaced them with the ‘achievable and realistic goal’ of working in an office.

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It took me a long time to find the courage, the confidence to pursue writing again and, with over a million book sales so far, I’m so grateful I did.

Mr Townsend’s support is something I’ve held on to for a long time, and I was sad not to see him at the reunion. I wanted to thank him for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

Primary schools are instrumental in shaping us in the people we are ultimately going to be, the people we want to be. I’m thankful mine was so nurturing.

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I’m 3rd row down on the right with the wonky collar – upset I’d just had my long hair cut off.

 

 

Inside the home of Literary Nobel Peace Prize recipient – Jose Saramago

 

Lanzarote is one of my most favourite places on earth, coming second only to my dining table when all my family are seated around it. Partly because it’s home to one of my hero’s – Cesar Manrique – but more about him in a forthcoming blog; today’s post is all about literary Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jose Saramago (1922-2010) whose house I visited last week.

There’s something very special about standing in the places other authors once stood. Jose’s home is beautiful. A world away from the cramped space where I write my thrillers.


If you’re not familiar with him, Jose Saramago was a Portuguese writer, once described by Harold Bloom as ‘the most gifted novelist in the world’. Over two million copies of his novels have been sold and he’s been translated into twenty-five languages. When the Portugues government ordered the removal of his novel ‘The Gospel According to Jesus Christ’ from the Aristeion Prize shortlist – claiming the work was religiously offensive – Jose moved to Lanzarote where he resided until his death.

Inspiringly, although Jose supported himself through journalism, his career as an author didn’t take off until the publication of his fourth book when he was sixty. I wasn’t published until I was in my 40’s and I thought I’d changed career quite late in life. There’s hope for all aspiring writers out there!

This is his study inside of the house, although it isn’t where he wrote his books.

And not surprising with this fabulous view to distract him…

But there was a fine collection of pens.

And of course, a Nobel Peace Prize displayed on the wall.

A super tidy desk, the legs of which were covered in teeth marks where his dogs had chewed them.

The whole house had a cosy, lived in feel. The lounge was just as he’d left it. His current reads on the coffee table. The walls covered with paintings based on his books which made me long for a painting based on one of my books!

My heart melted when I learned all the clocks in the house were stopped at four o’clock because that was the time he met his wife.

Jose’s library was jaw-droppingly impressive. There are 15,000 books in his collection. He insisted that people were extremely careful with books stating there were pieces of the author on each and every page. His wife insisted that female authors had their own section as she very strongly felt women deserved better than for their novels to stand side by side with male authors many of whom didn’t respect women or their work.

This is where Jose wrote.

Apparently, every morning he would rearrange his desk and reread what he’d written the day before. Then he’d begin to write, never stopping to edit.

After lunch every day he’d swim in his indoor pool.

Before spending each afternoon sitting in his favourite garden chair, gazing out to sea, meditating and thinking of his wip. Jose formed the words in his head he would write the following day and rarely had to redraft the way that most writers **me** seem to. There was a big lesson here that to spend a few hours writing without distraction is far more productive than a day spent at a desk hopping on and off social media as I do.

After the tour we were given a cup of Portuguese coffee to take into the garden, although Jose’s cat had claimed the best chair.

You can find out more about Jose Saramago and how to visit his home here.

Where do story ideas come from? Everywhere…

My husband had gone to a client meeting, my son had just left to meet friends when I decided to have a break and make a drink. Back in my study, I put my coffee on my desk and it was then I realised, somebody had been into my room.

But I was alone.

Fear prickled at the back of my neck. On my keyboard, was a Biscoff.

‘Hello?’ I called into the silence which now felt heavy and oppressive.

Grabbing my phone, I called my son.

‘There’s somebody in the house,’ I whispered. ‘They’ve left a warning on my keyboard.’

‘A warning or a biscuit?’ He asked.

‘Was it you? But you’re not here?’

‘I found it in my pocket when I got to the bottom of the road and thought I’d pop it back as they’re your favourite. Seriously, mum how could you think it was creepy?’

‘Because somebody could want me to think I’m losing my mind, doubting my reality. They-‘

‘You’ve got an overactive imagination,’ he said.

It’s something I’ve heard throughout my life, usually accompanied by an eye roll and a sigh. My school reports often started with ‘Louise is such a daydreamer.’ I am but now, rather than seeing it as a flaw, as I’ve always been led to believe, I look upon it as something positive. Although gazing out of the window and making up characters in my head may be a problem in many jobs, without my over active imagination I wouldn’t be living out my life-long dream of being an author.

For Mother’s Day, my youngest son bought me a fizzy bath bomb from Lush. We’d not had them before and he wanted to watch as I dropped it into the bath. Just before I let it go he said ‘look mum, there’s a secret message!’

Inside a small hole on the top of the bomb there was a tightly rolled piece of paper.

‘What do you think it says?’ he asked excitedly.

‘I think it says ‘drown, bitch,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it’s supposed to be revealed until you’re in the bath and as you stare in confusion at the words you become aware of someone standing behind you-‘

‘A hand on the top of your head,’ he said (he writes too…)

‘Which pushes you underwater and holds you down until you stop struggling.’

The disappointment when we read it said ‘thanks’ was immense.

My three sons are used to me now. One called me to tell me he’d lost his wallet he quickly followed it up with ‘and no I don’t think anyone will find it and leave my ID at a murder scene.’

‘You never know,’ I said, darkly.

Last weekend, we took our dog for a country walk and my son pointed out the perfect place to hide a body. I didn’t roll my eyes and sigh, tell him he’s got an overactive imagination as though it’s a bad thing. Instead, I encouraged him to explore the idea, write it down. If all potential story-tellers were made to feel having a vivid imagination is a bad thing there wouldn’t be as many books and that would be a very sad world indeed.