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.

 

 

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

 

The BIG editing lesson I learned writing The Surrogate #WritingTips

Today is the UK paperback publication of my third psychological thriller, The Surrogate (US paperback publication will follow later this year).  Although I’ve learned from every book, it was this one in particular where my editor gave me a piece of advice that has always stayed with me.

When I shared with my sister that I’d be writing a book about surrogacy she told me that she though the subject was too limiting. That the story would be predictable. I was determined to prove her wrong.

The Surrogate features Kat and Lisa, childhood friends, and Kat’s husband, Nick. They are all keeping dark and damaging secrets. I never plan when I write. I had a vague idea of who might be bad and who might be good but as I got deeper into the story the characters pulled me in unexpected directions. The plot became more complex than anything I thought I was capable of constructing.

As the ending gathered pace I layered twist upon twist, they tumbled onto the page as they tumbled out of my head, until finally the story reached its dramatic conclusion.

Nervously, I sent it over to my editor.

‘This is a phenomenal story’ her feedback began, ‘but…’ my heart sank ‘you’re not giving your twists time to breathe.’

I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant until I reread my manuscript. There wasn’t time to process each revelation before another one hit. It had been exhausting writing it. It was equally exhausting reading it. Rather than the pacy, hard hitting ending I thought I’d written it was confusing, lurching from one reveal to another.

She suggested taking out several twists which I was reluctant to do, so I set about rewriting the end.

For the twist she’d classed as ‘the big one’ I ensured I had no other reveals in this chapter. For other twists I moved a couple so they were away from the end. For most I lengthened the chapters so they weren’t so crammed together, particularly the epilogue which contains several.

Rereading it, I could see the difference. There was time to rest back, to process the turns of the story before it once more turned on its head.

There’s nothing I like more than pulling the rug from under the readers feet. To lead them to think they’ve got it all figured out when they haven’t. My stories always contain multiple twists. Now I’ll always give them time to breath.

You can read the opening of The Surrogate here and buy it on your local Amazon here. It is also now available in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s & all good book shops.

Novel writing 1st draft – When the end is also the beginning

Today, I typed two words on my fourth manuscript. The two words that are often the most exciting to write. The End. Although it’s only a first draft, the relief I feel is immense but it’s also mixed with a nervousness, and if I’m honest, a little sadness.

Relief, because despite the success of my first three books the self-doubt has never completely gone away. The little voice whispering I won’t be able to do it again. This book has been such a hard write, and a long time in the making, started and abandoned twice, and there were times when I absolutely believed that voice and almost, almost gave up.

Nerves, because this is when it goes over to my agent and publisher for their feedback. This psychological thriller comes from a different angle and I’m hoping it’s one they will like. It’s also pacier, darker and more emotive than my first other books, although I hope it still retains the same feel.

Sadness, because again, I’ve become ridiculously attached to my main character, Ali and in a way this feels like letting her go. She’s been through such a lot in her life (and in my story!) and after spending 8 hours a day with her for almost a year I am already feeling lost without her.

I remind myself that this is not the end, this is the beginning and it’s the next part of the process I enjoy the most. The editing, the shaping of the story, polishing the language. It will be interesting to see, when the edits come back, how they compare to my previous books. I feel I’ve learned so much working with an editor and I’ve tried to put it all into practice. I shall let you know shortly as well as sharing the tips I have picked up along the way.

 

15 stages you go through when writing a first draft

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Obviously I am at stage 6 right now, how about you?

1. Brilliant – I’ve had the single BEST idea for a book. EVER. I’m so clever. It’s going to be AMAZING. Readers will love it. I can’t wait to write it all down.

2. Research – I’m still enthusiastic about my story but while researching I’ll just open a tab for Amazon – we could use some more towels. Oooh Twitter. Wonder what’s going on over there.

3. Not enough plot – How can I have run out of plot? I’m not even half way in. How did I ever think my incredibly stupid idea was enough to fill a book? This is going to be the shortest novel EVER.

4. Rubbish – Even my cat cringes as he curls on my desk and reads what I’ve just written. Nothing remotely interesting is happening. I need to throw in some twists.

5. Too much plot – There are so many different storylines running I have no idea who is who. There are too many twists. This is going to be the longest novel EVER.

6. Procrastination – I can’t possible start writing today until I’ve dusted the skirting boards, pulled hair from the plugholes, rearranged the cans in my kitchen cupboard into alphabetical order, written a blog…

7. My characters are amazing – I am so in love with them. They are quirky and interesting. Everyone will remember them.

8. Excitement – I am genuinely thrilled about this story. This is the one. My big breakthrough. I can feel it.

9. Constantly talking about it – Everyone I meet I tell them I’m writing a book and even in Asda when the checkout girl’s eyes glazed over I couldn’t stop telling her how fabulous it is.

10. My characters are so boring – Really – why did I think that was quirky? No-one ever actually does THAT.

11. Disheartened – I am genuinely despairing of this story. This is not the one. It will finish my career.

12. Never talking about it – When people ask if I’m writing I shrug and look at my shoes, wondering statistically what the chances are of the ground actually opening up and swallowing me.

13. Wonder – I’ve written the most emotive piece of prose. I’m so proud of it. I’ve read it aloud six times. Even my cat looked vaguely impressed.

14. Shame – I can’t believe I wrote that over emotional drivel yesterday. What was I thinking? Delete. Delete. Delete.

15. The end – I’ve finished! I’ve written a first draft. Tomorrow the rewriting starts. Send wine. Lots of wine.

If you’ve enjoyed this you might want to hop over to ’15 stages you go through with structural edits.’

Finished my first draft and feeling flat.

When I tentatively posted in May, declaring my intention to try and write a novel, I never quite believed that I could.

But, as the weeks have flown by, my word count has risen, along with my confidence, and today I have reached the end of my first draft.

On Monday, when I realised I would finish this week, this is how I thought I would feel.

 

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Now I have put my final full stop, this is how I actually feel.

 

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Why? I’m not sure. I think, being a new writer, I am feeling quite overwhelmed at what comes next. You know, the E word.  Edit, edit, edit, screams every blog I read. How, how, how? I want to scream back.

Any tips will be gratefully received.

 

 

 

How do you deal with criticism?

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As I new writer I have done something that will probably have all you seasoned novelists covering your face and shaking your head in despair. I (whispers) showed my first draft to someone to get an opinion.  Not just someone either. My sister. Much as I love her she is always guaranteed to call a spade a spade. I knew that, but I did it anyway.

Attempting my first piece of writing over 100 words has been overwhelming. I love to read books but trying to create one, well, if you’ve tried, you know. I never thought it would be easy but, shrugs.

So I plotted, created characters and wrote and at 15,000 words broke into a cold sweat. Did this make any sense? Was it engaging? Could I do this?  Even though this was a rough first draft I guess I wanted validation that I had something worth developing, worth all the hours, the waking at 3 am to tweak the plot or finish the chapter.

I emailed it over to my sister. I knew I could rely on her to be totally honest with me. And she was. ‘It’s so depressing it made me want to slit my wrists and not carry on reading. Oh and I don’t like your language.’

Hmmm ok. Let’s not point out that I haven’t actually reached the really sad bit in the middle yet.

I know she is trying to support me and I appreciate her help. I will take her comments on board and am sure that when I have finished wiping my tears off the keyboard I will carry on. Next time I ask for an opinion I will keep the following words in mind: –

“Don’t let people’s compliments go to your head and don’t let their criticism go to your heart”.

So, how do you deal with criticism – constructive or otherwise?