What was your reaction to winning the Daily Mail First Novel award?
To be honest, I was completely gob-smacked. I already knew that I had been short-listed and that was more than I had hoped for. My real incentive for entering was not the thought of winning; it was the promise that all manuscripts would be read in their entirety. All unpublished writers struggle to find professionals who are prepared to read their work.
I had found out about the competition when attending the Winchester Writers’ Conference in June. The closing date for entries was only two days later. I had a manuscript fully prepared, so it was a case of getting it to the Post Office as soon as it opened and praying it would reach them in time. The timing of the announcement was absolutely perfect. I had left my job in September, gone on holiday for a week, and three weeks later the honeymoon period was well and truly over. Every time that I turned on the television there was talk of financial doom and gloom. I began to worry that leaving a secure job had been a terrible mistake.
I got the call from Transworld when I was at home on my own and, because I was alone, I wasn’t quite sure how to react. I had no one to ask, ‘did that just happen?’ I tried to call my partner but he was in a meeting. I spoke to my mother and to a friend, then I emailed just about everyone in my address book. My mother and friend seemed to have got to most people first. It was two days before my 41st birthday. Not a bad birthday present!
I am still very flattered to be hearing from friends that I had lost touch with and even parents of primary school friends. Everyone has been so supportive.
It has been quite a thrill to see my name in print in the Daily Mail and the Book Seller who kindly included me in their ‘One to Watch’ item under Previews for April releases. I was in the library last week reading the item in the Book Seller and only narrowly avoided the temptation to walk up to anyone who was prepared to listen and tell them, “Look. That’s me!”
The team at Transworld have been wonderful, including me in every stage of the design for the book cover. I am delighted that it will feature a quote from Joanne Harris, whose work has been such an inspiration to me. My hope is that I can be an inspiration to other people to get writing. I don’t have a degree and have never attended a creative writing class. I just had a bit of spare time on my hands, a laptop, and enough will power to stick at it.
How and when did you start writing?
I watched a programme recently in which Rick Stein described how he came to become a chef as a food enthusiast. I came to writing as an enthusiastic reader and a lover of words. From the days when I was glued to Jackanory as a child, I have always admired storytellers.
There were several reasons why I started to write. The first was that, although I had been an artistic child, my work provided no creative outlet. As the saying goes, you can only fit a round peg in a square hole (or is it vice versa?) for so long. Secondly, it was a question of timing rather than one of time. I spent many years with ample time on my hands, but I didn’t start to write until I was in a relationship with someone who gave me confidence. Finally, I needed something to write about. Something happened in my life that I needed to make sense of and I used writing to explore how I felt about it.
I began my first novel (unpublished) at the age of 35 and it took four years to complete. Perhaps it is too personal to ever see the light of day. My second novel took only a year to write. I have found that I do my best writing when I am busiest. I become very disciplined – and perhaps more selfish – with my time. Often, when writing Half-truths and White Lies, I came home from work tired and sat down at my computer not knowing what I was going to write, but I got the story down on paper and worried about tidying it up later. I was confident in my characters and for the most part they wrote themselves with the minimum encouragement from me.
The most useful guidance that I have found on the subject of writing is in Stephen King’s On Writing. It is a very readable autobiography which includes anecdotes on his methods of writing, rather than a text book.
What were the greatest challenges that you faced as an unpublished author?
For me, the greatest leap of faith was the decision to let other people read what I had written. You reveal a lot about yourself through your writing. There is a danger that people assume that what you have written has some basis on something factual, or that you are represented in one of the characters. Or if you have based a novel in truth, they assume that it is all true. It is very difficult to be subjective about whether what you have written is any good. I try to write the sort of books that I would like to read myself. I am very lucky in having a group of professional, highly intelligent, well-read friends who were prepared to be critical and would not dream of flattering me for the sake of it.
Armed with a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, I started to submit my work to potential agents. Most of the replies were refusals carrying the same message: we are not taking on any new clients at the moment. Two replies came back with handwritten notes at the bottom. They both said that I could write but that my work was completely unmarketable. I did not fit into any box they could think of. One recommended using The Literacy Consultancy for a professional review. I was intrigued enough to invest £500.
Six weeks later I received a twelve-page response setting out what they loved and what they hated, what should stay and what should go. And it needed to be changed; they suggested that I should turn it into a crime novel. I was horrified. This was not what I had intended. I put the manuscript away for six months and forgot about it. Then, bored, I wondered why shouldn’t I play around with it? I finished a second draft and resubmitted my work to three agents. Two replied immediately and said that they would like to read the full manuscript. One of those agents was Teresa Chris.
I think that the greatest challenge is still getting your work read. Prospective agents will be prepared to read the fist five chapters or fifty pages. For me, the Daily Mail competition provided such a wonderful opportunity as they guaranteed to read each manuscript submitted in its entirety.
What advice would you give to people who are thinking about becoming a writer?
Get started. Sometimes a novel starts with one small idea. You do not have to have worked out what is going to happen at the end before you begin. Get the characters right and the rest will follow.
Be disciplined. When I was working full-time, I found it useful to set aside specific periods of time for writing. I stuck to my schedule and aimed to write one chapter a week. In a year’s time, I had a first draft. I believe that the difference between success and failure can be as simple as sticking to something and finishing it.
Love writing. I write the first draft of a book purely for myself but I edit it for my target market. I use writing to explore ideas and opposing viewpoints. I try to anchor the story firmly in its setting with the use of music and television programmes, news items and fashions. People tend to be very nostalgic about the music and television programmes that they grew up with and you can broaden the appeal of a book by including this level of information. The filmmaker, Peter Jackson, places a great deal of importance on tiny details in costume design and builds intricate pieces of sets that will only appear fleetingly on the screen. I try to take the same approach to writing.
Be professional. Treat any submission as you would a job application. Don’t just write a standard submission and hope that it will be well-received. Do your research. Think about who your work will appeal to. Know who to compare your work to. Arm yourself with an up to date copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and select agents who may be interested in your work. Each entry will state how that agent likes to be approached. Follow the instructions carefully. Have a standard letter, synopsis, blurb, character outline and author biography prepared, but tailor them if necessary. If the agent says they only want the first two chapters, don’t send five.
Be prepared for the knock-backs. People are going to say ‘no,’ but there are people out there who are willing to offer advice.
Take the advice that is offered. You may be at the top of your profession at the moment but the chances are that, like me, you will know very little about the world of publishing. If two agents take the time to write to you in person and express the opinion that your work is unmarketable – particularly if they have been kind enough to compliment you on your writing ability – the chances are that they are not both wrong!
Find an agent you trust. You will need someone to steer you away from the pitfalls.
Finally, read as much as you can. Be critical, but don’t let it destroy your love of reading. Keep an eye on the trends and what is selling. Unless you have written something brilliant and original enough to start a new trend, your work will need to sit neatly with what else is out there.
Do you suffer from writers’ block and if so is there a cure?
I have days when I don’t feel as inspired as others, but it only takes a small idea to get things going again and they come from the most unlikely places. Colin Dexter recommends whisky and walking as cures. I find that music is also a stimulant. Yesterday I was listening to Army Dreamers by Kate Bush and an idea came to me for a new angle on the book I am currently working on. I always start a day’s writing by reading over and editing what I wrote the previous day, and this tends to get me into the right frame of mind. If all else fails I do something manual that doesn’t require much concentration, as that lets my mind wander. (I have been making a lot of homemade soup recently.) I have also heard that the breathing techniques used in yoga stimulate the creative side of your brain. You need to breathe in while covering your right nostril. I intend to try that next time nothing else works.
What do you think makes a great novel?
I think that a great novel has to transport you somewhere else. There have to be a few deeply flawed but sympathetically written characters. The speech and descriptions need to sound true. There must be a love interest, even if the love is unrequited. And there needs to be a tragedy. I like authors who write about complex subject matter in simple language. I don’t want to have to interrupt my reading to look up words in a dictionary.
What do you think the most important quality in a writer is?
Empathy. A writer must empathise with his characters and understand how they would interact with each other.
Whose writing do you admire?
Apart from John Irving and Thomas Hardy, I love Louis de Berniers, Joanne Harris and E. Annie Proulx.
What are your favourite novels?
My current favourite novel is The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak. This is the book that I recommend to people who tell me that they don’t enjoy fiction, because it is based in fact. The author tackles extremely sensitive subject matter with originality and simplicity, which is perfection. I got to the very end before I learned that he is the author of several award winning children’s books, and it explained much about his writing style and his deep understanding of his main characters.
I find myself coming back time and time again to Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It stays relevant and contains the most perfectly flawed heroine; innocent, naïve, wronged. And, ultimately, deadly. I feel that I catch glimpses of the England that he describes when I am out walking in the mountains.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Barker is a difficult, rich and rewarding read. Don’t be put off by the film which focused on everything that is romantic in the book, detouring neatly round the more shocking elements of the storyline, leaving very two-dimensional characters.
My favourite author is John Irving and it would be difficult to include only one of his novels in a shortlist. I am torn between Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both are life-changing. I particularly love John Irving’s use of themes and challenging viewpoints. I have never been to New England, but I feel that I know the area well through his writing.
E. Annie Proulx wrote the most extraordinary main character in Quoyle in The Shipping News but her use of language is so full of warmth and humour and sadness that we cannot help but love him.