Hi Tom. By the way, I should point out that I write books for teenagers, but don’t let that put you adults off. The teenage books you’ve probably heard of in the meeja are of a particular type. The ones you haven’t heard of are, er, mine. No, don’t dismiss them: good teenage novels nowadays are more profound than you might think. Remember yourself as a teenager? Full of sound and fury and passion and rebellion and the search for meaning? Well, that’s what I do, on a good day.
So, keyboard or ink?
Well, here was the answer I wrote a week ago: Absolutely madly keyboard. I have a secret (well, not so secret now) awe of writers who really write, as in with pen + paper / chalk + slate. That seems so organic and natural and uninhibited, but I really hate looking at my hand-writing, which changes day by day. I can’t even write notes by hand. I try, and I have a few scrappy ones, but as soon as I have any kind of sensible thought it has to go on the computer. I will be useless for historians.
But here’s the answer I write now, one week into a Nanowrimo (crazy group thing involving writing 50,000 words in 30 days): Oh anything; yeah, keyboard / ink? What’s the difference? I can write on anything, in any place. Pen? No problem. On a bus? Nae bother, as they say up here in Scotland. I even have a real big fat notebook and a pen, and I’m not even going to tear it up and throw it away. Historians will love me. I’ll even colour-code everything for them.
Are you a great planner, resolving plot points, developing characters fully before you write, or do you jump in and see where the creative urges take you?
Ah, planning. Because I write for teenagers, I do a lot of school visits and when we get to the Q&A bit, a teacher always puts up a hand and I know the question is going to be, “Can you tell us a bit about how you plan?” And something inside me curls up, and I feel guilty, because they’re paying me to be there and say sensible things. But no, I don’t plan. Except maybe in my head while I’m walking the dog. I reverse plan, though - so, I’ll be 20,000 words in and I’ll lose track of where I’ve been, so I’ll go back and do nifty little chapter plans, with different colours for each thread, and it will look oh so professional and calculated. But you’ll know the truth - nae planning. What tends to happen is that I have a few key scenes vividly in my head, really vividly, shouting to be written; I don’t allow myself to write them until I get my characters to that place. So, those vivid scenes become the carrot. And the whole energy goes into getting the characters to the point where each scene can happen. I once knew the ending of a novel (Sleepwalking) but when I got there it wasn’t the ending at all, and an epilogue wrote itself. The only other time I thought I knew the ending (Passionflower Massacre - my most favourite writing experience, written to REM over and over and over), I was wrong. Which was a great feeling.
Do you keep regular hours, where nothing but writing occurs, or are you a mood writer?
Definitely mood. I get scared of people who say you have to write every day. (Except now. Damned Nanowrimo is changing me). I don’t. (ditto) I can happily go for, er, quite a long time without writing. Writing is hard. I’d be seriously tired if I did it too much. People have died from too much writing.
I think I’d also point out that the deadline of a contract imposes a discipline. Writing without a contract was much tougher in that respect - I reckon I really did have self-discipline then. But everything changes.
What is the greatest asset a writer can have? Talent, obsession or luck?
Talent. Talent. Talent. Without it you are either a) still unpublished or b) deluded into thinking that publication is what labels you as a good writer, when it isn’t. There are very many talented unpublished writers. And many crappy published ones. I really think in the end that although luck appears to be a big part of getting published, if you have the talent plus the hard work (ok, so that’s the obsession coming in there), then what looks like luck is more or less inevitability. Unless you are unlucky enough to be hit by a bus the day before an agent gets back to you to say he/she loved your work.
Do you avoid reading fiction similar to your own when writing?
I used to and I was really paranoid about it. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. I suppose maybe now I know who I am as a writer and I know I wouldn’t be affected in the way that I worried I would be before.
Should a writer write what’s in their heart or what will sell?
Usually, I think a writer can’t avoid writing what’s in their heart. And sometimes that’s what will sell but other times it isn’t. I don’t make lots of money because the writing I do is aimed at a relatively rare type of teenage reader, the equivalent of the adult lit fic market. But if for some reason I really wanted or needed to write something more commercial, I might try but I wouldn’t be able to do it. Because I can’t really control the type of writing I do and I think most people can’t. I’ve talked in other places about a fleeting moment of magic when an author turns an idea into some words, a moment where talent “happens” in the brain, and how if you give a task to a load of authors they’ll all come up with totally different words. We can only control them after we’ve thought them, but it’s that moment of thinking them (or almost actually before thinking them) that makes the writer who and what he/she is. I don’t think you can control that very much at all. Not for fiction, anyway.
Which writers, if any, do you admire?
Oh, loads. Kate Atkinson’s plotting is remarkable, and she has an amazing ability to combine comedy with tragedy. I adored Bernice Rubens’ books. In my own field, I most admire Laurie Halse Anderson, Ian Bone, John Marsden, Morris Gleitzman, Rachel Klein - and that’s before I’ve even thought about the UK ones. Oh, and recently I found Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones incredibly compelling. When literary fiction is carried along by the plot instead of drowning in its beauteous prose, that’s when you get a perfect book for me. I love beauteous prose, couldn’t do without it, but if the story’s not there I can’t stick it. I’ll leave you at page ten if you haven’t dragged me into the story. I’m not alone.
Your blog on achieving publication is an invaluable tool for new writers; is it harder to find an agent and publisher today?
If you go back as many years as you want, you’ll find authors saying how hard it was to get published. When I was failing to find an agent 15 years ago, I remember one of them saying, “Five years ago I could have sold this.” Yeah, yeah. There are more books published in the UK every year, so it can’t be that much harder. But I do think it’s harder for adult literary fiction today because in the past publishers could afford to have books that had fabulous reviews but didn’t sell in shed-loads, but now everyone’s focused on Bookscan and knows the exact sales figures of any book. Celeb memoir “writing” and the abolition of the Net Book Agreement - oh, and stupid price discounting - have done big disservices to the range of publishing. But essentially it still boils down to talent and knowledge of the market. And that hasn’t changed. In fact, learning about the market is much easier nowadays.
What advice would you give to new writers?
a) write and b) read. Read with the mind of a writer. Read the up-to-date successful stuff within your genre and work out what it is that made it work. Don’t give up, but don’t carry on making the same mistakes. The key is to find someone you trust and get them to show you what you’re doing wrong. (Yes, a difficult key, I know.) But you may be doing nothing wrong - you just may not have found the right story yet.
What do you do about writer’s block?
Get seriously pissed off. Do anything other than tackle it. You know me - the mistress of avoiding work. Otherwise, why am I answering these questions when I should be Nanowrimoing??? No, seriously. There are two sorts of writer’s block, I think. The one where you don’t know what to write at all and have no motivation - the answer to that one is to stop thinking about it for as long as it takes and stop worrying. If you’re a real writer it will always come back to you. The other sort is where you specifically don’t know what happens next in your story. For that one, I do one of three things: walk, iron, or cook. Those are things I can do without thinking, and so it frees the brain and ideas come.
Desert island: Chocolate (I’ve heard you’re partial to the occasional piece), books or typewriter?
Funny, when I first read that question I thought, “Wow, difficult question.” But almost immediately I realised it was an incredibly easy question: I’m a writer because I need people to read my writing, so it has to be a type-writer. Except that now, of course, it could be a pen.
Thanks to Nicola for letting us glimpse her world.