How to Write a Book: a Note to my Future Self

I’ve written this piece for you just in case you ever attempt to write a fourth book.

Right now, I’m writing book three and it’s not easy. I’ve stared at the screen feeling blank and I’ve churned out stream-of-consciousness sentences that make no sense whatsoever when I read them back. But this is how it always starts for you, please remember that.

If you’ve managed to come up with an idea, if you’ve started writing, the chances are you’ll be thinking you can’t do it. You’ll be impatient for ideas to come to you – they might arrive slowly at first – but trust me they will arrive.

Everyone will want to avoid the steps I’ve included here (especially step one – I do not recommend that at all), but I’m afraid for you, step two and beyond are distinct possibilities. Brace yourself then and begin.

1 Think up five ideas. Write 50,000 words of one. Discover that someone has written a virtually identical book. Abandon these 50,000 words. Write 40,000 words of another novel. Decide that it’s not the way you want to go. Chuck both files into the trash on your computer and have writerly crisis number 789.

2 Start writing your third idea – the best of the lot. Change the characters’ names several times over the course of the first ten pages. You don’t know who you’re dealing with here – is she an Ida or an Erin, maybe she’s a Jenny? For now though, you seem to have settled on Elizabeth, but knowing you, that could all change.

3 Read back some of your chapters and realise that they are all completely shit. You don’t know who the characters are and you sure-as-hell don’t know where they are going. In fact, what is the point of this book at all? What is the point of writing? Pause here for several days while wallowing in writerly crisis number 790. While doing this, it’s important to read the most scathing Goodreads reviews of your first book, paying particular attention to the woman who gave you not one 1-star review, but two 1-star reviews. Then make yourself feel better – watch author Louise Beech‘s inspired poem about Amazon reviews.

4) Admit it, you really can’t remember how to write a book can you? Apply for jobs and stop writing the book altogether. Land a freelance editing job with Blue Pencil Agency and start reading other people’s books – be seriously impressed by all of them. Somehow this gives you the urge to face the fear of book three again. Open it, feel completely stumped, eat a great deal of cheese.

5) Everyone writes books differently, but you decide that you need a reminder about just how it is that you write. Open the very first draft of your soon to be published second book, The Swap*, which started life as Swapped Version 1. It went through many incarnations, eventually becoming The Swap Version 11.

Swapped Version 1 bears absolutely no relation to the finished book. Swapped Version 1 features an au pair called Flavia and a woman who keeps having sex with her father’s nurse. By draft 3 you had killed off Flavia and the male nurse. For you, version 1 is all about writing roughly and hoping your idea gathers some kind of form.

So back to book 3: Eventually after loads of discarded words and far too many snacks, you end up with 23,000 words. They are rough and rubbish, but still – the blur is becoming that little bit clearer.

6) You’re 25,000 words in now – and the story is all over the place. You stop work and spend a day planning. This theme, that twist – maybe they could work. The next day, you look at your plan again and realise it’s not that great. You rewrite the plan. You’re not entirely convinced by  it yet, but this is the first draft and it’s all about experimentation.

7) 28,000 words in and you feel like spending a bit more time with the book now. You’ve got two different characters in two different files. You put them together to see how the story is panning out. The fear is still there, yes, but the initial terror of the first draft has gone. For now.

And that’s where I am right now. I don’t know whether I’m going to write myself into a tall, impenetrable wall, but I’m trying not to let that intimidate me. I am trying to be bold. Are you?

The Swap is published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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Book Review – The Swap – Fiona Mitchell

It’s a bit of a nail-biting time when the first copies of a new book go out into the world, so I’m absolutely delighted with this first review of The Swap. Huge thanks to bestselling author Louise Jensen for saying such lovely things about my second book.

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Ever since I read The Maid’s Room, which I gushed about here, I’ve been waiting eagerly for Fiona Mitchell’s second book, The Swap.

And oh how it was worth the wait! Fiona has crafted an emotive and credible read centred around Tess who, during her IVF treatment, had her embryo mistakenly swapped for a stranger’s. For two years Tess and Annie, the other woman, have been unknowingly raising each other’s children.

Tess has never bonded with her son, Freddie, so when she meets Annie’s daughter, Willow, she’s determined she and Annie swap their children back. But Annie won’t let go of Willow without a fight.

Harrowing in parts, but uplifting in others, Fiona keeps the pace constant, never letting the story become pulled down by legal jargon, although it is obvious she’s carried out much research. For the last half an hour of reading, I was literally holding my breath…

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Why I Hate Writing The First Draft

The first draft is a bit of a Marmite process, don’t you think? You either love writing it or, like me, you loathe it. I call myself a writer which is weird since I don’t like writing all that much. What I do love, however, is the editing. Turning the rough words into something better – tinkering, changing things about, questioning everything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s my own work that I’m editing or somebody else’s work, editing locks me in completely. And when I’m in the midst of it, even when I’m not at the computer, I’ll be thinking about it – what bits work, what bits don’t, and why.

That’s why I’m splitting my time between writing and editing other people’s work now. I’m loving freelancing as a story editor for literary agents as well as the Blue Pencil Agency.

Today is a writing day though. I have a rough plan, but the story isn’t fully formed yet. It’s scary, like driving in the dark when your lights don’t work and you can’t see the road ahead. I’m impatient to be home.

A confession: I’ve taken to setting the timer on my mobile phone for an hour at a time to force myself to stay put at my desk, to stop myself from giving in to my constant cravings for snacks and tea. The first 1,000 words of the day are usually fuelled by a round of toast. The next few hundred come courtesy of a couple of slices of cheese. And then thank goodness, it’s lunch time. An early lunch, but who cares? Everything gets better after lunch.

Maya Angelou sums up the whole creative process beautifully: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’…. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”

So with that in mind I’m going back in – hopefully adding to my current 24,000 words. 24,000 distinctly un-Angelou words, but it’s a start, right?

 

  • Post by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts

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This is a book about a subject everyone has an opinion about, yet no one wants to think about too deeply – why a child would murder a toddler. The Flower Girls asks that question and more – how such a crime ripples out and virtually buries all the people affected, and what does rehabilitation even mean in the context of a young child who commits a crime? Readers will undoubtedly draw parallels with the James Bulger case, so this is tricky fictional ground to tread. Clark-Platts doesn’t shirk the responsibility. This is brave writing at its very best – beautiful, accessible, utterly compelling. Clark-Platts peels each of the characters’ layers away to scintillating effect – from the has-been journalist, Max, desperate for a scoop, to Joanna, a member of the dead toddler’s family, who is drowning in rage. I felt so invested in all the characters that I kept reading far into the night. Not only is The Flower Girls a truly original book, it is an unforgettable one too. I can almost guarantee you’ll be altered by it.

Review by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak – Book Review

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This book brought me so much joy. Strikingly funny, well-observed, and addictive, it is peopled with superbly drawn characters. I read it in about two days (and when I wasn’t reading it, I was wittering on about how much I was loving it).

It’s Christmas and a family are in quarantine as daughter Olivia, a medic, returns from a stint treating a deadly and highly contagious epidemic in Liberia. Most of the family members she’s with are guarding secrets and when an unwelcome visitor arrives, the already strained atmosphere reaches boiling point.

How I savoured this book and was sorry to finish it. The fact that it’s about an entitled upper class family may put some readers off, but the Birch’s country manor house, Weyfield Hall, dished up some delicious escapism as did their luxury Camden pad. Emma was the most privileged of the characters, but she was so funny and sympathetic that I fell head over heels in love with her. All of the characters made me smile though – Phoebe, George, Jesse et al. I simply couldn’t get enough of them.

The book is pacey and oh, that ending – to say more about it would involve spoilers, but it was totally unpredictable.

I loved everything about Seven Days of Us – the writing has real quality to it. It is the perfect festive read and is one of the best books I’ve read in months. An unstinting five stars.

 

Review by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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The Swap – Cover Reveal for My Second Novel

So here it is – the cover of my next book. The Swap is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th April 2019.

When two strangers, Tess and Annie, undergo IVF at an American clinic, their embryos are mixed up and each woman gives birth to the wrong child.

The women only discover the devastating error three years later. Tess wants to swap the children back; Annie doesn’t. As the pair wrangle, neither of them expect what unfolds.

This cover captures the very essence of the story – the emotional turmoil; two women separated from their biological children; and cars, there’s quite a lot of cars.

Roll on 2019!

 

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The Boy Made of Snow by Chloe Mayer

An enchanting and devastating book that will make your throat seize up with dread. There’s a German POW working in the woods in rural Kent during World War Two – cutting down trees for fuel for the villagers. Friendly and with something of the forbidden about him, he’s an intriguing addition to the village where nine-year-old Daniel and his repressed mother Annabel don’t quite fit in. But just what does Hans want from the unsuspecting pair?

The story doesn’t pick up pace until about 80 pages in, but it is well worth the wait because what unfolds next is so compelling, mind-blowing even, that you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough. Tension builds as it becomes increasingly likely that Annabel and Daniel’s fragile lives are about to shatter into pieces, but not in any of the ways that you might expect. Twisty and beautifully written, with intelligent observations – take note of the Home Guard with their jobsworthy puffed-up pride for instance – The Boy Made of Snow is a remarkable read. And since this is Mayer’s debut, it is just the beginning.

 

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Why I Abandoned The Book I Was Writing – interview in today’s The Gloss Magazine

I am so thrilled to feature in today’s The Gloss Magazine interviewed by the wonderful Sophie Grenham. I’m talking jogging (aka fast walking), what it’s like to have to abandon a book because another author’s already written it, and what the defining moment was that made me pick up my pen and write The Maid’s Room.

Sophie says: ‘Fiona’s refreshing and respectful prose gives voice to a nation of people that are often seen and not heard, and shines a light on a system that should have been challenged long ago. In preparation for her novel, she interviewed many women working as maids, who opened up to her about their treatment.’

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

Novel Competitions – Do You Have The X-Factor?

Huge congratulations to everyone who has been longlisted in the Blue Pencil First Novel Award. What a huge privilege it is to have read your work – and I don’t just mean the work that has gone through to the next round. I have marvelled over inventive story ideas and underlined beautiful sentences; I have fallen in love with many of your characters. It was incredibly hard to choose just 25 entries for the longlist because the standard was so high.

One of my Twitter followers has asked me what it was that gave the 25 that X-Factor. The answer is a strong voice – that quality that makes writing great, that stamps it into your memory so that you think about the characters long after you finish reading the pages. I’ve come across voices that are likeable, unlikeable, funny, bubbly and cross. It doesn’t matter what shape or form the voice takes as long as it is arresting and makes the reader want to spend time with it.

Liking a voice is incredibly subjective, but I prefer voices that show much more than they tell, that don’t explain too much, that make me do some guess work. I adore a voice that dishes out surprises.

I can’t wait to re-read the longlist again as we decide on the shortlist, then yippee – we get to read much longer excerpts to figure out who the winner will be. Good luck everyone, and a big thank you for letting me read your wonderful work.

Why I’m Doing a Twitter Detox

I’m on Twitter to find out about new, (and old) books, to shout about brilliant books and to connect with readers of my book (soon to be books, when The Swap is published in April 2019). I’ve made some great friends on Twitter, people I meet up with who can waffle on about books just as much as I do. And as someone who longs to work as part of a team again, Twitter has become the banter I miss out on while alone at my desk every day. It’s become my ‘fancy a cup of tea?’ my ‘did you see that thing on the tele the other night?’ My connection.

A couple of months ago, I went to an event by Matt Haig and he talked about how we sometimes scroll through social media as an avoidance tactic. And that’s just what I’ve been doing of late, giving a lot of attention to tweets instead of pouring words onto pages. I’ve reached for my phone rather than allowing my thoughts to gain momentum and start to bloom into new work.

Good work requires deep thought, not thought that’s constantly interrupted by reaching for a phone with a scratchy feeling in the veins – just one more hit then I’ll stop and concentrate.

So I’m switching off for a while. I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone for now. Let’s see how long I can last.

So here we are then, laptop screen – it’s just you and me and the tea. Make mine a strong one.

 

(Holding pic by David Travis, Unsplash)