Does Being a Journalist Make Writing a Book any Easier?

In this blog post, I ask journalists-turned-novelists what their steepest learning curves have been . . .

Sometimes people nod their heads knowingly when I tell them I’m a journalist. ‘See that’s why you’ve managed to get your book published, you were a writer already.’ But there’s a world of difference between writing magazine features or newspaper stories and writing a book with 300-plus pages. And the differences have become even more apparent since my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, was published in November.

I’ve been interviewed several times over the past three weeks and I’m trying to get used to being the one answering questions instead of asking them. Over the years, as a journalist, I interviewed quite a few people who didn’t have all that much to say for themselves – yes or no answers, without elaboration. All while my blank notebook stared up at me, along with the creeping fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fill my 1,000-word feature with. When I’ve been interviewed, I have to admit I’ve given some monosyllabic answers myself. ‘Why did you write that scene the way you did? ‘Er, I’m not sure.’ ‘And what about the juxtaposition of light and shade in chapter 7?’ ‘Erm . . .’ I’ve also fallen into the other extreme of filling the awkward spaces with seemingly never-ending gibberish.

Yep, I may be a journalist, but I’m definitely a newbie now I’m on the other side.

Here, best-selling authors and debut novelists share their thoughts on the differences between journalism and writing a book.

 

 

Fiona Cummins– Author of Rattle, and The Collector which will be published on 22 February 2018.

‘I was surprised by how exposing it felt to be critiqued by readers. I was used to writing other people’s stories – the focus of attention was never on me – and, then, suddenly everyone had an opinion. It gave me some sense of what it must feel like to have a newspaper story written about you, whether you liked it or not. Ultimately, you have no control over what others may think.

‘It’s certainly been a steep learning curve. With my tabloid newspaper background, I was used to working at breakneck speed. Publishing moves much more slowly. I’ve also had to learn to pace myself. Writing a 90,000-word manuscript takes time – I can’t just dash it off in a day.’

 

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Francesca Hornak – Author of Seven Days of Us

‘The thing I struggled with in fiction is making bad things happen . . . This isn’t true of all journalism, but in glossy magazines there’s a constant aim to create a kind of aspirational, fantasy world, where people cook recipes and buy £200 moisturisers and scented candles. In fiction, you need to make your characters miserable, otherwise there’s no story. At first I was a bit squeamish about that, but I’ve got the hang of it now.

‘Long deadlines can be hard too; there isn’t quite enough pressure in publishing.’

 

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Chloe Mayer – Author of The Boy Made of Snow

‘I work in news rather than features, so the longest it usually takes for my copy to appear as a newspaper article is the next day. In contrast, the book industry moves at a glacial pace! My debut novel, The Boy Made of Snow, was released last month – more than a year and a half after I signed my publishing deal!

‘As a journalist I write stories all day long, but many articles are limited to just a few hundred words. It’s a completely different skill set to make up a story from scratch and tell it over 100,000 words – with an arc, sub-plots, and an entire cast of characters.

‘The first thing all news reporters are taught is that they must tell the whole story in the first sentence; the introduction must contain the crux of what’s happened and why. But with fiction, you must gradually build a world and let the story unfold over time.

‘Another difference is that in journalism you must explicitly lay out all of the facts and be as clear as possible. Whereas with fiction, you often have to hold back – and what isn’t said, or revealed, is often as important as what is. So learning how to write a novel as I went along was the steepest learning curve for me.’

 

Juliet West – Author of The Faithful and Before the Fall

‘As a journalist, and especially as a news reporter on a daily paper, there’s a pressure to get your story out very quickly. Ideally that story will be word-perfect straight from your notebook. So when I first began to write fiction I attempted the same modus operandi. I thought I could file my story straight onto the page and all would be effortless and wonderful. Of course, what came out was terrible, so I would re-work every sentence, trying to make it perfect before moving on. I think I wrote three paragraphs over a fortnight, and they were desperately worthy and self-conscious and forced.

‘I realised I needed to give myself more freedom to write a first draft, allowing the story and characters to take root before going back to add polish and finesse. So that’s my top tip. Give yourself a break. Your first draft is yours alone – it’s not going to turn up in the next day’s paper with your byline on it.

‘When I did get a publishing deal in 2013 I was delighted, but also daunted by the prospect of a publicity campaign. Somehow I’ve risen to the challenge, and I’m really proud that I’m able to stand up and give a talk, or chat to a presenter on live radio. But I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling that I should be the one asking the questions.’

• Holding Image by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

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What It Feels Like To Hold Your Book in Your Hands For The First Time

It’s been a day to remember. The postman brought me my very first finished copy of my debut novel The Maid’s Room which will be published in hardback in just four weeks time.

I’m absolutely delighted with the beautiful cover, the font, the bit that says copyright Fiona Mitchell.

Watching my daughter’s reaction as she opened the book and realised I’d dedicated it to her was an absolute gift. I dedicated it to my husband too, mentioning all that I’d gone “through” to get the book published. ‘Oh God, you’ve spelt “through” wrong,’ he said. ‘What?’ I replied, horrified until the smile stretched across his face.

My first and only copy so far of my lovely book is now sitting on the windowsill with a bottle of Mr Sheen beside it.

But I am super happy. Excited. Feeling lucky. Holding my book is like holding almost seven years worth of hard work and determination in my hands. I’ve worked hard at many things in my life – pregnancy wasn’t a doddle for me, parking has all but defeated me. I pounded the pavements as a rookie reporter before enjoying years as a features writer. But this, this feels like the thing I’ve worked hardest at.

For all those writers plugging away at your keyboards, please know, it didn’t just happen for me. There were so many moments when I thought all hope was gone, but I got there in the end.

What It Was Like to Give my First Author Talk

Today I gave a talk to writers in Singapore via FaceTime and surprisingly, for someone who claims not to like public speaking all that much, I enjoyed it.

Hooking up via a wonky Skype connection, then reverting to FaceTime, there were about fourteen writers in the room making notes while I talked about the long route from starting my very first novel to landing a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. Publication of The Maid’s Room is now only six weeks away and I can’t wait.

Hopefully I managed to relay some tips that the writers will find useful. The word ‘perseverance’ was uttered more than once.

I took me three years, three months and 29 days from receiving my first agent rejection letter to getting representation from my lovely agent Rowan Lawton. During that time I became an expert in rejection, so a large part of my talk was dedicated to surviving the submissions process.

My top survival tips include:

  • Logging onto Paul McVeigh’s brilliant website to keep you going. There were so many times I snivelled over my keyboard as I read one of the author interviews featured to make myself feel just that little bit better about everything.
  • Entering writing competitions. Being shortlisted in the Bristol Short Story Prize for the very first time buoyed me up. Some of the judges and authors who read my story liked my work and encouraged me to keep writing.
  • Watching TED Talks. On the days I felt particularly low, I’d watched a Ted Talk. There’s so much to inspire you here, from writers talking about books, to people who’ve overcome enormous obstacles to achieve their personal bests.
  • Using the anger. I did quite a bit of ranting about rejection, but then somehow I managed to turn that emotion into energy. Try it – you might just end up writing your soul onto the page.

Preparing this talk was a real eye-opener for me. It took quite a few hours to plan what I wanted to say, so a big shout-out to inspirational teachers everywhere. I had no idea teaching involved so much hard graft.

But the biggest revelation for me was just how much I loved doing a spot of public speaking – hopefully I’ll remember that in future.

Huge thank you to author Alice Clark-Platts for inviting me to speak, and the Singapore Writers’ Group, thanks for listening.

Just been Rejected by a Literary Agent? Keep the Faith . . . #writing #novels

I just pulled Stephen King’s On Writing off my book shelf. The shelf that’s only for my best books – the ones that inspire me to write.

I opened it up  and looked down at all the sentences I’d underlined. Here’s one:

‘You should have an agent, and if your work is saleable, you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You’ll probably be able to find one even if your work isn’t saleable, as long as it shows promise.’

Er, really, Stephen? Yes, I suspect there are writers who haven’t even finished the first draft of their books, and have still managed to get signed by an agent, but King makes it sound like a breeze, and let’s face it, for most of us it’s not.

If you’ve just opened a rejection email from an agent, you’ll probably be feeling a bit bruised. And the likelihood is that you might just have to read a few more of these before you find an agent who’s right for you.

It’s been a year since my wonderful agent Rowan Lawton took me on. Thanks to her, my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, and rights have been sold in four other territories.

But it took me years to get signed by Rowan. YEARS. My heart used drop into my shoes every time an email from an agent landed in my inbox. I’d curl my lip and say ‘Oh God!’ very loudly indeed. And that was even before I’d read the ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Invariably that email would ruin my day.

But the thing about putting yourself through all of this, is that if you take note, it can make your book better – I don’t mean the bog standard email rejections (they don’t offer you anything) but the ones where an agent has taken the time to point out things they liked about your book, and the things that they didn’t. Mull over, chuck bits away, rewrite. Let other people read it. When it’s the best you think it can be, find a good editor if you can afford one. And know this – as the rejection letters stack up, there might just be a genie lurking among them.

Rowan rejected an early novel of mine a few years ago. (Yes reader I kept the email.) Then in 2014, I was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the first time and decided to go to the awards ceremony. (Do go,  2017 shortlisted writers; it’s fantastic.) Rowan was one of the judges that year and I ended up talking to her for quite a while. It was then that I realised that we got on really well, plus I loved her ideas about books. I could have chatted to her for hours.

So I kept on trying, kept changing and tweaking, and occasionally even got a bit hopeful. And finally, my biggest, happiest, most wonderful turning point arrived – and Rowan signed me. (Cue chin wobbling, and an enormous amount of gushy thank you’s). But that moment only arrived when the book was in a much more presentable state than it had ever been.

If you’ve had a rejection letter today, I hope this post might inspire you to keep going. Keep the faith and keep writing because getting your book published really can happen.

Have You Got More Than One Story in You? #writing

Suffering from a major book hangover after reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I started a new book in a grouchy, this’ll-never-match-up kind of mood. My Name is Lucy Barton didn’t disappoint in the end, but it’s this line that has made a dent in me.

‘“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

Do you have only one story? I think I might be guilty…

All my short stories, my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, and my second novel have things in common. Overseas settings. Tick. Writing about outsiders. Tick. And something else – all of them are an examination of the relationship between mothers and their children. I don’t just mean between the woman who gives birth and her offspring; I write about women who can’t give birth, the women who don’t want to, the connections they forge with other people which are just as deep and unbreakable as the ones they might have had with sons and daughters. I write about absent mothers, about father figures, about any parental set-up that isn’t 2.4 kids.

I’ve got an idea for a third book and it will be extremely difficult to pull off. Indeed I’ve told a couple of friends about it, and they’ve advised me to steer clear. Yet it’s an idea that I can’t stop thinking about, so perhaps it’s the one to go with. And yes – that too is about a mother and child.

For me, Elizabeth Strout is dead on – I am writing my story in many different configurations.

I once wrote a novel (I can’t even bring myself to say the title now, it was that pretentious) about an oil rig worker. I spent about a year on it, reworking it, and telling myself that this was the one that was going to get me an agent. It didn’t. It did have it’s moments, but it was the most deluded piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was also the only time in the six and a half years that I’ve been writing fiction that I veered off my parental obsession. When I gave it to my husband to read, he fell asleep on the sofa with the pages fanned over his face. That will be the last time I write about oil rig workers.

So I’m going to stop berating myself about having a single story now. I feel like the brilliant Elizabeth Strout has given me permission.

Why This Writer needs Company (Sometimes)

I’ve been working on my own for years now. When you’re writing a book, you have to be alone much of the time – poring over the screen for hours, hoping some magic might descend.

As a freelance journalist, there was a lot of just me, the computer and the telephone. But over the past few months, it’s started to get to me.

I missed my days of working in magazine publishing where, stood beside the kettle, we’d mull over what we did at the weekend, all while trying to find a mug with an inside free of thick brown rings.

I missed the office banter – ‘Did you see Line of Duty last night?’ The birthday cake serenades. The ‘I’ve just bought these inedible toffees back from my holiday. Want one?’

Working on my tod was becoming too quiet. Sure, quiet has its benefits: the telephone didn’t ring all that much, and no one ever asked me to read yet another proof. And sometimes I even wrote some pretty good scenes.

But an emotion had started to chisel away at me. I tried to swallow it down, but it wouldn’t disappear. God, I was lonely.

I’d begun to drag myself through the day, lethargic and easily distracted.

A friend of mine, who’s doing a PhD, told me that she works a lot in the university library, so that she can be around other people. She finds it stimulating and as a result is able to focus more; she produces better work.

I tried working in a cafe for a while. Okay, so it worked for JK Rowling, but let me tell you, when you’re sat next to a man with a perma-tan and bleach white teeth who shares his travel itinerary at full volume, it’s pretty hard to tune out. (He was a regular.)

Then another friend made a suggestion. She invited me to take a desk in her office. She runs her own business and her office is at the end of her garden. Surely though, I’d be more productive if I just carried on sitting in silence and typed. I kept on going it alone, and I kept on getting through the day as if I was wading through glue. Something had to change, so I took that desk in my friend’s office for one day last week. It’s a grand desk too – tidy, with a glass top and a pot of pens perched in the corner. It’s set in front of a window that’s surrounded by trees.

It was difficult to concentrate for the first half hour, but then I was off, typing, squinting at the screen, muttering to myself. We had a natter over tea, not a stained mug in sight. We ate our lunch together, and my friend made lots of phone calls in the background.

It worked, I wasn’t distracted. I wasn’t lethargic, and best of all, I didn’t feel lonely. I was more focused and did some decent work.

So I’m going back to that lovely desk this week. Going it alone is okay some days, but I need my fix of people.

How to Start Writing a Novel – The First Steps to a First Draft

I’m three weeks into writing my new novel. It had been so long since I wrote a first draft that I’d forgotten just how difficult it is.

For starters, there was blank page syndrome. That sickly feeling when you see your computer lurking on your desk, and all those things you do to avoid sitting in front of it. Gardening in sub-zero temperatures anyone?

My first few paragraphs didn’t have an easy birth, beset by distractions. Copious cups of tea were made. Toast was burnt. And oh, what the hell, just one more look at my emails.

Then, falteringly, somehow I hit 31,000 words. 31,000 rough words that I wouldn’t want anyone to read just yet. But still….

For me – starting is the hardest part. And in starting, it all came back to me. So here are three steps that have kept me on the straight and narrow and stopped me staring aimlessly into space.

Step One: Make a Plan then Make Another One

I scribbled a rough plan of the whole book before I started to write. Once I’d started, the story began to take its own shape, so I tore up my plan and wrote a new one, detailing the dramatic peaks of the story and the development of my characters. If I was an organised kind of person, I’d pin this new plan to the wall, but every time I start writing again, there’s a snowstorm of papers as I riffle through the mounds to find it. (Note to self – buy some Blu Tack.

Step Two: Research then Research Some More

I did a lot of research before I started to write -newspaper cuttings, lectures, speaking to an in-the-know friend. And I’ve punctuated my writing with doing yet more research. Reading about the subject at the centre  of my novel is helping to make the writing more authentic. It informs character development and sets off new ideas too.

Step Three: Write one Character at a Time then Rewrite and Repeat

My novel has two points of view, so I’ve started by writing one character in her entirety. That way, I might get more of a handle on her essence, on how she reacts to things, the way she speaks. She started off as a Victoria, transformed into a Kate and now she’s someone else entirely. Once I’ve finished writing her, I’ll rewrite her all over again hopefully turning her into a really strong character. Next it’ll be over to my second character. After that, I’ll start piecing their narratives together and work on pace.

Right, I’m going back in…..

 

5 Things to Know about Writing your First Draft

‘You’re an old hand.’

‘You must know what you’re doing by now.’

These are just two of the things my friends have cajoled me with this week while I’ve done everything in my power (and some things that were beyond my power – let’s not mention unscrewing the U-bend of that blocked sink) to avoid starting the first draft of my next novel.

You see, it’s been a while since I faced the dreaded blank page. Back in December 2010, I started typing my first novel only to get lost in a crowd of superfluous characters. Then there was that literary flirtation with the love story in 2014 (the one with the unmentionably pretentious title – breaks off here to delete all blog post references to it). And last year I began the first draft of my third book, The Maid’s Room, which, aided by a detailed plan, flowed well.

This next manuscript will be my fourth novel and I have to confess I’m a bit scared. To quell my concerns I’m reverting to what works best for me, writing a detailed plan on a piece of A3 paper. At the top of it, I’ve scrawled DRIVE and INTRIGUE and CHARACTER ARCS inside helpful squiggly clouds to urge me to stay on course. And yesterday was a good day, I finished with 3,074 words.

Whether you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month or going it alone, here are some first draft nuggets to remind you (and me) how it’s done.

  1. Don’t stress about the future. If you’ve done this novel writing malarkey before, chances are you’re inhibited by what lies ahead. The agent rejections. Will this ever get published? It all comes tumbling in, so that you might end up shutting down your blank page and looking at Facebook instead. Well, don’t. Stop thinking big. Just plonk yourself in front of the computer and type. I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day. But if you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month, you’ll be going 1,000 better than me. 2,000, ladies and gentlemen.
  2. Do write rubbish. The first draft can’t be anything else, can it? You don’t know your cast of characters yet. They’ll probably be acting in a way that will end up contrary to their later, more fully-formed selves. And the voices might be clunky. Just keep on tapping those keys though and the characters should eventually start to take shape.
  3. Don’t go back and edit. Not too much anyway. Let me just mention my pretentious novel again here. I ended up with 70,000 words that might have been coiffured and polished to the max, but that didn’t stop them causing a catatonic state in one of my liveliest friends. I’d wasted so much time titivating along the way that I hadn’t seen the glaringly obvious; the book was drivel. This time I’m going to leave the editing to the end. This draft isn’t about perfection after all; it’s about making it up the mountain.
  4. Do turn up. Tidy your desk. Pop a couple of inspirational books on top of it, so you can read some pages to spur you on. My chosen one is Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. I’m not writing a love story, but reading Grey’s flowing and immersive narrative puts me in the right mood. Make a deal with yourself not to get distracted. I try to write for an hour before I allow myself to get up and make a cup of tea. I became absorbed in writing The Maid’s Room – I’d get up early and write late into the night. The more you write, the more you want to write, and the better the writing gets.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself completely. Because a) you’ll develop twitchy eye syndrome, and b) you’ll stop writing well. Go to the party. Attend that book launch. Listen to your friends talk their hearts out. Seeing people will energise you and make your characters sing. You might even find a new subplot.

Right, I’m going in again. Are you?

Word-ometer: (as of Thursday 17th November) 28,267.

6 Reasons Why I Stop Reading Novels

I give up on books if they’re too hardgoing. There was a time when I’d persevere. I did an English Literature degree and wouldn’t have got through Tristram Shandy or Ulysses without a bucketload of stoicism. But now I’m done with difficult.

My most recent read is a bestseller; copies of it are piled on tables all over Waterstones, and this is the worst part, someone recommended it to me – always a guilt inducer that, but 150 pages into it, I’m bailing out.

I have a short attention span. I’m easily bored. If a television series doesn’t suck me in from the get-go, I switch off. Conversations about the weather make me zone out, and as for books – there’s a pile of them that I’m taking to the local charity bookshop because they just didn’t do it for me. Page 150 is my benchmark. If nothing’s happened by then, count me gone.

Reading is an intensely personal thing, of course. One of my favourite authors, for instance, five-starred my latest abandoned read on Goodreads. And a close author friend of mine couldn’t stand one of my favourite books. But as I start writing another novel, I wanted to figure out why I give up reading certain books.

So here they are – six reasons why I end up a quitter

1 Lack of action

I need something to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I love patient books like Stoner, but if the book meanders without any sense of purpose, to me it’s the equivalent of downing a couple of diazepam – except that’d probably be slightly more enjoyable. Slow books make me grumpy. They make me say things like, ‘Christ, why won’t somebody die or something?’ If there’s no action, for the sake of my sanity, I just have to give up.

2 Dull characters

The most memorable books are ones with emotionally deep characters. I’m name dropping Olive Kitteridge all over the place at the moment. What a woman. I want to connect with a character. I don’t necessarily need to like her, but I do need to understand her. And if she or he makes me groan with boredom, well, it’s time to call it a day.

3 Outlandish plot

Weird shit happens, doesn’t it? Life is full of coincidences/ gifts from the gods – and I do like to stretch my imagination, but ask me to stretch it too far and my elastic tends to break. That’s probably why I’m not a massive fan of psychological thrillers, but then that’s just me. I like a fantastic story with a hint of truth to it.

4 Too many characters

When there’s a cast of characters so big that I have to jot them all down on a piece of paper, they quite often get diluted and dull because of it. A smaller cast with more emotional depth and I’m one happy page-turner.

5 Lacklustre voice

Sometimes I just don’t connect with the voice. Perhaps I find it a bit old-fashioned or riddled with cliche or maybe it’s trying to be too clever for its own good. Sometimes it’s chemistry – a voice just doesn’t jive with me.

6 Tension vacuum

I like a book with mood, a beautiful bit of description so we are know where we’re at (but not too much description or I’ll Zzzzzzz). Simplicity is key to begin with, a steady thickening of the plot. Oh, and make sure I know that the stakes are high, give me the sense that something’s at risk and I’ll stick around.

So 4,000 words into writing my new novel and I’m remembering just what a huge ask all of this is. But I’m up for the challenge. (Gets out INTO the Woods – How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke and furrows brow……

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

Trying to Write Like Your Favourite Author? Just DON’T do it

I tried quite hard to be Evie Wyld for a while. Instead of becoming a contender for the Betty Trask Award, what I ended up with was the sleepy novel equivalent of downing half a bottle of whisky with your Nytol. In a word, it was crap.

The husband falling asleep with an early draft of it on top of his face, and a successful novelist friend of mine saying, ‘The thing is, I really preferred your other book,’ failed to convince me that something was wrong. I carried on buffeting my female protagonist with dramatic gale-force winds and filling my hero’s mouth with histrionic piffle.

But finally I realised why, when I spoke about that book, all my friends tried to change the subject, and I went back to book one – the one set in motion by reading a Maggie O’Farrell book. The one that had ground to a halt because it wasn’t quite Maggie O’Farrell enough.

I ripped the whole thing up and started again and this time my head didn’t scream. ‘For God’s sake, it’s a lesser Anita Shreve.’ The words, ‘You’re not good enough to be the next Kate Atkinson’ didn’t repeat like a CD with a scratch down its centre. No, I just wrote.

Somewhere along the line, I’d shaken off the need to try and be a writer other than myself, and I ended up writing my heart across 330 pages. I think I might just have found my own writing style now. It can take years to find it, but let’s be honest, even when you do find it, it’s a slippery thing. Sometimes it turns up to do the hours; other times it slides through your fingers.

My short story collection this year is a case in point. It’s been a neglected thing – what with trying to find an agent and all – but I did complete two shorts. One didn’t work out – I loved the concept and the twist, but the voice was too weak, too damn depressing. And my other story did work out, I guess. Sea Gift is a contender in this year’s Bristol Prize.

But the point is, writing without constraint, without thinking ‘I need to be as good as ……..[insert name of favourite author here], well, it’s full of possibilities and sometimes gleans grand results.

So as I stare at the blank page again – I’m about to start writing another book – I’m going to remind myself of this and take another gamble.