What I’ve Learned Writing Six Books (and counting)

  jessica fletcher

New writers often ask me: does it get easier after the first book? And of course in some ways it does. Doing something difficult once gives you confidence and permission to do it again. But ask a novelist who’s published 22 books which was the hardest to write and I bet she’ll answer, ‘Number 23’.

Each book brings new challenges. Some are obvious: you can’t use the same plot twist twice, for example. Themes, now that I have a solid backlist, are emerging. I cannot, it seems, leave the 1990s alone, or make peace with the fact that I am no longer nineteen. In the zombie procession of dead and dying mothers shuffling through my books, I have written and rewritten my twin greatest fears: of not being able to mother my daughters: of losing my own mother. I’m aware of the thin line between familiarity and repetition.

Research is increasingly an issue. ‘Write about what you know’ gets old pretty quickly when you’re essentially a suburban mum. To challenge myself, as well as keep readers entertained, I need something – setting, backdrop, crime – to change every time.

I’m about to publish my sixth book, and deep into my seventh. Here’s what it has been like for me.

                   Book One: The Poison Tree                       

 poison cover

I wish I had known, when writing this novel, what a beautiful experience it was, but there you go; you can’t pop your cherry twice. I’d wanted to write fiction my whole life. By 2007, this ambition was beginning to coalesce; I’d done a couple of short courses and joined a writing group but still had no more than a handful of sketches to show. Then, in 2008, I got pregnant and the biological deadline galvanised me. I flipped my usual work routine: treating the novel as my day job, scratching a couple of hours’ journalism in the evening (and yes, the financial fallout was as you’d expect). But six months later, I had a book. It was only 60,000 words long, and it would change before being accepted, but it was a book.

At the time, I was the usual mess of doubt and worry that I was about to make my family homeless through what is essentially vanity. Now I look back and realise what a treat it was, what a joyous rush of instinct and naivety. A lifetime’s love of books, my own internal library, welled up and bubbled over onto my page. It was as smooth as laying an egg. There was almost no research involved. I remember agonising for weeks over a plot turn that now seems almost laughably simple.

This book was very good to me and I still love the characters and the story. I do twitch to go through it with a red pen. After years of disciplined journalism, the freedom to really write went to my head and it’s overwritten in places. The foreshadowing is pretty heavy-handed. And – since I appear to be in the confessional here – there are a handful of places where I rewrote scenes because my characters didn’t seem enough like people from a novel. I know now, of course, that the goal is the opposite.

 

Book Two: The Sick Rose

sick rose cover

I wrote this book in a bubble. A two-book deal had given me relative financial security, validation and encouragement. Crucially, though, I still hadn’t been published. Never been reviewed; never woken up at 2am and fired up my laptop to check my Amazon ranking. Also I wasn’t on Twitter yet.

Like The Poison Tree, The Sick Rose – about a troubled older woman’s affair with a vulnerable 19-year-old – used a then-and-now structure but with an added layer of complexity as the to-and-fro had two narrators. It was a step up in terms of structure.

It’s set partly in a ruined Elizabethan castle, so for the first time I had to research. I read widely and obsessively about the massively sexy area of heritage gardens, specialising in Tudor parterres. Almost none of it ended up on the page, but my learning leaks between the lines.

Louisa and Paul, my narrators, were good to me. I want to deliver the best-written, most convincing suspense I can, and this inevitably means tension between what the plot needs and what the character wants. Most of my work is about finding the sweet spot where you can be true to both, and I hope I always get there in the end but some fight harder than others. Paul Seaforth, a geeky, oversensitive and horny 19-year-old from a rough estate in estuary Essex remains my favourite of my characters, not because he’s the most magnetic but because he served me so well. I never felt I was making anyone in The Sick Rose act out of character for the sake of the story.

 

Book Three: The Burning Air

burning air cover

This bloody, sodding book. I’ve never cried because of something I’ve written, but there was a moment, a year into this novel, when I burst into tears of frustration.

Before I started The Burning Air, my then American editor said she wanted to see the first third before making an offer on it. So I wrote 25,000 words of pure suspense. It was a story about an extended family gathering in their deserted country house for Bonfire Night. This first act finished with a baby being kidnapped, and the family realising that the night’s events had their roots in family secrets. I wrote it in real-time, 24-style, merrily littering it with clues and red herrings, with no idea how I was going to resolve it. I was Houdini closing the padlocks without an exit plan.

I wrote maybe 90,000 words of convoluted, melodramatic backstory before paring it down to a ‘mere’ 40,000 that bridged the link between a past slight and the present-day revenge. I sailed months past my deadline.

In the end, I pulled it off. Five years later, I still get emails about the twist that comes halfway through the book. Half congratulate me on sleight of hand. The rest complain that they thought one thing but it turned out to be quite another, thus spectacularly missing the point of suspense. More insightful readers ask me whether I the twist is needless showing off. The honest answer is: a bit. It’s gratuitous in that the plot still holds without it. Actually, the twist came almost by default. I left a certain detail blank to keep my options open, then realised I had an opportunity to have some fun with the reader.

Most importantly, The Burning Air was the book that taught me never to give up. Had I experienced this level of self-doubt with a first novel, I probably would have abandoned it. If I can rescue this, I can see anything through to the end. I vowed after writing it though that I would never write like this again, coming up with a great high-concept opening that was torture to execute. It is with a heavy heart that I refer to you my notes on Book Seven, below.

 

Book Four: The Ties That Bind

ties cover

I wrote this book on the rebound from the claustrophobic, very domestic, very female nature of The Burning Air, and, if I’m honest, my actual life. The result was Luke, a gay male journalist investigating the unsolved murder of a gangster in 1960s Brighton. The Ties That Bind (its working title was Ransomed Soul, which I still prefer) opens with him tied up in a cellar: who put him there? His possessive ex, Jem, or Joss Grand, the ‘reformed’ career criminal whose past Luke’s been raking over? Influenced by Graham Greene and Jake Arnott, it’s the closest thing to pure crime fiction I have ever written: still not a procedural but an investigation, with evidence and a paper trail, long scenes of interrogation and confession. There are only two women in it. There are no flashbacks. It is the most straightforward of my original books and was the easiest to write.

It has made me wonder whether the easier a book was to write, the less readers love it. The sales figures were pretty… sobering. The lessons I learned from this book were about publishing rather than writing Ties is a good book and contains some of my most disciplined writing, but it’s subtly different to my backlist, harder to market as a crossover between women’s fiction and crime. I knew when I wrote it that I was dipping a toe in new waters and getting something out of my system but I didn’t consider that in going off-brand I would make it harder for my publishers to sell. The lesson I took was to go back to what I know and love – and do – best. But first I took a little detour to Dorset.

 

Book Five: Broadchurch 

broadchurch

A weird little privilege, this project. Only a handful of novelists have adapted a TV drama for the page. This book is a bit like Paul McGann playing Dr Who. There will always be some people who don’t believe it counts. Broadchurch is not my work, and yet it is. I loved writing this book, and not only for the lazy reason that the heavy lifting of the plot and the characterisation was done for me, and done to perfection.

My job as a novelist was to read the characters’ minds and set their thoughts on the page. Finding the right words is my favourite part of writing. Watching Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker act was like taking dictation. Broadchurch was a masterclass in character. The arc of Series 1, while compelling, is more linear than my own storytelling style; the magic is in the people and the place as well as the plot. My brief was to write up: find language that did the stunning photography and performances justice. I’m proud of the result, not least because I made showrunner Chris Chibnall cry, which was only fair after he’d done the same to millions of viewers.

 

Book Six: He Said/She Said

hsss cover

This, my current book, feels like a debut in some ways. Since The Ties That Bind was published, Broadchurch, and a second child, and a teaching job had happened so He Said/She Said had the luxury of a long gestation period. I was in the mood, and had the energy, for something big and ambitious.

For the first time research could not be taken lightly. The plot of He Said/She Said turns on two very different technicalities. Firstly, it happens over the course of several total solar eclipses, and I loved learning about the phenomenon and the people who travel the world to witness it.

More importantly, it’s courtroom drama about a rape trial, and points of law cannot be fudged. The challenge here was to highlight the mechanics and the frustrations of our justice system in a way that served the story. Laura is the prosecution’s star witness: when I realised she wouldn’t be allowed to see the victim’s testimony in case it prejudiced her own, I had my head in my hands. How could I write a serious novel about the horrors of victim cross-examination if we couldn’t get into the courtroom? In the end I had to take my own advice. I often tell my students that the problem is the solution. When we can’t see the victim, Laura’s own doubt is allowed to spiral, and along with it the reader’s. That lack became a driving force.

In other ways, He Said/She Said was back to basics. Broadchurch had reminded me of the importance of character. I re-read old favourites by Chris Cleave, Lesley Glaister, David Nicholls, Maggie O’Farrell and new favourites Susie Steiner and Sarah Stovell where to close the book feels like saying goodbye to a friend. I loved Kit and Laura. I don’t know why I put them through all that.

I also feel a hard-won sense of ownership and authorship with this book. I’ve said before that Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith hugely inspired my work and they still do, but I don’t consciously measure myself against them like I did in the beginning. Anxiety of influence has been something I have gradually shrugged off over six books. This, at last, is all mine.

 

                Book Seven

blank book

Is it tempting fate to include here a book that isn’t finished yet? The deadline for my seventh novel was last week. Present ambitions are to complete it this decade.

It’s set in a former Victorian asylum, the action starting in the present day and leaping backwards over sixty years. The structure of the novel – three acts, each set thirty years apart – was part of the idea. It begins when a Woman With A Past enters what is now a luxury apartment carved from the old women’s wing. The first few chapters flew out of me, mystery and menace on every page, building to an impossible climax. Then I had to find a way to maintain that suspense writing scenes from 1988 and 1958 without sacrificing momentum. Clearly my experience with The Burning Air has taught me nothing.

For the last ten months, I’ve been camped out in the Wellcome Library in London researching the way psychiatry has historically treated women. Spoiler: the system hasn’t been stacked in their favour. The problem for me is focus. Every long-dead case study in these dry textbooks is a novel waiting to be written. Consequently, I feel like I’m writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Every time I learn something new, I find myself writing another doomed scene that is more about me showcasing my new knowledge of outdated psychiatric processes than it is about furthering the plot.

Or is it? I said I’d learned nothing from The Burning Air but that’s not true. I feel patience rather than panic this time. I’m trusting myself, and the process. One of these scenes will be the right one. It feels close, now. I won’t finish it when I had hoped to, but abandoning it doesn’t cross my mind.

And when I do complete it? Book eight, and beyond, with all the excitement and challenges they will bring. I know that it doesn’t get easier, but I also know that I – and my readers – would be bored if it did.

Read the first few chapters of He Said/She Said here

 

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You Couldn’t Make It Up! On Plausibility

 

Implausible.

meldrew

It’s not a word any writer wants to hear about their book. But with the market increasingly competitive, everyone wants their novel to be the high-concept book that everyone’s talking about. The bar for original, compelling, outlandish plots is getting higher by the year – as is the risk of pushing the boundaries of credibility.

Writers have incredibly wild and fertile imaginations. There’s an urban myth – or is it? – that after 9/11 the US government hired a round table of top crime novelists and asked them to imagine worst-case-scenario terror attacks, so that the US security and emergency services could come up with strategies to counter them.

 

Fantastic but improbable books springboard from the news all the time. Emma Donohoe’s book and now film Room was partly inspired by the monstrous real-life case in Germany of  Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughters in a  cellar for years, impregnating them and raising his own children/grandchildren in squalid captivity.

 

room

 

At a literary festival last year I had a heated exchange with a reader over SJ Watson’s smash hit Before I Go To Sleep, in which a woman wakes up every morning with her memory wiped clean. The reader insisted this could never happen in real life. I knew that the author was inspired by a rare but very real neurological disorder; obviously, being a novelist, Watson took a germ of truth and ran with it, but, as I told the reader, ‘It is literally based in fact. Papers were written about it and everything.’ Her eyes narrowed to slits. ‘How convenient,’ she said, before walking off, presumably to harangue a fantasy writer about the lack of orcs and wizards in her neighbourhood.

 

You don’t need to look very far to find hard-to-believe news stories. The following stories are convoluted, far-fetched and in some cases ridiculous – all the qualities serious novelists try to avoid.

 

A woman turns up at her own funeral, wreaking revenge on the husband who paid to have her killed.

Noela Rukundo

A troubled young woman is jailed after posing as a man to seduce her best friend, blindfolding her and penetrating her with a prosthetic penis.

gayle newland

 

A man fakes his own death in a canoe accident to claim life insurance. He lets his sons believe he is dead. Really, he’s living in a single room near Hartlepool. This real-life scam had such a compelling narrative it was turned into a TV drama.

canoe man bernard hill

 

And it’s always worth dragging this one from the archives: Pop star runs over his own head, with his own car, after overdosing on baked potatoes.

brian

 

The people in the above stories are hardly from crime-fiction central casting (although anyone who’s seen the Stay Another Day video will surely agree that Brian Harvey ought to have been arrested by the Fashion Police). They aren’t spies, maverick police officers or troubled forensic pathologists. They are the kind of people you meet every day.

This is why I love writing psychological thrillers. Everyone, no matter how benign their exterior, is psychologically complex. We all have monsters coiled within. It’s the darkness behind the twitching net curtain, the monster in the baskets-only queue in Waitrose, that I love to shine a light on.

 

So given that truth is stranger than fiction, how can authors make their novels plausible? When readers talk about implausibility they don’t usually mean, ‘I don’t believe this could happen.’ The mean, ‘I don’t believe this character would act that way.’ That’s why the author must do a convincing job of laying the groundwork to show that this thing could happen to this person, in this place, at this time; not only that it could, but that it’s inevitable. The more unlikely the premise, the harder the writer must work. It all comes down to character. What does your protagonist want so badly that they would act like this? What happened to make them that way? What are they running from? What are they chasing? Once you’ve nailed motive, it’s time to use all the other tools at your disposal. Foreshadowing to seed the darkness in this character. Misdirection to make us look the other way while it’s all happening. Do this right, and readers won’t ever say your book is implausible. They’ll be too busy turning the pages.

 

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How I Make It Work

babyboom

I’m usually up at about 5.30am. As a busy working mum, I think it’s so important to carve some time out of the day that’s just for me. Most days I flail dramatically into palpitating wakefulness before the sun rises, still wired from the litre of Pepsi Max I downed the previous day to counteract the insomnia from the night before that. Mindfulness is the best way to unlock my goals so I devote maybe 90 minutes to meditating on the housing shortage, my deadlines, the refugee crisis, the polar ice caps and the continuing employment of Shane Ritchie. It’s important for couples to be intimate so I toss and turn until my husband begs me in a cracked voice to be still please be still for god’s sake what’s wrong with you #lovedup #hubby

I find myself scrolling through Facebook before my eyes are even open. I like to be the first one downstairs in the morning – more me time! It’s good to be a little bit selfish, as I find I’ve then got so much more to give. I’ve read that women who start the day with a green juice are less likely to start crying in the changing rooms at Topshop so I neck three apple Froot Shoots in succession and that’s me done for the day #eatclean

We have post-it notes and flash cards all over the house to help the children’s education: phonics, times tables, key phrases in Mandarin, the basic tenets of Keynesian economics, the usual. I like to play fun games with my daughters, turning, say, the twelve-times table into a family singalong.

schoolrun

I bond with my girls on the walk to school. Even in a city it’s really vital that children learn about nature (I believe the children are our future) so we play a fun game where we try to work out whether the string of turds littering the broken paving stones are from the dachshund at number 5 (in which case I might say something to the owner) or the Rottweiler round the corner (in which case I won’t). I believe in talking to children with the same vocabulary and respect you would use with your peers, so as they run off in different directions as we prepare cross the congested A-road opposite their school I let rip with a string of expletives that would make Malcom Tucker blush. Drop-off ends with a kiss and a hug and a last-minute bribe to the seven-year-old; if she goes all day without saying ‘fuck’ in class, I’ll get her a My Little Pony magazine. They grow up so fast!

kalebitch

Three times a week when my youngest daughter is at nursery (£750 a month, babies in earrings slack-jawed in front of The Human Centipede II) I’ll go to my exclusive gym (£12.99 a month, syringe bins in the changing rooms) to walk slowly on a treadmill while watching Taylor Swift videos, internalising a wider cultural misogyny by comparing myself to a genetically-blessed millionaire fifteen years my junior, tweeting all the while. Maybe I’ll hijack a tangentially relevant trending topic like the Booker shortlist or NASA’s announcement about Mars with a few hundred mentions of my own latest book.

All this and it’s only half past ten! Honestly, I don’t know how I do it!

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Ruth Rendell, 1930-2015

Thestorysnail

When I was very little I had a picture book called The Story Snail, about a lonely little boy who wanted to tell stories but didn’t know how to begin. He was befriended by a giant talking snail who told him one hundred wonderful stories, which the boy then shared with his new friends. When they ran out, the boy found that he had learned to tell his own; he had become a storyteller simply by learning from a great. It was by this system that Ruth Rendell taught me to write. Those 10,000 hours they say you have to put in to get good at something? Most of mine were spent lolling on a sofa, a Ruth Rendell paperback in my hand. There are worse ways to spend an adolescence.

I was fourteen when I picked up A Fatal Inversion. Written under Rendell’s Barbara Vine pseudonym, it is a flawless, lyrical story about obsessive love and youthful privilege, set in rural Suffolk in the long hot summer of 1976. When I opened the book I was a keen and curious reader: by the final page, my long-held but vague desire to write had zoomed into pin-sharp focus. This was the kind of thing I wanted to do. Of course, I wasn’t ready at fourteen. I had my GCSE French oral in the morning for a start. But I read, and I read. The beauty of discovering an established writer at the height of her powers is the back catalogue. My local library had literally yards of Rendells and Vines on the shelf, and I tore through them like a termite.

fata inversio

 

I knew that I wanted to write mysteries, but not police procedurals: I just don’t have that kind of brain. The Chief Inspector Wexford novels aside, Rendell often dispensed with the question of ‘whodunit’ altogether, occasionally solving the physical mystery on the first page; the suspense is all in the psychological unravelling. 1977’s A Judgment In Stone opens with the memorable line, ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ Murderer, victims and motive are laid bare in the first sentence yet the novel grips to the last full stop. Crucially, it was all done without recourse to graphic violence. Rendellian torture is purely psychological.

She could see the squirming darkness in the everyday, something that fires me, too. One of her most memorable short stories features a husband and wife being driven to murderous psychosis by a loose bathroom window that kept banging in the night. Who hasn’t listened to their spouse eating an apple and looked longingly at the knife drawer? It was through reading Rendell I discovered that accident, loss of control, is as likely, and often far more interesting, than premeditation. My books always contain a murder but they are psychological thrillers, concerned with what happens before the police arrive – if arrive they ever do.

Sense of place is hugely important to my novels, and Rendell was a psychogeographer before the term was coined; her stories are indivisible from their settings. She captured that strata of London, where rich and poor, bored and desperate, live cheek by jowl in the mansions and bedsits, squares and estates of our capital. Some locations she returned to time and again; Highgate, Maida Vale, Regent’s Park. There is a swathe of London, from Portobello in the West to Crouch Hill in the north and most of the land in between, where it is hard to walk very far without treading in her characters’ footsteps. Naturally, when I left my home in metropolitan Essex to move to the capital – the same, one-way journey Rendell herself made at a similar age – these were the streets I sought. When I wrote my first novel, The Poison Tree I set it on the edge of Queens Wood in Highgate. (The Poison Tree, incidentally, is a novel about obsessive love and youthful privilege – sound familiar? – I tried so hard not to mimic A Fatal Inversion, but have been told by more than one reader than in doing so I inadvertently captured the spirit of another Vine classic, The House of Stairs. Meh.)  My second, The Sick Rose, took place partly in Kensington. It was not until my third novel, The Burning Air, that I charted my own territory, a thickly-wooded valley in remote Devon.

queenswood

Her political, occasionally almost polemical, style inspired me too. Rendell unabashedly dramatised the causes close to her heart, especially in the later Wexford novels, with Not In The Flesh memorably confronting the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation. The novel I’m writing at the moment, about a young couple who witness a rape, and take the law into their own hands to secure what they believe is the right outcome at the subsequent trial, is, in part, an opportunity for me to climb on board my soapbox. Rendell will be my gold standard in using compelling drama as a Trojan horse for this.

Occasionally I have been asked to defend my devotion, usually by people who say they ‘don’t read crime fiction’, never having tried it. I would always do so with relish. In fact, Rendell was held in almost uniquely high esteem for a genre writer, having the respect of her peers in the literary establishment as well as millions of devoted readers. Perhaps an element of snobbery remained, as she was denied the heavyweight prizes. Had she not cut her teeth writing detective fiction, her 1998 Barbara Vine outing The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy – about the secrets uncovered on the death of a beloved writer – would surely have been listed for the Booker it so wryly referenced. The same goes for No Night Is Too Long had it carried Ian McEwan’s byline, or Asta’s Book Sarah Waters’.

My loss is not personal, in the sense that we never met. The closest I came was a couple of years ago at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival where she had just given a talk, and I was due to appear the following day. She was checking out; I was hot and flustered after a long journey from London and holding a bottle of freshly-expressed breastmilk, much of which was also on my top, for the hotel to keep in the fridge for me. I felt that I lacked the gravitas to impress my heroine. I was happier in the audience.

Recently, I found an early Rendell, The Face of Trespass, in a charity shop. I thought I’d read them all, so to me it was like finding a lost Beatles album. The novel was written before I was born, the idiom dated and the technology on which the plot turns obsolete, yet it was more gripping than anything new I had read in years.

If you have never read Ruth Rendell, I envy you, and urge you to begin today. Her stories will stay with you for the rest of your life: and they may yet inspire you to write your own.

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On Teaching

brodie

About once a year, someone stirs up the controversy over whether creative writing can ever really be taught. Enough has been written about this so all I’ll say is that while you can’t instil talent, you can definitely hone it and that, to paraphrase Monica from Friends, sometimes you need rules to control the magic.

Instead, in this blog, I’d like to explore something else. With more writing schools than ever before, half the novelists I know have turned their hand to teaching in some capacity. But what does it mean when a professional writer becomes a tutor? Does it change your work for the better or worse?

Teaching crept up on me. In the lull between books three and four, I was asked by a handful schools, universities and literary festivals to lead writing workshops. They were sporadic, one-off talks at first. I used my own experience of writing and being edited, and I got a taste for it.

I’ll admit that during this time I was going stir crazy. I work from home and have two little kids who can pin me to my postcode for weeks at a time. I was starting to feel stale, and one-off writing workshops were a great way to publicise my books and connect with new people at the same time. And while I make a good living from my books, it’s not like my greatest household concern is how to stop the peacocks crapping in the moat, so a little extra cash is always welcome.

Then, this time last year, I agreed to tutor the three-month course Curtis Brown Creative, and the bar was raised. I bought armfuls of how-to-write manuals. Most of them are full of padding, but a handful contained observations that chimed with my own experience, and gradually I began to articulate things I had known all along. I re-read my various editors’ notes on my own novels, even paid close attention to my reviews, and before long I had enough material to teach a long, intensive course.

I have always been an instinctive writer; plotting, writing and editing all blur into one process for me, and it felt forced to distil this into a list of instructions. Luckily, something happened at around the same time that made me get over that. I dipped a toe into the world of television drama, first in having The Poison Tree adapted for ITV, and later in turning Broadchurch into first a novel, then a series of short stories. This made me think about story and structure more formally: TV and film are collaborative, and you have to talk to each other about the work in progress. I got used to their vernacular, and soon it felt professional, rather than pseudy, to talk in terms of arcs, beats and acts.

But with an understanding of ‘the rules’ came the first drawback; inhibition. When I wrote my first three novels I had never read a single page of theory. I’d just… done it. I am now writing my fifth original novel with a level of self-consciousness that is as inhibiting as it will ultimately be useful. From Orwell’s rules of style to my own diktats, the formless truths that apply to all fiction are in black and white now, and they superimpose themselves across the screen as I type. In the end, this will make for a tighter work; but certainly in the early stages, I question my writing in a way that’s new, and not altogether comfortable. I can never hope to recreate the experience of writing The Poison Tree, which was as smooth and spontaneous as laying an egg; but lately I’ve wondered if I’ve gone too far the other way. Ask me again when I’ve finished this book.

paper

There is no doubt that teaching a long course slows my work-in-progress down. There are fifteen students on every Curtis Brown Creative course; that’s fifteen novels to hold in my head for months on end, giving each novel the same consideration as I would my own work. The nature of the course means that extracts are often read in completely the wrong order, so it’s no mean feat to remember who’s who, who knows what, where did we leave off, and why has that character suddenly changed his name and his profession, lost a sister and gained a wife? This is made more difficult by the fact that these stories are really good, with characters so vivid they elbow my own imaginary friends to one side for a while.

In the last month of a course, I will process about 20,000 words of prose from up to ten different writers each week, so small wonder that for a while my own book stalls completely. After my last teaching session, there was grief at leaving these books behind just as they had started to take flight, and behind this a bubbling panic at the state of my own poor, neglected novel.

But sometimes a bump in the road gives you time to pause and notice what’s important. 48 hours after the course ended, I sat at my desk and began to write, almost without deciding to, a scene I’ve been struggling with since I first had the idea for this book. The words and ideas came in a way they hadn’t for over a year, and one week later, I had 25,000 new words. I’m even going to keep some of them.

It was an important reminder of something I had forgotten after a series of relentless deadlines; that the gestation period, the subconscious examining of ideas, is as important as time in front of the page. And in spending this gestation period not lolloping in front of Homes Under the Hammer but editing, analysing and discussing other people’s novels, I’d gained insights into my own work without even realising.

I no longer feel stale. Writing novels has been my job for seven years now. I sit at my desk at nine, and stay there until burnout or school pick-up, whichever comes first. It’s shameful how quickly gratitude at being permitted to write for a living turns into just another day in front of the computer. It was time to get hungry again, and ambition is contagious.

We carefully select our students at Curtis Brown Creative, and the bar is high. I’ve been lucky to work with writers who are fun as well as talented – but there is talent to keep me on my toes. Frequently I have come across beautifully crafted sentences and wish I’d got there first. And there are a few genius plot twists that are now forever barred to me because there are fifteen witnesses who will know exactly where I nicked it from.

Today a former CBC student of mine announced a two-book deal. Knowing that a novel I first saw in its rawest form (and loved even then) will be on my bookshelf this time next year makes me happier than I can say. It’s hugely exciting for me to see her make the step from talented but aspiring writer to professional novelist. Almost as exciting as when it happened to me.

At my last teaching session, someone asked a perfect question; nothing to do with plot, or word count, or how many times you can pitch to the same agent without incurring some kind of harassment order, but something just as important. ‘How do you get over the crippling self-doubt?’ I had to tell her that you don’t – you just have to accept it as part of the process. In some ways that’s the most important lesson I could teach them. That to get your book written, you need to climb back on the horse, even when it’s thrown you off three times that day, and you’ve landed on your arse in the mud, and also actually you fucking hate horses and don’t even know why you ever wanted to ride one in the first place.

It wasn’t until I was asked that question that I found I knew the answer, and as with so many things, now that I’ve said it out loud, I can apply it to my own work. The learning curve curls in more than one direction.

Later this year I’ll be running workshops and masterclasses for The Guardian, at Swanwick Writers’ School  and at Stoke Newington and Folkestone literary festivals.

 I will be teaching another 3-month novel-writing course for Curtis Brown Creative in November 2015.

 

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The Long Goodbye

I’ve just finished the copy edits on my latest novel, The Ties That Bind, which will be published by Hodder next May. I feel that I ought to be ecstatic. I’ve worked on this book nearly every day for the best part of a year and I should be glad to see the back of it. But instead, I’m reluctant to let it go.  

For those who don’t know, the copy edit is the final, super-close, ultra-pernickety read-through of the manuscript before it is typeset and the last chance I have to make any real changes to the book. On the next round, everything will be beautifully laid out in Plantin Light font, and I’ll only be allowed to dot my i’s and cross my t’s. Or should it be dot my is and cross my ts? There you go: two paragraphs into this blog and there’s already a perfect illustration of why authors need copy editors.

I actually love copy edits. By this stage any major plot flaws or inconsistencies have already been ironed out by the book’s earliest readers; my friend and husband, my agent and her assistant, my editor and her assistant. No one is going to ask me to change the gender or age or nationality of my protagonist, or the identity of my murder victim, or swap around chapters, or rewrite the whole thing in the first person. It’s time to immerse myself in exquisitely pedantic arguments about minor points of grammar and whether there’s still an ‘h’ in the word ‘yoghurt.’ (I think there is. Discuss.) It’s my last chance to do what I love best: to tinker with sentence structure and get the music right. And they are always done the old-fashioned way, in longhand on paper, which is delicious after months staring at a screen.

It takes a certain type of person to read a manuscript with the kind of forensic eye for detail that will pick up on the tiny accidental inconsistencies that the Amazon and Good Reads reviewers take such glee in pointing out. Apart from acting as the Typo Police, their job also involves checking that the numbers stack up, and that dates are consistent throughout. My books are character-driven, meaning that I don’t plot too tightly before beginning as storylines are subject to huge changes between drafts. It’s an admitted weakness of mine that in trying to nail the interesting things like psychology and relationships, I sometimes overlook the boring-but-important stuff like ages and days of the week.

The copy editor who worked on The Burning Air has since retired – rumours that untangling my mess of dates and times led her to throw in the towel and move on to something less stressful like crocodile wrestling are unconfirmed – but the new one has done an equally brilliant job of going zero tolerance on my numerical incompetence. I knew at the time of writing that The Ties That Bind would be about an unsolved murder from the 1960s, but the actual year the murder occurred leapt (or leaped, as my copy ed would have it) about all over that decade, subject to external forces such as the legalisation of gambling and the year that the Kray twins were put on trial. As a result, my timeline was all over the place.

 Anyway, the edits are now done and dusted. Literally. My desk is covered in eraser dust, little rubber slivers that will turn up all over the house for weeks to come. The manuscript – all 357 one-sided, double-spaced, pencil-marked pages of it – is sealed in an envelope and ready to go. As is now traditional, I make my husband hand-deliver it to my publisher because a) the tube fare and my boundless trust in my beloved means it’s cheaper and more reliable than recorded delivery and b) if I take it to the post office myself, I’ll think of something I want to change on the walk and end up bringing it back home to rewrite it.

Even my courier boy system isn’t foolproof – last year, when it was time to let go of The Burning Air for the last time, I actually chased him down the road with my special lucky copy-editing propelling pencil (I know, I know) and we undid the Jiffy bag in the middle of the street while I added a semi-colon to a paragraph halfway through chapter 22.

Left to my own devices I would probably never stop editing. I’d still quite like to give The Poison Tree one last tweak, and it was published over four years ago. But you have to stop somewhere if you want to be read. (And to get paid.)

My eldest daughter started primary school last week. When I watched her disappear through the gate in her oversized gingham dress, I fought the urge to run after her, scoop her up and keep her at home with me forever. I recognised the wrench from sending my books off for the last time. It’s hard to let your children go it alone in the big wide world. But isn’t that the point of having them?

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From Page To Screen

Adapting The Poison Tree

When The Poison Tree was commissioned by STV, one very famous author cornered me at a party and feverishly told me not to let anyone near it – that the television company would destroy my precious novel forever. This attitude bewildered me. If I wanted complete control over my work, I would never publish it in the first place. Every new reader breathes new life into a book and adaptation seems to me like a natural stage of that process.

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For all that, I was a little nervous. This is my book: for a year, every little comma was under my control. Now I was about to hand it over to an entire team of people.

The novel is about Karen Clarke, a young mother whose partner, Rex, has just been released from prison after a long stretch. In the novel, we learn why and how over a series of extended flashbacks to the summer of 1997, when Karen, Rex and his younger sister Biba lived in an intense, isolated triangle in the siblings’ crumbling Highgate home. The couple try to build a new life with their daughter Alice (and without Biba), but it’s clear that someone knows their secret.

It was adapted for television by Emilia di Giralomo, who’s best known for her work as lead writer and executive producer on Law and Order: UK. Like me, she writes twisting, surprising narratives, but LO:UK is much pacier than my fiction, with huge issues and stories condensed into one-hour timeslots, and I wondered how she would translate my slow-burning book for the screen. From the first few pages of Emilia’s script, I understood not to me to judge the book in terms of my novel but as a piece of work in its own right. And in those terms, I think it’s hugely successful. While the screenplay is true to the spirit of my novel, it was fascinating to note the places where entire chapters can be summed up in a single clever line of dialogue, and where new storylines have been added to make the book work for a television audience.

The focus has been reversed so that instead of unfolding in flashback, the present-day action, where Rex has been released from prison and Karen knows that her family are under threat, is now the driving force. Entire characters and sub-plots have been culled, and there are a couple of major storyline changes. Perhaps this is what my author friend meant by ruining the book but actually, I quite like it. I hope it means that readers of the novel can enjoy the drama with a genuine sense of suspense, and that anyone who reads the book after watching the television programme is still in for a few surprises.

Perhaps I’d have liked to linger a little longer in the summer of 1999, to delve a little deeper into the beginning of Karen’s friendship with Biba and to see more of the slow seduction between her and Rex. But I know that that would have compromised the thriller that STV wanted to make, and it’s far more important that the piece works its own right than that my authorial proclivities are served.

The only other criticisms I have are tiny; a deliberate hairline fracture in my plot is a crack on-screen that I wonder if viewers will even register. And the Highgate mansion is not as derelict as I envisaged it. Property porn seems to be the sine qua non of recent ITV dramas and The Poison Tree is no exception.

In many places, I think my novel has actually been improved upon. As the present-day plot has been expanded, Karen’s home has relocated from my original (and anonymous) Suffolk setting to a lone clapboard cottage in the shade of the nuclear reactor on Dungeness beach in Kent. It’s a bleakly beautiful place, enough to instil agoraphobia in the most intrepid explorer. It makes for stunning photography, and I love the contrast between the net that is slowly closing in around Karen and the wide open space she lives in.

While some of my supporting characters didn’t make the cut, others have developed in ways that have completely delighted me. Alice, Rex and Karen’s daughter, has had a couple of years added to her age and Emilia has written her exactly as I would have developed her; a sparky but vulnerable pre-teen, played to perfection by the brilliant Hebe Johnson, who I’m sure will have her name engraved on a Bafta before the decade is out.

I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky with all the cast. I was delighted when I heard that Ophelia Lovibond had been cast as Biba; she is my character to the life, capturing not only her infectious, unhinged charm but also the darkness that underpins it. I’m particularly pleased with her performance in the scenes that take place after the pivotal event at the end of Episode One, when the party is over forever.

The other two leads – MyAnna Buring as Karen, and Matthew Goode as Rex – were more surprising. In my version of the story, Karen and Rex are both good-looking, but in an acquired-taste sort of way. I’m afraid I thought the actors might be a bit too gorgeous to convince as the awkward, haunted couple. Again, my doubts were unfounded; from the first moment I saw them in character, at a read-through in a draughty church hall in Islington, I felt that I was eavesdropping on a private conversation. My confidence in them only grew after watching them on location in Highgate. (In fact, the only jarring thing about the set visit was the realisation that I’d always seen the novel, which is written in the first person, entirely through Karen’s eyes, gonzo-style – almost like the way Peep Show is filmed.)

Matthew might not be as undernourished and geeky as Rex was in my imagination, but his steely determination to protect his sister shines through the gaps between his lines. (He does a very good brooding silence). MyAnna is barely off-screen throughout and is completely compelling in every scene, nailing every stage of . I Karen’s development from ingénue to hedonist to conspirator to mother to… well, you’ll have to watch to find out just what she becomes. She more than does my Karen justice; she makes her her own. Recently at a literary festival I read aloud a passage from The Poison Tree and was surprised and thrilled to find myself picturing MyAnna and Matthew in a scene between Karen and Rex. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay them.

My book is still on the shelf, just as I wrote it, not a comma out of place. I don’t expect the drama to replace it, and it never could. But I think they make wonderful companions.

 

THE POISON TREE IS ON ITV1 AT 9PM ON 10TH AND 17TH DECEMBER

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