Novel Spot Behind the Scenes Interview

In December 2012, Marion did a 'week in the life of an author' interview with Novelspot, posting once a day for one week on themes relating to her writing process. The interview has since disappeared, but here is a reconstruction:


Day One: Accentuate

I’m sitting in Waterstone’s book store at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
 
Waterstone’s bothers me on several levels. Firstly, that it bought up and assimilated Dillons and Ottakar. I view it sort of like the Borg of bookshops. Secondly because, in January, they announced that they were dropping their apostrophe for online purposes, yet they still maintain it in all of their advertising – so I’m never sure how to spell it.
 
Not that I’m one of Lynne Truss’s Grammar Nazis or anything like that. I just like to feel that I know the rules before I break them.
 
Where was I...?
 
Yes, so, 11 a.m., sitting in Waterstone(’)s in Northampton.
 
Nothing strange about that.
 
Except for the fact that I’m sitting at a table with three of my novels in front of me, next to a bookshelf of big names: Paul Magrs, Jane Lovering, Adrian Magson, Clare Summerskill...
 
What’s really spinning my head is that I’ve been out drinking with two of those names the night before, along with a host of ridiculously talented people who have pitched up for booQfest 2012.
Thanks to my friend Morgen Bailey, I ended up as a guest author at Northampton’s first LGBT literature festival. After my first Waterston’s signing, I need to rush to the library to take part in my first female authors’ panel (with V. G. Lee, Jane Reynolds and Sophia Blackwell), before giving the first reading of my novel Georg[i]e.
 
Seeing the pattern here? Lot of firsts.
 
I’m still trying to take it all in through a fog of Disaronno and Gin.
 
You know that Black Books episode where Bernard is berating Manny for opening the bookshop at half-ten in the morning? ‘No one wants a book at half-ten in the morning,’ he says.
 
At which point a man wearing an ‘I Love Books’ T-shirt walks in and says: ‘I’d really like to buy a book.’
 
Yeah, well that didn’t happen. It’s true, no one wants to buy a book that early in the morning. To be honest, I couldn’t have cared less. It was just an incredible experience to be sitting there, sipping my coffee.
 
It was the first time that I realised with total clarity: Christ. I’ve written three novels!
 
Not that I didn’t know this already. Just that I suppose, given the length of time it takes from proposition to page, the Sisyphean uphill struggle of marketing, and the occasional ‘day job’ vying for attention, I hadn’t really taken the time to appreciate what I had achieved.
 
It’s always so easy to look ahead and think about everything you still need to do. Just for that brief moment, in an empty bookstore on Abington Street, I allowed myself a smile of satisfaction.
 
Day #1: Accentuate the positives, each and every one, as and when they happen.


Day Two: Speculate

Yesterday, I was sitting at a table in Waterstone(’)s, autograph pen in hand.
 
How did I get there?
 
Well, whilst we’re talking timelines, I’d like to mention an inspirational article I once read in Australian Psychiatry. Apparently, the aboriginal concept of time is non-linear. You don’t remember what you had for breakfast three weeks ago? That doesn’t mean that it never happen, it just means that it’s not important. The tone of your best friend’s voice as she whispered a secret to you in the playground at primary school, something so shocking that you remember it with crystal clarity twenty years later – that may as well have happened twenty minutes ago.
 
Given that we only have a 500-word day to get through the entire run-up of events leading to How I Got Here, I’d better start with the most recent in importance.
 
I’m sitting on a train with my dad, on the fortnightly trip to his home in Surrey. I’m probably about ten or eleven. To fill the time, I’m reading him a vampire story I wrote whilst on holiday with Mum. 

As the train slows towards a station, the man opposite stands up. He’s a business man in a long, dark coat and fedora.
 
“I wish I didn’t have to get off,” he says. “I was enjoying that.”
 
I remember a sense of surprise at having written a story that had kept the attention of an adult for the best part of an hour. Usually, when children speak, adults roll their eyes. This one had opened his ears. There was a strange sense of power in that.
 
I wouldn’t say that this encouraged me to write, as I never really needed much encouragement. What it did do, was plant the small seed of awareness that I might actually be good at it.
 
‘Good’ comes in many forms, though. One thing I was never good at was grammar and spelling. Let’s just say: ‘a late developer’. Even to this day I class myself as ‘homonymically challenged’. 
We’re walking down the isle on a moonlit knight, trying to find the root home whilst preying at the alter of our own harts.
 
Give me a word with two spellings or two meanings, I will always pick the wrong one. Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem According to my Mood is friendship on paper.
 
They say that you excel at the things you love, and I put a lot of time and effort into improving my style. I still do today.
 
Technical game raised, I craved life experience. I’m never sure whether I started to write to express the things I saw around me, or whether I sought out things around me to write about. Either way, it has been my very good fortune to meet some incredible people and travel to many extraordinary places.
 
Two of which I will tell you about tomorrow.
 
Day #2: Speculate to accumulate. Figure out what you love to write about, and the words will mount up. Look for the things that are closest in time.


Day Three: Innovate

Adventures always lead to stories.
 
It’s that line out of Australia where Hugh Jackman says: “The only thing you own is your story. I'm just trying to live a good one.”
 
Yesterday, I mentioned that I had been to some interesting places. Two of the places that have had the greatest impact on my writing have been Angorichina and Rwanda.
 
Let’s start with the hardest to pronounce: it’s Ango-reach-na.
 
Between 2003-04, I travelled around Australia with a friend. It was his first time on a plane, real baptism by fire. We had an incredible, challenging, and unforgettable time. Started in Melbourne, did some fruit picking near Swan Hill, headed down to Sydney for New Year fireworks, hired a car and drove across the Nullarbor to Freo, lived in a tent for three months, flew to Alice Springs, camped down through the Red Centre under the stars, and eventually ended up in Adelaide, much the Aussie equivalent of Silloth, with a disproportionate number of retirees and restaurants that close at ten p.m.
 
En route, we spent a night at Angorichina Station. Today, Ango is a backpackers’ hostel. In a previous incarnation it had been a tuberculosis sanatorium.
 
We only stayed one night, but there was something about the place that demanded to be written about. Can you imagine: 1930, TB killed two-thirds of all people infected. Sent off to hospices in the middle of nowhere, lumped in with people you’d never met before, waiting for the inevitable – or a miracle. Ten years later, the invention of antibiotics meant that nearly everyone got to go home. The cusp of medical history is a haunting prospect.
 
Angorichina was to become my debut novel. I tried many times to start it over a four-year period, but it just wouldn’t come. Then, one day, I switched from writing in third person to first. It was almost spiritual, the way that I found myself faced with four fully-formed characters, desperate to get their words onto the page. From that point it took only five months to complete.
 
Angorichina was my debut, but it was not my first novel.
 
Cue Rwanda.
 
I spent two years in the country as a Sign Language Researcher with the Rwandan National Association of the Deaf, helping to compile the first Dictionary of Amarenga y’Ikinyerwanda. I was very honoured to be a part of that. Formerly a trainee interpreter, it was the sort of project I’d only ever read about. I never dreamed that I’d actually take part in one, or that it would be so successful. As a direct result, the news in Rwanda is now broadcast with Sign Language translation.
 
I was busy in Rwanda, yet I also had a lot of spare time. This time was spent writing. I finally decided to prove to myself that I was capable of completing enough words to form a novel. This proved to be my first, Lucid.
 
In 2009, it was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers. I always mention this because it’s a fantastic award, and proved a real boost of confidence to a fledgling writer. Had I not had such a warm response, Lucid may have been my only novel.
 
That small nod of recognition made me role up my sleeves and say: ‘Right. Now let’s write something worth reading.’
 
Not that Lucid wasn’t worth reading, but it would take another year, and self-imposed exile in East Germany, to tear it apart and reassemble it into something technically publishable.
 
Angorichina provided inspiration, and Africa the time.
 
Day #3: Innovate your soul. If you haven’t got a story to tell, go looking for one. Next time someone says ‘would you like to...,’ just say ‘yes’. Good or bad, it’ll be something to write about.

 
Day Four: Cogitate

Goodness, I’ve made it all sound rather exciting so far.
 
A lot has happened, but over a lengthy period of time. Let’s make absolutely no mistake about this whatsoever. I can procrastinate with the best of them.
 
As I said, I managed to reel off Angorichina in around five months... four years after deciding to write it. I’m no Barbara Cartland.
 
My biggest and ugliest vice is social media. I’m an obsessive multi-tasker, which recent research has suggested makes me more likely to be depressed than those who approach tasks in a lineal fashion. Personally, I always thought it was because I have boobs. Aren’t all women supposed to be multi-taskers?
 
I can Facebook, Blog, Tweet and e-mail all at the same time. The worst lie I tell myself is that I’ll shut everything down except for the search engine, which I must leave open in case I need a quick research fix, like: ‘define sesquipedalian’.
 
It goes downhill from there.
 
Before I know it, another day slides by without a word of worth hitting the page.
 
I could ramble on about inspiration for years. Where does it come from? Can you inspire inspiration? Can you force it into being? My personal belief on this is that you can’t. The louder you scream at the muse, the harder she will ignore you.
 
More to the point, is there such a thing as ‘writer’s block’? Should you feel guilty? Are you doing any better or worse than the writer next to you?
 
Given the chance, I’d answer all of those questions and, in doing so, manage to procrastinate away another day.
 
You see how sly the trap is sprung?
 
Making it to the end of 90,000 words is like being a rugby player, ball under arm, heading for a line two miles down the road. At every step, the gravity gremlins threaten to drag you to the grass and distract you with a game of solitaire and ‘just one more’ cup of tea.
 
Then, occasionally, you get one of those golden days. Days that feel effortless. Your fingers tippety tap across the keyboard and before you know it you have 10,000 words primly positioned between the pretty white spaces. If you’re really, really lucky, you might even get a few consecutive days like this.
 
Questions of process aside, I’d like to take a moment to return to social media. Yes, I waste an inordinate amount of time on it (although: time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time), yet paradoxically it’s also saved me incredible amounts of time. I remember, even as a post-graduate in 2006, needing to order a research paper for my thesis from the university library and having to wait a fortnight for it to arrive.
 
There is absolutely no way on earth that Angorichina could have been written had I not had access to vast seas of information on both Australian History and Tuberculosis. Then again, perhaps it would have been written, but with greater emphasis on fiction rather than fact. Perhaps it is precisely because everybody has so much access to information today that we, as discerning readers, expect a higher standard of research in our fiction?
 
No one thinks less of Shakespeare for his geographical inaccuracies. Those never seemed to get in the way of a good yarn.
 
I doubt you or I would get away with it, though.
 
There are so many wonderful at-a-click things on the Web, from EtymologyOnline to Omniglot, ‘define <word>’ to ‘translate <sentence> into <language>’ and ‘time in <country>’. Provided I don’t give in to my brain’s natural lethargy, my sense of character and location (both geographical and historical) can be infinitely enriched.
 
Day #4: Cogitation is an unavoidable and often pleasurable condition.


Day Five: Procreate
 
So far, in the story of How I Got To Waterstone(’!?)s I’ve mentioned that I’ve done a fair bit of travelling, spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating my own belly fluff, and started to cheque back through my righting four the occasional homonymical slip.
 
That’s pretty much the story of where I got the inspiration for my novels, how I found the time to write them, and how I probably could have written a few more if it weren’t for Facebook.
 
In other interviews, I’ve mentioned the bubble-burst of discovering that the publishing industry isn’t what I’d imagined it to be as a kid. Or, if it once was, it no longer is in this digital age.
 
It’s quite easy for me to slip into the role of downtrodden, disillusioned writer – especially if it means I get to smoke, drink, and swear like Dylan Thomas to illustrate my point.
 
When you start out you write because you need to write, but the more you write the less you like to write the more you have to, you write, but dislike.
 
Ad nauseam.
 
I think there comes a slump for many writers. It falls somewhere after the first couple of novels, when you realise that you can write, but also around the time your awareness of the market peaks and you start to question why you’re writing; for whom?
 
It’s quite tempting to say ‘myself,’ and lock yourself in a room where you can hunch up over the keyboard and talk solely to your imaginary friends.
 
If Adam and Eve had both been writers, the human race would never have occurred. Fifty Shades of Grey might, but the human race – never.
 
Left on its own in a room, art will eventually fester. Ideas, like people, need to reach out and touch one another. As I said on day three: if you haven’t got a story to tell, go looking for one.
 
Similarly, if you find yourself becoming introverted and anti-social, find something to collaborate on.

I’m a lifelong lover of a freeware package called Celtx. It allows anyone to format screenplays and scripts without shelling out silly money for the leading market brand. Because I enjoy it, I became involved in the forum. As a result, I met an enthusiastic young filmmaker in the States. He asked for a short, I delivered, and hopefully that’ll bear fruit at some point in the future.
 
I’m very excited about that. Scriptwriting isn’t like writing a novel. As a novelist, you’re used to having the final say on your work. You control everything from the way the characters dress, to the lines they speak, to the locations they visit and the thoughts inside their head.
 
With scripts, you have to let go a little. I liken it to that game you play, where one person draws the head, folds it over, the next draws the body, folds it over... you have no idea what the big picture will be until it unfolds at the end.
 
Some people don’t like to relinquish control of their work, but I think it’s a healthy thing to do from time to time. Let ideas inter-seed. Let them grow tall and independent. I firmly believe that collaborating on projects enriches you, those you work with, and your understanding of writing as an art.
 
It was this need to go out and get involved in things that landed me at booQfest.
 
Unashamedly, it started online. I did an interview with a renowned blogger called Morgen Bailey. Because of this, I followed her on Twitter. Because of that, I happened to see a call for authors she tweeted. Because of all of the above, I was invited to give a reading. Because someone pulled out, I was invited to take part in a panel. Because I said ‘yes,’ I was also invited to Waterstone’s.
 
Thus the cycle of artistic creation and opportunity continues.
 
The more you get involved in, the more you are invited to get involved in.
 
Day #5: Make use of your social media and ‘real life’ contacts. Much has been decided over a quiet pint or a good meal. Look for small projects to get involved in, you never know how big they might become.


Day Six: Intubate

So, what don’t I like about writing?
 
We’ve all got our bugbears.
 
I was listening to the multi-award winning author Sid Smith on Open Book the other day. He jacked in novel writing to go and write poetry. One of the reasons he gave was: “Takes too long, too many words. Boring.”
 
I laughed out loud, because it’s true. No matter how much you love writing, no matter how much you’re in love with the idea of writing – a novel is a lot of words. Marrying yourself to one idea until the last page is hard graft. Then you finish and you have to start the process all over again.
I’m with Smith on this one. There are too many words in a novel. However, I’m not about to throw it in to write short stories or poetry. Not yet, at least.
 
Secondly, what I hate about being a writer, more than writing, is marketing.
 
It’s never ending. Yes, there are more ways of doing it than ever before, more platforms: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Libboo, Amazon... it isn’t difficult to find your soap box.  What is difficult is finding the time and energy to invest in marketing, which mostly involves giving away free stuff, answering repetitive questions, and getting to grips with Audacity.
 
What’s worse is that small and independent publishers like mine don’t have mega marketing bucks to invest. It’s like finding yourself in a marketplace, dressed in rags, trying to shout loud enough to be heard over the other fourteen-thousand people around you who are also trying to sell a carrot.
On the up side, this can lead to fun gorilla marketing tactics.
 
For instance... petrol station toilets. When staff clean them, they never look on the back of the door. Whenever you need to use one, why not take the opportunity to blu-tack up a flyer for your book? Captive audience.
 
Or free e-book tokens. Browsing big name books in a store? Why not slip in a little extra something for the person who buys it?
 
There are so few ways for new authors to get noticed on a shoestring. It helps to get inventive.
 
Which reminds me – if you’ve read a book and not left a review about it, shame on you! It’s excruciatingly difficult for authors to get first reviews, and hardly anybody buys a book without a review. Word of mouth is the biggest seller. Unless the author is dead, please consider it. Even before you write to tell the author that you enjoyed their book, tell it to Amazon, tell it to Goodreads, tell it to any small independent literary mag taking review submissions. It really does mean a lot.
 
Day #6: There’s a down side to everything. So long as the highs are higher than the lows, it’s worth continuing. 


Day Seven: Evaluate

After my reading at booQfest, I found myself in an interesting conversation with one of the women who had stayed to listen.
 
I’m not entirely sure how we got to this, but the topic of genre arose.
There are many successful authors in many different genres, from Romance and Fantasy to Horror and Thriller. However, there are also a large number of multi-genre authors.
 
As an avid multi-genre reader, it makes sense to me that I would wish to explore different styles in my own writing. Many well established authors we associate with genre fiction have written across the board. One of the best known is perhaps Stephen King. He’s known as a horror writer, but his collection Different Seasons proves his versatility.
 
Similarly, I look at J. K. Rowling and wonder whether her latest, non-Harry Potter, novel would have received the lukewarm reviews it has had it not been written by her. Jasper Fforde received a comparable reception when he departed from the Thursday Next series for Shades of Grey (not fifty!). In confounding his readers’ expectation of what they thought he should write, he split the deck. The Powers That Be know this, and play to strong genre markets.
 
It’s sort of the equivalent of being typecast as an actor. In my opinion, this isn’t healthy for a writer. Writing, like acting, is an art of facets. We have many of them. To pin that down and say ‘from now on, one must only write this,’ is unhealthy for those who, like myself, think eclectically.
 
E. L. Doctorow understood this when he asserted that, ‘writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.’
 
I rebelled in my collection of short stories, Splintered Door, writing each one in a different style, just to see whether I could.
 
Another topic I lamented with this poor, ear-bashed, individual, was the issue of the ‘instant’. It’s well known today that fame and fortune come instantly. It’s a number one X-Factor hit, or it’s nothing. That isn’t natural either. Aged one, did you wake up one morning reciting Blake?
 
No. No one does. How we get from A (Amateur) to B (Believable) is a learning process, no different from learning to speak, learning to read or learning to walk. As a society, we currently place questionably little weight on the arts, or on artists. Writing is an art. Yet you either have a bestseller, or you don’t. You’re either on the three-for-two shelf, or you’re in the slush pile. The onus is placed on the individual to shine, and to shine in the marketplace. Whereas I would argue that the emphasis should be on the process. On teaching the processes, plural, of writing; of good literature; of involving people in the art form and, importantly, of recognising and applauding effort, even if it doesn’t result in popularly acclaimed success.
 
I am a writer at the beginning of my career. Thankfully, that’s likely to be a fairly lengthy career. The Society of Authors still gives me a young person’s discount until I’m thirty-five.
 
I am aware that I’m still finding my feet, and my style. I’m learning. Yet I would hate to think that, in admitting this, I admonish the work I have done to date.
 
Whilst working in Armenia, a friend introduced me to Cross Stones. These are carvings of intricate crosses in large rocks. “Every one is slightly different,” she said. “No two are the same. This is God’s way of showing that nothing in the world is perfect; that there is beauty in imperfection. ”
 
It is the same with stories. There is no such thing as a perfect story, because there has never been a story written that everybody has agreed to be fantastic. All stories are different, even the printed word to those who read it. Yet all stories are complete in themselves.
 
Day #7: Celebrate the creative process as much, if not more, than the end result.