How does your working day pan out?
I usually follow a normal working day. I head into my room, just off the kitchen, with a cup of tea at about 9am and work through, stopping for lunch or to go for a walk maybe. Of course, I’m not always writing. I’m a dab hand at displacing on the internet and on Twitter but, despite the temptations of the biscuit tin, I stay there till I’ve done my quota of words for the day.
Do you do much research?
So far, I haven’t had to do an enormous amount but it depends on what the novel needs. So far I’ve only used places I’ve visited already. I always make notes when I travel so I have small details. For Women of a Dangerous Age, I had a great time visiting lots of vintage fashion fairs, talking to experts and reading up on the subject. I also spent time with a goldsmith who showed me round her studio and explained how she worked. I’d never really understood why people got so excited about gemstones until she showed me some of the things she was working on.
Please guide us through the stages of one of your books – the ideas, the planning, the drafts, working with an editor, etc.
I usually start with an idea. For example, with The Secrets Women Keep, I was intrigued by other people’s marriages. How many times have you wondered how on earth a couple got together at all or what makes another one tick? Then I started thinking about the interior life of marriage. Can one partner ever really know the other completely? Doesn’t everyone keep a part of themselves private? I decided to write about two marriages in which the partners have been blind to certain truths about each other. When tragedy strikes and revelations are made, their lives are changed forever.
Having got that far, I began to think about the characters, writing them as full biographies as possible, and working out their journey through the book. Where there was any obvious research to be done, into locations or characters’ careers then I did that too. So by the time I started, I knew my starting and finishing points, with some key scenes along the way. I try to write 1,000 words every day, although sometimes I end up with much less and, very occasionally, more.
When I start the day. I go over what I wrote the day before, editing, tweaking etc and then set off again. If I’m finding it hard, I remind myself of Joe Simpson’s extraordinary feat of survival that he wrote about in Touching the Void. By taking a few agonising steps at a time, then stopping, he eventually reached base camp. I.e. You’ve just got to keep going, however small each advance and however difficult, and you’ll get there in the end.
I work through a second draft, making sure it’s as good as I can make it, then I show my agent who’s a fantastic editor and tells it like it is. Then, another draft. And then, if I’ve got it right, to the publisher. One more draft to incorporate any more changes and suggestions and then it’s off to the copy-editor.
Do you find writing easy?
Never easy, but some times are easier than others. It often happens that when I’ve got up a good head of steam and expect to be writing as fluently the next day, it just doesn’t happen and I spend hours staring blankly at the screen. That can be frustrating, but sometimes going for a walk helps and I can nudge it on a bit.
Are you good at managing your time? How does your writing fit in with the rest of your life?
I’m absolutely rubbish at managing my time. During the week, I write as if it was a day job. But the novel and the characters are always turning over in my head, so I’m often tempted to write at weekends too. I suspect it might be better if I worked in shorter more focussed bursts, but I can’t seem to do that.
Can you give any advice to someone wanting to write a book?
Read as much as you can. Then write, write, write. It’s much easier to talk about writing than it is doing it. If you only write 200 words in one day, that’s better than nothing and taking you a little nearer your goal. Then once you have something written down, you can change and polish it until you’ve made it the best you can. All that’s impossible until the words are on the page.