How I write

The Royal Literary Fund has recorded a mini -podcast with me on how I write – with a black coffee, and some dark chocolate and then I begin!

‘Writing a novel feels like being an ultra-marathon runner, it’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 90,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then.’

You can listen here:

Sanjida O’Connell

 

What do you think? Let me know how you write.

 

I’ll be your coach

 

I’ve just returned to working for charity, First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.

So what I said was:

I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing. 

I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers. 

I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.

Finally, I said:

I am your coach. 

In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.

As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.

For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’

 

Wuthering Heights – the novel that has influenced me the most

When I was a teenager, I steadfastly refused to believe that so-called ‘classical literature’ could be better than the assortment I chose from the local library. What did these authors have to tell me? By this time in my life I had lived in several countries, attended eight out of what would be ten schools and knew no one else who was mixed-race. I feared so-called classics would be dull, staid and part of ‘the establishment’ that I was so busy rebelling against.

And then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Brontë’s tale, set on Haworth’s bleak and beautiful moorland resonated with me, partly because I spent my teens living on either side of Ilkley Moor.

 

 

As a sixteen-year-old, I understood Cathy’s passion:

‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’

I was shocked by the power and the savageness of some scenes: the one in which Lockwood grabs a child’s wrists and saws them across broken glass still haunts me. But most of all, what struck me was how easy to read this story was: it is a gripping, page-turner; the writing is beautiful and profound; there is something about this multi-generational tale of love and loss that moved me then, and moves me still. As a teenager, I thought it spoke directly to me: do you choose the person who rocks your world but is ultimately unstable, or the one who is boring but steadfast and will give you security? 

Now, or course, I see more layers and nuances in Brontë’s novel. My fiction has always been gothic with an almost super natural element running through it. I’ve read, and re-read Wuthering Heights, and in my second psychological thriller, The Stolen Child, I turned back to the Yorkshire moors as the setting for a kind of demonic love story. It was a great excuse to re-read Wuthering Heights.

 

For more on Wuthering Heights, I’ve recorded two podcasts for the Royal Literary Fund. Here’s the first one:

 

My Favourite Book, part 2

 

How do I write?

 

Well, I start the day with a large black coffee and some dark chocolate!

Writing a novel feels like being an ultra marathon runner. It’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 80 – 100,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then; I know I’ll have to keep going, unsure if I’m going to make it, or make it in time. And then, when I cross the finish line, I’ll be doubled over, sucking in air, celebrating how far I’ve come, before, – quick breath – I’ll start the first full read through, and the edits.

So I begin my writing day by reading through what I wrote the day before, and I end my day by making notes on what I’m going to write, so I don’t waste time trying to get in the zone.

I write a book a year – for the thriller that’s just about to come out, My Mother’s Secret, that meant 2,500 words a day, for three days a week during school hours. If I didn’t hit my word count, the walk to school to pick up my daughter would be filled with figures – I’d calculate that tomorrow, I’d need to write 3,500 words, and if I didn’t hit that word count, the day after would be… tricky!

Before I begin a novel, I spend a couple of months plotting my novel, scene by scene, until I have an outline of between 6 and 10,000 words. Even if some scenes are pretty sketchy – Scene 52: Stella and Adam getting closer.

And I’m going to come back to this and talk more about plot in the future…

The full answer to this question has been recorded by the Royal Literary Fund and will be available shortly. In the meantime, I’ve recorded other podcasts for the RLF, and there are many, many wonderful writers you might like to listen to via iTunes or their website.

 

What’s your writing process like?

 

Why do I write?

 

 

The short answer, is because I have to! I’d write if I was shut in an attic at the top of a dark castle –  but I also want to be read. I don’t just write for myself. I want someone out there to read what I’ve written, to see what I’ve seen in my mind, to experience what I felt, to be immersed in another world and other lives…

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote,

‘You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.’

I believe I have something to say. And I want to share it.

Stephen King said,

‘Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends.’

But actually I do want all those things! More than anything else though, I agree with him when he wrote,

‘[Writing is] about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting happy.’

And in the end, that’s true. I write to make myself happy.

 

The full answer to this question has been recorded by the Royal Literary Fund and will be available shortly. In the meantime, I’ve recorded other podcasts for the RLF, and there are many, many wonderful writers you might like to listen to via iTunes or their website.

 

Why do you write? Or if you don’t, why not?!

Blurred lines: Separating fact from fiction

BLURRED LINES: SEPARATING FACT FROM FICTION

category_diary80I’m delighted to be featured in Writer’s Aloud, the Royal Literary Funds podcast. This week I’m talking about the distinction between imagined and real worlds in novels.

Writer’s blur the lines between fact and fiction – we can’t help it – our work comes from us, our heads and our hearts; in the end, everything is, in some shape or form drawn from our own experience.

 

Have a listen and let me know what you think!

 

James McConnachie & Sanjida O’Connell