Sanjida O'Connell

Life-changing literature

I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte I first read Wuthering Heights as a teenager, and since then, I've read itRead More »Life-changing literature

Marketing and Me

'I don't much like it. Marketing is about selling & writers, as we know, are about writing and reading. They're generally not known for their ability to get you to buy a Prius when you wanted a Yaris’   I've recorded a podcast about having to market myself for The Royal Literary Fund - publishersRead More »Marketing and Me

The best writing advice I ever received

Receiving criticism about your writing can be excruciating. It sometimes feels like a personal attack because fiction comes from the heart, from the soul. But learning to accept feedback graciously and even to welcome it is what will elevate your writing. Here's my story on the Royal Literary Fund's podcast: https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/sanjida-oconnell-bar/?fbclid=IwAR0d_jZqkFWovJN0Qasby5eVSFERvjG8DV-419nUjZMuN_6fef6cYKDrXWo      

The Priest and the Lily – the inspiration for my novel about men and flowers

Many of our most common and beautiful garden plants have come from far-flung locations throughout the world, brought to us by intrepid explorers who have literally risked life and limb in their search for the rare and exotic. Our gladioli originally came from South Africa, rhododendrons from the Himalayas, the monkey puzzle tree is indigenousRead More »The Priest and the Lily – the inspiration for my novel about men and flowers

Writing Short Stories

I recently judged the Bristol Short Story Prize for the second year running. This year there were 2,420 entries from all over the world. My fellow judges – agent, Rowan Lawton, radio producer, Sara Davies and writer, Nikesh Shukla – and I read forty stories and chose the twenty that will feature in the next anthology as well as the winner, second and third place.

And today the short list of those twenty stories we chose has been announced!Read More »Writing Short Stories

Hiking for Writing I

 

All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.

Friedrich Nietzsche

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I’ve just got back from a long weekend hiking in the Lake District. We were blessed with amazingly beautiful weather for the start of April and climbed Scafell Pike. Not content with that challenge, we zipped up Scafell…and then had quite a long walk with achey knees down a scree slope to get back to Wast Water.

DSCN7161I love walking – whether it’s up a mountain, round a lake, popping to the shops, or up and down Bristol’s steepest hills. So I was interested to read Mark’s Daily Apple blog on Why These Nine Famous Thinkers Walked So Much. William Wordsworth, who famously climbed many of the hills in the Lakes, used his walks to compose his poems – the act of walking was ‘indivisible’ from the act of writing. Charles Dickens found writing quite difficult and used to walk 20-30 miles a day to get some relief from his work. Soren Kierkegaard deliberately used walking to help him mentally compose paragraphs and think through new ideas. He said:

Read More »Hiking for Writing I

What I think about when I think about holidays…

We’ve just got back from our annual spring holiday in Trelowarren, Cornwall. I love holidays! I believe they’re absolutely crucial for boosting creativity. To be honest, I didn’t once think about the thriller I’m writing at the moment – but I hope I’ll approach it with vim and vigour and some fresh ideas when I get back to working on it. What the holiday allowed me to do – by stepping away from my daily routines, minor stresses and familiar environment – was to give me the space and time to think about the Bigger Picture.IMG_1752

Normally I try and read as many novels as possible when I’m away (although that can feel like work!) but this time I read some non-fiction books. I started off with Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin, which is about how to be more productive and happier by changing your habits. I loved it so much, I read Rubin’s first book in this series – The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. So now I have a list of new habits to help me Be More Productive and Have More Fun!

Read More »What I think about when I think about holidays…

Sugar: The Book I Wish had Changed the World

There is something sweet and sickly in the air.

It’s ten years since my book on sugar, Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World, was published. Next week I’ve been asked to sugar copyopen a conference at Bristol University on sugar – covering many of the topics I wrote about, from the evolution of sugar cane through to its effect on our health – although I’m expecting the academics at Bristol, a decade since I researched the subject, to have far more insightful things to say.

Read More »Sugar: The Book I Wish had Changed the World

How to write dialogue II


If writing dialogue set right now in the real world is difficult, writing historical dialogue is even harder. Surprising as it sounds, you don’t want absolute accuracy. The deeper into the past you go, the less likely it is that anyone living today actually knows how anyone spoke and the chances are, we wouldn’t understand them anyway.

What you do want is readable dialogue that carries information, advances the plot, indicates relationships, conveys character, mood AND is authentic. My fourth novel, Sugar Island, is set around 1860 on an island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, where my English protagonist, Emily Harris, has been forced to live by her American husband on a slave plantation. Emily is based on the real life actress, Fanny Kemble, who wrote a diary of her experience on St Simons Island.

Read More »How to write dialogue II

How to write dialogue I


Walter: Castor beans.

Jesse: So, what are we going to do with them? Are we just gonna grow a magic beanstalk? Huh? Climb it and escape?

Walter: We are going to process them into ricin.

Jesse: Rice ’n Beans?

Walter: Ricin. It’s an extremely effective poison.

Breaking Bad

Dialogue is something that many writers struggle with. If you sit in a cafe and transcribe a
conversation you’ll see that people don’t talk the way they do in books and films. They are not eloquent, they have accents or dialects, they use slang, jargon; their speech is repetitive, circular, they stick in redundant words like like, you know, I mean; frequently they don’t say what they mean or what they truly want to say. Quite often they’re not listening but waiting for a gap in the conversation to speak or are simply talking over the other person. Equally, you don’t want to write dialogue that’s stilted or reads as if it has been written down, rather than spoken but you do want to capture the essence of how a particular character speaks. It’s tricky!Read More »How to write dialogue I

Working with a freelance editor

I’ve been the fortunate recipient of an Arts Council grant to fund me whilst I write my fifth novel. One of the brilliant aspects of the grant is that I have been able to hire a freelance editor to read the latest draft of my work in progress. I was lucky enough to work with Ali Reynolds, who was an editor at Vintage, Random House.

You might think there isn’t much need for an editor prior to getting your book published
and it is not cheap (although it’s incredibly good value for the amount of time and expertise you receive) – but in my experience, it’s invaluable.  I’ve had two 2 book deals with publishers (John Murray and Black Swan) and am now between contracts – so I don’t have the luxury of working with an in-house editor.  As Ali says:

Read More »Working with a freelance editor

Creating Characters II

Is your character based on a real person? This was the first question from Richard Beard, director of The National Academy of  Writing who chaired The Writers’ Conference, organised by freelance editor, Ali Reynolds and held at the Bristol Festival of Literature last week. Patricia Ferguson, author of The Midwife’s Daughter, and I were discussing characterisation.

Patricia Ferguson, Sanjida O'Connell, Richard BeardMy protagonist, Emily Harris in Sugar Island, is based on a real person – the actress Fanny Kemble. This was a bit of a mixed blessing as there was so much information out there already about Fanny, numerous biographies and the diary she wrote, which I used as the basis for Sugar Island. I did change her personality a bit, partly for the purposes of the story and partly because I condensed the action down to a year and a half instead of it taking place over half her lifetime, so Emily remains a young woman throughout the course of the novel. It was a relief when about a third of the way into writing the novel, Fanny finally became Emily, and her husband Pierce, truly became Charles, in my mind.

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Editing my Novels

Writer Isabel Costello  kindly asked me to write a guest post for her blog, The Literary Sofa. I hope you have a chance to read some of her other posts, all highly informative with some interesting tips.

theory of mind by sanjida o'connellI had the unfortunate fortune to be barely edited when my first two novels, Theory of Mind and Angel Bird were published by Black Swan. Fortunate, because editing is a painful process, especially when the person who is paying you is pointing out your shortcomings. Unfortunate, because it gave me the misguided impression that writing a novel is all about the writing. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘The first draft  of anything is shit.’ For your work to shine, you need to write, rewrite and then get some help!

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Creating Characters I

As I’m going to be chatting about creating great characters with Richard Beard, from the National Academy of Writing, and Patricia Ferguson, author of, The Midwife’s Daughter at the Bristol Festival of Literature I thought I’d share with you some of my ideas before the big day.


‘I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it….I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.’ 

Read More »Creating Characters I

It’s All in the Edit


I used to be dreadfully bad at spelling and grammar. Now I’m just bad. I’m better  than I was thanks to spell check, practice and copy editors. Necessary as good punctuation and the correct use of the English language is, though, editing is so much more than this.edit

You can – you probably should – pay for a copy editor to go through your work before your book wings its way into the world; you should probably also hire a professional editor (more on this another time), but I thought I would share with you my editing procedure. Not that everyone needs this kind of approach – it’s simply what helps me with my rubbish spelling and blindspots when it comes to typos and story structure!

So. I’ve finished the first draft. I drink copious amounts of alcohol, preferably fizzy, and then:

Read More »It’s All in the Edit