Talking about writing: Claire Fuller

10 Apr 2022

Claire Fuller is the author Unsettled Ground (winner of the Costa Novel Award 2021, shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction), and three other acclaimed novels Bitter Orange, Swimming Lessons and Our Endless Numbered Days. Claire and I had a conversation about how our novels begin to take shape:

Lucy:  You and I both seem to start our novels with an idea of a place we find interesting or fertile –  and possibly also a hazy idea of a person too – but no plan or plot. I find it hard to pinpoint how, exactly, it goes from that to a novel (though I do know it can be painful and slow). Do you have a sense of how your novels unfold from that starting point – can you try to explain how it works for you? 

Claire:  It is really hard to pinpoint when that hazy idea starts to become a novel. I find that if I look at any of it too directly, it stops or becomes even harder. I have to come at it from an angle, maybe telling myself that I’m only messing around with a few words, seeing what might work or what might not. If I tell myself, ‘I’m starting my new novel now’, then it shies away from me. But I think there comes a point, probably only two or three thousand words in, when I begin to daydream about the story and all the things that could happen further down the line. These tiny ideas often come not when I’m writing but when I’m doing something else – usually reading someone else’s book, and they’re gone so quickly that it’s easy for me to lose them or forget them, so I’ve got into the habit of speaking into my phone and sending myself an email. This morning I sent one which just was, ‘the skin remembers’. My email inbox is full of these little snippets, and they come back to me when I next sit down to write, and some of them help me move forward and so the thing begins to coalesce into a novel. Actually coalesce is a good for what happens – a kind of slow spinning which ideas and thoughts start to stick to. 

I’m really curious how a novel starts to appear for you too. Can you identify with any of what I’m trying to explain? 

Lucy: I know what you mean about it all somehow coalescing and also about not looking directly at it for fear it will evaporate.  Magpie Lane started with the idea that a sinister doula (childbirth companion) would be interesting. I started reading about doulas, and somehow this morphed into a clever, mathematical nanny. The early part of a novel, for me seems to emerge out of this research phase where I do a lot of apparently pointless googling and reading. I have learned to go with anything that I either find myself unreasonably fascinated by, or that sparks a kind of excitement. My worst habit is that I seem to spend a year or more re-writing the first 5 chapters until I can really find the character. It’s horrible. Do you try to set yourself a target of how many words to write a day or anything like that to get yourself to move forwards? How do you cope with the empty page? 

Claire:  Something that sparks a kind of excitement is a really useful tool for me too. At the start of a novel or story I sometimes write a long list of things I’m interested in and often they make it into whatever I’m writing. I remember with Swimming Lessons, writing a list and ‘raining fish’ was on it, and a fish rainstorm made it into the book. I used to set myself a word target each day of a thousand words, but I found that I was writing rubbish in order to achieve it, and then deleting most of it the next day. So now I have a rule that I can edit what I did in the previous writing session, but that I must write some new words. It could be ten new words or a thousand, but I must write forward. If I didn’t set this rule I would just edit and edit and edit what I’ve already got. And I keep a writing diary where for each writing session I record the word count and just one or two sentences about how it went (usually badly!). It’s helpful though to see the word count going up. And I don’t really have a problem with the empty page. Editing the previous session will usually give me enough momentum to keep writing forward. Like going downhill on a bike fast enough to take me up the next rise. 

Talking about writing: Sarah Hilary about writing

23 Jun 2021

Sarah Hilary

Award winning crime author Sarah Hilary has been compared to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. Her most recent novel Fragile, a psychological thriller with a gothic twist, is beautifully written. Sarah shares her writing tips here.

Lucy: How do you begin a new book – do you start with an idea/ a plan and how does that turn into a novel? 

SH: Nothing so concrete as a plan. Often something as flimsy as a feeling, or an image. Usually, I’ll avoid looking at it too closely, let it play at the corner of my eye, see how it takes shape. When it becomes a character’s voice, that’s when I’ll start writing. I write fast for the first draft to get a backbone (plot) in place. The editing comes later, and is nearly always torturous.

Lucy: So, what do you find the most challenging thing about writing fiction, and how do you overcome it?

SH: Telling the deepest possible story in the shortest number of pages. I love words but have always aspired to brevity, with mixed success. I’m getting better at it. I think each book we write helps us to make fewer of the same mistakes. 

Lucy: What tips would you give to a writer struggling with self-confidence? 

SH: Embrace your mistakes. Be patient with yourself. If you’re really struggling, seek out the support of a writing group

Talking about writing: Mick Herron

17 Apr 2020

Planning a novel: A conversation with Mick Herron.

Mick Herron is the award-winning author of the bestselling Slough House series of witty spy novels, which has been made into an Apple TV+ series, Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott-Thomas. Herron is widely considered the John Le Carré of his generation. We talked about how we plan, or don’t plan, our books.

Mick Herron

How much should you plan a novel before you start?


LA: I always thought you had to have an idea that included a beginning, middle and end before you started writing a novel. It took me years to work out that this isn’t the case. All four of my novels have evolved from the vaguest of nuggets – a place, a character, something I’m just weirdly interested in (eg. killer whales or beetles or priest’s holes). The end result has been almost unrecognisable from the first idea. Is this something you find too? I have a feeling you might set out with a bit more of a road map than I do?

MH: More like a sat nav: I ask for a destination, and it takes me on a route of its own devising. I was remembering a line from the movie Sunset Boulevard the other day – it’s a long time since I’ve seen it, but the line’s delivered by the screenwriter character, played by William Holden, and goes something like “The most beautiful script I ever wrote was all about Okies in the Dust Bowl. By the time it reached the screen, it was set in a lifeboat.” He was complaining about the iniquities faced by the writer in Hollywood, but it strikes me that it’s not such a bad image of the creative process, and the way the original idea behind a novel – say – can become transformed or even discarded in the course of the book’s being written. I’m thinking of some of the talks we had when you were first planning Magpie Lane. A lot of those original ideas never made it to the final page, but they remain part of that novel inasmuch as they were necessary to its creation.

LA: Yes, I’m trying to figure out how it all does develop without a plan. I think I tend to get interested in a setting, and then find the character’s voices (with Magpie Lane I spent 5-6 months rewriting the first five chapters till I got Dee’s voice). Then I’ll start researching a few bizarre things that fascinate me – in this case, I remember getting very into wallpaper restoration and Oxford’s secret graveyards. I don’t write chronologically. I think I generally stay one small step ahead of myself, but often something will become really interesting to me, and then I’ll find it turning into a whole section, or even a bigger theme, and the whole novel shifts and goes in a different direction.  This means I expand the book from within. For a long time the opening line of Magpie Lane was: ’That was the day I found her in the priest’s hole eating dead bees.’ Now that’s at the start of Chapter 18. 

MH: And a very striking line it is too – I remember thinking it should be slapped on the front cover to pull readers in . . . I’m with you on character being key to a novel’s development, but I’ve also found, over and above that, that every novel has its own voice, even when it’s being written as part of a series. The mood, the tone, the colouring, has to be distinct from what’s gone before. Writing standalone books, as you do, requires even more of a tonal shift, and these ‘bizarre’ interests you follow help you achieve that, both in Magpie Lane and The Night Visitor. I love it when authors invest their books with unexpected enthusiasms, whether that’s old wallpaper or exotic beetles or whatever, and when such interests are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling, the results can dazzle. I assume that the development of such ideas in itself helps shape the novel, pointing out directions that didn’t seem available at the outset?

LA: Yes, it definitely does. I think it really leads the way. So, what about you? You don’t think of a plot in advance, but you know the destination. How does that actually work when you sit at your computer each day? Do you have a sense of a scene you want to write next?  How do you actually progress? I’m also interested in how different it must be when you’re deeply familiar with characters from the outset.  Do you feel they have a life of their own? 

MH: Not a life of their own, exactly – I find I still have to do all the work – but their paper-bound existences do at least have defined parameters: I know what sort of things they might do, what things they might say. So that helps. As for plotting, I do as much as I can before starting to write, but that falls far short of being an actual detailed outline. It’s more a series of disconnected events, like an overlong trailer for a movie. In doing the writing, I find the connections (I hope). The daily work often feels like looking for the solution to a problem I had no idea existed before then, which is sometimes trivial (where is this character’s car parked?) and sometimes not (how does this character know this other character is lying?) It’s not that I prefer to work this way; it’s more that this is the only way I seem able to (with this series, anyway). Is it like that for you? Or do you feel you have choices?

LA: I generally feel like things are wide open. The strange thing is that as I try to answer these questions, I realise how little of my writing happens in the conscious brain. It’s all a bit hazy. A lot of it is about sitting down, day after day – getting past my self-doubt, and the intimidating fact of this blank page – and playing around, watching scenes take shape. This doesn’t seem to happen in my conscious mind. This is going to sound totally pretentious, but when it’s really working well it’s a bit like what I imagine lucid dreaming would be like  – I’m kind of steering, but not in control. The serious, conscious work happens later in the process when I have to tighten it all up, and think hard about plot, and what information is revealed, and when, and the logistics of it all  – those parked cars. 

MH: And there’s the elephant in the room . . .the degree to which we don’t actually know what we’re doing; or, more accurately, how we’re doing what we’re doing. A lot of the problem-solving, I find, goes on in the back of the brain – if the plot mechanics are seizing up, I don’t sit at my desk and force myself to focus, I go out for a walk. By the time I get back, I’ve generally found how to get things going again. This sounds oddly passive, but I’m sure it’s common to many writers. All the really hard work has long since been done by the time we pick up our pens. We were doing it without knowing it: it started when we picked up our first story books, without a parent or teacher there to put it in our hands.

Or it started when we put those books down, and let the story continue in our heads. . .