Over on Instagram (@writerclairefuller) I recently asked if anyone had any questions about writing, editing or getting published. And there were lots! I’ve answered them all in brief in an Instagram post, but it’s hard to be concise with so many questions. So here are my longer answers. Do let me know if you have any other questions in the comments below and I’ll save them up for a future post.
My writing day
How I organise my writing time (@raluca1503 @tftmotherland)
I worked for so many years in a marketing company following normal office hours that now I write full time, I can’t rid myself of the old 9 – 5. Well, actually 9 – 6pm. But I’m doing much more than working on my novel in progress in that time, and it does depend on where I am in the publishing cycle. I have been known to be promoting one book, doing copyedits on another, and writing a third. At the moment I’m revising my fourth novel and working on publicity for the UK paperback of Bitter Orange which is due out on 2nd May, so it all gets mashed together. I’m also gearing up for more events, but these tend to be in the evening.
How I balance writing with other elements of my daily life: jobs (s) I have, family, friends, travel etc. (@heylizbyrne)
I generally keep them very separate. I write full time in the daytime and see friends and family in the evenings or weekends. I have to block out holidays well in advance so that I have a space of at least a couple of weeks where I’m not doing any writing work or events.
How I write
How I start a new novel, do I have plan, what’s my writing process in general, and how long does it take me to write a novel? (@raluca1503 @thebookishbohemian @whatbooktoreadnext_)
For all four novels (including the one I’m writing now), I mostly start with a person in a place and some things that I’m curious about and just start writing to see where the story goes. So, with Bitter Orange I had a woman looking through a hole in her bathroom floor into a room below hers where she sees a body in the bath. Every day I write new words, and also lightly edit the previous day’s work. I do that for about a year to a year and a half, and then when I know the whole story, I revise and edit and edit and edit (for maybe 6 months), and send it to my agent to read. Then more editing. The whole process is about two years, but it’s hard to pin down because I’m also doing lots of other things as well.
Do I get a say on my book covers or are they the decision of my publisher / marketing team? What if I get stuck with a horrible book cover! (@katejbaer @booksandabuzz)
I’m lucky because I do genuinely love all my books covers, and they really aren’t anything to do with me. They are designed by the inhouse design team at my publishers – who sometimes use external illustrators or designers. I am sometimes shown early ideas, and sometimes I’ve not been so sure about these, in which case I’ve had a conversation either with my editor or with my agent who has fed my concerns back to my editor. It’s complicated because I think book cover design is a specialised skill and one I’d prefer to leave up to the experts, but if my publishers were to go with a cover that I really hated it would be difficult for me to help with the promotion of the book.
How do I name my characters? Is the process of writing likeable vs. unlikeable characters different? (eg Gil in Swimming Lessons)? Any general information about character development? (@raluca1503 @tamaragolder @robynpforrryan)
Character names come to me in all sorts of ways: they might suit the period, the time they were born, the theme, the type of person. Gil in Swimming Lessons was going to be Rex, but my daughter thought that sounded like a dog’s name. Gil = gill = fish = swimming! Reuben, in Our Endless Numbered Days, was a name I wanted to call my son. Frances in Bitter Orange seemed a little bit frumpy and old fashioned (Apologies to any Frances’s reading this!)
There’s no difference for me in writing likeable vs. unlikeable characters for me. I love them all!
My characters develop as I get further into the book, and then once I feel like I’ve got to know them well, they do take over to a certain extent. I might want them to do something in a particular scene but they refuse because they just aren’t that sort of person. It becomes very interesting.
Inspiration / getting started
Where do I get my inspiration from, and in particular for Our Endless Numbered Days? How I get started? Do I start with an idea and research from there? Do I come across something interesting while I read and decide to write about it? (@_the_book_bug_ @tinasbookcorner @thebookishbohemian)
My inspiration comes from all sorts of places. For Our Endless Numbered Days, it was from a news story about a young man who walked to Berlin and told the authorities he had been living in the forest for five years and his father had died. For Swimming Lessons it was a piece of flash fiction I wrote about a man on a beach, and also when my husband and I (before we were married) hid notes in each other’s houses. For Bitter Orange it was also a piece of flash fiction about man looking at woman in a hole in the floor, together with reading about how many stately homes England lost in the 50s and 60s.
I do sometimes write a list of everything that interests me which I don’t know much about, and some things from this list will sometimes go in.
On the first day when I’m about to start something new I really just sit down and start writing and try not to worry that I don’t know who these people are or what they’re doing.
I research as I go along. I start writing until I’m writing about something I know nothing about and then I’ll look it up. I’ll do larger scale research – visiting places etc – once I know the setting.
Writing with multiple timescales
Bitter Orange (and my two other books) has multiple time periods. Did I decide to use that structural technique to help move the story on or was it a more organic decision for how I wanted the story to be told? (@thereadingjackdaw)
It’s not something I ever planned, and in fact the book I’m writing now deliberately doesn’t have that – because it makes the plotting so complicated. Bitter Orange started with Frances looking through the spyhole in her bathroom floor – it wasn’t meant to have a different time period as well, but one day I started writing her as an older woman reflecting back on the summer of 1969, and it added to the feeling of mystery and my ability to lay clues and hints, and seemed to work, so I carried on.
What about novel structure choices in general? (@robynpforrryan)
This answer could be several pages long! Although I don’t where my novels are going when I set out, I am vaguely aware of the basic structure of a novel. (ie – existing reality, inciting incident, rising action (with obstacles), climax, resolution, and new reality.) But I let myself play with that – so different time periods, multiple narrators etc.
How do I cope with fear: fear of a blank page, fear of failure? What do you do when you’re hit with writer’s block in the middle of your first draft? How do you get past it and get excited about the story again? (@tinasbookcorner @kthead)
I have no fear of the blank page or writer’s block. They don’t exist for me, and I don’t really understand how they can exist for other writers. All you need to do is write something – it can be rubbish. You can delete it the next day. My fear is that what I write is terrible. The voice in my head telling me what I’m writing is awful is often very loud, but I have learned (and I do need to experience and learn it; the intellectual knowledge isn’t enough) that I can write through that voice, get some words down on the page, and it might all come right in the editing. Without some words down, there is of course, nothing to edit.
I also have those moments where I’m not only worried about the words I’m writing or the scene, but the whole of the novel! Is this the right story? Is this interesting? Is it believable? Am I good enough to tell it? If you’re a writer looking for advice, I’m afraid I don’t have any trick for getting past this, except to keep writing, and know that when you come back to it tomorrow there maybe a nugget worth saving.
I have fear of failure in being not published or what happens or doesn’t happen to my books once they’re out there. But I try to keep it in check because there’s not much I can do about it.
I’ve also learned that I need to write every day to keep the work in progress in my head and to ensure that when I go back to the manuscript, I’m interested in it, and what I write is not too bad. Even if I leave the work for a weekend then I find Mondays difficult, and it’s only on Tuesday that I’ve got back into the swing of the work.
What did I write before Our Endless Numbered Days? How I got my agent and what was my route to publication? How much time passed from when I started sending the MS out to when I signed with a publisher? What are the things an author must remember when signing any contracts? (@katgotthecream @tftmotherland @postmodernpoet @savasari_ltd @whatbooktoreadnext_ )
Before Our Endless Numbered Days, I wrote half a dozen or so short stories, but that was the first novel I ever wrote.
I’ve written several blog posts on how I found an agent and got published – which you can read here, but below is the shortened version:
I finished writing Our Endless Numbered Days and researched about twelve literary agents to send it out to, using Agent Hunter, which is now Jericho Writers. I sent exactly what the agents wanted – usually the first three chapters, synopsis and covering letter. I quickly had a couple of rejections and a couple of requests for a full submission (to send them the whole novel). Then only a few days later Jane Finigan from Lutyens and Rubinstein asked me to come to London and meet her. She offered to represent me and the book and I signed with them. Jane and I went through about six weeks of revisions and then she sent it to publishers, and within a week we had three offers. The book went to auction and after about ten days, Fig Tree an imprint of Penguin won. I worked with my editor at Penguin on some edits, and meanwhile the book was sold to other publishers in other countries including Tin House in the US, and House of Anansi in Canada. (The time from sending the novel to agents to the time Penguin won the auction was about two months – but it was back in 2013, so I’m not absolutely sure.)
In terms of contracts – I’m no expert, but the contract with my agent was very basic: their commission was standard, as were their terms. If you’re a member of the Society of Authors, they will check contracts for you. The contracts with my publishers were much more complex, and I have relied on my agents to make sure these are ok, so it’s hard for me to give advice here.
@kabongard_writing would like to know about Getting published in the UK if you’re a German writer. Do you need an agent? How do you get one? Do they take German writers? Do I have to translate my books?
If you want to be published by a mainstream publisher you do need to get an agent first – they don’t look at manuscripts except via a literary agent. (It’s different for self-publishing, and some small independent publishers.) I’m certain that many UK agents don’t have any problem with taking on a German writer (who might still live in Germany), but I’m also pretty certain that the manuscript would need to be written in excellent English. You would be competing with native English writers. You would go about getting an agent in the same way an English writer would – making a list of agents who look right for you and your novel, and following their guidelines to submit it to them.
What are the most important questions to ask an agent when you sign with them? (@livingthewritelife)
What changes they would want you to do to the novel before they sent it out? How would your joint working process be in the future? How many authors / books have they taken on recently/ever that they haven’t been able to sell to a publisher? What would they do if this happened?
Have I ever thought about self-publishing and what or how I would publish? (@whatbooktoreadnext_)
I haven’t ever seriously considered self-publishing. From what I’ve heard it can often work well for genre novels, but not so much for what might be called literary fiction. That said, if I ever decided to write genre (probably under a different name), then I wouldn’t rule it out. At the moment I’m very happy with how I’m being published.
Any suggestions on where to start submitting short stories for publication or any online forums to help make them better? (@jensalinas)
I’ve always got a few short stories out on submission or in short story competitions. www.christopherfielden.com is a good place to start looking for competitions. I’m not sure about online forums for helping to make them better. There will be some out there, but I tend to use my writing group for critiquing my work.
And finally, @oliviaplottwist @thebooktrail @tinasbookcorner @extremelibrarian ask how my female cat got her name, Alan, and whether I considered the name Dave.
Quick answer to that last one: no (but it’s a great cat’s name). My husband and I wanted an ‘ordinary’ cat’s name, and we and my daughter came up with the name, Alan Chapman, before we’d collected the cat. We were getting him from a cat rescue home, and when we got there they told us that actually he was a she. But by then, Alan Chapman had stuck.
See what events I have coming up
Buy a copy of Bitter Orange
Buy a copy of Swimming Lessons
Buy a copy of Our Endless Numbered Days