On Writing

I was recently invited to talk to some people about how I moved from journalism to fiction, and wrote a piece to try and gather my thoughts. Here follows my longest-ever blog post – a personal account of what led to the publication of The Painted Bridge in 2012 and this year the forthcoming publication of my second novel, working title Magic for the Living.

I was a journalist for a long time and before that I was a photographer.

I’ve always been interested in looking at the world and perhaps the key difference in moving from journalism to fiction is the point of view from which you look. All writing is subjective but fiction acknowledges its subjectivity and allows – even forces – you to look at the world through the prism of your own experiences, memories, joys, hurts and thoughts.

My journalism – first on Sudan and later on UK social issues, profiles, and in schools – was always features. I didn’t have much of a feeling for news but was  interested in describing things, listening to what people had to say, trying to make sense of stories and bring them alive.

How do you write a feature? You have an idea for a story, you investigate through going to places, talking to people, asking questions. Looking. You let the information settle in your mind for a few hours or days, even weeks. Then you sit down and write your beginning. Carry on until the end. That’s how I did it, anyway.

I enjoyed feature writing and the regular payments were vital in the years that I worked like that. I was lucky to have a good relationship with one editor in particular and was on a retainer with The TES. Over the years, I did hundreds of stories with my editor at The TES.

The desire to write fiction was always nagging at the back of my mind, and had been for years. At age 30, I’d signed up for a creative writing class and through that had short stories published in two anthologies. I’d embarked on a highly autobiographical novel, got a certain distance with it and sent it to an agent at A.M. Heath. I was crushed when he wrote back (on paper – it was pre email, in the late 80s) saying that I could write but that I had chosen ‘too small a canvas’ for my novel.

It was more than 20 years before I would try again to write a novel. Stand out point! Don’t be discouraged.

My feature writing for The TES led to my first non-fiction book. Initially, I began the research thinking of a longer-than-usual piece of journalism, pitched at Granta.  Perhaps a 10,000 word essay. After several months of regular visits to an inspirational inner city primary school in Kings Cross, as a ‘helper with a notebook’, by agreement with the head teacher, it occurred to me that I might have not an essay but a book.

Encouraged by friends, and I mention that because I think encouragement is vital to writers or at least it has been to me, I sent an email – yes, we are now in modern times, 2004 – to an editor at Routledge, on the basis that they published educational books and mine would be about a school. I described myself in the subject line as an award-winning journalist, which was a cliché but true. I’d won the EdExcel award for education journalism the previous year. It wasn’t exactly a Pullitzer but as a scriptwriter friend of mine advises: ‘stand on any dunghill to gain elevation’. I think this is another important point. Even with books, or in his case film scripts, you are selling yourself as much as your ideas and writing.

The Routledge editor took me for lunch and asked me to write two chapters of the proposed book. That wasn’t too hard – like writing two 5,000 word features, I thought. When the proposal was accepted, I was petrified. I had only a few months before the deadline and I thought of the process of writing it as like walking a tightrope over a chasm. Actually, it was pretty simple and they only wanted 60,000 words.

One of the first big issues in moving from short to long pieces of work is structure. I structured the book as a ‘year in the life’ of the school, highlighting a different issue – child protection, school food, home lives – in each chapter. I took it chapter by chapter, eating the elephant bite by bite, and this has stood me in good stead in all subsequent work. Focus on the scene you are going to work on this morning rather than the whole novel. The time for the whole will come later.

Oranges and Lemons was published in 2005 and I felt thrilled to have written a book. My mother had died earlier that year and I was disappointed that she hadn’t seen the publication of the book. She’d been my first encourager, teaching me to read, taking me to the library every week and later appreciating my letters, and other writing.

I wanted to write another book but had no idea what it might be.

A well-established writer had given me a generous review in The Times and I met him for coffee. He then did me another favour by introducing me to his agent, who was looking for writers to take on as he was starting a new literary agency. This is another stand out point. Get yourself a good agent if you possibly can. It’s not easy but it’s a quest worth pursuing. My agent has been and continues to be of crucial importance in my writing life.

At the point when the introduction was made, I didn’t have a book idea. Later, I did have a rather vague idea about wanting to do something on Sudan and I talked it over with him. He gave me useful advice and when I acted on it, and sent him a proposal from Khartoum, he took me on. The result was my second non-fiction book. Called Daughter of Dust, it is the story of an amazing real-life heroine, a Sudanese woman who grew up with the abandoned children on the margins of her society and as an adult became a champion of the ‘children of sin’ – or those born outside marriage in a conservative, Muslim society.

I began the book without any guarantee that it would be published but as a journalist I knew it was a great story. My agent sold the book to Simon & Schuster on the basis of a synopsis and two or three chapters already written. In writing the full manuscript, I began fictionalising the stories of those around the heroine, Leila. I had her agreement to tell her story but not the agreement of all the other people in her world, many of whom appear in the book.

Because the book was based on a true story, I had the hand rail of the real events of Leila’s life to lead me through the 90,000 words. I planned it out on huge sheets of paper that I stuck all over the walls of the room and wrote the book section by section. It wasn’t easy but it was satisfying. It took me two years, including the months I spent interviewing Leila, and was published in 2009.

I’m talking about the non-fiction books because along with journalism they have been my stepping stones to fiction. Daughter of Dust was sold as a memoir but reads to some degree like a novel. It is written in the first person – arguably the easiest form in which to write – and follows the main protagonist through a series of trials and setbacks at the end of which, after considerable suffering and the learning of painful lessons, she finds her true self and vocation.

In other words, it has the shape of fiction or in journalistic terms triumph over tragedy.

By this time, my editor had been made redundant and The TES, the title I wrote for for so many years, sold off by News International to venture capitalists. The journalistic rug had effectively been pulled from under my feet. I’d never been good at pitching to new editors.

At this point, my agent suggested I write a novel. I felt stunned. I have great respect for him and to think that he believed I could write a novel was empowering. Also terrifying. I was by then in my 50s and my children were grown up. I knew that for me it was now or never and I decided to go for it. I opted to write a historical novel, mainly because I’d enjoyed ‘creating a world’ in the Daughter of Dust book, a world that European readers didn’t know.

I understood that every book has to create a world.

I researched the mid-Victorian period, following my own interests, and discovered that at the time the great wave of public asylums were being built in this country, the small private madhouses were losing patients and going under. There was a strong financial incentive to retain patients, whether they were well or ill. This seemed to me a story, almost a journalistic one. Although 150 years old, I thought the story had resonance now.

I also in my research came across the work of Dr Hugh Diamond, who believed that madness could be read from the features of the face, using photographs. I’d always been fascinated by photography, by mental health and by issues of justice so these elements were true to who I was – important I think. You can write best only about things that genuinely interest you. It may not matter what they are, as long as they move and concern you.

At my agent’s request, I developed a 2,000 word synopsis of a novel. It took me a couple of months of reading and musing and working on it. I kept my agent’s card on a shelf in front of my desk as a talisman. Encouragement! He liked the synopsis and when the elation over that subsided I realised I was now on my own with the prospect of writing the novel.

This was a vastly greater challenge than either of the last two books. There was no school year as there had been in Oranges and Lemons, no handrail at all except the synopsis. First novels are sold or not sold in their entirety. I’ve never heard of a deal being struck with an un-famous, debut novelist for a book they hadn’t yet written.

More scary than the prospect of insolvency was the writing. I had over the years read scores of books on how to write and learned something from almost all of them. More than anything, what I took from the best of them was encouragement. I think the point is that if you believe you can do it, then you are able to keep going. And keeping going is what it takes.

Again, using my synopsis, I made a rough plan of the chapters. The hardest part is getting the first draft written. It is physically and emotionally extremely hard work. Some way in, after six months or so, I showed 20 or 30 thousand words to my agent and his colleague. Yes, they said. I should keep going. Great. I was in the foothills of the mountain.

I now know that my stumbling across the profit motive in private asylums and the use of photography to diagnose mental illness is what’s known in fiction publishing as a ‘non-fiction hook’. Probably all journalists could make use of such a thing, as we are not frightened of research and know a story when we see one. A non-fiction hook is helpful in selling and publicising a novel; it’s thought to go down well with book groups.

But there’s more to it than that. A novel requires you bring your imagination to bear which is in my view harder and more exposing than non-fiction.

As someone once said, there are three rules for writing a novel. But no one knows what they are. If I had to guess what they are, I would say – perseverance, perseverance, perseverance. That is how I wrote mine, along with doses of encouragement, continuing research, constant reading aloud to myself and – later – ruthless self-editing of what sounded bogus, trite, clumsy. I discarded far more words than the 100,000 that made it into print last year as The Painted Bridge.

As a feature writer, you polish your craft and become adept at shaping a satisfying one or two or three thousand word story. In my experience, to structure a book-length story is amongst other things a considerable technical challenge. Above all, it takes TIME! Give yourself enough time and don’t expect the novel to pour out fully formed. If it does, you are either a genius or lucky or both.

The great connection to journalism in fiction, apart from story, is characters. Often, in journalism, we write about people. We call them individuals or victims or perhaps celebrities. In fiction we write about people too, made up ones, who we call characters. Characters are what brings fiction alive and my experience has been that it takes time to get to know the characters that step forward from your imagination.

The two years I spent writing the first novel were arduous, often lonely and sometimes like stumbling in a wilderness. The good times were when connections began emerging in the work, characters came to life in my mind’s eye, felicitous passages seemed to write themselves. I got used to writing longer sentences and began even to enjoy it!

Ultimately, the encouragement has to come from yourself. I told myself during the writing of The Painted Bridge that my definition of success was to finish the novel. If I wrote it to the end, edited and shaped a full-length novel to the best of my ability, that would count as success.

I think this too is important. There is never any guarantee that work will be published, although we do fortunately now live in a  time when self-publishing is a viable option. Fellow ex-journalist Alex Marwood (a nom de plume) has made a real success of self-publishing The Wicked Girls on Amazon. She got picked up by mainstream publishers after the grass roots acclaim of her crime novel.

My happy interim ending was that my agent – after some months of trying – sold The Painted Bridge and got me a great two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. They are a pleasure to work with and I’ve just finished the second novel, working title Magic for the Living, which will be published in July this year.

As I embark on the third novel, I still face the blank page or screen, still take the same risk that anyone will take in setting out to try and write the best story they can in the way that only they can – and hope it finds readers.


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