Kate Griffin won the 2012 Faber/Stylist Magazine Crime Fiction writing competition. Her entry was the basis for her debut novel Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders, shortlisted for the 2014 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. The second in the series, Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune, is published by Faber & Faber on 2 July. More books in the series are underway. Her top writing tips keep it personal.
Try to remember…
1. That you write because you enjoy it, because it brings you pleasure. If you find that you dread turning on your laptop or catch yourself staring in despair at a blank sheet of paper, stop right there. Do something else; watch a film, re-visit a much-loved novel, take a walk, try that recipe you clipped out of a newspaper, meet a friend. Writing shouldn’t make you feel sad, oppressed or inadequate. It should give you a thrilling sense of achievement.
2. To be true to yourself. Don’t be a follower, even if the current ‘must-read’ on the bestseller list and in every bookshop window seems to have spawned a hundred imitators. Fashion is a fickle, fast-moving thing – by the time you’ve produced your variation on a theme in the hope of catching the zeitgeist, it will have moved on. Go where your enthusiasms take you, even if it seems unlikely.
3. To be your most honest critic. If you don’t feel a connection with the world and the characters you are creating, there’s a strong possibility a reader won’t either. It’s arrogant to expect others to love something you don’t feel passionate about. If you don’t enjoy spending time with the people on your pages, then something is wrong.
4. That your first draft is never the final thing. Writing is an exhilarating and emotional experience. When you’ve been working for months you can be so close to your story that you don’t notice (or want to notice) the imperfections. Once you’ve finished your first draft resist the urge to read it again immediately and tinker at the edges. Instead, put it away for a couple of weeks, or even months if you can. Go back to it when distance gives you a clearer and more dispassionate perspective. You will always make it better when you come to it with fresh eyes.
5. That when things are going well, it’s a mistake to stop. If you find yourself on a creative roll, go with it. No matter what else is happening around you, try to keep going until you’ve got everything down. If you pause, the mood will be broken and the moment might not come again. Think of yourself as a surfer waiting for the perfect wave and riding it until it breaks on the shore. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge wasn’t much of a surfer, but that infamous ‘person from Porlock’ stopped him mid-flow).
6. That there is a ‘Goldilocks’ zone for your research. If you put too much background into a story it becomes a drag on the narrative. If you do too little you’ll always be found out. Research, too much of it, can be a honey trap. It makes you feel like you are ‘working’ when you’re not. It can be a useful avoidance technique for the procrastinator.
7. That you are always giving away something about yourself when you write. Writing is a lonely occupation but, oddly, it’s also a way of trying to make human connections. In some ways it’s akin to being a needy stand-up performer. Private is the very last thing it is. If you are uncomfortable at the thought of your partner, parents, siblings, friends, colleagues or neighbours speculating on the state of your psyche after they’ve read something you’ve written, then it’s probably better to keep a diary… with a lock.
8. That what works for other writers won’t necessarily work for you. If you read that ‘X’ rises joyfully with the lark at 5 am, walks round his/her garden with a mug of green tea and then plunges fully refreshed into their writing, don’t think this is what you have to do too. You’ll know from experience when you are at your best (I’m most productive from 3 pm to 7 pm). The same goes for where you work best and how you work best. If you are able to carve out a dedicated writing space in your home, that’s great, but if you are happy at the kitchen table – that’s great too. Likewise planning; some writers feel most comfortable with a detailed framework to guide them, others prefer to allow their story to unfold itself as they write, others still are somewhere in between. There is no right or wrong way – there is only your way.
9. To celebrate once you’ve sent your manuscript off. It’s a huge achievement whatever happens next and you should mark the occasion. Then (and this is more tricky), you should forget about it. Don’t imagine that every ping of your email or rattle of the letterbox will change your life. It’s exhausting and unproductive to live in a state of constant expectation. Far better to channel that antsy energy into a new project.
10. To treat yourself to a really supportive and comfortable writing chair, after all, you are going to spending a lot of time sitting in it. I wish someone had told me this a couple of years ago – and so does my back!
Kate Griffin is a true cockney, born within the sound of Bow bells, and now lives in St Albans. She has worked as an assistant to an antiques dealer, a journalist for local newspapers and now works for The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Her Kitty Peck series is published by Faber & Faber.