How did you become a writer? I was probably the classic writer temperament; shy, but mad to express myself. As a teenager, I had many penpals, who were treated to long, glorious texts - and may not have appreciated them quite as much as I enjoyed producing them.
In the sixth form, my English literature teacher cornered me at an end-of-term party to talk about an essay I’d written on Chaucer. I quailed, wondering what crassness I'd committed. Especially as I’d wandered off the point by indulging in a detailed muse on the character of the Wife of Bath. 'You should write novels,' she said, with a look that said she meant me to take her very seriously. Gosh, how splendid, I thought. It also seemed impossible.
I got an English degree, muddled along in business publishing, then met a fiction author, who I ended up marrying. I suddenly discovered people whose vocation was storytelling, and these generous souls were eager to help a novice. While I dabbled with fiction of my own, I helped out with writing and rewriting when they were up against deadlines (don’t tell anyone). When an editor changed the brief for a novella my husband was writing, I took it over and delivered a complete manuscript in six weeks. After that, editors knew I could do the job and I started ghostwriting for big-name authors and freelancing as an editor for a literary consultancy. But I didn’t feel I was on my way until I landed an agent for my own fiction.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). My influence is everything, all the time. Two things I saw today that I will be musing about: a crow whose cry sounds like a man with an accent saying ‘Run’; a Rolls Royce with a bright silver paint finish like mercury. In terms of writers, everyone I read leaves a mark, but particular loves are Iain Banks for oddness, Gavin Maxwell for humanity, Graham Greene for restlessness, Donna Tartt for cleverness, Ann Patchett for passion, Stella Gibbons for spirit, Hilary Mantel and Andrew Miller for slowing down time and magnifying the human experience, Kevin Brockmeier for poetic vision. I could go on. We don’t need pictures in our house; the walls are lined with bookshelves.
When and where do you write? If I’m planning or drafting a novel, I work on it first thing in the morning. I only spend a couple of hours and I may not necessarily write. Sometimes I might troubleshoot the outline, consider the characters or dig at the concept. I also build soundtracks. Initially they are pieces of music that I choose to conjure the story’s atmosphere, then I discover tracks that seem to suggest a character or a moment in the story. After a few hours I’m boggling so I work on something else – editing, an article or research. But the novel’s still with me on a low burner. I’m very distractible, so this pre-loads my brain with the problems I want it to jump to when my attention wanders.
When I’m editing a draft, though, I can’t get enough hours with it. I do multiple edits - at least 10 or 20. The closer I get to finishing, the more addicted I get to the book, wishing we hadn’t arranged to meet friends for dinner and so on. I hope they’re not reading this.
What are you working on now? The most intensive project is my third piece of fiction, working title The Mountains Novel. It does have a proper title, but I’m wary of uttering it until the fragments are joined. I’ve also got The Venice Novel. And thanks to a kind gentleman who talked to me about my first novel at a recent signing, I now have The Flying Novel.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Yes, and I find it takes many forms. This is how I tackle them. In order of size:
Major: the panic that I don’t have a good enough idea. I especially get this when I’ve released a novel. One moment I had a superfit book I was bursting to release. Once it’s out, I look at what’s still in the nest… a book that doesn’t yet know what it is, or hasn’t yet acquired enough richness. Of course it will, but I’ve forgotten how much work that takes. The best cure is to have a number of books coming to maturity, working on them in rotation. Then you never worry that you’ve dried.
Minor blocks: by this I mean times when I don’t know what to write. Or a scene I don’t want to start because it’s lame. Though unpleasant, this is a very useful kind of block. It’s telling me to stop and reconsider, so I grab an envelope and brainstorm. I usually find something releases me to carry on.
What’s your advice to new writers? Read like a glutton. For every three books that are your usual taste, try one that isn’t because it might turn you inside out. Also, get comfortable talking to the page - establish a regular habit of creating prose – even if you’re only jotting ideas on scraps of paper. And if you want to write fiction, learn how to construct a story. Find people you like to learn from – trusted advisers who’ll help to steer you and give the feedback you need. Don’t be in a hurry to publish, even though it’s tempting. Try to get an agent, even if you intend to self-publish. Often, if they think you are close to publishing standard, they will let you know and they might give you useful pointers to help you improve. And if they want to represent you, that’s a useful ally!
Finally, improvement is one of those things that happens slowly and without you feeling it, like growing to adult height. So every now and again, look back at your earlier efforts and discover you have actually come a long way.
Roz Morris's books have been on the bestseller lists but not under her name - she ghost-wrote for other authors. She is now coming into the daylight with novels of her own. Her first is My Memories of a Future Life, and her next, Lifeform Three, will be released in winter 2013 - more details from her newsletter. She is also the author of two writing books – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence and Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life. Roz also has a writing blog Nail Your Novel. Connect with her on Twitter at @ByRozMorris and @NailYourNovel.