November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, during which thousands of writers worldwide are trying to write 50,000 words of a novel in a one month frenzy. NaNoWriMo started in 1999 and now over 400,000 people take part each year. A significant number of novels have been published as a consequence. Bob Clary at Webucator asked me to respond to some questions about writing and motivation, as part of the Novel Writing Month.
What were your goals when you started writing?
I was an avid reader from a very young age, systematically plundering my way through my local library, and so I’ve always been interested in writing. I have published books and many essays and articles on contemporary art as part of my career as a curator and University lecturer, but six years ago, at the age of 50, I decided I really wanted to write my first novel. I came across the true story of a female lord who lived in 11th century France and Spain called Almodis de la Marche. The scanty facts known about her life gripped my imagination. I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA to give me dedicated time to research and write. I entered a competition – The Impress Prize for New Writers – and was shortlisted which was extremely encouraging. Writing a novel is a long haul and you need all the encouragement you can garner. My fellow Creative Writing students and tutors also gave me great critical and constructive support. I didn’t win the Prize but Impress Books asked to see more of the manuscript and gave me a publishing contract. That novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver, was published in 2011 and Impress have just published my second historical novel, The Viking Hostage. So at the outset my goals were to write a novel and to make it as good as I could.
What are your goals now?
After writing my first two novels alongside a demanding full-time job I decided to ignore the usual advice not to give up the day-job, and did just that, so that I could focus more on writing. As a consequence I now have two new novels in development and a biography I’m just starting to research. So my goals now are to keep writing, keep publishing, to reach more and more readers. I also want to write as well as I can, to school myself to write beautiful sentences. I take note of feedback from readers and reviewers. I think my plotting is pretty good – many readers say they can’t put the books down once they start. But there are always things I want to improve, to do better in the next book.
What pays the bills now?
I earn a bit from my fiction writing in royalties, fees via the UK bodies Public Lending Right and Authors Licensing and Copy Service, invited talks which sometimes pay fees and sometimes are unpaid but still are opportunities to meet readers, sell a few books, promote the books. So I was an invited speaker at the Parisot Literary Festival in France (my two novels are partly set there). I’ve also recently given talks at libraries, universities and book groups.
I have freelance income from other aspects of writing – residencies, funded projects, reviewing, proofreading and editing, and I still do some University work, such as phd supervision. Then I also continue my parallel work as a writer on contemporary art. None of it is highly paid, but it just about pays the bills. I think the trick is not to have too many bills. The less you need, the more time you have for writing. My daughter is grown up and married and I don’t have a mortgage to worry about. I live simply to enable me to write and live richly.
Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?
There are lots of things I want to say and get down on paper. I love researching and then seeing characters, plots, dialogue, scenes emerge in my mind and on the page. I like keeping a daily count as the words build up until there is a whole first draft. And then I like editing that raw material and honing it. There are both conscious and unconscious processes at work in writing, and you have to trust to that. It’s easy to lose impetus and self-confidence and start to doubt the value of what you are doing. You are working alone so much as a writer. So it’s important to share your work in progress with readers whose judgement you trust, or to find other ways of having what you are doing reflected back to you – see below.
And what advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?
Do it. You need to be extremely proactive in many directions – researching, learning how to write well, motivating yourself to write, looking for opportunities for funding and public presentation of your work. You can’t just sit and wait for someone to discover you. Have other strings to your bow in terms of income-earning but find a balance between that and time and focus for writing. Residencies are good for getting rid of other distractions and procrastinations and forcing yourself to get on with it. I just did a residency in the Catalan Pyrenees at the Centre d’Art i Natura which was remarkably productive as well as being inspiringly beautiful. Next year I will do a residency in Helsinki. Look on res artis for writers’ residencies. Deadlines are also good – hence the effectiveness of National Novel Writing Month. But you can also give yourself deadlines by entering competitions, sending material to agents, or submitting for publication. I also give myself a sense of belonging to a community of writers through membership of the Society of Authors and the Historical Novel Society and subscribe to writing magazines: Mslexia and the New Welsh Review. So you can find your own equivalents to make writing a less solitary, and more supported, experience.