One of the themes of Want to Know a Secret? is money and family and who thinks which is most important. That was my starting point. Money is emotive and some people prioritise it – and behave unbelievably badly, as a result. Prioritising money above those you love … it’s risky. The book is driven by the spilling of secret and as a result of the very first revelation, Diane meets James, who is with his wife out of duty, not love. It was a lovely teetering point on which to hurl my characters onto the stage, full of potential for conflict and twists.
What is your writing technique? Do you plan first or just write and let the story take you?
I plan, but in a way that is very, very, very, very messy. I get to know characters first, scribbling biographies in longhand, asking myself – and them – questions and looking at the answers. Somewhere in this process I find that I cease writing in the third person and begin to write in the first. I provide my characters with histories, because what we have been and what we have experienced influences the persons we are now. Both Diane and James have been supportive of and faithful to their spouses – spouses who may have not been deserving. Explosive situation! I also look at each character from different points of view: Diane is viewed one way by her husband, Gareth, quite differently by James, and differently again by Diane’s daughter Bryony and James’s daughter Tamzin. I like to get an all around view.
I begin to get ideas of conflicts between each character and jot them down somewhere on a opened out A3 pad. These ideas for conflicts are, roughly speaking, plot points. Then I begin to navigate my way through these plot points, planning a route. I employ logic but try not to write the points down in a list because once I see the plot in that way I get tunnel vision and can’t see it any other way. I like to find the best route, not the easiest. Sometimes, when the solution to a conflict suggests itself to me, I do the opposite, so as to keep things fresh. I utilise the writers’ friends: Why? Because … and What if?
I often give my heroine a quest, which gives me an idea of where the story is going and so keeps the story focused. I begin when she’s in an awkward situation and throw conflict and obstacles in her way and in the way of the hero.
If you can call the above planning, then, yes, I plan. I call it planning, anyway, and it takes quite a while, even if it’s messy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first book I planned was the first book I had published.
You are a successful novelist, but at some point you were just like me and writing your first piece and trying to get published. Tell us about that journey to publication.
I’ve written ever since I learnt to write. For a while, when my children were small, I didn’t really have the time to put the stories down on paper but I used to carry them in my head. When the kids were old enough for preschool and school, I had a couple of mornings to finally put typewriter, thoughts and paper together. The result was two novels that stood no chance of publication (although I didn’t let that stop me trying) but that were hugely enjoyable to write. So I looked around for ways to publication and realised that education was key. As school took over more hours in the lives of my children, I took a distance learning course, the same kind of thing that I now teach upon. Around the same time, I read a writing book by Nancy Smith, sadly no longer with us, and she said that having around 20 published short stories in national publications on my CV would make me more attractive to book publishers. So those short stories were what I concentrated on in my course and I’d had a handful published by the time I’d completed.
I sold my first story on April 1st 1996 to The People’s Friend – hoorah! And after I’d checked that the letter was not an April’s Fool and that the cheque was real, I spent that fee on a chair on which to sit at my word processor. And the cover turned out to be wool and gave me rashes.
But I had also been sending out letters to the press and had earnt several hundred pounds from magazines and newspapers that paid for contributions to their Readers’ Letters pages.
Do you have any advice for writers who are yet to be published? Anything to look out for?
Letters to the press are not a bad place to begin. Writing them tends to make one write tightly, study the market and pitch to it. Education is another key – don’t believe the stuff about the writer in the garret, get out there and take courses, go to seminars and conferences or join online communities, because publishing is a business that moves quickly and if you don’t keep your ear to the ground and your skills honed, you’re making it hard for yourself. There are things you need to know about getting published so why not let people tell you what they are? It’s more effective than guessing.
Writing competitions are helpful, too, although I appreciate that there’s often a financial outlay involved. But wins and placings look good on your CV and can earn you money and/or publication. The writing magazines are good for this.
And don’t give up. I wrote eight novels before I got one published (Uphill all the Way, Transita). With that experience I was able to rewrite two earlier novels (Starting Over and All That Mullarkey, both Choc Lit) and get those published, too, plus Family Matters, Hale, which is the hardback of what eventually became the paperback, Want to Know a Secret? For Choc Lit. I sent out over thirty short stories before the first acceptance arrived. When I left a part-time job particularly to have more time to write, I didn’t sell anything for ten months and kept meeting erstwhile colleagues who would enquire excitedly about how many stories I’d sold lately. I was forced to squirm and admit, ‘Erm … none.’ But I kept writing and I kept sending my work out, and that’s how I kept selling it. Write, send. Write, send. Get a rejection? Rewrite, send somewhere different.
I’d like to make a point about rejection – or several points. It happens to most of us. It happens often! It’s not personal. I used to let it stop me writing for up to four days at a time and then I developed a new technique: I swore and threw the rejection letter around a bit.
And, sometimes, a rejection isn’t a rejection – it’s a request for a rewrite, when reasons are given for rejection, reasons that can be fixed. Fix it! Send it back.
You write short stories as well as novels, do you have a preference? What do you enjoy most about each?
I think novels take hold of me harder but short stories are easier (my apologies to all those writers who say the opposite!) Short stories are, um, short, so they take less of a sustained effort and if they fail, I’ve lost less emotional investment and time. I can write short stories more quickly and so have a greater number of opportunities for success.
However, I fall in love with the heroes of my novels so I like writing novels more than short stories, especially if the novel is going well. I get greater satisfaction from seeing my novels in the bookshops than seeing my short stories in newsagents, probably because I view novels as harder.
But I do believe that each discipline is valid. It’s like comparing a sprint to a marathon. Each requires different techniques.
In real life, I hate to run so to compare myself to a marathon runner is where the analogy falls down! I’m more of a marathon sitter-down.
You do a lot of self promotion which obviously pays off. How do you find the time to fit all that in, alongside writing courses for the London School of Journalism, writing short stories, serials, articles and your own novels?
Beats me. I never can see where that time is coming from but I find it, somehow. The things you describe above, plus being a creative writing tutor and competition judge, add up to my career. I no longer have small children and I don’t have a day job. This is it. This is me. So I work long hours to fit it all in and try and put time aside between books with which to promote. I take opportunities to guest on blogs, send out my newsletter and talk on Twitter and Facebook, even if it’s only in the last half hour of my working day, when I’m suffering from brain ache. Also, I do things like signings on Saturdays and interviews – like this one – on Sundays! A seven day week helps. Happily, I’m not much into TV, which is a huge timewaster, in my view (except when Formula 1 is on, when it suddenly becomes the most important part of my day!)
What do you enjoy most when reading a book? What captures your attention?
A really good story. A love affair that makes me wish I was in it. Humour. Pace. Effortless and accessible writing (I like to forget I’m reading, not have to frown and puzzle and unravel metaphors.) I like to be involved. I am unashamed about my love of romantic fiction. It’s a easy (lazy!) way to experience the euphoria of falling in love, over and over again, without actually endangering my marriage, so I especially love a phwoarr! sort of hero. I like to be entertained rather than challenged.
What are you working on at the moment?
Another Choc Lit novel. It’s provisionally titled Love and Freedom and it’s about Honor, who has come to England, the Brighton area, to find her English mother, who left her when she was a baby. Honor has done the right thing most of her life but now, when her husband, Stef, and her father, Garvin, have let her down pretty much simultaneously, she’s decided to take a little ‘me time’. And into this ‘me time’ comes Martyn Mayfair, 6’4” of phwoarr and from the local Mayfair Mafia, a large family of which he’s the only surviving male. His eldest sister, Clarissa, is biologically his mother so his sisters are really his aunts and it all gets quite complicated. Honor has just gone to work for Robina, who happens to be obsessed with Martyn, although Martyn is young enough to be her son. Rufus, Robina’s actual son, is being bullied and Honor is making it her business to protect him and any moment now Stef and Garvin are going to arrive from America. I like to get my characters’ lives nice and knotty.
A huge thank you to Sue for taking the time to speak to me. You can follow Sue on her blog, she also has her website and you can purchase Want to know a secret? (available now for pre-order) on Amazon.