Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Lissa Oliver on writing fiction

Although I regularly facilitate creative writing classes, I’m probably the last person to hold up as an example of a good writing process. While I hear many writers say they work best in the mornings/evenings and reserve two hours of their day before breakfast/before bed to write, I’m more of a serial dinner-burner and non-hooverist, squeezing in my writing at any point of the day I can – and then getting carried away to the exclusion of all else.

“Mum, the dinner’s ready!” are the usual cries ensuing as the smoke detectors go off, but as an expert at juggling my time and prioritising, my response is usually, “Okay, just one more line…” A slightly burnt sausage really doesn’t taste that bad, but a thought or idea or precious line of dialogue allowed to evade the memory forever could lead to stomach ulcers and other severe nervous disorders.

Because fiction writing is not my full-time profession (very few writers, sadly, earn a living from their novels) I have to fit it in where I can, but luckily I am addicted to writing and find other distractions more of an inspiration than a hindrance. I am able to write anywhere, at any time, with any amount of background interference. My best environment is on my sofa, with my laptop, and rock music blaring out at stadium decibels. I find silence a little harder, but conversation, television, or playing ball with the dog, one-handed as I type, is of no inconvenience whatsoever.

For me, the process of writing a novel does not only involve typing. Away from the keyboard, the characters are still holding my attention in my mind for much of my day. In any given situation I find myself, I’m also wondering how this character or that might cope. It probably takes me about two to three years to actually write a novel – although once I begin to set it down on paper, it’s usually completed within nine months. The closer I get to the finish, the more I exclude other activities, such as housework and the day job!

My physical writing process is very tight, but slow. I always begin by reading over what I’ve previously written, which can slow me down as the book grows. In a typical two-hour period I will be happy if I complete a paragraph. I edit and refine as I go, often deleting more than I type in any one session. When I type my final Full Stop, that generally is my novel finished and ready for publication. I may go back over and find the odd typo, but basically it has been proofed and edited while in progress. My day job is a sub-editor and proofreader, but long before that role it just seemed to be in my nature.

I would guess that always reading good writers and well-crafted books helps. I have always written, as soon as I could write words, and I tended to mimic my favourite authors. A precocious reader, I wrote Toyland stories about my own toys, á la Enid Blyton, as a pre-schooler and later had my friends and I on great adventures, á la Richmal Crompton. Solving crimes like the Famous Five wasn’t for us, but finding a plot (and innocent mischief!) within the daily mundane world around us, like William and The Outlaws, was.

My fiction has always been character driven. As a reader I need to identify with and empathise with the hero. William and the outlaws were my best friends. Some very strong characters, such as Anne Rice’s vampire Louis, have become lovers. So when I write, I want to feel that same depth of passion for my hero. The plot is secondary. The reader has to care what happens to the hero and I am the reader – I always write the book I want to read.

I know much more than is necessary about all of my characters – their childhood, schooldays, parents, etc. Little things in their past provide me with clues as to how they will react within the plot. That’s why, even though none of my books are prequels or sequels, they do tend to have the same characters cropping up, particularly previous bit-players promoted to antagonist. As a reader, I like to feel the need to reach out to a hero and offer help, and experience the dread of danger. So I tend to be very hard on my hero; some authors play God with their characters, but for me it’s much more rewarding to play the Devil!

I have a rough idea of plot and certainly ending, before I begin, but the characters take over as soon as they hit the paper running. They respond to things in a sometimes unexpected manner and say things I never envisioned. Occasionally they’ll even turn the plot in a new direction, which leaves me with a bit of re-thinking to do. My whole writing process is thought first, typing later, so I’m often looking in on a scene, which I then recreate on paper. I always watch them first, then write what I’ve observed. A statement that should probably get me locked up! They’re pure fiction, of course, I could never base a character on a real person, as I would lose my creative input and leeway. A person known to you is too rigidly known to you – I imagine it would be difficult to break them down or witness their collapse on paper.

I would be hopeless at an English paper (even though I passed one some 34 years ago) because I’ve no idea what pronouns and adjectives and suchlike are – I just know how to use words and structure to my best advantage. Writing is definitely a craft. I love the power of punctuation, punctuation frightens many writers, but it’s the author’s best friend. It ensures the reader reads at the pace I intended, pauses where I want them to, sees the emphasis exactly where I put it. I love breaking the rules that I do remember from English at school. Never begin a sentence with And or But! In fiction, doing just that gives you such power.

As a paragraph, it would lose you your Pass Grade, but stuck in a thriller – what tension it creates!

Because I only write the books I want to read, my hero is always male. I’ve never had an interest in heroines or ‘The Love Interest’. I would have avoided it altogether, but a writer pointed out what a great tool love is – it makes people behave irrationally and take chances. Of course, being a Devil with a pen, I immediately thought how much more powerful unrequited love would be! I’m exploring that right now and I think the novel in progress is going to be my darkest yet. So watch this space!

Lissa is a freelance journalist who writes and broadcasts on horseracing. A regular contributor to the Irish Field, she is the European correspondent for Racetrack magazine. She has been nominated for the Clive Graham Writer of the Year Trophy at the Derby Awards each year since 2008. In 2010, she received a special commendation for her work. She lives in Co Kildare with her family.

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