Today, I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn to my blog. After a career teaching English in further and higher education, Lindsay, now works as a writer and creative writing tutor. Her second novel The Piano Player’s Son was published in 2013 by Cinnamon Press after winning their novel writing award. Her first novel, Unravelling, published in 2010, has won several prizes including winner of the Chapter One Promotions Book Award and second prize in the International Rubery Book Award. Lindsay is working on her next novel, Phoenix. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. Lindsay also writes short stories and flash fiction which have been published and successful in competitions, including Cinnamon Press, Fish Publishing, and the Asham Award.
Lindsay, perhaps you could start by telling us how you came to be a writer.
I first wrote stories when I was a child. I was an avid reader (I took out at least four books a week from the library) which I think developed the urge to create my own stories. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer, even though it was a long time before I felt able to say, ‘I’m a writer’.
You generally write in the genre of contemporary fiction. What can readers expect?
I am interested in exploring the complexities of human relationships, whether between partners, parents and children, siblings, friends. In particular, my novels and short stories often deal with the power struggles in families. When people read my books, I hope they will find stories to involve and entertain them, but also characters and situations that they can identify with. I’m happy if my writing makes people think and feel.
Click here to buy Lindsay’s book on writing and what it’s like being a writer
Hilary Mantel says that a Catholic upbringing is the only qualification a writer requires. Do you have any writing qualifications?
As it happens, I was brought up a Catholic and went to a convent school until I was eighteen. But I’m not sure that has been hugely significant in my writing career, other than that fiction must inevitably be a product of our experiences, emotions, relationships, all thrown into a melting pot. As for formal qualifications, I have an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University.
Book signing for The Piano Player’s Son
John Irving says that you can’t teach writing. You can only recognise what’s good and say ‘keep doing that’. Do you think that’s true?
As a creative writing tutor, I couldn’t possibly agree with that! I don’t think you can teach the art of writing, that is creativity or imagination, although you can help people to view the world more imaginatively. Life tends to squash the imagination, and it’s exciting to tune into it again, to ask ‘what if?’ and ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ But I definitely think you can teach the craft of writing. People don’t say to artists, musicians, dancers, for example, that there’s no point studying their craft. We recognise that they can be taught to improve their skills. Why shouldn’t the same apply to writers?
What was your first recognition/success as an author?
During the time I spent at home while my children were young, I wrote four novels (unpublished and in a drawer somewhere!) Novel number four got some good responses from agents and publishers – you could still send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers back then – Virago included a handwritten note with their rejection which said I’m sorry to be saying no to this, but we take on very few new authors. And an agent wrote me a two-page letter saying the novel had a wonderful page-turning quality, although there were aspects she felt I should change. Oh, to receive such a letter now, but at the time I couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t make the suggested changes!
More recently, my first successes were about twelve years ago with a three-minute thriller ‘Silence’ read on BBC Radio Nottingham, and a story ‘The Worst Thing You’ve Ever Done’ which was a regional winner in a competition. These successes encouraged me to do an MA in creative writing – luckily gaining a place at Bath Spa University – and that helped launch my full-time writing career, although I still teach creative writing as well.
Click here to buy Lindsay’s debut novel, published 2010
Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Rejection and disappointment are part of an author’s lot. In my little book about writing and being a writer ‘A Writer’s Alphabet’, I chose REJECTION as my topic for ‘R’. For all the exciting and joyful acceptances or wins, I have had plenty of rejections along the way – and they are painful!
A couple of years ago, a piece of mine made it onto the shortlist of a prestigious competition, one I’d wanted to be successful in for ages. I couldn’t help having high hopes, even though I warned myself not to. And then came the results – I hadn’t made that last leap onto the winners’ podium. I realised the truth of that old cliché: you can taste disappointment. Then the organiser of the competition sent me an email: Tis a bloody tough choice being a writer. My heart goes out to you. Just as it is lovely and rewarding, telling (the few) writers their work has made it, it’s equally awful telling the ones who didn’t make it. Please don’t be discouraged, but keep trying and hopefully enjoying it. So that’s how I deal with it: Tis a bloody tough choice being a writer. But if you’re driven to write and it is a compulsion – it’s what you do and rejection is the necessary price you pay.
If you’re not too superstitious to talk about it, what are you working on at the moment? I actually feel quite bad for asking because I came across my notes today from a talk given by Emma Freud, during which she said, “The thing at the heart of the story is the thing that must never be said. It must be kept intense and undiluted in your head.” That resonated hugely with me.
I am in the middle of a huge crisis with the novel I’m currently writing! I wanted to explore ideas of identity, belonging, alienation, and self-fulfilment. I started it about eighteen months, deciding on my characters and working out my plot and structure. So far, so good! I knew I would find the novel challenging and that I had issues with three point of view characters, integrating their stories and making it all coherent. But I started writing and all was going well until I ground to a halt last summer. In September I went on a course called ‘Stuck in the Middle’ where it was suggested I, possibly, had two novels which I was trying to combine. I felt there was some truth in this but I persevered. Last month, having reached 50,000 words, I gave in. It is two narratives, as someone said fighting like cats in a sack! I am now in the process of unpicking it and starting again. I will write both novels, but it’s almost back to square one at the moment. Ask me again in six months and I might feel more positive!
I sympathise completely. I suffer from self-doubt until I hit 50,000 words, but at that point I usually know that I have a novel on my hands and can start to see my way through what Sir Terry Pratchett calls ‘the valley of the clouds.’ Finding you have two novels in one must be a little like discovering you are expecting twins.
Do you work to a set word count?
If I reach 1000 words in a day, I’m happy! That feels about right for me. Some days I only manage about 500 – not because I haven’t had time, but because the words won’t come. That’s painful, and I’ve had a lot of days like that recently with my ‘two-novel’ novel! I don’t think I would be any good with NaNoWriMo, where you have to do 1600 to 1700 words a day. I could do it for one or two days but not continually for a month – not if I wanted the words to make any sense that is!
Is your writing plot or character-driven?
My main interest is characters, but I don’t think you can separate character and plot. Plot comes out of character.
I love creating characters, fleshing them out, working out who they are, how/why they came to be the people they are, and what drives them, understanding their motivations. I enjoy putting characters in ‘what if’ situations, where they will be challenged. Robert Mckee, the scriptwriter, defines character as the choices we make under pressure. It is when people are put in challenging situations and make critical choices that they show their true colours. For this reason, I think plot drives character, and they are interdependent. If you don’t create interesting plots for characters, they will have go and look for them!
Click here to buy The Piano Player’s Son, published in Sept 2013
This is the opening of my novel ‘The Piano Player’s Son It is published by Cinnamon Press and came out in September 2013.
By four in the morning, the vigil was over. Isabel’s lips touched his forehead. He already felt cold. ‘I love you, Dad,’ she whispered.
The others had said their goodbyes and would be waiting in the car park. Their impatience tugged at her, but she couldn’t bring herself to go. It didn’t seem right to leave him on his own. She gazed at the bristles spiking his chin. How long does a beard keep on growing, she wondered.
There was a noise behind her and she glanced round.
A nurse was standing in the doorway. ‘I thought you’d all gone.’ She indicated the trolley in front of her. ‘There are one or two things I need to do.’
Isabel clamped her fists to her sides as the nurse’s hand, reddened and capable-looking, touched her father’s pale arm. ‘What will happen to him now?’
‘I’ll make him comfortable, and then he’ll be taken to the mortuary.’
Isabel frowned at the nurse. Comfortable? What on earth was that supposed to mean? He looked so peaceful, you heard people say. He could have been asleep – platitudes designed to ease the pain. But never, ever would she have thought her dad was asleep. Sleeping people wake up, they come back to you: I had a bad dream, they’ll say. I love you, they’ll murmur. But this was different. This awful quality of absence slashed a gulf between you and them, between sound and silence.
That’s wonderful. I want more. Can I ask, is there a phrase or quote about writing that you particularly like?
I’ve got one from Stephen King on my website at the moment:
Fiction is the truth inside the lie.
I think fiction can often get to the core, the heart of things when the fluff and nonsense of real life conceals it.
You find out more about Lindsay on her website www.lindsaystanberryflynn.co.uk
And on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/LindsayStanberryFlynn.Author
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