Today, I’m delighted to welcome author, Bobbie Darbyshire to my blog. Bobbie is the author of three novels: Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones, Truth Games, and (due out this November) Oz. She is currently polishing a fourth. Winner of the 2008 fiction prize at the National Academy of Writing and the New Delta Review Creative Nonfiction Prize 2010, Bobbie has worked as barmaid, mushroom picker, film extra, maths coach, cabinet minister’s private secretary, care assistant and volunteer adult-literacy teacher, as well as in social research and government policy. She runs a fortnightly writers’ group and lives in London.
Bobbie, perhaps you can begin by telling us how you came to be a writer.
I was a writer from the day I could read, and if I could have my life over I would refuse to be distracted from that. As a young child I never stopped – stories, plays, poems, praised by my teachers – but I was dismayed to find, aged 11, that at secondary school they wanted none of this, just parsed sentences and essays about other people’s books. I should have held tight to my vocation. I might not have made a living from writing – few do – but I regret the years I wasn’t learning and practising it, and all those times I had no comfortable answer to the question, ‘What do you do?’ Gradually the need to write became urgent and, aged 47, I quit my career as a civil servant and set about becoming a novelist. Three agents, one after the other, loved my books but failed to sell them to the big UK publishing houses, so let me go. I was never tempted to self-publish; I wanted the validation of acceptance by a professional editor. So I began to approach the smaller independent presses. Cinnamon Press loved Truth Games. Sandstone Press loved Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones. Two celebratory days for me! After a decade of flattering rejections and near misses, my two novels came out within eight months of each other. My third, Oz, will be published by Cinnamon Press in November 2014.
Okay, fire away. Pitch your three novels to us.
Here are my three elevator pitches J
‘Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones’: Long-listed for the 2011 International Rubery Book Award. Comedy of errors. Three troubled people dash off to the Scottish Highlands to find their destinies mysteriously entwined around a reading group in the Inverness public library. Twists & surprises, very funny with also some dark, serious threads, it keeps you guessing throughout.
‘Truth Games’: We’re in 1970s London, the blazing summers of 75 & 76, and a group of friends are getting way out of their depth in infidelity. Thought-provoking, amusing & sexy.
‘Oz’: Mark Jonnson’s life is a mess. He’s been cheating on his wife, fears his marriage is over, but can’t bear to leave his boisterous 7-year-old daughter, Matilda. Just when he thinks things can’t get worse, his mother is killed in a road accident. Shocked and grieving, he decamps to her house, where he uncovers a secret that will turn his world inside-out and send him and his daughter on a whirlwind search for the truth.
Who do you show your first drafts to?
My ‘first draft’ is reasonably advanced because I constantly revise as I go, scribbling notes between writing sessions and pondering the questions/problems I encounter and the feedback I get from my fortnightly writing group. Next I leave the draft a few months before returning with fresh eyes to do in-depth rewriting, a few hours a day. Sometime around then, a network of reading and writing friends read it and give me their honest comments (I insist on no soft-soaping), while I carry on tweaking. Finally I let the publisher see it and work with them to make it as good as it can be before it gets frozen in print.
Khaled Hosseini says that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with a single idea and let the novel develop organically?
I pay close attention to plotting and structure, but I do this mainly as I write, not in advance. At first my characters are non-existent. I have to invent who they are and why they would be in this situation. I sketch a few key story milestones, with an idea of the end that I’m aiming for. Then I tap out a tentative first scene, putting a person I don’t yet know into a stressful situation and seeing who they are and what they do. It may end up in the bin, but it teaches me a little for the second try. I learn about my characters by watching them respond to the dilemmas I throw at them. I don’t want to dictate how they’ll react beforehand or write a story that reads like an exercise in joining the dots. A rough plan allows new ideas that challenge the plan. Some of these come to nothing, but many provide new hooks and surprises that I then go back and plant the clues for. The story gets richer and the plotting denser, backwards and forwards, as I learn about my characters and the fictional world and let my imagination keep working.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Try not to cling to autobiography; write about what your imagination knows. Write fearlessly; banish the worried ghost of your mother from your shoulder. Write lots, rewrite lots, and rewrite it again lots. Get honest, tough feedback and open your ears and your mind to it. Read lots. Keep reading lots. Never stop reading.
Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel?
A good story! We want to read books that are beautifully written AND gripping. Beautiful writing won’t excite a reader if it doesn’t make them want to read on. A comedian knows she’s done well when people laugh. A writer knows she’s done well when people say, ‘It kept me awake wanting to know what would happen next’, ‘I missed my stop I was so wrapped up in it’, ‘I only meant to read the first chapter, but then I couldn’t put it down.’ It has me walking on air when someone says that to me J
Are there any books on writing that you find useful and would recommend?
One in my local library looked intriguing, even though it was about screenwriting, so I borrowed it, and wow! Here was the practical advice on how to make the pages turn that I had been searching for! Sensing I’d stumbled on a gold seam, I signed up for a screenwriting course, and yes: the course introduced me to other screenwriting gurus who came at the problem from their own angles and gave their own set of tips. Why these books? Why not books about novel-writing? Because, except for tips about dialogue, the books about screenwriting say little about word-craft. Instead they analyse & give tips on how to tell a gripping STORY. Their principles & techniques underpin all my planning and writing. Revision and rewriting too, as I look for ways to enhance & tighten the story. The library book was Story by Robert McKee. He says: ‘Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images & subtleties of dialogue waste the paper they’re written on. 75% or more of your labour should go into designing story – who are these characters, what do they want, why do they want it, how do they go about getting it, what stops them, what are the consequences?’
Here are some of the books that have helped me most:
McKee, Robert: Story: substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting (all round excellent, particularly on how the unexpected drives story)
Field, Syd: Screenplay: the foundations of screenwriting (in particular, explains the 3-act structure)
Vogler, Christopher: The writer’s journey: mythic structure for storytellers (explains key stages and characters in the archetypal hero’s journey)
Hauge, Michael: Writing screenplays that sell (in particular, discusses four categories of primary character)
Snyder, Blake: Save the cat: the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need (excellent brief summary of almost everything, plus extra tips)
Maass, Donald: Writing the breakout novel (excellent tips on the stand-out features of great stories)
Of course, all writers are avid readers. On average, how many books do you read a month?
Four to six. I aim to read at least 52 each year, mainly general fiction with a sprinkling of genre, classics and non-fiction.
And what about your reading habits? Do you have a favourite armchair, perhaps? big cup of tea? glass of wine?
Early morning, in bed, with a VERY BIG mug of tea. On journeys and in waiting rooms.
Do you make a point of posting reviews? And, if so, where?
I post reviews on my Facebook page and on eight Facebook groups, Twitter, Goodreads and Amazon.co.uk. Like yourself, I refrain unless I can give an honest 4 or 5 star review. The big sellers already have their helpful crop of detractors, and small sellers don’t need me to kick them when they’re down.
I agree, absolutely. I see it as my job to signpost people to great books, particularly those written by indie authors, that they might not discover otherwise. I am also aware that, just because something doesn’t appeal to me, doesn’t mean that it won’t appeal to a great number of people.
In your opinion, what makes for the perfect book review?
My eyes glaze when the reviewer starts summarising the plot. What engages me is reading his/her personal response to the book (emotional) combined with how, in craft terms, the book produced this effect (analytical). As with all written work, a review should hook me like a story with an arc and a resolution. Add originality, brevity, style and a dash of wit, and there’s perfection J
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and ContactAnAuthor and I have an author page on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. I love to hear from readers and fellow writers and am happy to visit book groups or do talks anywhere accessible day-return by public transport from London.
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