This is the first in a new series of posts where I ask authors and writers about their writing routines and inspirations. I hope they inspire you to keep going when things look bleak with your work. For this post, author Debbie Young was kind enough to answer my questions. Check out Debbie’s Facebook page here, and follow her on twitter here.
A massive thanks to Debbie for being the first author featured on this blog! If you are a writer and would like to be featured on this blog, please contact me!
What’s your track record – what have you written?
I’m currently writing a series of cosy mystery novels, The Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, of which the first two, Best Murder in Show and Trick or Murder? were published earlier this year, and the third, a Christmas special, Murder in the Manger, will be out on 6th November. There’s also my collections of short stories, Quick Change, Marry in Haste, and, another Christmas special, Stocking Fillers.
I’ve published two collections of columns and essays, mostly written for local magazines, called All Part of the Charm: A Modern Memoir of Village Life and Young By Name: Whimsical Columns for the Tetbury Adveriser 2010-2015. I’ve written a short family memoir Coming to Terms with Type 1 Diabetes: One Family’s Story of Life After Diagnosis, which is a charity awareness/fundraiser for JDRF UK, for which I’m an ambassador and speaker. I also write guidebooks for authors as part of my work for the Alliance of Independent Authors, of whose Advice Centre blog of 1500+ posts I am Commissioning Editor. So quite a mixture, really!
Why do you write?
I’ve always enjoyed writing stories and playing with words ever since I learnt to read and write as a child, and I have always found writing a therapeutic hobby in times of crisis. Now I write primarily because I want to tell stories to entertain people, but at the same time I try to use my writing to make the world a better place. My fiction, including my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, encourages readers to be more tolerant and understanding of other people, and to be kind to each other. This is how one reviewer described Stocking Fillers, my Christmas story collection: “A new kind of ‘Christmas Carol’ for this era of equal inequality, but it caries its morality very lightly and nobody will notice.” I was very happy with that!
What makes a successful day’s writing?
A couple of hours’ solid writing, completing the next chapter in a novel, is my ideal when at the drafting stage. This is the kind of writing when the words flow, almost as if I’m taking dictation from my subconscious, and I am so caught up in the story myself that I lose track of time. But the drafting is just a tiny part of the process – apart from the hours of planning beforehand, and the editing seems to go on for ever. So when I’m at the editing stage, slicing through a few chapters with a coloured pen and then typing the changes in to my computer will do just as well.
When do you feel most productive?
I write best and most fluently first thing in the morning, when there are fewest distractions and my brain is rested. I also write better after a holiday, and even after an enforced break through illness. I’m a great believer in the value of lying fallow – although there are limits to how far I’m prepared to go to kickstart the brain. A year ago, I had minor surgery that kept me confined to bed, and over the next three months I drafted two and a half novels. I was exhausted at the end of it, but it was the most productive period of my life. But I’m not planning any more operations any time soon!
Do you have a writing routine? What is it?
I’d love to have more of a routine, but I have a very busy diary that makes every day different. I give a lot of talks and go to a lot of events in my role as UKambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and I run two authors’ groups, one in Bristol, and one in Cheltenham. Also, three years ago, I founded a local lit fest for my village, the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which now attracts about 50 authors to take part, and requires a lot of organising year-round. But even so, I am pretty disciplined about how I organise my day.
After my daughter (14) has gone to school in the morning, I usually read a little with a calming cup of tea, then check my messages, say hello the world on Twitter and check the news headlines, then I’m at my desk by 8.30am, working till 11am till I stop for a coffee break. Ideally those two and half hours are my writing time. After that, I work on other projects at my desk till my daughter comes home, with a quite break for lunch around two. I try not to work after our evening meal, and often spend the evening reading rather than writing, but last thing at night, I try to set my brain to work while I’m asleep, solving a plotting problem, for example, and very often I wake with the solution already formed, which never fails to amaze me!
What stops you from writing?
Pressure from so many other activities in my day – although they’re almost all writing-related, so there is some cross-fertilisation going on. For example, I may be editing posts about writing or editing or formatting or cover design, as part of my work for ALLi, and so I’m learning heaps as I go along about how to be a better writer and a better publisher.
Say you’ve hit a slump. What do you do to get going again?
If I grind to a halt, (and I don’t often, when I’m writing), that’s generally a sign that I’m exhausted. I’m very bad at getting enough sleep, and unfortunately also very bad at power-napping, so some other kind of rest will have to do. This may include getting up from my desk to tidy the house, going shopping or doing some gardening. Driving often kickstarts my creative brain, especially if I’m alone in the car, and I get some of my best ideas in the shower!
What advice would you give someone who can’t get their writing going?
First, consider whether you’re trying to write the wrong thing. An author friend told me the other day she’s been trying to write a novel for 20 years, and can’t stop changing it and rewriting it, but a short story in a completely different style that she’d rattled off very quickly and effortlessly has just won a competition of which I was co-judge (the judging was done blind, so I had no idea the story was hers). I told her that she ought to put the novel away and write more in the style of the short story, as it was pure gold. Writing the wrong thing – or the wrong way (e.g. in third person when the story really needs first, or vice versa) is very common.
I’d also tell them that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Are they trying too hard, at the wrong time of day for them, or before they’ve really planned what they want to write? I’m a pantser as much as a plotter, and believe too much planning kills the fun and the joy as well as the creative spark. However, at least an outline roadmap of where you’re going with a story is an essential tool. I’m thinking satnav level rather than Ordnance Survey.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever had?
That drafting and editing are different processes, using separate parts of your brain, and you can only use one of them at a time. Therefore, using your creative brain, write your first draft without looking back, as quickly as you can. Then go back at your leisure to polish your rough diamond with your critic’s brain. It’s far easier and much more productive to edit a rough draft to perfection than to write a perfect draft straight off.
And may I sneak in a second piece? Do the math: writing a small amount, but writing it every day, soon adds up. Graham Greene wrote only 500 words each day, but he did it every day, lifelong. Aim low on word count at first, then grow it as you get into your stride. A year from now, you’ll be amazed at just how much you’ve written.
Where can readers find out more about you?
My author website is the starting point. It has information about all my books, my events, other activities, and links to my social media accounts.
You’ll find it at www.authordebbieyoung.com.