February’s guest writer is Sarah Armstrong, who I reached out to after meeting her (and listening to a talk of hers) at Colchester WriteNight (if you’re a writer or wannabee writer in the Colchester area, you should really check it out). As with my other interviews (check out Debbie here, Tim here and Richard here) I’ve asked Sarah the same questions, so that we can look back and see any similarities between them.
If you are a writer of any type, do send me an email and I’ll get you up on the site too!
What’s your track record – what have you written?
My novels are published by Sandstone Press. The Insect Rosary (2015) is set in Northern Ireland. It is the story of two sisters who return to a farm where they spent their childhood holidays and are forced to face up to their past. My second novel, The Devil in the Snow (2017), is set in Colchester and tells the story of Shona, whose daughter has gone missing. I am currently writing a novel set in Moscow in 1973, but is too early to reveal the story.
This year I had short stories published in anthologies; The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3 and Essex Belongs to Us. Last year, ‘The Forger’s Sister’ was published by For Books’ Sake and ‘Milk Satin’ by Circa.
Why do you write?
I always assumed that one day I would just get the right idea and sit down and write it. So, really, I started writing to see if I could. I used competitions and themes to get me started, as it was easier to start writing something with an end purpose in mind. Now I can’t stop writing. The more I write, the more ideas I get, and I think this is true of most writers, and I keep careful note of them all.
What makes a successful day’s writing?
The most satisfying days are when I look up from the keyboard and I’ve written twice as much as I aimed to – that’s a great feeling, and usually comes when I’m writing the ‘right’ story. It’s confirmation that everything is in the right place to get to the end.
When do you feel most productive?
This has changed over the years. When my children were small I only wrote in the evening while they were in bed. Now that they are all at school, I prefer to write from 9.30-2.30, so this is my most productive time for writing. As I work from home part-time, I can be quite flexible when I need to be. To begin with I plan an overall arc before I start writing a novel, and then plan a few chapters ahead as I am writing. This is something I generally do at night, in front of the TV. I often have breakthrough ideas when I’m walking the dog, so it feels as if any time can be productive, as long as you’re paying attention to your thoughts. What I could never do is to get up early and write before anyone else is up – I like my sleep too much.
Do you have a writing routine? What is it?
No, I don’t have any routine, but as people often ask this, I kept notes while writing my current novel to see if there was any pattern. My main restrictions are my job (I teach creative writing for the Open University, so have periods when I do nothing but mark) and my children (who have school holidays, and need feeding and things). To complete the first draft I wrote for four days in May, seven days in June, eleven days in July, three days in August and fourteen days in September, so thirty-eight days in five months, which doesn’t sound much. But, it doesn’t include all the reading and planning and thinking, which are also an essential part of writing.
What stops you from writing?
Not much stops me from writing now, apart from work, but it used to be not knowing what to write about, or how to write it. I used two narrative threads in The Insect Rosary as I was writing it as part of NaNoWriMo – if I became stuck on one thread and wasn’t sure how to move on, I would switch to the other thread, and so on. It helped me to see problems as temporary, rather than points I couldn’t go past. I have become more relaxed about leaving a place where I have become stuck, and returning to it when I am ready because I know there will be a solution.
Say you’ve hit a slump. What do you do to get going again?
I read loads. Reading fiction is always useful, especially within the genre that you are writing in, but also outside your genre – consider how thrillers make you turn the page, and how historical fiction presents time and place. And I read non-fiction for ideas. I have had whole threads of novels suggested by reading non-fiction. This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich and The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser led me to write about Greenland and art forgery in The Devil in the Snow. The novel I am currently writing, about spies in Moscow in 1973, led me to read a lot about spies and Moscow and the 1970s, but the book which helped me with the feel of it was about none of these things – The Idea of North by Peter Davidson, is about the draw of the north and the cold and the dark.
What advice would you give someone who can’t get their writing going?
Find a writing buddy, ideally someone who is at the same stage or slightly ahead of you. Writing has to be read, and most people have been reading for a really long time – we’ve absorbed more about characterisation and structure than we think. Any reader feedback is probably going to be useful, unless it’s all positive. Get out there, join a writing group or start your own, and you’ll find someone who gives you the kind of feedback you find useful. Of course, it might just be that you haven’t written enough, or for long enough, so be honest about that. The apprenticeship for a writer is suggested to be ten years, or a million words.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever had?
The best piece of advice was that ‘The apprenticeship for a writer is suggested to be ten years, or a million words.’ It stopped me feeling so bad about why I hadn’t got anywhere after five years, and thinking of investing this time as an apprenticeship made sense. You wouldn’t expect to acquire any other skill in less time – imagine buying a violin and expecting to join an orchestra a couple of years later. It’s an excuse to have fun, try things out, and fall in love with the process. Especially the editing.