Ep 211 Should unpublished authors have a website? And meet Lexi Landsman, author of ‘The Perfect Couple’.

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In Episode 211 of So you want to be a writer: Why NaNoWriMo is a great time to draft your novel. Discover a site dedicated to discounted ebook deals and perks. British author Ian Rankin says crime writing is dead. Should unpublished authors have a website? And meet Lexi Landsman, author of The Perfect Couple.

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Show Notes

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Do It: Write Away

Book Perk

Bestselling author Ian Rankin predicts death of the crime novel

Unpublished Writers and Websites: Should You Have One and What Should It Say?

Writer in Residence

Lexi Landsman

Lexi Landsman is an Australian author, television producer and journalist. She was born in South Africa and immigrated to Australia with her family at the age of eleven.

She began her career working as a print journalist, progressing to a newspaper editor of arts, books and lifestyle. She then moved into commercial television as a producer of factual and reality shows. She has worked on a range of award-winning documentary series that have aired in Australia and internationally.

Lexi has a Masters in Journalism and degrees in Media Arts and Production, and Drama Teaching. She has studied at the University of Sydney, the University of Technology, Sydney, the University of New South Wales and abroad at the University of Miami.

She lives in Sydney with her husband, their son and their dog.

Her debut novel, The Ties That Bind, was released in 2016. The Perfect Couple is her second book.

 

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Lexi.

Lexi

Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie

Now this is very exciting. You have released The Perfect Couple, which is your second book. Your first novel, The Ties That Bind, was released in 2016. Now, for those readers who haven’t got their hands on your book yet, just tell us what it’s about.

Lexi

So The Perfect Couple is very different to my first book in that my first book was a family drama. And this book is psychological suspense, or domestic noir, which is the new buzzword. And it follows a married couple, Sarah and Marco Moretti, who to their friends and colleagues seem like the perfect couple. And together they’ve travelled the globe building their careers as archaeologists.

And they’re currently on a dig in Florence, searching for the world-famous San Gennaro necklace, which is a priceless antiquity that Marco has devoted the last decade of his career to finding. And on the night that they do uncover it, Sarah drives home and is in a car accident. And she wakes up the next morning with no memory of the preceding 48 hours, which includes finding the necklace, and witnessing her husband’s infidelity. And things go from there.

Valerie

That’s just such an awesome hook, isn’t it? How did that form in your brain? Did that all come to you in a bolt of lightning? Or were you searching for some kind of really compelling premise to go into this book?

Lexi

It’s always funny when people ask me that question, because it’s hard to find the beginning of an idea. Because it really evolved, and it was quite an organic process.

But if I was to think about the main factors that came together with this idea, the first one would be memory loss. I was always interested in this idea of memory loss, an acute episode of memory loss that was short-term but had devastating consequences. And I think that stems from I studied psychology at university, so I’ve always been fascinated with memory disorders.

And that fascination grew, actually, in quite unfortunate circumstances, when my father had meningococcal disease, which was really terrifying. And he nearly lost his life and he was in a coma for ten days. And when he woke up and miraculously survived the disease, I walked into the room and he looked at the nurse and said, “who is she?” So thank god it was just short-lived and it was the sedatives, but at the time we’d gone through this trauma of not knowing if my father would live, and then he woke up and had no memory.

So this idea of what are we without our memory really stayed with me. Because we really are, when you think about it quite deeply, we are what we remember. And our loved ones are so important because we have a lifetime of memories with them. And if you don’t have those memories, do you still have the love?

So that was where the idea of memory came from. And then the idea of an abduction for ransom actually arose from the true story of a relative of mine, my grandmother’s sister-in-law, who….

Valerie

You’ve got a dramatic family!

Lexi

I know! It does sound like it, doesn’t it? We’ve had our fair share of dramatic incidents. But this one occurred before I was born, in 1982. And my grandmother’s sister-in-law was abducted and held for ransom. Her husband was a prominent jeweller. And she was taken to a caravan park and tied up, and over 18 hours she endured psychological torment and abuse. And she happened to be a psychologist, and she managed to talk her abductor into freeing her, which is quite an amazing thing. To the point that at the end, by the time he freed her, he was apologising for what he’d done.

So the idea for me of that dynamic between captor and victim was something I’ve thought about many times over the years. So when it came time to writing my second book, I put those two together, that story, memory loss, and also a long-standing interest I’d had in archaeology. And then the book somehow came together from those pieces.

Valerie

Did you make a conscious decision to write into the domestic noir genre?

Lexi

No, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know I was writing under the domestic noir genre. I thought I was writing another family drama. So you can imagine my shock when I handed it over to my publisher and was told, actually, the plot twists you added, and the psychological slant actually puts it into the sphere of domestic noir. So that came as quite a shock to myself and my publisher.

Valerie

Right. So tell me a little bit about your background. Because before you wrote your novels, you have had various roles as a journalist, as a television producer. Maybe just give us a very quick potted career history, and at what point did you think, you know what, I’m going to write fiction?

Lexi

Well, I started out, when I was at school I always thought I was going to go into theatre. And I wanted to do drama. So I did drama all through school. Which I think, I can only see now, fifteen years later, how that drama has come to have a part in my writing. Because doing school drama really teaches you to put yourself into a character’s head space. So when it comes to writing fiction, I harnessed all those skills.

But I went on to study journalism at university, and I studied at Sydney University and the University of NSW. And then I studied abroad at the University of Miami as well. And I had a masters… I came back after doing an exchange semester in Miami, finished my undergraduate degree and then had no idea what I wanted to do with my career, as I think many of us do. So I picked this masters course in journalism which was one year, and one of the subjects, electives, was novel writing with Delia Falconer. And the prerequisite was to have written 30,000 words of a novel. So I spent the three months before the course started quickly writing 30,000 words. And of course I was the only one in the class who had actually taken that prerequisite literally. Most people came with 1,000 words or a chapter. But I guess that taught me discipline and deadlines.

And then I kept writing that manuscript, but I put it aside and I became a journalist. And I kept writing while I was working as a journalist, just on the side. And then after working as a journalist I got a job at Channel Seven as a producer. And that was eight years ago.

So I’ve been working in factual programming for Channel Seven since then, and I work mainly in making documentary television series. So things from Border Security, I just did a show now on tow-truck drivers on the Sunshine Coast – very different! – who rescue boats that have been shipwrecked on islands, and B-Doubles that have rolled off cliffs. And so things like that, to shows like Australia’s Deadliest where I interviewed people who survived animal attacks, right through to the quirkiest and strangest show I’ve ever worked on, which was shot in LA and New York, which was called World’s Richest Dogs.

Valerie

I love it! I love it! Okay, so that’s your day job. And you write after hours, is that right?

Lexi

That’s right. So with that first book I mentioned, I actually put that aside and that book never got published. And it was only after that manuscript, which was a really good training ground, and I’m actually really glad that that manuscript never got published, because I thought it was ready but really what it did was teach me how to write and how to structure a novel. And my second manuscript was the one that then became The Ties That Bind.

So yeah, I’ve done the writing on the side, and worked fulltime. But with my second book, The Perfect Couple, I actually only had nine months to write it. So I wrote the book in my third trimester of my pregnancy, at which time I was on maternity leave, and straight after I had the baby. So with a newborn. So that was a whole different challenge to writing while working fulltime.

Valerie

Yeah, absolutely. So when you were working fulltime, let’s just take both of them, because I think they’re both interesting scenarios, because a lot of people say, “I don’t have time to write and I need to wait until I’m on long service leave” or “I don’t have time because I have a fulltime job.” So let’s take both those scenarios. So with the first one, where you were working fulltime, where did you fit it in? Did you dedicate, did you carve out specific chunks of time in order to make it happen? Did you just write it here and there? How did you actually make yourself have the structure and discipline to make X number of words come out?

Lexi

Structure and discipline, when it comes to writing a book, are really challenging. And I don’t think there’s any perfect formula with how to stay motivated. Because I definitely found your motivation it goes up and down. And it comes in waves. For me, when I was writing my first book, The Ties That Bind, that book took me five years working fulltime, while working fulltime. And I would write every weekend, whenever I had a spare moment, and most evenings. But then sometimes, you know, life gets busy, things happen, and I would put it aside for three months, for instance. Or I’d hit a hole in the plot that I just couldn’t think of a way out of. And again I’d put it down and I’d come back to it when I felt refreshed.

But my favourite times for writing was actually whenever I travelled. I would find as soon as I got away from Sydney, and got away from the frantic pace of living a city life, I would always feel the most inspired and the most creative. So that is what I would always look forward to, was writing when I was travelling. And then just finding those hours in the evening and on the weekend.

Valerie

So when you wrote The Ties That Bind over five years, tell us about your break? How did you then get it published, get someone interested in it? What was that process?

Lexi

So I had a literary agent, and she had pitched my first manuscript, the one that I mentioned never got published, when I was 21.

Valerie

But how did you get her? Take a step back. How did you get your literary agent then?

Lexi

So getting a literary agent, I found, was a bit like getting published. Because it’s just as challenging. You have to find someone who believes in you, and who will take you on. Because a lot of literary agents, particularly the smaller ones, they’ve got a small pool of authors, and then want to have enough time to commit to each author. So they’re very selective.

So I sent out a pitch letter to a range of literary agents, and then would wait for their reply, and most of them would say, okay, send us the first 50 pages. Or send us the first three chapters. Which I did. And then of course you get as many rejection letters back, which can be quite heart breaking. And then I was very fortunate that my current literary agent took me on and believed in me.

Valerie

Wow. So she took it to various publishers. And tell me about the moment, if you can remember it, when you knew you got a deal.

Lexi

I remember it very vividly. It will stay with me for a long time. I was at work, at Channel Seven, and I got a voicemail from my agent to say, and I could hear the shake in her voice, and the tremor, saying, “Lexi, can you call me really quickly.” And you know that feeling, your heart just starts racing. It was very out of character of her to leave a voicemail like that.

And it happened to be my late grandmother’s birthday, and my late grandmother was a really big supporter of my writing. She fostered my love of storytelling and she was a big influence on my life. And I actually dedicated that book to her before she passed away. So I thought the timing was really weird. And so she called me and she said, “Penguin Random House have offered you a two-book deal.” And I literally ran into the corridors screaming, at Channel Seven, and people were looking at me like I was crazy. And I just turned to complete strangers and said, “I just got a book deal!”

Valerie

Oh wow.

Lexi

So it was a very happy moment.

Valerie

That’s fantastic. So let’s go to The Perfect Couple. You’re writing it in your last trimester. Were you working at this point?

Lexi

Yes. So by that point I was working part time. So I was working about three days a week, and just finishing off a show before I went on maternity leave.

Valerie

So with The Perfect Couple, which is a psychological suspense, you need to make sure that you have various plot points and points that are going to make it interesting and compelling for the reader to want to turn the page. And you need to make sure that your pacing is right so that the reader is following on just at the right pace, so that they are turning the page at the right points. How did you determine, first of all, the plot points of the story? Were they already mapped out so that you knew what was going to happen? And secondly, where they were going to go? As in the pacing for it, do you know what I mean? How much time you were going to spend on each section or scene.

Lexi

With this book, because I only had nine months, I actually plotted out the whole book. So I wrote a chapter by chapter summary, so I knew exactly… I didn’t know the content of what would happen in each chapter, but I knew plot-wise where I had to get to.

And with this book as well, it’s written from four perspectives. So it’s written from the point of view of Sarah and Marco, and their two children, Emily and Daniel. And it plays with this idea of an unreliable narrator. Now the tricky thing with writing from different perspectives is that each character knows information that other characters don’t know. So that came to have a big part in how I paced the story, because I would try and leave each chapter on a note where that character was about to find out something crucial, and then you’re switched into the other character’s perspective, and they’re at a different point. And then I try and leave their chapter with their journey and something else crucial that they’re about to stumble across. So it’s kind of about balancing the timing of those four perspectives and making sure there’s enough happening in each character’s life parallel to each other to keep the story moving.

But certainly the editing process is where that timing really becomes important. So there was a lot of cutting out. I’d say a lot of culling when it came to editing the manuscript in order to keep the momentum going.

Valerie

If you were able to do a chapter by chapter breakdown so that you had the whole thing plotted out, which many people don’t do, but some people do do to great success – but if you were able to do that right at the beginning, do you back yourself and trust yourself that, yeah, I know that this arc is going to work? Or do you show people?

Lexi

I think, I didn’t have the opportunity to show people because I didn’t have the time. With my first book, I had the time and I had some friends read it, and family members ready it and I got feedback. But with this book I just had to trust that I knew where it was going. Because I feel like if you stop and you doubt yourself, it’s very easy to firstly lose momentum, but also to spiral and stop writing. So you have to keep going.

If ever I got to points where I wasn’t sure if it was working, I would speak to the publisher or my agent, or strangely my mother in law, who is a big reader. And I would talk out the elements of the plot. But one of the biggest twists in the plot actually came during the writing. So it was something I hadn’t planned for.

Valerie

And so take me through your typical writing day. When you were writing this book, if you already had it plotted out, did you go, okay, well I’m going to write X number of words today? And you just followed along the process in a linear fashion? Or did you do some other kind of approach? How did you structure yourself so you knew you were going to get it all done in that timeframe?

Lexi

I just have to take a step back before I answer that, and that’s because I did get to a point with this second book where I thought I was never going to finish it in time. And I was actually at a writer’s event, and I met an author called Meredith Jaffe, and I told her, I said, “I don’t think the book’s going to be finished. And in my head I’ve just written it off, and I’ll have to submit it in a year’s time.” And she pretty much gave me a lecture in fifteen minutes, and said to me the best way to write is to break it down. She said, you need to set yourself a daily word limit and a weekly word limit, and stick to it. She said when she got her book deal she got a two or three book deal, but the book that she got the deal with they decided to publish second. And so she had to go and write her first book, which became The Fence. So she was waking up at 4am in the morning to write chapters. And she said that’s just what she had to. She woke up every 4am and she’d write until about 8am.

So I thought, if she could do that, I can do this. So I set myself the goal of doing 1200 words a day. And I did that before I had the baby. When I had the baby I took six weeks off. I didn’t touch the manuscript. And then I tried to do the same thing. I tried again to do 1200 words a day, which would be squeezed in between feeds, sometimes between 2am and 4am, sometimes I would write while he was asleep on my lap. In fact, that was often the case. So I ended up having to be quite creative, not in what I wrote, but in when and how I wrote.

Valerie

Some people vomit out a first version and don’t kind of want to get bogged down in any editing or reviewing. What do you do? Do you go back and tweak your words before you move on to the next 1200? Or do you just let it go and keep on ploughing through?

Lexi

I would always read the chapter I’d written, the previous chapter, and then continue. Because I would find it would give me momentum. And then I would finesse and edit that previous chapter, and then go on to the next one. At least then you’re kind of editing as you’re going along in small chunks, rather than tackling the whole manuscript as a whole. Which of course you do later on in the process, but while I was writing that was the best way that worked for me.

Valerie

When you are writing from different character’s points of views, and they know different things at different times, how did you keep track of that? Does it just come naturally to you? Or does each character have a dossier? Or how did you keep track of what they knew, and what they’re supposed to know, and remember and not remember, and stuff?

Lexi

I didn’t have a fancy method, which in hindsight I probably should have. I probably should have had those dossiers. I just seemed to know what each character knew and didn’t know. Because I guess each time I sat down to write, I would put myself in the character’s shoes, which I guess is where those old drama skills come in too. And try and only see the world through their eyes. So I seem to have a good sense of who knew what. And then of course when I was editing that’s when I really had to go back and make sure I hadn’t made any mistakes.

Valerie

And so what do you find the most challenging thing about the writing process, for you?

Lexi

For me, I guess, having a deadline changes the way you write. I didn’t have a deadline for my first book because I only got the publishing deal when it was finished. So with the second book, because I knew I had nine months from start to finish, it means that you have to write when you’re not necessarily feeling inspired, or when you’re not necessarily feeling creative. And it meant I would have to write, I’d go, okay, well, I’ve got to write between this hour and this hour. And you have to sit down at your computer and just go. Because I didn’t have the time to write later.

Particularly once the baby came, they’re so demanding, that you can’t write when they’re asleep, because they’re often waking up a few hours later. So that was for me, the hardest part was trying to keep to a deadline, and trying to be so regimented with writing a certain amount of words a day.

And also it can be quite a lonely and isolating experience when you’re writing, because you can’t share it with other people. Unless you have very kind people who are generous with their time and don’t mind hearing you discuss what characters are going to say next, it can be quite isolating. And also to have your loved ones around you watching you go through this hermit stage. Like particularly with my friends, when they were going out on weekends or in the evenings, I was always having to be at home and work.

So you do have to make a lot of sacrifices to commit to doing something when you have other things in your life, like a job or children. I think for writers who do it fulltime, at least they might work nine to five and then have a normal life.

Valerie

Yes. Yes, you have to be committed, don’t you? So when you do have a deadline, and you do have the pressure and requirement, really, to write a certain number of words a day in order to get to your deadline, I do understand that that makes a difference to the creative process and how you feel. I’m curious to know whether you think it makes a difference to the quality of the output? When you have to do it, as opposed to waiting for inspiration?

Lexi

Look, I hope not. I really hope not. Because one of the positives, I suppose, of having a deadline is that you get it done. You know? I feel like if I didn’t have a deadline, this book may have taken me five years to write. So one of the good things is that you’re in the zone for a short period of time. And so you’re really living in that world. Where I guess if it was spread out over five years, you are coming in and out of this fictional world that you create.

So I hope the output isn’t flawed. But I do always wonder how authors manage to do a book a year. I’ve only done two books in a row, but there’s authors out there who do a book every year and have done so for the last ten years. And I have huge admiration for them, because it’s not easy having to be creative when someone says, ready set go!

Valerie

Yes, that’s right. So what’s next for you? What are you working on?

Lexi

At the moment, I’m back at Channel Seven after being on maternity leave. So I’m throwing myself into my television work for the time being. I have some ideas for a third book that are bubbling away.

Valerie

Will it be domestic noir?

Lexi

That’s a great question. I thought I was writing a family drama for my second book, and if I think I’m writing a domestic noir for my third, maybe I’ll surprise myself again.

Valerie

It’ll end up being sci-fi or something.

Lexi

Yeah, something completely different. No, I think definitely I’ll stay within the genre, because the more and more I research about it, the more I’m drawn to it. And it seems the more books I’m reading in that genre. And the idea I have does fit quite nicely into the genre. So that’s where I’m leading.

And I also might explore writing a drama series, which is something I’ve never done before.

Valerie

You mean, for television?

Lexi

Yeah, for television?

Valerie

Oh right. So I’m curious to know, though… Because you a) have a background as a journalist, b) currently you do a lot of documentary style series, therefore these are all steeped in non-fiction. I’m curious to know whether you are interested in writing non-fiction?

Lexi

At this stage, no. I enjoy working in non-fiction in my day to day life, but in terms of creative writing, I prefer… You know, your imagination has no limit. Whereas facts can be very limiting. So I prefer getting lost, I prefer the escapism of writing fiction.

But I do do bits and pieces. Like, I’m writing a chapter now for a book on two women who climbed the seven summits as the first mother daughter team. So I do do bits and pieces of non-fiction, but I think in terms of a full-length book, for now I’m going to stick to fiction.

Valerie

So in this kind of world, in The Perfect Couple, you have created, you know, you’re in exotic locations, they’re arachnologists, they’re in Florence. There’s all sorts of, there’s a world that you have to create that’s a far cry from Sydney, or any Australian city, where you live. When you were writing the book is that world, does that occupy your brain 24/7? Or are you quite easily compartmentalising, I’m doing this now, and then I’m doing this now? How much does it seep into your psyche?

Lexi

That is a great question. I think, for me, I had to learn to switch in and out of it. But certainly when you start to dream what you’re writing, you know that it has seeped into your psyche quite heavily. And I was often dreaming about elements of my book, dreaming that I was in Como or Florence. Because I was writing in the cold winter in Sydney, and writing about the warm European summer in Italy.

Valerie

Were you dreaming as Sarah the main character? Or as an observer watching it unfold like a movie?

Lexi

I was an omniscient narrator when I was dreaming. So I was kind of watching from afar. So there would just be little moments, and things that would come up. And I always find that interesting, this idea that we can dream often so vividly, and you can see people and characters and what they’re wearing and how they talk and how they walk. But sometimes when you sit down to write something on the page, you think, oh what are they wearing? And how do they speak? And you have to really harness that creativity, which I find comes so naturally to us when we dream. So it’s quite an interesting realm, when you think about it.

Valerie

That’s bizarre, isn’t it? Do you wake up tired? Do you remember your dreams? Or do you get your notepad out and start frantically writing down what you dreamt in case it’s useful?

Lexi

To catch it. Yeah, I would sometimes just take out my iPhone and quickly write a note, a few impressions that I’d had. Because if you don’t, they disappear once you’re fully awake. So I would do that quite a bit.

But I chose Italy because I was writing about archaeology. So the location of where the book was set was really dependent upon the research that I did. And when I decided to base it around this antiquity, the San Gennaro necklace – which is a real piece of jewellery that exists in real life, that I fictionalised to have disappeared – I decided that Italy would be the best place based on all the research that I had done.

And unfortunately, I wasn’t able to travel to Italy because I was in my third trimester. So I had to let my imagination travel for me. So I do a lot of online research, but one of the things I actually used was Google Maps. There’s a feature in Google Maps where you can put yourself into the street, and you get a 360-degree view. Have you done that before?

Valerie

No, I haven’t. I’ve seen it, I’ve done Street View, but that’s quite clunky.

Lexi

Yeah, it’s a bit like Street View. So there’s a little figure at the bottom, and you plop them down and you can basically see the street in front of you and you can navigate down the street. So I did that quite a lot to see exactly where my characters were going. So when they were going through different piazzas, and over the Ponte Vecchio, you can see, oh there’s actually tiny details. Things like whether there were parked cars, or whether there was parking only for motorcycles. And whether there were leather salesmen. So those tiny little details. And then that actually became a plot device in my book. Something the detectives use later on.

Valerie

That’s so cool.

Lexi

It’s quite interesting where technology can take you.

Valerie

Now, finally, what’s your advice for aspiring writers who, you know, they haven’t had that phone call from their agent yet, or from whomever. Like you did, when you were at work, at Channel Seven, ran into the corridor and screamed. For people who haven’t yet got to that wonderful experience, what would your advice to them be if they’re hoping to be where you are one day?

Lexi

My advice is, don’t give up. It is incredibly challenging. Even when you’re published, there’s lows. There’s a lot of times where you feel like, there’s no point in this, I’m never going to get published. Why am I writing? I’m not going to submit it to another agent or to another publisher.

But my advice is just to keep going, to be persistent, to join a writer’s group if you can. And to just keep wanting to improve. So do as many writer’s courses as you can, meet as many like-minded people as you can, and just to know that you’re not alone.

There were many times where I got rejection letters from agents and from publishers where I thought, my writing’s no good, I’m never going to get published, I’ve spent five years for nothing. But we write because we love it and we write because it’s a passion. And even though the goal is to get published, it’s not the only, the be all and end all. We grow a lot through what we write, and how we write, and how we improve.

So yeah, my advice would definitely be, don’t give up. If you have a will and a motivation and a desire to continue to improve and to learn, you certainly stand a chance.

Valerie

Love it. Very inspiring. And thank you so much for your time today, Lexi.

Lexi

Thank you so much, Valerie. It was lovely chatting to you.

 

 

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