Ep 264 Meet Fiona McIntosh, author of ‘The Pearl Thief’ and ‘How to Write Your Blockbuster’.

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In Episode 264 of So you want to be a writer: Happy new year! You’ll meet Fiona McIntosh, author of The Pearl Thief and How to Write Your Blockbuster. Val and Al answer more of your listener questions. Plus, we have 3 copies of Rewording the Brain by David Astle to give away. 

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Show Notes

Writer in Residence

Fiona McIntosh

Fiona McIntosh is an internationally bestselling author of novels for adults and children. She co-founded an award-winning travel magazine with her husband, which they ran for fifteen years while raising their twin sons before she became a full-time author. Fiona roams the world researching and drawing inspiration for her novels, and runs a series of highly respected fiction masterclasses. She calls South Australia home.

Her latest novel is The Pearl Thief, published by Penguin Random House.

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Fiona McIntosh is the author of 36 works of fiction for children and adults, and one nonfiction book called How to Write Your Blockbuster. She writes across various genres, but is best known for her adult fantasy and her historical dramas. Her latest book, The Pearl Thief, is out now with Penguin Random House. Welcome to the program, Fiona.

Fiona

Hello. Thank you for having me.

Allison

All right. Now we’re going to go all the way back to the beginning. How did your first novel come to be published?

Fiona

Oh look, it was a real fairy tale kind of beginning for me. I was one of those annoying lucky people. I had never thought about writing a book. I had not crafted any stories since childhood at junior primary.

But around the age of 39, I was a mother, I was a wife. But I had sort of faded into those roles. And I’d allowed all that ambition that I’d had when I was young to leave my own mark on the world to become less important.

And at 39, I think I was going through that classic midlife crisis of saying, “I want to do something just for me.” And there were all these options. There was jumping out of a helicopter or having an extreme makeover or going to Nepal to find myself. You know, there were all these weird… Buy a fast car, have an affair.

I didn’t want to do any of those things. And what began to nag me and it came out of nowhere was – why don’t you write a book? And I think this was where I’d been coming towards all of my life. Because now that I have written all these books, I can’t imagine what was in my head not doing it so much earlier.

But sometimes there’s the right time. Or there is always the right time to take on writing, or painting, or being an athlete. And some of those things there are requirements to take those up when you’re young. But for me, it found me in midlife.

And so I took a one week masterclass with the maestro, Bryce Courtenay. And riding high on his… He had such confidence in me. I mean, it wasn’t just… I mean he literally shook me by the lapels and said, “no, you are a writer, you just haven’t accepted it. And you haven’t written a book yet. But go home and I give you permission to write this book. Because you’re going to go all the way.”

And I just trusted that. And I came home. I wrote a book in five weeks, I think it was, and sent it off to a global publisher thinking, well, let’s go for broke. Let’s go to a publisher that I feel could publish this the best way. And they came back within a week and said, “we would like to offer you a three book deal.”

So it was really the fairy tale that all the listeners are going to say, “well, we just hate her, don’t we?” Because I didn’t suffer and I don’t have a drawer full of rejections.

But the thing is, one thing I would like to say is that I had to do a very public apprenticeship. So my writing was super clunky and there was so much to learn. And I had to stumble and bumble along publicly as I came into my own power of storytelling.

And it takes time. It’s not something that, although it was an overnight thing in terms of being accepted and signed up, they recognised that they had a storyteller in their midst and they needed to nurture me and bring me up to the kind of level that could sell in an environment against all the best sellers in the world.

So it does take time. And I must say, cutting my teeth on fantasy was fantastic, because it taught me how to be a wordsmith and how to build stories and how to achieve hooks and cliff hangers and all of that. Find my rhythm. Brilliant. It was a brilliant training to get me ready to write what I write now, which is historical drama that really, really demands its pound of flesh from the writer.

Allison

Okay. Well, we’re going to talk about that a little bit further along. But I just want to go back slightly. Because I really love the fact that you didn’t switch careers to become an author until you were 40. Because I think, as much as your fairy tale might make all of our listeners roll their eyes and hate you just a little bit, I think it’s also really inspiring that it’s, as you say, Bryce Courtenay gave you permission to write. Which I think is a really interesting idea. Because I think there’s a lot of people out there who waiting for someone to do that.

But do you think that in some ways you’ve kind of really got to do it for yourself?

Fiona

I think you have to make a commitment. I think that comes from within, where you think, well look, I know…

I mean, I run a masterclass. Bryce Courtenay asked me to take over the masterclass when he was dying, which was an honour to do. But daunting and full of fear for me, because I had never put tickets on myself as a teacher. And to this day, I don’t call myself that. I simply call myself a guide. But mostly women who come into the group. We have some brave men who come through and we love them to bits. They’re very spoilt within the masterclass.

But the women who come are mostly a little bit older. They’re either mothers, mothers looking for beyond the nappies and the babies and I need to find my headspace again.

But also a lot of women in late 40s and 50s who are saying, “well, if you can do this, Fiona, I think I can have a go.”

And that’s what I like. They come to me for just, they’ve made the commitment, because they’re making that effort to get along to Adelaide. But they’re also looking to me to say, “of course you can do this.” They just want that confidence that the right person is saying, “of course you can do this and let me show you how.”

And I agree. That’s what Bryce did for me. And that’s what I’m doing for people. But it must, to answer your question, it has to come from within. You have to feel it.

And there is something to be said for having lived a life before you come to your writing. Because then you’ve got something to offer into the world of the characters that you’re going to build. Because if you’re a writer from 18, which is fantastic, but you haven’t lived much of a life. So you can’t really touch the pain or the grief or the drama of life that perhaps a 40, 50, or 60 year old can. Because they’ve lived that life. They’ve been in love, they’ve been out of love. They’ve faced adversity, they’ve lost people.

So it works both ways. But I do think there’s a right time to come to your writing, and when you do, you must commit. You must just fall into it and commit wholly and trust yourself.

Allison

Well, you’ve certainly done that. You’ve committed, you’ve fallen into it wholly. Because you have since that starting point created 36 books, which is an enormous output. Are you writing every day? Do you have a routine that you follow to get those words done?

Fiona

Yeah. I’m very strictly disciplined with how I approach my writing. The way I do it is there is a period when I am writing. Then most of the year, I’m not. You know what I mean? So there’s an intense 12 week period. I only take 12 weeks to write a book.

But there’s two years behind each book. So The Pearl Thief began in October 2016. And here it is now. So I am now working on the 2020 novel. So I’m always two years ahead of myself.

So the writing is the easy part, for the kind of genre I write. It is the tip of the iceberg. So the writing is that little tip that shows at the top. And I sit down and cruise through 12 weeks of writing, but nine-tenths of the work has already been done. The hard yards have already been done. And that’s the research.

So the actual writing requires me to be disciplined. And I write four days of every week. I believe every girl needs a day off, and that’s my Friday. And I think Saturday and Sunday should be all about family, and family life. So I write Monday to Thursday, three hours in the morning.

And I always, have always worked with a word count. So if I get my word count down in the first hour, and that’s completely possible for me, because I’m fast, then I’ve got the day off. The rest of the day is off. I don’t plough on and think, well, I’ve done my words, maybe I can double my words. I never do that. For me, it’s work. So I do my words, and when I’ve done them, I’m out of there. There’s no way I’m staying at my desk to write more words.

So I’m very disciplined. And what happens is by working with a wordcount, the numbers never lie. They just keep building.

Allison

And how many words do you aim to do?

Fiona

Every book is different. So it depends how much time I’ve got.

Allison

Oh, you’ve got to divide the wordcount up.

Fiona

Yeah. I’ve got to work out my wordcount. And I do that for every book. And that’s part of a… I don’t know. It’s a weird thing. For me, that’s all about getting into the headspace, when I start to plan my wordcount, this is me becoming committed now. I’m actually putting it down on ink, on paper, that this is my contract, my word contract with myself. And I always hit my dates because of it.

Allison

Okay. So what is your process for writing a novel? That’s my first part of the question. And my second part is, has it changed over the years that you’ve been writing? Like, do you start with a glimmer of an idea and off you go? Or how does it work for you?

Fiona

I think with the fantasy books that I began with, it was the glimmer of the idea. It was the what-ifs and how-about-this kind of thing. But I must admit to everybody, and I do quite gladly, but it just makes people shake their heads, I don’t plan anything. I don’t even take notes when I’m away.

Allison

You don’t even take notes?

Fiona

No. I’m random. I’m really annoying. I know people are going to listen to this and say, “well, that’s no help to me at all, is it?”

Because I just don’t believe I would love what I do if I knew what the stories were going to be. I just wouldn’t. I wouldn’t enjoy the process. It would feel like I’m on factory line just churning out a story to a recipe.

So I never plan my books. And my poor publisher just gets this, you know… I throw a line at them. I’ll say, “right, The Pearl Thief, it’s going to be about a survivor of the occupation and it will be set mainly in the swinging 60s, you know, 1963 in London and Paris, but a solid part of the story will be set in the 1940s in Prague.” And that’s all they get. They’ve got no idea of the arc of the story. Because I don’t either.

They may, actually, I think I’ve given you more than they actually got. I might say, “look, Prague, Paris, London, holocaust survivor.” And they go with that. So they’ve learned to trust me, because they know that it’s my MO for working. And I can’t give them much more. And I’d be lying if I said any more to them because I don’t know that that’s the story.

So for me, it’s very organic. I write on mood, I write on emotion. And when I’m overseas and researching, I’m not taking notes. I’m just listening and paying attention. My antenna is super sensitive and I’m picking up ideas everywhere I go.

But I don’t know what I’m gathering. So I’m gathering in my mind lots of stuff without any real plan. And what sticks, whatever resonates with me, will ultimately find its way into the story. Because if it’s clung to my heart, then it deserves to be in that story.

Allison

I find that really interesting, because I read that The Pearl Thief was in part sparked by a documentary that you watched more than ten years ago. And so…

Fiona

No. I’ll tell you what…

Allison

Is that true?

Fiona

I’ll tell you what that is. I watched a documentary a very long time ago and it was about the Einsatzgruppen, which is the mobile killing units of the German army. And it was utterly harrowing to watch. And I remember my husband saying, “why do you watch this stuff if it upsets you so much?” And I said, “because we all have to bear witness that this did happen.”

And it was stuck in my mind. There was a particularly horrifying part in this documentary, because there was a politeness being shown to the people. I don’t want to say too much, because it will ruin the story. But the colonel or whoever was in charge felt that he must do a kindness to these people because they were good people. And he felt embarrassed about what was going to happen. So he showed them a particular… He let them off certain things. And it was through that kindness that it became all the more chilling, because it didn’t stop what was going to happen.

And I remember thinking that and I got very upset about it. And it just stuck in my heart. And I remember all those years ago I thought to myself, “one day, one day I’m going to pull that out somewhere and I’m going to use it.”

So that’s the only, that’s what that refers to. But I didn’t craft a story around it. I just needed a book to arise as I was writing that said, “you can use that scene.” And this was the book.

Allison

I understand that.

Fiona

It could have been The French Promise. It could have been The Lavender Keeper. Because those are both World War II stories. But it just happened to be this one.

Allison

This one.

Fiona

Yes. It came up, it bubbled up.

And likewise, the pearls in the story were something I’d seen a long time ago. And they weren’t even pearls. I thought they were pearls. My imagination had turned them into pearls. But I’ve since found out, having badgered the curating staff at the British Museum to please send me a picture of those magnificent pearls in the Enlightenment Room, they said, “do you mean this?” And it was a Viking sold gold piece.

So my imagination obviously works overtime when I’m dreaming. And I was convinced it was these pearls. And I decided to stick with them, because they were so magnificent in my imagination that I decided, all right, well, I’ll cast aside the Viking piece and go with mine.

So I think you see things when you’re travelling, when you’re researching. I’m always… That’s what I mean. If something sticks in my mind and clings to my heart, it will come back and deliver to me.

So that’s what those two aspects. But in terms of the story, I had no idea. None at all. Just set out, you know. I had my setting. That’s where it begins for me. Place. Where am I going to armchair travel my readers to next? And last year it was the Himalayas. And this year it’s Prague and Paris and London. And next year it’s going to be Africa. So for me, place must come first. And once I have my place, then it triggers all sorts of other thoughts for me.

Allison

Do you think that approach of creating your stories around place, is that one of the reasons you think that they are so popular? Is that notion of the setting almost as another character in the book? Like, you create these sweeping stories that take people away somewhere else. Is that one of the reasons, do you think, that they are so popular?

Fiona

I think people, my audience, definitely comes to my books for that aspect of my storytelling. I mean it’s a signature of my storytelling. So they don’t expect me to write small suburban kind of stories. Nor would I. Because I just don’t, I don’t relate to that. I’m always working with an epic landscape.

And interestingly enough, with this story, when I delivered it to my editor, and one of her… Well, her only major constructive comment to me was, “it’s a bit claustrophobic.” And I thought that was wonderful that she noticed that. Because I wasn’t aware of it.

But I said, “well, it’s a frozen winter in 1942 and it’s a frozen winter in 1963, well on the edge of winter in 1963. So naturally the scenes have to be indoors or they wouldn’t be realistic.”

And she reminded me, she said, “Fiona, nevertheless, my take is that your audience want these sweeping landscapes from you.” And she said, “also, I mean that claustrophobic emotionally. We need somewhere in the story, you’ve got us so tightly wound up in this story and full of tension and anxiety, that I need to breathe somewhere. I need somewhere to just let my breath out.”

And I thought, “wow, that’s so interesting that she said that.” So she sort of left me with this thought that, “could you pop in a couple of outdoor epic scenes of grandeur for us?”

But the way I write is, every book is virgin territory for me. So it doesn’t matter that I’ve been to London dozens of times, or Paris, or that I’ve been to Prague half a dozen times. It doesn’t matter. When I travel for a book, I am travelling with a lens on just for that story. So her saying can you just throw in a couple of scenes for us didn’t wash with me.

So I did get on an airplane, and that’s why I’ve done five long-haul this year. And just I got an airplane within 48 hours and I was in Yorkshire stomping around trying to find a frozen landscape. And found it in Robin Hood’s Bay.

And interestingly, I was only away for a few days, and by the time I got home and started writing that scene, I realised I had a bit of a catastrophe on my hands because all the characters were now in the wrong place. It’s all very well to choose Yorkshire and send my character up to Yorkshire, but all the other characters were now in the wrong place. People I needed alongside her had no reason to be in Yorkshire.

So we actually rewrote the backend of the book. And the whole ending changes. So the original read that we all loved now changed. But I am very grateful to my editor for those words. It’s a little bit claustrophobic. Because the story is so much more enriched and powerful and textured for those new scenes. And it does give us that moment to just sigh out the tension that’s been building in the story.

Allison

Okay. So given that you don’t really take notes, you’re obviously going to places, you’re absorbing a lot by osmosis. But creating authentic historical worlds requires detail. Do you think that your experience in creating fantasy worlds where every detail is up to you impacts on the way that you approach the setting?

Fiona

No, not at all. No, not at all. I think it’s the absolute opposite of a fantasy world. I think in fantasy, I was building those worlds from the ground up. And they were fun, because you could put in the kind of detail that you wanted to. And it could be anything you liked.

But I am constrained by the real world in my historical. So if you follow my Facebook, I’m actually showing people every single location, every aspect of my research at the moment. We’ve been going for days. And people are loving it and astonished at the amount of detail there is.

And all I’ve got to give them is a photograph of a memory. And I explained the genesis behind it. Why I took that photograph. And why this particular chair I used in the story, for example. I mean, there’s a wishbone chair. And everybody said, “Oh, I’ve been Googling the wishbone chair trying to understand why you used it.”

It’s just whilst I’m writing I get these great ideas that, oh, you know, I need this character to be this sort of person, so what sort of furniture would surround him? You know? So it sets me off on a new course.

And I might go hunting around in an art book or through a museum to find those bits and pieces. But they’re always real and always authentic.

Allison

Oh yes, I didn’t mean that you were making them up. I just meant that a few telling details go a very long way to creating a world, and I guess that’s what I was meaning. When you’re having to build a world on a page, you’re using those few… As you say, the wishbone chair, which says an awful lot about your character without you having to write four and a half paragraphs of description. That’s all I mean.

Fiona

Absolutely. Yes, no, absolutely. And it’s again, that’s one of my hallmarks of my storytelling. I’ve done that through all of these dozen historicals. I let the reader make all the leaps that they need to. I give them some clues and a rich… The authenticity is there. And they sort of fall into it and go with it.

I mean, my readers are fabulous intelligent creatures who can do that heavy lifting.

Allison

So you mentioned your editor, and working closely with your editor. Given that you’re writing at least one book a year, do you need to work closely with an editor to just maintain that kind of pace? It’s a lot of words.

Fiona

No, not to maintain the pace. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. I’m a paid author. I’m a fulltime professional author. And my job is to produce one excellent manuscript for them every year.

Allison

So you create the manuscripts and then it goes to them?

Fiona

Yes. And my editor always wants to read the raw version. So I don’t want your listeners again to roll their eyes at me, but she gets my first draft. I don’t subscribe to it for the new writer. I think the new writer really must do due diligence and polish, polish, polish.

But with me, because I am on a tight schedule, and tight deadlines, and my editor and I know each other very, very well, she wants the raw one. She said, “I don’t want you tinkering about with it and thinking, maybe I’ll cut this scene.” She said, “I want all of it, the full thing.”

And the other thing I do is I haven’t read it by the time she gets it. So we read together for the first time.

Allison

Oh wow.

Fiona

Yeah. It is, I know, that is a bit of a mind shift, isn’t it? It sounds terrifying. It is terrifying. She’s reading it for the first time, and I’m trying to read faster than her to see, oh my gosh! Have we even got a story here?

The amazing part is the back of brain, and this really, all writers need to reassure themselves. It won’t happen straight away, but back of brain knows how to take care of business as a writer. You have muscle memory. It knows how to do this. And your brain is a wonderful computer that can say, “all right, well, I know what’s happening here. And I’ll have it all ready by tomorrow morning when you come back to your computer.”

So I think I’m always shocked that there is a fabulous story trailing out behind me, but I’m not reading it. I don’t know it until Ally’s reading it for the first time. And I will then say that that relationship becomes vital. Because it is in all its raw glory and there needs to be the work. You then have to sit down together and say, right, how do we now take this to that next level? And polish and pare back. Our job is to take away as many words as possible without damaging that story. And so that’s what we work very hard at, is cutting away and making the architecture as simple and robust and beautifully stark as possible.

And that takes maybe six, seven, eight passes. So we’ll do a lot of work at the other end. So I only have to do this first massive journey of the book and then I’m someone else’s problem. And together we then massage it into the final shape.

Allison

Fantastic. All right, so just out of interest, I’m wondering… There’s sort of like this, I can’t remember where I found this, but I think it must have been on your website. The idea of commercial fiction. I’m just wondering how you define commercial fiction.

Fiona

The way I define it is widest possible audience with a potential to make money. Everybody can make money. I mean, there are so many writers out there and they’ve got lovely ideas. But they’re never going to make anyone any money. They’re not going to make a bookseller money, they’re not going to make a publisher money, they’re not going to make the author money.

And so commercial fiction marches to the beat of the ugly dollar. And that’s its job, is to entertain people. It’s like why we all rush out to watch a certain film. Why are we all rushing out to watch Freddie Mercury or A Star is Born? Because it sells. It’s got such wide appeal.

And it’s sort of going for the emotional side of a lot of the moviegoers, who maybe have seen the original A Star is Born with even Judy Garland, and then with Barbra Streisand. And now we’ve got this new incarnation. And most of us even know the words to Bohemian Rhapsody. Even if we don’t understand it, we can sing along. So we all want to touch that.

And so what makes a bestseller? Well, that’s the intangible. But there are these books that will bring loads of people to them for whatever reason. Usually an emotional reason, because they could not put it down. That’s what it is. It’s a page turner. There’s some quality to it that makes them read into the early hours.

Now, if you’re going to write something very niche, that is not going to fit commercial fiction. Because it’s only going to be read or desired by a small amount of people. And commercial fiction must hit the broadest possible audience of all demographics and age groups. And so that it will make a lot of money for everyone. It will make sure that an author can live a good life by his or her writing. And it means that the publisher does well, the booksellers do very well. And it keeps the whole show moving forward.

Allison

Did you set out to write commercial fiction? When you first started writing?

Fiona

Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely. I’m a born commercial creature. I come from a sales and marketing background. I had my own PR consultancy. My husband and I ran our own travel magazine for 15 years. I am a commercial corporate creature.

And so when I decided I was going to write books, the whole thing was – can I do this for a living? It wasn’t me saying, “oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book. I must do this because it’s going to satisfy some special passion within me. Or I want to write my granny’s memoirs to honour her.”

I did not come from that angle. It was all about – can I make a living from this? Because this is what I want to do. I want to cast away my corporate skin and sit in my ivory tower or my cave and I want to write books. I want to write stories for people. But can I make money at it? And that was purely a commercial decision for me.

Allison

So when it comes to promoting your books, do you think your public relations background comes into play? Do you have any tips for authors in this area?

Fiona

Undoubtedly. I know how to promote myself, my books, my genre. I think it’s one of the qualities that Penguin Random House recognised instantly when they met me. They thought, well…

Because today, I mean, I know this sounds hard to hear. But today you need to be the full package, be noticed. And that doesn’t mean that you have 100,000 followers on Instagram or that sort of thing. But it does mean that you have a…

You’ve got the street smarts of how to draw people to yourself. And that they can put you into any situation, they can put you on television, they can put you on radio. They can put you on podcasts. That you’ve got something to say that you can present yourself very well, and you’re not going to black out because a camera has been turned on you.

There is nothing easy about it. Because when I set out, I’ll be honest, when I set out 18 years ago, I actually wanted to walk away from everything and sit in that cave or sit in that ivory tower and not speak to another person again. I just wanted to be surrounded by animals, and perhaps my husband and children. But that was it. I wanted to just be completely divorced from society and just quietly go about my business.

And I remember Bryce Courtenay read me the riot act. And he said, “and on what planet are you living, Fiona, when you think that that’s how it’s going to go down for you?” And I said, “well, you know, I just want to withdraw.” And he said, “oh come on. Grow up.” He said, “the whole point that you’ve got to now be the all singing, all dancing performer.” And that was quite a shock for me. I had no idea.

Allison

I think it’s a shock for lots of authors.

Fiona

Yes. And some people are very good at it. And some people are not. And unfortunately, if you show that you’re not very good at it, it does become problematic in terms of how well you can get out there and promote.

But I think that doesn’t mean that you won’t get your chance to have your book published. I mean, a very good story is never going to go unnoticed. But I think writers must develop the acumen for how to get out there.

And it doesn’t mean, you know, the most boring thing in the world is – “look at my book! Here’s my book! My book’s just arrived! This is a box of my books!” My book, my book, my book. That gets really tedious. And new writers do that a lot. Here I am with my book, here I am with my friend holding my book. This is my new book with a rose.

Allison

In case you missed it, here’s my book!

Fiona

Yes. And my book is called this, and I’d like to thank all my family for supporting me while I wrote my book and here it is again.

And you just think, stop that! Stop it now. It got dull ten posts ago. Just calm it down and start to think about how can you promote yourself and your message without being annoying? Because it can be annoying if you don’t know how to do it.

And I think part of that problem, in all fairness to the new writer is, they’ve only got one book. So what are they going to do?

I know when I was setting out, I had one book. And when I was sitting, these were in the good old days when you used to sit in a bookshop at a table and wait for somebody to come and buy your book, most of the time I’d sit there and people would come up and I’d smile my best smile, chest out, looking fabulous, and they’d say, “do you know the way to the toilets?” You know, it was just, it’s so hard when you’ve got one book.

So you have to learn how to take that one book and be subtle and be interesting about it.

Allison

Which is excellent advice.

Fiona

It really is. It really is. Because a new writer, you can sort of see them coming. Wide eyes, and that huge smile and “I’ve written a book! Can I tell you about my book!”

And it’s hilarious. But wonderful.

Look, I feel it. I wanted to sleep with my first book. I wanted to shove my husband out of our bed and, look, I just want that book on the pillow next to me. Because I can’t believe this has happened.

So I get it, and I haven’t forgotten that feeling. But my experience is there’s a fast way to make everyone be quite tired of you if you don’t know how to pull it back and say, “right, I’ve done some promotion, I’ve done some very good promotions. I’m making myself available to people. But I’m not going to keep… It’s like a thump in the face all the time. And I’m going to not do that.”

Allison

And on the note of excellent advice, we’re going to finish up with our infamous last question which we ask everybody. Which of course is your top three tips for aspiring authors.

Fiona

Look, there are so many tips. Let me, I’m going to, I hope I can pull out my top three.

Allison

I know it’s difficult.

Fiona

It is difficult. Because there’s so much I want to say to writers. Here’s one that is always important. You must write forwards all the time. Don’t keep reading what you wrote yesterday. Because what you wrote yesterday is the fastest way for you to get trapped in a horrible abyss of editing at the time when you shouldn’t be editing.

When you’re writing, you should be wearing your writer’s cap and just go forwards. All the time. Don’t look back. Just go forwards. And then, later, pull that cap off and put your editing cap on and then look at the story as a whole. Look at the whole architecture of the story. And then you’ve got a much better idea of what the story looks like, feels like, sounds like.

And you need some time in between those two hats being worn. You need to actually leave that book alone for eight weeks if you can before you look back. Because you need fresh ruthless eyes looking at it.

So I think, number one, always write forwards.

Number two is, I would say, don’t let writing define you. I find too many writers that I meet that come into my orbit… You know, the writing is so important to them, it’s consuming them. It’s letting writing define them, when I think it’s very important that you put your family first, because they’re the most important thing in the world, in your life.

And I think you should have hobbies or interests that take you away from your writing. Because it’s too easy to get so wrapped up in your story telling that it begins to suck away at your confidence. And also you become one dimensional. And again, boring.

So I think the way I approach my writing is, I don’t stress about it. I don’t plot it or plan it. I just down and I write 1500 words today and then I walk away and I don’t think about it again until tomorrow. But tomorrow, I don’t read what I wrote yesterday. I write another 1500 words.

So don’t let it define you. Understand that this is one of the beautiful aspects of you, is that you can write a story. Or that you hear stories in your mind. Celebrate that. And go forward with that. Don’t let it become so all-consuming that it twists you in knots and sucks away at your confidence.

So there’s that one.

And number three, which is what I tell all my master classes, and I know, it’s not very nice to say this, but no one cares. You need to actually embrace it. No one bloody cares that you’re writing a book. Not even your own family cares because actually it’s annoying when you’re not there, because you’re distracted.

So understand not a single publisher has asked you to write this book. Not a single person cares if you finish it. It doesn’t matter that you’ve wanted to write all your life. I don’t care, you don’t care, no one cares.

So take that on and that write free of all constraints. Don’t worry about what your mum thinks, don’t worry about what your friends think. Don’t worry about it. Because no one cares anyway. So just sit down and write that beautiful book.

And if you write with freedom and no constraints, the power in your storytelling will emerge so much stronger. It will be full of oxygen. But if you let that whole care factor get you down, how good is it? Is it good enough? Are people going to buy this? Should I have an agent? You just want to say, no one cares about this yet. So stop worrying, and just get on and write it.

Allison

Fantastic. I have to say I think those are three of the most original top tips for authors that we have ever had.

Fiona

Good, good.

Allison

And I thank you greatly for those. And thank you so much for your time today, Fiona McIntosh. It has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. And I wish you all the best with The Pearl Thief.

Fiona

The pleasure’s mine. Thank you so much.


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