Ep 281 Etiquette when approaching agents. And meet Paige Toon, bestselling author of ‘If You Could Go Anywhere’. 

In Episode 281 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Paige Toon, bestselling author of  If You Could Go Anywhere. Learn about the best etiquette when approaching agents. Bad ways to open your story. Plus, we have 3 copies of The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri to give away and more.

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Show Notes

Links

The 10 Worst Story Openings

Manners Matter: 13 Etiquette Tips

Writer in Residence

Paige Toon

Paige Toon grew up between England, Australia and America and has been writing books set in sun-drenched locations around the world since 2007. She has written twelve women’s fiction novels, a three-part spin-off series for young adults and a collection of short stories.

Her novels have sold 1.5 million copies worldwide.

If You Could Go Anywhere was published by Penguin Books Australia in May 2019.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Paige, thanks for joining us today.

Paige

Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie

Your latest book is If You Could Go Anywhere. For those readers who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Paige

Well, it’s about Angie, who is a character who has spent 27 years living in a small mining town in the Australian outback. And she’s always wanted to travel ever since she was a young girl.

Her mother died soon after giving birth to her, leaving Angie’s grandparents as her only carers. And she grew up not knowing who her father was. And then her grandfather passes away and then her grandmother falls ill. And it’s on the eve of when Angie’s planning on fleeing the nest and going across to the other side of the world and just travelling and seeing the world. And she basically stays at home in this small outback town to look after her grandmother.

And so when we meet up with her when she’s 27, her grandmother has passed away. And she’s basically… That’s the beginning of the story.

Valerie

And so how did this idea form? What made the premise pop into your head? Or did it develop over time? Was it something you’ve been exploring yourself for a while? Tell us a bit about that.

Paige

Okay, you’re going to laugh. This just shows that ideas really can come from anywhere. It came from, the initial seed of an idea came to me as I was watching Moana, the Disney movie.

Valerie

No! Moana?

Paige

This character who was stuck in this tiny island and her dad wouldn’t allow her to travel and see the world. And she would look at to the ocean and want to go and see. And I thought I would love to write a character who has got serious wander lust. Because I’ve been experiencing quite a lot of that lately. And just wanting to go and see much more of the world. And I just bought a campervan so we can enable us to travel around Europe a lot more, because we live in England.

And so I thought that would be really interesting. This idea of this character for one reason or another being stuck and not being able to… Basically, Angie has barely left her small mining town that she lives in. Only to go to Adelaide on occasional trips as a young child. And just the idea of writing about someone who had never been on airplane. She’s never even travelled by train. So there’s this one point where she goes to the train station and this massive train rolls in and she stands there in awe.

So it was interesting. I just like the idea of exploring that.

Valerie

Yeah. Now people might be a bit confused. Because you live in England. You’ve got a campervan, you’re going to go around Europe. It’s set in Coober Pedy, which is of course in Australia. But you grew up between England, Australia and America. Can you just give us a bit of an idea of your background and where you did grow up?

Paige

Sure. I was born in England, but my entire family going back generations is Australian. My parents, we went back to Australia soon after I was born. My dad used to be a racing driver. And so we used to travel. We’d spend half the year in Australia where I went to school, and the other half of the year in either America or England, depending on where he was racing at the time.

So that was childhood, was growing up travelling around quite a lot.

And then eventually we settled in England and I had to knuckle down and do my school exams and things. And ended up meeting my future husband. And then my entire family moved back to Australia, which was really nice of them, and left me in England! But by then I had a really great job at a magazine and I was pretty rooted to England myself.

So that’s where I live now. And I’ve got two children as well. So we’re just a hop, skip and a jump away from Europe. We tend to go travelling quite a lot.

I thought about setting the beginning of the book maybe in Scotland. And then I just thought, no, Australia. Somewhere in the outback of Australia would just be so much more… I just love the idea of writing about that.

Valerie

And when you were living in Australia, were you living in the outback?

Paige

No, I lived in the Adelaide hills. So I was pretty far from the outback. It’s very green up there.

So no, I haven’t spent much time in the outback at all. I’ve been to Uluru and I’ve been to various parts of the Northern Territory. But not very familiar with the outback. So there was a lot of research involved in this book.

Valerie

Yeah. So what kind of research did you do? Especially living in England.

Paige

So I went to Italy and I went to Norway, which is also featured in the book quite heavily.

And I was gutted that I couldn’t get back to go to Coober Pedy, actually, because we were coming back to Australia now and I was writing this book six months ago and there was no way I could come back to Australia twice in a year. So I had to do all of that online research. And I spoke to locals in the area. Had to do a lot of research about opal mining. And had to even look up regulations for underground housing and everything like that. And then there was an awful lot of Google Street View as well used.

I just really immersed myself in as many videos and Facebook and everything to do with people living in Coober Pedy and trying to get a sense of what that would be like, to grow up in a small mining town. And used my imagination a bit.

Valerie

And when did you realise that you wanted to become a writer?

Paige

I’ve always written, ever since I was really small. I can’t remember who old I was when I decided I wanted to be an author, but I was really young. And when I was 12 I started reading magazines and thought, well, that would be a fun job first. Maybe I can go and work for magazines first and then when I have kids I’ll write books and be able to work from home.

So I had all these big dreams. And I’m still kind of pitching myself.

Valerie

Yeah, because you have been extraordinarily successful and have sold over 1.5 million copies of your books. When you reach the million mark, was there some kind of countdown? Did you actually know what was happening at the time it was happening? Because that’s a milestone, a million.

Paige

Yeah, absolutely.

Valerie

And if so, how did you find out and what did you do to celebrate?

Paige

Well, it was funny. I think I was seeing one of my fellow authors, she’s written over a million books. And I thought to myself, I wonder if I’ve written over a million books now? And so I knew I must be pretty close, my UK sales, because I do very well there. But I also do very well in Germany.

And so I had to get together all the numbers from my two different publishers. And I’m published in about 16 different countries around the world, but I didn’t bother with them because I knew I did well in Germany and the UK, and between those two alone it was over a million, well over a million.

So that was a pretty mental moment.

Valerie

Yeah, I bet. Did you do anything specific to celebrate?

Paige

I didn’t, actually. I don’t know why not, now.

Valerie

That’s silly!

Paige

You’re making me think, my god, I should have cracked open the prosecco! Any excuse.

Valerie

Not the prosecco! The French champagne! It’s over a million copies!

Paige

I prefer prosecco.

Valerie

Okay. So you’ve written twelve women’s fiction novels. And a three-part spin off series for young adults. Plus also a collection of short stories.

Paige

That’s right.

Valerie

Have you always wanted to write women’s fiction? And what about that genre is appealing to you?

Paige

The first book idea I ever had was for women’s fiction. I was working at Heat magazine, my family had moved back to Australia, and I was feeling really torn between Australia and England. And that was the premise of the idea for Lucy in the Sky. This character who is travelling back to Australia, she gets this text message on this 24 hour flight from her boyfriend’s phone that really upsets her. And then she has to go through this 24 hour flight. And I liked the connection of that. And I thought most of the story was really about this character who was torn between these two countries and two men, as well, effectively.

And that was just the genre that appealed to me. I’ve always read women’s fiction, ever since Bridget Jones’ Diary and Marian Keyes, I love her. She’s one of my favourite authors. And so I think you just write what you want to read. Basically, I write the stories I want to read. And I love writing them because I can just live inside those characters heads and live completely vicariously through them.

I think that’s really important for any budding writers. Don’t try to write what you think will sell. You have to write what you love. I mean, I am very lucky that that what I love is commercial too, so I can make a decent living out of it. That’s luck more than anything contrived.

Valerie

So when you are creating your characters and your plots, and basically thinking of what’s going to happen in your books, typically – because there must be a pattern now, after 12 novels and beyond.

Paige

This is 13. This is my lucky 13.

Valerie

Typically, do you already know what’s going to happen to this character throughout the journey of the book? Or do you only start with the seed of an idea and let it unfold? How does it work on a practical level?

Paige

I’ve usually been thinking about the book that I’m going to write about a year before I start writing it. And so the idea is pretty well rounded by the time I come down to write it. I think there’s only been a couple of instances where I knew, you know, I might have been writing about a love triangle, and I didn’t know who she was going to end up.

And on two other occasions I sort of thought I might just let the book write itself and see how the ending pans out. But most of the time I know exactly how it’s going to end.

That’s what really keeps me driving when I’m writing, it’s all these key points throughout the novel. I never write out of sequence. I always write from beginning to end. And so I can easily write 10,000 words at the end of the novel in a day just because I can’t wait to get these words out. I’ve just been thinking about them for so long and it’s all geared up to that point, where it just comes tumbling out.

Valerie

So you said a couple of times you’ve let see what happens to the character. How did that work out for you? Did it work? Or was it harder? Which way do you prefer?

Paige

Well, it was funny, because… The first time it happened to me was with One Perfect Summer. And I had every idea of how it would pan out and then about 20,000 words towards the end I thought, hang on, I’m not actually sure that it’s that clear cut. And so I wrote that book and ended up writing, my readers were demanding a sequel. So I don’t think it was the most well rounded ending, to be fair. They wanted a little bit more. I ended up writing a short story sequel that same year.

And then the next time it happened to me was Thirteen Weddings, which was the next book. And that time, I felt really freeing to write it. But that divided my readers more than any other book in terms of who she ended up with at the end of that story. I heard from so many people saying, it should have been him, it should have been him. And half of them were happy, half of them weren’t. So it was weird.

I guess it’s great that people care about the characters. But if it’s not that clear cut to me then it’s clearly not that clear cut to my readers. But it’s good for debate. Likewise, with Thirteen Weddings, I did end up writing a sequel to that, as well. But I won’t give anything away.

Valerie

So when you decided to write your spin-off series for young adults, firstly why did you decide to do that? To write for a different age group? And also then how did you have to approach it differently in the writing process?

Paige

Well, I decided to because I write my first six books during baby nap times. I wrote my first book and then I fell pregnant, basically. So I was writing a book a year with only a very small window of time to write them in.

And then my kids went to school. And I suddenly had so much more time on my hands. And I thought, well, the thing that I love to do most is write, and so I thought well, I could write two books a year. And a friend of mine said, I can see you writing young adult.

And I’d had this idea building in my head for a while for a spinoff of one of my adult books. And I thought, well, that would work really well as a teenage title. Because I tend to write all of my books in real time. So if I do write the sequel or link them then it has to be roughly the same amount of years that have passed in the real world.

So in order to write this story that I had in my mind, another ten years or so would have had to pass. But because she was a teenager, only 15, then it actually worked perfectly for that story to come about.

And I didn’t find it any different to writing for adults. When you’re inside the head of any of your characters then you just start thinking like that character. So it didn’t matter that she was 15 or 16 or 30.

The only thing that was really different was that she smoked and my editor said, you have to be more responsible with that. She has to stop smoking. And so things like that. All of my books I try to keep as realistic as possible. But in that situation, I think she probably, the character that she was, she definitely would have carried on smoking for a bit longer.

Valerie

So can you give us just a bit of a timeline in terms of this book, so let’s take this book as an example, If You Could Go Anywhere. You think about it for a year or thereabouts. And then what happens? Can you give us a bit of a timeline on how long it takes then to do your first draft? And then after that what happens after that in terms of the edits or any revisions? And then when it comes out.

Paige

So I have a rolling deadline, that all of my books have to be delivered at the end of November. That’s with my UK publisher. So I basically start writing in September right through October and November. And I just find that that time of year works really well for me as a writer.

In the UK it’s summer over June, July, August. And there’s something about the summer that I find really, really difficult to write. I find my head gets quite foggy. I don’t know. Maybe I just need to install air conditioning and I’d be fine. But in the UK, my office is very stuffy. And I really find it very hard to just clear my mind and feel really connected to the characters.

But there’s something about coming back to work, kids going off to school, back to work after the summer holidays, that I’m just really productive.

And it’s always during the writing process, so far, bizarrely, that I tend to come up with the idea for the next book. I think just because I’m in that creative drive and something will just pop into my head. And I might have had an idea going for a couple of years even, but things just aren’t going forward. And so from that point onwards, I’m really thinking about it until I start writing it in September.

So as soon as I finish a book at the end of November, we have a very tight turnaround because my books come out in May in the UK. And it’s just been that way ever since I got my first book deal. We just decided, I just decided I’d write it quickly and publish it the following year. And so we’ve always had a really tight turnaround.

So luckily my books are reasonably well edited by the time they reach my publisher, so my editor doesn’t need to do too much. But she’ll pass it back to me within about two weeks. Usually have just a couple of days off to do my accounts and catch up on social media that I haven’t been able to do while I’ve been up against my deadline.

And then I’ve got the first round of editing from my editor, and then I deliver that back quite quickly. It’s usually only within a few days. And then it goes off to the copy editor. And then I have another couple of weeks, hopefully over Christmas, which enables me to have a bit of a break. And then straight away, back from the copy editor, I need to do another round of editing. Usually have about a week or so with those.

And then it goes off to the typesetters and then you get the book back again when it’s all laid out. And that’s one final read through. You can’t make too many changes at that point. You need to just look for mistakes, really, and occasionally word repetitions. And I always end up doing a fair few scribbles, unfortunately.

And all in amongst this time I’m liaising with the editor and my publisher about the book design and the cover, the blurb, various different things.

Valerie

It sounds like a well-oiled machine.

Paige

Yeah. It’s quite, year on year, it’s pretty much always exactly the same. And that’s it.

Valerie

So tell us, when you’re doing the actual writing, what is your typical day? I know you’ve just mentioned that in some cases you can just do 10,000 words, whatever. But what would be a typical day? Do you have any kind of routines? Whether that’s a creative routine or whether it’s a – I’ve got to have a cup of tea first and think about my characters in order to get the words out?

Paige

I tend to just get the kids off to school in the morning. Tend to do a little bit of housework quickly, and then eventually I get to sit down.

And I always find the beginning of the week really frustrating because I’m catching up with all the social media from over the weekend. And it’ll get to about 2 o’clock before I even get to do any more and then the next thing you know the kids are home from work. So from Tuesday onwards it’s a little bit more productive.

But it really just depends at which stage I’m at in the book. It depends if I’ve done enough research, because if I haven’t I get really bogged down in doing research. And I find that quite frustrating sometimes. And there was a lot of research to do for this book. So I definitely wasn’t as productive in the earlier stages as I was in the later ones.

Valerie

So do you do your research as you go as opposed to do your research first?

Paige

I try to do my research first, but there’s always something that comes up. Or I just don’t feel like I know enough about one of the characters, something that they’re doing.

There was so much research to do in this book. Even just down to Angie baking biscuits from different places from around the world and having to, you know, if I’d done all of that research in advance I’d just be weighed down with research notes to look through.

Valerie

Sure.

Paige

So at some points you just have to hop back on to your computer. And because I hadn’t been to Coober Pedy, I had to massively immerse myself in the town and just watch so many different videos. And needed to understand opal mining.

And that was a really big thing, Angie’s nan has Alzheimer’s. So I spoke to people from Alzheimer’s research in the UK. And just to understand all of that. And then there’s just millions of other things as well.

Valerie

Do you have a wordcount goal?

Paige

No, I don’t. No, I don’t. Because at the end of the day, sometimes I’m really, really productive and because I can write the 10,000 words towards the end there’s no point in forcing the words if they’re not coming in the beginning.

It’s just better to get out and go for a walk and try and let my characters start speaking to me inside my head. And then run back and try to remember what they said.

Valerie

And so with your characters, as you’re developing your characters, do you create any kind of… I mean, do they just live in your head? Or do you create any kind of dossier or document on each of them so that you can write down bits of their back story and personality quirks and stuff like that as they come to you?

Paige

Yeah, I do do that. I try to do that. I think every time I’ve written a book I’ve always written it somehow differently. Doing it differently. This time I actually really did try to do that because there were quite a few characters. And sometimes you even forget names that you might have already used in the book. So that was really helpful to do that this time.

Valerie

And so because you’ve gone through, you’ve written this book, and you would have done that last November, or finished it last November, that means according to what you’ve just said, you’ve already thought of the premise of your next book.

Paige

Yes.

Valerie

So are you in the throes of writing that? Or where are you on that?

Paige

Well, I’ve had a little bit of a break because I needed one. This one took it out of me more than others. But actually, no, I’ve just come up with another idea which has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works. I had a really clear idea, I was really into it, really excited about it.

And then I flew over to Australia and woke up with jetlag at three in the morning and this idea popped into my head and I can’t stop thinking about it. So I might end up writing that one first! But it means that I’m starting the process of research quite late on. And just obviously even just thinking about it to make sure it’s clear enough in my head, I don’t have as long before I’m going to start writing. So I just need to really make sure that I’m really committed to doing that one first. And obviously waiting to hear what my editor thinks.

Valerie

So how will you know which idea to go with? What makes one idea the one?

Paige

I think that the idea that’s just come into my head is possibly a little bit more current. And I think it’s really much more unusual. So I’m tempted to do that one. But I need to find out what my editor thinks. If she agrees.

Ultimately, I write love stories. And this will be a love story. But it’s the rest of it that is really, really clear in my head as opposed to the love story. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. I need to really feel connected to the characters before I think about going down that route.

Valerie

Wow. And finally, what’s your top three tips for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position where you are one day? Published author, 13 novels and counting. What are your top three tips?

Paige

Well, I would always say write what you love, and not what you think you should.

And really make sure you’re enjoying what you’re writing. If you’re finding that you’re getting bogged down in something, then chances are your readers are going to feel like that when they’re reading it. So just take a break, go for a walk.

Sometimes jump ahead to a scene that excites you so you don’t get stuck with writer’s block. You can always come back and fill out that bit later. I had to do that a little bit with this book.

And is that two?

Valerie

Write what you love. And sometimes jump ahead.

Paige

Yep. And I think the other thing just to keep in mind is that no matter what happens, these days you can always self-publish. So you can always find an audience for your book. So there’s really no excuse to not just start writing.

Valerie

Wonderful. Great advice. Congratulations on your book, If You Could Go Anywhere. And thank you so much for joining us today.

Paige

Thank you so much for having me.


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