Ep 304 Meet Nicola Moriarty, author of ‘The Ex’.

In Episode 304 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Discover how to get the words written. Meet Nicola Moriarty, author of The Ex. Val and Al discuss what you can learn from hanging out in a bookshop. Plus, we have three copies of In Darkness Visible by Tony Jones to give away.

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Show Notes

How to get the words written: 10 tips for writers

How to write a book that sells

Writer in Residence

Nicola Moriarty

Nicola Moriarty enjoys stringing together various collections of words – often in a coherent structure. Sometimes, these words form books.

Thus far, Nicola has published the novels Free-Falling (2012), Paper Chains (2013), The Fifth Letter (2017) and Those Other Women (2018). She has also contributed two short stories and a novella to three different anthologies.

Her latest novel, The Ex is out now.

Follow Nicola Moriarty on Twitter

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(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Nicola.

Nicola

Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie

Congratulations on your latest book, The Ex. Now for readers who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell them what it’s about?

Nicola

Sure. So it’s about a girl called Georgia who is at the stage of her life where she’s ready to settle down and meet somebody. All her brothers are either married or getting married. She’s got the career, but she just wants to meet someone special.

And she meets a guy called Luke who seems pretty perfect. Seems like a great package. But then it turns out that Luke has an ex-girlfriend named Cadence, who unfortunately he’s still living with. And who is also still in love with him, still obsessed with him.

And Georgia starts to get this sense that she’s being followed, and threatening notes left on her car, and nasty text messages. And that’s all I can say without giving anything away.

Valerie

Yes! All right. So can you tell us how this idea started to form? How this premise developed in your brain? Is it something that happened to you?

Nicola

No, nothing like that has happened to me. And the really annoying thing about this is that the main thing that sparked this idea, if I explain it, will give away major spoilers. Because…

Valerie

Okay, let’s not do that then.

Nicola

Yeah. But basically it was something that happens later in the book, is what sparks the idea.

Valerie

Sure. All right. So this is… As you said, Georgia is at an age where she’s looking to settle down and she’s dating. And a lot of the scenes about dating are really real and they’re really, you know, the scenes at the pubs and stuff like that.

Now, I imagine that… Because you’ve got two kids and you’re kind of settled into family life. This is a different world to your current world.

Nicola

Yes.

Valerie

So what did you do to get into that headspace and what goes on with those people? Even though it’s not much difference, it’s probably only eight years difference, or ten years difference. But it’s a different life stage.

Nicola

It is. Yeah. It is a different stage. And while I definitely would have been thinking about what it was like when I was dating, I know that there’s so many different things today. Like when I was dating, there was no Tinder. And actually I wasn’t even on Facebook before I met my husband.

Valerie

Wow.

Nicola

So yeah. I didn’t have the social media world or dating apps or anything like that. So I guess there was a little bit of chatting to friends who are still dating. A little bit of imagination. Yeah. It was difficult actually, getting myself into that headspace. And wondering what it would be like for me if I was dating in this day and age as well.

Yeah. So it was not easy.

Valerie

And so apart from getting into that headspace, Georgia is a nurse. And there’s some other characters who are hospital related. Do you have a connection to the hospital? Or did you have to do research to understand some of the procedures that you’ve described, or some of the drugs that you’ve described?

Nicola

That one was really good because I have three friends who – is it just three? At least three friends – who are nurses. And then even a couple more as well who are in the medical profession. So I actually took them all out and got them drunk and then asked them…

Valerie

That’s a good tax deduction!

Nicola

I know. I just grilled them heaps and heaps. So I asked lots of specific questions. But I also just tried to get them talking about their day to day working lives so I could get… I wanted to try and hopefully get that feel for what their jobs are like.

I also, I spent a day just wandering around a hospital as well. And sitting down in different spots. And, you know, when you’re trying to get the feel for what the sounds are and what you can see and all of that kind of thing.

But definitely having those friends who are nurses was a massive help. And they were very generous with their information and time, probably because I was giving them drinks.

Valerie

Now when you are dealing with something that unfolds, like this, that’s like a psychological thriller, the pacing is so important. And so is the unfolding, so that the reader only finds out bits at a time. How did you map that out? Did you already know what was going to happen before you started writing? Or did you just let it unfold to you?

Nicola

A little bit of both. Because I had in mind my big kind of climax of the book was something I did know. But then I didn’t really know quite how we were going to get there or how it would all resolve itself afterwards. I knew nothing of that. I just had this one idea of, this is the big thing that I want to have happen.

So then the rest of it kind of came as far as then just writing. And like you say just letting it unfold and seeing where it took me.

And then on top of that, in the editing process. So the very first draft is quite different to what it ended up being. I had some major changes to the ending. And then on top of that, throughout the editing process, the editors kind of worked with me for a lot of, okay, pull back on this throughout because you’re giving too much away. That kind of thing. Or let’s build that suspense a bit more. All that kind of thing got developed more afterwards.

Valerie

So I’m sure this doesn’t give anything away, but one of the things that you do really well is actually have these two points of view. And they’re very distinct and they are quite different in terms of one is third person, one is first person. Did you do that deliberately? How did you make a decision as to how to write the points of view? And I think it’s safe to say that one is one woman and one is another woman.

Nicola

I agree. I don’t think that gives anything away to know that you hear both voices. And I think it happened for a couple of reasons. So for instance, Georgia being third person, when I actually first started writing her and I was trying to get into it, I actually started her as first person. And that kind of got it flowing for me. And then at a certain point, I don’t know, maybe not even a chapter in, I suddenly went, okay, I’ve got her working now, but now it feels more natural to switch her to third person. And that just felt right for her.

Whereas for Cadence, I think I started off writing her more as almost like stream of consciousness. I was kind of imagining, you know, possibly even I was thinking, oh, would she be writing in a diary? Is she writing blog posts? And it just felt more right to be first person for her. So even though it didn’t end up being diary or anything like that, it just, I don’t know, it seemed to suit her.

So it wasn’t, it was just kind of what worked best for me for the characters.

Valerie

Yes. So you mentioned that it was a little bit of both in terms of you knew the climax and you knew some bits, but then you let other bits unfold. There’s kind of three main characters that are quite intertwined with their activities. As in, what they’re actually physically doing that day. How did you get that right? Did you plot it out on some kind of graphical thing to make sure that you weren’t contradicting yourself? Or what?

Nicola

Yeah. Again, not so much at the beginning. As I was going, I was just kind of, you know, right, so I can see where the story takes me. But then more afterwards, then I had an Excel spreadsheet where I was, okay, if this is happening then and this is happening over here with this character…

And like you say, it kind of needs to link up. That’s where I started needing to just jot down little notes of this scene, this scene, this scene, and line it up in Excel. And yeah, discover things where, hang on a sec! She can’t be doing this on this day because it doesn’t make any sense. Or this can’t be a Saturday. Those kinds of things.

But I prefer not to do it while I’m writing because otherwise it can stop the flow sometimes I think.

Valerie

Yes. So with the actual process of writing, once you’ve figured out, okay, I’m going to write this manuscript, did you give yourself… Can you just give us a little bit of an idea of the timeline? First of all, did you have a set timeframe that you had to write it in? And whether you did or not, did you have some kind of word count goal? Or how did you actually drive yourself to get the words down?

Nicola

So I work best when I have a deadline. I find if I don’t have an actual deadline, then I’m very good at procrastinating. And so I was lucky enough that this one had already been contracted by publishers. So I had a deadline for it. And I think it was… I think it probably took me something like eight or nine months, I’d say. And usually, even with that time, I still procrastinate at the beginning, even though I know that it would be so much easier on myself if I just got to work earlier. I still look at it and I go, oh, months and months! I’ll just let the ideas sit for a while!

And then as it gets closer, I start to panic. And that’s when I do start setting word count goals, when it literally comes down to, you know, it’s due in 60 days and if I don’t write 3000 words every day then I’m in trouble.

So at that point I do start setting myself goals of word counts.

Valerie

So if you do that though, what does your day look like? Can you tell us whether you have some kind of writing routine? And whether you don’t let yourself stop until you reach your 3000 or whatever it is words?

Nicola

Yeah, it’s a little bit… I’m still not that good, even when I have to be, I’m still not amazing at being disciplined. But usually what I would find was that as long as I could a good day where it might go wonderfully well and I could write 5000 words, then I’d know that the next day if I struggled a bit and it was only 1000 words then it would sort of average out.

So I was constantly recalculating going, okay, if this has happened here and then now I need 4000 words per day. Or now, next week, I’m okay to only write 2000 words.

But the plan for the day normally is I have to leave the house, because I find if I’m at home, I get too lonely. And distracted, as well. Whereas if I go out somewhere to… I’ve got a couple of favourite cafes where they don’t mind if I take up a table for most of the day.

Valerie

So you like writing in cafes?

Nicola

Yeah. I much prefer to be out and around other people so that I’m not kind of, yeah, just having that loneliness. Being a writer can be so isolating.

Valerie

Do you write on a computer at the cafe?

Nicola

Yes. So I’ll take my laptop and work on that. I usually only use a notebook if it’s just jotting down quick thoughts here and there. But generally, yeah, it’ll be on my laptop.

And generally I like to be able to have a chat with somebody every now and again. So I feel part of the world. And then sometimes if I get really focused, or if I really need to focus, then I might earphones in and listen to music. I like writing to music as well.

But yeah, just prefer generally to be out in the world.

Valerie

And so did you always want to be a writer? From when you were a child? When did you decide this is my thing?

Nicola

So when I was young, I always loved reading, as well. So loved stories. Both my elder sisters would make up stories for me, which I always loved. I loved reading books.

And then in year five, I wrote a story that my beautiful year five teacher, Mrs Walsh, read out to the class. And I remember that feeling of pride that she read it to the class. And I remember thinking then that I wanted to be a writer. Although at that stage, I thought I want to grow up and do children’s books, is what I wanted to do.

And then when I left high school, I did kind of abandon that dream for a while because it just seemed like the impossible dream. I thought, how do you go about becoming a writer? I didn’t really know what you would do.

And then it wasn’t until… And I just kept going through all sorts of different jobs and careers and really not settling into anything. And it wasn’t until I sat down to write a short story one night just for the fun of it, that when I finished the short story I looked at it and went, this doesn’t feel like a short story. It feels like the start of something else. And that ended up… And I went, I’m just going to keep going with it, and it ended up being the first chapter of my first book. But that took me three years to write.

Valerie

Right. Now it’s actually interestingly no surprise to me that you like writing in cafes, because there’s lots of scenes in this book that are in public places, where there’s lots of people who are potentially having drinks or socialising or whatever, and you’ve really captured that. There’s scenes in a pub in Castle Hill and Bella Vista and they just seemed like the exact scenes of my, you know, some years ago when I used to hang out the Great Northern Hotel.

And I’m interested to know why you picked these areas? Bella Vista, Castle Hill, Artarmon. For those listeners who aren’t from Sydney, these are suburbs of Sydney that are just really normal suburbs, aren’t they?

Nicola

Yeah. It’s not your normal setting as far as it’s not a particularly exciting setting. And it just kind of happened because I was, at the very beginning, I was going to set it in Newtown. And as I was writing it, I just kept going, even though I know Newtown, I’ve never lived there, so I don’t know it that well. And I just was getting that feeling like it wasn’t authentic. I wasn’t getting the real sense of it, I don’t think.

And then one day I suddenly went, why am I choosing this place? Why not just have it in my own local area? And as soon as I did that, I started to feel more comfortable with it. And then happily, it’s turned out that I’ve had people say to me – apart from people who are local, and say, oh, it’s great to read about local areas – I have also had other people say to me, oh, it’s just really nice for it to just be this normal every day suburban setting. And that therefore it feels like the drama going on could happen to anybody. And I kind of went, oh, I wish I could say I planned it that way. But I didn’t! But I’m glad that it worked out that way.

Valerie

Well, here’s the freaky thing. Because it is very, very authentic, and it really does feel like those places and it really felt like the pubs that I used to go to. And this isn’t a spoiler either, but the ex lives in Frances Road, Artarmon. And I just almost keeled over. Because my ex lived in Frances Road, Artarmon. And it’s a really short street!

Nicola

Oh my goodness.

Valerie

Not only is it a really short street, the way you describe the building and the entryway and everything was like, oh my god, I think it’s the same building.

Nicola

Oh wow. I was really worried for a second you were going to say, and there are no buildings like that on Frances Street! And I was going to go, oh no! I didn’t research well enough! Oh wow. That’s so funny when things like that happen.

Valerie

It’s so bizarre. Because Frances Road is a very short road. And so what are the chances?

Nicola

I know. Yes. Because I did, I lived in Artarmon for a short while, but I was on the Pacific Highway. I was on the main road. So I kind of went, I wanted a building similar to where I lived many years ago when my husband and I first got together. But I wanted it to be tucked away somewhere. So I pretty much just looked at the map and picked one.

Valerie

That is so freaky.

All right. So what are you… Are you already working on your next thing? And if so, did you think about that when you finished this? Or were you already thinking about that when you were still writing this?

Nicola

So yes, I am definitely working on something new at the moment. And I’m trying to remember if the idea was there at all towards the end of finishing this one. It might have been. It might have been floating around a little bit. Or I might have had a few different ideas, very vague kind of concepts floating around ready to say to the publishers once they were at the stage of, okay, what’s coming next.

And I did send to them, once I was done with this, I think three different ideas. And they came back and said, this is the one that we want you to work on.

Shall I describe it now?

Valerie

Yes. Please.

Nicola

Sure. So the one that I’m working on at the moment, it doesn’t have a title yet, but it is about, or it opens with a major car accident on the side of a freeway on Christmas Eve. Like a big four car pileup. And then, quite quickly, the realisation that all four cars were being driven by members of the same family who were all travelling on convoy to go away for Christmas together. And then it goes back to the weeks leading up to Christmas to have a look at this big extended family and figure out why this car accident has happened.

And so you’re looking at a mother of a newborn who’s maybe a bit sleep deprived. And somebody else who’s drinking a bit during the day. And maybe drinking a bit more than they should be. And the matriarch of the family, who has got this big secret that she’s keeping. And a teenager who’s just on their Ls and having trouble at school.

So all these different people who may or may not have caused the car accident. And at the moment, I’m likening it to the Pamela Allen book Who Sank the Boat? And seeing it at the moment as my grown up version of Who Sank the Boat?

Valerie

Right! And so, how far into it are you?

Nicola

I am about a third of the way into it at the moment. And it’s at the stage now where I’m kind of starting to get excited about getting towards the climax and wanting to jump ahead as well. Because when you’re trying to get there, but also trying to build everything up. So hoping that it will start writing faster for me magically by itself.

Valerie

Yeah! It will do that, won’t it?

Nicola

I hope so.

Valerie

And finally, what’s your top three tips, your top three bits of advice, for aspiring writers who want to be in a position where you are one day, and have their books published?

Nicola

Sure. I would say, number one, read lots. Always keep reading. And maybe read all sorts of different books. And read for the enjoyment of it as well as for helping you with your writing.

Number two, I would say, if you’re having any trouble staying motivated or getting bored with what you’re writing, try just for the fun of it sometimes doing different types of writing, different genres. I found when I was at uni and I studied writing, I found that getting the opportunity to do nonfiction writing or to write in all sorts of different genres that weren’t the normal thing that I would like to write, really opened me up to new ideas and things and made me feel excited about writing.

And number three tip I would say… Oh, write when it comes to you. If you’re wanting to write a novel, don’t worry about what is the bestselling novels out at the moment, or what genre is that everybody seems to be looking for. Because for one thing, it’s constantly changing anyway. But for another thing, what you write is going to be, your best writing is going to be if you’re writing what you want to write, what feels right for you, and natural for you. So write what you want to write, not what you think is going to sell, or what you think publishers want or anything like that.

Valerie

That is great advice. And on that note, congratulations on The Ex. And thank you so much for your time today.

Nicola

Thank you so much for having me.


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