How long have you been writing? Has writing always been something you wanted to do?
I don’t know when writing first got into me, but I became aware at quite a young age that I was supposedly disposed to it. Teachers commented that I had an overactive imagination; I was never happier than when in the company of page and pen. Penpals were treated to long and glorious texts, which they may not have appreciated quite as much as I enjoyed producing them.
My grandfather died and left a skinny portable typewriter with no letter T: “From ha day my bedroom resounded to furious hunder.” By backspacing I overlaid an l on an r, and then I was rattling away – though my oeuvre at the time was mainly science fiction, because it annoyed everybody, and especially my teachers. In particular the A-level English Literature teacher, who we all quailed before. While other teachers just taught, she evangelized, got inside her subject and made you believe literature was life itself, the single most important invention on the whole of planet Earth.
At the end of the summer term that year, there was a party. My English Lit. teacher cornered me, wanting to talk about the essay I’d done in the recent exams. I shuddered, wondering what crassness I’d committed. “You should write novels,” she said. And she meant me to take her seriously.
What books or stories have you written?
I’ve ghostwritten nearly a dozen novels, but can’t tell you their names as they were written in secrecy. But I have two literary agents for my own work.
I have a writing book – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. It’s a short book to help you write a long one.
I’ve seen a lot of lengthy tomes about novel-writing, and I know that real writers would rather spend their time getting a novel finished, not procrastinating with instructions.
I’m also a book doctor and understand the panic a writer feels when I tell them they need to unravel their structure, or up the pace, or strip out the back story, or do more research, or use their material to serve the story, or merge characters, or sort out how many Tuesdays are in a week. I know they need a process to take their sprawling material and make a well-controlled novel, and to give them confidence if they have to change anything. So I wrote a book to hold their hand. You read a bit, do as it says, read a bit more… and follow until you have a finished novel.
I’ve also got a contemporary literary novel – My Memories of a Future Life. It was inspired by stories of past-life regression, where people are taken to a former life under hypnosis to try to solve a problem they have now. I thought, instead of going to a past life, what would happen if you went to the future? The person you contacted would have the problems gathered by you right now. And who would do that? It would have to be someone is scared her life is over now.
I was also inspired by the world of classical music. It’s an incredibly demanding life, and you could argue that playing a classical piece is almost like channelling the soul of the composer. I simply had to put the two of them together – and I wrote a story about a classical musician who is injured and can’t play any more, so she seeks help from a hypnotist.
I have another novel, Life Form 3, that I’m currently revising. It’s aimed at middle grades upwards – the kind of novel you could read from age nine to nine squillion. I can’t say anything else about it because it’s a high-concept idea, but you can expect similar preoccupations with truth, love, loss and questions about the nature of souls.
I don’t fit easily into genre slots. My writing book was considered too short by most publishers, even though its virtue is that it’s exactly the information a writer needs, no more and no less. My novel is literary but publishers were worried that it has a dash of science fiction. In fact it doesn’t – it’s no more science fictional as Margaret Atwood. But publishers don’t like new writers to bend genre rules.
Publishers also don’t like you to step outside the pigeonholes they already know you for. So because much of my ghostwriting was teen thrillers, agents and publishers assumed that was all I could do. That’s terribly narrow-minded because most writers can turn their hands to a number of styles and genres.
Is there any advice you have been given that you could give to a young up-and-coming writer?
1. Learn your craft as well as you can.
2. Don’t be in a rush to self-publish, even though it’s as easy as pie. In fact, I recommend writers to try the conventional publishing route first. Querying agents is the way to test if your work is up to standard. If you have near misses, the agent will tell you what you need to work on – and that advice is free. If you never hear from them or you only get form rejections, you’ve probably got a way to go and should probably work on your craft. An agent may end up not taking you on, and you may have to query a lot of them, but if you can’t get detailed attention from them at all you probably aren’t ready to publish on your own.
3. Read a lot. That’s how you learn, by observing how other writers work their magic on you.
4. Gather other writers around you who can help you improve. Learn how to critique and find people who write what you want to write. Good, trusted critique partners are a writer’s best friends – they will tell you where you’re going wrong and what you’re doing brilliantly. They’ll also help you get back on the horse again after a knock-back from a publisher – which happens to us all.
Do you think writing has any benefits, and if so what would they be?
Writing is a personal quest. Some people write as therapy, to work out problems. Some write to create a memorial to an important time of their life, or a person. Some people write because it’s the way they feel most able to express themselves. I’m probably in the latter category. In real life I’m shy and private. I overthink, and I’m bothered by obtuse ideas that don’t make sense to anyone else. On the page I try to make sense of everything – and create something that shows people why I found an idea so important.
Has writing made you a better person? Was there a point in your life where writing helped you deal with something, a death or a problem relationship perhaps?
What an interesting question. I probably can’t say whether anything has made me a better person; it’s not for me to judge. To understand the characters I write I’m sure I have become a more tolerant person, because I like my fictional people to be fully rounded, even when they are villainous.
I don’t think I’ve used writing to solve a problem as such, but I do realize that in the course of a novel I’ve come to understand more about what drives me. That makes it sound as though my characters are me in disguise – they are not, of course, but I use elements of my personality as a way to understand them. And so they end up making me see my own life – and the people around me – a little more clearly.
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She blogs at nailyournovel.com and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for more normal chit-chat follow her at @ByRozMorris.
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available in print and on Kindle.