Yesterday we published part 1 of our interview with Elizabeth Haynes, whose debut novel Into the Darkest Corner deals with domestic abuse, obsession and OCD, and she discussed writing crime and suspense fiction. Today we have her hard-won advice for other writers starting out.
She completed the first draft of Into the Darkest Corner, her first published book, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2008. Did she set out to write a publishable book from the start? “No, definitely not! When I first heard about NaNoWriMo in October 2005 I was very excited by the challenge. I’ve always written but never anything full-length, what this did was to give me permission to write and not stop, not to worry about the quality or fuss over the plot.”
“NaNoWriMo has to be fun, otherwise it’s not really worth doing. If you set out to write something for publication I don’t think it would be nearly so much fun to participate. Even now, with a publishing deal for future books, I have to write in November as though it’s just going to be for me to read, otherwise I think it would be overwhelmingly scary.”
“I’d won three years of NaNoWriMo before I did actually manage to finish a story, though, the others were all still mid-plot by December, and even after five months of trying to edit it myself it took my cousin to say to me ‘why don’t you send it off?’ It hadn’t been something I’d considered as a possibility until then.”
Writing may have a reputation for being a one-person job, but Elizabeth find that other people’s views and opinions are vital to help her get the best from her plot. “It always helps me to discuss it as it evolves an awful lot through the writing and editing process. Talking about it sparks new ideas and helps me see what the underlying themes are, and which bits work – or don’t. I think this is because I always write at speed, without anything other than a germ of an idea to start me off.”
“Writing is a very solitary business but it’s only when you share your work with other people that you can start to make it better. I would advise joining a local writing group – or starting one – and listen to feedback when you can. Try writing in different genres to stretch your literary muscles. And write-ins (where you meet other writers and, basically, write) can really help to get your creative juice going. Being answerable to other people helps you maintain focus!”
Elizabeth loves to write and meet writers, but it’s not just enthusiasm that makes a great book; she recommends getting the experts in for a dispassionate read and further development. Even if that’s nowhere near as much fun as the writing itself! “I think my biggest hurdle is always the editing process. I can write a good-ish story, develop some cracking characters and finish it with no real concept of where it’s all gone wrong. I’m lucky to have a brilliant editor who seems to have an almost magical insight into how to make things better.”
It’s not just editors she asked for an opinion; her second novel, Revenge of The Tide, is about a woman is an office worker by day and pole dancer in an upmarket club by night. While Elizabeth has the background in office work, pole-dancing wasn’t in her repertoire. “I did actually go along to pole fitness classes. This was so far out of my comfort zone it was ridiculous – I’m 40, a mother of one and definitely not built for fitness classes of any sort – but the instructors and the other girls in the class were brilliant and welcoming. I did the warm ups with them (which just about killed me) and then watched them do the rest of the class, sitting on the floor of the studio with my notebook, drawing stick figure representations of the moves.”
“Having watched pole dancing on television (and inspired by a pole dancer who was on Britain’s Got Talent) you would think I had all the information I needed – but I’m so glad I did the class as I learned a lot of things you wouldn’t necessarily realise – such as the friction burns you get on the inside of your thighs, and the fact that the poles in clubs are thicker than the ones used for pole fitness. If I experience things like this, I can write about them. I did also have a long phone conversation with a former dancer, who let me in on the secrets of what it was like in the world of gentlemen’s clubs.”
It wasn’t her first time trying to get into the head of a character with different views; In The Darkest Corner’s main character, Catherine, suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) brought on by trauma. Elizabeth not only had to understand OCD but write about it in a way that made a reader understand it too.
“I’ve had very positive feedback on it, which I’m relieved about because I have no direct experience of OCD, other than that I’m on that continuum – as I think we all are – which starts with little habits and supersitions, like counting your steps or avoiding ‘unlucky’ numbers. I had a lot of help from a dear friend who is a consultant psychologist. She recommended me some books, which included not only treatment protocols but case studies of people who have OCD. I think obsession is something we can all relate to because everyone experiences milder versions at some point; compulsion is something else, the fact of having no option but to behave in a certain way, even as an intelligent, outwardly ‘normal’ adult. That was very difficult to write and I’m still not sure it comes across.”
“I think sometimes characters come to me quite easily, other times they take a bit of coaxing before I know them well enough to tell their story. I have two characters in my latest book who are either socially inept or socially phobic, and it’s been difficult to draw them out enough to get a clear sense of who they are. But knowing their world, knowing what it’s like for them to live, definitely makes things easier.”
Her characters aren’t always 100% fictional. “I always use at least one real person’s name in each book (with their permission!). With Into the Darkest Corner, it was Naomi, my friend and fellow police analyst. My third book contains a character named after a friend on Twitter, who insisted on being used thus! Revenge of the Tide has a character called Robby Nicks who is actually my next door neighbour!”
Her readers – and her neighbours – will be relieved to hear that while she occasionally draws on real-life for ideas, that’s not the case with her portrayal of Robby. “He isn’t a baddie in real life!”