Part 2 of my Q & A with Lia Weston, in which she talks about her writing process. To find out more about the story behind her latest book, Those Pleasant Girls, click here.
Monique: What have you learnt from the experience of writing and publishing a novel?
Lia: That the first thing everyone asks you is, “How many pages is it?” I have no idea why this is important, but it’s something I’m asked frequently enough to be mystifying.
In a more useful bent, I’ve learnt the following: taste is very subjective; movement helps free up your thoughts; always say your dialogue out loud; you don’t need an agent to get published; if you’re a woman, people will assume you write children’s books; pray for a good cover because if you get a bad one there’s very little you can do about it; and always be kind. The subjective note is probably the most important—it goes for publishers and agents as well as readers.
Monique: What are some of the challenges writers face today?
Lia: It’s dispiriting that there are so few funding opportunities for writers, and very little chance to make a living from writing alone—most of us also need a day job, which can be frustrating from a time/energy/creativity standpoint. (Though I admit the up side is that you learn very quickly how to leverage any available time. One must go after the muse with a net and a stopwatch.) There’s also the pressure from traditional publishing to sell well quickly; years ago, authors were given the leeway to develop an audience over several books, but now the hope is that you can get that audience straight away. (It’s understandable: publishing is a business after all.) However, there are so many opportunities now which never existed before to get your work out there yourself. Self-publishing just seems to be growing exponentially, and I think it’s a huge boon to be able to create and release something without anyone else’s assistance, especially if you write in a very niche or expert field.
Monique: How do you start a new story?
Lia: Story concepts tend to come when something makes me annoyed. There’ll be a seed of an idea stuck in my teeth for weeks. I don’t tend to write things down straight away; I let them percolate in my subconscious until a scene occurs that makes my fingers itch. At that point, I’ll start writing and will sketch out the scenes I really just want to read. At this point, the book is still only for me; it’s completely indulgent and fun. After a bit of this, I’ll sit back and review it all to see if the bones of an actual story lie underneath. If I can see a skeleton, I’ll keep going.
Monique: What have you learnt about writing over the years?
Lia: You have to find a process that works for you, and you only do that by trying different things. I’m a visual person; I need to actually map things out by hand so I can see at a glance where the plotlines are going. (One day I will remember to buy a whiteboard.)
I’ve also found that it’s hugely useful to act scenes out, even though you look like a lunatic at the time. Doing this not only gives you a better idea of people’s natural movements but can also highlight physical inconsistencies in your directions. A girlfriend once got so cross while reading a love scene that she grabbed her partner to see if what was being described was physically possible. (It wasn’t.)
Overall, reject any writing advice that purports to be an absolute truth; what worked for Brontë or Tolkien or Salinger or your tutors or that person in your writing group may not work for you. (Except ‘be kind’, and that applies to all walks of life, really.)
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment?
Lia: I do freelance editing for a small group of arts clients, and have been working through a few projects for them. Arts editing is fascinating—I’ve learned a lot about it (which is easy, really, when you know almost nothing to start with) and also discovered some incredible artists and exhibitions along the way. Carol LeFevre, an excellent Adelaide-based author, always emphasises the importance for writers to ‘fill the creative well’ through regular consumption of poems, short stories, essays, and art, and I’ve taken this advice to heart.
Monique: Where did your desire to write spring from?
Lia: When I started writing poetry as a kid, my driving force was to entertain my father. At university, I wrote my friend’s essays to help them out, and as a way of learning about different areas of study to my own. (Even I can get tired of monkeys.) All three of my novels, however, seem to have come out of the desire to right some particular wrong. The Fortunes of Ruby White tackles fake psychics and the cult of inspirational health (and is actually weirdly prescient with some things such as the rise of Paleo and clean eating, seeing as it was published in 2010). Those Pleasant Girls looks at the way mothers are judged, as well as the politics of committees and small towns. The third book I can’t divulge yet, but, again, it’s risen out of something that has bothered me enough to dedicate 80,000 words to pulling apart. I may not be able to fix these things in real life, but I can do it on paper.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Lia: Forget the problem of free time or losing inspiration—doubt is the biggest, biggest, biggest killer of creativity. The only way I get past it is to block it out. (Repress, repress, repress; it’s my family’s motto. No wonder we’re all a bit twitchy.) If I get genuinely stuck, I have to get out of the house. I take my dog and wander through the park. Things tend to tick away in the back of my head, and often by the time we get home, the stuck piece has shaken itself loose. A lot of writers use this trick. (Though Stephen King got hit by a truck while on one of his walks, which I don’t recommend.) I can’t explain why it works, but it does.
Monique: What’s your typical writing day like?
Lia: There are two of them. For the first type, I get up at stupid o’clock to go to the gym, then work from 8.30 am to 6 pm at the bicycle repair workshop I run with my husband. When I get home, I walk the dog, clean the house, and cook dinner. I try to cram as much writing in as possible around these things, whether it’s making notes on the kitchen bench while trying not to burn things or nutting out character issues while preventing my dog chasing possums. Afterwards, I fall into bed and try not to worry about plot points. For the second type (otherwise known as ‘Sundays’ as I work six days a week), I stuff myself with pancakes and then lock myself in the study for eight hours to write. I use the Pomodoro technique, which reminds me to actually move around or risk my limbs locking up like an eighty-year-old’s. My dog sleeps under my chair. I find his rhythmic snoring quite soothing. Otherwise I like to listen to recordings of vacuum cleaners. (Don’t ask.)
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Lia: That you will write real-life acquaintances into books. People seem to have a fear that they’re going to open up a novel and find themselves on the pages. It doesn’t happen. (Weirdly enough, it’s only the dullest types who harbour this particular paranoia.)
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Lia: That you have to write primarily for yourself. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that goes for people in the publishing industry as much as it goes for readers. If you’ve done your best work, that’s something to be proud of, regardless of whether or not you get published (indeed, if that is what you wish). It’s much easier to shake off a rejection if you’re happy with what you’ve produced; it’s a bit like a suit of armour.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Lia: Procrastination, which is technically before I write. I have to clean the house. I have to wash my face and hands. As far as I know, I do not have a disorder.
Monique: What do you think about the phrase ‘write what you know’?
Lia: Don’t take it too literally. If that was the case, I’d be writing about running a bike shop or The Cure’s back catalogue (1979-1992). However, I think the core idea of ‘write what you know’ is actually about emotional truth. You might not know what it’s like to sail unchartered waters or fly to the moon, but you will know what freedom or fear or fury feels like; if you use these emotions to underpin your work, people will respond to that authenticity. Of course, this doesn’t discount the fact that you must do your research properly, but if people aren’t connecting at the heart to your story, they’re not going to care how many hours you spent investigating rock-climbing crampons or what kind of collar a Regency coat had.