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THE CHAIN

 

The Chain is a series of one-to-one conversations between authors discussing the business of writing.

 

Fanny Blake and Veronica Henry talk about their writing lives, coming up with titles, managing a cast of characters, the Internet and much more besides

Fanny started the conversation

 

You’ve written ten novels, The Long Weekend being the latest, with The Beach Hut and The Birthday Party most recently before that. Which comes first – the idea or the characters? 

 

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The setting always comes first for me, because a sense of place, of belonging somewhere, is vital to me when I write. The Beach Hut was ideal, because it brought together lots of people in an idyllic location and they all had different stories. The Birthday Party was more about the world the characters moved in than a particular place – I wanted to explore what it’s like to bring up a family in the media spotlight. My latest novel, The Long Weekend, is set in a Cornish boutique hotel, and follows what happens to the various guests as they check in for the weekend. Anything can happen in forty-eight hours once you get a breath of sea air – and it does! But as well as a setting, I usually have a theme or a particular character to build it around, as a setting does not a story make. For The Long Weekend, the central story is about what happens when The One That Got Away walks back into your life when you least expect it. It’s a layering process, really – setting, theme and characters are of equal importance – but I definitely start with the setting.

The setting often gives me the title – it does what it says on the tin, so to speak! But I love your titles – they are intriguing and definitely make you want to pick the book up. Titles are so important these days, especially in a digital age when you often can’t judge a book by
its cover. Does the title come easily to you – is it, in fact, your inspiration – or do you spend hours agonising? 


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fanny blakeFanny Blake

Women of a Dangerous Age

by Fanny Blake

published by Blue Door

 

The Long Weekend

by Veronica Henry

published by Orion

veronica henry Veronica Henry


 

With the two novels I’ve written so far, the titles did come easily. I had written quite a lot of my first and was worried that I only ever referred to it as ‘the unspeakable’. I thought it was about time I found it a self-respecting title, so I asked myself the obvious question, ‘What is this novel about?’ And the answer came straightaway – What Women Want – and it stuck. I was slightly worried that there had been a film of the same name, but fortunately my publishers and agent weren’t. I think the time gap between the two was long enough for it not to matter. As for the second novel, I was explaining to my agent that it would be about ‘two women of a certain age who are remaking their lives’ and her immediate response was ‘Women of a Dangerous Age – great title’. And I agreed. So I have her to thank for that. The third one does have a title that I hope is pretty strong too, but I’m keeping it to myself for the moment! Each time, I’ve found that once the title’s in place, I can focus better on what’s happening in the novel and on the characters’ actions and motivations. So for me it helps a lot.

In your recent books, you’ve brilliantly handled quite a number of principal characters at once. How easy do you find that? Does your background in script writing help? 

 

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Script writing has helped enormously. Working on long-running shows that eat up material – television is a hungry beast – taught me how to generate material and get the most out of stories. And in television, structure is king. You have a limited time in which to tell your story, so you have to make sure you keep the pace up – you can’t just wander off and please yourself the way you can in a book, so you have to follow pretty strict dramatic rules. If you lose the viewers’ interest they will turn over to another channel. So yes, my television background helps keep me focused, and it definitely taught me how to keep lots of different stories on the boil. In an episode of Holby, for example, you have at least three different plot strands unfolding over an hour – the consultants, the patients, the nurses – all intertwined. And I do like to have a lot of characters and plots in my books. I’m not sure how I would cope with a single protagonist at all!

You were a publisher in your ‘former life’ – has that been a help or a hindrance to you now you are an author? Has it made you hypercritical of your work, or do you think it helps speed the process up, because you know the mistakes to look out for?


 

It’s been both a help and a hindrance. A help because I was lucky enough to work with many fantastic authors who showed me that there’s no right or wrong way to do things, just the way
that suits you best. I also learned from them the importance of finding your voice (even if it’s not the one that you’d imagined it might be!), and of course about structure, character and plot development. Although, having said I learned about those things, it’s not as easy to put them all into practice. All sorts of things get in the way to prevent the book in my head being the one that ends up on the page. And yes, one of those hindrances is me being hypercritical of my own work and being worried that it isn’t good enough. Another is that I know too much about what can go wrong. I’ve seen marketing plans not happening, budgets being reallocated, books losing their anchor in the system when an editor or publicist leaves, interest waning in books when the ideal jacket solution can’t be found, and books with huge in-house support that for no explicable reason don’t succeed. At the same time, the market has changed dramatically since I was a publisher so I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of what I think I know is probably way out of date.

One of the biggest changes comes of course from the Internet and the opportunities it has given to both writers and publishers. Over the course of ten books, in what ways has it made a difference to you? Do you find the social networking and online self-promotion a distraction or do you enjoy it?

 

 

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Ah. The Internet. Something of a double-edged sword. The Internet can be an immensely useful tool – certainly for research, with information available at the touch of a button. If, for example, my characters are in a particular restaurant, I can just click on the website to find exactly what they would be able to choose from the menu. Social media are also brilliant for networking and promotion – you would be a fool in this day and age not to use it as a marketing tool. I’ve also made some wonderful new friends via Twitter, which definitely fast-tracks relationships. But – and this is a huge but – the Internet can also be intrusive, addictive and distracting. I think many writers would agree with this. So much so that many have had to download an app called Freedom, which locks you off the Internet for a prescribed amount of time. It’s just too easy to wander onto Twitter or Facebook and see what people are up to, then get embroiled in conversation.

But then most writers are all too happy to look for reasons not to work. It’s fear of the blank page. Do you feel this fear, and how do you deal with it?


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Almost every day. So I put off writing by doing things like answering this question until I can’t any longer. My only way of dealing with the fear is to sit down and make myself face it, often switching on Freedom to help. The distraction of the Internet is a wonderful but terrible thing. Usually though, however hesitantly I start, something kicks in and the words begin to come, often not exactly what I’m expecting and sometimes taking the novel in another direction but at least once something’s down, I can change it. I aim to write at least 1,000 words each day, sometimes I do more, sometimes less, but the important thing for me is to keep pushing forward.

But although there may be difficult moments, there are loads of good ones too. So, lastly, what are your favourite things about being a novelist?  

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I love being my own boss – knowing that I don't have to ask anyone for time off if I want to go to a nativity play, for example. I love knowing that every experience I have might come in useful – no drop of vintage champagne has ever been wasted: it will turn up in a book somewhere! I love not having to dress up for work. I love the friends I have made – other writers whose wisdom has stopped me going mad and who make me laugh. Most of all, I love knowing that I've provided an escape for people, somewhere for them to hide from the reality of everyday life. That's pretty special, to know you give pleasure. How about you?


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That pretty much says it all for me too, except to add that, having spent years battling my way through the London rush hours, I also love not having to commute in the morning. I don’t miss working in a big office at all and enjoy working on my own, to my own timetable. I get enormous pleasure from conjuring up characters I love or love to hate and creating other worlds that I can escape into every day. It’s quite a privilege.

 

 

 

Over and out. 


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