Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. For those of you who are not a member won’t be aware that the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit the clubhouse is via membership or an invite to the clubhouse tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation I’ve had with a guest over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, about their work in progress, or latest book release. I’ll be talking to all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers.
Today, I’m chatting to Helen on the launch of her book, Facade by Darkstroke. Welcome and congratulations, Helen.
Thanks so much for inviting me into the clubhouse Tearoom, Paula. I’m all the happier to be here because I have a spa membership (a modest one that only lets me go three times a year at off-peak times). I’ve been paying my membership fee all through lockdown but I doubt I’ll use it at all in 2020. So, to treat myself, I’ve organised a lift today so I can have a drink. Mine’s a gin and tonic – Bombay Sapphire, please.
Of course, you could always use the clubhouse spa after our chat. Here’s our refreshments, so we can start now. First let me ask you when you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?
Despite having done an MA in Creative Writing, I was incredibly naïve about the importance of genre. We didn’t really cover genre fiction on the course – crime, romance, historical and women’s fiction barely got a mention and most of the books we studied as examples of voice/plot/character were classics or literary fiction. I think the course directors wanted to push everyone towards writing the kind of books that win literary prizes. Many of the younger students were writing dystopian novels or something about witches, yet I don’t recall Harry Potter being used to illustrate anything. So, I thought I was just writing ‘a book’.
When I won an award at Winchester Writers’ Festival for the opening pages of my debut novel, After Leaving the Village, part of my prize was a one-to-one with an editor at Little Brown (part of the Hachette empire). She loved the book and described it as ‘high end women’s fiction with book club potential’. So that’s what I said in my cover letter when I started submitting. Imagine my surprise when my eventual publisher said it was a suspense thriller and categorised it as crime! I now write psychological suspense and finally understand what I’m doing because I’ve read masters of the genre from du Maurier, Highsmith and Vine through to contemporary authors like Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Paula Hawkins (Girl on the Train). I’m aware I still write slightly off centre from the formula, though, and this is because I’m aiming to inject some content for book club discussion (not just a write a page turner) and to satisfy my own interest in research.
What writing element do you think is your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?
Going by reviews and critiques, readers say my books are gripping page turnersand have a strong sense of place so they feel they are there, walking alongside the characters. I’m thrilled they think that but I’d like to be more literary in my use of language. Not at the Hilary Mantel end of the spectrum but perhaps a more concise Donna Tartt or, in psychological thrillers, like Tana French (The Wych Elm).
Tell us a little about your latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?
Although I have a new book on the go, I’m keen to tell you about my novel Façade which is published today, especially as it was a long time in the writing. It languished for years in my drawer of forgotten manuscripts while two newer, younger siblings were written and published. I went back to it after a phase of writer’s block.
When I took Façade out of the drawer, I totally revamped the plot but saved some of the main characters – estranged sisters, Rachel and Imogen, their parents and their decaying home, The Old Rectory. The story opens in 1999 when a child tragically drowns at the family home. The circumstances of the incident are hazy. Afterwards, Imogen disappears to live abroad, leaving Rachel to shoulder the burden of supporting her parents through their grief and the disintegration of the family. Fast forward twenty years and Imogen is back – penniless, childless and resentful – in the wake of another surprising tragic accident that killed her husband. As the web of silence and secrecy unravels, Rachel must fight to keep her family safe and find out the truth.
How many unfinished projects do you have on your computer?
Wasted work is frustrating, isn’t it? I rescue everything I possibly can. Some of my incomplete novels are mid-life juvenilia, if there is such a thing, and beyond help. But if I have work that’s half decent I like to recycle it. So, last year I realised I had quite a few short stories and pieces of flash fiction on my computer. Most had been shortlisted or placed in competitions, but not necessarily published (some had, but I checked with the publishers and all were happy for me to use the work again after twelve months). I decided these stories needed to earn their keep so I thought I’d gather them into a collection and try my hand at self-publishing. I didn’t have quite enough stories and flash to make a book, so I added in half a dozen travel articles I’d written about Cuba, India, Thailand and Albania.
I published it as an eBook called Brief Encounters on Amazon for £1.99. It’s sold quite a few copies and, as I put it exclusive with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), every quarter I get an opportunity to run a price reduction to 99p, or to offer it for free for a short time. I’ve not yet tried the free option but plan to do it in September.
Do you write a synopsis first or write the first chapter? Do you plan your story , or let the characters lead you.)
I’m 70% planner 20% pantser and the other 10% is just generally confused. I jot ideas in notebooks, I research, I plan, I draw mind maps and jot down some character profiles. I try out schemes and templates and buy books about plotting that people recommend to me, most recently, Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Before committing to a new novel, I sketch out some kind of a format and write a few sample chapters to see if the idea has legs. Not all ideas have enough content to sustain a book of 90k pages. But once I get going, I ignore all the planning and let the characters lead me where they want to go.
When reading your work through do you ever find that your daily mood swings are reflected in your writing?
That’s an interesting question as I’m currently reading through an ugly first draft of my latest novel and most of the draft was written during lockdown. I’ve sent it to my Kindle to get a real reader’s experience and I’m definitely noticing some bits are plodding, several are more tell than show, while in other chapters the writing is slicker and I can glide through. It might be down to my mood or it could be because of the strange disturbing times we’re living through. I’m fortunate that I don’t normally suffer from anxiety but during the early months of the pandemic I was still listening intently to every news bulletins and worrying about family and friends, so it definitely had an impact on my creative work.
Do you set yourself a daily word count?
When I’m working steadily on a new draft I aim for 1,000 or more words a day but I try to express it as a weekly target allowing for days off, say, 5,000 words a week. I usually exceed this if I can concentrate fully on a project. My favourite time for writing is when I’m home alone but that doesn’t happen anything like often enough. Lately I’ve been focusing a huge amount of time on social media, PR and marketing for Façade, while also signing off edits and checking proofs. It’s hard to find time to work on the new book. That’s why I’m doing the read through – to see if the story inspires me to get back to serious editing.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I’m going to order up my second G &T now because this question takes me into a confessional space and it’s a little bit sad.
Many years ago, in another life, while extricating myself from a difficult, short, first marriage, I wrote some articles about marriage, trust and debt. This was therapeutic for me and, when the original article was published in the Guardian, I used a pseudonym. I was then contacted by Woman’s Hour and invited onto the programme to talk about money and marriage. As it was radio, the pseudonym worked. Soon after, the phone started ringing again with an offer from a TV researcher to appear on Kilroy! Obviously, it would have been impossible to appear on a TV programme using a pseudonym and it would have blown my cover but there’s no way would I have accepted an offer from a show that plumbed the depths of human experience and turned it into a circus, anyway. To think I could have been a reality TV star back in the day – it might have helped my future book sales.
Since then, I’ve always been happy to have my short stories and novels published under my own name. I’m proud of them.
What was your hardest scene to write?
My debut novel After Leaving the Village was a suspense thriller with dark and gritty themes of human trafficking and modern slavery. I’m a passionate advocate of the fight against modern slavery and I’ve since been made an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen which helps survivors of trafficking. I wanted to treat my character, Odeta, with respect and dignity and give her a voice to allow readers to walk in her shoes and recognise that she was an ordinary woman just like you, or me, or one of our daughters. Writing about trafficking meant going into some difficult places mentally because you can’t tell a truthful story and shy away from the horror of the lived experience. I strived to ensure no scene was gratuitous and reviews suggest I got that broadly right. One (male) reviewer said he’d never read a novel where he was so desperate to reach into the story and pull a character to safety.
How long on average does it take you to write a book ?
It used to take me two years to get a book to a polished stage ready for submission. I’ve always been a huge admirer of authors who can turn out a novel a year. Then I discovered some authors are contracted to produce two, or even three, books a year. I would find that sort of deadline enormously stressful. It would suck all the pleasure out of writing and turn it into a factory production line type job. Perhaps I’d change my mind if someone offered me a six figure advance…
I am planning to speed up my output and, from now on, will aim for a book a year. I’m in some great writers’ groups who give generously of their critiquing support, including one group of just three authors, where we have time to give each other’s work proper consideration and feedback and hone it as we go along. Before joining that group I would probably have done a dozen rounds of self-edits before showing my work to anyone.
It’s been lovely talking to you, Paula and your questions have sparked a few memories. I brought my cozzie in case I had time for a swim but, actually, I think I’ll just stretch out on this lounger and soak up the last of the sun.
By all means, Helen. It has been lovely getting to know you better. Once again, congratulations on your novel. I look forward to reading it. Thank you for the chat.
If you want to find out more about Clubhouse Member’s Books don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops too.