Liz Trenow, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of nine historical novels shares the nine lessons she has learned along the way. Her latest, Searching for My Daughter, is published by Bookouture.
Lesson one: Writing is HARD!
Writing my debut novel was an adventure. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, fumbling my way in the dark. I had no expectations of getting published; my sole goal was to complete a full length novel (and get my MA in Creative Writing, for which the novel was the dissertation). Now I am a published author, and should be ecstatic. Well, I am ecstatic. But contrary to what you might assume, writing doesn’t get easier with practice. With each novel I am surprised all over again at how difficult it is!
Lesson two: You don’t have to know where you’re going
Some clever people (thriller writers, notably) know exactly where their novel is going. They have whiteboards with post-its and timelines and have carefully planned who-does-what-when-and-where. But you don’t have to do it that way. Lots of writers (including me) start with just a place in mind plus perhaps the idea of an era, or a few characters in a situation, and take it from there. You might know something of what is going to happen and a vague idea about how it might work out, but otherwise it’s a journey of discovery and (I would contend) all the more fun for being so unexpected.
Lesson three: You can write your story in any order
It’s your novel, you can do what you choose. Go on, write the ending, just for fun. You might have to bin it later, but I can bet your life it will give you a better idea of where you want the start, and the middle bits, to go. You can also write the middle bits in any order you like, then re-order them once you have written the ending. Or write the first chapter(s) once you’ve written everything else.
Lesson four: You don’t have to know your characters before you start
The advice you’ll get from people who teach creative writing is that you must know from the beginning everything about your characters: not just ages and what they look like, but where they were born, their favourite foods, music, books, sports etc. Call it a failure of my imagination, but I find this almost impossible before I’ve got to know them myself, ie by writing about them, letting them live their lives, make good or bad decisions and interact with other characters. I try to keep a ‘character folder’ so that at least I can remember their names, birth dates and what their hair colour is. I sometimes look for images of people who look vaguely as I imagine them, and pin them up near my screen. But it’s all a bit haphazard, to be completely honest. What I do know is that by the time I’ve got to the end of the first draft they are firmly in my head as living, breathing personalities. Then I can sort out the details, as needed, in the second draft.
Lesson five: Do not despair
If you are already a writer you will be familiar with the demon that sits on your shoulder telling you the novel is a load of rubbish and you might as well stop wasting your time, now. Ignore him. Writing is HARD, remember. Not as in running an intensive care ward, or mining coal, or teaching a class of disengaged teenagers. It’s psychologically hard because you have to be entirely self-motivated. When you reach that soggy middle (a state not reserved for Bake Off confections), just force your way through it, word by word, sentence by sentence. As a highly successful novelist friend once said: ‘It feels as though I’m just throwing words at the screen and hoping some will stick.’ They will stick, or at least they will get you to the next point and you can return to rewrite them later.
Lesson six: People don’t take writers seriously
At least, not until you win the Booker prize, or you get a film deal in which Tom Hiddleston plays the lead (see below). I cannot count the times people have responded: ‘Oh, you’re a writer. How interesting. What’s your real job?’ Or: ‘Heavens, you’re really churning them out, aren’t you?’ As if I was making sausages, or donuts, or something else that gets churned. Grrr.
If I was a brain surgeon or an astronaut they’d be bursting with follow up questions. As it is, telling them I’m a novelist seems to strike them dumb and their eyes wander in the direction of the buffet or the bar. Or perhaps they think I’m lying, and don’t want to risk encouraging the madwoman.
Lesson seven: don’t expect to earn a fortune.
’Oooh, you must be a millionaire by now.’ Actually, not. This is another myth. Read the stats: average earnings for a fiction writer are less than a trainee teacher.
Lesson eight: film deals are scarce as hen’s teeth
I cannot count the times people have said to me: ‘Your novel is so cinematic, it should be turned into a film.’ My answer is usually along the lines of: ‘If you know a film director, introduce them to me, now!’ And I might add: ‘And if you know Tom Hiddleston, I’m open for negotiation.’
I got close to a deal once, or at least an ‘option’ which is just the first rung on the ladder, and then the ladder fell over because the producer’s previous project ran into financial difficulties. You would not believe how random the chances are. I asked her what had brought my novel to her attention and it turned out that she sent interns out to buy books, read them and report on their film potential. Of course none of the above applies if you are Richard Osman (or another celebrity writer). Me, bitter? Never.
Lesson nine: never complain (at least to people who are not writers themselves)
There’s plenty to complain about (don’t get me started) but just don’t, at least not publicly! There’s nothing more calculated to lose friends than moaning about a situation – ie being a published author – that many would give their eye teeth for. We are a privileged lot. But that doesn’t mean writing isn’t HARD!
If you want to know more about my nine hard-won novels, please go to my website www.liztrenow.com. Or use the contact page on the site to let me know what you find hardest about being a writer.
(c) Liz Trenow
About Searching for My Daughter:
The queue is long, but that barely matters. She is used to waiting. For the midnight knock at the door, for her number to be called, for the next meal of watery soup, the sound of a gunshot… Sustaining her through every moment of waiting, there has remained the tiniest flicker of hope: her daughter Rosa’s face, eyes bright and expectant, arms outstretched.
Germany 1945: Miriam has travelled for over two weeks to reach safety. Exhausted and hungry, she knows she is still one of the fortunate ones. One of the few to survive the camps. Having lost her darling husband and son, the only thing that has kept her walking is the hope of finding her daughter, Rosa.
As she arrives at the checkpoint, she is told it is closed for the day. But in her mind Miriam can hear her daughter’s voice: Be strong, stand up to them. Don’t let anyone bully you, Mum. Standing tall, she comes face to face with the guard and refuses to leave until they help her.
When Miriam is introduced to an English officer named Jack, she describes how, fearing the Nazis, she and her husband sent Rosa to England to marry. It was not a marriage of love but of survival. Now, Miriam needs the officer’s help: if she is to be reunited with her beloved daughter, he will need to help her travel to England.
But as Miriam begins to describe Rosa, there is a look of recognition in Jack’s eyes. As he listens to her story, he is transported back to an unforgettable English summer, to secret picnics in the long grass, and to a love that shaped the man he became. Will Jack now risk everything to help Miriam make the biggest journey of all, back to her daughter and her freedom?
An utterly gripping and emotional novel about bravery, enduring love and keeping hope alive in the darkest of times. Perfect for fans of The Nightingale, Beneath a Scarlet Sky and The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Order your copy online here.