Hack’s hacks for real life interviews

In 1998 I did my first interview for a women’s weekly – I nervously flew up to Scotland to interview a dominatrix who was upset because other mums were blanking her at the school gate. She was lovely – she made me a cheese sandwich and gave me a blue crystal “which aids communication” before explaining how she divided her time between school runs and dribbling hot wax on men’s chests. As first interviews go it could have been far, far worse.

image of a blue crystal

The actual crystal – not sure if it has aided communication but I’m quite attached to it.

Since then I’ve done too many real life interviews to count – I’ve spoken to Elvis impersonators, shagging DJs, lifesaving surgeons, campaigning mums and survivors of domestic abuse. And before each one I’m still nervous. Because until you pick up the phone you have no idea what sort of person you’ll be speaking to. However experienced an interviewer you are, each individual is unknown territory.

And then it’s up to me – the interviewer – to tread the path between what the editor wants, what the interviewee thinks their story is and the truth of the story itself. Get it right and everyone will be happy. Getting it wrong is unthinkable.

Over the years I’ve come up with a few rules to cling to as I head into this wild, wild west situation, so here’s a rough guide from a true life hack…

Get chatting

What makes a story come to life is the characters in it – how did they spend Saturday nights? What’s their favourite takeaway? What makes them laugh? Those are the details which, if cleverly woven in, make a person seem more real, gets the reader rooting for them. So before you jump into the narrative – the when, where how of what happened, take some time to ask about the people involved and what they are like.

Carry the details through

As you gather these details, squirrel them away in your mind and bring them up again later. One young woman I interviewed used to love watching The 100 with her father. Later, when she was struggling to talk about how it felt after he passed away I had some tangible questions to ask her. What was it like watching the show without him? How did it feel to hear his favourite song, watch his football team win? These sound like cruel questions but people respond well to them – it’s difficult to express grief but this gives them a framework for doing it and prompts new stories to come into their minds. That kind of detail also makes it feel more real for the readers without having to resort to cliches.

Avoid talking about yourself

Except in the rarest of cases, this kills the conversation stone dead – especially with celebrities. It’s fine to say something like “oh yes, I’ve got two kids as well, they can be a right handful, can’t they?” But once you start regaling them with tales of Little Johnny’s behavioural issues it changes the dynamic of the chat and leaves the interviewee floundering.

Sweat the small stuff

When people are describing something you can both get swept away on the narrative, then when you go to write it up you realise you’re missing a vital detail. “Then he threw a knife at me,” she says. You’re so shocked and sympathetic that you forget to ask where he got the knife from, whether it was a big scary carving knife or a butter knife, where it landed. Sometimes you have to break the flow to ask this crappy, horrible, unpleasant stuff. If you can’t break the flow, write a note to yourself to ask about it later in the conversation. No, it’s not nice but if you’re going to write a true reflection of what happened you have to know where things are.

Dates, dates dates.

The same goes for when things happen. Before you write a feature create a timeline of events and fill it in as you go – then refer back to it when you’re writing.

Check spellings

I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but I will. There are about eight different ways to spell Tracy.

journalist notepad scrawled with notes

If this was a proper blog, this would be a beautiful handmade notepad with a unicorn pen.

Check your voice recorder. Then check it again.

Once my voice recorder ran out of battery half way through an interview with Julie Walters. It was one of the most mortifying moments of my life – to the extent that I’m ashamed to even admit it here, years later. Sure, I have shorthand but I find my notes don’t capture the nuance of the conversation as well, and it’s a bitch to decipher. The PR had to record the rest of the chat on her iPhone and email it over to me – I was so embarrassed I never told anyone in the office what happened. Since then before every interview I’ve checked the battery life and available memory on my trusty Olympus.

Get some playback software

Words cannot express how much I hate transcribing, speech-to-text software is hilariously bad and most commissions don’t pay well enough to pay a transcriber. So recently I downloaded some playback software to my computer. It’s not perfect but it allows you to slow down, speed up and play back small sections over and over until you’ve figured out what that vital mumbled word actually was.

Respect your interviewee

This person might have done things you would never consider doing in a million years. He or she might live a life you disapprove of or disagree with or just don’t get. None of that matters. It’s up to you to get into their heads and understand why they got that tattoo of Donald Trump on their face. In my day-to-day life almost everyone I meet in real life looks like me, thinks like me and often agrees with me so it’s good to see things from a different point of view and get the chance to meet some amazing people I’d never otherwise talk to. And I get paid for it too! Result.

Why anyone who publishes a book is amazing

It’s easy to slag books off. I do it all the time – as a reviewer I see lots of not-very-good books: novels which are cynical imitations of another title which did quite well a few years ago, novels written to a formula, novels cranked out when the writer had a deadline but was struggling for inspiration. And everyone’s favourite punching bag, Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s fun to slag off books and as a wannabe author it’s encouraging – if this load of old twaddle can get published, so can I. So yes, I do it, I’m only human.

But it’s also deeply wrong and unfair, because every non-celeb person who has ever had a book published deserves huge respect for beating the odds. They have been through at least a dozen agonising and increasingly Hunger Games-esque stages to get there…

To get your book published takes faith determination and a rhino-like skin1: They had a Very Good Idea. You know, just like the one that’s floating round your head at the moment that would be an absolute best seller if only you could find the time to write it all down.

2: They had a Second Very Good Idea which gave the initial Very Good Idea wings. Boy goes to wizard school has potential, but Orphaned boy goes to wizard school where he discovers a dark link between himself and the powerful wizard who murdered his parents is the start of a seven-book series.

3: They found the time to write it down. Hours. Days. Months. In the middle of the night, getting out of bed at 5am, punching it out with their thumbs on their iPhone on a commute. Or even giving up their jobs. Despite all the crap going on in their lives, they found the time.

4: They didn’t give up when they got 30,000 words in and realised that the Second Very Good Idea actually doesn’t work at all unless they go back and unpick everything that happened after Chapter Two. Instead, they went back and unpicked. Or they replaced the duff Second Idea with a shiny new Third Very Good Idea which made it even better.

5: They wrote 60,000 to 150,000 words about Very Good Ideas One and Two (or Three.) It might not be in a genre you like, it might be too light and fluffy or too flabby and pretentious but they wrote the words down. A story now exists where there was none before.

6: Then they edited, going through the whole thing until they were sick of the sight of it, rejigging it, taking bits out, regretting it, putting them back in. They cut things they loved, sliced out whole characters and wrote entirely new scenes instead, all the while not truly knowing whether they were making the thing better or worse.

7: They then sent it to agents. Dozens of ‘em. They received rejection email after rejection email until they wondered whether the Very Good Idea was actually Utter Tripe Idea in disguise. Maybe they took too long writing it and nobody wants dystopian YA stories any more, or a major plot point has been wiped out by the invention of Google Maps. Or maybe they just wasted an immense amount of their time and passion on something nobody wants to read. This could happen, and does – all the time. But if it doesn’t…

More bashing into shape ensues

8: An agent actually picks it out of their slush pile of hundreds, is moved by the words, blown away by VGIs One and Two, and signs them up. More editing ensues. Author and agent eventually agree that book is in good shape. Hooray!

9: Said agent believes in the book enough to haul it all around town to different publishers, or even take it to a book fair and say: “Buy my client’s book, it’s great and it will make money for you.”

10: In order to get a book deal, the author then has to cage fight JK Rowling using only a copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as a weapon. Oh wait, no, that’s just a weird dream I had.

10: A publisher sees the book, likes it and thinks that this is a Very Good Idea, which will possibly make money for them.

11: The publisher then introduces an editor into the mix who undertakes more Bashing Into Shape along with the author who is probably feeling pretty bashed themself by now. Once they’re happy, they haul it around town to the booksellers and supermarkets, convincing them that the author has had a Very Good Idea and that they, too could make money from it.

12: It has been years since the author had the Very Good Idea but it’s stood the test of time, it’s on the shelves. Now the author, the publisher and booksellers all join forces to convince us – the reading public – that the Very Good Idea is worth spending the price of a cup of coffee on.

What a way to make a living!

Seriously, it’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it works in traditional publishing. So to get your book onto shelves and into people’s hands takes an astonishing amount of faith in yourself and your idea, extraordinary discipline and commitment plus a rhino-like skin to deal with all those rejections and edits along the way. So anyone who has ever, ever had anything published is an utter hero. I salute you. And one day, glutton for punishment that I am, I hope to join you.

I wrote a book in three weeks and it changed everything

A few months ago, I wrote a book in the space of a few weeks. It wasn’t a particularly long one – just 12,000 words and it wasn’t a masterwork of fiction poured from my heart through the filter of my amazing literary talent.

In fact if I had to define it, Everything You Need To Know: Kings And Queens Through The Ages is one of those fun books you give to people at Christmas and then spot in their downstairs loo months later. But hey – a book is a book.

A friend put me in touch with a new publishing company which was planning to roll out a whole Everything You Need To Know series and needed writers. I fancied a new challenge and after a couple of enthusiastic emails I had myself a tasty commission. There was one small problem – they wanted the book in three and a half weeks.

All it took was a punishing deadline and the will to ignore my family

And so I was off, researching up a storm. I spent hours in my local library scouring biographies for light-hearted trivia, trawled Wikipedia for leads then disappeared down a wondrous rabbit hole of historical blogs and academic papers. In the process I became an expert on things I’d never been remotely interested in before. I found myself watching The Crown saying things like “Of course Princess Margaret’s been on a bus” or “ooh look, it’s the Poltimore Tiara!”

And as I worked, the words just came – lining up gleefully on the page as I discovered each treasure trove of trivia. It was tons of fun. Of course when this happens it’s usually a sign that the work will need some serious editing later on but the fact remains: at the beginning of the month there was no book – three and a half weeks later, there was one.

By then I was knackered – I’d been doing all my regular freelance work alongside it so had been working until 2am for weeks – but also kind of exhilarated. Because after spending years in limbo with my own novel, tapping out the odd paragraph between commissions, I realised I could write something long-form (well long-ish), and write it fast. All it took was a punishing deadline and the will to ignore my family for set periods of time.

And so, in the weeks that followed I came to a decision. For years I’d been struggling to fit my fiction writing around the demands of a fast-turnaround freelance job, plus the needs of two small children and a raggedy, untidy house. As a result my novel has inched along slowly, sometimes lying neglected in my Dropbox for weeks. It’s time to make a change, to take a run at it like I did with Kings & Queens.

And so from the end of last year that’s what I started to do.  I dropped all freelance work except book reviews – I could never give up book reviews. And while it was incredibly painful it was also a huge relief because for the first time in years I was prioritising the career I wanted.

Having time to concentrate made all the difference

A few months later, I have finished editing the manuscript of my YA crime novel, The Girl Who, and have started sending it to agents. Having the time to concentrate on this project has made all the difference. I know I’m privileged to be able to do it, that I have a husband in work who is able to shoulder the financial burden for a while – many others don’t have that luxury. It’s no wonder the world of writing is so inaccessible for so many – there’ll be a blog on this in the near future as I have a lot to say about this.

Sadly, things did not end well for poor old Kings & Queens. Despite the punishing deadline it’s now languishing in publishing no-man’s-land, like an ageing heir awaiting an abdication, as booksellers didn’t pick it up. But still, it could be the most important book I ever wrote, as it gave me the confidence to carry on.

How to edit your novel on Kindle

It’s been two months since I typed The End on my manuscript. I thought it would feel exciting and wonderful, but actually I felt kind of flat. Because although I was pleased to get to the end of my first draft – SIX FLAMING YEARS after starting it – I also knew there was tougher work to come. I dreaded the process of picking apart my hard-woven words, taking out all those flowery bits which seemed so beautiful at the time and crunching the plot.

Yup, I was dreading the editing process.

There’s just something about scrolling through a Word document which bogs me down. I pick apart sentences and shift words around but it’s impossible to step back and look at the broader flow of the story or check the pacing. Reading on-screen or even in an A4 printout doesn’t feel the same as reading a book.

I had the chance to read my book as the average reader would

Before Christmas I sent the manuscript to a kind, generous and straight-talking author friend for feedback and she asked me to send it to her in ebook form so she could read it on her Kindle. After an initial technophobic panic, I downloaded an app called Calibre which allows you to convert Word documents to .mobi or .epub files so they can work on an e-reader. Self published authors will know this process well, but it was new to me.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had the chance to read my book as a reader would. On a Kindle while sitting on the bus, lying in bed or brushing my teeth (Just me? Probably.)

It didn’t take long to convert the latest version of my MS (instructions are below if you haven’t done it before) and I got a genuine kick out of seeing my words on the Kindle screen. It felt more like an actual book than it ever had before.

Reading in that format prevented me from stopping every few minutes to perform major (probably unnecessary) surgery on an actually-probably-OK paragraph but I could still use the highlight and note features to jot things down as I went along.

It’s been a completely refreshing, new way to look at the book and definitely worth doing if you’re in a slump. Once I’ve finished, I’m planning to keep the ebook in front of me as I make changes which makes me feel one step ahead on the brutal editing process – and one step closer to getting my book off the ground.

How to turn your MS into an e-book (for editing, not self-publishing purposes)

This might be a completely bleeding obvious process for some people, but super handy for others, like me, who are new to this malarkey.

screenshot of calibre app open on a desktop

The Calibre window open on my desktop

1: Download Calibre online. My computer runs on Linux rather than Windows, which is probably why the screen grabs look a bit weird – but Windows versions are available. I used a dummy Masterpiece for the screen grabs – that obviously isn’t the title of my book. I did this because I STILL CAN’T FLIPPING THINK OF A GOOD TITLE FOR MY WIP DAMMIT.

2: Open Calibre and go to Add Books to import your document.

click on Output Format at top left to convert to .mobi

Add a cover then click on Output Format at top left to convert to .mobi

3: Then select your book and click on Convert Books. Go to Output Format and select .mobi for a Kindle. Other readers can run .epub documents. I added a random photo of an Elvis impersonator as a cover, just to see if it worked. It showed up in the actual document but, disappointingly, not on my Kindle homepage.

4: Hook up your Kindle to your computer and drag-and-drop your mobi into the documents folder with your other ebooks. You can obviously try to email it using your Kindle email address but I’ve had patchy results with this.

If you decide to try this too – or have used it lots before – let me know how you get on!

All about being stuck in the middle of a novel with no end in sight

How writers need networks

The Chalk Man: A creepy 80s thriller… a fun book launch

Set in the 1980s and the present day, The Chalk Man is one of my top thriller picks in a pile of chalk man hardbacksmonth teeming with twisty tales. It’s a brilliantly original idea: in the 1980s a gang of kids use chalk figures to communicate with each other. It’s all innocent, although somewhat creepy-looking fun until the day the chalk figures lead them to a body hidden in the woods. Thirty years later the gang has moved on, but has to confront the past when the figures start appearing again…

It’s a killer hook and debut author CJ Tudor has woven a confident, evocative story with great characters and a Stephen King-esque feel to it. It helps if, like me, you grew up in the 80s and have fond memories of Buckaroo, The Goonies and BMX bikes but readers of any age will relate to that feeling of being a child, yearning for adventure and stressing about how much your friends really like you.

There are a few chinks in the tightly-plotted armour but it’s such an absorbing, exciting story that I was completely carried away. Definitely worth reading. I’ve also heard great things about her next novel – involving an eerie abandoned mine in the North of England.

CJ Tudor with publicists jenny platt and laura nicol

CJ Tudor with her fab publicity team

So I was thrilled to venture out of my writing and reviewing cave to attend the book launch last night. It really is great to see a debut author so blown away by the response to her book and to learn that her love of the 1980s is very passionate and real – after five minutes chatting to her I was desperate to go off and rent The Lost Boys again.

Her story is also an inspiration to aspiring novelists everywhere. Caz was running a dog-walking business when she was inspired by her daughter Betty’s chalk drawings on their driveway. As she played fetch and scooped poop, the plot refined itself in her head.

It wasn’t her first attempt at a book – she’d been writing on and off for 10 years and that practice really shows in her writing – her agent admitted she was blown away at the first reading and it went onto become the agency’s fastest-selling debut. The book has already been sold across the world in multiple languages.

So although the book has an unnerving atmosphere, the scene at the launch venue, The Driver pub in North London, was celebratory and full of hope and excitement. I’m looking forward to seeing what CJ Tudor does next.

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor is out now

creepy image of a hangman drawn in chalk

Tales of a book reviewer

I’ve just finished a nine month stint reviewing books for Good Housekeeping. Their Huge bookshelf stuffed with booksBookshelf page is one of the most densely populated ones in monthly magazines – around 15 slots to fill each month and, because obviously not every book makes the cut, you have to dip into considerably more than that.

Some months it was a struggle – I was speed-reading into the night, getting to the end of yet another wannabe Gone Girl and groaning when I realised that the twist at the end was just too stupid. Finishing a review only to find the publication date had changed and I had five hours to find a replacement for the page. Or realising that a novel didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it.

But most of the time it was brilliant. Receiving a pile of review copies in the post never got old – although my postman may have aged prematurely. Attending book launches and chatting with fellow book buffs online made me feel part of a wonderful community.

The process of sorting through a week's #bookpost

The process of sorting through a week’s #bookpost

But the best thing about the job was being surprised. There are plenty of books I expected to love and did love, but nothing beats the feeling of picking something up without any particular expectations and then suddenly feeling a deep connection with it. Here are some which really took me aback:

 

 

In Shock by Dr Rana Awdish We’ve had medic-turned-patient memoirs before, like the amazing When Breath Becomes Air, but the urgency and pace of this really grabbed me. And she has such fascinating thoughts on the doctor-patient relationship and where communication goes wrong.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson – I generally avoid anything which feels a bit hypey. All those books about how great French women are, others urging me to get hygge or live lagom… But the author is so wise and charming. She’s aged “somewhere between the age of eighty and a hundred” and I fell in love with her warm, wry and understated tone.

When will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres?

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain – she’s a big best-seller but I had her down firmly in my head as “not my thing.” Silly me, when will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres? I had a really good time reading this one and the direction of the story surprised me.

And that’s the best thing about my time reviewing for GH – stretching my reading boundaries. When you have small children days and weeks pass without reading anything at all, but this forced me to read – without procrastinating or rejecting a book because I wasn’t in the mood for a particular genre. I tore through romantic fiction, speculative fiction, literary fiction, sagas, bestsellers, poetry, bonkbusters… anything. My brain has been jump-started, my writing has improved (honest!) and now my reviewing time is up (their wonderful books ed is back from maternity leave) I’m planning to keep going and going. Watch this space.

In which I get a short story in print!

At the beginning of this year I nearly gave up writing fiction for good, and here’s the reason why: I wasn’t actually writing any fiction.

I spent a lot of time writing about writing fiction. On Twitter and Facebook. To fellow aspiring-author friends, on the NaNoWriMo forums, even on this blog but it had started to feel fake. And every time I sat back down in front of my work in progress it took me longer and longer to get my head around what I was doing.

I’d add in whole paragraphs of exposition and then realise that I’d already written the exact same thing half a page later, but two years ago. I’d obsess over weaknesses in my characterisation which possibly weren’t there, or try to impose a new sub-plot wholesale. I was writing for half an hour, once every few weeks and that just wasn’t enough.

Publishers don’t care which particular dog ate your homework

There are, of course, lots of excuses. Freelance work, poverty, pregnancy and a little boy who spent a lot of time in hospital when he arrived. Not to mention the huge existential who-the-hell-am-I-now crisis of motherhood. But publishers don’t care which particular dog ate your homework. They’re probably not even going to bother reading your homework unless you make it really, really good.

So I got to the point where I became embarrassed every time someone asked me how my book was going. I didn’t feel like I could write any more. I should just throw in the towel. But writing fiction is something I’ve really wanted to do pretty much since I first learned to write. I really, really didn’t want to quit.

And that’s when I saw BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines competition online. The deadline was in a week’s time so I set myself a challenge, write or die. Finish a short story or shut up about fiction forever.

So I did it – and I also really enjoyed it. The story was, of course, not a winner (winners here: all awesome.) But I finished it, and it read OK. A bit breathless, a bit too much action for a short story, but I wasn’t completely ashamed. And as I wrote I felt more and more certain that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

I’d ignored short story competitions before, thinking that any time spent writing something that wasn’t my novel was time wasted. But that experience made me realise my mistake. Time spent writing is time spent learning, practising and weeding out any bad habits and weaknesses. One of the most common bits of advice bandied around by published authors is: write every day. I think I’d add: write thoughtfully. Twitter and Facebook or anything else throwaway don’t count.

Write every day. Write thoughtfully

But the timing did suck a bit when I first heard about the Kindred Agency’s We Need To Talk project. It was a short story competition open to media types only, with the theme of difficult conversations. Problem was, the deadline was two days after my wedding.

It was crazy, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I carved a few hours out of my hectic flower-choosing, waxing and fake tanning schedule and spent it tinkering around with a very worthy domestic violence story I’d had cooking in my head for a while.

The result was godawful. Two days before my wedding, I ditched it.

Then I started writing about what was on my mind. An insane bride so obsessed with having the perfect wedding and the perfect life that she’s driven her best friends away. I even named some of the long-suffering characters after my friends – until they developed some pretty serious flaws (not related to my real friends) and I had to rename them all.

The result was 2,000 words of pure silliness but I had done it. I submitted the story and, to my huge excitement, it was selected.We need to talk

So in September this year, my first ever fiction story appeared in print. (Buy it here! Buy it, buy it!!) After years of reworking and moulding other people’s words and stories with every paragraph overseen and edited, I’d written something that came straight out of my brain and with a few tweaks it appeared in print. My actual name is actually searchable on Amazon! It was such a joyful feeling.

And no, I’m still not making any progress on my novel. But is my writing progressing? Yes. And that can only be good.

Writers need people too!

Writing a novel is a solitary business, especially when you are unpublished and there is no agent or editor screaming for the manuscript; when you have no idea whether that genius plot twist you’re so proud of is actually agonisingly contrived and when there is no guarantee anyone will actually ever read this thing that you’re pouring your heart and soul into at every spare moment.

After a few years, and three drafts, my first novel had warped into something like an old magic-eye image. I’d stared at it so long I could see the outlines of the plot but not the original detail, or the point I was going for originally. Was each new draft making it better or was I actually making it worse? I couldn’t actually stand to look at it any more.

For years I thought to be a proper novelist you had to work in a secret garret somewhere…

Then I met Diana Bretherick, who won Good Housekeeping’s Novel Competition in 2012, and whose wonderfully dark crime novel, City of Devils, is out this summer. Diana had done a Masters and PhD in Creative Writing and, while the skills she’d learned on the course were useful, the real strength she’d found was sharing her problems with her classmates. That support network had kept her going – thanks to them she’d finished two books, one of which had won the competition.

That’s when I realised I needed to go on an Arvon course. I’d first heard about them years ago and they sounded amazing – residential courses in stunning countryside locations. No internet, no contact with the outside world. Just you and a bunch of like-minded people, plus two established authors who would look at your work and give you individual feedback.

My course was at the Lumb Bank centre in gorgeous Yorkshire, and my tutors were Patrick Gale and Stella Duffy – two fabulous writers who turned out to be great teachers too. There were workshops on plot, character and a slightly toe curling one on sex scenes, which were all hugely helpful.

But best of all was the chance to sit around with a dozen or so other writers and ask questions like “Is my dialogue convincing?” or “I like my character too much to kill him off” without feeling like a pretentious fool. By the end of the week all of us – even those who hated the idea of speaking in public – had read some of our writing out to the others. The criticism wasn’t half as painful as our nerves beforehand!

For years I thought that to be a proper novelist you had to work in a secret garret for years and emerge with your Completed Work – perfectly formed and beautiful. But I know better now. Writing is a messy, emotional, playful, agonising business and, like most of the fun things in life, is best done with like-minded friends.