Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Heaven Can Wait by Cally Taylor
Something a bit different today. I don't often review chicklit on this blog, but I'm delighted to make an exception because this month sees the publication of the first novel by a former writing colleague of mine, Cally Taylor. Her book, Heaven Can Wait is a "quirky and enjoyable ghost story" and, to tie in with its publication, Cally has been undertaking a virtual tour, visiting various blogs and writing sites to discuss her book, her writing, her future plans and so on. And today she's dropped in on me, so I took the opportunity to ask her a few mostly craft related questions.
TC: We used to be in an online writing group together, Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp, which was strong on writing discipline and making sure you write, write, write every day. Did you find that useful when you were starting out?
CT: Absolutely! When I was writing “Heaven Can Wait” I wrote nearly every day and finished the (100,000 word) first draft in three months and three weeks. The good thing about doing that was that the story was always in my head. The downside was that it was exhausting and I had to give myself some time off writing afterwards to get my energy levels back up.
TC: And do you still do it? How much do you write/rewrite every day?
CT: No. I still do something to do with writing every day but it’s not always writing or rewriting because I’m so busy promoting Heaven Can Wait. There’s also quite a lot of admin to deal with once you get a publishing deal, not least all the tedious accounts, VAT and National Insurance stuff – and then there’s the not-so-small matter of my day job. Because I wrote Heaven Can Wait so quickly I didn’t really have a social life for four months. I wanted to achieve a healthier balance between my writing world and the real word when I wrote my second novel. This time it took me seven months to finish the first draft.
TC: One of the good things about Boot Camp was the group spirit, which encouraged you to write when you might otherwise not have bothered. Writing can be lonely. Do you still have any support networks like that, or are you on your own, just you and the novel?
CT: Yes, I’m part of some fantastic online support networks. One group, the Novel Racers, was set up by published authors Kate Harrison and Lucy Diamond and the idea behind it was that the writers could ‘race’ against each other to complete their first draft whilst also offering support via a weekly online ‘coffee morning’. The other group, A Story a Fortnight, I set up myself. We try and produce a short story a fortnight (aimed specifically at the women’s magazine market) and have sold over 50 stories in the last 18 months. My own short story output has been a bit lacking recently because writing and promoting my novels take up so much of my time but, hopefully, I’ll be a more active member again once novel two is done and dusted.
TC: One of the things Alex taught was ‘writing drunk’, letting the words and story flow without plotting. In your novel, did you sort out your plot in advance? How difficult was it to do that? How did you go about it?
CT: When I came up with the idea for Heaven Can Wait I knew immediately what would happen in the first seven or eight scenes. I also knew what would happen at the end. What I didn’t know is how the main character would get from A to B. In that sense I definitely wrote ‘drunk’ – I let the character lead me through the novel. It’s a much scarier thing to do for a novel than a short story because novels are so damned long and, if you’re not careful, it can end up meandering all over the place. But that’s what editing is for – tidying it up.
TC: We did a couple of Children in Need 24 hour writing marathons, where we stayed up all night and wrote a different story every hour, on the hour. Would you ever consider doing something like that again?
CT: I really enjoyed participating in the Children in Need 24 hour writing marathons and took part in two (though I didn’t write for the full 24 hours for either of them). I loved the adrenaline buzz knowing that the minutes were counting down and that I had to produce something, anything, to hit my target and get my sponsorship money. I also produced some flashes that really surprised me – stories I’d never have written in normal circumstances (and some of them not bad).
TC: How is writing a novel different from short stories? You often hear people saying that the short story is more difficult because it has to be so condensed, whereas you have more freedom with a novel. But then there’s the plotting thing I mentioned earlier, and maintaining the pace and so on. What is your experience of writing the two different forms?
CT: I find writing short stories much, much easier. I always write short stories in one sitting – I start writing, get carried along with the flow, and keep going until I get to the end. You can’t do that with a novel; you have to keep stopping and starting and hold what you’ve already written in your head for a long time. When you write a lot of short stories you develop an instinct for whether it’s working or not as you write it – with a novel you don’t have a clue until you finish it and read it through. Pace is definitely something that needs to be looked at when you’re editing a novel. It’s very easy for a character to become overly introspective and slow everything down.
TC: You’re now writing chick lit, which is very different from the sorts of things we wrote in Boot Camp. But the act of writing is presumably much the same, whatever genre you are using? Would you agree? Or are you using different skills for your new work?
CT: The act of writing is the same – of course – but the difference is I’ve found my voice by writing chicklit. When I was in Bootcamp I felt a lot of pressure to craft a perfect literary short story and I don’t think that came naturally to me. I write light, dialogue-heavy prose with lots of humour, a good dose of romance and some tear-jerking moments. It’s what I do best.
TC: Although we never knew who wrote what in Boot Camp because the stories were anonymous, I could often tell your stories because you had a distinctive, quirky style, with a lot of tart, even black humour. I seem to recall a story called Bookmunch was yours, and Six Uses for a Hedgehog. Is that element still evident in your writing? How would you describe your style?
CT: I find it hard to categorise my humour and find it interesting that you describe it as tart/black. Personally I think I can be quite puerile at times! As long as it makes people laugh I don’t mind what my humour is described as.
TC: I’m interested in how you approach rewriting, because it’s something I don’t do a lot of. Do you just go back to the start and begin again, reading and rewriting as you go along, or do you read it all again and look for problems, and then fix them? How do you do it?
CT: Funnily enough I didn’t rewrite many of my short stories. They either came out well-formed or they didn’t (and I’d ditch them). You don’t have that luxury with a novel. Unless you are very, very fluky – or you edit as you write – a novel is going to need a hell of a lot of work before it’s good enough to get published. I tend to take my editing in stages – an initial edit to fill in gaps, fix the structure and check the story/character arcs, then more specific edits where I’ll look at tightening up the prose, checking timelines/setting etc.
TC: I read today that Jeffrey Archer has just rewritten Kane and Abel, and in the process he rewrote 25,000 words but cut 32,000 words. Obviously, you’re a much better writer than Jeffrey Archer, but did you find the same thing? Did the rewrite get leaner or fatter? How many of your babies did you have to kill?
CT: The first draft of Heaven Can Wait was 100,000 words long and I edited it down to about 85,000 words before I sent it out. It was cut again – down to 80,000 words – after my agent asked me to work on making it pacier and then increased to about 82,000 words after my editor asked for more description. When I was editing it I killed a lot of the more introspective/reflective scenes because they really slowed the pace down.
I’m currently editing my second novel. Again, the first draft was about 100,000 words. It grew to 105,000 words while I was editing the initial scenes and has since slimmed down to 95,000 words (I’m 65% of the way through the first edit). I’m not sure what the final word count will be but I think it’ll be between 90-95k. Of course then I’ll have to do another edit where I specifically look at tightening up the prose so it’ll probably slim down even more.
TC: You got yourself an agent and, it seems to me, you got your first publishing deal fairly quickly after that. Is that right?
CT: Yes, I got my agent in September 2008 and she got me a two-book deal with Orion the next month. Foreign deals with Bertrand Brasil (Brazil) and Goldmann (Germany) followed quite swiftly and there have been a few more over the last year.
TC: How did you go about getting your agent? Any tips for aspiring writers?
CT: I got my agent by buying a copy of the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and looking through the listings for literary agents who represented chicklit and/or women’s fiction. I drew up a shortlist of six agents who represented successful authors in the genre and sent them a cover letter, synopsis and the first three chapters of my novel (or whatever they asked for).
My tip would be to choose the agents you approach carefully – don’t go for a scattergun approach. Agents receive so many queries a day (the Darley Anderson Literary Agency receive 1,200 a month) that they appreciate it when you show in your cover letter that you’ve done your research and chosen them for a specific reason. If you’ve got short story credits to your name (print publications or competition wins) list the best ones in your cover letter – it’s proof that you’re a writer with potential.
TC: What’s next? I know you’re working on novel two at the moment. Any other ideas bubbling away?
CT: That’s right – I’m currently editing novel 2 but an idea for novel 3 is bubbling away. I’ve also signed up for a screenwriting course. I’m not sure if I’ll actually end up writing a screenplay but I’m a massive film fan and think there’s a lot novelists can learn from how films are written and structured.
TC: And finally, what book or story do you wish you’d written?
CT: There are so many but I’d think I’d have to settle on ‘After You’d Gone’ by Maggie O’Farrell. The structure and story are fascinating and I don’t know a single person who’s read it and not enjoyed it.
Thanks very much, Cally. I notice that I am day thirteen of your blog tour, so I hope it doesn't prove to be unlucky. I was in my local branch of WH Smith today, and there was a copy of Heaven Can Wait on the shelves, so I put it on face-on display for you. I'll go back tomorrow to see if it's been sold... Meanwhile best of luck with it, and hope books two and three go well.