Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: C.J. Skuse
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stain glass window. Nah, not really. Actually I’m a fairly average 36-year-old gal from Weston super Mare who grew up behind bars, eats way too many Maoams, failed Maths GCSE three times and spends all her time in churchyards. I am blonde though (on occasion) and I love death sites, dogs and doll houses. I am also a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University so when I’m not writing my own books, I’m helping students to write theirs. BSU is a gorgeous place to work and is where I did both of my degrees. Every time I walk onto campus my spine straightens and I just feel so lucky to be there. I love it more than all the fishes in the sea, which is a lot.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
Character names are always important to me and I spend waaaay too much time thinking of them. Sometimes I’ll just hear a name I like and I’ll use it (as was the case with Paisley - the protagonist of my first YA novel Pretty Bad Things – I was listening to a Scottish weather forecast) and other times I will agonise over them for weeks. The graveyards I frequent on my dog walks are sometimes sources of inspiration when it comes to names too, though I always use centuries-old names out of respect.
In Sweetpea my character was originally called Tamsin but when I heard Fleetwood Mac’s song Rhiannon on the radio, I knew she was meant to be called Rhiannon instead. With my fourth YA novel Monster (set in an all-girl boarding school) I needed to come up with a lot of surnames for the girls and all the named teachers so I very arbitrarily chose rock star names – dead ones for the girls, living ones for the adults. I have a current obsession with the name Marnie for some reason so I devised a character in my WIP just so I could call her Marnie. She’s actually become quite important to the plot too, luckily.
How do you go about plotting your book?
Every single book has taken a different process. At first I was a planner – I did maps, character studies, sketches, graphs, pie charts, the whole nine yards. But as time has gone on, I’ve found I have less time to do that kind of thing. My current process is to do a bit of planning in an A4 notebook, sketch out some character names and a very skeletal plot and then just write it and let it gather pace by itself. Then I print out what I’ve done over and over again as each stage is completed, ‘combing’ it out editorially along the way. It’s an arduous process – it feels a bit like one step forward, two steps back the whole time but I find this is what works for me. George R R Martin talks about writers being architects or gardeners and how it’s important to be a bit of both. I totally agree – it’s good to have a map to follow but I always have to allow for unexpected diversions because sometimes
unchartered territory throws up amazing twists. I’ve found this with my last three novels. In my fifth YA novel The Deviants I had a really flat ending and I knew it wasn’t good enough – then quite fortuitously I caught a random documentary about Shakespeare on TV one night and a much better ending came to light based on one of his plays. It hit me like a punch and I redrafted the entire novel just to suit it.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
I get Writer’s Doubt which is probably just another word for it – those negative thoughts that creep in. You’re not good enough, Why bother writing this no one will read it, Look at her being a bestseller on her debut, You should be more successful by now etc etc. Each novel is me climbing an emotional mountain. I also get days when I’d rather do anything but sit at my desk and it’s always because there’s something fundamentally wrong with a scene I’m about to write – I just don’t know what it is. That, I suppose, is a bit of block. I know what I want to happen but something inside me says it isn’t right and it’s a voice I can’t ignore because it’s always bang on the money.
This happened to me just yesterday in fact. I drove home last night and had a good long think in the car about how to untangle the knot – long drives and dog walks are brilliant for ironing out problem wrinkles away from the drawing board. I thought What would I tell one of my students to do if they had this issue? And the answer came to me – simplify it. The scene doesn’t want to be written because the events it comprises are overshadowing the key thrust of the plot. I was burying the book’s reason for being and I needed to streamline it – remove the obstacle and end that subplot sooner so I could concentrate on the key story question. It was a proper Eureka! moment. I was so excited I nearly crashed the car.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process and why?
Typing The End on that first draft, no question. Dorothy Parker said it best – I hate writing, I love having written. I totally get that. My current WIP has been a pain in the *peach emoji* but I know that reaching the end will be very satisfying indeed. I’m almost there. First drafts for me are like filling an empty swimming pool with cups of water. You pour and pour and pour and you can see it’s filling up but achingly slowly. Then one day, after many many days of pouring your water, it’s full and you can finally see what shape it’s supposed to be. Sometimes it’s too full and you have to start bailing it out again. But you don’t know what you’ve got to splash about in until you finish pouring the damn stuff in. I don’t know if that metaphor works but it’s how I feel most days!
How has your writing style developed over time? And the way that you approach writing?
I think it’s more or less stayed the same – I’ve always written blackly comedic stories with strong dramatic threads running through them. They all have my sense of humour or things
in them which I personally find funny or interesting or which are pertinent to my life. J.K. Rowling said once that often she doesn’t know how she feels about something until she writes about it – she writes to understand. I think I do too. All of my books are along the same off-the-wall lines, except perhaps for my last YA The Deviants in which I enhanced the dramatic spine and pared back the comedy. I’ve always been diluted on content in my YA but with Sweetpea I was determined for that not to happen, which is why I switched to adult this time round and took the straitjacket off. I’d never say never about writing YA again – I have a ton of other ideas I’d love to finish writing - but I fear it would be a waste of time. They may have to be adult novels with teen protagonists.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
Isabel Allende once said ‘Show up show up show up and after a while the muse shows up too.’ This has really helped me with my WIP which has been the toughest book to write so far. It forced me to just get words on the page every single day, even if I think the words are crap. And eventually, after many months of showing up, the muse did emerge. Slowly at first and then full throttle, once that pesky first draft was almost done.
What/who are your writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
Sue Townsend, Chrissie Glazebrook, Melvin Burgess, Kevin Brooks, the Bronte sisters, I love all of them for showing me the way to go – just to be, even if you aren’t writing like anyone else it’s okay because someone will pick you up. They’re all pioneers in my eyes. Over the entire span of my life I don’t think any writer has influenced me more than Victoria Wood though. I’ve adored her ever since I first saw her An Audience With… show on TV when I was about 7 years old - I’d watch it ad nauseum and repeat whole sections of it to my family which they loved. I still watch dinnerladies now and marvel at the precision of her scripts. French & Saunders and Caroline Aherne are big heroes of mine too. I’d kill to be half as talented or clever as any of those women.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
I really enjoy writing dialogue. I like duologues between characters who are antipodal in their belief systems or preoccupations. Any scene with Rhiannon talking to anyone is just a joy to write because she isn’t like anyone she meets and she can be incredibly rude – usually to people who deserve it. I put words in her mouth that won’t come out of mine in similar real life situations.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing is the catharsis I get from rewriting real world exchanges – I can pour all my heartbreak, grief, disappointment and annoyance into my characters and get a papery kind of revenge on the perpetrators. It’s like living through it again in an idealised way. Worst thing about being an author – the bullshit. It’s everywhere and it stinks.
Which book or character are you most proud of creating, and why?
Rhiannon. She helped me get through the worst bereavement of my life when my mum died. She just flew out of me during that whole time. She also got me my first film deal, which has always been my dream.
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
The sequel to Sweetpea