Crime authors spill their guts about writing...

This week: Fiona Cummins

Tell us about yourself.

I've been a journalist all my working life, most notably at the Daily Mirror, where I spent 12 very happy years. My job as a showbusiness reporter meant I got to travel a lot and meet some of the most famous celebrities in the world, including Michael Jackson and George Clooney. But after having my second child, I was desperate to discover whether I had it in me to write a novel. After hearing about the Faber Academy's Writing A Novel course (alumni include SJ Watson, Rachel Joyce and Renee Knight) on the radio, I applied for a place and RATTLE, my début crime thriller, was born. It's due to be published by Pan Macmillan in February 2017 and I'm currently working on its sequel. It's also been optioned for a TV series.

How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?

I believe names are so important and I choose them very carefully. To me, names are much more than a handy label. Names can conjure up age, era, personality...I love memorable and distinctive names. Think Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. Or Detective Inspector Rebus. Equally, a very ordinary name can be used to signal something interesting about character too. I'm always on the lookout for unusual names, and I squirrel them away in my notebook.

How do you go about plotting your book?

Mmm...this is an interesting one. I'm only on my second book so I'm still feeling my way, but I've discovered I'm not much of a plotter. I feel I ought to be; heck, I'd love to be, and I think it would make life so much easier, but the truth is, plotting out novels bores me rigid and (for me) strips all the excitement from the process of writing. 

In my head, I have a loose idea of the structure of the novel, and two or three critical events, but the joy is in the discovery of how the words fall on the page and the path the story takes. 

 

Of course, this means I often have to rewrite sections if a brilliant new idea occurs to me, but I'd rather do that than jot down a synopsis of every chapter, and discover I've written the story out of my head before I've even begun.

Where do you most like to do your writing?

Anywhere and everywhere. In bed. On the sofa. In the study amongst the drying washing. I write on the train and in the car (when I'm a passenger, obviously!). I've even been known to finish off a chapter at a children's party, and once, at the cinema. I also love working at my local coffee shop, watching faces come and go, and listening to interesting conversations. I write best early in the morning, but I'll also get up at 4am if the words are burning a hole in my mind. So many years of being a newspaper reporter and filing stories on the run means I'm able to write in most environments, which is helpful, given I have two noisy children.

How easy/hard was it to get your first break?

I was lucky. I had a very supportive partner who encouraged me to grab hold of my dreams and apply to the Faber Academy. I was worried about the cost of the course, but we both saw it as an investment in the future, although I realise now how naïve I was about publishing, and how there are absolutely no guarantees. 

At the end of the course, an invited audience of agents and editors listened to us read from our manuscripts, and I was thrilled to receive multiple approaches. When the book was finished about six months later, I sent it off and was lucky enough to receive several offers of representation. After working on it with my agent Sophie Lambert of Conville & Walsh, it went out to a handful of publishing houses, sparking auctions both here and across Europe, which was beyond exciting.

What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?

Keep going. It sounds obvious, doesn't it? But when I was starting out I convinced myself that if I didn't get the opening right, it wasn't worth continuing. But those two simple words, spoken by Richard Skinner, Faber Academy's Director of the Fiction Programme, completely changed the way I viewed my work-in-progress. I discovered that it didn't matter if my first draft was rough around the edges, or something I had written six chapters earlier no longer made sense. It was about putting the words on the page and realising that I had the stamina to finish a novel; it was about not getting seduced by a shiny new idea but seeing something through to the end. It also made for a better book, because it's much easier to write a powerful opening when you know the ending.

What/who are your writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?

I have very eclectic tastes. I'm a huge fan of crime fiction by established writers like Val McDermid, Peter James and Ian Rankin, but I try and read as many crime débuts as I can too. I also love thrillers by Harlan Coben and Thomas Harris, and Stephen King is one of the reasons I'm writing today. Psychological suspense, when done well, is so compelling. But I love contemporary literary fiction, too, and sometimes I need a breather from all the darkness, especially given the nature of my own writing. Again, I try and read as many books from début authors as I can manage from Joanna Cannon (The Trouble With Goats and Sheep) to Kate Hamer (The Girl In The Red Coat). There is so much talent out there.

Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?

I'm not a believer in that old adage about characters running away with a story. I like to think I'm always firmly in control of their behaviour. That said, I'm continually surprised about my ability to put words on the page, especially when my writing is going well.

FIONA CUMMINS, author of RATTLE, is interviewed by Barbara Copperthwaite

What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?

The best: The sentence 'We've had an offer on your book'; being paid to make up stories; meeting lovely writerly folk; doing your job in your pyjamas; having the support of seasoned industry professionals; attending events and chatting to readers; seeing your words turned into an actual book; seeing said book on the shelves of shops; typing ' The End'; drinking tea and eating biscuits all day. 

The worst: Self doubt.

What’s the secret of your success?

I guess it depends on your definition of success (I feel less a success and more a bag of nerves), but I do realise how fortunate I am to be paid for doing something I love. If there was a magic formula, I wish someone would share it with me, but I do believe there are certain qualities it's useful to have if you want to become a writer. Talent is all very well but tenacity, self-belief, originality and the ability to get the words on the page are just as important. And luck plays its part too. 

A very senior publishing executive once told me that she sees so many writers lost in the wrong story. I've also heard anecdotes about excellent books being turned down because a publisher bought something similar the week before. The point is, try not to take rejection personally. It's that phrase again, keep going. Because when you finally land your deal, success will taste so much sweeter.