Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Philippa East
Tell us about yourself...
Hello! I’m a fiction writer, living in Lincolnshire with my husband and cat. I began writing seriously about ten years ago; for a long time I wrote short stories and I’ve had a number of these published. A few years ago, I got an idea for a novel: what would happen to a family if their missing child was found – alive – after many years? After a great deal of writing and re-writing, this idea eventually became my debut novel Little White Lies, which was published in February 2020 by HQ/HarperCollins. In my day job, I work as a Clinical Psychologist and therapist, and this background informs much of my writing.
How do you go about plotting your book?
I’d say I’m a “pantser” with a “plotter” inside desperate to get out! Ironically, in my ordinary life, I love order, predictability and a plan. However, when it comes to writing novels, it seems I have to go off-piste. With my first novel (Little White Lies), I began writing with no plan in mind whatsoever. Many painful re-writes followed! With my next novel (my work-in-progress), I wrote a 5,000 word outline (which was signed off by both my agent and editor), but once I’d written the draft, it STILL ended up needing a full re-write! (I’d followed the outline, but somehow it just wasn’t working.) I think I’m learning that I do have a good overall grasp of story structure, so I know the kind of “shape” my novel needs to have. It just takes me a while to dig down into the very best ideas I can use to fill in that scaffolding and find what I am really trying to say.
How long does your first draft take you?
Hmmm, I think there are “first drafts” and “first drafts”… The first draft of Little White Lies took me three months (1,000 words a day). The first draft of my current novel took me just six weeks (2,000 words a day). The problem was that both have then required major, major re-writing – see my answer above! For me, the first draft is just getting a lump of clay down onto the table. It seems that I need to have this “filthy”, quick draft in existence before I can even start seeing what my book is meant to be. The subsequent revisions might then take months to years!
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I’m so excited to say that I recently moved house and now have my very own writing room! This is new to me and I love it. So usually I’m at my desk in there (with the door firmly closed). Sometimes when I am feeling very sluggish, I write in bed so that I can kid my brain that I am “just relaxing”. When it comes to generating ideas or grappling with plot problems, you’ll usually find me tramping through the Lincolnshire countryside on a long walk.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process and why?
Probably whichever bit I’m not doing right now! (The grass is always greener, right?) I think probably it’s the point where all the main building blocks and plot points are in place and working, and it’s a case of editing for flow, continuity, theme, pacing, etc. At this stage, I tend to listen back to my MS using the “speech” function on my iPad while on a long walk. I can “hear” what’s needs tweaking, but it also tends to be the point where the book starts to give me little goosebumps…
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
When I lived in London, I was part of the East Dulwich Writers Group. We’d meet every couple of months to read and give feedback on each others’ work. At one meeting, I shared a short story I’d written… and it fell rather flat amongst the group (it wasn’t working very well). A couple of days later, one of the guys from the meeting sent me a postcard with a Samuel Beckett quote on it: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I found this really inspiring – the idea that we can be improving even while still “failing” (or flailing). This motto cushioned me through the many rejections I’ve received over the years and the many, many re-writes of my novels!
What book do you wish you had written?
There’s a YA book I read as a teenager that has never left me: “I am The Cheese” by Robert Cormier. Incredible suspenseful, it’s also completely heart-breaking, with a very original narrative set-up. All things I aspire to in my own writing.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
As mentioned, in my day job I work as a Clinical Psychologist and I do draw quite generally from this in my writing. As therapists, we hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into what some of the universal themes of the human condition are: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. There are a few past and present hobbies that I’ve ended up donating to my characters: in an early version of Little White Lies, Jess was a gymnast; I’ve sent my current protagonist swimming, and I have an idea for a future novel about a violinist. It’s often easier to write from experience, I find – less need for awkward research!
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing for me is the satisfaction of creating a work of art that I feel proud of and that others may be touched by. It still feels a little like magic to me that we can pluck a story idea literally out of nothing, and turn it into text on a page that dozens, hundreds or even thousands of readers can enjoy. The worst thing is probably the sheer grind and slog of it: sadly, there’s no quick or pain-free way to write 90,000 publishable words!
What’s the secret of your success?
I’d probably put it down to three things. Reading A LOT; being my own worst critic; and the sheer bloody-mindedness to keep bashing away at it!