READING LIKE A WRITER: WHY IS READING IMPORTANT FOR WRITERS?
Each time I’ve given a talk, someone has always asked me about reading like a writer. Personally, I still think of myself as a reader more than writer. It is in reading that you develop an all-consuming appetite for worlds other than your own, that you fall in love with losing all sense of your own time and space, that you begin to aspire to create worlds of your imagination.
Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Louise Beech, an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. Today, she speaks about her writing process, the journey that led her there, and her bestseller success.
- What set you on your journey of writing?
Sadly, it was a need to escape when I was a child. I had a tumultuous childhood – there was alcoholism, violence and mental health issues in the home. After my mum’s suicide attempt when I was nine – when my siblings and I were away in care for a year – I turned to writing. I scribbled stories in notebooks. I didn’t know then, at that tender age, that it was a way to deal with all that was going on. This has stayed with me.
I’m lucky that I happened to be a very good reader, and therefore a pretty good writer. My mother is a French and English teacher, and my father a musician and engineer, so their literary/musical flair pulsed through my veins too. So I knew early on that I wanted to be a writer. It took a long, long time to get a book deal though. Four novels, hundreds of short stories that slowly placed in magazines and won competitions, ten years, many rejections and many tears. But it was worth it when it finally happened in 2015.
- Who are some of the writers or what are some of the books that have most influenced you?
I read The World According to Garp about twelve years ago and it was the book that made me sit down and write my first serious novel. (By serious, I just mean that I took it very seriously, and intended to actually send it out!) John Irving’s book spoke to me. The way he writes – with such heart and comedy and pathos in a voice uniquely his – was exactly what I wanted to do. I also loved The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. To have Death as the narrator is inspired. There was a scene near the end that literally made me forget where I was. Who doesn’t want that from a book?
- What does your novel-writing process look like?
Oh, that varies so much. Sometimes a novel begins simply with a poetic line. Or a character that speaks to me. Or a short scene. Or the seed of an idea. Or just a feeling. Then I wait until it nags at me so much that I have to sit down and write it. For example, with The Lion Tamer Who Lost it was the tragic twist that happens. I knew I wanted to explore such a shocking thing. With Call Me Star Girl it was the antique, cut-glass perfume bottle. With Maria in the Moon, it was Catherine who haunted me until I wrote her. Once a book won’t leave me alone, I start. I don’t outline. Don’t plot. I might scribble thoughts and ideas and odd scenes in a notepad, but other than that, I just set off. I find the story by the physical act of writing. Something … opens up. I am often surprised, and I rarely end up where I expect, but for me that is the beauty of it. That’s the thrill. That’s what brings me back to those chapters, day after day.
- An oft-quoted Vonnegut quote goes: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible’. In your novels, how do you decide how much to tell your reader?
I always tell my readers what is essential to put them in the moment of that scene. They should always feel present. Just a line of two about the place so they feel they are standing next to the character. I always give a character’s backstory, scattered gently rather than in an indigestible lump. It’s imperative to me that the characters are fully fleshed and real. How will a reader care if not? Beyond that, I can be devious of course. I will withhold what I don’t think a reader needs to know yet. Something that might have more impact later on in the book. Often readers figure it out, and I love it if they do, because then I know my foreshadowing has been done well.
5. What writing advice would you give to someone outlining their novel?
As someone who doesn’t outline, I can’t really answer this. I don’t think it’s essential. I’ve certainly managed to write seven novels without doing so. That said, I do write a timeline, simply so that I know what happened when in relation to the story. I would say that this is way more essential than plotting. I have a notepad for each novel, as I begin, and I definitely make notes and scribble ideas for scenes or dialogue in it, but it’s very fluid, very disorganised. Which is odd, because I’m so OCD in real life.
- Could you recommend five novels that you think all aspiring writers should read?
Not so much five particular novels as I hate telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t read, but I’d definitely recommend that writers read lots, and that they read a variety of genres. Read out of your comfort zone. This is where you learn the most. For example, I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as I never read sci-fi – and I adored it. Read books from all eras too, as the differences in language use are a real lesson. Jane Eyre is one of the most beautiful books of all time. Devour everything. Really, there’s no such thing as reading a bad book because everything teaches you, even if it’s what not to do.
- Tell us about your upcoming work.
I’m so excited about it. I Am Dust will be released in April 2020. It was intense to write, and I finished it fast, even though I wanted to savour it and slow down. I started it two weeks after my mum attempted suicide in February. It was, just as in childhood, an escape for me. Therapy. The novel is set in a theatre.
I work in one, so have always wanted to write a backstage ghost story. In the book, Dust is a musical that was huge, but it closed because the lead actress, Morgan Miller, was murdered in her dressing room at the interval. The crime was never solved, and Morgan is said to haunt the stage, singing her favourite song. Now, twenty years later, the show is returning. Chloe, an usher at the theatre, is an unsuccessful writer/actress and is watching the spectacle unfold. It all brings back some dark memories from her past. The book is a love story, a ghost story, and a bit of a whodunnit too.
What is your writing process? What books do you read? Are you reading like a writer? Do you have questions for Louise Beech?
Louise Beech once bet her mum ten pounds that she’d be published by the age of thirty – her first newspaper piece was published at thirty-one. But it took many, many years, many, many rejections, and four novels to finally get a book deal in 2015.
Her debut, How to be Brave, got to No4 on Amazon and was a Guardian Readers’ Pick; Maria in the Moon was described as ‘quirky, darkly comic and heartfelt’ by the Sunday Mirror; The Lion Tamer Who Lost shortlisted for the Popular Romantic Novel of 2019 at the RNA Awards and longlisted for the Polari Prize 2019; and Call Me Star Girl longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and was chosen as Best magazine’s Best Book in the Big Book Awards 2019.
I Am Dust will be released in April 2020, and Louise just finished book seven. She still hasn’t given her mum the tenner.
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‘I Am Dust’ – sounds like a book I will love. I only hope I can remember to purchase it when the time is closer… April 2020 still looks like a long time away
I have bought your book. I sometimes review books. You may not wish me to do so. On the other hand, you might.
Such a good interview, Louise and Damyanti. I love that first quote–about reading bad books. Me too. I’ll start critiquing the author–you changed POV, you forgot to tie up this lose end. You know? And your quote about doling out information–“what is essential to put them in the moment of that scene”. This often equates to an excellent pacing, building drama. Spot on!
Oooh, I wish I’d thought of that ghost musical plot!
Re-assuring to read about Louse’s writing process and to realise that mine is pretty much the same; particularly with regards to not necessarily plotting the whole of the book at the start, but making sure the timeline is accurate (I actually create a calendar in excel, with everything written in day by day). Thanks for a very informative interview Damyanti
Thank you, literarylad!
First I’d like to say congratulations on your upcoming book. This was a very enjoyable interview. There is no doubt that reading and writing are closely related. While it is vicarious, reading is an important way of experiencing the world, and for the writer, it can be a silent and most beneficial muse. Thank you Damyanti for sharing this post.
Ah, Paul, thank you. Reading does indeed transport us to the rest of the world.
I really loved this interview especially her answer to number three. I will look for her books. Thank you for sharing.
Number three was my favourite to answer! x
Congratulations on your upcoming book. Funny how books strike people – I read and write science fiction and yet didn’t care for Hitchhiker. Then again, humor is subjective.
Thank you for sharing!!.. Well, I am not a writer… I read for the enjoyment, gather knowledge and learn more about the universe, maybe acquire a friend or two along the way… 🙂
Until we meet again…
May the sun shine all day long
Everything go right, nothing go wrong
May those you love bring love back to you
May all the wishes you wish come true
May peace be within you
May your heart be strong
May you find whatever you’re seeking
Wherever you may roam
So true! As Stephen King advised, “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot.” And I think reading outside your preferred genre is a great way to expand your horizons.
Great interview! I wholeheartedly concur with the prescription to read everything–every genre, every time period, and even the not-great books. It all helps us grow as writers.
We’re all readers????