An interview with ‘The Doll House’ author, Phoebe Morgan

Writing

Phoebe Morgan, debut novelist and author of psychological thriller The Doll House talks writing, editing, and her advice to young authors with Niall Cunniffe.

Could you give readers a brief introduction to what you’ve published, and what you’re currently working on?

My first book, The Doll House, was published last year. It’s a psychological thriller about two sisters who find themselves the target of a stranger seeking revenge. I’ve just sent my second book to my publisher after doing a structural edit with my agent, so it’s all quite nerve-wracking! It’s another psychological thriller, but the title hasn’t yet been confirmed as yet. Watch this space!

You’re a commissioning editor for a trade publisher by day. Do you think this has helped you improve your writing or editing process and, if so, how?

Yes, definitely. I’m an Editor first and foremost. I work with a long list of authors, so I see both sides of the process. Working as an Editor in publishing has given me a wider understanding of the commercial market, I think, and seeing it from both sides helps me empathise more with authors, and gives me a different perspective. I’ve found comfort in the fact that I know how the publishing process works, all the ins and outs that go into making a book and getting it into readers hands. There’s a lot of work involved!

Do you think aspiring authors should get some experience in the publishing industry to help with their writing and career?

No, I don’t think that’s necessary. I would suggest they read widely and read around their chosen genre. They should keep an eye on what’s doing well and becoming successful – and figure out why certain books are more appealing or gripping than others. But writers should always be true to themselves, too – the market is an ever-changing beast so you’ve always got to keep your own voice and write what you love.

Do you think it’s becoming increasingly common for writers and authors to also have a full time job nowadays?

I think this depends on what stage of the journey they’re at, really. I know a lot of writers who balance writing around full time jobs, some of whom have children as well which is awe-inspiring! As a general point, writing isn’t always the most financially rewarding career in the world, so it’s very common for people to juggle multiple jobs, especially when starting out. I love my job – I always wanted to be an Editor, and I wouldn’t want to simply write on my own, I think I’d go mad! Of course, some authors do write full time; I think it’s a very personal choice.

Do you have a place you always go to write, or somewhere you feel most inspired?

I can write anywhere, though I’ve got a new desk recently which I’m really excited about. The shelves above the desk have some little reminders – a plant my agent gave me, a poster with an inspirational quote, my books about publishing. It’s really nice to have your own space to write, so I guess I’m lucky. However, I wrote most of The Doll House while babysitting in the evenings, or sitting in cafés at night.

How much planning and outlining do you undertake before beginning to write your novel?

I don’t plan at all, to begin with. I find it really difficult. I did write a synopsis for my agent and publisher for my second book, but that’s the extent of it. Everyone works in different ways. I prefer to get the first draft done and then edit it. I’m not one of those writers who can plan out a whole novel with sticky notes and spread sheets. I probably end up writing more drafts. I’m an editor by nature, so I’m most comfortable editing a lot than extensively planning.

Do have any other hobbies and passions, outside writing and publishing?

I’ve very passionate about the Society of Young Publishers; I’m co-chairing the London branch this year. Writing and publishing are where my main interests lie – I’m fairly terrible at everything else! Although I am trying to learn how to cook… with mixed results.

If you have one piece of advice to offer to young aspiring authors, what would it be?

Be persistent. You have to keep going. It’s a good idea to perhaps have your writing read by other people and be prepared to take editorial feedback. Focus on your own journey, and make sure you’re doing the best you can. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others – just keep your head down, do the work and make the most of every opportunity.

Keep up with Phoebe’s journey on her website, where she frequently posts about writing, editing and the world of publishing. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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A big thank you to Niall for organizing such an insightful interview with Phoebe! Keep yourself in the loop with Niall’s work by following him on twitter and checking out his blog.

 

 

 

Keep your eyes open: inspiration is everywhere

Writing

It was only this afternoon, when I spotted an abandoned antique shop on the way to Callen‘s house, that I realised how much of my writing is influenced by normal, mundane, everyday things.

A bit of context for you – I was heading to my friend’s house because he has the new Taylor Swift album and, uh… I need to listen to it. On repeat. So, I was POWER-WALKING through Bath, desperate to go and listen to some banging tunes, and then I saw this antique shop. It’s kind of run-down. Decrepit, really. It’s so dirty that the windows look grey, and there are old rusting bars across the door, and Scott’s Antiques is written along the top in a creepy, willow-y font. I had to stop. Look. Take it in.

I’ve already decided that this particular antique shop will be picked up from picturesque Bath and plonked wherever I decide it needs to be in my novel. I have so many ideas already – haunted objects, illegal squatters… All of this came from that one shop, a shop that I’ve walked past a thousand times and never noticed. Maybe if I had been even more desperate to listen to Taylor, or if I’d crossed the road at a different point, I never would have seen it at all.

“You cannot wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Every Creative Writing lecturer or guest speaker will always tell you the same thing – carry a notebook everywhere. I used to just kind of ignore that little bit of advice. Uh, I have things to do? I can’t just whack out my notebook in the queue at Starbucks because I see some woman has cool hair that I want to use for a character. But, flash-forward a few years, and I rarely go anywhere without a notebook / laptop / some form of writing instrument.

It’s not just settings either – cool antique shops or whatever catches your eye – it’s everything. People can inspire characters, certain places invoke certain feelings, and any kind of sensory experience is absolute gold-dust when you’re writing in first person. As a writer, I believe your brain is already hard-wired to look out for this kind of stuff. You’ll store anything you see automatically, but you might not actually use it unless you’re paying attention. When you see something that inspires you, make a note of it so you can integrate it into your creative work later.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if another writer tells you that it’s important to always have a notebook… don’t ignore them. You’re wasting time. Get a cheap (or expensive, whatever floats your boat) notepad and just keep it with you. Because, honestly, ideas can flit so quickly out of your head. You know when you have a cool dream and then you can’t remember it in the morning? Same kind of deal. Just make sure you have something to WRITE with when inspiration strikes.

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Editing your manuscript: how to start and what to look out for

Writing

So you finished your manuscript! Congratulations! Now comes the hard part… editing that bad boy to high heavens. *Taylor Swift voice* Are you ready for it?

The first thing to do when you’ve finished your manuscript – when you’re sitting in front of that final page wondering how the hell you managed to do it – is make yourself a brew and revel in your achievement. You’d probably benefit from leaving your manuscript for a week or two and just enjoying that life you weren’t able to have whilst writing it… But, if you’re like me and you just want to leave it a few hours and get cracking – here’s what you want to do.

Identify the elements you need to look for. Good ones to start with are the broader elements: plot, characterisation, setting and voice.

  • Plot – When you’re rinsing through your manuscript looking at the plot, you’re focusing on plot holes and inconsistencies. Sometimes it helps me to write a timeline as I’m reading through, so I can see exactly what I wanted to happen to the characters, and what actually ended up happening.
  • Characterisation – Time to whack out those character profiles – you know, the ones you drew up six months ago…? Get them out, pin them up, and make sure that you’ve been consistent with each character throughout the novel. This is not just about your protagonist! Every little walk-on or secondary character needs their own individual plot-line and motivations. (Top tip: look at your protagonist in the first and last chapters — have they developed enough? Or not at all?)
  • Setting – Setting is something that you don’t need to get too caught up on, but you still need to give a significant amount of thought to. Have a rinse through the novel and see how frequently the setting changes, and when it does – have you been consistent in your descriptions? If you’ve described an empty church at night-time, make sure it isn’t sunrise five minutes later – that kind of thing.
  • Voice – This is a big one. There are some incredible novels that use the voice of their protagonists to show character development (see: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff). Does the voice of your protagonist employ this technique? Do they start off with an accent that slips a few chapters in? Is there a certain phrase you wanted them to use throughout the story? …You get the gist.

When you’ve had a look through and narrowed down the broader aspects of the plot (and bear in mind, this might take anywhere from a week to several months…), you can move on to looking at the smaller elements. I say ‘smaller’, but these things are equally important. Grammar, syntax, layout… Allll the boring stuff that is actually ridiculously vital if you want a publisher to even pick up the manuscript.

There are standard formats and layouts that most publishers or literary agents will be comfortable with (clear fonts like Arial or Times New Roman, double spacing…) – but it is 100% worth checking the website of who you are likely to submit your work to. Its almost a guarantee that the few agents you pick out will be asking for the same kind of thing, but it’s always worth checking. Always.

If grammar isn’t really your thing, this is where you want to get your beta readers involved. These are a few people that you trust – and nah, this doesn’t mean your mum. Often, you can just drop a tweet into the inter-webs and see if anyone is up for reading your work. If you’re writing YA, for example, you’re going to want someone who likes to read YA and might be a potential reader in the future – these are the kind of readers who know what they’re looking for in a character or plot. You want to choose a few people (I’d suggest 3-5) who have an impartial opinion (aka not your mum or granny) and might actually know what they’re on about.

I, personally, wouldn’t bother paying a professional editor if you have people in your life that are decent with grammar and punctuation that could help you out. Don’t waste your cash. If you can get your formatting and syntax sorted for agent submission and manage to bag an agent on the quality of your plot and characters, an editor is something that they will sort out for you further down the line.

I hope all of this makes a decent amount of sense… good luck, guys! Happy editing – and if you have any questions about editing, manuscripts, or the whole process of finding beta readers for your novel, drop them below.

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