Why do you write?
I write because I love it. I write because it makes me feel clever. I write because I have found it to be an outlet for my obsessive observations about people and life. My hope is that my writing makes readers laugh, feel and think. I am currently setting up my website (a lot less fun than writing) and I plan to use Laugh. Feel. Think. on my homepage. Please don’t steal it.
How did you come to writing?
The will of the universe. I had done an Arts/Law degree at University, with communications as my Arts major, but I had not pursued any kind of writing job early on, as much as I have always loved writing. I practiced as a solicitor for a number of years and then after becoming a mum, I helped my husband in his business, rather than returning to law. When my husband’s business changed and he went into a premises sharing arrangement, I wasn’t really needed there and was able to make my contribution to the business from a home office. I continued doing this for a couple of years but began to feel a little bored. I also became quite slack with the paperwork as watching Ellen was always more appealing than completing a Business Activity Statement. I contemplated a return to law at this point but after a conversation with my sister, it emerged that my dream job was always to be a magazine editor. From this point I began submitting articles for publication (guessing that walking into a magazine editor’s job was probably a little unlikely). I also began doing freelance copywriting and editing, and it was this work, I believe, that flicked the creativity switch in my brain and led to me starting to type out a fictional story on my iPhone one afternoon. I had not written one piece of fiction since leaving high school, so it did kind of feel like it came from nowhere.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I had quite the dream run starting out. I started typing my first novel on my iPhone one afternoon (though I had no idea at the time it would become a novel.) I showed it to a friend the next week. She told me it sounded a lot like Liane Moriarty’s writing and I should submit it to a publisher. I googled ‘Liane Moriarty publisher’ and this produced a result with HarperCollins in the heading. I then googled HarperCollins (which, it turns out, is not Liane Moriarty’s publisher) and discovered they had an online submissions portal called The Wednesday Post. I needed three chapters so I set about writing another two (the material on my phone was enough for one). I then submitted and two days later they contacted me and said they loved it and wanted to see the whole manuscript. This meant, of course, that I had to write a whole manuscript (so, a bit of an obstacle there, I guess) but given I was writing it with the knowledge that one of the world’s biggest publishers was interested, it wasn’t very hard to stay on task.
I think probably my greatest obstacle was that – as is the case for so many debut authors – there were aspects of my first novel that could be interpreted as being autobiographical. It is a story told from the point of view of a school mother who is trying to give her daughters the best opportunities in life by sending them to the most exclusive school. She finds herself quite a fish-out-of-water amongst the champagne-swilling, well-heeled mothers she is obliged to contend with. The story centres around a group of mothers whose daughters attend the same school and play on the same netball team. While I had access to a lot of fodder – from my own experiences as both a school mother and as a netball mum – I felt it was important to ensure that none of the mothers I associated with (or didn’t associate with) became characters within my book. I drew inspiration from the experiences of friends at different schools and of course there was plenty of imagination at play, but I can see that it would be an easy trap to fall into when so many people advise writers to ‘write what you know’. I worked hard to avoid that.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
I have become quite friendly with a number of authors and I find that they help me to stay motivated. When I first started writing, I had no contacts within the writing community. None. When the submissions editor at HarperCollins was preparing to take my first manuscript to acquisitions, one of the questions she asked me was whether I was involved in the writing community at all. I had no idea at the time just how important that was. Or how important it would become for me.
As for discipline, I don’t really do discipline. I do passion.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
I am obsessive about writing. Sometimes I describe it as being akin to taking a lover. It is what I hunger to do and I often find that the rest of my life collapses around it. My daughter says that I am always the last parent to hand in notes. I have piles of papers that need sorting, and generally a life in disarray when I am in the thick of it. But by way of balance, I don’t write all the time. Sometimes I take time away from it just to get on top of everything else. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing as it gives my brain time to gather up more creative energy for my next writing tryst.
Things haven’t really changed from when I started. It is still a cycle of being completely absorbed… life around me collapses… need to let go of it for a time to reconstruct life… being completely absorbed… and so it goes.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
Right now I am writing in my car. I often write while propped up against pillows, lying on my bed. I write on the sofa, I write at my dining table. I write on the back deck. I write on holidays. I write on the notes app on my iPhone. I pretty much write everywhere other than at my antique desk. As for arranging my writing space… there is no arranging. Other than comfort. I try to arrange it so I am comfortable. A glass of wine nearby often helps with this.
What are your essential writing tools?
My MacBook… notice how I didn’t say laptop? Everyone who uses Mac likes to specify that they use Mac. I have no idea why this is but I play along willingly.
The internet. I am forever in awe of the Jane Austens of this world who forged their stories without Google.
An online thesaurus. Some may mock me for this, but I always have the thesaurus tab open when I’m writing. I’d far prefer to go fetch a word that’s offered up to me on there than to try to keep writing past a word that doesn’t quite fit. Or that I have already used twice in the same paragraph.
My obsessive personality. This has morphed from life hindrance to essential writing tool. Thinking about what people say and do, rethinking, and examining possible motivations – this is what I think gives me an edge in my writing. This has helped me to produce writing that others can read and think ‘that’s funny because it’s so true.’
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
Sometimes I answer questions like this by saying I wish I’d known the reality of author income… but reflecting on this I think it was probably better that I didn’t. Writing has become a consuming passion for me and if I had been concentrating too hard on the practicalities and financial rewards of it, I may have given up before I really began, and not given that consuming passion a chance to take hold.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I tend to read commercial fiction over literary, and I also really enjoy memoirs (because, like many authors, I’m inherently nosy!) I gravitate towards contemporary stories, and also female authors generally. I also enjoy thrillers and crime.
I have found that I sometimes spoil for myself the fun of reading, as I am ever on the lookout for a twist and sifting through red herrings instead of letting it all just ‘flow over me’ and then enjoying the surprise element as I used to. When I read a novel and do not pick the twist, I am most delighted.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
I have been fairly fortunate in that I have not really struggled with writer’s block so far. I think there are a number of reasons for this:
I don’t treat writing as a 9-5 role, or adhere to any other arbitrary set writing time. I write when I feel inspired to write. This means I can go many weeks with my work-in-progress completely void of both work and progress! It also means that sometimes I will write well into the night and barely stop to eat.
When I sit down to write, I always go back over the previous day’s writing and polish it up a bit before continuing on with the story. If I haven’t been working on it for a while then I will go over a larger chunk of writing with my polishing hand before I continue. This gets me back into the rhythm of the story and helps me to maintain a consistency of tone, even when my mood may be entirely different when I sit down to the day’s session than it was on the previous day’s session. I understand that many writers do not find this helpful because they find writing and editing such entirely different processes, but for me, I find that this ‘edit-as-I-go’ approach really seems to prevent writer’s block. Of course there is still much editing to be done again at the end, but certainly less so than if I adhered to the messy first draft approach.
When I’m writing, my mind is always turned ‘on’ to my story. This means that when I am washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, walking the dog, I am thinking about my characters and plotlines. In fact, it’s often during these entirely unrelated tasks that my mind seems to make way for some of my best material. I keep a separate document where I note down all the ideas that come to me, even if they do not fit with where the story is at that particular point in time, and then if I have moments of ‘where to now?’ I consult that document and it almost invariably gives me inspiration.
Although I am not a detailed plotter, I do start with the idea of what it is I want to achieve with my story, and how I see it ending. Sometimes it can be very helpful to skip ahead and write a later scene in the book, which gives me a drop-pin to aim towards. In my first novel, I had written ten chapters and then I skipped ahead and wrote the last chapter (or the chapter that ended up being one of the last chapters anyway, after some advice from my editor). Knowing where I was headed with it all really helped me to work out how I should go about getting there.
Just one more point I should mention: my only experience of anything like writer’s block wasn’t about story – it was about structure. As soon as I identified the way to address my structure issue, I was once again able to write at my usual pace, so I think that is something worth considering if any writer is finding themselves ‘blocked’.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
While writing may seem like a solitary pursuit, it really isn’t. Networking and community building are every bit as vital to your success as coming up with a cracker of a story. And be a giver as much as you can. Share the knowledge you gather along the way. Other writers are your colleagues, not your competition.
Deborah Disney writes contemporary fiction for HarperCollins. She has a BA/LLB from University of Queensland and practiced as a litigation lawyer prior to finding her true calling in the school pick-up line where she started typing a little story on her iPhone one afternoon. Her energies are currently divided between her second novel and Facebook.