Fiona Mitchell is an author and journalist. She is the winner of the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and has work published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology for the second year running. She is the author of the blog Writing Mad. All links below take you to various posts on Writing Mad. You can also socialize with Fiona on Twitter and Facebook.
In one of your blog posts you mention writing many drafts—five, in fact—as the result of input from others. Do you ever get to the point when you feel like the novel isn’t even yours anymore?
Now I’ve gotten to the stage where I feel my book The Maid’s Room is the very best it can be. I recently opened up my first draft and took a look. There is a hell of a lot of waffle in it and the plot goes off on tangents, so people’s input has only helped me to improve it.
My story is told from three points of view, and the first useful piece of advice from a literary agent was that one of those characters wasn’t the right person to tell it. I chose another character, and she has been the trickiest of the three. Readers felt she was the weakest, so I kept rewriting her until I discovered exactly who she is. Editors, agents, other writers, and readers can make suggestions, but often they can’t tell you exactly how to make a story leap off the page. It’s up to you to find your own magic. So no, I still feel like the novel is my own; I couldn’t make the story or the characters sing if it wasn’t.
Do you ever feel like, “Hey, my draft is terrible and needs lots of help,” or is it more like trying to appease the suggestions of others when you revise? What’s the difference between needing validation and needing advice, basically?
The ultimate validation is a reader being moved by your writing. Let’s face it, that’s what we’re all aiming to achieve. In the early stages of writing, validation might come from friends or family, but when you’ve got your book to a stage where it’s pretty good, you’ll take it to the next level and seek out validation from the professionals—possibly an editor if you can afford it, if not, a writing group.
At this point I think validation and advice are interconnected. Sure, you want to hear that the entire manuscript is perfect, but what you’re more likely to learn is that certain things work, and others don’t. If an editor makes a comment, they are usually right. And, when more than one person says something doesn’t work, I’d take note and rewrite.
Every writer needs advice from other people because writing a book for months, maybe years, brings a certain amount of blindness, faults you just can’t see.
How can you tell if one of your books is just another draft away from good vs. something you should just quit?
That is a brilliant question, and one I wish I knew the answer to! Every time I rewrote The Maid’s Room I was that convinced it was ready that I’d fire it off to literary agents who’d requested the full MS. I’d then feel utterly dejected when they turned it down.
I haven’t given up because I’ve had a lot of encouragement from editors and agents along the way, so I know I have a marketable book.
I have quit things before, though—a book, short stories—but it’s funny how certain characters you’ve created start cropping up in your thoughts and won’t leave you alone; you just have to return to them.
I was lucky enough to win the Frome Short Story Competition last year.
But that story didn’t just happen. I wrote it, and my husband said it didn’t work, confirming what I thought too. I knew there was a grain of something special in the story, though, so a few months later, I went back to it. I rewrote it a few times then one night read it again and came up with the last line in one of those Eureka moments.
Quitting isn’t always the end of something. You might put the character you created into another story. If you have really strong characters they don’t just die.
Your husband reads your drafts. What’s that like? What happens if he doesn’t like your writing? What happens if he does?
I know loads of people say it’s a bad idea to let your family read your work, but for me, it’s a great starting point. My husband, Mike, is honest about my work and is brave enough to say when something’s rubbish. He’s liked The Maid’s Room from the beginning, and although it’s taken an editor to really shape it, he’s given me useful advice on dialogue, chronology, and humour.
It’s nail-biting when he’s reading something new. I want to magnetise my reader, draw them in, and hit them where it hurts, so when my husband, says, ‘I don’t think it really works,’ I haven’t done my job.
I do feel a bit grumpy afterwards, I must admit. But then the flame of the idea takes hold again, and I end up recreating it.
When Mike likes something, I feel pleased. It feels as if the work is complete in some way.
I read that you love Trainspotting (oh, god, me too!) and love writing that is in dialect. For those that don’t know, Trainspotting is by Irvine Welsh and written mostly how Scottish folks sound. Here’s an example:
“People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid.”
I’m also in the middle of reviewing a book written entirely in Black English and love the language. But, in the advice you received from an editor about writing, authors shouldn’t do dialect to such a large extent. Any opinions on why editors feel that way? What makes dialect so magical?
I am a big fan of dialect in fiction. It probably has something to do with the fact that I adore hearing the way that people speak, the nuances of their language, the unconscious repetitions. I particularly love the way kids jumble words too—aromatic rice becomes ‘romantic rice’, that type of thing. I think dialect helps you get into a character and imagine their voice in your head. It works particularly well in short stories.
In The Maid’s Room, some of my characters speak Tagalog. Having them think in broken English didn’t work because they would be thinking in their mother tongue. It was an error to write them that way.
Some early readers loved this; most hated it. When a literary agent took the trouble to explain how this type of language kept her at a distance from the characters, I sat up and listened. The characters still have quirks to the way they speak, and certain phrases they use, so even though they now think fluently, they each still have a unique voice.
What do you personally get out of maintaining a blog about writing?
Sometimes writing a post helps solidify something in my mind like my recent post about How to Start Writing a Novel.
Do you start with a plot or a character, for instance? I came to the conclusion that it’s a bit of both.
I love hearing opinions and ideas from other writers. Through my blog, I’ve connected with lots of other writers, who seem to be at a similar stage to me—having agent interest, but still holding out for representation.
It’s so encouraging when other writers get representation, a publishing deal, or decide to go it alone and self-publish. It’s inspirational.
Writing a blog helps me to stay positive. And of course, it’s writing, which I love doing in most forms, from freelance journalism to fiction.
For more information about Fiona Mitchell’s work, visit her blog!