In this, the third and final post to feature an event at the Oxford Alumni Weekend, I would like to share with you the notes I made at the Contemporary Women Writers session with Joanna Trollope, Francesca Kay and Clare Morgan.
Q: Do you show early drafts of your work to other people?
JT: I’m no good at sharing work in progress with anyone. My editor will see the 4th or 5th version. Usually my editor, sometimes one of my daughters, will see the novel first.
FK: The very first person that read my work was my daughter because she typed it for me. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and your nerve and get through the writing process by yourself. It’s not a community activity.
CM: Some people benefit hugely at certain stages of their writing career by sharing their work with other people. I tend to get it right to a certain extent before I want to show it to other people. I show it to someone close to me so that I don’t make a complete fool of myself.
Q: What is the role of an editor?
JT: The role of an editor is absolutely enormous. I learned a great deal from my first editor 35 years ago about presenting characters, varying tension and the presentation of dialogue. I don’t think there is a single writer on this earth whose work would not improve by editing.
FK: My agent put in commas and removed words and I knew he was right. This paring down by someone you trust is a creative process, not a destructive one.
CM: Acute editing is a) marvellous and a relatively rare skill; b) to be valued by any writer.
Q: What would you say to someone at the start of their writing career who wants to get published?
FK: It’s a gruelling process. One needs a huge amount of luck. Publishers can’t read everything or give everything the attention it deserves. My only advice would be keep trying if you’ve got the confidence to do it and you can bear to do it.
JT: When you want to be published very much, don’t despise any form of being published. Whether it’s a piece in a church newsletter or in a magazine, every bit of writing contributes to your accomplishment as an author. Never despise the details.
Q: Would you be happy if you were not published?
FK: Writing is an act of communication. It gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be published. It meant I was communicating what I wanted to say to somebody. Not being published would be like singing into an empty room: you’ve not got the purpose an audience would give you.
JT: If I knew I was writing into a void I’m not sure I could do it. I see the reader as an integral part of what I am writing. Without you, what is the point?
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
JT: Always have a notebook with you. Listen to people on buses and in the checkout queue. Fill that notebook with photos and lines of poetry. You are making a patchwork which is training that acute observation of human relationships.
FK: Practice and practice and practice. Writing is, after all, a craft. Even if that writing is the most perfectly crafted shopping list or e-mail, keep those writing tools sharp.
CM: You need the ability to listen to the voice in your head, the intonation and rhythm and pacing of that inner voice that speaks the words of what you are writing to you. Often the authentic voice can be quashed by notions of what’s fashionable or, worse, literary. Try and find that true voice.
Joanna Trollope is the author of fourteen contemporary novels and has also written several historical novels under the pseudonym Caroline Harvey. Her most recent novel, Friday Nights, explores the nature of female friendships.
Francesca Kay’s debut novel, An Equal Stillness, is written in the style of a biography of a fictional artist, Jennet Mallow.
Clare Morgan is director of the Master of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.