As we near the start of new set of creative writing courses, we thought it would be a great time to introduce you to one of our tutors, author Matt Thorne. Here we talk to him about his books, what inspires him, and his writing advice for aspiring novelists.
Hello Matt, welcome to Curtis Brown Creative. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing career?
Of course. I published my first novel Tourist in 1998 when I was 23. I wrote it while on a creative-writing course at St Andrews in Scotland. Since then, I’ve written five more novels, three children’s books, a biography and co-written a screenplay, along with thousands of book reviews and some other journalism.
You’ve written novels, children’s books, a biography of Prince – and adapted your novel Eight Minutes Idle for film. Could you tell us a bit about how you write? Is it very different writing non-fiction to writing novels?
Yes, writing non-fiction is a very different discipline. The quickest I wrote a novel was three months (Cherry), but generally it takes me between a year and 18 months. Writing my Prince biography took me seven years. Part of that was due to the time it takes to track people down, arrange interviews, etc., but it also took me a while to find the right voice for non-fiction. The longest piece of non-fiction I’d written before that was about 5,000 words; covering 180,000 on a single subject was far more challenging.
You’ve written for both adults and children. What’s different about writing for each audience?
There’s no real difference in terms of the technique. But I focus more on story and action when writing for children. With novels for adults, at least for me, the story grows more out of character and a sense of the shape I want the book to have.
What’s your writing routine like?
I am not a morning person in any way, so I spend my mornings either reading, having meetings about future projects or answering emails. Then I write in the afternoons. My best period is between 3pm and 7pm. When I was younger, I’d do another stint from midnight to 4am, but that’s rare now.
What do you do on a bad writing day to get past the block?
It depends. If I think that it’s just a temporary block and I need some more thinking time, I’ll go on the internet or read a book or a magazine in the hope that something might inspire me. If it feels more substantial, I find that going to the cinema really helps. It’s not that I’m looking for ideas from a film, but I find when I’m watching a movie in the cinema, it’s easy to switch off from the plot onscreen and start thinking about your own. But I don’t have a daily word count or anything like that. Some days I might write a thousand good words, other days a single sentence.
What interests you as a writer? And is there some sort of common theme that runs through all your works across different forms and genres?
I’m interested in human behaviour, like most writers. I like writing about families and I like writing about romantic and sexual relationships. I’m very interested in narrative. I think that narrative is still an area that is under-explored. I want the reader to have no idea what’s coming next, but be utterly compelled to keep reading. I’ve always been interested in what it’s like to live now, and what makes the current era different from any other time in history. I like characters who reveal themselves slowly, not blank characters, but characters that behave in a way you might not expect. Most of my characters, including those in my children’s books, have done something wrong that shapes their life, often without realising it. I like noir and neo-noir movies, and I like to bring some of that energy into fiction.
Is there one piece of advice that you’ve found particularly helpful for your writing?
Yes. I find that it’s helpful to have eight great sequences in mind when you’re planning a novel – sections you’re really looking forward to writing. I don’t mean this as a substitute to structuring a novel, but as part of the structure. I also think time is really important, and using time as a way of structuring a book. With my first novel, one of the tutors at St Andrews suggested I structure the book using days of the week instead of chapters and it helped me get a sense of the time frame in the novel.
Applicants to our creative writing courses have to send in their 3,000-word opening. What are your tips for writing a good beginning to a novel?
Openings are notoriously hard. Even with great novels, the openings sometimes don’t work because the author has revised them too much. I think the important thing in this sort of situation is not to strive for the killer opening sentence or paragraph but instead try to get a sense of everything you’re going to write about in the novel in the opening pages, even if you’re just introducing characters, ideas and locations that you’re going to work with. The first 3,000 words should allow a reader to feel that they have a strong sense of what the novel is going to be like as a whole.
Applicants also send in a one-page synopsis. Do you map out your stories before you start writing or do you write your way in?
I use different techniques with different novels. There is something really exhilarating about writing a novel with no synopsis and I’ve done that before, just writing each day and seeing where it takes me. Lots of writers do that. But, equally, sometimes you need a synopsis if you’re selling a novel before it’s finished, or as a useful document for yourself. The important thing is to remember that the synopsis is only your initial way of thinking about the story and all novels change in the composition.
What do you think are the benefits of creative writing courses?
I think creative writing courses are of immeasurable use for writers at any stage. I wouldn’t have got published without one, or at least, it would have taken me a lot longer. All writers want to be read, and crave serious criticism. A creative-writing course is the first place you find that, then later this can come from agents, publishers and critics.
What are you reading at the moment, and what novels would you recommend for your students?
At the moment I’m reading The First Bad Man by Miranda July. I would recommend students read widely in whatever genre they’re interested in, as well as the books that have been popular and successful recently. Not to imitate, but just to have a sense of the world into which they will be publishing. There have been a lot of interesting novels recently that address the challenge of writing a novel now, in different ways – Knausgaard’s novel-sequence, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Ben Lerner’s 10.04, Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I’d recommend having a look at some of these, if you’re interested in literary fiction. For genre writers, whatever has worked for readers and critics over the last few years.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our selective three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.