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CBC tutor Q&A: Suzannah Dunn

BY Jack Hadley
23rd Mar 2022

The wonderful Suzannah Dunn is a much-loved member of the CBC tutor team. Suzannah has published fourteen novels, both contemporary and historical fiction.

Here Suzannah talks about her approach to novel-writing, advice for writers juggling other commitments, and what she enjoys most about teaching students of our online novel-writing courses.

Do you have a particular writing process or way you structure your writing day; do you start at a particular time and aim to have a certain amount written by the end of the day or week, or is it more ad-hoc?
It’s completely ‘ad-hoc’ (that’s the polite way to put it) these days, although I dearly wish it weren’t. Writing novels is my day job, so I sit down to do it every weekday morning (not early – I’m not a morning person). Decades ago, I did used to aim to write 500 words per day; and I’d usually succeed, even if it pretty much always felt like getting blood from a stone. I can’t remember when or why that changed, but I’ve ended up (certainly for the last couple of novels) working in a completely different way. I used to be what I think of as a building-block writer, working sentence by sentence, staying with each sentence until I felt it was as right as I could get it for that particular draft (and I wasn’t really a draft writer – or, rather, I was a one-draft writer). It was painstaking.

These days, I just scribble – which sounds fast, but try to imagine a painfully slow scribble. It’s all done in rough (and I really do mean rough – incomprehensible to anyone but me; as I keep having to tell my agent, who gets nervous and asks to see what I’ve been doing). I suppose I’m thinking on paper (and/or on screen), until I can see the whole thing; and then the final, finished draft is done at the very last (panicky) minute. I don’t recommend it as a way to work: it feels no easier and it’s no quicker – if anything, it’s slower. I just don’t seem able to make myself do it any differently. The writing of each novel, for me, feels impossible pretty much from start to finish, but I try to bear in mind that when I talked about this, a couple of books ago, to my agent, he said, quietly, gently: ‘I don’t mean to belittle your distress, Suzannah, but the thing is, in the end they do seem to get done, don’t they?’

Do you have any advice for budding writers who are trying to find the time to write while juggling other commitments?
This is a tricky one, isn’t it; the tricky one. I’m not sure I do have any advice, because we’re all so different. For instance, I can’t work to deadlines – the existence of a deadline, however distant, stymies me – but many others find them useful. Myself, I find a period (a couple of days, or longer) of isolation away somewhere makes all the difference (and I manage it perhaps once a year...).

What are the different challenges and advantages of teaching creative writing online?
Previously, I’ve shied off online work because I felt I’d work better in person. I don’t usually do social media; I like to be with people (to look 'em in the eye!). In a writing group what matters to me as much as anything else is that there’s a good atmosphere: that we all feel at ease, and have a good time. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to make that happen online, but then Anna Davis said to me: ‘But think what you’re like on email!’ She persuaded me that I could be just as personable online.

Something I enjoy is being able to take my time in my responses – because for all my apparent chattiness, I am not a thinker-on-my-feet. I think that the difference pace of an online course gives me time/space to think in more depth about students’ work.

Do you have any thoughts on the best way for a writer to get the most out of their novel-writing course?
Listen to feedback; try your hardest not to be defensive. That said, there’s no denying that some participants’ responses will, in the end, be more valuable to you than others’. Actually, you wouldn’t want it any other way, because you can’t please all the people all the time (and shouldn’t be aiming to, because that way blandness lies). But the key words there are ‘in the end’. A considerable part of the learning experience of a course such as this one is that you learn who it is that you want to listen to (it’s part of learning who and what you are as a writer). But when you are in the thick of it – a workshop, a series of workshops – it won’t always be crystal clear. So, bide your time; keep an open mind.

Also, use your tutor: that is what they're there for. Don’t be shy!

Is there any memorable catchphrase or a piece of advice which you find yourself repeating to your students again and again?
Well, it’s embarrassingly simple, but for me it’s fundamental: ask yourself, all the time, with each detail (a detail of the physical world, or a character’s inner world): ‘Is that what it’s really, really like?’ Is that really how that looks/seems/feels? And keep going, keep asking, cutting away and getting past the first words/images that come to mind... and the second, and the third. We all have so many narratives inside our heads – from books, films – and it’s all too easy to import them into our storytelling.