Recently, our students were treated to a very special webinar with Claire Fuller, bestselling author of four novels, including Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2015, and Unsettled Ground, which is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.
These webinars are an exclusive component of our Writing Your Novel courses, and they give our students the chance to discover more about the publishing process, as well as getting the inside track on what an author’s life is really like.
In this intimate and insightful session, our students heard about Claire’s journey to publication, and picked up some useful tips and tricks on writing and editing. Here are some of the highlights:
On finding inspiration for Unsettled Ground…
For me inspiration comes from so many places. But for this novel it came from a caravan I stumbled across in the woods. It was vandalised and dilapidated and very smelly, but it was also very atmospheric. It felt almost haunted, not by ghosts but by the spirit of the person who must have lived there and the things they left behind. I started thinking who would have lived in this caravan and why, what would have taken them there and what would their life be like after they left. From there Jeanie, the main character in Unsettled Ground, was created and I started writing.
On the writing and editing process…
I find the act of writing really difficult. I write almost so I that I can edit because editing is the bit I enjoy. It’s the creation that I find really very hard. When writing I will probably write in total for around three or four hours a day, but when editing, I will edit from eight in the morning until eight at night. It is very intense, but I absolutely love it.
When I am in the process of writing my first draft, I allow myself to edit the previous day’s work and then I have to write some new words. That way I’m sort of in a rolling process where everything gets edited at least once within the first draft. It will usually take me around eighteen months to finish and then after that, I will spend another six months editing.
On balancing writing and your day job…
I’m lucky enough to write full time now, so I have all day to write. But I was working full time when writing Our Endless Numbered Days and I really had to fit it around everything else, because the day job had to come first. I would write in ten-minute bursts before I went to work, as I didn’t have the luxury of an hour to get into the headspace of my characters. Sometimes, I would also book off time from work and just write in those days as I really wanted to finish the novel.
On planning and research….
I personally don’t do any planning or research before I start writing. This is how I started writing my first novel and I thought it was the wrong way to write, but I kept going because I didn’t know any other way. By the time I started my second novel, I just thought this is how I write, and it works for me. There’s no right or wrong way, so do what works for you.
I will eventually incorporate planning, but my way of planning is to write a scene, without really knowing who the people are or what’s happening. I then find because I have written that scene, there will always be some consequences for the next and I can write the outcome. Each scene feeds the next, so you are building on what you have created before.
On the challenges of writing and publishing your debut…
One of the main challenges I faced was staying motivated. With a debut novel you don’t know if you are going to have an audience and if anyone is going to read it and if you are even going to get an agent. I did have moments of wondering what I was doing and if this was a good use of my time. That feeling of self-doubt was very strong and in some ways that still hasn’t gone away, even though I’m four novels in. I still question what I am writing.
The publishing process is also excruciatingly slow. After Penguin bought Our Endless Numbered Days, it wasn’t due to be published for nineteen months. I am not a very patient person, so this felt like such a long time to wait. But I do understand why – they needed time to design a cover and work on the publicity and marketing.
What I did to fill this time was write my next novel. In those months I knew I could have a first draft of the next book, and so before Our Endless Numbered Days was published I had the first draft of Swimming Lessons finished.
On finding an agent…
On my MA, I learnt about getting an agent and finding a publisher and how difficult that process can be. My advice would be to get your manuscript as polished as you can before sending it out to agents and then follow their submission guidelines closely. First of all, I had some rejections and then some requests for full manuscripts. After a while I had an agent request to meet me, and I instantly said yes to her as I liked her so much. She and I then worked on the manuscript, revising it for another six weeks or so before she sent it out to publishers.
On finding writing later in life…
My first book was published when I was forty-eight, although I was taken on by the publisher and my agent a bit earlier than that. I don’t feel like I met any resistance in the industry due to my age, but I was aware of the big debuts by authors in their twenties and thirties. I went on to find a group of writers who had been published over the age of forty – we called ourselves The Prime Writers, and we still meet up today. It is so useful to find your group, those who will support you, commiserate with you, and cheer with you when something great happens, that’s really important.
On advice for aspiring authors…
Try not to compare yourself to other writers. And keep a writing diary! I write a short note in my diary at the end of every writing session, including the word count and a line on how it’s gone and any major thoughts, and I’ve found it so useful to look back at when I’m on subsequent novels.
Get your hands on a copy of Unsettled Ground.
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