10 May 2022

Liz Webb: ‘Write precise, visceral prose that pulls your reader into sensation rather than thought’

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students

Liz Webb has studied on six of our online writing courses, including the complete How to Write Your Novel series and our Writing a Psychological Thriller course. Her debut thriller The Daughter, will be published by Allison & Busby later this month.

We found out what Liz enjoys about our courses and what inspired her to write The Daughter

You studied on six of our online creative writing courses.  How did your time on our courses impact your approach to writing?

My mind is an annoying magpie, distracted by the tinniest bright shiny thing that it spies. So far this morning, rather than start this article, I’ve put a photo of the Spurs manager Antonio Conte on Twitter, emailed my publisher Allison & Busby about what hashtags to use on social media when promoting my book, gone online to buy treasury tags for my son’s homework (those green things with metal bits either end), and completed Wordle (in six!!! what a bird-brain). But I’ve just stopped myself from ordering Nordic socks (I’m writing this in the early April cold snap) and I’m finally focussing.

And that’s the main reasons why I do online writing courses: to drag my distracted brain back to the page and focus.  A blank screen makes my skin crawl up and away, leaving me a gibbering distractable wreck – but give me an online video of someone explaining something interesting about writing and setting me a specific task and I’m instantly scribbling away without consciously deciding to.  I like Curtis Brown Creative courses in particular because they have great teachers, they’re very practical, and they’re both supportive and inspiring. I’m pretty addictive by nature – and luckily my addiction to short online courses is a positive one.  Over the three years that I’ve been writing, I’ve done six short CBC courses…

Starting to Writing Your Novel: the wonderful Anna Davis eased me past my initial blank-page-panic.

Write to the End of Your Novel: the awesome Anna Davis helped me through the lull that followed my initial enthusiasm and kept me writing to the end of my novel.

Edit & Pitch Your Novel: the fantabulous (yes, I’m looking up synonyms online) Anna Davis gave me invaluable practical strategies for breaking down the daunting task of editing.  And then she gave me tips for pitching, which helped me to get my wonderful agent.

Writing a Psychological Thriller: Erin Kelly, the master of the psych crime genre, took me through developing a good hook, showing not telling, pacing and structure, and how to use psychology and suspense to produce a thrilling, tense and immersive psych thriller.

Writing Short Stories: the brilliant short story writer Cynan Jones presented a course which was choc-o-block with advice, invaluable for short stories but really for any writing. I had been advised to write a short story as a giveaway for people signing up for my website and I had no idea where to start till I did this course.  Sign up to my website and you will be sent the short story I wrote on it.

Character Development – The Deep Dive: the amazeballs (ok, you can go too far with synonym lists) Anna Davis helped me to explore my characters in depth.  This is the most recent course I’ve done, begun when I was starting my second novel a few months ago: I had a great plot idea but populated with mere stick figures.  This course helped me to fill out the characters as 3D and the process got me over through the nerves and doubts of starting a second novel.

Many of our students form writing support groups. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

I already had an excellent writing group of five talented writers, before I started doing any CBC courses. So, I haven’t joined more groups. But I do follow lots of the writers I’ve met on CBC courses on Twitter (@LizWebbAuthor) and we are all very supportive of each other’s writing there.

Your debut The Daughter will be published by Allison & Busby this May. The novel follows Hannah Davidson as she tries to untangle the mystery of her mother’s murder. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and the inspiration behind it?

In my novel The Daughter, Hannah has just moved back into her childhood home, with her dementia-riven father.  Twenty-three years ago, her mother Jen was murdered in the woods behind the house and Hannah has had no contact with her brother Reece for years, because he always insisted that their dad killed their mum.  Hannah is now thirty-seven, the same age as her mother was when she was murdered and after weight loss and growing her hair long, she is now the spitting image of her murdered mum.  She uses this uncanny resemblance to spark reactions in everyone who knew her mother, to finally solve the mystery of what really happened.

I was inspired to write The Daughter because I had just moved into a house which I hated and was feeling very stuck: stuck in the house, stuck in my radio producer career, and stuck in the pain of dealing with a loved one’s long illness.  I looked out my front window and saw a tree full of quince fruit, that looked lovely, but tasted disgusting raw.  I started writing about a character who eats raw quince masochistically and who feels that she’s like a quince fruit: good-looking on the outside but ugly and conflicted on the inside.  Then I gave her a terrible family secret that had kept her trapped for many years and finally gave her the key to solving that secret with her new striking resemblance to her murdered mum.

What advice do you have for writers aiming to build suspense?

Work out your hook, write an initial synopsis, then as you write your book, keep redrafting your synopsis as you discover what you really works, rather than what sounded good in theory at the beginning.  I find getting feedback on new drafts of my synopsis along the way is really useful – for deciding what part of the plot truly grips the reader, and what is desperate filler that I’ve added cos I’m so terrified of not having enough plot.

Write precise, visceral prose that pulls your reader into sensation rather than thought. 

Read the kind of books that you find tense and immersive in the way that you are trying to write and analyse what the authors did. I am writing my second novel now, which has a slight horror feel but is real world, with a protagonist who doubts herself as events escalate.  My three most recent reads, all excellent, were: Pet Sematary by Stephen King, The Push by Ashley Audrain and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh.

What does your writing routine look like?

Get up at 7.30am; try not to fidget through the interminable 10 minutes of my mindfulness app; faff and avoid writing for an hour; write for a couple of hours using the NaNoWriMo word-number-graph  to give me a sense of achievement; exercise for an hour listening to an audiobook (I have an underwater iPod cos I get so bored swimming without a book); have as long a lunch as is feasible without looking like a roman emperor eating, vomiting and eating again; write book/rewrite synopsis/research/avoid writing by colour coding something/WhatsApp my writing group with books I like, writers I’m jealous of and funny photos; listen to podcasts or audio books while cooking, forget writing all evening except for scribbling occasional genius revelations in my notebook, which don’t seem so genius the next day; go to bed at 11.30pm (sleep well if I’ve written my self-imposed 1,400 word limit, badly if I’ve failed).

Who is your favourite fictional character?

The serial killer Rhiannon in C J Skuse’s Sweetpea – super dark, super funny, super compulsively engaging.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring novelists?

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got weak spots as a writer – everyone does – just focus on the stuff you are good at and your unique voice – and you will be able to learn enough to pastiche the bits you find hard.

Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?

I am halfway through my second novel – called The Saved (at the moment).  I will have a full draft by the summer, ignore it for a couple of weeks, redraft lots, get lots of feedback, redraft more, send it to my agent, and hopefully get it published.  Along the way I’ll do more Curtis Brown Creative courses to focus my magpie mind.  And now I must get on and order those Nordic socks … I mean write.

Pre-order The Daughter, out 19 May.

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