QUESTIONS

The most common questions strangers ask after "And what do YOU do...?" or when they're interested in writing. Not because I feel especially qualified to give advice, but because I'm asked for it, and searching for answers is something I can certainly relate to...
How did you start writing?
It came naturally, and little else did. I started when I was tiny, writing stories in notepads or with my dad’s old typewriter; then on a PC, or under the bench during Double Science. I had a lot of ambition but none of it very specific beyond knowing I wanted to write, and appearing in youth essay and poetry anthologies with my very nineties teenage thoughts on boys, girls, soap stars and the state of the planet. At 15 I decided I wanted to go into journalism because I thought that was how a writer could earn a living. Teenage innocence is a wonderful thing…
How do I start writing?
It depends what kind of writing you want to do and why, but basically, by doing it, and doing it as much as possible. If you’re in your early twenties and your boss has never begged you to resign and go and be the next J.K Rowling; or your Maths teacher never asked you: “Did you forget to write your name on this, or prefer to remain anonymous?” there’s probably a better career for you in something else. But if nothing else you’ve ever done has made you (or anyone else) happier, it’s probably what you’re best at. Many writers and publishing pros started out writing fan fiction, which I slightly regret not doing because it’s a great way of finding your tribe when you’re young and teaches you a lot about writing (among other activities…). Plenty more writers start later in life because the opportunities weren’t there when they were younger. It probably also helps to have a good ear for detail, a long-term memory that scares people, and a tendency towards obsessions (ideally ones you can monetise well, whatever those are…).
Where do your ideas come from?
The novel brings together elements I’ve written about separately for a long time. I wanted to explore life and loss from women’s perspectives. My first idea was to do this with a group of women but it got too complicated so I pared it down to two. I also wanted to show something of how society and tech have evolved over the last twenty years. And I wanted to write characters who were raised with English middle-class expectations but have a Central-Eastern European heritage running through them. My own such heritage is unusual; both in terms of where my mum’s family is from, and in that, as far as we know, it’s secular. Rather than just giving the characters my origin story, I’ve thrown in some important differences and given myself the opportunity to do interesting research (mostly around genealogy and Czech-Hungarian comfort food…). Without writing a direct #MeToo response, I also wanted to show how women normalise men’s difficult behaviour when they’re young and how those men often remain an outside influence, even many years later. Finally, I wanted there to be a hint that a character has some kind of neurodiversity, without naming it, or making the story all about a condition.
What makes someone a writer?
I call myself one because it’s how I process most things, and the only thing I’ll ever do well enough to ever be paid enough. When you choose to is up to you.
Do writers just write about their own lives?
Most fiction writers draw heavily from the world around them and heavily make things up at the same time, so the two become inseparable and this question is difficult to answer. Writing about something that’s affected you doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve written about it directly in the way it happened to you. Sometimes too, a writer researches and writes about something as an outsider, which then becomes inseparable from their own life.
Do you need personal experience to write about something?
To write fiction or poetry, I don’t think someone needs to have experienced something directly or in the same way. I do think if you’re writing about top-draw feelings you probably need to have experienced some kind of top-draw feeling yourself, or at least informally know someone who has. Similarly, if you’re writing about someone from a minority group (e.g, in terms of race, heritage, religion, sexuality or disability) it helps if you can relate to being in a minority, without necessarily belonging to that particular group. It also depends how important the experience or identity is to the story. I’ve heard people advise against writing about love or grief unless you’ve experienced either, which feels sensible. For journalism or academic writing, I believe the right to speak to vulnerable people or handle certain topics should be earned through maturity and experience; lived or professional.
How do you know when something you’re writing is really finished?
According to someone better-placed to answer this than me (and I can vouch for it), you know whether or not you’ve finished when you know whether the structure is really right for the story you want to tell.
Do you self-publish / crowdfund your writing? Everyone does now, don’t they?
I don’t, and they don’t. To crowdfund or self-publish well, you need marketing experience, confidence and contacts. Self-publishing and crowdfunding are great for types of writing which are easier to sell directly to an audience than through a traditional publisher; like poetry, family history, essay collections, specialist non-fiction, and some genres of fiction which not many agents handle. They appeal to people who want more control over their work, including aspects of marketing which are usually decided by a publisher, like where it’s sold and what goes on the cover. They aren’t so great if you want to write more than one book; or for novels, unless you’ve got a large audience as an expert in something and your novel will appeal to that audience.
I want to self-publish / crowdfund my book, can you help me?

The Writers And Artists Yearbook has a guide to the process, and lots of people I know have crowdfunded books through Unbound. When I can, I support crowdfunded work that fits in with my interests; especially involving people who are underrepresented, under-confident or under-connected.

What kinds of books / stories / culture do you enjoy?
As a child, any book in front of me. As a teenager, films, sitcoms and nineties soaps. In my twenties, any play I could get to, and the blog/webcomic Hyperbole and a Half. Now, novels and Netflix. I like stories involving plucky outsiders, difficult conversations, and women doing things in general. Two books I wish I’d written are Allan Hollinghurst’s THE LINE OF BEAUTY and Zoe Heller’s NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Two recent ones I’ve enjoyed are GIRL WOMAN OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo and FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser Akner. I’ve named a character Vonny after Veronica Mars –  joint-favourite TV character of the century, along with Nadia Vulvukov.  I’m not into heavy romance or violence, in fiction or in life. I love music: the dwindling amount I listen to which was released in the last decade includes Ladyhawke, La Roux, Rumer, Lorde, Saint Saviour, Little Dragon, London Grammar, Christine and the Queens, Jain, Mattiel Brown, Georgia, Jesca Hoop, Nadine Shah and Rina Sawayama. I occasionally have cultural opinions for Hustlers of Culture.
What else are you good at doing?

Not much, although my post-30 revelation that it might be emotionally healthy to try something else led to a love of running and horses. Like Vonny in my WIP, I built small websites and kept blogs throughout my late teens and twenties, although, unlike her, mine were generally more devoted to quoting song lyrics than looking for gainful employment. I can sing but not play or write songs, I don’t take drugs and I like getting paid to work, which doesn’t get you far in the music industry. Or in music journalism for that matter, although I got far enough there to make the shortlist for Chief Sub at Record Collector magazine at 24; and for The Quietus to let me commemorate 20 years since one of my all-time favourite singers released her debut album. If I wasn’t a writer with opinions and a Twitter account, I’d probably be a detective or a spy, or do deep dive investigative journalism.

What kinds of work have you done other than writing and journalism?

“Other work includes”: Being a learning support assistant to children with speech and language needs. Cleaning floors and bathrooms on location for a TV production company. Stuffing envelopes at a tobacco requisites firm. Volunteering in charity shops. Data entry. Babysitting and cat-sitting. Brief, inept youthful stints in retail and call centres. Basically the usual recession jobs made up of grouchy weekend DJs, and people either saving up to emigrate or wishing they hadn’t. Including my first job out of university, which was awful but inadvertently led me to lots of lovely people.

Did you write about Dyspraxia for the Guardian?
Yes. I’ve also written this page of common questions about Dyspraxia, which answers pretty much everything I’m asked about it as well as I’m able to. If you’re interested in journalism, Jessica Reed, one of the Guardian’s desk editors when I wrote that piece, who now works for Guardian US, has written a helpful guide to pitching for freelance writers. Many publications have similar guides, which commissioning editors will tweet out when they’re particularly looking for pitches. Some large publications run graduate schemes. There are also books and short courses on freelance journalism for beginners. For anything to do with the Guardian or the Dyspraxia Foundation, please contact them directly.
Why do you have three names?
In the early-mid 2000s, I sometimes wrote using my middle name, Frances, as a surname to stop nosy acquaintances and temp job bosses finding my student opinions on Google. Then it got confusing. Then someone suggested I use my full name because it made me sound like the right sort of girl, and I listened to him because he was the features editor of a national newspaper section and I was 23. I don’t have my own Scottish island.
What would you do with unlimited time and money?

Travel the world collecting anecdotes, lipsticks and PhDs.

What's the best way to get in touch with you?
Email is usually best by far, and if you try and reach me another way I’ll probably tell you to email me anyway. I can’t always promise to reply but I read and appreciate everything. You’re welcome to follow me on Twitter; I’m there a lot, and happy to hear from nice people. Facebook is for friends, in the traditional sense of people I’ve met at least once or twice. If you use the internet for work more than swearing at the news and watching cat videos, you can find me on LinkedIn or The Dots.
Will you come to my event / be in my documentary / help with my research about Dyspraxia?
I’m happy to speak at events related to what I do and/or to dyspraxia. My dyspraxia FAQ has some suggestions for making your event dyspraxia-friendly (and all-person friendly). Where I can, I’m also happy to attend events as a supporter, help with research, or be in documentaries, but I get more of these invitations than I’m able to fulfil. The more local you are, or the more you can afford towards travel costs, the more likely I can attend or take part.
But really though, how do I get into writing?
Really though, no one person or place can tell you that. Writing is a path laid by you, not for you. It’s not like going to medical school or law school where you learn this about arteries or that about probates and then you’re a doctor or lawyer. It’s not like most businesses, where most people chase market trends or market leaders. People write for different reasons. Most people who write full-time do various different kinds of writing, and tutor or mentor other writers. The Literary Consultancy and Nicola Morgan (the writer, not the politician…) give great advice. You can learn a lot by taking notice of people, their accomplishments and their mistakes. But what’s true or right for one person may not be for another. Get to know people, but never expect someone to have all the answers, and leg it if they claim to –  especially anyone guaranteeing you’ll earn a living by doing their thing. Think about why you want to write, and ask career questions out of genuine warmth towards whoever you’re asking. As writer Daisy Buchanan puts it brilliantly, people who collect career advice are sometimes more envious of other people’s assumed lives than interested in their work. As a writer – especially a young woman – it’s easy to fall subconsciously into presenting yourself a certain way in order to fit in, then come across in a way which doesn’t reflect the whole picture of your background. My best relationships with writers and performers are open, mutually-appreciative and grew out of shared experiences. My worst ones have been those where I’ve felt more drawn to someone by their confidence than by the value of what they were doing.
No, really though, how do I survive if writing's all I can do?
Many writers get questions about writing from people who want to write. Then there are those who have to write, and it’s heartbreaking because I’m one of those people too and I want to offer quick and easy solutions, but I can’t. Without being Royal, taking your clothes off or breaking the law, there are basically these ways to manage while you’re building up experience, depending on your age and situation: 1) Holding down a reasonably-paid admin job for as long as you can manage 2) Support from the Arts Council, often through regional arts organisations which run schemes for emerging writers, 3) Support from businesses or private donors who fund the arts, 4) The support of family (emotional, as much if not more than, financial…) and 5) A partner’s salary. I’ve variously had all of these, except the last one, which has never sat right with me but I judge no-one else if it works for them. As a long shot, many writing contests offer cash or free mentoring as prizes. Copywriting, proofreading, translation and teaching or tutoring are the likeliest ways to earn money from writing.