We’ve got a debut author this month for ‘Writers Tips’ – the very lovely Sylvia Bishop! Sylvia lives in Oxford (mostly in one particular armchair in Oxford). Her first book, Erica’s Elephant, came out just last month, and tells the story of an unlikely house-guest, the trouble he brings, and the importance of his friendship for a lonely young girl. Sylvia’s favourite books are funny and sincere in equal measure, so she tries to be both when she writes, which, she says, sometimes makes her brain hurt. When she is not writing, she makes up songs in a comedy show called the Peablossom Cabaret. She owns a green bicycle and she makes a good cup of tea.
How do you work – do you write every day, or when you feel like it, or when you have a deadline?
For me, it is less important how many hours I spend writing, and more important that I catch the right hours. I try and guard the first hours of my morning and the last hours at night. This is where the best ideas are lurking. If I work at night, then I often find that while I sleep my brain finds new solutions and ideas, and will present them to me in the morning – but only if I can be quiet for at least an hour while it’s still fresh. Everyone is different, so it’s good to experiment and find out when you write best. I know people who work from 9 to 5, and that is Very Well Behaved, but no use at all if you are like me and your brain always has a nap after lunch.
Where do you write? Can you write anywhere or do you have a special writing place and it has to be exactly that desk, those pens, that kind of notebook?
I always think I am very lucky to be a writer, because unlike a painter or a dancer or a musician I can just start doing what I love, any time, wherever I am. I always carry a notebook and pen. But my favourite place to write is a desk in the corner of my bedroom. I have a red angle poise lamp, and a pinboard full of Inspiring Things, and a lot of colour pencils that I will never use (they just make me feel artsy).
Do you use a lot of adjectives or adverbs in your writing or are you someone that likes very simple prose?
I don’t use them all that often, but when I do, I am normally misbehaving with them. I enjoy using the Wrong Sort of Adverb. I just finished a story about an elephant, and he is always doing things nervously or sheepishly or apologetically, which makes me laugh because these aren’t the words you would normally use for an elephant. Another character in that story tuts ‘wildly’, which is difficult to imagine when you stop and think about it, and a postcard behaves ‘stubbornly’. And so on!
Do you have any tips for how to invent fresh and original similes or metaphors?
Let’s say you want a simile for how red something is. The word rose won’t get out of your head because everybody knows that roses are red, violets are blue. I find it helpful to think “What do I want to say about this object as well as saying it is red?”. If I want to say that something is red and staggeringly dangerous, that makes me think “It was as red as lava.” If I want something red and funny and likeable, I end up at “as red as a clown’s nose.” Asking yourself that question makes it much easier to trigger new ideas.
That’s a great idea! Do you read your writing out loud? How does this help with your writing?
Yes, yes, yes! My first drafts have a lot of great winding sentences with so much punctuation it makes you choke. Reading them out loud is a bit of a hazard, but once I’ve recovered from choking, I break them all down. I also find it helpful for pace. If I have written for too long about something, then when I have to read it out loud, I am quickly the victim of my own boringness.
What’s a good tip for how to write characters who seem real?
I treat meeting a character like meeting a real person. When you meet real people, you don’t know what they think and feel, what their innermost desires are, what they are Truly Like, etc. You just know how they speak, how they move, and what their actions are. So I try and only write these things.
For example: in real life, I don’t meet someone and instantly know that they are shy and that this is because they were bullied when they were a child. I just know that they stand at the edges of the room and turn bright red when they speak. So that would be all I write down. I try not to know anything about my characters that I haven’t written on the page. You might disagree with me: some very good writers like to know everything about their characters before they begin. I find that if I do that, I lose sight of what I have actually written down, and my experience of the character is very different to the reader’s.
Can you give an example of one of your characters you really liked writing? Why were they fun to write?
Yes! In my first book, Erica’s Elephant, I had the best time writing the Elephant. Really, it feels like cheating, because he mostly wrote himself. He desperately wants to fit in and do well in his new home, but it just isn’t big enough for him, which makes him very funny and very sad at the same time. I never had to think about what interesting things he could get up to next: he only had to try and walk down the hall and something would go wrong. I missed him a lot when I started work on my second book – he certainly made my writing life easier!
One thing new writers find most difficult is structure and planning. Do you plan or do you make it up as you go along?
I try and plan, but it doesn’t always work out! Making it up can feel scary, but there can be method to the madness. I would say that there are two important rules for flying by the seat of your pants: bring back your first ideas, and don’t bring in any new ideas too late.
What do I mean by bringing back ideas? Say in chapter 1, we meet an old lady and you tell me about her cat and her umbrella. As a reader, I assume that you have told me all this for a reason. If I never see the cat or the umbrella again, I am going to smell a rat, and know that you didn’t know where the story was going when you brought them up. But if the next thing that happens is her cat gets stolen and her umbrella is used to fight the thief, it will all feel like it was planned.
And then the second rule – no late-comer new ideas! If our old lady suddenly has a gun in the last scene that wasn’t mentioned for the rest of the book, that feels like cheating. After the halfway point at the latest, stop making up new things, and just use all the things that are already in your story’s world – I promise there will be enough!
That’s really helpful – thanks! It was great to hear your ideas and Erica’s Elephant sounds fab (*heads off to get a copy right now*)… Good luck with your writing, and we’ll be looking out for that story about the old lady and her umbrella!