Monday, 8 August 2011
A Chat with Dorothy Koomson
Libby has a good life with a gorgeous husband and a home by the sea. But over time she is becoming more unsure if Jack has ever loved her - and if he is over the death of Eve, his first wife.
When fate intervenes in their relationship, Libby decides to find out all she can about the man she hastily married and the seemingly perfect Eve. But in doing so she unearths devastating secrets.
Frightened by what she finds and the damage it could cause, Libby starts to worry that she too will end up like the first woman Jack loved ...
Hi Dorothy and welcome to High Heels and Book Deals. 1. Tell me about your journey to publication.
I’ve been writing for what feels like for ever – which in reality is about 25 years ago! I started way back when I was about 13. I loved reading and TV dramas so wanted to be a storyteller, too. I used to write a chapter every night then pass it round my convent school friends the next morning. When I finished university for the first time I tried to get the book I’d written then published by sending it to a few agents but no one was interested. I was upset at the time but now I’m pleased those stories weren’t published because my writing has moved on so much from then.
In 2002, while I was working on the book that would become THE CHOCOLATE RUN, I went to visit a friend in Leeds and had an experience that inspired me to write THE CUPID EFFECT. (The experience actually became a chapter in the book.) I went back to London and started the story. I sent the first three chapters to various agents and they all told me to go away. I finished the book and sent it out again. The same thing happened – they all rejected me. So I sent it to a publisher who accepted it 3 months later.
By the time I got that offer letter I’d been wondering whether to give up trying to get published. I was in bed asking God/The Universe/Whoever to give me a sign as to whether I should carry on or give up. A few minutes later, the postman rang my buzzer with the letter that changed my life.
Funnily enough, I decided to ring up one of the agents who hadn’t been too harsh in rejecting me to ask her a few questions – I really felt I had nothing to lose: she could only tell me to get lost. She’d rejected me for trying too hard to be funny. I spoke to her for a few minutes and she kept laughing and I said, ‘See, I am funny!’ That’s when she asked me if I would like her to be my agent. I said, ‘Yes’, of course!
After my second novel, THE CHOCOLATE RUN, was published I changed agents and publishers – my new agent and publisher are a much better fit for me, but I’ll always be grateful to those who first took me on.
How long does it take you to write a first draft and how many drafts do you then complete?
It takes around a year to get a book done. That doesn’t include all the work on coming up with an idea, researching it, writing myself up a blind alley or two, deciding to write something else, etc. That takes much longer. I don’t write in sequence so I don’t have that much of a first draft completed when I type the final few words. What I have are a lot of scenes and incidences from the book that need to be stitched together and then rewritten to flow. After that rewrite, I will rewrite and rewrite the book as many times as necessary. Sometimes it’ll take ten rewrites to get it right – like GOODNIGHT, BEAUTIFUL, sometimes two rewrites like THE CUPID EFFECT. It depends on the book.
I don’t think the two professions differ that much except, of course, one’s about not real people and the other is. But I think the mechanics are the same: the need to tell a story as engagingly as possible. I also know from my journalism training that you need to hook the reader pretty instantly: with a book it’s about three pages, with a journalistic article it’s the first paragraph.
Being a journalist and editor also helps when it comes to editing my book. I can be pretty ruthless in cutting out scenes – even the ones I love. If they’re not actively moving the story along, I know they’ve got to go.
Up until after I had finished writing MARSHMALLOWS FOR BREAKFAST I worked full-time as a journalist/editor. I was living in Australia for two years and when the magazine I was working on folded, I stayed there to finish MARSHMALLOWS FOR BREAKFAST then I decided to come back home and take a leap of faith to write novels full-time. I don’t do much formal journalism nowadays, but I still use the skills to write fiction.
You’ve written six best selling books so far, with your seventh, The Woman He Loved Before out in paperback in August. What is the secret to making a book a best seller?
I think the secret . . . Come closer, I’ll whisper it: The secret is to put it all out of your mind and concentrate on writing the best book you can. By ‘all’ I mean the dream of being on the best-seller lists, the good and not-so-good reviews, the accolades or the resounding silence of no-one knowing your book exists. You have to put aside everything associated with what has gone before in your book-writing career and then pour all of your energy into writing a better book than last time. If you let all those other things creep in while you’re writing, you’ll become frozen. And if you don’t actually write a book, you can’t fulfil those dreams to be the next Marian Keyes/Dan Brown/[Insert your favourite author].
Through your diary on your website, I’ve followed your writing career for some time now. How much did it change after you were chosen as a Richard and Judy Book Club choice?
Wow, had no idea you’d heard of me before Twitter! My writing career changed by giving my books a wider audience, although MY BEST FRIEND'S GIRL was doing really well before the show. (It did amazingly well afterwards, of course.) I often say that my book being on The Richard & Judy Summer Reads of 2006 is like the heavenly icing on the divine cake that is being published.
Do you have much time to read? If so, what is your favourite genre?
I don’t read much for pleasure at the moment, almost everything I read is for research now. But when I did have the luxury of being able to read for pleasure, I read as many varied genres as possible. As a writer you need to have an idea of what is being published. You can learn so much from genres outside of the ones you write for. My favourite genre is commercial women’s fiction. I’ve come up with a new sub genre, one that describes my last two books: emotional thriller. There’s a crime element to them, but the emphasis of the story is on the effect the crime has on the characters, not on the crime itself or its detection.
Are you a plotter or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-panter?
I’m a disciplined fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type. I will sit down and write without thinking I need to get a certain number of words done on a particular day, but I do keep a running word count on my computer desktop. I know what the story is about, and I usually have an idea how a story will end, and what elements are needed to it, but I don’t plot every chapter, or even every part of it. I usually give the characters a chance to run the story. The plot is also influenced a lot by what I discover during the course of research: with The Woman He Loved Before, I had written a lot of the beginning of the book when I finally spoke to my medical expert and she basically told me a lot of the stuff I had would have killed Libby or would have had her laid up for months on end. This meant starting from scratch because Libby’s injuries were quite integral to the story. Other times, I start writing and let the plot work itself out for me. For example, with The Ice Cream Girls, when I started writing I didn’t know who the killer was. It was only half way through I realised who had to have done it and why.
What is your best writing tip?
I’m terrible at this type of question because I have so many tips: write what you love so that you believe in the story enough to survive all the knockbacks you’ll get; find a writing system that suits you – even if it means writing the end first and working your way to the beginning; always write the best book you can and if it doesn’t turn out how you expect, it’ll be the better for it. But, I suppose the BEST writing tip is this: write.
And your worst writing habit?
I have two pretty bad writing habits, not sure which is the worst. One is living the story so much so I’m usually emotionally, mentally and physically drained by the time I’m finished writing a book; the other is typing [WRITE MORE] at certain points in my work in progress if I can’t seem to finish that scene. I only remember how bad a habit it is when I come to the rewrite stage and I’ve forgotten I’ve done this and so find I haven’t really finished.
And finally, what’s your poison - high heels or flat shoes?
I’d love to say high heels, but I’ve spent most of my life in flats and trainers. If they’re high, they’re wedged. I’m not very good in heels – I remember having a pair when I was in college that had these gorgeous hour-glass-shaped heels. I wore them dancing and, to cut a long story short, I ended up on crutches for two weeks with a badly sprained ankle. I hadn’t even had a drink! My other high heels story is when I was in Australia, I was going to a celebrity charity ball and had the outfit but no shoes. My friend lent me her sister-in-law’s shoes. I didn’t realise they’d be Prada’s (black patent heels) until she handed me the bag. Her sister-in-law is an A-list actress and had given my friend the shoes a couple of years earlier. They were gorgeous and surprisingly comfortable, but I was terrified the whole time of scuffing them and/or breaking my neck.
‘He loves me, he loves me not’ by Camper
They’re cute, not too high, red – I love red – and you have to read across them to get the whole message.
Many thanks for your time, Dorothy and all the best with THE WOMAN HE LOVED BEFORE. You can find out more about Dorothy on her website here.