Wednesday 6 July 2011

The Write Way with Anne Fine

I am extremely excited that Anne Fine is joining us today for the The Write Way! where she talks about her writing techniques. Anne Fine is one of the UK's most prolific writers and has a new book called 'The Devil Walks' coming out this week.

What inspired you to write The Devil Walks ?
I’d read the poem by John Betjeman that includes the lines,
As certain as the sun behind the Downs
And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks.
The idea floated round my head of some hidden place in a old garden, called the Devil Walks, where in past times the man of the house might go when he was in a temper to stride and swear behind high hedges, away from the ladies. It might be called The Devil Walks. The double meaning of the words intrigued me, and the novel started from there.

You have had quite a prolific writing career, how many books have you managed to write in one year so far?
An adult novel will usually take over a year. The short comedies for very young children have to be kept simple, so once the idea comes, they take no time at all. So some years the answer would be, not quite one; other years, two or three short books for children. Never more than that.

On your website I noticed that you write for children and adults. Do you find it an easy transition to write for different age groups? Which age bracket do you find the easiest to write for?
The idea dictates the age group. I am at heart a reader, so I tend to think, ‘At what age would I have liked this idea best?’ I pitch it at a reader of that age (using my younger selves as a template for reading level). I don’t find any age harder than any other to write for, but adult novels, being that much longer and often more emotionally demanding, tend to leave me feeling like a piece of chewed string, whereas, after finishing a book for children, the feeling is more often one of simple relief and satisfaction.

What kind of research did you need to carry out before writing The Devil Walks and how long did it take you?
I didn’t research anything, as I recall. I made it all up. That’s not to say that I don’t usually end up reading around the topic I’m going to write about, because I do. But there is nothing in The Devil Walks that needed any research.

Do you meticulously plan out your books before you begin writing, or do you just go with the flow?
Nabokov said, ‘I treat my characters like galley slaves.’ But I don’t. I have never planned out a book. Neither do I exactly ‘go with the flow’. I think I have a sense of where the book is going, and do a bit of corralling as I go along. The best way I can describe it is that I feel the book is somehow already there, waiting to be discovered. The process seems more like brushing sand off a structure underneath until you find the proper shape of it. One thing I will say is that, if it’s an ‘issue’ book, I usually know the point I want to make before I start. The longer you’ve been writing, of course, the quicker you recognise a blind alley, or the wrong direction. That is part of the craft.

When you were writing your first draft of The Devil Walks, how many words did you aim to write each day?
Again, I don’t. Some days I charge ahead. On other days I nitpick and delete and end up with a shorter word count than I had before. And I don’t do ‘first drafts’. I mean, I do correct, over and over and over. But I tend to do that even as I go along. I keep a current print-out in a ring binder. (I find that easier than scrolling back and forth. It gives me far more of a sense of how the book is shaping up.) And if you looked at that, you’d see that the earliest pages are almost ready for the printer, the middle pages are still covered with pencil corrections, and the end might still be no more than a twinkle in my eye.

Did you hand write your book or did you write directly onto the computer? Do you use Mac or Windows?
I come down first thing in the morning and take the teapot back to bed. There, I’ll write in pencil since I hate working on laptops, especially without a mouse. Then I go down and type up what I’ve written. If I am pressing on during the day, I tend to work straight onto the computer. I work on trains, too, now that I have my ipod that plays white noise. (It’s crashing surf on a loop and it has changed my travelling life.) And there I’ll press on, or correct, in pencil, since it’s easier. I don’t consider having to type up all the pencilled corrections as a waste of time, because I’m re-editing once again even as I am doing it.
I started on a Mac and loved it. Right now I’m on Windows and too thrifty to change. But the moment it fails, I’m going back to one of the new Macs.

How long did it take you write the first draft?
The Devil Walks was a real beast to write. I couldn’t get it right. Usually I manage to beat out the overarching structure quite well, and just end up tinkering endlessly with every sentence until I feel the whole book is the best that I can do and everything flows properly. But this book didn’t work. I couldn’t get it right at all.

Please explain your writing process after the first draft was finished?

Do you find that writing get easier the more books you publish?
No. You do get better at seeing technical problems looming – time shifts, or trying to follow the emotions of two separate characters at the same time, that sort of thing. What makes the work seem so much easier is the conviction that, if you put the work in, and your brain hasn’t gone, it has a really good chance of being published. It must be terribly hard to put the endless hours into writing a novel when you suspect that, even if it turns out brilliant, it might not find a publisher at the end.

What are you planning to write next?
I’m already on it. I’ll have to do corrections for a comedy for 8-12 year olds called Trouble in Toadpool – the book I wrote when I was beached up on The Devil Walks. Meanwhile, I’m working on a novel for older children, this time in the present day. But I do find it difficult to talk about what I am doing until it’s finished, so I won’t.

When is your ideal time to write? Morning, afternoon or evening?
Don’t mind. My block is feeling a great urge to clear the decks before I start: reply to emails, pay the bills, that sort of thing. I try to be firm about that. And once I’ve forced myself to start to work on my own stuff, I almost never have a problem carrying on. That said, I rarely work in the evening as I’m usually too tired by then.

Do you write in silence or do you need music to help you?
Silence. I don’t mind industrial noise, like traffic, diggers or pneumatic drills. (Though, if they’re awful, I’ll put on my crashing surf tape.) But I can’t ever concentrate against words or music. In fact, I simply can’t understand how other people can.

Which authors inspired you whilst growing up?
I don’t think anyone ‘inspired’ me as such. I read a heap of writers as I grew. Everyone I could manage and some I couldn’t. I worked my way through Blyton, Buckeridge, Richmal Crompton, Kipling, Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Margaret Irwin – I could go on and on. We had a library in school, and I had tickets for both Northampton Town and County libraries. I read all the time, for hours every day. And I still do.

Who is your favourite author now?
Often, whoever I am reading. It changes every week. I live in constant fear of running out of brilliant books, and then, hey presto! I’ll read an article in the New Yorker, or the London Review of Books, and that puts me onto someone I had barely heard of, and I adore their work. I had a passion for Rebecca West last month. Now I am onto Paula Fox. But it will be someone quite different next week. That’s the way it goes.

Out of all the books you have written, which is your favourite?
I think the adult novels are my favourites, because I tend to mine so much more of myself to write them. (Find them on Of all the books for children I have a soft spot for The Book of the Banshee because it reminds me of how authors can spin gold from straw. Having four teenagers through the house was no joke, yet I managed to make a comedy out of it that other parents say they love. (It is a book for older children, but adults read it more.) I’m fond of The Angel of Nitshill Road because it’s comforted so many children who are bullied in school. And Up on Cloud Nine and How To Write Really Badly, because I love my characters, Stolly and Chester Howard, so much.

I have recently been the proud parent of two Flour Babies and I wondered how you felt about schools using your book as part of their topic planning for PSHE? Did you write it intentionally for that purpose?
I don’t mind. I suppose I think that some books have to lay down their lives so that others may be read properly. (Though, interestingly, children these days tend to adore the books they study, rather than end up loathing them for ever, the way we mostly did.) I didn’t write the book for any pedagogical purpose, though I am fascinated to see how well it works in so many schools. I read a snippet in a newspaper about a school project of that sort in a Californian school and thought, ‘That would work well.’ What I didn’t realise till several years later was that I wrote Flour Babies the year my youngest daughter finally went off to university. So I suspect that all that ‘Free at last!’ explosion at the end had personal resonance.

Apart from your own books, which other book do you wish you had written?
God! Anything by Jane Austen. That would satisfy me for eternity.

What advice can you give to unpublished authors?
Cheer yourself up with a chart. You know how many pages your work will roughly be, so make a chart like some poor child in boarding school, and tick off each block of 500 words, or whatever, to give you a sense of progress as you plod along.
And if you’ve already finished, keep two hours a week for doing your own secretarial work of sending out your stuff over and over. Pretend you’re someone else, and getting paid to do the job dispassionately and calmly. I know so many authors who have stood at the podium at a prize giving, then mentioned afterwards how many publishers had seen their work before it finally found a home.
But, if you get the same advice from several places, pay attention to it. Any suggestions on how to fix the problem might not suit your way of writing. But if more than one reader snags on the same thing, there is a problem there, and you must fix it somehow.
I also think it’s so important to remember that there’s an element of luck in all this writing business. But, if your book is absolutely top notch, you will find a publisher. I truly do believe that still.

What an amazing author! I have learnt so much from this interview. Thank you Anne for taking the time to answer all the questions.

Anne Fine's new book The Devil Walks is published tomorrow by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House Children's Books.
To find out more about Anne Fine, please visit her at her website here.


  1. Fantastic post and a pleasure to read. I've read a few Anne Finn books, but that was a while ago now.

    I love getting a bit of a glimpse at the author behind a book.

  2. Thanks to Anne for such a fantastic interview and thanks to you Vivienne for as always being a great host. Interesting to read how Anne works an awful lot in pencil, I always imagine authors working on at least a battered old typewriter.

  3. Great post :)
    I must say that I too work best in pencil, it just has this other feel to it

  4. Fantastic post. Great interview and insight. This book also looks and sounds great. x

  5. Its so good and reassuring to hear that it can take an established author a year plus to write a full novel. Phew! i was worried you had to pop out two or more a year!

    I like the idea of charting off progress as you write. I'm really anal about planning, so doing that would probably really help to keep me on track.

    Great interview!

  6. Nice interview. I find it interesting that she usually writes in pencil first, then types it up. I dislike laptops also.

  7. Thanks for posting - I enjoy author interviews.

  8. Wonderful interview, Vivienne. The author answers all of your questions in a sincere manner, and it was enjoyable to read about her writing techniques. I am a Mac person as well.

  9. Jules - I am really pleased you like it. It was a fabulous interview. So glad Anne agreed to take part.

    Emma _ thankyou!

    Phentermine - thanks

    Petty Witter - I was surprised by that too.

    Blodeuedd - I work straight onto the computer.

    SusanKMann - it was very good.

    Hannah - I liked the planning idea too. That way you can reward yourself when you reach goals.

    Cozy - thanks

    Suko - I have yet to use a Mac so not sure whether I would like them or not.

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