My writing day – Susie Steiner

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By Susie Steiner

My day begins with a strong black coffee and the headlines. ♥

In the weeks following Brexit, this has progressed to a prolonged battle to get off news sites such as The Guardian or social media such as Twitter. The best way to do this is to head up to my office in the attic.

For some reason, once I’m in the attic, I’m kind of off the internet, though I do have access to it, to check the definition of words (surprising how often I’m wrong), or to Google places or facts.

I write in Scrivener, which is a word processing programme specifically for books. I like it because it separates the work into ‘scenes’, which is how I think and write (I’ve never written in chapters).

These scenes appear down the left hand side in something called the binder. This allows you to not only see the structure of the novel; it also allows easy movement of scenes without opening the file. And you can jump around the novel without navigating within a vast 90K document.

I don’t set myself a daily word count – for me, word count isn’t where the challenge is. I’ve got lots of words, and they come relatively easily. I find structuring and plotting very difficult, whereas characterisation and dialogue come naturally. In the current book I’m writing, I have 40,000 words of deleted scenes. There’s nothing wrong with the scenes per se, they just don’t serve the arc of the story.

There are different phases to writing a novel: the first draft, which is the heavy lifting: setting out your stall, creating characters, generating inciting incidents and rising action. Once I have a first draft, I go into a prolonged period of re-drafting. I’ll rewrite over and over and over again. I really enjoy editing. It involves being quite ruthlessly critical towards your own work, and jettisoning some of your favourite bits of writing. I was a newspaper editor for over ten years so perhaps that’s why I find it satisfying. I often don’t find the right ending until very late in the game.

Endings are hard. Often you’ve thrown all these balls in the air – not just the crime, but inner conflicts in the characters, yearnings and motivations – and you need to bring it all in to land in a way that’s satisfying but not so novelistic that it doesn’t seem real. It can be tempting to resolve things in a cloying, schlocky way, or in a bloodbath, and I don’t like either. Endings are not just a series of tying-up events; they also set the tone and emotion that the reader is left with. That said, one must remember: it’s impossible to please everyone with an ending.

The end of the writing day is dictated by my children. I pick them up from school. But the inner work of the novel goes on, whether I’m trudging up the hill from school, grilling fish fingers or doing the food shop. It’s like a knot I’m always trying to unpick. I think about it as I go to sleep, when I wake in the night, and as I rouse in the morning. I go for long walks on the Heath and think about it more. This is rich and satisfying work but it can be annoying when the work becomes so bothersome that I can’t focus on a film at the cinema or a play at the theatre.

Given the chance, I could redraft for years and years, rewriting the novel from the inside out, and it would change and develop, but eventually, the deadline arrives, time’s up and it’s quite a good feeling to become bothered by something new.

Susie Steiner began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined the Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor for eleven years. Her first novel, Homecoming, was described as ‘truly exceptional’ by the Observer. Missing, Presumed, described as ‘smart and stylish’ by the New York Times, is her first crime novel. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

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