Shirley Benton's debut novel LOOKING FOR LEON is released in March. Here, she tells us about her writing process, and how being Irish influences her writing. Enjoy!
1. Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
There used to be such a thing as an average writing day for me, encompassing such sensible ideas as designated writing time – oh, I remember it with fondness – but I had a baby in December and now no two writing days are the same for me. In general, evenings are my best time to write because my toddler is in bed and my husband is at home to look after the baby, but writing plans can easily go out the window when there’s an eight-week old in the house, so I have to be hugely disciplined and make up that time somewhere else in the following day if that happens. Since December, I tend to write literally whenever I get the opportunity – fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there rather than in a block of three hours. It’s not as hard as it sounds, because I find that I’m plotting things out in my head while I’m doing mundane things like loading the dishwasher, and by the time I get to my laptop, the work is already written in my head and it’s just a matter of getting it down on screen. I do find that I often stay up late to write as well. It’s better to get your work done early in the morning really, but that just doesn’t suit my schedule at the moment.
2. When you are writing, do you use any celebrities or people you know as inspiration?
No, I’ve never tried to create a character that was based on or inspired by someone I know or have met. I find that I create the type of characters that I feel are needed to drive the plot. Writers are often asked if character or plot comes first for them, and I think it’s different for everyone – but for me, the answer is definitely plot. My characters are complete works of fiction that fit around the story I want to tell.
3. What is your favourite Irish Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
It’s definitely Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes, not because of the storyline but because of the quality of writing. It has everything. It’s hilarious, it’s touching, it’s got depth, it’s a page-turner, it has amazing characters – the list of positives is endless.
I always start with a concept. If I think the concept has legs, I’ll write a blurb for it so that I can define for myself what this book is going to be about in just a few paragraphs. Then I start planning. I’ll write a long outline for the book, teasing the whole concept out more and breaking it down into a discernible introduction, main part and resolution. I’ll then do a chapter-by-chapter plan for each of these sections, making sure the flow and pacing seems correct at a high level. I try to do character outlines before I start writing scenes, but again, they’re usually quite high level – main personality characteristics and general physical description more so than down to the level of what song this character would want to be played at their funeral! Then I start writing the chapters. It might sound structured, but I really leave myself wide open to changing things as I go along – I definitely don’t stick rigidly to my plan. I often find that I’ll get new or better ideas once I get stuck into the book. As for the amount of drafts I do, I did four drafts for Looking for Leon – the first was just getting the entire story written, the second was a tightening up exercise, the third was for consistency and accuracy and the fourth was a proofread. I’m just coming to the end of the first draft of my second book, so I’ll probably follow the same process for this one. I think the writing process is so, so different for every writer though, and as with everything else, it’s a case of whatever works!
5. What was your journey to being a published author?
It took a while! I started writing in 2004, but as I was working full-time, it was hard to find the time to get a novel together. I eventually finished a book in 2006 and submitted it to various agents, but didn’t get representation. I then sent the novel to Poolbeg, who are now my publishers, and they very kindly sent me a letter explaining where they felt the book wasn’t working and suggesting that I rewrite these areas before resubmitting. By then, it was 2007. I was working on a children’s book and I resolved to rework my women’s fiction book when my work on the children’s book was done. All of that was well and good until I got severe morning sickness in pregnancy, and it decided to stay around for the entire pregnancy instead of just buggering off at 12 weeks like I’d hoped it would. Between the jigs and the reels, it was 2008 before I was in a position to either finish the children’s book or make the changes to the women’s fiction book. But by then, I had the idea for Looking for Leon and was itching to get started on writing it. I finished it in 2009 and was offered a three-book publishing deal with Poolbeg in 2010. So it’s now a seven-year journey, but worth every moment of those seven years of trying!
6. What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
There seems to be a perception that once you have your foot in the door and get your first book published, you’re sorted for getting publishing deals for the rest of your days. The reality is that a book deal is for a certain number of books only, and your books in that deal will have to sell well before another deal will happen. Getting a publishing deal is only the start of your writing journey. You will have to do a hell of a lot of work on publicity etc. to make sure your book sells. And you’ll love every minute of it, but the point is that books don’t just sell themselves just because they’re on the shelves.
7. What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
If you’re serious about writing, get strict with yourself and start right now. Assess your daily schedule and work out where you can use some of your time to write. Once you’ve established that, use that time every day to write and don’t use it for anything else. Of course there will be times when you’ll have an appointment that you just can’t miss, but put a plan in place to make up that time somewhere else in the day and stick to it. You’ll need to be very disciplined about this. Be prepared to make sacrifices. Believe me, I’m not a tough love person at all and I know this sounds very much like a tough love approach, but I don’t think I’d be fair to anyone reading this if I sugarcoated this advice. The book writing process is a long one for most people, and it can be all too easy to let life divert you from your goal if you don’t get tough with yourself. You’ll need to go into it with the attitude that you’re there for the long haul. I’d also recommend getting involved in a writers’ group. It helps to keep you motivated and provides a sounding board for your work. If you think you’d find that intimidating or you don’t feel you’re ready for public feedback on your work just yet, you can join an online writers’ group and maintain your anonymity.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently finishing the first draft of my second book. The rounds of edits will soon begin!
9. How does Ireland inspire your writing?
I’m more inspired by the nature of being Irish than the landscape of Ireland, in the sense that I think we Irish intrinsically use humour to get ourselves through certain situations, and that definitely is reflected in my writing. A lot of the characters in my book have a ‘take the mick’ attitude to life even though they have plenty of issues bubbling under the surface.