Staying on top of your game and maintaining focus is one of the most challenging elements of the novel-writing process.
Many authors-in-progress are familiar with writer’s block, but also are uncertain of both how to start and stop researching, or even how to efficiently and productively research their story.
We guide our students through these common issues in our Research course, but we also had the wonderful opportunity to speak about this topic to author Tim Relf (aka T. R. Richmond).
Tim had a few things to say about what happens when self-doubt descends, and how to turn the chaos of research into character.
Q – Hi Tim, and thanks for joining us! To start, can you tell us a little about your journey as a writer?
Tim Relf – It’s a pleasure to be here. Writing is a big part of my day job because I’m an agricultural journalist — the glamour! — but I’ve always enjoyed writing fiction, although for many years it was all a bit random and unfocused.
My first book wasn’t published until I was in my 30s, but it seems that nowadays age is less important — I often hear of new novelists getting their first break in their 50s or 60s (or even older). That’s incredibly encouraging, and there’s no set start date or age limit whatsoever.
Q – Do you consciously choose the genre for your novels before you start writing, and do you think you can successfully mix genres?
TR – The answer to the first part of that question is a resounding ‘no’. I think you’ve got to write what you feel strongly about, what you want to write and what you are best at writing.
Concerning the second part; yes, I do — although some publishers and retailers would disagree with me on that.
Q – What She Left is written in an unusual format. Was it difficult to sell that format to a publisher?
TR – We billed it as a ‘modern epistolary novel’ and tried to make it reflect the way people communicate and share news these days.
It does bounce around in terms of time and perspective, but hopefully, it feels contemporary as a result. After all, that’s how we consume information these days.
I wanted the novel to feel like an unfolding news story, and we all get our news from a multitude of sources — our friends, our colleagues, the TV, social media, websites.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with an agent on the book at a fairly early stage in its evolution, so she massively helped me shape it and turn it into something which we felt was commercial and would appeal to a publisher.
We all have moments where we lose the enjoyment of writing, but I think the important thing is just to get something down on paper in terms of a first draft. It’s amazing how much an edit can improve things.
– Tim Relf
Q – Why did you choose to publish under a pen name?
TR – Partly because I’d done a lot of journalism over the years and we wanted this book to stand alone and apart from that.
I also have a surname that no one ever spells right, so I figured it would be nice to have an easy-to-spell surname for a change!
Q – Do you ever have times where you find your writing gets a bit ‘stuck’, and you struggle for inspiration?
TR – Yes, all the time, and right now I’m not having a particularly prolific period. People always advise me to do something else entirely unrelated to writing when you’re feeling like that.
I’ve found gardening can be a great way to shake my thoughts up, but any kind of physical exercise can be great for working through difficult periods in your writing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re struggling to write, don’t dwell on it. Do something else until you get that feeling again that you can’t not write.
Q – Are you ever unhappy with how your plots develop throughout the writing process?
TR – Yes! Every writer has bits of their work they’re unhappy with, and we all have moments where we lose the enjoyment of writing.
However, I think the important thing is just to get something down on paper in terms of a first draft.
It’s amazing how much an edit can improve things, and it can be really enjoyable and fulfilling, too, because it feels like you’re really making a difference to the piece as a whole.
When you’re writing a book it’s best not to read too much of any one particular author because their style can permeate yours
– Tim Relf
Q – What have you learnt between writing your first pieces of fiction to the fiction you are writing now? Have you had feedback from anyone that you wish you had known when you first started?
TR – I’ve become more aware of how important the initial/central ‘idea’ is. It strikes me that if a book doesn’t have a compelling or original premise it can struggle, no matter how good the writing is. Feedback can be tricky business.
You absolutely have to listen to it and learn from it, particularly if it’s from agents or editors because those guys really do know what they’re talking about.
At the same time though, you have to have a strong sense of what you’re trying to achieve and where you’re going with the book, and you’ve got to try to stay true to that vision.
Q – Do you borrow from other writers in the same way musicians might take ideas and concepts from other artists?
TR – Well, I’m sure I do borrow – no writer or book is an island — but I try not to too much. I was told that when you’re writing a book it’s best not to read too much of any one particular author because their style can permeate yours, even subconsciously.
A writer I know only reads short story anthologies when they’re working on a book to avoid this problem.
Most of the research never gets used, but it helps shape my sense of a character – who would they vote for? What do they like eating? What do they watch on TV? It’s those details that help you fashion a sense of someone and that, in turn, helps you understand what decisions they’d make.
– Tim Relf
Q – When you wrote What She Left, did you have the entire story planned out and know your ending, or did it evolve as you wrote it?
TR – I’ve approached different books in different ways and I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion there isn’t a single right way of doing it.
As you’ll know, some writers plan zealously, while others just sit down and hit the keyboard.
I personally like the idea of planning. It seems logical and sensible, but I think I’m someone who explores – and ultimately, finds – stories by actually writing them, rather than planning them.
This means there can be a lot of editing, but, as we talked about earlier, I enjoy this aspect.
Q – How do you go about researching your writing?
TR – I find that the internet is essential for research. I also always badger people I know who are the same age as a particular character to find out what their cultural reference points are.
Most of the research never gets used, but it helps shape my sense of a character — who would they vote for? What do they like eating? What do they watch on TV? It’s those details that help you fashion a sense of someone and that, in turn, helps you understand what decisions they’d make.
Q – How much of a role do your characters play in directing your plots? Do they ever surprise you?
TR – Absolutely. They also get under your skin, and they can be hard to leave behind when you stop writing about them.
I’m always envious of people who write series, as I love the idea of continuing with a character, book after book.
I’m afraid that we learn my protagonist is dead very early on in What She Left, so I’ve rather closed the door on a sequel!
Q – Tim, thank you for your time. You’ve given us plenty to think about!
TR – Thank you for having me. Good luck.