Write Advice: author Tim Relf on his writing process

Tim Relf, author of What She Left under the name T.R. Richmond, came along to answer some of our Faber Academy alumni’s questions on agents, distilling a vague plan into a solid story and who he gets to critique his writing.

Tim Relf
Tim Relf

Q – Hi Tim, and thanks for joining us! To start, I’d love to know how you found the whole process of finding an agent and getting published. Did it take an age, or was it fairly quick and easy?

Tim Relf – Thanks for having me, it’s good to be here! I had about 30,000 words written before I contacted an agent.

Like a lot of newer writers I didn’t know many people in that world, but I’d crossed paths with someone who worked for a literary agency many years ago.

I contacted her again and said hello — I was very surprised/flattered that she remembered me — and, even though she works on the financial side now, she suggested I contact one of her colleagues. It all just grew from there…

Q –  While we’re on the topic of agents, if they request a synopsis in their guidelines, how much of the story should you tell? Should you include the ending as well?

TR –  I’d say yes, in terms of telling the ending. Basically, they want to know exactly what happens to your characters, why and when.

The blurb that you read on a book jacket is a bit more cryptic, but I’d definitely recommend outlining the ending in your synopsis.

Keep readers guessing, but tell agents and publishers all.

– Tim Relf

Q – That’s really helpful. In my story, the reader is left to decide, as the ending can go either way. I’ve had some good feedback, and the thing I liked about What She Left was that you kept us all guessing until the very end.

I learnt some good tricks from your writing.

TR – Thanks! And yes, keep readers guessing, but tell agents and publishers all.

Q – When writing, I often struggle with actually knowing what the story is.

I’m comfortable with individual scenes, characters and descriptive writing, but I struggle to decipher exactly what the story is. How do you achieve the clarity to see this?

TR – You’re not alone there – this is something most writers struggle with.

I was once advised to boil it down to an elevator pitch. It sounds simplistic, but it really helped me — if your synopsis is two pages, get it down to one, then 250 words, then a paragraph, and finally a single sentence.

It’s a really helpful way of focusing on what the story, at its heart, is ultimately about.

Q – When you’re buried in your writing, how do you stand back and see the bigger picture?

TR –  It’s very easy to get buried.

I’m a firm believer in not writing for too long on any one day (maybe I’m just lazy!), but getting away from my laptop and doing something completely different — even if it’s just walking the dog or mowing the lawn — helps clear out my head.

I also like sleeping on problems. Sometimes things are just clearer the next day!

Any sort of writing is good to help find your voice.

– Tim Relf

Q – How did you find your writing voice? Was it just a process of hammering out short stories?

TR –  Pretty much! Any sort of writing is good to help find your voice.

I think when I’ve hit on a good character, I find writing easy; when I’ve come up with a rubbish character, the writing is hard.

Q – When you had the idea for What She Left, did you know what genre it would be? It could have been a love story, tragedy, comedy or thriller depending on who the characters were.

TR – I started with the structure and then came up with the story. As you say, that structure could have potentially worked for a range of genres.

Q – Are you the kind of writer who paces the room, reading back what you have written, or do you give it to a family member or friend to read cold? Who are your harshest/fairest critics?

TR – I’d say a combination of the two. You’ve got to find people you trust and who are prepared to give you honest feedback, but some are better than others at doing it in a way that’s helpful and constructive.

I’ve got a handful of fellow writers (who I don’t actually know that well as friends) to whom I bounce ideas off and give feedback on their ideas.

Anyone who enjoys reading can be a useful sounding board for your own work.

– Tim Relf

Q – Did you make these writer contacts after you became a published author? Did a whole new world of contacts open up?

TR –  They’ve come from a range of places.

Some are friends of friends, some are ‘random’ people that I met on social media, and some are writers who I’ve met as a result of What She Left being published.

Ultimately, though, anyone who enjoys reading can be a useful sounding board.

Q – Did you participate in any courses before writing What She Left?

TR –  I did an Arvon Week ages ago, which was really interesting, but both the online and London Faber Academy courses have got a great reputation!

Q – Tim, you’ve been wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!

TR – No worries! Thanks for having me, and good luck!

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Meet your Guest author

Tim Relf

Tim Relf

Tim Relf writes fiction as T.R. Richmond. His novel, What She Left, was published by Penguin.

A psychological suspense story, it sold to publishers in 21 countries and was turned in to an audiobook starring Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance from Game of Thrones. The Guardian called it “extraordinary”, the Sunday Express dubbed it “addictive”, while The Telegraph described it as “a deliciously modern take on the psychological thriller”.

What She Left followed two previous novels, Stag and Home, published by Piatkus (Little, Brown).

Tim is an award-winning journalist and has written for the local, regional and national media, as well as the business and consumer press. The Daily Telegraph, GQ, The Bookseller and BookBrunch are just four of the places his work has appeared.

He lives in Leicestershire with his wife, two cats and badly behaved golden retriever called Dudley.

When he’s not writing, you’ll find him gardening – and these two passions came together when he won the 2019 Garden Museum/Mollie Salisbury Cup memoir competition.

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