Write Advice: Charlotte Hobson on research, drafts and details

Award-winning author Charlotte Hobson talks to our Faber Academy students about the complex process of getting a novel written, research, how much to worry about details while drafting, and why it might just be best to ‘write the jam’.

Charlotte Hobson
Charlotte Hobson

Q – Hi Charlotte, it’s great to have you here! For The Vanishing Futurist, how many drafts did you go through from the first to the last, and over what sort of timescale?

Charlotte Hobson – Good to be here! Well, I did a lot of drafts with this book – I went through it and through it many, many times.

But, I suppose I’d say I did four main drafts: the first was to show to my agent, then for my publisher, another during the editing process, and a final draft on delivery.

Q – In terms of research, was it important for you to get everything right from the beginning, or is it a process?

CH – It was definitely a process for me. I did a lot of research at the beginning, but then went back to find more details and so on once I knew what I needed.

It’s very easy to keep on researching forever, but it’s important to just put down the books one day and write.

A kind friend, also a writer, said to me at one point: ‘you can do too much research’. I found that very useful advice! I think at some point you have to let go of the crutch of research.

Q – Do you write in a ‘splurge’ and then edit afterwards, like I tend to do, or do you write in a more ‘finished’ way, editing as you go?’

CH – Great question. I think the energy of the ‘splurge’ is essential in the first draft, don’t you? One needs to get as much down before the self-doubt sets in.

So, I really try not to look back at what I’ve written too soon, just to allow myself a little leeway before I put on my hyper-critical editor’s hat.

Also, I’m not at all methodical. I go with the energy. ‘Write the jam!’ is my motto – I sit down and write all the bits I’m excited about first. I don’t know whether this is a good thing, though…

Once you have a whole draft a wonderful thing happens, which is that the book starts to exist.

– Charlotte Hobson

Q – How do you keep track of the story – do you use any tools like charts, titles, or colours? I often find it quite hard.

CH – Those techniques are always useful. Personally, I just write hundreds of timelines and arcs for each different character’s narrative, trying to see how they intersect.

It can be tricky to keep up. When I’ve done a certain amount I usually print the whole thing out. That way, I can read it with fresh eyes, and usually pick up on the continuity problems.

Q – That sounds like a good approach! How is your work discipline? Do you show up even if you don’t have much inspiration that particular day?

CH – Honestly? I have to say my work discipline is feeble, verging on non-existent. I really struggle. I just try to make sure I’m at my desk at a certain time each day. Beyond that, sometimes it works, and sometimes I do a lot of doodling.

Having said that, though, I think over time I’ve developed a bit more stamina.

Q – If you were starting again, what pieces of advice would you give to your younger self?

CH – Well, I’d give myself lots of advice, but also some encouragement. We’re all so hard on ourselves and sometimes it’s counterproductive. Whatever you manage a day, it’s a result.

I think I’d say to myself ‘you’ll get there in the end!’ – but perhaps that’s not particularly helpful…

Sometimes I think projects just need time to mature and ferment in the imagination – they’re so much better if you’ve given them a bit longer. But, I am someone who has taken ten years to write a novel!

Q – On your first draft, do you worry about flaws and mistakes, or do you let them be?

CH – I wouldn’t worry about that kind of thing – it’s easy to spot in a later draft. Once you have a whole draft a wonderful thing happens, which is that the book starts to exist.

It has its own presence, and you have much more of a sense of what fits in this book and what doesn’t.

Then comes the horrible process of cutting all your darlings, which is always torture, but it’s actually a great sign that your book now has a real identity.

There are also fantastic people called copy-editors – highly knowledgeable and meticulous.

I worked at a publisher for a while, Orion, and was amazed by the care the copy-editors took with every single manuscript they edited, from the most literary to the least.

Q – How long would you leave a finished draft before you come back to it?

CH – I think the trick is to leave a draft just long enough so that it looks a little new and strange to you when you come back to it. Or, you can alter its form – for example, print it out, as I already said.

Anything to give you new eyes. Not very long though, really.

Thank you, Charlotte, this has been fascinating. An inspiring session!

Read part two of this Q&A session.

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Meet your Guest author

Charlotte Hobson

Charlotte Hobson

Charlotte Hobson’s first novel, The Vanishing Futurista historical novel set in revolutionary Moscow, was published earlier this year by Faber and Faber. Antony Beevor described it as ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down. A great novel by any measure.’ Her first book, Black Earth City (Granta 2000) won a Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Duff cooper Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. She lives in Cornwall with her husband, writer Philip Marsden, and their two children.

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