Write Advice: Rebecca Thornton on going from hobbyist to published author

Our Faber alumni often keep in contact after courses have finished. This week, they got together to talk to writer and former Faber Academy student Rebecca Thornton about her journey from hobbyist to published author, agents and the importance of voice.

Rebecca Thornton

Q – Hi Rebecca, thanks for joining us! Firstly, when you were writing The Exclusives, did you have a clear idea that you followed through from the beginning, or were there points where you had to change the structure?

Rebecca Thornton – It’s a pleasure to be here! So, The Exclusives is set in a girls’ boarding school.

It’s based around the idea of two best friends whose lives change after one disastrous night out, and the two different paths they take.

When I first started the novel I had absolutely no idea about the structure. None at all. In fact, I was writing a romantic comedy – which is ridiculous given it turned into a dark thriller – but as soon as I found my voice the structure grew organically.

The voice led the entire book, really. I set the novel in two time frames — past and present — both written in the first person.

Each ‘voice’ dictated how I presented the novel. I gave it to my agent and she gave me feedback on parts that could be changed, but the initial structure remained the same

Q – I like that the book starts with a flashback, and then we’re dragged into the present day with the arrival of an unexpected email. Was this always your intention, or did you write the beginning once you had your ending?

RT – I always had that beginning in mind. Again, it was dictated by the voice of the character that I had created. Not much at all in the first chapter changed between my writing the draft and when it got published, but the rest of the novel was pretty much rewritten.

I think with my next novel I’ll probably write the ending first and change the beginning accordingly, as I have less of a clear idea at the moment of how it’s all going to work. In reality, though, every writer and every book is very different.

Q – Even though there was a lot of rewriting, it must’ve felt fantastic to know your opening chapter was strong enough to remain relatively untouched. Do you enjoy editing and rewriting? How do you approach editing once you have a first draft?

RT – Honestly, the rewriting was quite painful.

I did about five major rewrites, partly because I’m a pantser (flying by the seat of my pants with no organising or planning from one chapter to the next), but I was really lucky that I got signed with an agent who helped me do the edits.

Now, if I had to do it alone, I’d leave it for a bit and then think about my main themes, what I wanted them to be and my protagonist’s voice — the core of my novel, I suppose — and if I’d stayed true to those elements at all times.

Also, I read my draft aloud and noticed so much stuff that I hadn’t previously seen when I was reading from my screen, or on paper.

Each ‘voice’ dictated how I presented the novel.

– Rebecca Thornton

Q – You mention that when you first started you had no idea about the structure. At what point did you find your voice? I’m currently writing the outline of a story as it seems to be the ‘right’ thing to do, but I feel like it boxes me in and I lose all creative energy.

How can you write a complete story without any kind of outline?

RT – Well, it took me 15 years to find my voice! I did the Faber Writing a Novel course, and had the incredible Tim Lott as a tutor. He read my work and told me I was being very dishonest with myself.

I think I cried for a whole week, because I’d spent 15 years trying and trying and trying…

But, because I felt so knocked down, I started to think about what Tim meant by this, and I came to the conclusion that there needs to be a connection between you and what ends up on the page.

Once you’ve found that, you won’t need to be ‘boxed in’ — if indeed that’s how you want to write.

I think I might work quite similarly to you as a writer. I get caught up in doing what I think I should be doing, whereas in fact, if you do find the right voice to tell the story, you won’t necessarily need a stringent outline.

I think it will all follow because the character will tell you what to do. They’ll lead you through the plot.

Of course, it’s great to have a structured plot as well if that’s how you work, but the character might still end up leading you in different ways.

Another thing that Tim said, which was really important to me, was: ‘Just tell the story’.

PWA Moderator Susy – Tim Lott is a friend of the course and does some mentoring for us. Lovely man!

RT – Yes, Tim’s amazing, and I was very lucky to have been able to work with him!

Q – Do you think you need good characters or a compelling story first? Where does the idea grow from?

RT –  Obviously, it really helps to have a compelling story, but without a solid, true character you might not get very far. I think you can also have an amazing character with a sparse plot, and still come out with a readable and true novel.

Sadie Jones — author of The Outcast — came to speak to us at one of the Faber Academy sessions, and she taught us that character often leads plot. That was a real lightbulb moment.

Also, my friend sent me this brilliant article from The Atlantic after I told her I was having a few problems – namely being distracted from the character by the plot. She told me to look out for the paragraph about the whale.

It boils down to the conscious vs the unconscious mind, which is the writer’s constant battle. I would recommend you always following the unconscious, and go where your character leads you.

Q – Was your journalism background a help or hindrance?

RT – The journalism was a help in that I was always looking for the heart of the story, but also a hindrance because journalism is so immediate. Publishing is not quite the same. I found that quite difficult to contend with!

It took me 15 years to find my voice.

– Rebecca Thornton

Q – Do you have to like your main protagonist? If, as you say, the character can drive the plot, do you have to like them to write in their voice?

RT –  Absolutely not! Lots of people couldn’t get to grips with my protagonist, and I had a publisher turn me down purely because she didn’t like her and the things she did.

Even I found some of the things she did pretty despicable, but that can often give a more authentic voice, and make it more real.

Some of the characters I’ve disliked the most I’ve found the most genuine – you have to write the character you find the most fascinating.

Q – How did you secure your agent, and how has it been working to a deadline for your second book?

RT – I did the Faber Writing a Novel course, and at the end, we had a day where we read to agents.

I found my agent — the incredible Nelle Andrew — through that. I signed with her early on in the process which was amazingly helpful.

Truthfully, I’ve just missed the deadline for my second book…I haven’t enjoyed the process for this book quite so much, mostly due to struggling with keeping the creative process alive through deadlines, commercial ideas and all the other jobs that go hand in hand with writing a novel.

Q – The 15 year figure you mentioned earlier is strangely reassuring to me. Perhaps the best things evolve naturally – given the right conditions. I’ve been plugging away for five years, but the Faber and PWA online courses are really helping me to focus.

My biggest fear is that I can’t break into the profession without knowing the right people. I’ve worked in classical music and I know how important it is to have the right contacts to be successful.

PWA Moderator Susy – In the literary industry, agents make it very easy for you to contact them. It’s in their favour to do that, because without great stories – your work – they haven’t got a job!

RT – Absolutely, Susy, and it’s great that the Faber and PWA courses are spurring you on. Before I really found myself as a writer, I emailed a couple of agents I had personal connections with. I had no luck at the time, but in hindsight, I’m glad, as now I feel I’m actually prepared to enter the industry as a writer.

I certainly think it helps if you can do a course and meet other writers for support, encouragement and unbiased advice.

PWA Moderator Susy – Also, we do an anthology of work for people who’ve finished the online Faber Writing a Novel and Work in Progress courses, which we send out to the same agents as on the reading day – there are around 100 of them. A number of people have found agents from our first anthology.

Q – The Exclusives is written solely in the first person. Do you think you’ll continue in first-person in your next novel?

I’ve written my first novel (unpublished) in close third person, and while it works for that story, I do get a rush when writing scenes in first-person.

RT – I think that rush sounds good! The point of view you choose depends on your character — I keep harking back to character, there’s a common theme…

I wanted to get into the complex reasons my character behaved the way she did, and I think that’s why The Exclusives ended up being in first-person.

Many people say they find first-person quite claustrophobic, but I didn’t feel like that at all, as it meant I was really in the story and out of my own head.

For my next novel, I’m trying out different voices, as I still haven’t quite got to grips with my characters yet.

Some of the characters I’ve disliked the most I’ve found the most genuine — you have to write the character you find the most fascinating.

– Rebecca Thornton

Q – Do you find that being a writer has become more of a lifestyle than a job now? Whenever you’re travelling or meeting people, are you always accumulating ideas for characters and stories?

RT – Definitely. Also, despite everyone being really kind, lots of people do ask how many books I’ve sold and when the film rights are coming out – is the book deal not enough?! — but it does also mean I’m always looking to people for ideas and snippets.

I’ve recently discovered this isn’t always a good thing as it means my conscious mind is always switched on, not allowing my subconscious mind to breathe in order to generate organic ideas.

Q – I find that my mind is the clearest first thing in the morning, and often too cluttered and tired the last thing at night to concentrate. How do you manage continuity so you can get going right away when you sit down to write?

I read an article about Hemingway that said he stopped mid-flow so that he could easily pick up the thread again the next day.

RT – I love that little trick, and I use it all the time. I stop when I feel I want to carry on, and that gives me the impetus to get going the next day. Also, if I’m flagging a bit, I imagine giving up and how bad I’ll feel.

That gets me back in the writing seat again pretty sharpish!

Q – Thanks so much for joining us, Rebecca. You’ve given us some brilliant advice, and it’s such a boost to know people can go from course to book deal and even further. Good luck with the second novel!

RT – Thank you all, it’s been great to chat to everyone. Good luck with your work!

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