This week I was excited to meet one of my favourite writers: Maggie Alderson, novelist and journalist. She was promoting her new book “Everything Changes But You” and zipping around Australia on a whistle-stop tour.
You may recall that I enjoyed Maggie’s last book Shall We Dance about a London vintage clothing shop owner and her adventures. Actually, I’ve read almost all of Maggie’s books and they’re delightful – she’s a writer who loves fashion and treats it with an attractive mix of seriousness and frivolity.
What I also love is her wonderful sense of family: both in the relative and friend versions. Her stories are inhabited with warm and real people who care deeply for each other.
I’m very visual and enjoy casting the roles as assorted actors – and after my last review, Maggie and I chatted on Twitter and compared roles. I had cast a cross between Jimmy Page and Brian May for Loulou’s rock star love interest, and it was fascinating to hear that she had someone completely different in mind, someone who’s not known for his guitar solos – Bill Nighy.
Soon after I bumped into Bill in a Melbourne restaurant and was instantly won over by his suave style and charisma – now I want someone to film “Shall We Dance” and cast him for real!
At Tuesday night’s event, Maggie brought along images from her writing space, and talked about how she gets in the mood for productivity – as a journalist, she has one big advantage, she’s used to working to deadlines. As a fellow writer, I was fascinated in how she does it.
Maggie Alderson: much prettier in person.
When I first started writing my book “Love Vintage”, I had no idea how to do it – silly me, should have asked some of my writing friends or relatives, especially if they could recommend an excellent book on the topic – instead I wallowed in the wilderness wondering how to go about it. Previously, I had completed a screenwriting course, which taught me about plot development and structure, so I set about composing a skeleton on which to flesh out my words.
Maggie writes fiction, where I write non-fiction and they’re two different beasts. Over the three years it took me to write the book, I sometimes wished I could have just made it up, but of course, everything had to be researched as much as possible to ensure accuracy. So a lot of research was required: I read copiously, often many books at the same time and a lot of fiction too, to help me unwind and switch off. It was pleasing to see that Maggie agreed that reading was imperative: some writers don’t read the words of others and that, I don’t understand. The more you read, the better you write, I think.
Maggie spoke about creating a special place to write – like her, I found writing at home impossible, there was always some domestic task to distract me. I find that having a workplace helps get you there, and helps you focus. I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf and “A Room of One’s Own”. Maggie has a studio where it’s set up with mood boards, so that she can instantly get into the head space of a character or a location.
I wish I had thought about mood boards: it would have helped me too – when writing about the ’20s I could have put up glorious pics of flappers about town and it would have made it much easier, as well as nicer.
How could you not be inspired by these lovely people?
I tried (and mostly failed) to write at home, at the shop, at the stockroom, at libraries, at cafes, in parks – eventually I went to Castlemaine for six weeks and got a lot done, and then went to Beechworth for two weeks (but came back after two days after an unpleasant B&B experience). Still I hadn’t managed to find the right circumstances: for me, the issue was that my little shop Circa inhabits a great deal of my mind and waking thoughts and it was hard to switch off.
Eventually, I closed the shop for two weeks and drove to a sleepy little town called Robertson that was mostly closed for the holiday period, and stayed in a rambling old 1920s hotel where I was pretty much the only guest. It was a bit like a glamourous and violence-free version of “The Shining” and so in my downtime I read Stephen King short stories.
My routine was this: each morning after breakfast I would write for two hours and then do something physical like go for a walk or a bike ride. Followed by lunch, two more hours writing, and another break. Then dinner and if I hadn’t completed my daily word target (2,000 words) I’d do a third session of writing and keep going until I was done.
I’d start each session by editing the words I’d written in the last session – Maggie loves the writing, hates the editing, whilst I found it was the opposite for me. Writing sometimes felt like pulling teeth, so I would just write whatever and then rip it apart during the editing process. As long as I had material, I could wrangle it into something I liked, but I rarely liked how it started off.
I found that I was most productive in the morning: not least because if I could finish my task, I had permission to take the rest of the day off. I wrote every day. In Robertson I almost finished the book, but ran out of time, drove home and finished it on the couch before submitting to my editor.
So that’s my advice to you if you’re contemplating writing: seek advice if you don’t know where to start, read lots and try different methods until you find what works for you. It’s about getting into the right head space and a certain amount of discipline and probably at some point a deadline!
Here’s what Maggie wrote in my copy of her new book:
Thanks Maggie – it was a treat to meet you in person at last and thank you for your writing tips and new book. I can’t wait to read it!