How I Write – Gillian McAllister

Gillian McAllister is an author, due to be published by Penguin next year, and a lawyer. She goes by the name Gilly, blogs at BillyGean.co.uk and lives in Birmingham with her very funny boyfriend and egomaniac cat

You wrote your first book when you were 12 and your second when you were 18. Try to capture what the written word meant to you as a child?
I suppose it started with reading – as I’m sure it does for many writers. We would go to a mobile library just up the road from our house. I always remember it being sunny and warm and the inside smelt of hot books. I’d get seven or eight books out and read them all in a fortnight. I never really had a moment where I thought, ‘I could write books,’ but it was sort of a natural progression. I wrote two books around the age of 12-14; one called A New Life and one called Where Magic is Possible. Throughout my teenage years I kept a (very neurotic) journal. I had quotes from poems on my wall and song lyrics everywhere. And then, when I went off to do an English degree, I wrote a novel called Three By The Sea (which was more of a novella, to be honest) and started a blog too. So I was always, always writing in some form.

When did you start to pursue publishing seriously? You say you knew it was going to happen?
I had a very obvious and serious moment where I went from being a hobbyist to pursuing publishing seriously. Throughout my twenties – four years of which were spent quite unwell following immune problems after getting glandular fever – I hadn’t been writing fiction. I’d been blogging, instead, and writing articles that (to be honest) I wouldn’t have read had I not written them and were a form of instant gratification or even procrastination. I occasionally opened my novel and plugged away at it, and had patches of a few months where I would write a lot, and then stop again. It seemed such a huge task to finish a whole draft, and then re-draft and polish. I felt as though I’d never get to a place where it was submittable. Not without hundreds of hours of work. Which is of course true. But this whole time I carried with me a feeling of not really doing the thing I wanted to do; the thing I wanted to write. Which was – always has been, and always will be – writing fiction novels.

So by summer 2013, I’d been to law school (where I first got sick), converted to law, and completed part of my training to be a lawyer, and then I got sick again – my first and only relapse. And something about that summer – perhaps wanting a Plan B in case my health remained unreliable, perhaps realising that I was 28 and for my whole life I had wanted to be a novelist but had yet to complete a full-length book – made me send my first three chapters off to the biggest literary agency (and, arguably, agent) in the UK. Amazingly, he requested the full manuscript. And that was the moment that began everything. That Christmas, I wrote on my blackboard where we write our new year’s resolutions:

  1. Get literary agent

I had to write another book, but seven months later, I had one. Getting an agent changed everything for me. I suppose I knew then that I would get there. It felt quite logical to me: many people said to me that maybe I should take some serious time out if my book didn’t sell, but the thought of giving up never even crossed my mind. I was going to write another book, and another book, and another book, each one getting better, until one sold. It was as simple as that.

Tell us about your blog – it’s very personal and literary in its descriptions and dialogue. Did this develop for you over time?
Funnily enough, no. I read quite a few blogs, and most follow a sort of article format. But for me, I suppose, blogging was a way of me avoiding fiction, but you can never avoid your calling, and so I write a blog that kind of reads like fiction. It has interior monologue and dialogue. The only difference is that the plot was my life. While I was ill it did get very deep and confessional, and before that it had been whimsical snippets of conversations between me and my boyfriend (I live with a very, very funny man). And so it’s always read more like a novel than anything else. It was just my natural instinct to write it in that way. I credit it with honing all sorts of skills; dramatic tension, dialogue, comic timing. I am now able to write very fast prose, and I think it’s because of how well exercised my blogging muscle is.

The blog now is less confessional. I probably only update it once a month. I find I have a cap on my output, and if I blog a lot, I write less. So I put my thoughts and my drama and my aphorisms in to my books, instead. I say it better in those.

You took some time out from your blog – was this to work on your book?
Yes! It was two things really: time/creative output, and not wanting to put things on my blog that really sung that then wouldn’t end up in a book. So many times I have written a lovely metaphor in my blog that I then can’t really put in my book, and I’ve learnt my lesson there. My books come first now. It’s kind of a form of delayed gratification, but it’s worth it. Better to write a whole book that explores the notion of betrayal than one blog post, or article. Looking back, I never regret a book, or the time spent writing one, or the sacrifices I have to make.

Tell us about your book?
My book is called Everything But The Truth and it’s out from Michael Joseph, Penguin next year. It opens with a scene where a woman is woken from sleep by her boyfriend’s iPad lighting up the room. She looks at it without thinking, and finds some pretty damning evidence he has committed a serious crime. The novel covers what he did, of course, and a rare verdict he received rendering him somewhere in the middle of guilty and innocent, but it also covers how their relationship is affected by his past and his lies.

Tell us about your illness and your relationship with writing during it?
Do you know, it would make satisfying narrative sense to me if I had written my novel while ill. I was bedridden (completely) for almost a year, and very weak and unable to walk very far for a further year after that. Following those two worst years I was quite up and down, sometimes having stretches of complete remission and other times being laid low. But I didn’t.

During this time, I most certainly wrote a lot in my blog – every day – and that really took off (it was featured in Company Magazine, Red C Marketing magazine, and it got slagged off on a lot of forums…) but it actually took a relapse to get me in to fiction. And even then, the novel that got me my agent I wrote when i was back at work as a trainee lawyer.

So much of fiction is hard. It’s about facing yourself or a plot that doesn’t quite work or that scene that doesn’t move anything on and is just there for character development and it’s boring… I was too young and too inexperienced to really manage all of that then.

Writing seriously came later. By 28, I had things to say. Probably because I’d experienced horrible things at quite a young age, but also because I was mature enough not to write a book about a ‘woman in crisis’ that was largely autobiographical!

I was old enough by then to (for example) translate the feeling of not trusting my body in to the feeling of not trusting a man. Or to just make something up entirely, and feel able (physically and mentally) to graft and to fail and to yearn for it. (And boy did I yearn. Ask my boyfriend how many rejection-themed baths I took. He started calling me Sylvia Plath).

How did you come to sign with your literary agent and can you describe how you felt when they called you to tell you about landing your publishing deal?
When I got that first full request during the summer of 2013, I queried widely (very gauche). It led to a few agents reading the full manuscript but what surprised me more was how many requested my next novel. They said that novel (called The Quarter Life Crisis) lacked a hook or a ‘high’ concept, but they all liked my prose. So I had a really big think one November night with my dad, and decided to write a better book. I’d been plugging away on ‘my novel’ for so long that I don’t really think it occurred to me that I wasn’t really writing what I would read, which is dark fiction on the border of literary and commercial fiction with a plot you can sum up in one line (e.g. Apple Tree Yard is one of my favourite books: what if you had an affair and you end up on trial for it? I mean – how brilliant a hook is that?)

So I wrote something darker, and something much more focussed. I knew exactly what my book was about (which is good because when you sell a book you are forever asked exactly this by friends and family).

The call to say I would be published is well documented on my blog, and I tell everyone – quite honestly – that it was the best day of my entire life. What a complete privilege it is to be one of the very few people who achieves their entire life ambition. And what a privilege it is to be paid to write. To call oneself a writer. And to join (however tenuously) the ranks of all of the published writers who’ve gone before you. To leave a legacy. And with Penguin! Well. I’ll never forget that moment. These are the days.

What is your writing routine?
Ha. Quite crazed. I have a full-time job (I am a practising lawyer) so time is very precious. I tend to work on a 1000-words-a-day-minimum system. More on a first draft, but I’m currently on a second draft, and I’m keeping the numbers at that level because I want to make sure it’s right, and that the voice works, but I do very much like to set a goal and then overachieve at it, which gets a little out of hand at times. I write on my commute, on my lunch hours, and at home. How much of each depends. If I can get a seat on my train and a clear hour at lunch I often don’t need to do much of anything at home, though now I am to be published I often have swathes of other things to do (nice things like this interview and less nice things like CALLING THE INLAND REVENUE A LOT).

At the moment I am working on my plot at lunchtimes in a quiet meeting room or in the sun or on the phone to my father, and doing the writing at home, because I’m doing a big structural edit that requires a lot of thinking. I’m quite disciplined (something tragic has to happen for me to miss my word count; I’ve been known to write 1000 words at midnight, in the train station after missing a train, with gloves on, and in the car while waiting for a Chinese takeaway or on the M40 (not driving…)) and a few years back I read an awful lot about procrastination and learnt to mostly stop doing it. I credit that with the reason I am able to have two careers (I used to waste SO MUCH TIME).

Getting a MacBook Air also helped enormously. I take it everywhere, it’s so light, and I very regularly bash out 500 words where otherwise I would just be staring in to space or waiting for somebody. (Or on the internet, which is where I spend every single minute I am not writing or working).

Tell us about the relationship you have with your Dad when it comes to writing – you discuss the details of your book with him?
Ah, my dad. He’s my muse, I suppose. I am quite a linear and logical thinker and he is very conceptual and open-minded. I did a psychometric test last year and I am of the type who sees an apple and says things like ‘green’ and ‘that’s a round apple’ and I’m sure my father is the other type, who would say ‘William Tell’.

So when you put the two of us together, I am going, ‘I need to hit these plot beats’ and he is saying, ‘what matters to this person and what if they took this different path instead?’ Somehow, chatting idly over plot points with him has become an absolutely key part of my process and now we schedule actual meetings, usually when I am in the first draft and second draft stages. Now I am on my way with my second draft, I haven’t mentioned it for a few weeks, and last night he said to me, ‘how is Reuben doing?’. Reuben is a new character in my book. So, in short, my Dad’s brilliant.

Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?
No. Only when I have been banging away at a draft I know I’ve taken a wrong turn in. I try to recognise those feelings in my stomach. They’re different from usual writing anxiety. They’re a sort of dread. When I get them, I retrace my steps, and start again. It’s heart-breaking and tedious, but I see it as part of the process of writing a book. The big post-first draft quagmire. And so I try not to worry when it happens. A year is a very long time indeed, and going wrong for a few months is part of that.

How are you feeling about the publication of your book next year? Will it change how you approach writing?
I haven’t really thought about the actual physical publication of it. I get too excited if I do! It’s still so new (I got the deal two months ago) that I can’t quite imagine my name on Amazon, Goodreads, my book in Waterstone’s. I can’t picture the cover or the blurb or anything yet. Every day, something new occurs to me that excites me all over again. There’ll be a launch. I’ll have to sign books. Characters I made up will live their lives out on the shelves. It’s remarkable really. Everything I ever wanted.

I think knowing you will be published does add both a layer of stress and self-consciousness to your next work, though. I used to think having to write a second book under contract would be a pretty brilliant-quality problem to have, and it is, but I feel more pressure than I’ve ever felt in my life. I so want to deliver a brilliant, gripping book that’s in keeping with my first book but totally different. I want it to be better than Everything But The Truth, really. It’s tough, that pressure. It’s like you were writing alone at your laptop and then, after your deal, you look over your shoulder and there’s loads of people there. It’s strange and nice.

What do you like to read?
I mostly read what I write: women’s fiction. I read a lot of thrillers but usually they’re the relationship end of thrillers (Apple Tree Yard, The Swimming Pool). I’m hugely enjoying In A Dark, Dark Wood at the moment, and I’m about to start the new Liane Moriarty – queen of her genre. In reality I read anything that does its genre well – The Last One by Alexandra Oliva is brilliant dystopia, which I read recently and loved. Anything with a plot you can do an elevator pitch of and great prose.

Do you know many writers and do you get to spend time with them?
I do seem to know quite a lot of writers now! I embraced Twitter in 2007 so I’ve been on there for ages, and I’ve always let my favourite authors know when I enjoyed a book. When I joined my agency I met one of my closest friends Gemma, who shares my agency but has a different agent, and we then set up a Whatsapp group of eight other agented writers which is extremely brilliant and quite neurotic. I love the internet for this kind of stuff. I’ve been going to launches for a while too and I always meet new friends. I am an extrovert and a people person so this side of the job comes so naturally to me. A book tour is like my dream.

Where do you write?
Absolutely anywhere. I do have an office now at home and I have notes and character sheets on my walls. But I do an awful lot of my writing on the 08.23 to Birmingham. I’m the hunched one whose boyfriend is smirking.

Billy Gean

Gilly writes at www.billygean.co.uk and is on Twitter @billygean

LadyNicci comment: I think it’s only fair to link Gilly’s getting the book deal blog here. She captures ‘achieving the publishing dream’ so well – the call, the joy, the years of hard work. I love that she wrote one book and then wrote a better book, because agents saw her potential. Imagine if she had of given up on first rejections? Her blog reads like prose – I can see how she’s had to step back and put all her creative writing into her fiction work. I find her words about what happens after the book deal fascinating and something aspiring authors probably don’t think about much.  The pressure to produce – the professionalism that now comes with being a ‘published author’. Gilly’s relationship with her Dad is fascinating, to be able to discuss your work, so openly, with a family member is both beautiful and rare. I can also identify with Gilly’s timeline of writing – I do think that to be an accomplished fiction writer and to nourish your talent and writing style, you need to have some life experience under your belt. I look back on when I was 28 and unemployed and can’t understand why I didn’t use those months to write. But obviously, it just wasn’t the right time. Now, it’s Gilly’s time. And I’m looking forward to following her writing career.

H0w I write

How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email nicola.press@gmail.com with How I Write in the subject line.

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