Tessa West

FAQs

Do you focus on any particular subjects and themes?

Yes. Identity and belonging are the key ones for me. I'm thinking about questions such as Who counts as 'we'? How do ‘we' look at ‘them’? How do 'they' look as ‘us’?

I'm also interested in landscape. So far I have set each of my novels in East Anglia, and I want readers to be able to recognise the places I'm writing about.

How / when / why did you start writing?

The first writing I had published was for fun - in cycle magazines and a booklet of local cycle routes. Then I wrote for professional journals about my work in prisons and education, and this expanded to include travel articles and more bike books. Although I was getting published it didn't feel as if I started writing seriously until I was over 50. I began with poetry. Then the idea of The Estuary presented itself to me, and I wrote my first novel.

Do you have a routine?

Yes, both in the planning and the execution. I spend a substantial amount of time reading about, visiting and steeping myself in the place and time in which I want to set my novel. I love that bit of the job because it prompts me to think about the characters and what they might do. Simultaneously the plot begins to develop. Then I make a rough outline of the structure of the book and stake out the general direction I intend to take and who'll do what when. As I continue I begin to discover what the book is actually about as opposed to what I thought it was going to be about. This can surprise me.

I usually write about two or three hours a day, preferably in the morning. I could not write solidly all day. Ideas emerge when I’m not at my desk. It's when waiting at the check-out or on a bike ride that I find myself thinking, "No, he wouldn't say this, he'd say that".

Is it difficult?

Well, it's work. Or perhaps it's play. The best comparison I can make is with a child engaged in building a tower of bricks. Is he or she playing or working? My task, like that of the child, takes imagination, planning, concentration, skill and time. Yes, it can be difficult at times, but some parts of the process are accomplished more easily than expected, and some have to be completely re-thought.

Best advice to writers?

After you've written a chunk of text, leave it alone. When you return to it you will see its weaknesses and strengths and so be able to improve it. And when you think you've finished it, put it away again - for at least a week, perhaps months - and then go back to it. Pay attention to those small hunches such as “There's too much conversation in this chapter”, and always check on details such as “What sort of tree were the children climbing?”.

Read what you’ve written aloud. Many (but not all) of its repetitions, errors, typos, spelling and punctuation mistakes and non-sequiturs will jump out at you.

And keep reading plenty of novels and poems or whatever it is you’re writing. If you want to be published you need to know what's currently being published.

What advice would you give about seeking publication?

Allow many months, and probably years.

Getting novels and poetry published at present is extremely difficult unless you do it yourself. Self-publishing is not as simple as it seems, although there are some good companies which specialise in helping new authors.

It’s likely to be the marketing that you’ll struggle with unless you’re very lucky or very energetic. How will people know your book exists? Why will they buy your book as opposed to the tens of thousands of others they hear about? How much time are you going to devote to trying to sell books?

And will you make any money? Or even recoup what you’ve spent?

My advice is not to think too much about money, unless you are on the way to becoming a debtor or there’s no food on the table.

Rather write because you enjoy the process, or because you meet interesting people as a result, or because it makes you feel good to complete something like a novel or collection of poems.

Good luck.

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