Michèle Rowe is a South African scriptwriter who works primarily as a head writer and story originator for television and film. And in June she was able to add ‘published author’ to her hat – What Hidden Lies, her debut crime novel, and winner of the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, was published by Penguin Books. At present she is writing the follow up called Hour of Darkness (to be published by Penguin Random House in 2014).
From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
I write and edit, write and edit in an ongoing process of refinement. It means that I write pretty slowly, but I can’t separate writing from editing. Coming from a screenwriting background I am used to rewriting draft after draft, so I’ve learned not to get attached to the peerless beauty of a sentence. If I do then it probably should be thrown out anyway! I’m less concerned with trying to perfect phrases, and more about building a strong narrative paragraph by paragraph in as clear and lucid a way as possible.
What research do you do for your book?
Research is an ongoing aspect of writing for me. I worked in documentary and actuality television for a long time and enjoy research. At some point though, and preferably early on, I try to dispense with facts and get down to writing otherwise I lose confidence and forget to trust in the mysterious alchemy of the imagination. Imagination has its own truth.
How many words do you write, on average, per day?
I write in bursts. Some days I don’t write a word, other days I write for hours. In order to write I must have nothing else to do, as I am a hopeless multi tasker. If I start counting words, I only end up with a lot of unusable stuff on my hands. There is much to be said for writing x amount of words a day. But it takes good organisational abilities and an iron will. I lack both I’m afraid.
Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?
I usually begin with something that interests me for whatever reason. It could be a character, or a moral question, or something I have seen or heard. Sometimes it’s a relationship issue, or personal dilemma or a particular character. Sometimes it’s a visual thing, an image, or a story someone has told me. It tends to niggle away, usually because there is something about it I don’t understand. Weather and geography also play a large part in the development of a narrative. I sort of mull on all these elements and then I begin to give it a structure. The book I am writing now begins during Earth Hour, and features disappearances that happen when the city turns off its lights and is plunged into darkness. The story unfolds over autumn, a melancholy time, when people are sombre and inward looking. It’s also a time of introspection and darkness for Persy Jonas, the young detective who drives the story.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
I find plotting and structuring the most frustrating aspect of writing. I am a terrible procrastinator. I usually begin by writing key incidents that are in my head and I feel I have to get out. These usually get thrown out eventually or have changed beyond recognition by the final draft. Because I’m indecisive and so the story is in a state of flux all the time. I keep all my options open until its completely critical. Then I hone in on the central story. It’s laborious and completely impractical and a dreadfully slow way to write a book. I also battle with time lines and multiple plots. I have no idea why I torment myself by writing mysteries and crime fiction as the form increases these challenges a thousand fold.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I’m lazy as anything, but that’s laziness rather than a block. Maybe because as a screenwriter I often have to write to deadline, I think of writing as a job like any other. Dentists and accountants have days when they don’t want to work, but they don’t have the luxury of calling it a block. Having said that I do get stymied by problems that can go on for months. Writing often feels as if I’m navigating a maze, only to find I’m back where I began. It’s a frustrating business and takes a certain calmness and distance not to panic. I try writing short stories, or working on another book, or going for a swim or a walk to clear my head. Sometimes I just have to wait it out.
When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
I limited myself to a page of about three paragraphs. I introduced myself in one paragraph, told them what I’d done in the second, and briefly described my book in the third. It’s probably best to keep it short. People are generally busy, and want to get to the point of a letter as soon as possible. I think that if you waffle in your letter, publishers will tend to assume that your book is going to waffle.
What advice can you give aspirant writers?
I don’t really feel in a position to give professional advice after only one book. As a first time novelist I had the advantage of a certain optimistic naiveté. I had to work hard at maintaining that buoyancy, as writing can be an altogether disheartening process. I would say what you need most is a stubborn persevering nature. And develop a taste for penury!
Visit Michele’s website to read more about her, and her book What Hidden Lies – www.michelerowe.co.za.