SD Sykes attended our creative writing courses in Spring 2012, along with fellow CBC student Jake Woodhouse. On finishing the course, she impressed Curtis Brown literary agent Gordon Wise and they worked together on her debut novel, which Hodder & Stoughton picked up as part of a three-book deal. Her debut novel Plague Land was released last year and gathered brilliant reviews, which included The Independent calling her the ‘medieval Raymond Chandler.’ Jeffery Deaver said that it was ‘off-the-charts imaginative and breathtaking,’ and likened her to a ‘medieval C. J. Sansom.’ Impressive.
She’s not resting on her laurels though – the paperback of Plague Land is out Thursday May 21st, and her second novel, The Butcher Bird, is released later this year on October 8th. She talks to us about her time at CBC and her writing tips.
Had you done much writing before signing up to the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course?
I’ve been writing since I was a small child. In fact, I still have my very first book – a short story that I wrote when I was about six, and which I then insisted my parents have typed up and bound into a document. (What an annoying child I must have been.) My writing dried up a little in my twenties, but the urge never went away. When I had more time I studied for an MA in Writing in my early thirties. At that point I was specialising in script-writing, and the MA led onto many career opportunities, including Arts Council funding for screenplay development, radio drama development at the BBC as part of the new writers initiative, and a play that was performed at the Aldeburgh festival.
What convinced you to take the CBC course?
Frustration, if I’m honest. After all my hard work, I never quite convinced anybody to make my film, or to commission one of my radio plays. I’d got to the point of trying to predict what might get commissioned. (Take it from me that this is not a good idea. You should write what you want to write, not what you think people will buy.) When I saw the CBC course advertised, I decided to apply. I knew I was a story-teller, but wasn’t sure I had the skills to write a whole novel. After my script-writing experience, I was desperate to see a project through from the beginning to the end. I knew there was a novel in me, I just needed the help of my tutors and fellow students to squeeze it out.
You’ve finished your second book and are writing your third now – is there a piece of advice or anything you learned from the CBC course that you’re still finding useful?
I look back at my notes all the time, whether they relate to plot structure, characterisation, or how to write a piece of description. There is one nugget I fall back upon regularly: to just keep going. While I was on the course back in 2012, we had an excellent presentation from the author JoJo Moyes, where she talked very honestly about her writing career. She was not an overnight sensation. In fact, far from it. But she persevered, and now her wonderful books sell in the millions. I found her very inspiring.
How is the third book coming along?
My third book is set in Venice, so after a lot of research, I’m only about ten thousand words into the first draft. But I know where I’m going, after working for many weeks on my detailed outline. One of the disciplines I learnt from my script writing days is to start by writing a ‘treatment.’ This is film-talk for a scene by scene, or chapter by chapter break down of the story. I use this part of the process to develop the structure of the story, and to iron out problems with the plot, pace or character arcs. Once I’m happy with this, and only then, I start writing. I don’t stick to my treatment slavishly. If I come up with a better idea while I’m writing, then I use it. But for me, it’s a great place to start.
We think that both the UK and US covers of Plague Land are fantastic – they emphasise different aspects of the book in very evocative ways. The UK cover for The Butcher Bird is also wonderful. Can you tell us about the process of your publisher working with you on the covers?
Ha! The honest answer to this question is this. Hodder asked me for my ideas about cover design, so I went away and wrote a long and detailed document with all sorts of descriptions and images etc. I wanted to convey what had inspired me to write the book. They thanked me profusely, took it off, discussed it with their designer, and then presented me with something completely different. And I’m so pleased that they did, because it’s much better.
Are you thinking of extending the Plague Land series beyond three books?
I’d love to have the opportunity to follow my main character Oswald as he becomes older and perhaps wiser. I’m certainly not bored of writing about him. He’s living during a fascinating period in English history – after the devastation of the Black Death in 1350, through to the political unrest of Peasants Revolt of 1381.
How do you incorporate the huge amount of research you do into your writing?
I’m very strict about my research. I do a lot of research, because I care deeply about getting my facts right, but equally I don’t like them to intrude upon the story. I’m not going to name names, but there is nothing more irritating to me than the obvious ‘here is the history bit’ when I’m reading historical fiction. What’s important is the plot, the characters and the tone. The history must inform and compliment the story, and certainly not drown it out.
To what extent do you consider yourself a crime writer?
I consider myself, first and foremost, a crime writer. Although my books are set six hundred and fifty years ago, they still bear all the characteristics and conventions of contemporary crime writing. A murder, an investigation, suspects, red-herrings and elements of danger to the protagonist, rounded off with the solving of the crime.
You’ve mentioned various historical fiction and non-fiction writers who inspire you – are there any contemporary writers who interest or influence you?
I read all the time, which incidentally I consider to be an essential part of being a writer. In the last year, the contemporary writers who have inspired me the most are Sarah Waters and her brilliant book The Paying Guests. I continue to love Carlos Ruiz Zafon and the skill with which he conveys the dark and gothic atmosphere of Barcelona. In terms of crime, I’ve just finished my first Ann Cleeves novel, Dead Water. A faultless piece of crime-writing, that had me guessing the culprit’s identity right up to the very end.
Has your writing process changed at all since finishing the course? What’s become easier, and has anything become harder?
My writing process has remained fairly consistent since finishing the course. To begin with a plan, even if I don’t stick to it. To work every day, even when I don’t feel like it. When I joined the CBC course, I wasn’t sure if I could finish the marathon that is writing a whole novel. A hundred thousand words is a lot of writing, not to mention the edits and re-writes. But CBC gave me the skills to navigate this process, and inspired me with the determination to finish a novel. I’ve done it twice now, and although it still daunts me as I set out, I know I can finish.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give aspiring novelists?
I’m going to go with something Harriet Evans said to our group. It was: ‘To keep a splinter of ice in your heart.’ For me, it means in order to succeed, whether that is being published or just finishing a novel to your own satisfaction, you need to become more selfish. Ruthless even. When the phone rings and you know it’s your best friend who likes to chat for hours, you don’t answer. You feel pressured into making cakes for the kids’ school fair – you don’t. Somebody asks you to read the whole of their unpublished novel. You say no. You don’t have to be rude, just firm. You do the stuff you have to do, but you guard a precious core of your energies and your time for your writing. As Henry Miller once said. ‘Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.’
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