For the next of our London writing courses, we’ve hired a new tutor, Simon Wroe. Simon’s debut novel Chop Chop, a brilliant, darkly comic story of a young graduate working in a gastropub in Camden, was shortlisted for the 2014 Costa First Novel Award, longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and won a Betty Trask Award. His second novel, Here Comes Trouble, was published in April.
Here Simon talks writing routines, gives some advice for new writers, and explores some intriguing similarities between writing and cooking….
Your first novel Chop Chop was set in a restaurant in Camden, and you’d worked as a chef before you became a writer – how much of the novel was based on your experience? The minute I set foot in a professional kitchen I knew I had to write about that world. The claustrophobic setting, high emotions and fraught, surreal exchanges all lent themselves perfectly to a novel. Plenty of work was required on plot, character and voice, but I wanted to keep the feel of the book as close as possible to what I had witnessed in life. I felt this unglamorous, comic side of kitchens (a world away from the Masterchefs and Gordon Ramsays) was not represented in fiction. I wanted to show it – and I wanted to take it further, to put those characters and principles into harder, darker situations, to test them.
Are there any similarities between good writing and good cooking? Both depend on clarity, taste and judgment. Both seek to delight, transport and enchant. And both are inherently messy and chaotic disciplines which must hide their true nature from the consumer. In kitchens, the analogy of the swan is sometimes used. The swan is graceful on the surface of the water and paddling madly below. Good writing, like good cooking, should seem effortless and elegant, though there is actually a huge amount of work going on to make it look that way.
Your second novel Here Comes Trouble, which is coming out next April, is quite a departure from your debut; could you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired it? Here Comes Trouble is the story of a boy coming of age in a country riven by extremism and political self-destruction, where newspapers peddle outright lies and larger-than-life characters make promises they can’t keep. (A hard place to imagine, I know.) Although our young protagonist is the son of a newspaper editor, he is far more interested in his own adolescent pursuits than the fate of his country. That is until events conspire against him and change his mind.
It’s a departure in terms of subject and, to some extent, voice, though the dark humour and high-energy prose of Chop Chop are still present and correct. And as with that book, the inspiration came from life: my first job in journalism was on a local paper in north London and it made a deep impression on me. All the same, I don’t think the old maxim of “Write what you know” is quite accurate for my approach. I prefer: “Write what you know, but not in a way that you know it.”
Personal experience is fantastic, but if you want your writing to feel fresh and alive I think it’s important to push yourself beyond simply what you already know to be true. So for the second book I moved the newspaper to the former Soviet Union and spent a month on the only independent paper in Kyrgyzstan as research. That had the desired effect of shaking my writing up.
Do you find that your journalistic writing feeds your novel writing, or do you see them as separate disciplines? Every form of writing is its own art form with its own particular tools and methods to master. I do believe, though, that many of these skills are transferable. Journalism certainly has useful lessons to teach fiction writers: how to research and observe, how to listen out for those choice cuts of dialogue that best reveal a character or issue, how to tell a story clearly, how to draw a reader in. Criticism and review work can also be helpful. Often we say we like or dislike a novel or a film without fully explaining why we think that. It’s good to hone those critical faculties, at both ends of the spectrum, good and bad, before we set out on the path to creating art of our own.
Do you have a particular approach to your novel writing? Are you someone who has a daily routine, with word targets per day? Or do you work in a less structured way? First I need that tingle at the base of my spine, telling me this would be a good subject for a novel, and not just any novel but a novel that I should write. Next, I try to confirm that feeling with research and reading and writing around the idea. I don’t like to approach it head on straight away; I like to know where I’m going. Then, when I’m feeling confident about the world and the characters and where the whole caboodle is heading, I start to write. That part has a routine to it, I suppose.
A thousand words in a day is a good day. Two thousand is suspiciously good and will require investigation. But no amount is terrible or unacceptable; it is not a science. After that, the editing takes easily as long as the writing. Everything must be gone over, again and again, until it is polished and shining. I don’t have a proper routine for most of these stages. I just turn up at my computer every day in hope.
What advice do you have for writers who are just starting out? I think the publishing world can look rather closed and unfriendly from the outside. This is not the case. Publishing needs new writers – it depends on them. An original voice or a great new storyteller is every publisher’s dream. To writers just starting out, I would say: you have a bigger advantage than you think. Take heart.
In what ways do you think creative writing courses like the ones we offer at CBC can help apprentice writers? A lot of people, myself included, start writing out of a compulsion to express themselves, tell their stories and get their ideas on the page. What many people do not anticipate is how much planning and structure and invisible support goes into a novel in order for it to work. (Again, think of the swan paddling furiously below the surface.) Good, clear advice on this subject is hard to find. Advice tailored to you is rarer still.
Rather than a few Internet generalisations, creative writing courses lead you through the novel-writing process, working on your writing, developing your specific story and vision. It’s also great, I think, to get different viewpoints on writing: on the CBC course you hear from literary agents and editors as well as published authors. When I was writing my first book, I had never spoken to an agent or editor and had no idea what they thought or wanted, though I’d have dearly liked to know.
What are you looking forward to most about teaching at CBC? I look forward to reading lots of new and interesting writing, and to being challenged by fresh ideas and keen discussion. The general progression, from something with potential to something polished and ready for the world, is always a joy to see.
Do you have any big dos or don’ts for anyone setting out to write a novel? Don’t write purely for the market or for what you think the public wants. Take advice and good counsel, by all means, but write the book you want to write. Write for your ideal reader and you never know, you might find them.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).
We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).