A way with words Deb­o­rah Challi­nor

Deb­o­rah Challi­nor brings a de­gree of for­ward think­ing to her writ­ing day.

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When I be­gin a new book, I do an XL spread­sheet and fac­tor in start and de­liv­ery dates, hol­i­days, other things I know are com­ing up, and a bit of non-writ­ing con­tin­gency time. Then I know how many words I have to write per day or week to get the book done.

Usu­ally, I’m at my desk by about 9am most week­days. I check my emails, deal with the ones I can’t ig­nore, then start writ­ing. I al­ways leave my­self a few prompts the day be­fore so I don’t have to start cold. Also, I have a de­tailed out­line from which to work. This can take a cou­ple of months to de­velop if it’s for a three- or four-book series. I don’t edit as I go when I’m writ­ing or I’d never get past the first page. I don’t even spellcheck un­til the end.

If some­one knocks on the door, I ig­nore them. I also usu­ally ig­nore my phone (de­pend­ing on who’s call­ing). I find dis­rup­tions, well, dis­rup­tive. A good day of writ­ing flies past, a bad day grinds on in­ter­minably but I’ll usu­ally per­se­vere, my pos­ture de­te­ri­o­rat­ing as I put my feet up on my desk and give my­self oc­cu­pa­tional overuse syn­drome by swiv­el­ling to look at my screens (one for Word, the other for the in­ter­net) and typ­ing on an an­gle. Those days end with bad headaches. On a re­ally hope­less day, I’ll give up, lie on the couch and watch trash on Sky.

I sel­dom have com­pletely new ideas about ac­tion or di­a­logue when I’m writ­ing. They turn up while I’m do­ing other things, such as hav­ing a shower, driv­ing, shop­ping or try­ing to get to sleep. So I keep note­books in my bag, in the car, at my bed­side. But not in the shower. I’ve got a lot of full note­books now. It’s as though the sto­ry­mak­ing part of my brain needs to be slightly dis­con­nected to al­low it to be at its most pro­duc­tive. When I’m at my com­puter, I’m just flesh­ing out those new ideas. Still, I think about my cur­rent work in progress con­stantly. What are my char­ac­ters re­ally feel­ing? Are their mo­ti­va­tions re­al­is­tic? Is their di­a­logue crap? How will a scene play out? Will there be sounds? Smells? Would I want to read that scene in a novel? When the think­ing stops, the writ­ing stops, un­for­tu­nately. I also think about the next book a lot, and the one af­ter that. I know what I’ll be writ­ing for roughly the next 10 years. A snip­pet from a doc­u­men­tary, or a street name or even just two words from a re­al­ity TV pro­gramme can be spun into a whole novel. Here’s an ex­am­ple: fu­neral bis­cuits from The Great Bri­tish Bake Off.

Of course, some­times life gets in the way. Fam­ily and friends get sick, or they get into trou­ble, or they die. It can be dif­fi­cult to write if I don’t have the men­tal or emo­tional en­ergy, or the ac­tual time. On the other hand, im­mers­ing my­self in the lives of my char­ac­ters is some­times the most com­fort­ing place to be.

From the Ashes, by Deb­o­rah Challi­nor, is on sale from Oc­to­ber 29 (HarperCollins, $36.99). Challi­nor’s pre­vi­ous works in­clude the “Chil­dren of War”, “Smug­gler’s Wife” and “Con­vict Girl” series, the pe­riod nov­els Fire and Union Belle and non-fic­tion works on New Zealand vet­er­ans of the Viet­nam War.

I sel­dom have com­pletely new ideas when writ­ing. They turn up while I’m do­ing other things, such as hav­ing a shower.

Full note­books: Deb­o­rah Challi­nor.

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