In our second author interview, I’m interviewing Anna Sayburn Lane, a London-based novelist, journalist, short story writer and storyteller. She’s inspired by the history and contemporary life of London. Unlawful Things is her first novel.
Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.
My first novel Unlawful Things is a mystery thriller, in which my heroine Helen Oddfellow (a London walking tour guide) teams up with a historian to track down a missing literary masterpiece.
However, they quickly discover they are not the only ones desperate to find the missing play by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe.
The novel mixes fact and fiction, historical mystery and contemporary action. Themes include the power of religion, and religious bigotry, the dangers of digging up secrets from the past, and the violence of far-right groups in today’s Britain.
I like a wide range of influences! The novel I’m writing at the moment will be a follow-up to Unlawful Things. While Christopher Marlowe was an inspiring force behind the first novel, this time around I’m looking at William Blake, another fascinating London writer for Helen Oddfellow to get to grips with.
What inspires you to write? Who are your favorite writers?
It sounds a bit grand, but I think I write in order to try to make sense of the world. I love stories, and once a story takes hold, that’s what keeps me writing. I enjoy the research that goes into writing mysteries with historical backdrops, and I’ve been inspired by the writers I’ve written about, such as Marlowe and Blake.
My favourite classic author is Charles Dickens, for his amazing narrative drive and the way he conjured up the atmosphere of Victorian London. For contemporary authors, I love Kate Atkinson and Ali Smith, and I really enjoyed Anna Burns’ Booker Prize winner, Milkman.
Dan Brown was also an inspiration– he gets a lot of criticism, but the page-turning qualities and the historical and literary background to something like The Da Vinci Code prompted me to think that maybe I could write something in that genre.
How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
That’s changed since I started. When I began writing Unlawful Things I had no idea what I was doing! I got quickly bogged down with plot holes and dead ends.
Eventually I did a creative writing course that helped me get a handle on the novel-writing process. I re-wrote it many times before it was ready to publish.
This time around, I used the Snowflake Methodto plan the novel before I got started. I spent a lot of time thinking in depth about characters, and about the shape of the story, before I began. It’s helped me to feel like I know where I’m going, even if a lot changes from the initial plan as I go along. There’s less of that terrifying blank page to deal with, as you can always see the next step.
How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
Well, Unlawful Things took me somewhere between eight to ten years to write!
I’m hoping the follow-up will be a bit quicker. I spent a couple of months on research and planning, and I’m writing about 5000 words a week at present.
I’m expecting the first draft to be done by about June (I started writing in February) and I’ll then let it sit a bit before going back to see what’s wrong and needs rewriting or revising. I plan to publish it in Spring 2020, all being well.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I actually enjoy the research a lot, because it’s fun finding out about things. But it’s easy to spend months and months researching things that never get used.
First draft is quite fun, because you haven’t committed to anything yet, and you can tell yourself that it doesn’t have to be any good!
Editing and re-writing is hard work, but satisfying when you can see the improvement. Less so when you’re not sure any more whether you’re making it better or worse.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
Yes, I used professional copyeditors and proofreaders to make sure the manuscript was consistent, grammatical and spelled correctly. I also asked a team of beta readers to read it and let me have any feedback (or missed errors) before I published it.
Unlawful Things had been through a couple of rounds of editing with agents and publishers before my publishing deal fell through and I decided to self-publish.
That meant I didn’t feel it needed any additional structural editing. I think a second set of eyes can be really helpful to see what’s working and what isn’t, so I’ll need to organize that myself this time around. Sometimes an editing critique can be hard to hear, but I learned to be ruthless when I could see that (for example) cutting a character or narrative strand made the story stronger.
Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?
Find the time of day that works best for you, and prioritise writing at that time. Don’t ask yourself if you feel like writing. Tell yourself this is your time to write, and get to the desk. Make it regular, so your brain knows it has to kick into writing gear at a certain time every day or week.
I like to write first thing in the morning. Because I work from home, I can be at my desk from about 7.30am and write for an hour and a half before my work shifts kick in at 9am.
I now work part-time, which means I can spend a couple of days a week writing all morning. When I was working full-time in an office, I used to drag myself out of bed at 5am to write for a couple of hours before breakfast. I’m really glad I don’t have to do that any more!
Anything else I haven’t asked you about?
I think that covers most things! Thanks for asking me to do this, Rachel.