Here’s what happened at The Riff Raff April meet up

Another month, another line-up of banging debut author talent. This time we were lucky enough to be joined by those making headlines, striking TV deals, taking on best seller lists and being long-listed for some of literature’s most prestigious awards. So, what did you miss? Bloody loads. Luckily, we scribbled down the best nuggets to present to you all right here…

“Keep the Faith”

First up we had Dan Dalton, former Shortlist and Buzzfeed staff writer, whose debut, Johnny Ruin was published through Unbound back in March.

Dan chatted about having the idea for his novel 13 years before he finally sat down to write it. He revealed how he constantly came back to the project, writing down notes and scene ideas all whilst accumulating the essential life experience required to write a book as heartfelt and honest as Johnny Ruin. He discussed the wonderful magic of inspiration, which as we all know can strike at the strangest of times, “You’re making eggs or on the toilet…and suddenly the idea comes.” This perfectly demonstrates the magical creative process of writing a book – you can’t force it, the most interesting ideas need precious time to percolate.

Being a well-known writer, we all assumed Dan would breeze his way into a publishing deal but this wasn’t the case. Dan found that while many of the major publishing houses loved the book, they couldn’t quite see where his particular brand of “weird, experimental fiction” would fit. Luckily for us, this led Dan to Unbound, an exciting crowdfunding publishing platform, and he went on to crowdfund the book in a record nine days.

Dan did stress to those thinking of doing the same that having an established platform was a huge help, and that those without may not find it quite as straight-forward.

After showing us the tattoo he had in commemoration of his super cool book cover, Dan left us on a positive note, stressing that the publishing industry is an exciting place to be right now, with lots of small presses like 404 Ink and Dead Ink Books shaking things up and ensuring great work gets out there. He left us with a Johnny Ruin-themed nugget of advice that works for all aspiring writers out there, “Keep the faith.”

“I couldn’t have waited any longer to pitch it”

Our second author of the night, Nick Clark Windo received a huge round of applause before he’d even started after revealing the news that his dystopian debut, The Feed, is currently under production with Amazon and will be hitting our screens sometime next year.

While it may appear he’s smashed it right away, Nick’s writing success is apparently a long time in the making. While this is his first published novel, over the years he has actually slaved over seven! Nick revealed that some of the ideas appearing in The Feed came to him when he was as young as eight years old. He also stated that the final draft of his debut was probably draft 21! Conclusive proof that it’s never too young to start jotting down ideas and that suffering through that awful first draft is essential to create this kind of page-turner.

We were interested in whether Nick felt any pressure to write quickly due to the nature of his book being so timely. “Not on the first draft or two” he stated, “But pretty soon my wife and my mother-in-law started to tell me to hurry up before someone else came up with something similar. I couldn’t have waited any longer to pitch it.”

“Don’t fear the slush pile”

Next up, we were incredibly lucky to have a Riff Raff exclusive – Libby Page talking about her debut, The Lido, a whole week before publication. Libby’s book is set at Brixton Lido, a mere hop skip and jump from the Effra Social, which made it all the more cockle warming for us.

The wonderful story behind The Lido came from Libby’s passion for outdoor swimming and the amazing older women she met while leaping into freezing waters. When questioned about choosing to write about an older protagonist (Rosemary is 86) Libby expressed a desire to “give a voice to older, overlooked, often passive characters.” She stated her overall aim was to “portray what it is to be human – we’re not too dissimilar.”

Libby went on to reveal that her process involved spending six months purely planning the book and getting to know her characters so that when the time came to write, the characters themselves could drive the narrative. Libby discussed how she viewed the lido itself as a character, highlighting just how important setting is to a believable and engaging narrative.

Although Libby’s book has been billed as ‘Up Lit’ this was apparently not her direct intention. Instead she just wanted to write something that came from “taking inspiration and seeing the good in the people all around us.” She stressed how important a positive attitude is to writing – a lesson we could all do with remembering when we’re tearing our hair out over our laptops!

Libby left us with an important tip for aspiring writers – that unless you know people in the industry, you’ll have to go for it via the dreaded ‘slush pile’. She stressed that it took her a year to get an agent, but when she found Robert Caskie he replied within half an hour, and his enthusiasm for the book has been key to her exceptional success. Hold out for an agent who is as excited about the book as you are.

“A book needs to earn its length”

After a short wine break, we kicked off the second half of the night with Desmond Elliott and Women’s Prize for Fiction nominee, Imogen Hermes Gowar, author of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

Imogen revealed that the idea for her wildly original debut first came when she was working in the British Museum. Faced with having to spend hours in the company of ancient artefacts, Imogen would write short stories about what she saw. What a wonderful method for sparking story inspiration!

An audience member raised an important point when they questioned how you can possibly ‘do a century justice’. Imogen revealed that she spent ten months exclusively researching the 18th century at the British Library in order to immerse herself in it and to feel comfortable writing about it.

We went on to discuss whether there is such thing as an ideal length for a book and Imogen revealed she originally wanted her debut to be a novella. Her draft soon shot up to 70k and then into the 100’s but she stated she thinks it’s fine as long as the book “earns its length.” Sound advice to bear in mind when you enter editing stage.

Imogen left us with a useful tip – “be aware of writing an ‘issues’ book. Concentrate on writing your story and then look at the themes that come out of that.”

“A hot coal in my mind”

Our last author of the night was Stuart Turton, author of Saturday Times Bestseller, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

Stuart began by discussing where the inspiration arose for his time-travel, body-hopping, Agatha Christie-meets Groundhog Day-meets-Quantum Leap-style debut revealing that the idea was like a “hot coal” in his mind for years before one day, while travelling on a plane to perform his job as a travel writer, it “congealed like a cheese toastie and it was delicious.” Stuart described how for years he’d been stuck as to how to make the book work, the next, things miraculously fell into place and he was “shot out of a cannon.” He urged us to be patient, to let ideas set in and to not try and write something that had been written before – “Agatha Christie has literally written every plot – I needed to find something of my own.”

Stuart let us in on how he planned out his wildly complicated plot in elaborate spreadsheets mapping out every two minutes of the storyline to ensure he didn’t slip up. Having said that, he went on to lament 40,000 words he had to discard when he got a little too carried away down one particular trajectory and ended up writing himself into a plot hole. “I had no choice but to wave it goodbye.” Thank goodness it all worked out so wonderfully well for him.

Have a listen to Stuart talking about his fab debut on our podcast here>>>

Huge thanks as always to our incredible authors for their insight, humour and knowledge, our wonderful photographer for the event Alice Lubbock, and to our fab audience who had so many excellent, insightful questions about the writing process. We hope to see you at a Riff Raff in the near future.

Our next event is May 10th – featuring Guy Gunaratne, Kate Leaver, Samuel Fisher, Anne Patterson and Zelda Thiando, and it’s our 1st birthday so expect surprises galore. Come celebrate with us.

Tickets are available here.

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