Welcome back for another instalment of Getting to Know… Today, we’ve got British author Beth Miller in the hot seat. Beth is originally from London but now she lives in Sussex. She’s written two novels: When We Were Sisters and The Good Neighbour. She’s also written two non-fiction books, For The Love of The Archers and the just-published For The Love of Shakespeare. Beth’s taken a break from working on her third novel to hang out with us for a bit.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Beth. It’s always great to have a chance to meet another writer. Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? Do you remember how old you were when you knew?
When I was six. I knew I wanted to be a writer because I loved writing stories. I got a lot of encouragement from teachers and my parents who thought I could write well. I got published at the age of 47. I am a slow-burn kind of gal.
Then we’re birds of a feather. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. It just took me until I was 43 to actually publish a novel. 🙂 Now when it comes to writing, are you a plotter or pantster?
I’ve been both. First novel: pantsed it. Took 12 years. Second novel: plotted it. Took eight months. Current novel: a mixture, which is going to take roughly two years. I think plotting is a very good idea, but probably not everyone needs to. I’m just not a very good pantser.
I’ve got both of your novels on my Kindle, but haven’t had a chance to read them yet. I’m looking forward to reading them in December, once NaNoWriMo is over. Now, I know you’re working on a third novel. What can you tell us about it?
I’ve nearly finished the first shoddy-looking draft. It’s about Hana, who comes from a very restrictive and sheltered family, and leads a double-life. It’s got lots of lists in it (I love lists), and it’s really about love, and the mistakes we make when we’re young. And the mistakes we make when we’re older, too. I think it’s funny, though I’m often the only one who finds my writing amusing.
It sounds intriguing! I can’t wait to read it! Speaking of reading, what are you reading now? And what’s on your To-Be-Read List?
I usually have a fiction and non-fiction book on the go. The non-fiction currently is Contested Will by James Shapiro, about the was-Shakespeare-really-Shakespeare conspiracy. It’s for a talk I’m doing later this year. And I’ve just finished a couple of fiction books because of being on holiday: Girl on the Train (I was late to this particular party, though I wasn’t mad about it), and The School Gate Survival Guide by Kerry Fisher, which was great. The next one on the pile is Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey, and I’m very much looking forward to Rebecca Mascull’s next novel, The Wild Air, out next spring. Her books are different from anything else out there.
Since I am American, I don’t know anything about The Archers. I’ve heard British friends mention it, but other than that, I don’t really know what it is. 🙂 Could you tell us a little about the Archers and how you decided to write about the program?
The Archers is a long-running radio drama which is set in a fictional area of the Midlands. In fact it’s the longest-running radio drama in the world. I was commissioned to write the book because a friend of mine who’d been asked to do it turned it down and offered it to me. She didn’t listen to the Archers but I was a fan and had already written an Archers blog for years.
What made you decide to write about Shakespeare?
The same publisher (Summersdale) asked me to write the Shakespeare book for no other reason than I’d done the Archers one for them and they thought I could do it!
I think I’m going to have to check out the Archers. 🙂 Maybe I can listen to it while I am working. Now, speaking of work, what’s your typical day of writing like?
Take my boy to school, come back, make tea, and go up to my messy desk in the loft. Faff around on the internet for a while, then gradually pick up from where I left off last time. I edit the last couple of pages and then write onwards from that point. This makes it sound really smooth. There’s a lot of stop-starting and popping downstairs for a biccy before I get my head back into it.
Are you one of those writers who has rituals need to have certain things with them when they write or start a new project?
I do buy a notebook at the start of each book but don’t think that’s a ritual so much as a necessity – I use the notebook! I’m not a very ritualistic person.
I always buy new notebooks when I start a project, but then I end up doing most of the work on my computer. So I think the buying of notebooks must be my ritual. So what would you say is your favorite part of being a writer?
Without question, people who have read the books telling you what they thought. I don’t mean Amazon reviews, though I do love reading those, even the bad ones. I mean in person, when people stop you in the street and tell you how a certain aspect resonated with them or how it made them feel. Those encounters keep me going through the arid periods of unsuccessful writing.
You are also an editor/book coach/ writing teacher. Does having this background make writing easier? Or do you find that your inner critic is more relentless?
I see the book coaching and writing as slightly separate to my own writing. I can’t assume that a client or student will have the same difficulties or strengths in writing as I do, so I try to be where they’re at with their writing. There are a few universal rules, though, that apply to everyone (such as ‘get some words written!’) I’ve been through the mill with writing, getting rejected, re-writing, getting rejected again, etc, and I have made every mistake in the book, so I think I know a few shortcuts now that I can pass on to people. But there are no shortcuts when it comes to getting the words down in the first place.
So true! I think a lot of people believe we writers can magically make words appear, but it’s all about putting in the time and actually writing. There’s no magic to it.
What about characters? Now when it comes to yours, is there a particular one who’s your favourite?
In my first novel (When We Were Sisters), my favourite character for a long time was Miffy, the young girl. But I came to realise that the other main character, Laura – self-centered and bitchy – was a bit closer to my heart. In my second novel (The Good Neighbour), my favourite is definitely Davey, one of the three narrators. He’s a nine-year old boy, a wheelchair user, who’s brilliant at technology. I love his resourcefulness and his generous spirit.
What about social media? What’s your take on it? Do you think it’s vital for today’s authors?
I think it works for a few people, those who already have a built-in audience, such as Caitlin Moran. I’m not convinced it works so well for new authors. My twitter feed sometimes seems to be made up entirely of authors shouting, ‘read my book!’ in increasingly desperate ways. I worry that they are spending so much time on it, when they could be getting on with the next book. And there’s often a lack of wit and flair in the way people try to draw attention to themselves.
And there’s also a law of diminishing returns. I might see a post about a book that looks interesting, but by the time I’ve seen six, ten or even more tweets about the same book, I’m sick of the sight of it. Sorry. I don’t know what the answer is. I enjoy Facebook and Twitter but I’m not expecting them to make or break this thing I laughingly call my writing career. My current favourite social media is Instagram, though I don’t really follow any authors on it. I just like looking at the pretty pictures.
I know what you mean. I love Pinterest and Instagram for the very same reason. 🙂
What about writing advice? What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
‘Don’t get it right, get it written’. I don’t remember who said it to me, but I now say it all the time to writing students. It means don’t go back endlessly over your work rewriting; don’t sit there pointlessly worrying that it doesn’t say exactly what you want; don’t waste time moving commas about; don’t be neurotic. It means churn out the words, and trust that you can make them better later. I have this as a mantra in my head the whole time I’m writing the first draft.
So true! You have to write the words first. You can always revise and make it better. But that dirty first draft is a necessity.
Now, when you’re reading or writing, are there any subjects that are taboo for you?
I would never write about child sexual abuse. Not because I am squeamish, but because I think it has become over-used as a plot device, and its horror is becoming diminished. I also don’t like killing people off in my books, as I think that can often be a slightly lazy device to move on the plot. But I love writing sex scenes – the raunchier the better!
Heheh! Sex scenes are always fun to write. Some of my readers tell me I don’t write enough of them, maybe I need to change that. Now what about dream projects? If you could work on a collaborative project with any writer, who would be your dream writing partner?
In fact, my dream job would be to work as a collaborative writer, on an American TV comedy such as Frasier or Thirty Rock. I love writing with people but hardly ever do it any more. My dream writing partner would be Tina Fey, but she hasn’t called back.
You and I are on the same wavelength. I would love to work with Tina Fey–especially since we come from the same city. Well, maybe if we send her boxes of Philadelphia delicacies, she’ll give us a call. 😉