Interview with The Bookdragon

Talking with Mary Jane at The Bookdragon about writing and books...

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I write because it makes me feel better and I’ve just always done it. I like playing with stories and I get the same kind of escapist pleasure from writing a story as I do from reading one. More, in fact. When the story is your own, you can live with it for longer and explore its dimensions and variations in more detail. The world is a hard place to live in sometimes, and writing makes it easier. I can’t say that I ever actually decided to become a writer – I certainly never set out to achieve anything in particular. I’ve always felt a need to express myself creatively, and words are my medium.

Becoming a writer

Can you describe your writing process?

I work best with a blank page in front of me. I know a lot of people prefer to map things out in advance, but my best writing is always unplanned and spontaneous. When I write to a plan, it always falls flat somehow. When I sit in front of a blank page, hoping something will show up, I quite often get a happy surprise. I have difficult days, of course, and I do tend to have ideas about how the next few scenes could develop (if the mood strikes me that way on the day), but I like to let the stories emerge in their own way. The plot developments I like the most in Striking Out grew, without exception, out of that intangible ether of uncertainty and in-the-moment imagination.

My usual process is to start the day by re-reading (and editing) what I wrote the previous day – this helps to get me back in the story – then I find the new content flows quite naturally.

How long does it take you to write a book?

It takes me a year to write a draft of a book, but I can work on more than one book during that period. This year, for instance, I’ll draft two and a half books in the year (and I’m working hard – this is definitely my upper limit). I need a certain amount of writing time, but it’s the thinking time that sets the time frame for me. I need to live with a story for a while, play with it and ponder my plot options, and I’ve found that takes me a year. I wouldn’t like to rush that process.

What do you do when you're not writing?

My day job is in occupational psychology, so I work with people to help them achieve their career goals. There’s huge diversity in my day-to-day work, and I facilitate workshops on a range of different topics, working with organisations and teams in addition to coaching individuals. I’ve recently launched a range on online courses for writers and performers to extend my reach beyond my local area. I still run lots of live workshops, of course, but technology makes it possible for me to work with people from all around the globe, and I love that. I’ve got a Psychology for Writers program that’s proving to be popular, and there’s high demand for my Goodbye Stage Fright program too. You can find out more here if you’re interested http://www.scarletbennett.com.au/online-courses/

In my personal life, I design and make jewellery using sterling silver and semi-precious gemstones in my spare time, and I have a photo gallery on my website.

I read a lot, too, and I’m a particular fan of crime fiction so long as it’s not too violent.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

I learn so many things from writing that it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll go with this one because it might help other people who are struggling their way through the writing process.

One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is how easy it is to craft good writing from a first draft. The first draft stage is hard. Some days, I’m happy with my first pass at an idea. Other days, I look back on what I’ve done and feel quite dejected – I haven’t hit the mark and I know it.

I think this is one of the things that blocks people’s progress when they’re writing. It’s easy to feel stuck at this point, and to doubt whether your work has any merit.

But the re-drafting process is a whole new phase, and there’s real value in having something on the page to work with, even if the first draft of an idea isn’t very good. I find that once I have the ideas on the page, I can craft them into something I like much more easily than I expect. So I’m a great believer in the value of getting your ideas out. You can always come back and refine them later. Writing is an organic process – it never really ends – and I’ve learned to trust that my story will evolve over time into something I like.

What's next for you?

My second novel will be published next year. It’s the first in a series, this time in the crime fiction genre, and it features a heroine who works as a forensic psychologist, using her professional skills to unveil the secrets that people will kill to keep hidden. It’s much darker than Striking Out, bleaker and more cynical, and I’m really enjoying the change of mood.

I’m working on the sequel to Striking Out as well, and I’m grateful to be able to switch between this lighter, humorous work, and the darker piece that takes more out of me emotionally. It’s wonderful to be able to further develop my Striking Out characters – I’ve made Des’s life very difficult in the sequel. Des is a misogynistic, sleazy ego-maniac and making his life a misery gives me a lot of pleasure.

I have a non-fiction book close to completion, too, and I’m hoping to have that ready for submission in the next six months or so. It’s a book on psychological profiling for writers, to help writers create psychologically credible personality structures for their characters.