Debra Daley is a New Zealand born writer. She won the Lillian Ida Smith award for The Strange Letter Z, has written for New Zealand television and her latest novel is Turning the Stones.
A note from the author on writing.
Why I write
I was always determined to be a writer. If you look on my blog debradaley.com you can see some early manifestos clumsily written when I was six or seven attesting to my compulsion to write. This was not unconnected with the fact that I had recently learned to read. That’s how it has been ever since: reading makes me want to write. Writing makes me want to read. When I was about eight years old and a forlorn little girl, I got a book out of the library whose consoling power profoundly influenced me. I can still remember my amazement at discovering by means of a story that other people in the world felt what I was feeling and that I was not alone. The book was Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. It concerns a displaced little girl called Nona, living with a hoity-toity cousin who couldn’t care less about two Japanese dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, that have been given to her. When Nona realises that the dolls are lonely, scared and homesick, she tries to make them feel better by building them a little Japanese house to live in. Of course, by building a home for Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Nona begins to create a home-life for herself. It is a lesson in the transformational powers of empathy. This mind-melding is the point of literature to me—that through a writer’s imagination you can be lifted out of yourself and connected to humanity. It astounds me still that another human being can spin a world out of the air and all it takes to enter it is the ability to read.
Debra's five favourite books from the deep past
Leaving aside all my rave reads of the 20th and 21st centuries, as a historical novelist, these five constantly inspire me:
1. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, 1748. The fiendish rake Lovelace vs. the rapturous virgin Clarissa. A 1,000-page epistolary novel and immersive experience of the 18th century.
2. A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, 1768. The first modern travel memoir. Clever, self-obsessed, elegantly succinct.
3. The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, 1728. Okay, it’s a play with ballads, not a novel, but crammed with fantastic thieves, mouthy whores and cracking dialogue. And is there any more attractive anti-hero than Captain Macheath (the original Mac the Knife)?
4. A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift, 1704. A brilliant takedown of idiots and blowhards in positions of power that is still relevant right now.
5. Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1897. The ultimate Gothic horror novel and acme of the epistolary style. The last word in atmosphere. Literally wrote the book on How To Create A Memorable Character.
Debra's top five writing tips
1. Assume Nobody Gives a Damn. In other words, don’t waste psychic energy angsting about whether anyone is ever going to recognise your genius. Some amazing, transcendentally wonderful writers never find an agent or publisher let alone public recognition. And some do. That’s the
nature of the beast: talent needs to be allied with luck. So don’t try to second-guess the future. Concentrate on the thing you’re writing. Just write now. Write for yourself. Write because you love writing.
2. Know That To Write Is To Be Rejected. Everyone tells you this, but it can’t be emphasised enough. Do not let rejection stop you from writing. My first novel, The Strange Letter Z, was published by Bloomsbury. Woo-hoo! I spent five years writing an epic second novel, only to have it rejected. I had invested MAJORLY in that novel, not only emotional energy and time, but most of my financial resources. Afterwards, I did a certain amount of lying facedown on the ground sobbing. But what could I do then but keep writing? So I wrote Turning the Stones. On faith. And I got another book deal. It just took years, that’s all. An agent told me recently that it surprised her how many novelists walk away from writing after a rejection. She said they haven’t understood that to be an author is to play a very long innings.
3. Don’t Write What You Know. All right, I’m being facetious, but honestly, if you are writing a historical or fantasy novel, you have the opportunity to create stories and characters that are worlds away from the same-old of your personal life. I really believe that story-making benefits from the surge of excitement you feel inventing situations in times and places that are literally novel to you. My curiosity is always piqued by difference. In real life I’m a white, middle-class mother-of-two. But in my mind I’m a crusty old man in some eighteenth-century predicament.
4. Learn to Wrangle Research. Historical writers can’t do without it, but beware, my loves, Google’s siren call. You can easily get lost in the labyrinth of Interesting Possibilities and find that six months have passed without finding your way to the end of your story. I’m not above the addictive sidebar myself (she says, looking guiltily at a couple of notebooks fat with abandoned facts), but I do try to manage research by first writing a broad outline of my story so that I know where I am going. Be guided by the thread of your narrative otherwise you will never reach that halcyon day when you write, END.
5. Write A Novel By Writing A Novel. It might sound bleedin’ obvious, but a novel won’t write itself. I have found that to write a book you have to work at it more or less every day whether you feel like it or not. I use a cheesy psychological trick to do this. I tell myself I only need write 200 words today. And then accidentally write 1,000. I work paragraph by paragraph, never letting myself dwell on the enormity of the undertaking. In this I am guided by the stupendously great Anne Lamott, who is all about taking one step at a time. If you only read one book about making writing happen for you, let it be Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.