Money & Career
Joy Fielding on how to be a better writer
Courtesy of Random House Credits: Courtesy of Random House
Money & Career
Joy Fielding on how to be a better writer
Joy Fielding: The story is basically about a young woman, Bailey, who spies on people for a living and who is attacked and raped during the course of a surveillance, and the effect that has on her. I find sexual assault is often trivialized in books. Often a woman is raped and she gets over it in a couple of chapters. I wanted to show the profound effect something like that would have on somebody and how it would basically influence every decision she makes for the rest of her life. Bailey is obviously very traumatized and she retreats into her condo and starts watching people through her binoculars. She's afraid to leave her apartment for the longest time and this is her only connection to the outside world. Eventually she notices a man in a building behind her and he seems to be watching her. â€¨
CL: Do you usually start with a character or the plot?
JF: It varies from book to book. Sometimes you get a character. And in Bailey's case, I had the character and this warring family. Then the situation sort of presented itself. Other times, you get a really good idea for a plot and then you have to figure out: What kind of people can I put in this story? I think in all good fiction, the plot springs from character. You have to know who these people are in order to say what they would do. But I also like a strong plot. There has to be conflict, some narrative thrust.
CL: Your books often have great twists. Do you know what the twists are going to be when you start writing?
JF: Some of them. But sometimes the best twists are the ones that don't occur to you until you're almost on top of them. That was the case with Whispers and Lies, where I knew something had to happen in that story that would change the entire way you were reading that book, but I didn't know what it was going to be until the chapter before it happened. And then I went, ah! And that's why the reader gasps when they come to that part in the book, because I did too. I think it was [Mary] Flannery O'Connor who said, "If you're never surprised, you can't expect your readers to be." I don't know all the twists, but I know when a twist has to happen. I have an innate sense of when I have to shift the action, and I want whatever does happen to make sense, so if a reader goes back, they can say the groundwork was laid right from the first chapter.
CL: Do you always know how a book is going to end when you start writing?
JF: I do a detailed outline of my entire book before I start. It's moving the plot from point A to point B to point C. I always know how the books are going to end. Because I think if you don't know where they're going to end, you can't successfully build suspense. I know where I'm going and I know a few key things along the way, but I don't know everything. That's the fun part of writing.
CL: As a suspense writer, how do you build tension?
JF: I think you have to be very cognizant of moving your plot along. Everything that happens should be in aid of moving your plot along. You have to build your suspense, and you do that by making everything that happens a little bigger than what happened before, until you get to the climax. The stakes have to get higher all the time. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got is: If you're telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, bring on the three bears. That's what's interesting. Don't give me filler.
CL: How do you create engaging characters?
JF: If a character is not sympathetic, then they have to be very interesting. If a character is not sympathetic, I think, Do I really want to spend all this time with them? Do I really care about them? You need to create a believable cast of characters—especially your main characters. I find that, in a lot of novels, they don't get the women right. Because I think women are fabulous. All the women I know are very complicated: They're funny, they're smart, they're resilient, they're interesting, they're neurotic. They're not superwomen; they're human beings. And I find a lot of women in commercial fiction are superwomen; they're always really beautiful, really rich and really smart. They're just not the women I know. They don't have any depth. What I have tried to do is create women characters that readers relate to.
CL: You tried to get your first story published in a magazine when you were eight. How did you deal with early rejection?
JF: I never felt I'd been rejected. I was always encouraged and loved, and I grew up thinking there was nothing I couldn't do. So I wrote that story and I sent it off to Jack and Jill Magazine, and my mother told me when we got the rejection slip that it was too mature for their readers. So I really grew up believing that, at the age of eight, I had written this story that was too mature for the readers of this national magazine. It wasn't until after my parents died that we were cleaning up the house and I came across the story and the rejection slip. In type-written letters, it just said: "We're not interested in this manuscript." I remember reading that and being shocked that there's nothing here about my maturity. But I never felt that I had failed. I think, as a writer, you have to have this self-confidence, because there are people just waiting to take you down a peg. Everybody has criticism for writers.
CL: With 25 books under your belt now, has the writing process gotten easier?
JF: Certain things have become easier. I would say that writing the first 20 books were like I'd never written a book before in my life. It was like always starting at square one again. Now I'm much more relaxed about it. I don't worry about never having another idea again. And as for the writing itself, I feel much more in command of what I'm doing.
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