A warm welcome today to, Brighton based author, Kate Harrison, who writes for both adults and teens. Before becoming an author, Kate worked as a TV reporter and director on various programmes including Panorama. She is the author of the brilliant Secret Shopper series - which was shortlisted for the Melissa Nathan Comedy Romance Award - and the Soul Beach thriller trilogy.
Tell us about your journey as a writer. How long was it before you were published?
I always wrote as a child but I didn’t know anyone who did it for a living, so I did the next best thing and became a journalist, working for the BBC as an education correspondent and on programmes like Newsround and Panorama. It was a really exciting career, but I still dreamed of writing fiction, so did a few writing courses over the years but my work was all-consuming so all I managed was a few short stories. In 2001, Friends Reunited was all the rage – and had an idea about a girl who organises a reunion because she thinks she was the most popular girl in the school. What she doesn’t realise is that most of her ‘mates’ don’t remember her that fondly and are out for revenge.
I finished the book incredibly fast – three months – and had a few rejections, saying that ‘chick lit’ was dead. Which surprised me because I didn’t think a story about a downtrodden thirtysomething mum counted as chick lit. But when I won a competition and that netted me an agent and a publishing deal for my first novel, Old School Ties, which came out in September 2003. The Boot Camp, out in August, is my tenth novel – I write women’s fiction and now a thriller trilogy called Soul Beach.
Talk us through your typical writing day.
I am incredibly easily distracted so I set myself strict goals in terms of word count, plus I use all sorts of apps and tricks to keep myself focused. I start the day catching up with emails and social media stuff, then get down to writing over my second Nespresso of the day (I’m addicted: I keep hoping George Clooney will pop round to deliver a box as recognition of my coffee habit, but it hasn’t happened yet). If I’m writing a first draft, I tend to do between 1,000-2,000 words a day and I don’t edit as I go along – I write lots of virtual sticky notes to myself in the margin saying things like ‘this is BORING’ or ‘research sports cars later.’ I believe that most of writing is in the re-writing – and that a first draft should be written as fast as I can, while the excitement is still there. Then I get very vicious in the second draft and kill as many of my darlings as I can. Once I’ve got my words done for the day, I might think about new projects, or work on promotion.
I also do lots of research – so I became an undercover mystery shopper for the Secret Shopper series, and for The Boot Camp, I went on a week long fitness camp – in November! We exercised for ten hours a day and I lost half a stone – but put double back on again afterwards. I have a very rebellious streak.
Conversations with friends, TV programmes, articles (I have piles of cuttings that I go through, with stuff about trends or just a picture of a beautiful room or an even more beautiful man). I do tend to write about ‘zeitgeisty’ topics i.e. stuff that’s happening around us right now, from school reunions, to the brownie guide revival or the horrors of military-style boot camps. I tend to write about all aspects of women’s lives – not just the love story, but also work, family, friends. It’s about the things that matter to me, too: so there’s lots about body image and confidence in Boot Camp.
I had a complete change writing my teen thrillers – the trilogy is all about how social networking can take over your life, with a dash of reality TV, impossible love and the afterlife thrown in. My women’s fiction is all about which characters will fall in or out of love – in Soul Beach, it’s about who will fall to his or her death…
I’ve become much more of a plotter over the years…I think that an author’s job is to be in control of the story and to let the reader know they’re on a journey that will take them to new places. That doesn’t mean I don’t have loads of new ideas along the way, but I tend to work with a grid system which highlights what happens when – especially important when there are returning stories and characters, as in my three Secret Shopper’s Revenge novels, and Soul Beach.
I go back to all the little notes I’ve left myself during the first draft and separate the minor stuff – making sure a character isn’t pregnant for twelve months, or doesn’t change eye colour – from the major, like pace or character issues. I email myself a first draft on the Kindle to deal with the major stuff. It makes it feel so much more like reading a book and helps me focus on structural stuff. There’s no point writing the perfect paragraph and then realising you’re dumping the entire chapter in the third draft. Then I do a third version where I add in more description or humour or whatever colour I need, before sending to my editor and biting my nails to the quick while I wait for the verdict.
My main advice is that you do what works for you as a writer – the process I use I’ve arrived at by lots of trial and error. Some books are a dream to write and edit, others are harder. And there’s no way of knowing which it might be when you type Chapter One in a brand new Word document.
Do you use social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging to promote your work? Have you found it useful or time consuming?
I am on Twitter as @KateWritesBooks and Face book too – I also blog my latest news via my website, www.kate-harrison.com though I find I blog less now on my own site and more on other people’s sites, to have a dialogue about the themes and ideas and the writing process. I have noticed my attention span has really diminished over the years (!) so I use things like Pomodairo (http://code.google.com/p/pomodairo), which divides the day into short bursts of different activity to help you get more done… but I love social media, too, because it means a writer or anyone working from home no longer feels quite so isolated.
I write in our spare room which is my office pretty much all the time, except when people come to stay. My desk overlooks rooftops where seagulls nest – I live in lovely Brighton – and where the local cats chase the gulls and vice versa. In fact, it’s so distracting that I’m considering moving my desk to face the wall…
I do sometimes write in cafes or planes – I rather like a bit of background noise after years of working in a newsroom! But I try to save holidays for reading only. It’s one of the issues with being a writer, you can let it take over and never actually take a proper break.
What genre do you read for your own pleasure?
I don’t tend to stick to one genre – in fact, I love to read a mixture. Now that I have my Kindle, my to be read list includes non-fiction, romantic comedy, thrillers and teen novels. It’s all about the story and the ideas behind it.
How do you relax when you’re not writing?
I love cooking, especially baking, and crafty stuff. I’ve recently learned to use a sewing machine – at school I was useless, but now I’m learning to make my own clothes which is so satisfying. Though I take so long that my latest project, a summer dress, probably won’t be ready much before November… I also love eating out and travelling.
What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Make life as hard as you possibly can for your main characters – the more you throw at them, the more their true character will be revealed and the more we’re likely to identify with them as we read.
The Boot CampSIX...days of dawn runs, blistered feet and non-stop sit-ups...
FIVE...meals a day - if half an apple or an oatcake counts as a meal...
FOUR... poster beds not included - but sleep won't be a problem after a ten hour workout...
THREE... women with a battalion's worth of baggage between them...
TWO... hardcore ex-forces trainers with testosterone to spare...
ONE GOAL: To feel like a million dollars, for the first time in your life.
Leave your Mars Bars and Marlboros at the door... this is Boot Camp!
Thank you for talking to us, Kate. We wish you every success with The Boot Camp.
Best wishes, Kate.
To find out more about Kate’s work visit her website at www.kate-harrison.com
Follow her on Twitter @KateWritesBooks