Fiona Neill: Finding a Writing Routine That Works

Fiona Neill: Finding a Writing Routine That Works

Long before I sit down to write a first chapter, I will probably have filled at least one notebook with ideas for scenes, characters, plot and potential dialogue. In a separate file I start to collect bits of research and newspaper cuttings on current preoccupations that will inevitably infuse the plot. In the case of The Betrayals, this includes a lot of articles about anxiety disorders, particularly Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, research into how memories are formed and a postcard of Ophelia drowning by John Millais, which ended up inspiring a key scene of the book. This is my magpie phase, when I am collecting material. The further I get with this process before I start writing, the more confident I feel.

Some authors work without a plot outline but for me that would be like flying without a navigation system: I would get the fear. The plan I sketch out at the beginning is like a road map that I can return to if I feel as though I’m losing my bearings. Mostly I don’t ever look at it again. It remains in a metaphorical drawer, like an insurance policy. When I returned to my outline for The Betrayals, although the overall story arc resembles the final draft, I am taken aback by how much has changed: there is no mention of telling the story from four different perspectives, Daisy’s younger brother Max is the one with an anxiety disorder, and Lisa and Nick have gone on to have children of their own.

In my experience, the best ideas come when I’m doing something completely different, so I take a notebook with me wherever I go. On slow days, I sift through old notebooks, highlighting anything of value, and methodically striking out details that have already been incorporated into the novel. Often this process helps me move forward. By the end of a book I might have filled five notebooks. The final one contains ideas I have collated from the rest and is colour coded according to characters and themes.