Feature article

Single to Success

Thursday 29 April 2010 ~ First published in Romance Matters Spring 2010

Author Sarah Duncan

Sarah Duncan

You’ve probably already seen Sarah Duncan’s fourth novel, Single to Rome, in the shops. And Kissing Mr Wrong, currently in hardback, comes out in paperback in May 2010. A long-time member of the RNA, Sarah categorises her novels as relationship. ‘Kissing Mr Wrong is my most romantic and Adultery for Beginners my least.

‘I write for myself, to entertain me. I like to write about the problems that women face, making choices in life, having change thrust onto you, dealing with questions like: if you break up, can you ever make it work again? That’s what I think about, so that’s what I write about. Although I don’t write autobiographically, my books definitely reflect where I am personally when writing them. I’m very happy at the moment – and the books are getting more romantic!’

Based in Bath, Sarah’s just bought a house in St Ives, Cornwall. ‘I think Bath is the perfect mix of city and countryside. It has one of everything you need – like a theatre and arts cinema, lots of great shops and is small enough to walk around on foot. It’s a beautiful city and if you look up you see trees on the skyline. And St Ives is wonderful; I can see the sea from my bed.’
As well as being a novelist, Sarah teaches creative writing at Bristol University, the University of Oxford and Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania, USA. ‘One hundred per cent I’m a writer who teaches, although I love teaching and get a lot out of it. I limit my teaching hours to a maximum of six per week, although I get asked to do more.

‘From next September, I’m the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Bristol and I’ll have a salary for the first time in my life.

‘Teaching gets me out of the house. It provides some structure to my working week now my children are grown up and I’ve no longer got the school run dictating my schedule. If I was just writing it would be easy for one day to merge into another as I’m not very good at switching off. And of course I enjoy teaching and I’ve made some really good friends.

‘I’m definitely a better writer for having taught. It’s forced me to examine how I (and others) write because I have to think of a way to explain it to the students. I learn something new about writing every time I take a class.’

In a past career Sarah was an actress and most of us have welcomed her into our sitting rooms in ‘Only Fools and Horses’. (You know, that special – Rodney falls for a posh bird and turns up at her shooting weekend in knickerbockers and a Sherlock Holmes hat. Del Boy turns up with a pump-action shotgun. Well, Sarah is the posh bird, Lady Victoria. ‘A Royal Flush’, 1986)

‘I think you get a feel for dialogue from acting and, also, you’re working with character – it’s coming from a different angle, but as an actor you’re looking for the same stuff that the writer is putting in. I’ve also got a good sense of the dramatic – but I suspect my family would say I’ve always had that … It’s about the desire to communicate – a lot of actors, journalists and teachers become writers.

‘I knew quite early on that acting wasn’t going to be a long-term career for me and was waiting for an opportunity to jump. Actors aren’t in control of their working lives. They have to wait until they’re cast before they can act. If you don’t get cast, you don’t act. If you don’t get auditioned, you can’t get cast. You need a lot of lucky breaks to succeed. It’s a very tough life. Writers have more control – not necessarily about how you get published, but at least to write every day regardless of whether someone else wants it or not. Luck helps, but you can make your own luck.’

As she ‘loves, loves, loves’ re-writing, you won’t be surprised to learn that the most difficult part of writing, for Sarah, is the first draft. She takes about a year writing a book and, ‘I put off doing the first draft as long as possible, then curse myself for not leaving enough time to rewrite a million times.’ The more she writes, the less she plans, because the more she plans, the less interest she has in her book – and has even abandoned novels when interest faded.

‘I always know which direction I’m going in and always have at least three or four major turning points in mind before I start, scenes that I’m looking forward to writing. And I know what the main problem is going to be for the character. But everything is up for grabs as I’m going along. I change the characters’ names, jobs, appearances, families, friends, personalities, even gender, as I write.’

A supremely unfussy writer, Sarah writes comfortably in bed, at her desk, on a train or at the kitchen table, finding it easy to enter her little world – and to return there if interrupted. She can even ignore a glass of wine, if she’s writing!

And on the thorny subject of self-promotion? ‘I’m trying to do more. My publisher asked me to blog and go on Twitter last year. I only blog about the writing process but, luckily, I’ve got masses of material from teaching so I haven’t had too many panic moments when I’m stuck for something. Since I started blogging my profile has definitely been raised and I get a lot more interview requests and emails from readers.

‘Twitter is fun, but time consuming.

‘I feel I ought to do more but something British in me cringes when I see the self-promotion some people do. I’m also not very savvy about technology so that makes much of the web-based stuff uphill work. And does it work in terms of book sales?

‘I’d like to say self-promotion isn’t important at all but I think publishers look for “authorial presence”. It’s going to become even more important than it is now. I just wish publishers would explain when we’re supposed to write the books.’

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It's a fact

The RNA's first president Denise Robins wrote more than 180 books. The second, Mary Burchell wrote 110. Our third President, Diane Pearson has six so far. Current president Katie Fforde has 19 and she's still writing.