Fiona Cummins is an award-winning former Daily Mirror showbusiness journalist and a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course. Rattle, her debut novel, which sold at auction across Europe, is published in the US by Kensington. It has also been optioned for a TV series with scripts penned by The Grudge screenwriter Stephen Susco. Fiona lives in Essex, England with her family.
INTERVIEW – FIONA CUMMINS
Compare your career as a journalist and your career now as a novelist.
In some ways, they’re two sides of the same coin. After 12 years on the Daily Mirror, I’m used to meeting deadlines and being edited. Both jobs shine a light on stories that have emotional resonance.
But publishing works so slowly compared to newspapers. In my old job, I’d write a news story and within a few hours it would have been sub-edited, laid out and printed. My first novel was published twenty one months after I signed my deal.
Tell us about the Faber Academy Writing A Novel course and why you decided to attend.
I heard SJ Watson (Before I Go To Sleep) talking about it on the radio and I loved the sound of it. It was expensive and I’d just left my job, so I was worried we couldn’t afford it, especially as I had no idea whether I could write a full-length manuscript. But it gave me permission to take myself seriously as a writer. I also learned the importance of finishing what you’ve started.
Do you feel like you know your own writing process now?
Not really. Every book has a different feel about it. Rattle took multiple drafts to get right while The Collector took one. My third novel – I literally finished it about two hours ago – is quite complex and will need some more work, I think. But I have approached each of them in the same way. I don’t plot, it’s much more of an organic process. I have a rough idea of the shape of the story and that’s it. I don’t tend to start writing until I know the first line, and often, the last.
In another interview you talked about talent.”Talent is all very well tenacity, self-belief, originality, and the ability to get the words on the page….” I love this definition of talent.
Describe your experience of tenacity and how this affects writers.
I think it’s about keeping the faith. Talent is important, but persistence is key. Novels are rejected for so many reasons, some of which have nothing to do with an ability to write well. An editor is unlikely to buy a book about a crime-fighting circus act if she bought one like it the week before. A literary agent might already have an author writing a novel about a crime-fighting circus act and wish to avoid a conflict of interest. The market may have seen several books featuring crime-fighting circus acts and have become saturated. The point is, we all need a healthy spoonful of good luck too, but if you give up, you won’t even get a chance to lick the spoon.
Describe your experience of self-belief before after publishing your books.
If you don’t believe in yourself, no-one else will. It takes a lot of discipline to sit in front of a computer and write every day, to keep writing and polishing and editing. What keeps us going? Faith that we can do it. But not blind faith. It’s important to listen too. If your manuscript has been rejected by multiple agents multiple times, perhaps it’s time to think very carefully about where you might be going wrong and the best way to fix it.
Describe your experience of originality and how it can benefit writers.
Publishers are always looking for fresh voices, for the Next Big Thing. I enjoy books that do things a little differently, that have a distinctive narrative voice or approach their stories from an interesting angle. I try to do this with my own writing too.
Have you ever wanted to quit writing?
Never. I’ve been frustrated when I can’t make my stupid brain match my vision for a book, I’ve been beset by self-doubt, I’ve ridden the emotional rollercoaster of rejection and disappointment but why would I ever want to quit the best job in the world? Someone is paying me to sit in bed, wearing my pajamas, drinking tea, eating biscuits and making stuff up. You’ll have to prise my laptop from my cold, dead fingers.
How important is it to “Keep going?”
This was a regular refrain throughout the Faber Academy course and weirdly, this had never occurred to me. I made the mistake of thinking that if the first chapter wasn’t right, the book wasn’t right. We were encouraged to keep writing. First drafts can be worked upon, and often, the end informs the beginning.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished my third novel. It is set on an ordinary street but some of the residents of The Avenue hide some very dark secrets indeed.