Talking structure and editing with Sara Collins

Interview

Our new season of events for writers is bursting with workshops, events, and online courses, including a masterclass with Sara Collins, the winner of the 2019 Costa First Novel Award. ‘Structuring and Editing Your Novel with Sara Collins’ is on 4 April, where participants will be given the opportunity to learn how to nail the structure of their novel, edit effectively and pick up new tools to get their novel ready for submission. Ahead of this, Spread the Word’s Aliya Gulamani spoke to Sara to find out more about her writing process, inspirations and the importance of historical fiction.

Aliya: Hello Sara! Great to see you – so firstly, huge congratulations. What an achievement to win the Costa First Novel Award. How are you feeling about it now and what impact has this had on your writing?

Sara: It’s been hugely encouraging. Anyone who has attempted to write a novel knows that there are long periods during the process when it feels more lonely and dispiriting that anything you’ve ever done. I’ve discovered that the second novel is not much easier, but the added motivation of having my first recognised in this way certainly helps!

Aliya: The book which won is of course, the tremendous ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’, which places a Black queer woman at the centre of a historical novel-cum-gothic-romance. The novel plays gloriously with structure, moving between different timelines and places, from Frannie’s childhood to her present situation – being on trial for her employers’ murders. I’m intrigued how you put the book together structurally and what influenced that process? 

Sara: I was thinking a lot about memory: not only how we remember things, but how and why we suppress memories. One of Frannie’s main problems is that she can neither forget the things she wants to forget, nor remember the things she wants to remember. I wanted the structure of the novel to mimic this, to give the idea that she was skirting around certain things which she would have to face up to, as well as evoking the peculiar gothic terror of amnesia or supposed amnesia (in this case laudanum-induced). But this structure did not come easily or organically. I wrote a very messy first draft and then broke it down scene by scene so I could put the scenes into a spreadsheet and move them around until I felt the story struck the right notes in the right order.

Aliya: Expanding upon this, the book is mainly told through Frannie’s voice – how easy was this to do and why did you decide to use this narrative technique? And how much do you think the voice the novel is told in, affects how the reader feels? 

Sara: I knew I wanted a voice-driven novel but I made many false starts before I found Frannie’s voice. I read a lot of poetry; I examined other voice-driven novels (e.g. The Color Purple, The True History of the Kelly Gang). After about a year, I had built up a syntax  that felt like Frannie, which originated with the first line that I recognised as being hers: “I never would have done what they say I’ve done to Madame, because I loved her”. As I’ve said before, it was as if writing the novel taught me how to write it.

The book succeeds or fails according to the reader’s emotional investment in Frannie herself, so this was the most important thing to get right. I wanted a voice that was interesting, slightly unusual, witty, confidential, one that you want to keep spending time with even when she is doing or saying unlikeable things.

Aliya: During Frannie’s trial, we can justify her actions which raises interesting questions about abuse and power. How much of this was inspired by your own experience of the legal system and the way that it  treats marginalised people in society?

Sara: Not much. I was never a criminal lawyer so a lot of it came from research and not experience. My research into the Old Bailey in the early 19th century was particularly helpful, but I also had some famous fictional lawyers in mind, including Atticus Finch, motivated by a sense that the real passion and purpose of the law is the fight to secure justice for those who are marginalised.

Aliya: You’ve previously spoken about the initial idea behind the novel: reading about Francis Barber, a Jamaican boy who was ‘gifted’ to Samuel Johnson. It makes me think of the incredible value of historical fiction as a genre – in that it reminds us of the real experiences behind the bare facts. Why do you think it has a huge audience, and in your opinion, what’s the best historical fiction book you’ve read?

Sara: The best by far is Beloved by Toni Morrison, a novel that will never be equalled as a piece of historical fiction. We read historical fiction for the same reason we read anything: we want to understand something about ourselves. The best historical fiction shines a light on that for us. As John Fowles said, a historical novel has to be “relevant to the writer’s now”.

Aliya: Following its success, a television adaptation of the novel is now underway. I believe that you will be writing the script? Does it feel like you’re starting a new project? What is the process like and how are you maintaining the heart of the story in a different genre? 

Sara: It felt like taking apart something I’d worked really hard to finish and allowing it to be messy and unfinished again. That was a huge challenge! But I found immense pleasure in thinking about how the heart of the story (which, for me, is that love is the transcendent thing) would beat in an entirely different body. For TV, I am focusing much more on the arrest and the trial, and the tension of the messy, complicated love affair and I’m having huge fun doing so.

Aliya: We’re really pleased that you’ll be running a masterclass with Spread the Word, where you can share the skills that you’ve picked up from first draft to publication. As part of the full-day workshop, participants will be asked to look at writings by Sarah Waters, Toni Morrison and Bernardine Evaristo. Why did you select these writers?

Sara: They are masters at writing literary fiction that makes you want to turn pages (which is extremely difficult to do). If you study the way they do it, you’ve learned from the best.

Aliya: During the masterclass, you’ll be sharing some of your tools with writers that want to get their novel ready for submission – what do you think are the most crucial tools a writer needs for this particular stage?  

Sara: Structure shouldn’t be downplayed or ignored. Every successful novel has certain fundamental things in common and rather than stumbling around trying to find them in your own novel, it helps to try to figure them out in advance (or as you go, if you insist on being a “punster”). The most important tool is the ability to read forensically in order to understand what those things are.

Aliya: A section of the workshop will focus on editing – I believe that you once cut out 50,000 words from Madame Benham’s point of view, very early on in the book. Is it a painful process / does it become easier with time, or is there a rationale to it? 

Sara: The brief pain was replaced with a buzz of excitement when I saw how that excision had re-charged what was left, and infused it with a new pace and energy. It becomes much easier with time because you learn that writing is as much about what you delete as what you leave in.

Aliya: And finally, Sara ahead of your workshop, can you share a little teaser exercise or tip that participants can look forward to?

Sara: I’m very excited about it. Among other things, we’re going to think about writing to and from turning points for your main character. It sounds simple but try to erect these tent-poles before you start (certainly before you finish): how will he/she be different at the beginning/middle/end? We’re going to be discussing James Scott Bell’s idea that it’s the midpoint that makes a novel.


Sara Collins studied law at the London School of Economics before qualifying as a barrister in 1994. She worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before obtaining a Master’s degree in creative writing with distinction from Cambridge University in 2016, where she was the recipient of the Michael Holroyd prize.

Prior to publication, The Confessions of Frannie Langton was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish prize, and it was published in 2019 by Penguin in the UK and Harper Collins in the US to critical acclaim. It has been sold for translation into more than fourteen languages, as well as being optioned for television, and making an appearance in numerous ‘best of’ lists by Oprah magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, Amazon, Apple and Essence, to name a few.

Oprah magazine named her one of the women of summer 2019, and The Sunday Times called her “a star in the making”. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is the winner of the 2019 Costa First Novel Award.

Sara will be running a full day workshop on Structuring and Editing Your Novel on 4 April 2020. You can book your tickets here: https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/events/structuring-and-editing-your-novel-with-sara-collins/

Members of the London Writers Network get discounted rates: https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/projects/london-writers-network/

Published 26 February 2020