kate harrison
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Kate Harrison's route to literary success was via a competition. Here she tells her story and shares her writing advice. Kate's excellent debut novel, Old School Ties, is available now.

What inspires you to write?
Anything and everything. I love inventing characters and seeing what happens to them when I put them in extreme situations. It might sound a bit crazy, but it’s like a literary version of The Sims computer game… there comes a point when you feel as though you no longer have any control over them and their actions. That’s the fun bit.

How do you go about structuring your novels?
I’m only on my second book at the moment – so I don’t have a set method. But my first one had quite a straightforward structure, as it followed my heroine, Tracey, as she planned her school reunion. Then, whenever she started thinking about her past, I’d write flashbacks… I do find it much easier to write in the first person, because the central character comes alive for me: the way she speaks and thinks, the way she sees the world.

How long do you spend planning your novels? How long does it take you to complete a novel?
I start with an idea, a scenario or character that interests me, and then spend a bit of time working out where it could end up. Then I might think of a few key scenes or twists, and try to plot how I get from one to the next! It’s useful to have a framework, but lots of unexpected events tend to sneak in along the way.. As for how long – well, Old School Ties took me 3 months for the first draft, even though I was working full-time. Book 2 is taking a little longer…

Do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it?
Writing co-exists with the day job – so I generally write first thing in the morning (ugh – I know I am on a roll when the new idea excites me enough to set my alarm for an hour earlier than usual) or in the evening. At night I motivate myself with cups of black coffee, cans of Diet Coke and forays onto the internet. I try to get something down on paper, regardless of quality, and then at least there’s something to play with.

Is it harder to start or finish a novel?
It’s harder to start. I have a frightening number of ideas and I fall in love with all of them – and so I have to try a few out. To begin with it’s very hit and miss – but then it’s a brilliant feeling when I know the story is really taking off…

How did you go about finding an agent and do you think it's necessary to have an agent?
I did the rounds of some agents in the Writers’ Handbook and had a few rejections. Then I went to the Annual Writers’ Conference in Winchester and met a fantastic author, Leslie Forbes, who suggested I contact her agent. She loved the manuscript and is now my agent too. At that same conference, I won a competition judged by editors at Piatkus. They asked to see the manuscript, and the rest is history… it was one Hell of a weekend. I know authors who do perfectly well without an agent, and I also really like my publisher, but it’s great to have someone who is acting purely in your interests and can reassure you that you’re on the right track...

How do you cure writer's block?
Oh, those are two scary words. Writer’s block for me is either about lacking confidence or lacking time. I send out some nervous emails to other writers, fret rather a lot, play Pinball on the computer and then have another try…

What is your all-time desert island book?
That’s a toughie. I love I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith for escapism – I’d quite like to rediscover the books that I loved when I was younger, maybe something by Noel Streatfield, Susan Cooper or Stan Barstow. My problem on a desert island would be that I read ridiculously quickly – I can get through a novel in half a day – so I might have to take War and Peace or something terribly long, to keep me occupied.

What's the biggest myth about being a writer?
The money/champagne lifestyle myth. If I calculated my rate for thousands of hours spent planning, writing and rewriting, it’s probably below the minimum wage. But then again I write because I love it and because there are feelings and experiences I want to put down on paper.

What advice would you give budding authors?
Stop talking about it and get on with it. Park your bum then engage your brain on stories. Keep a notebook of observations from your daily life – it helps pass the time on the bus and even if you don’t use all the material, it‘s good training to notice the quirks in people! Connect with other writers by joining a class or finding a good web site. Not only will critiquing their work show you how to improve your own, it also helps you feel less isolated. Writing can be a lonely business and it’s great to have people who will commiserate when you’re struggling – and celebrate when you’re on a roll. When you’re ready to send your MS off, buy or borrow a book called From Pitch to Publication by an agent called Carole Blake. She’s very feisty and quite tough, but the book will tell you all you need to know to maximize your chances.

What can readers expect from you in the future?
Old School Ties has just been published and I’m currently working on Book 2. I’m too superstitious to go into detail. But the combination of humour and drama will still be there. Chris Manby – whose books I love – described my writing as
‘bittersweet’ and I think that’s a great description of what I’m aiming to achieve.