EP18: Behind Sarah Pinborough’s Eyes!
Sarah Pinborough has had over twenty novels published and written for TV and film. Sarah’s new thriller Behind Her Eyes is getting incredible buzz after a heated auction. Sarah is always funny, insightful and often eye-wateringly honest. Brace yourselves for one of our most entertaining author chats yet… WARNING: Contains strong adult language!
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In this episode you will discover…
Why you should get networking.
The importance of thinking time.
How to cope with an editor’s notes.
The common mistakes made by men writing women.
And the benefit of being charming.
- Scrivener – Software for Writing
- Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough
Links featured in today’s show:
- Bestseller Experiment’s Vault of Gold. Sign up to get your free Writer’s ebook
- Question Mark: Have a question you want answered on the show? Click here.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Sarah Pinborough has had over twenty novels published in all kinds of genres; YA, fantasy, horror, adult thrillers and erotic fairytales (yes, that’s a thing). She’s written for TV and film, won awards, and, when we spoke to her, Sarah was promoting her new thriller Behind Her Eyes, which was getting incredible pre-publication buzz after a heated auction between some major publishers. Sarah had also recently revealed that her book 13 Minutes was being adapted for a Netflix TV show. Sarah is always funny, insightful and often eye-wateringly honest. Brace yourselves for one of our most entertaining author chats yet…
On getting a Netflix show:
Getting an online show is the most difficult thing, but I have the most wankery story. If there was ever an award for the Wankery Story, this story would get the Gold Wanker Award. There are so many ticks for wankerdom in this story: I was in LA (one tick), just before the Oscars (second tick), and so I went to Chateau Marmont (big double tick), with Irvine Welsh (triple tick) at the dinner the night before the Oscars — I met Lady Gaga, that was quite interesting — while I was at the dinner, he said to me, ‘You really need to meet my manager, because you two are both really driven, you both have the same work sensibility,’ and I was a bit, ‘I don’t think I need a manager’, but I’m not going to say no. So, out of politeness, I have this breakfast where I met this guy. He’s lovely, a proper geek. Beneath the LA charm, I smell geek, y’know? But he’s also an exceptionally good-looking man, so we had arranged to meet for breakfast, and I was starving and had a minor hangover, and I really wanted a proper breakfast, but as he walked in I thought I cannot order breakfast, it’s all going to wrong, I’m going to spill it. I sat there and starved and pretended to be an LA woman, ‘No, no, I couldn’t possibly eat any food.’ He was great, he spoke to my screen agent here, and they all got on, and yeah, we ended up in a five-way auction for the rights for a book that isn’t even out in America yet. And, to be honest, wasn’t in paperback in the UK at that point, and hadn’t really sold. It came down to Paramount, Dreamworks and Netflix, and then Netflix got it. We have Josh Schwartz, who did The OC, and Gossip Girl, and he’s adapting it.
How does that work practically? Are they phoning you every twenty minutes saying, ‘Now it’s Paramount, now it’s Dreamworks?’
No, what happened — and I think this sums up the experience of many an author — is that there were a lot of emails going around, and then there was this very long gap, where I wasn’t getting any emails. So I messaged (my US manager) Trevor and asked what’s happening. The last I heard was we were in this auction. And he said, ‘What do you mean, what’s happening? Haven’t you seen the emails?’ And, of all the people talking about the option of my book, I had been left off the emails! I thought, this is a vision of the future to come! It was funny. At this moment I was the most important person in this email conversation… in two months’ time, I don’t matter. I was that bonkers thing of so-and-so is interested, and of course it’s Hollywood; the moment someone gets a sniff of something, everyone’s interested. It’s down to Trevor: he got it, he packaged it together. I have an LA team called Trevor and Dave… You couldn’t get any less LA. The entertainment lawyer is called Dave, and he’s amazing. He and Netflix, they both got bloodied with that contract. We gave some, they gave some. Dave is awesome and Trevor is awesome. I’ve got a great team.
How do you end up having that kind of breakfast meeting? What were you doing five years ago?
It’s an odd one, isn’t it? Because there have been moments where you’re working on something, you’re doing some screenwriting, and it can be a real pain in the arse, and then you have to tell yourself, ‘Look, you of ten years ago, who was teaching, and writing, hoping for a Gollancz deal or a HarperCollins deal, or a film deal, or a TV episode, that you would be staying up till five o’clock in the morning, working through the night.’ Whereas I’m like, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to do notes on this script.’ I had this conversation a few years ago with Johannes Roberts the film director, and we talked about driven people. And the sad thing is driven people are never happy. The biggest realisation is you’re never going to be happy.
I’ve made peace with myself that I’m never going to be happy, but I’m trying to just enjoy the storytelling, and everything else is out of my control.
Whether a book is successful is not down to me, it’s whether the publisher has put money behind it. That’s all that counts. I Tweet about my books, because that’s me doing my bit. No one fucking pays any attention about the author Tweeting about her book. They pay attention if the Evening Standard Tweets about their book, or The Telegraph. The only thing I can do is write the stories I want to write, and if people want to buy those then that’s great. I realised that nothing else makes me happy. I had a great year… and I’m still a miserable fucker.
On the buzz surrounding her new book Behind Her Eyes:
We have some good buzz going on! And we’ve sold it in twenty-one countries now and it’s coming out big in America, and there’s a lot of stuff happening over here, we’ve got all the supermarkets and that kind of thing.
I was quite lucky, in some regards, and in others I think it was testament to putting the time in with networking.
I think you can be talented, but if you stay at home in the Outer Hebrides and never go to an event and never go to a convention, you don’t get face-to-face with a lot of editors, and especially if you’re working within genre it’s quite a small pool and it’s quite hard to break out. Crime I consider a genre, it’s not mainstream, it’s a bigger genre. I mean, fantasy or horror is hard — your Joe Abercrombies are few and far between. The editor at HarperCollins came to me and said she wanted to publish me, and I said that’s great, but I owe some books, and I don’t have any ideas, and she said, ‘Just pitch me something that I can take (to our acquisitions meeting) in two weeks’ time. It doesn’t have to be brilliant.’ Which anyone knows means it has to be brilliant. It was an awful week. I was looking after my friend’s dog, whom I had to have put down, and then the wonderful Graham Joyce died that week, so I was in a real state, and I was walking up and down Chiswick High Road, looking for a cafe to figure out some idea for this book. And I had this idea of a couple, and an affair, and secrets, as all these thrillers do, and I thought this isn’t enough, and so I went to a pub, and I had a glass of wine and though I had just killed my career before it had even started, because I’ve had this great opportunity and I’ve got nothing.
And then, as I opened my notebook, I got the ending.
And there’s been a lot of fuss online about the ending, which I was worried about as they could have been setting me up to fail, but it seems to be working okay. And so, I had the ending and I thought, y’know what, this is something special. And that’s arrogant, it’s very American of me. Americans are so much better at being positive about their own things than English people. But I did have that moment of ‘Oh, yeah.’
You’ve always written in genre, but this is a proper put-it-on-the-shelves-next-to-Harlan-Coben-thriller, isn’t it?
Well, it is and it isn’t. John Connolly said to me it’s going to be interesting to see how straight crime readers take to this book. It’s going to be Marmite. There are some who will think that this is not a thriller. But to me it is a thriller. It has Pinborough-esque elements. I wanted to do a domestic thriller. It’s hard to say these things without sounding like you’re disparaging an entire genre, and I’m not because I like domestic thrillers, I read them all the time, but they conform to various rules and I wanted to break a couple of those rules and I’m hoping that it has. And I hope people like it, but I think it plays to the beats of a thriller, but it has added Pinborough.
How much was she involved in the strategy of selling and marketing this book?
It was fucking awesome! Again, I’m going to go for the Wanker of the Year award… I was being interviewed by the Evening Standard this morning, and I said to her I’m very glad this wasn’t my first book. Because, if I had been given the expectation that this was happened with every book, you could be in for some serious downfall if it didn’t quite work. Whereas, because I’ve had twenty-odd books before this, I know that you can be in the coalmines for a lot of it. It’s been amazing. My agent in New York has already been into Flatiron and had a presentation there about everything that they’re doing. They’re flying me for a two-and-a-half week tour of America, a plane a day for two-and-a-half weeks and I don’t like flying, so that’s going to be fun! Over here, they brought us in for a big marketing presentation. It’s been amazing. We had a big dinner with various buyers. It’s just been a whole different experience for me.
I don’t do envy of other authors. I think there’s enough space for everyone to succeed.
And people don’t just buy one book. So, if they go into Asda and there are books for five pounds you’re not going to just buy one. You might buy one this week, then one another week. I think we can be generous with each other, because it’s a tough enough job without that.
Do you write every day?
No! I think that’s bollocks advice. It pressurises people to tell bad stories. I used to think it was important, and I used to really buy into that two thousand words a day, blah-blah-blah-blah, and I used to get caught up in other people’s word counts, and I would find myself — when I first joined Twitter before I realised it just made people want to punch each other in the face — I would be like ‘Ah, I’ve done two thousand words, now I’m going to the gym!’ Yeah, I was that person… Clearly not now!
I think the most important thing in writing is the thinking time. It’s not about whether you’re writing every day, it’s whether you’re thinking about your story every day.
People say I’m quite prolific, and I am quite fast, but I think it’s far more important to take some time and think about the best way to tell your story, than to be thinking ‘I’ve got to write ninety thousand words in three months!’ I appreciate, because I have been there, that for some people they have to hit those word counts because they have to get the book in time to write the next one, if they’re writing three or four books a year to make their wages. To be honest, my suggestion would be get a proper job and write one really good book, because we’ve all wasted time churning out books that we haven’t given enough thought to.
To get your plotting right takes thinking. So don’t write every day, certainly think every day.
Also, I’m not a re-drafter. I don’t do a lot of drafting. I’m a massive planner. I outline, I’ve got books of notes. It’s not like I have the whole book planned out, that would be mental, but I have definitely the ending in sight, I know roughly what everyone’s arcs are going to be, I might change bits, but I plan in detail then I rough write in Scrivener, actually. I don’t use it the way most people do, I use for planning, and I’ll have little lists in it. When I was doing Mayhem and Murder I would put the old Times articles and log them, so this murder has these articles etc. I would have it like a clipboard or a notebook. I have a notebook, which I then transcribe to Scrivener. I’m a massive planner, but then I generally hand in draft one.
What’s the split between the time you spend planning and then writing?
I can knock out a couple of thousand words in an hour if I’m pushed. If I know what I’m writing. But my planning time is much, much bigger. I’m always planning. I’m not very good at relaxing. I’ve normally got more than one thing on the go, so I’ve got at the moment… I’m writing a short story… it was a five thousand word limit, but I’ve written about twenty thousand words! But I’m also using it as a treatment for a film. I’m going to write it as a movie idea. I thought I owe this short story idea, I might as well write it out, if they’re prepared to take twenty-thousand words.
Do you wake up with fully-formed ideas?
Do you know my biggest bugbear? I find writers very pretentious, especially on social media. It’s given people this voice to be pretentious, but none of us are saving lives. We’re making shit up. When the apocalypse comes they’re not going to saying, ‘Save those people who make shit up!’ They’re going be, ‘Where are the brain surgeons, and the technicians and the plumbers? These are the people we need.’ I don’t let characters ‘run away’. ‘Ooh, my character’s telling the story!’ No, they’re not, you fucking wanker. If your character is running away from you, then reign it in.
To me it’s like putting a puzzle together. Even when I wrote The Death House people asked ‘Did you cry at the end?’ and say of course I fucking didn’t. I made it up.
There are things I’m very grateful for, one of which is self-publishing wasn’t an option when I started out. As much as I like to think I wouldn’t have — and I know it’s been very successful for some people — but unless you have a history in publishing, or have some publishing credit to your name, or understand how the business works, I see people who literally just write a novel and put it on Smashwords. Some of them are really half-decent writers, but there are things — loads of exclamation marks on page one — things that you think a decent editor would deal with.
Self-publishing is fine, but do it with an editor and good cover artist.
I’m worried that I would have become a Smashwords person without really giving it any thought. You hope you wouldn’t… I’ve forgotten what the question was. I’m just ranting… There are very talented writers who do it well, but in the main, there is this sea of shit.
On being English:
I treat writing as a business, but I’m very English when being positive about my work. I retweet things on Twitter, like everybody does, but I’m very English in that in that if someone says ‘You write good books,’ I’m like, ‘No, read theirs, they’re better than me.’ That English way of doing things… Americans are different. I chaired a panel for Deborah Harkness and V.E. Schwartz, they’re very lovely women. I read their books and prepared it quite well and it was really interesting to watch them talk about their books with such passion and such love. Whereas English people we’re so, ‘Uh, I’ve done a book… his book’s better than my book… don’t read my book…’ Because you don’t want to sound like you’re bigging yourself up, do you? You have to be able to do that if you’re going to self-publish.
What kind of editor works best with you? Who’s your perfect editor?
I’ve had some good editors. Natasha (Bardon, HarperCollins) is a friend of mine already, I liked working with Gillian Redfearn (Gollancz), Jo Fletcher (Jo Fletcher Books) was a good editor, but you have to treat it like a product. When you get editorial notes, you open the email, and you read them, and then you get up and walk around the room, you swear a bit, you get a glass of wine, and you say ‘THEY JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND MY WORK! I CAN’T POSSIBLY CUT… oh, maybe that is a good point?’ It just takes a bit of space. I was really lucky with Behind Her Eyes. We had this ridiculous auction in America. I was at FantasyCon last year, and the New York sub-agent had been saying ‘I’m not sure we’re going to sell this book in America, it’s a got a lot of drinking and smoking…’ and then she emailed me at FantasyCon and asked if I would be around to take some phone calls next week, and I said yeah, and I thought this was for me to try and make them want my book, but she said no, these people have already got money on the table. I had eight or nine telephone conversations with big editors in New York who were — as we were speaking — bidding for my book, but, what was wonderful, with each one I was asking, ‘What would be your notes on my book? What thoughts have you got?’ Each one of these very top editors in New York were saying, ‘Well, I think that you could do this…’ or, ‘This detail would have worked…’ I would write it all down, and take the best bits. And I had all these conversations with movie studios and took all those notes. So when it came to actually doing the edit for Natasha and Christine (editor at Flatiron) — we did a joint edit for America and London at the same time — I was saying ‘What do you think about this?’ They were like, ‘These are such good thoughts!’ I said, ‘I know, I don’t know where they came from.’ I had to put no effort into my edit whatsoever, I had all the best thoughts from the best editors in America.
That’s not necessarily a tip that our listeners can use…
No, but I would also say that a good copy editor is gold dust, and a good editor should give you a couple of things that really punch you in the gut, but invariably make your book better. With my book 13 Minutes, over here we published that very much as a crime-crossover, adult-YA, but in America they’re publishing it very much as YA, they made me cut fifty pages from the first two-hundred. I did it and, actually, it really worked… as a straight YA, I think the American version is faster. When I did it with Gillian (in the UK) we did it very much as a crossover, a different approach. I’m calling the UK one the Director’s Cut.
What are the common mistakes made by men writing female characters?
Don’t have her having some big emotional trauma and then going down to the bed and breakfast for a big, hearty full English. (This was done by) a male writer, a friend of mine, and it was a great book, but I thought this is a man writing a woman, because no woman gets up in the morning and thinks, ‘Well, my child is missing, but I’m going to have some sausage, eggs and beans, and everything’s going to be right with the world.’ Whereas a man would be ‘Y’know what? I’m still going to have my breakfast.’
I think as long as you don’t make her too soppy, or that ‘she’s gutsy’. I hate that gutsy thing. ‘Complex’ is better, we’re all complex. I don’t think there are strong men or strong women. So long as she’s interesting.
Talking about the book’s advance reviews and buzz:
I was reading a thing with Girl On The Train author Paula Hawkins, and she said it’s different when it’s you. I’m not anywhere near Paula Hawkins’ level, but I thought I would be more excited and I’m actually more nervous. My friend Emma, who works for Argos, which has just been bought by Sainsbury’s, she’s quite high up in that organisation, our plan is for that weekend, we’re going to get a little bottle of bubbly and she’s going to drive me round all the supermarkets in Milton Keynes, and I’m going to stand next to my book in the chart with a glass of champagne, taking a picture. Because it if it never happens again, I’m going to have that. To be honest, whatever happens, this book has already made me more money than I’ve ever made. If I put my entire career before this book together, this book has made me more money.
But if this is a success…
I’m going to be unbearable, and it’s going to be wonderful!
They’re going to want another!
I’ve halfway written the next one. It was really interesting. I went out for a drink with Will Hill and Tom Pollock, who are both genre authors. We were in the Phoenix bar, Charing Cross Road, and I was starting this book, and I was really worried about the second book, and Tom said, ‘Don’t try and out-twist yourself. That way lies M. Night Shyamalan.’ In a lot of ways (the second book) is a better book, and it has a twist. It’s more complex, it doesn’t have the straight line to the twist. Once you’ve read Behind Her Eyes once, when you read it again you see it, which should always be the case with a twist. It should always be there. I don’t like to cheat. It’s still female-centric. I’m much more interested in women now I’m getting older.
Why is that?
When I was in my twenties, if someone said you were one of the boys, then that was a real compliment. It was very much about keeping up with the men. I didn’t want children, I didn’t particularly want to get married — I did, but that was a brief mistake in Vegas — I’m not interested in shoes, or bags, or clothes, I just wanted to be successful. It’s always been my drive. Which was considered, in those days, a male trait. I think women are very judgemental of each other. I’m a feminist, but to be a feminist you have to acknowledge that women are very judgemental of each other, and if we stopped doing that we’d all get on better. It takes being in your forties to see that, because you’re not going to be the hottest girl in the room in your forties. You are in your twenties. Once you’re out of that phase, you look and think flipping heck. I would always try and support Catriona Ward, for example, a brilliant debut novel. If I had to choose between a debut male or a debut female author to support, I will always support the female. I think women have a tough enough time as it doing everything. And they invariably do end up the ones who have to do everything. If they get married they have to do the house, the babies, y’know? I have friends who work full time and have families and I can see them, ‘Just come round a have some wine!’ because it’s a lot to deal with and the men just breeze through it. They think they’re doing it, planting one little plate in the dishwasher and sitting down.
Sarah’s final tip for authors:
It’s a really boring thing, but I think be charming. Be nice. You can see people getting very bitter — perhaps more so on Facebook than Twitter, because they think it’s more of a closed network — very snooty about writing, or success, or if someone’s been successful then they can’t be a very good writer, and all this kind of boring bullshit that’s been going on for years. I think you can either celebrate someone’s success, or you can shut the fuck up about it. I think it’s a tough enough choice for a career without us all back-biting. I will always try and help someone. If someone needs an agent I will always try and introduce them to an agent, or introduce them to an editor, because even if they went on to sell millions and millions of copies, that doesn’t affect me as a writer, because my book could sell millions and millions of copies… or not! It just might not have been the book.
When you get into this business, don’t compare yourself to others because that way lies madness. There will always be someone doing better. And there will always be a million people who want to be in your position.
In some ways I think social media is bad for writers, because you’re constantly looking, and everyone else’s life looks brilliant, and actually most people’s lives are pretty mundane and ordinary and if we stopped showing our highlights we would see that, though I’m not one for showing miserable things online as I don’t think it’s fair on other people.
Just concentrate on your own journey, but don’t be bitter about anyone else’s. That’s not even writing advice, more career advice. If you force yourself to congratulate someone when you don’t really feel it, afterwards you will feel a lot better.
If anyone ever tells a newbie writer about this glass ceiling and people pulling up the ladder behind them… I have found that the most supportive people have been the ones who are the most successful. Charlaine Harris is a diamond, John Connolly has been so helpful to me, Stephen King blurbed my book, Neil Gaiman is lovely. I’ve had so much help from so many hugely successful people, and kind, and generous with their time, and I actually think the more successful people are, then of course the more generous they are because they’re not scrabbling in the sand. You don’t feel like you’re fighting each other. Sometimes it can feel like that when you’re on the lower rungs. If you’re hanging out with writers who are bitter at the early stages of their career, get rid of those people, those people are not the ones you want to be hanging around with because they’ll make you look at things wrongly… does that make sense?
For me, I’m very happy that it’s worked out this way round. I would have hoped to have been rich with my first book, but I would rather have built towards something succeeding hugely. I’ve been very lucky in my career in that it’s steadily improved, but it’s not been that meteoric rise. Even Paula Hawkins had written other books under a different name. But when you have those people who have a debut book that hits all the marks, and you think is this what they think publishing is? At least when you start out in genre you have a rough idea that’s not going to be the case. You’re just happy to be seen in Waterstones.
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