Today it’s the turn of author Olga Wojtas to give us a glimpse into her life as a writer. Olga writes highly entertaining, clever and witty fiction.
Her latest book is Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace and you can read more about it and how to get a copy at the end of this post. So, over to Olga.
Olga Wojtas’s Writing Life in a Day
For years, I’ve gone to author events to discover the secret formula for a successful writing routine. And I’ve discovered there is no one-size-fits-all. We have different pressures and different commitments: whatever works for you is right, and don’t try to follow what other people do if it doesn’t suit you.
Anthony Trollope used to write from 5am till 8am before going to work as surveyor-general of the Post Office (where he invented the pillar box). Stephen King says you have to read and write for four to six hours every day (I’m guessing he has help with cooking, cleaning, shopping, childcare, etc). Ian McEwan says it’s a good day if he’s written several hundred words (which suggests he’s making reasonable money).
I first started writing seriously when I was working full time as a journalist. I joined an Edinburgh University evening class on short stories. We had to write a story a week as homework. I had a forty-five minute walk to and from the office and found myself making up the stories en route. I would try out bits of dialogue aloud, which led to other pedestrians giving me a very wide berth. And when I got home, I would work on developing what had been in my head, which could take me well into the night.
Now freelance, I’m spending much more time on my own writing, and have published two novels under my own name, as well as a series of cosy crime e-novellas under the name Helena Marchmont. But my working pattern has been set. I can develop ideas on my laptop, but to get those ideas in the first place, I have to walk. The surroundings don’t matter, so I generally plod round the Edinburgh streets near my flat. I’ve occasionally gone up a hill on the basis that it’s good for me, but I’m back home before I realise I never looked at the view. And yes, I still talk to myself, and sometimes I cackle, and other pedestrians still give me a very wide berth.
I can walk at any time, but my laptop biorhythms only kick in late at night. I’m at my most productive after 11pm, often writing until around 4am, and when I’m on a deadline, I invariably end up pulling an all-nighter. Sadly, I never seem to get the chance to sleep until lunchtime – even under lockdown, there are things to do, people to see (either socially distanced or on Zoom) and I’m permanently sleep-deprived. I have a slight lower back problem which isn’t helped by sitting for lengthy periods, so I’ve invested in a standing desk (a fifty quid flat-pack, and hours of trauma as my husband and I struggled to put it together). At the beginning of a project, it looks great, with just the laptop on it. By the end, I can barely see the laptop for books, notebooks, scraps of paper with indecipherable scribbles, a coffee mug, and the occasional chocolate wrapper (I tend to need an energy boost around 2am).
I still write short stories, and during my walks, I’ll work out the shape that I want, the dialogue, that crucial first sentence, and that even more crucial last sentence. Sometimes by the time I get to the laptop, I’m effectively transcribing a complete story. But that’s impossible with a novella or novel, since my brain can’t cope with more than about two thousand words. So while I walk, I focus on a particular scene, and think that through. In my first novel, “Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar,” I began with three key scenes. I wrote them all separately, and didn’t even know what order they would appear in. They sparked off ideas for other scenes; gradually I began to work out a logical order, and then the task was to join them all up.
And that’s the way I still work, in bite-sized chunks. The main problem I’ve found post-C19 is remembering that my characters aren’t in lockdown and are allowed to shake hands and even hug. I keep thinking they shouldn’t be doing that, and they definitely shouldn’t be going into pubs.
Weird though my working practice is, I’ve found it impossible to change. And I can’t imagine not writing. For as long as I’m able to toddle round the block, I hope the ideas will keep coming, and I’ll keep tapping away at the laptop in the middle of the night.
Anne: Thank you to Olga for this fascinating insight into her rather unusual writing life. You can read more about her and her latest book below.
Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace
From the back cover:
The intrepid librarian Shona McMonagle, erstwhile Marcia Blaine Academy prefect and an accomplished linguist and martial artist, finds herself in an isolated French mountain village, Sans-Soleil, which has no sunlight because of its topography. It’s reeling from a spate of unexplained deaths, and Shona has once again travelled back in time to help out.
Forging an uneasy alliance with newly widowed Madeleine, Shona is soon drawn into a full-blown vampire hunt, involving several notable villagers, the world-renowned soprano Mary Garden – and even Count Dracula himself. Will Shona solve the mystery, secure justice for the murder victims and make it through a deathly denouement in the hall of mirrors to return to present-day Morningside Library?
Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace is available through all good bookshops; via Amazon and Kobo; and direct from the publisher Saraband here
Olga Wojtas is half-Scottish and half-Polish. A journalist, she has spent most of her life in Edinburgh, where she was born and brought up, but has also lived and worked in Aberdeen, Grenoble, Newcastle and Washington DC. She went to James Gillespie’s High School – the model for Marcia Blaine School for Girls, which appears in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. This inspired Olga’s first novel, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, written thanks to a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, and published by Contraband. It was short-listed for the CrimeFest Last Laugh award and longlisted for the inaugural Comedy Women in Print award. Her second novel, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace, published in February this year, was also longlisted for the CWIP award. Olga writes the Bunburry series of e-novellas, published by Bastei-Luebbe, under the name Helena Marchmont – Helena is her middle name, and she grew up in Marchmont Road in Edinburgh.
You can follow Olga on Twitter here @OlgaWojtas
and Facebook here @olgawojtaswriter