Fiona Gibson is a bestselling author, journalist and mum of three. She started her career on Jackie magazine and went on to edit More, Just Seventeen and Bliss magazines. More recently she has written six popular novels, including her latest, Pedigree Mum. We caught up with Fiona to ask her about her writing career.
What did you do before you had children?
Before I had kids I was editor of More and Just Seventeen magazines, and launched Bliss magazine for teenagers. When I had my twin boys I gave up full time work and went freelance instead to keep my hand in. The boys were home full time for the first year, and then they went to nursery two days a week, which was really great for my head. I always really loved writing, and enjoyed getting back into it again after years of editing. Working full time you form close friendships and it’s fun, but it’s all-consuming and I couldn’t imagine carrying that on with twins.
We also moved to Scotland around that time; after 17 years I was ready to leave London. My husband’s Scottish and as he works in IT, so it was easy for him to find work up here. I was also drawn by the idea that we could get a bigger house for our money! And of course, as a freelance writer I could work from anywhere.
How did you get started as a novelist?
I’d always wanted to write fiction, and when my daughter was a baby I’d sit up in the long hours of the night thinking up ideas for a book. I didn’t have time in the day – I needed to keep my magazine freelance work going and wasn’t sure if I’d earn anything from fiction.
What drove you to write books?
I wanted to do something for myself, have my own space, my ‘thing’, and writing a book became it. My first book was inspired by my experiences as a new mum. When my twin boys were very young, they did a brief stint of baby modelling. I was desperate to get out of the house and thought it would be fun, and a chance to stash away some funds for them when they were older. This gave me an idea for a baby supermodel.
How did you get an agent?
Actually my first agent found me! She read some features I’d written for Red magazine and wrote to me via them to ask if I was interested in writing fiction. She helped me get my first four book deal.
What was it like being published?
I was delighted to be published, but at that point still hadn’t really found my feet writing-wise. That was 11 years ago. Four or five books ago, I finally got my voice right, and now I feel that I have found the kind of fiction I like to write. I think I tried too hard in the beginning. The first couple of books were a bit angsty and I don’t re-read them now. Then one day a friend said to me that sometimes my books were like a big sigh, and asked why I didn’t write books like I write for magazines – that was a real ‘aha’ moment for me.
I think in the beginning I wrote to impress people or to try and appear brainier than I am, but now I’m just me. I write the way the way I think and the way I talk to my female friends. Some commercial fiction I find it hard to believe in and find a bit too fluffy and trite. It has to be heartfelt for me. I like to think my books are sheer entertainment with some meaning and real characters.
I do find writing comedy quite tricky. As a barometer, a way of measuring myself, I always try to make sure I have a smile on my face as I’m writing. I try to entertain myself when writing, and try hard not to make it boring, drudgy or worthy.
By my fourth book, Mummy Said The F Word, I really felt that this is what I should be doing – I enjoyed writing it and found that my fingers flew over the keys. It was also the last book in my contract with Hodder and I decided to just have fun with it – which I think showed in the final book.
How long does it take to write a book?
It took me about a year to rattle out my first novel. But now I find writing an adult novel takes around eight months (Fiona also writes children’s novels under the name Fiona Foden). My books are around 100,000 words and I can write fairly quickly. Often it’s a wrangle to get going and I often have a few false starts. But once I’m in the flow, I write a book in five to six months and then go back and edit it.
What’s your writing process?
I probably don’t plan enough. Usually I’m so impatient to get going that I dive in too soon and find myself heading up blind alleys. I often start with a hazy idea of the end of the book, or the main thrust of it, but find that the book begins to mould itself as I work on it.
Where do you get your ideas for your books?
I start with a background theme, rather than a character, and build a story around it. Mummy Said The F Word started as a title – I was round a friend’s house when her little boy burst into the room and announced ‘Daddy said the F word’! (It turned out he’d unplugged his dad’s computer while he was working on it.) The idea of getting your body and self esteem back became Mum on The Run, I started Pedigree Mum after I got a dog, and I wrote The Great Escape after my agent suggested writing something about grown up hen parties.
I’m just finishing a novel right now on baking – now we’re in a recession it seems that magazines are full of stories about women starting cupcake and baking businesses.
How much of your own life do you put in your books?
While the stories are unrelated to my life, I use a lot of personal experiences to make the books feel real. There are teenage boys in my current novel because I know what 16 year old boys are like; it’s happening every day for me.
When my kids were younger I used to mention them in my magazine features, but now they’re older it’s not fair to write publicly about them any more so I fictionalise them instead!
What do your children think about your books?
Not much. They think my titles are rubbish! When my daughter was younger she enjoyed reading my Scholastic books, but she’s beyond them now.
Do you still write for magazines?
Yes. I still enjoy writing freelance features. I have a column in Sainsbury’s monthly magazine and write for Red magazine from time to time. I also do a bit of newspaper stuff when I have time – I had a weekly column in the Sunday Herald for seven years.
What is your working day like?
I usually get up at 6am and work before the kids head off to school. Then I meet up with a couple of friends with dogs for a walk between 9-10am, which is my lifesaver – I need to get out and see people every day. From 10am to 4pm I work, breaking off when the kids get in from school. Because I’m working to a deadline right now I often work in the evenings and weekends too. I used to be a real night owl and often work until 2-3am, but as I’ve got older I find working in the evenings harder.
I probably should switch off more – it would be better for me and my books – but I love what I do. It fits in brilliantly with the kids as they’re getting older. In the holidays I can get four hours work done before they get up, and then enjoy spending the day with them. My work is flexible and I can do it whenever and wherever I like, within reason.
Do you ever have bad days when it’s hard to write?
Oh yes. But over time I’ve learned to deal with them. If I’m really struggling then I’ll start a magazine piece instead as I find them easy to write. Or I’ll do some research, admin or just make notes. But sometimes I just have to force my head into the right mode if I’m running late or getting close to a deadline.
I’m lucky that my husband is very supportive, especially when I’m grumpy or stressed close to a deadline! He’s good for help with plot ideas too. I also meet up twice a month with a writing group of seven friends. I really value their support, inspiration and honest feedback. It can sometimes be hard listening to criticism, but I know that if my book has a massive mistake in it, they’ll spot it.
Do you always work from home?
Mostly. Two of three times a year I’ll go down to London to meet my agent or editor, or people on magazines. Sometimes when I’m working it helps to get out of the house. I love writing in cafes or on trains. And recently, when I was struggling to finish my book, I spent three days in a hotel in Glasgow and bashed out the last few chapters.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I enjoy reading for pleasure. When I’m on holiday I like to read light and entertaining novels that you can really get engrossed in. Writers like Lisa Jewell and Nick Hornby.
Has writing got easier over the years?
Yes it has. Though when I look back on my novels it’s easy to forget the angst that went into them! The process is getting easier as over time I have developed ways of working through problems. A few years ago I read an interview in the Guardian with the band Elbow. I remember Guy Garvey saying that if he ever gets stuck while writing he just thinks ‘It’s only a song’. I thought that was a great attitude, and is what I try to do now; if I get too hung up on something I just think to myself ‘It’s only a book that someone is going to throw in a suitcase to read on a beach, so lighten up’!
Do you think you’ll ever stop writing?
I love what I do and I can’t ever imagine retiring. As I get older I find that my books age with me, and I write about things that are relevant to me now. Hopefully my readers are aging with me, and still find my books meaningful too.