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From the stage to the page: Liz Webb’s debut thriller

From the stage to the page: Liz Webb’s debut thriller

As a former stand-up comic, voiceover actor, producer – and now, debut author – Liz Webb is no stranger to agility in her career.

Her debut novel, ‘The Daughter’ (Allison & Busby, May 2022) has garnered reviews from names like Jo Brand and Sophie Hannah. Here’s how Jericho Writers member Liz navigated her path to becoming a published author, and some things she found useful along the way.

JW: How did you find moving between career paths, and eventually moving into writing?

LW: I’m both a lily-livered navel-gazer, and a massive control freak greedy for applause.  My career has taken me from stand-up comic to radio producer to psychological crime novelist. 

With each job, I’ve needed to fake it till I make it.  In stand-up, I had to fake confidence with audiences and promoters.  With producing, I had to fake confidence with commissioners, writers, technicians and managers.  But with writing, I’ve had to fake the hardest kind of confidence: with myself.  Each time I write, I have to tune out my internal whingeing and keep going, even when I’m sure I’m writing drivel.  Because I know that if I write ANYTHING AT ALL, it may actually be good, or it could be made good.  But if I wait for some mythical future where I’m a 3D confident person (what an outlandish concept), then I won’t go through the process that enables me to write something that I do eventually have confidence in. To tweak a quote from the brilliant Michael Rosen:  I can’t go over it, I can’t go under it, I have to go through it.

With writing, I’ve had to fake the hardest kind of confidence: with myself.

With all the jobs I’ve done, I’ve used different versions of the same skills.  Stand-up was me telling my stories and controlling the room.  Producing was me telling other people’s stories and controlling a team of talent.  And now writing is me telling a made-up story and controlling myself.  I try to be disciplined and focussed (but often fail) and try to get better at wearing the many different hats one needs to wear to produce a book: idea-generator, plotter, writer, editor, diplomat, therapist, cheerleader, publicist, video presenter and social media promoter.  As I approach the publication of my first novel, my hat collection is expanding exponentially.

JW: What kinds of resources helped you along the way?

LW: In the summer of 2020, I had a very rough draft of my first novel: a Frankenstein-esque, stitched-together, suppurating thing.  It lacked a USP, a thorough plot, consistent characters, and any depth of theme.  I needed to redraft it multiple times, considering it from every angle. 

With all the jobs I’ve done, I’ve used different versions of the same skills.  Stand-up was me telling my stories and controlling the room.  Producing was me telling other people’s stories and controlling a team of talent.  And now writing is me telling a made-up story and controlling myself.

That summer, it was at the height of covid, and Jericho Writers ran an amazing online-only writing festival.  It was choc-o-block with videos, live ones and replays, covering everything I needed: plotting, voice, character, editing, pitching, etc.  I looked away from the enormous hill I had to climb and set myself specific tasks.  Each day, I would fasten on my blinkers, watch a video on a particular subject and deal with just that issue in my book.   As I got closer to a decent draft, I did four Jericho Writers one-to-one sessions with agents or book doctors, which resulted in requests for full manuscript reads, giving me confidence.

That experience with my first book taught me to always focus on only the next specific task at hand.  It’s like I’m following the practical steps of piloting a plane: taking-off, cruising, course-correcting and then landing.  I try not to think about how unbelievable it is that planes can fly, about all the components needing to work together, or about crashing.  If I did, I would never get that plane from A to B.

I still use the excellent resources of Jericho Writers.  There are too many great tutors to recommend, but ones that leap to mind are: Cesca Major, Philippa East, Debi Alper and Rebecca Horsfall.  Whenever I’m in writing freefall, I’ll watch a video and use it to focus my writing.  Yesterday I watched the wonderful Emma Cooper talking about ‘How to hit story beats’, which helped me decide the vital mid-point of my second novel.

JW: Do you feel like an author?

LW: I feel like an author in the way the fake heiress Anna Delvey felt like an heiress.  I can convince others (and occasionally myself) that I’m an author.  But deep down, I feel like a fraud and I’m just waiting to be caught out.  I’m wracked with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. 

But so what! 

It’s like I’m following the practical steps of piloting a plane: taking-off, cruising, course-correcting and then landing.  I try not to think about how unbelievable it is that planes can fly, about all the components needing to work together, or about crashing.  If I did, I would never get that plane from A to B.

The trick is to write anyway.  When I’m immersed in writing, I can tune out my endless boring negativity.  I’m only too aware that I’ve got massive black spots in my writing skills.  But whoop-di-doo, so does everyone.  I focus on what I am good at (eg. voice, quirkiness and plotting), keep learning the things I can improve on (eg. over-writing and grammar) and just ignore the stuff I’ll always be rubbish at (ooh that would be telling).  I try to remind myself that I’ve worked really hard and should occasionally pat myself on the back.

I was at the post office yesterday, posting my novel to a friend.

‘What’s in the parcel and what’s it worth?’ the postmaster asked me.

‘It’s just a book, it’s only worth a few pounds,’ I mumbled.

I so wish I’d said: ‘It’s MY book, I wrote it – and the enormous cost of doing so is unquantifiable!’

JW: What has it been like working with your publisher?

LW: It’s been great to be published by Allison & Busby, a highly-respected independent publisher.  I will always remember my first meeting with them, being so warmly welcomed at their Soho offices which were filled from floor to ceiling with pristine novels – it was like stepping into a film, in which I played the role of ‘novelist’. 

They’ve always been super-enthusiastic about my book and supported me with editing, copy-editing and proof reading. I was quite a novice at social media and got useful advice about using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and (much to my teenage son’s amusement) TikTok.  They hired a brilliant external publicist, who helped me get blog tours, interviews and articles.  They’ve managed all the book production and promotion side of things, but they’ve welcomed discussion about title, front-cover and publicity, thus employing their considerable knowledge and experience, while indulging my megalomania.

The self-imposed pressure is good IF I use it constructively to learn more, work harder and open up new possibilities.

JW: Has the experience of writing your second novel been different to that of the first? Have you felt any pressure?

LW: I feel a gargantuan pressure to write an even better second book and to get an even bigger financial and PR deal.  The self-imposed pressure is good IF I use it constructively to learn more, work harder and open up new possibilities.  But the imagined pressure that I conjure up from friends, agents and publishers is ridiculous.  I have to constantly remind myself that nobody outside of me really cares two hoots about what I do.

Writing a second book should theoretically be easier as I’ve gained skills from writing my first one.  But as the achievement escalator I’m on reaches the top of any writing aim, as soon as I’ve blinked, I find myself back at the bottom of a new escalator.  Writing feels like juggling water, never like a solid skill that I’ve mastered, but as long as I keep writing then I’m progressing.

Sometimes I kid myself that writing my first novel was easier than writing my second, because I knew less about the enormity of the job and the possibilities of failure.  But that’s such tosh. It’s so easy to look back with rose-tinted spectacles.  I once googled an ex-boyfriend I was remembering fondly and discovered that he was in prison!  That’s obviously the start of another novel – but the point is, wherever you are in the writing process, you are where you are and all you can do is keep on trying.   I will keep learning more, writing more and hopefully publishing more.   Because I want to cocoon myself in my private little world of writing.  And because I want massive world acclaim.

About Liz

Liz Webb originally trained as a classical ballet dancer but had to give up following a back injury. She then worked as a secretary at the British Library whilst going to night school at the City Lit to get into Oxford University at age 23. After graduating, she worked as a stationery shop manager, an art model, a cocktail waitress, stand-up comic, voice-over artist, script editor, and radio drama producer before becoming a novelist.  

Liz was a stand-up comic for ten years performing at clubs across the UK and at festivals in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leicester and Cardiff. She also worked for fourteen years as a prolific radio drama producer for the BBC and independent radio production companies. Liz lives in North London with her husband, son and serial killer cat Freddie. 

Follow Liz on Twitter @lizwebbauthor

Visit Liz’s website here.