‘If you are serious about writing, don’t hide it’ – John McCaffrey @jamccaffrey

How do you make a life as a writer? John McCaffrey’s stories, essays and book reviews appear regularly in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. He’s had a novel and several short story collections published (his latest, Automatically Hip, was released this month) and he teaches creative writing at college level. Where did this all start? How do you create a life path like this?

John, when did you start calling yourself a writer?

I love this question.  It’s something I often say to emerging writers about taking that next step in their process, the importance of owning they are a writer by voicing it – ‘I am a writer!’ 

I feel that many  writers, at all experience levels, can be shy or reticent to share with others about this pursuit.  Perhaps the reason is fear of ridicule (‘are you one of those artist types?’), or condemnation for doing something that might not be monetarily beneficial (‘why don’t you get a real job?’). But if you are writing, and especially if you are serious about writing, then you are a writer. And standing up for your writing helps solidify it in your life.

And when did it happen for you?

After completing my MA program at City College of New York, and publishing my first story, Words, in Fiction Magazine. Before, I had always couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but I decided then I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self.

Where did your creative urge come from?

The dramatic answer is survival.  But it might also be the true answer. When I am feeling creative, I feel the most alive, the most healthy, the most positive, and the most forward thinking.  And when I don’t feel creative, or am not creating, I feel as if I’m existing. And that’s not bad. Living in itself is a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for every breath. It’s just that I’m more grateful, and have a greater capacity to be grateful, when I’m being creative.  

Were any of your family writers or other kinds of artist?

While I’m the only writer in the family, I’d say we’re an artistic group – my mother and sister are excellent at sketching and painting, and my father was a good storyteller.  

Have you done jobs that aren’t connected with creativity?

I have been very lucky, these past few decades, to have worked as a development director for a nonprofit organization.  A major component of this job is grant writing, which while different from creative writing, still demands originality and craft.

Is there any crossover?

 I think the discipline needed to write grants, to keep to form, be precise in detail, and, basically, get to the point, has helped me develop a better prose style. 

What was your publishing journey?

As mentioned before, my first published short story appeared in Fiction Magazine, which was headed by Mark Mirsky, a talented professor at City College of New York and a noted author. With that as a touchstone, I kept writing short stories for years, and was grateful to have almost all of them published in literary journals and anthologies. The story in Fiction, for example, was selected for Flash Fiction Forward, published by Norton & Co. 

I then decided to challenge myself by writing a novel, and worked for a few years to create The Book of Ash, which was published by an independent press. After this success, I went back to my trove of short stories, and began organizing them into collections.  And with great fortune, Vine Leaves Press chose to publish these works – Two Syllable Men, What’s Wrong With this Picture? and Automatically Hip.

You have an MA in creative writing. What did that change?

Being accepted into the MA program at City College was monumental for me. I graduated from Villanova University some years before and was working full time, but I knew I wanted to immerse in writing and knew I needed help to do so. From the start, I loved City and the students and professors.

It felt right?

Being in that environment felt right, that I was where I should be. I was able to learn from professors and peers, learned to read and critique work, was exposed to literary classics in a more nuanced way, and made lasting connections that have helped me in my publishing pursuits.

You now teach creative writing. How did that start?

About 15 years ago, believing I now had something to say that was valuable to writers, I signed on to teach a continuing education. Like my experience at City College, it felt right, from the start.  I love to talk writing, hear work, laugh and joke and get to know rising writers on a deeper level. 

Next, thanks to a friend, I began teaching writing classes at a senior center in Queens for LGBTQ individuals. Then I had the opportunity to teach at college level – first at The College of New Rochelle’s Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem, and then at Sacred Heart University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Helping people connect with their creativity and become better writers feeds my own soul.

What do you think can be taught and what can’t?

I’d say the biggest thing that can’t be taught to writers is commitment to the craft – the desire to be a better writer. 

That’s a great answer – so true! In all the times I’ve asked this question, I’ve never heard that!

I believe you can help unblock people who may be in a rut with their writing, or help them better organize so they write more, or give them a starting point to move forward and finish projects.  But you can’t put in them that drive, or need, to keep going and keep going and keep going, which is the basis for success. 

You write short and longform… how do you choose which treatment an idea deserves?

It’s more intention than inspiration. When I first started writing with determination, I was interested in writing short stories, so all new ideas I had were funneled into that form. But as I matured, finished a novel, wrote plays and essays, there was a switch in process. Today, I pick a form I want to take on, say a novella, and wait for the idea to fill the vessel.

Do you have a writing process?

I usually write each day, but not at any set time or amount of time. What I try to do is have both short and long-term projects going at once. Say I’m tasked with writing a book review, I work on that at one point of the day, and if I’m at the same time working on a book, that’s done in a separate sitting. In this way, I am keeping my writing muscle strong while getting different rewards from the work. I also try to keep wordcount goals.  One summer, I stuck to writing 250 words a day, every day – no more, no less. And yes, I am OCD.

Tell me about Automatically Hip. The cover has a kooky vintage vibe… and a lizard head, elephant head, a man in a suit and bowler hat, and music. What should it tell me about the book?

Jessica Bell, the multi-talented publisher of Vine Leaves Press, gave me a gift with her cover design for Automatically Hip. The image is a take from one of the stories, Grooved Pavement, about a man who only paints pictures of an elephant wearing a bowler. I think this image represents this book well, as many of the stories are a bit surreal, hopefully funny, and meant to pique the curiosity of the reader…any maybe bring bowlers back in fashion.

Tell me about your other short story collections.

Two Syllable Men, the first collection published by Vine Leaves Press, is about, surprise, men.  Each story is a different man’s name (two syllables of course), who are the main characters.  I wrote many of these pieces after a painful divorce, so the themes are relationships and loss, healing and finding new love.

What’s Wrong With This Picture? was next. These stories are more about the insanity of modernity, or the madness in the mundane. And now we have Automatically Hip, which might be a mix of both.

And your novel, The Book of Ash…

It’s comedic sci-fi, influenced by 1984 and also Fight Club.  It was inspired by 9/11.  I was living and working near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, and like many was trying to make sense of human cruelty.  So I created a dystopian world set in a not-so-distant future that might, I’m scared to say, be actually approaching.

There can’t be a dystopia writer who doesn’t have that same ‘what-have-I-done’ feeling. We write it down and it starts to come true. Let’s return to positive vibes. You’re involved in something called the Good Men Project – what’s that?

It’s a men-focused online magazine that publishes male perspectives that are inclusive and diverse.  I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity for many years to pen a column for them, and with the help of an amazing editor, Kara Post-Kennedy, it’s been fun and rewarding.

What do you like to read?

I like all genres, but mostly I stick to classic mystery/thriller writers – Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Ross MacDonald, Eric Ambler. But I’ll read or reread anything by Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham,  Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell. My current favorite is Burt Weissbourd.  He is a master story teller.

What do you wish I’d also asked?

Not a thing! Such a nuanced set of questions!

Find Automatically Hip here. Find John at his website, Twitter @Jamccaffrey and on Facebook

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 #speculativefiction manuscripts critiqued at @Litopia by literary agent @AgentPete @AJ_Dickenson and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson, ITV reporter and YA author.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)

As always, the submissions had many strengths – and much to teach us. This week’s edition concentrated on speculative fiction, and several times we found ourselves discussing what that actually is. As you’ll see from the critiques, some authors identified their manuscripts as speculative, but the panel felt they were better described by another label – fantasy or fable. In the case of the fable, this made a vast difference. One panellist felt the book had overplayed its message – but when we considered the book as fable instead of speculative fiction, this changed our expectations of the book.

Another interesting issue that arose was prologues. Prologues abound in speculative fiction, and these submissions gave them a good go. Some were riveting. Some seemed little different from a first chapter. Some were too different from the first chapter – and left the reader wishing for more of the kind of action in the prologue.

We also talked about orientating details that are necessary for reader comprehension, the suitability of style for the material and the mood of the world, how much the reader needs to know to get involved in a story, and styles that seemed to rush through the material instead of lingering on the interesting details.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Eight points for writing a memoir in personal essays

My current work in progress is a memoir in essays, in the vein of Not Quite Lost.

It’s been growing organically. First I had the urge to write A Something. Then another Something, which seemed to belong with the first. Now there’s a sizeable collection that wants to be a book. It’s ready for the real work.  

Here’s the real work.

1 Look for a subject

What themes are singing out of the material? What is my subject and what is worth saying about it? A memoir like this needs direction. (Even if the point is travelling without a sense of direction, as I did the first time.)

A reminder: a memoir is not autobiography. It’s not everything that happened to you. It has a subject – like divorce, or friendship, or chef training or becoming a shepherd. You might contain one autobiography, but many memoirs.

A memoir also, usually, has an argument – so it’s not just how you became a shepherd, it’s what you want to tell us about humanity.  

2 Look for a running order

A memoir – of any type – needs a narrative arc. Even if life isn’t neat, the memoir needs an ordered shape and a sense of development. You’re making art out of life. This also means it doesn’t have to unfold chronologically. In my memoir, some pieces are back story but I might leave them until late. Some are asides that are outside chronology. Everything will be placed to serve the main subject and argument, for resonance or contrast or reinforcement. I’m creating the running order before I do any editing, while the pieces are still rough. Then I’ll know how to shape them.

3 Look for repetition

I’ve built the book by writing whenever the wind was in my sails. To preserve the spontaneity, I didn’t reread anything. It’s highly likely I’ve written some ideas several times over. Now I need to find those accidental repetitions. However, not all repetition is bad. Sometimes a short repetition will enhance, like a refrain. 

4 Anxiety

I’m hoping I haven’t repeated myself too much, or it might be a very short book. (NB All books involve anxiety. Will it work? Is there enough?)

5 Look for a title

Why is it that the shortest pieces of writing take the longest time? Oh, the woe of finding a title. (I’ve written about titles here and there’s a titles workshop in my workbook.)

For this book, I have many near-titles but nothing ideal. They’re in a text file. A long list, riffing on an idea, changing a noun or a verb, stumbling on a new word and doing it all over again.

(Wait! Stumbling on… I never tried that.)

This task travels with me most of the time. When I’m not at my computer, I worry at the title on scraps of paper. They look like the ravings of a person with an obsession. But the perfect title will pull the whole book into place.

6 It’s okay to make a mess

I’ve written the pieces with illiterate abandon. If they are somehow found by someone else before I can edit them, I will die of embarrassment.

I’m a fan of the uninhibited, slapdash first draft. Precision can come later. So can context and other courtesies. What’s more important to me is the spirit in the words, the raw moment that goes wherever and winds up somewhere surprising.

7 Structure will get you out of mess

I often say this when I’m coaching novelists: the words are the skin. The real work of the story is done by the structure – what you emphasise, what you make the reader look at and feel. So it is with this kind of memoir. The structure will tell you how to edit. Once you know a piece’s overall role in the book, you can edit with confidence. (There’s loads more about structure in my plot book.)

8 Read with a pen

Reading is a highly interrupted activity at the moment. Prose is a trigger. I look like a person with no attention span as I put the book down and scramble a note. If a book’s in the same territory as my WIP, it makes me write. If a book isn’t, it still makes me write. That’s how you know you’ve got a book going on.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘A space in which language can play and find itself’ – talking about slow discovery writing with poet Rishi Dastidar @BetaRish

In some ways, writers of literary fiction (and non-fiction) are like poets. Our materials are shapes, images, emotions and sounds; our landscape is a reader’s mind. When we start a work, we might not know where it will take us, just that there is something it wants to be. I’m delighted to have a poet here to talk about that – Rishi Dastidar, who has written two poetry collections and edited several more. He has also edited a craft guide for poets. We talk about capturing ideas without killing them, and how a process can turn a fragment of nonsense into something original, sophisticated and surprising.

Let’s start with a quick guide to Rishi.

Over-caffeinated writer for hire, residing in south London, with a penchant for supporting less-than-successful sports teams, who when not wielding a pen for brands or art tries to keep two cats happy.

How poetry start for you?

I started writing in 2007, after a chance encounter with Ashes for Breakfast, by Durs Grünbein, translated by Michael Hofmann. I had a damascene moment if that isn’t too grand – I discovered *the* thing I wanted to write. Now, I had no idea that I could write it (I hadn’t studied literature) so I enrolled in a beginner’s course at City Lit that week, and I’ve been plugging away ever since.

You’re the editor of The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century – tell me about that.

That was at the instigation of my editor at Nine Arches Press, Jane Commane. She’s been publishing a series of handbooks for poets, designed to inspire and provide support on the journey to becoming a poet – a journey without a destination if ever there was one, perhaps. We felt there was space for a book for those who had been writing for a while and wanted to go deeper into writing poetry, and to consider issues of ‘craft’.

‘Craft’ in inverted commas?

It is quite a loaded term. What is it? Who is defining it? Why is it important? Why is it important to the person defining it? The word has been used, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes not, as a form of soft gatekeeping, that hard-to-speak-of space where quality and elitism are hard to tell apart.

We wanted to explore that in the book, as well as technical aspects of different forms: how to maximise the potential of your voice; how to bring digital technology to your poems if you want; the ethics of truth-telling and using real life in your work… providing poets with insights into the ‘craft’ that go beyond thinking about pentameter, but rather the full gamut of what you have to think about to make your work the best it can possibly be. The real joy of the book was commissioning essays from so many writers I love and look up to, then getting the heck out of the way as they delivered their wisdom.

You have two collections of poetry Ticker-tape from 2017 and Saffron Jack from 2020. What unifies each collection?

It’s hard, at least initially, to discern much unity between the two. Ticker-tape is more of a debut collection with all its unevenness and flaws, to go with its brio and energy. Saffron Jack can be a read as a long poem about one man’s attempt to set up his own country as a response to feeling alienated from where he is. There’s a third in the works, which will hopefully arrive in 2023.

I suppose what brings everything together is a style, or more precisely a tone. It’s one that’s quite antic, not that many moments for pauses or calm reflections. I generally try to cram my lyrics with a lot – that slightly uncomfortable feeling of the poem teetering on the edge of falling out of coherence. Neologisms abound: I’m a magpie for picking up and throwing in phrases that look and sound like jargon, and then seeing what happens when you put them in a poetic context.

Tell me more about that.

I like taking language from economics, advertising, politics and seeing what happens when you bend them out of shape. Does it reveal there is something more substantial to them? Can you find the thought that might have animated them? What does that reveal?

I’m aware that makes me sound like I live at my desk and behind my screen. While that is mostly true, there’s generally always something that snares me when I’m out walking through London. I’m very urban in that regard. The city leaks into everything I write.

How does a poem come to you?

I generally wait and see what a phrase starts to suggest to me. I’ll capture something that snags me: a hesitant attempt at describing an image; something stolen from an article, a headline, overheard; some mucking around with different words on my desk. Then I hope that something starts to cohere and make… I was about to type ‘sense’, and that’s not quite right, as I’m not necessarily interested in a sense of logic, but rather a sense of suggestiveness.

For example, I have the phrase right now ‘cardinal reminiscence bump’ in front of me on my desk. To others, I know this will appear meaningless babble. To me, I see *something* in that formulation: perhaps the hurt that a difficult memory brings back, perhaps the primary thing that I was meant to remember today; perhaps what it feels like to meet an past lover for the first time in 11 years. The point being: something around the phrase is inviting me to explore, delve further, find out what it might be saying to me.

I get that. The tweak in the soul, a primal sense of meaning.

Of course, not every poem – especially commissions – arrives like that, but broadly speaking I have to try to hold open a space in which language can play and start to find itself. I can then just be the recorder of it, at least in the early drafts. The more it gets whipped into shape, the more it bears some imprint that is recognisably me.

You’re obviously a person who travels with a notebook (or e-notebook)… but a note can look alien later. When I work with an idea I often feel I’m catching up with something that wants me to understand it, and sometimes its moment goes cold. How do you write down ideas to preserve their energy?

I actually don’t mind the alien-ness of looking at my scribbles. Sometimes reading them is enough to take me back to the moment and the energy that was there when the phrase was captured; more often than not it’s not… and that’s okay. Hopefully the phrase will suggest *something* and I’m not so concerned what that something is – I need it to reveal itself as I work, bring it together with other scribbles, say, then see what is released in those juxtapositions and collisions. I generally trust that something new will emerge from the process, and new is good for me; I can work with that, make it better.

I’m interested in the similarities of writing literary fiction and poetry, especially the long process of refining and perfecting, which I relish. Sometimes that’s about mechanics – giving the reader necessary information such as back story or character reactions. Sometimes it’s tuning the moment in a particular way. All of it is feeling the way to guide the reader’s mind. I’ll go through a scene hundreds of times when the book is rough, and in the later stages, as I understand the book as a whole, I will probably change it many more times again. Yet I never feel that work is wasted or that I’m draining the book of life. And there comes a time when it’s all done – and I know it is. I can read the whole thing and it works as it should. 

Yes, absolutely. Frustratingly, I haven’t developed very sophisticated language to describe what this stage of drafting a poem is like for me. My best stab is to say, to myself and others: trust your Spidey sense.

There is a very real risk that you can overwork a poem into inertness, and that would destroy the thing that makes my poems my poems, the innate sense of energy. Of course, I’ve had to train my Spidey sense over the years, and learn to trust to it, to know when the 17th draft is a charm, but the 18th has killed the poem.

And that makes it sound like work when of course it’s not – there is absolutely a pleasure to be had in this kind of puzzle solving.

Puzzle solving! Yes.

Cutting a word to sharpen an image, changing a line ending to release a different sound or idea.

To release a different sound or idea… yes, that’s the reward. When you’ve found the right tuning.  

You will almost definitely see different things on different passes, so you should allow the time for this part of the process. Poems have to live in the dark, of the bottom of desk drawers, maturing, until they tug at you, wanting to be seen again, tweaked a bit more. But then you have to intervene and tell them they’re ready, otherwise they never will be.

When you hand a collection to an editor, how does the process work?

I’m very fortunate to have been working with Jane at Nine Arches for a while now, as she gets completely whatever I’m trying to do with my voice and within any given book project.

How does one edit poetry? What kind of notes would an editor give?

You can think of it as working on two levels.

First the higher one: what is the collection trying to do? Are the right poems there to do that? What order do they need to go in to do that? Have you left enough space for the reader to bring themselves into the worlds you are creating?

Generally you have more poems than you need or some aren’t ready, so a lot of is it leaving stuff on the cutting room floor and then re-arranging. I trust Jane implicitly, as she has an excellent ability to spot the poems I haven’t yet accepted aren’t ready, though I know deep down.

And the second level?

That’s the micro-work on the poems themselves. Are your titles right? Is your syntax secure? Are your rhymes subtle or clanging, by intention rather than by accident? Is your punctuation in the right place? How do the poems sound when you read them out and they hit the air? Are your line endings surprising?

This is your second mention of line endings. In prose, I pay a lot of attention to line endings; the thought a sentence lands on, where that takes the reader next.

If the previous process was the sledgehammer, this is the scalpel – fine-grained fine-tuning which, if you do it well enough, should be all but invisible to the reader.

Invisible to the reader – that’s it. I once heard Michael Caine talk about his work process. He was asked how he gave such relaxed performances. He said: ‘the rehearsal is the work; the performance is the relaxation’. (I wrote about it here.)

And you definitely need outside help at this point, as you will have been looking at them for so long, you won’t be able to spot the faults.

How do you improve your own craft?

Boring cliche answer, but cliches have that boring habit of bring true:

First, reading – as much as I can, of any stripe style or hue. Rare is the weekend that I am not in a bookshop at some point, and I have to-be-read bookcases rather than piles. And it’s not just poetry: I think poets can learn from the rhythms of prose.

I do the other way round. I keep poetry volumes on my desk to loosen up my thinking, stop me being too literal.

I also love immersing myself in a narrative, not least because it remains a thing of wonder to me that anyone can write 50,000 words of a story and make it coherent and make sense.

The second element is experimenting – consciously trying to change things up and get out of a rut.

I hope you’ll give examples…

Can I edit this draft harder?

Can I edit this draft weirder?

What can I change to make it feel still me but not me?

What forms haven’t I tried yet? Why? Can I run towards them?

I’m finding that I need to develop that sort of intentionality to keep things fresh and shake things up. I’m writing a lot of prose gobbets at the moment, short bursts of 100-200 words. Will all the experiments work? No, but in trying I’ll find something new.

As a change of gear, you’re also a copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. Many of us have day jobs that use our word talents – I edit on a medical magazine. It’s factual, precise and pragmatic. I find there are curious ways this refreshes my creative work – unexpected sources of inspiration from the ‘real’ world, of course, but also the practicality is a good antidote to the limitless possibilities of creativity. How do your other areas of work complement your work as a poet?

Hugely: primarily at a level of discipline. I have to finish a response to a client brief by a deadline, so I can’t hang around waiting for inspiration. So I have learned to be directed in my thinking and my messing around; leaving enough space to be broad in exploring before narrowing in on what the answer might be, and doing so rapidly.

I’ve got good at knowing how to fill gaps, and that translates into a level of confidence in knowing that I can get from A to B in a poem and make it look like I know what I’m doing, even if perhaps I don’t at anything other than a subconscious level.

Also, being in the world of brands and branding is good for seeing how cultural trends, commercial decisions and organisations collide with each other. You get to see how the modern world is shaped. More than that, you get lots of insight into humans and their motivations: what people are buying, what people are wishing for, how they’re collaborating with each other, how they’re interacting with technology, how they are working. Being able to observe – and sometimes influence – some of that has been a real privilege, and must have leached into what I write about. It’s certainly more interesting than my life as a subject matter.

What should I ask you next?

Why do I have so many baseball caps, and why can’t I have a more rock-and-roll mid-life crisis?

Find Rishi on Twitter @BetaRish and find his books on Nine Arches Press

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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What do we most want as writers?

I recently asked an artist what his dream job would be. He then bounced the question back to me. ‘What would your dream be as a writer? What would you wish for? What would your dream writing job be?’

Let me think. Is Succession hiring?

Seriously, the writing I most want to do is my own books. I’m always fighting for the time to work on them, fitting them around other gigs and commissions. And, with the time they take, they certainly aren’t paid at professional rates, but the rewards of art are a complex thing. (You might like this post if you want to consider those questions further.)

What if my own books could be properly funded, instead of squeezed into gaps? If I could get an advance or a sponsor, perhaps through crowdfunding?

I don’t think that would be my dream. My books are unpredictable in timescale. Not the Nail Your Novels; I know what they need before I start, so can reasonably finish in a few months. Not Quite Lost, my travel memoir, was also swift. But Ever Rest was glacial; seven years, between other commissions. Lifeform Three took two years, and I don’t know how I managed that. My Memories of a Future Life took a lot of apprentice drafts several decades ago, which don’t count because I wouldn’t start in such a muddle today, then it spent several years in infuriating disorder, then came right in a four-month blitz.

What sponsor could tolerate such a haphazard production timescale? I wouldn’t ask them to.

If I knew people were waiting for delivery, would I feel obliged to finish faster and less thoroughly? I probably would. I hate to disappoint.

On the other hand, would these novels have been finished faster if I’d had an uninterrupted run?

Perhaps, but here’s another question. Did they need the other work I was doing in parallel? The book comes from the soil it was grown in, the weather around it. Different soil, different weather? Different book. And some books need time to muck about and grow up.

Although a patron would be an amazing stroke of luck (and if you want to be one, I’m all ears…), most of us get our books out anyway. We always have.

But while we write on a mysterious self-directed solitary mission, a book is not a solitary thing. All our perfectionist angst, our multiple edits, our discussions with beta readers, our careful reworking has one purpose – we are creating with the idea of the eventual reader, their journey and experience.

Writers are not monks in a contemplative order, separated from people and the world. We are reaching out. We are illusionists, assembling a longform work of magic. A novel – or a piece of poetry or creative non-fiction – is built to be performed. It is dead unless it comes alive in other minds.

To do all that work, and nobody reads it? That really makes writing a lonely business.

There’s my wish. That my books are read.

What would you wish for?

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘I just keep making things’ – Melanie Faith @writer_faith on patience, fulfilment and the long game in art

How do you make a professional creative life? Melanie Faith is the person to ask. She’s adept in many written forms – poetry, flash fiction and longform. She’s also an expert on the teaching side with her work as a writing professor, editor and tutor. And her creative proficiency extends into the visual world – her photographs have been included in exhibitions and used on book covers. Now, over the past few months, she’s published a series of how-to guides for all these disciplines – so there’s loads I want to ask her.

First things first: where did this creative ethic come from? Her family, perhaps?

My family is working class, but they are all makers and creative problem solvers. There are dressmakers, toymakers, jewellery makers, masons and house builders, knitters, gardeners and cooks. They are resourceful in applying trial-and-error, working around obstacles and using whatever few materials they have to create something more than the sum of the parts. Their can-do practicality and inventiveness have influenced me for sure.

Personally, I’ve been encouraged over the years by writing teachers and professors and beta readers who gave thoughtful critiques. Also, my family and friends who asked how it was going and my parents for encouraging my goals. And by books I’ve read, and authors I’ve studied.

I try to run with all of the opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to have – like internet publishing and a university education.

How did you move beyond private dabblings to the point where you said, I am a writer, an artist, a poet, a photographer, a teacher?

What I love about the arts is that we can spend our whole lives practising, always discovering things about self and media and always seeking to improve. 

I don’t have one big end goal; I have myriad little project ideas that I want to enjoy—some fall to the wayside, others stick but don’t create a splash, and others resonate with fellow writers. I just keep making things.

Did you study any of them formally? 

Yes, I have a BA in English with a concentration in professional writing and an MFA in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. I loved the knowledge and writing practice I gained from both degrees. The years to focus on consistently making art for critique and forming community were priceless, too.

The cost was the only part I didn’t enjoy: even though I had academic scholarships and contributions from my parents and I worked part-time jobs during my education, I was still paying off lots of student loans for years on both degrees, which is a familiar story for many of the creative artists I know.

Have you done jobs that were unconnected to your creative work?

Like most writers and artists I know, I’ve had a variety of jobs over the years, including an early gig as a choir-music librarian. I worked in an attic-garret office, mostly on my own, alphabetising and cataloguing boxes of sheet music. It was a self-paced, methodical, time-to-think kind of job that replenished my introverted self. I took classes and had time to write before or after work.

Most of my other jobs were in various subjects and levels of education, such as teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at summer camps.

You’ve recently published a trio of books on writing and publishing, all with Vine Leaves Press. Two are for writing teachers –  Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells. The other is From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process , which has just been released. Why those books, and why now?

I wrote them to share what I have learned and to encourage fellow writers. For all writers and teachers, myself included, rejection is a realistic and discouraging part of the vocation, so if I can provide kind words and insights to keep other writers going, that is fulfilling.

Plus, the reflections were meaningful to write. I aimed to bring something personal to each topic as well as something that might inspire readers to apply the knowledge. I wrote the second and third books during the early days of quarantine, so the writing became a positive and wonderful escape in the grip of much confusion.  

You’ve also written craft books on poetry and flash fiction, also from Vine Leaves Press. How did they come about?

For years, I had nudges of encouragement from students who’d suggest I should write craft books, but I didn’t feel confident about it. I remember sitting down to write what I thought would be a craft article to submit to a literary journal, and realised, Hmm, this might be something longer. I saved the file, worked on shorter projects, and then a week or two later, more and more ideas for a flash fiction craft book occurred to me.

Is there a common mistake writers make with these forms?

They send work to one or two editors or markets and, after rejection, think it’s unpublishable. But it’s very common to get persistent rejections before a yes; some of my favourite published work received eight, 10, 20 or more rejections. I encourage writers to keep submitting rejected work while writing new projects.

Also, taking classes and getting feedback from other writers or beta readers builds a community and gives writers more tools to revisit pieces with new skills that enliven and strengthen the work.

Also, it’s helpful to realise that not every piece of art we create needs to be published—some can be just for ourselves or just for fun or to develop our skills. As much as I’ve published, I have a bunch of work nobody else will ever read. They were projects that got me to the projects that did reach an audience. Patience and the long game are important in art.  

And you’ve written a creative guide to photography for writers.

I don’t have any special training in photography (other than two or three online non-credit classes for fun). It took me decades to have the confidence to call myself a ‘photographer’, and that was after several publications of my photos.

I’ve always had a passion for photography, although not always the money to practise the art as much as I’d like. In many ways, I feel similarly alive and happy and intrigued when making a photograph as I do when writing.

The idea for the book was sparked when I wanted to teach a class that combined photography with writing. I looked for a class text that combined photography tips from a writer’s unique skillset and couldn’t find it. Something inside me lit up.I felt there was an audience for the book, because many writers I know have either dabbled in or studied photography, and also great cellphone and digital cameras have dropped in price and increased in quality, so more people can explore photography at their own price-point.

Tell me about your own photographic work. Your pictures have featured on book covers and in online exhibitions. How did that come about?

I submit a wide variety of photographic subjects (from abstract to nature and landscape to conceptual photography of people to still-life photos), and often I’m surprised at the pieces that make the cut and the others that don’t. Many times, I’ve read calls for submissions for thematic photos or exhibits or literary journals asking for art and decided to send work on a whim. About 75% of my photos are rejected. The acceptances, though, are well worth it. You never know what others will connect to, which is one of the marvellous things about art of any kind.

Make what you consider your best work, and then release it to see what others will make of it, without too many expectations.

On the other hand, my photographs that have gotten published or exhibited have had similar qualities: an unexpected angle, a very detailed or, conversely, a mysteriously blurred element, elements of characterization of a place or a person, sometimes a saturated or unique colour combination, and a wild card element, like unique subject matter.

As with my writing, I often follow my own ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting’ or ‘I want to know more about that idea’ moments.

You’ve combined the visual and the written arts in a set of prompt cards for writers, which you sell on Etsy. What gave you the idea to create those?

I love using prompts in my teaching and writing. I love the idea of a set of cards that writers can carry as a light, tactile object so that, while waiting for an appointment or at a park or on a lunch break, they can use slivers of time to make art in a low-key, self-directed, no-pressure way. As a freelance editor, writer, and teacher, my schedule is ever in flux, so I use tiny snippets of time to keep my writing process cooking.

Let’s talk about your own creative writing. You have a collection of poetry, This Passing Fever, 1918 Influenza Poems, which was also adapted for a music performance. And you have two chapbooks of poetry.

I wrote This Passing Fever several years before the Covid pandemic. At the time, like many people, I didn’t think we’d ever experience a pandemic ourselves. The collection follows the lives of several characters in a small town during the pandemic over a hundred years ago—some survive and some don’t. Many of the poems are persona poems and the POV shifts from poem to poem, back and forth between characters. It was a meaningful series of characters and time period to explore, even more meaningful to me now.  

What are you working on at the moment? I believe there’s a disobedient novel in progress…

That’s so funny. Very true. During the first weeks of quarantine, I started a novel about two sculptors who are also teachers who met in grad school and reunite in 2018 as very different people. The story alternates POV and time periods in non-chronological order. I’ve taken the manuscript through two or three solid drafts so far, but there’s a lot more to explore and more creative editing to do. This summer, I look forward to delving back in, and also to working on more photographs and two poetry collections, one of which is set in the early 1960s.

But you’re already published as a novelist, with a Regency novella under a pseudonym, Lucy M Loxley.

I started the Regency novella during a fan-fiction exercise in 2015. I chose to write in the style of Jane Austen. I just kept writing to see where the story went, and then I had a novella, so I decided to see if it could be published. Happily, it was.

Why did you choose a different identity for that book?

It’s in a genre (romance) that is not my primary genre, and there is a tradition in romance for authors to take pseudonyms.

Why that name?

At the time of writing the novella, I was streaming a show called Mr Selfridge, and one of my favourite characters is Lady Mae Loxley. I love the double L alliteration, so I chose another name I like that has a strong L sound, Lucy, and combined them. The M middle initial is a wink to Mae and my real first name.

What have I forgotten to mention? I’m all awhirl with your creativity and I’m sure I’ve missed something.  

These have been such excellent questions that inspired me to dig deep! Many thanks. I can’t think of anything you’ve forgotten.

Some quick-fire questions.

Writing or rewriting?  

Writing for the discovery, but more time in rewriting than my younger self would have enjoyed.

Write in silence or listening to music?

Both, and it depends on the project. First drafts I usually create to music, but editing my work often requires at least some silence.

Five essential things in your writing space?

A profusion of pens in every hue imaginable, a postcard a writing friend took the time to snail-mail with a writing quote on it, a photo of my nieces (they are ever-growing and changing, and they inspire those qualities in me), my computer, my tactile writer’s notebook with a jumble of to-do lists and ideas/random thoughts as they monkey-mind around and before they disappear.

What would you buy for your writing space if money was no object?

A Leica camera. They are famous and pricey. It would be a very generous splurge that would be fun to create with! Where’s that money tree again?

Find Melanie’s most recent trio of writing books here Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells,  From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process. 

Find Melanie on her website, on Twitter @writer_faith, and on Facebook

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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The push-pull in a person’s soul – how to keep readers desperately hooked. Interview with Mary Kole @Kid_Lit

Mary Kole has long been a legend in my online writing life. I’ve followed her since I first ventured onto the internet of writing, when she was a literary agent and wrote one of the smartest blogs about storytelling. Now she has a podcast for writers – as well as a consultancy – and I was massively chuffed when she invited me to guest.

We had a huge, wide-ranging chat about storycraft which boiled down to this – what keeps the reader hooked? Could we identify any qualities that work for any kind of story – no matter what the genre, even in the absence of a clear genre?

Reader, we did. (See the headline to this post.)

We talk about identifying the core of a story – because most ideas start as an intriguing muddle. They lead us and frustrate us, and for a long time we might not know where we’re going – just that this idea is eating our brain, directing us to books we might not usually read, movies we might not usually choose to watch. We also talk about small but vital aspects of craft – pacing, word shapes, learning from other writers, change in a story and when to give the reader a breather.

We talk about coaching writers – the art of wriggling inside an author’s mind to help them create the book they really want, even if they’re not clear what that is. And about ghostwriting – another kind of mind-reading, with the added challenge of absorbing another person’s experience to write the book they’d write if they could. (Did you know I have a course for ghostwriters?)

We’re editors too, so we talk about switching hats from writer brain to editor brain – and the great big interzone where the two overlap.

You can listen to us talk about all this and more, or if you prefer to read, there’s a full transcript. Step this way.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Do androids dream of electric horses? Creating the future – interview about Lifeform Three at @AuthorsElectric @AuthorKatherine

In 2013, I designed the future for my novel Lifeform Three. I wrote about robots that were more human than people, people who were slaves of their devices, and creatures who wanted to escape the algorithms and find real connection and meaningful lives.

Today I’m at the Authors Electric blog, talking to fantasy and historical fiction author Katherine Roberts about the making of Lifeform Three. (Katherine guested on my Undercover Soundtrack series a while back – ‘A ballad of fairyland, but not sweet and innocent’. Find it here.)

Katherine and I discuss key fundamentals of writing a futuristic, science fiction, dystopia or speculative novel: creating a viewpoint character who is non-human yet relatable; designing a world with plausible social systems by figuring out the priorities of the rule makers; choosing names that reinforce the story’s themes and resonance; and lacing the text with warnings that are subtle and not preachy.

So, do androids dream of electric horses? We also discuss homage to favourite books – Lifeform Three is, in part, a love letter to the pony stories I devoured as a kid. (Apologies; I’m bringing you horses for the second time this month. The next post won’t be horsey.)

Do come over.

And here’s a bonus! A bit of bookish chat with Tim Lewis on his channel Book Chat Live. He asked me to make an Amazon wishlist with favourite books that have influenced my own writing. That’s quite a wide brief because I’ve written memoirs, contemporary fiction, SF and writing craft books, but there are literary touchstones for each of those, which you might like if you like my kind of book. Tim has a wildcard question at the end – choose anything you like from the Amazon store and say why you’d like someone to buy it for you. Ever since, I’ve been bombarded with adverts for the thing I chose. People, the algorithms are watching.

Find the show here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Two opportunities for shortform writers, a treat for music lovers and a little interview

Do you write shortform? I have two opportunities for you.

If your forte is piercingly, wincingly, blazingly short, the 50 Give or Take series from Vine Leaves Press wants your work. The editor is my friend Elaina Battista-Parsons.

Does Elaina sound familiar? You’re right. She came to my blog to talk about her memoir Italian Bones In The Snow.

If 50 words is too tight and you like to be thoughtful at greater length, Elaina still wants your goodness. She’s also an editor at Cordelia Magazine.

Go here to her blog and follow the trails.

Elaina also invited me for a brief chat about my writing, my favourite music, my favourite decade and advice for new writers. In the same post she featured the work of pop musicologist Quentin Harrison, and that’s an inspired pairing – Quentin has a series of books (Record Redux) on pop icons, explored through their songs, and I mainlined books on bands when I wrote my novel Ever Rest. We were destined to meet.

Do come over.

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Writers, can you feel it? How to use gut feeling to guide your work

As you might know, I’m fond of horses. For years I’ve been taking dressage lessons, with mixed results. One instructor used to yell at me: ‘you ride without feeling what the horse is doing’, but I recently started with a new instructor, who told me, to my surprise, that I had very good feel.

Here’s where this is relevant to writing – writers also need to develop feel. It’s how we know when our work is finished.

And to return to the saddle for a moment, how could I get two such contradictory opinions? Who was right?

Both were. Because, actually, I was ‘feeling’ all the time. I was noticing everything I should, but I didn’t know I was feeling anything important.  

Applying this to writing, I remember – distinctly – a time when my writing turned a corner, when I learned to take notice of gut feeling. If a line was off, or a word was not precise or evocative enough. If a story moment was dull or predictable or wrong. If a passage was self-indulgent or a scene went on too long. I realised I had always felt and noticed these things, but I had not known I should trust them and act on them. The ‘feel’ was there. It had been all along. I just had to listen.

When we’re learning something – anything – a lot of it is mechanics and rules and principles. For writing, we learn what plot structure is, what character arcs are, show not tell, how to plant a theme, how to add subtext, how to present dialogue.  

But alongside those technicalities there is another level, a more individual, inspirational level, which holds a work together.

This comes from deep in you, from the way you’re wired. If you listen to it, it’s where you develop your distinctiveness, your aesthetic, your style. It’s not learned, it’s already there. There’s craft, which is an exoskeleton, and then there is soul, which is how you are in your deep interior, a human being alive with questions and mysteries and curiosities. It’s how you have always been.

What should you learn to listen for? Here are some suggestions.

  • Is that word or line perfect for the feeling you want to give the reader? Sometimes, I go to the thesaurus and read lists of synonyms until I find the word that fits more truly.
  • Is that plot development or character action a little awkward? What should you change – the event? Or should you explore more deeply the characters’ reasons, both conscious and unconscious? Do you feel they’re doing the right thing, but you haven’t yet understood the reasons?
  • Is the pace dragging and do you want that? When you read a scene, does it seem to repeat a previous story beat, and is that irritating to you or pleasing?
  • Is something missing? Will the piece – or the book – flow better with an extra paragraph, an extra scene, an extra chapter? If you reorder some of the scenes, will everything click into place?

These are gut-level judgements, but if you learn to listen for them, they will start to speak up. You will start to write more by feel, and use your craft with originality, style and sensitivity. Listen also, for when the piece runs smoothly, when you can read a passage or a chapter – or the whole book – and feel everything is just right, just so.

Lifeform Three by Roz Morris

PS If horses are your thing, you might like my novel Lifeform Three.

PPS My novel Ever Rest has won an award! See the pic below.

There’s a lot more about writing technicalities – and gut feeling – in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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