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From literary journal to 10 books a year – interview with Jessica Bell @msbessiebell of Vine Leaves Press @VineLeavesPress

If you’ve been with this blog for a while, you’ll know the name Jessica Bell. We’ve discussed everything bookish – cover design, fiction writing, poetry and memoir. She’s guested multiple times on The Undercover Soundtrack, and gone the extra mile by writing the music as well as the books (she’s also a musician). As if this polyphonic creativity isn’t enough, she has her own publishing imprint, Vine Leaves Press. I’ve never interviewed her about that, and it’s high time I did. Let’s go.

Beginnings

Roz Tell me how Vine Leaves Press got started.

Jessica Vine Leaves started as a literary journal in 2011. It was a LOT of work to maintain, but we were lucky to have some fabulous volunteers working for us, and so we stayed on our feet until 2017. In 2014, we started the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award, and that’s how we published our first book, the winner of the competition, Harvest by Amanya Maloba. So becoming a book publisher felt like a natural progression.

Roz How many titles do you have now?

Jessica To date we have 82 titles published and 15 forthcoming. We publish at least 10 books a year. Sometimes we might slip in one or two more.

Roz Ten a year! I’ve interviewed other small presses and they don’t manage even five a year. Did you make any wrong turnings?

Jessica Depends what you consider wrong turnings. A really amazing project that made us, and a lot of writers and artists happy, but almost bankrupted us, was the final instalment of the journal, which we published as a hardcover coffee table book in full colour. It cost us 5000 Euros to make, because, of course, we sent every contributor a free copy, and they were not cheap! I am so extremely proud of that collection of vignettes, but it almost killed the business. Thankfully in those days I was single and childless and only risking my own wellbeing, so I bounced back by working a lot of overtime.

New titles

Roz How much time do you devote to looking for new material? How many submissions do you get a month?

Jessica On average around 100. As we only publish 10 books a year, I’m extremely picky with query letters now. If someone hasn’t followed guidelines (query letter and first 10 pages), or has zero online presence, or doesn’t intrigue me before I finish the first sentence, I won’t even read the submission and it will be rejected right away. As much as I hate to say it, this is a business, not a hobby, and we need to sell books to continue to publish the writing of great writers.

Some may say I will miss the diamonds in the rough by doing this, but I’m okay with that, because I find the diamonds out of the rough! There are only so many books we can accept. Currently our publishing schedule is full until mid-2022!

The style

Roz If there’s a Vine Leaves style, what is it?

Jessica Character-driven works that straddle the line between literary and mainstream.

Roz Do you read all the submissions yourself or do you have a team?

Jessica I have a team. I will read all the submissions, and request the full manuscripts I want to consider for publication. I will then send those full manuscripts to the appropriate staff member (dependent on reading tastes), and they will respond with a one- or two-page evaluation outlining the book’s strengths and weaknesses, if they’d recommend the book to others to read, if it would suit our list, and if they think it would sell and why.

I accept or reject most books based on those evaluations. But I’m very careful to send them to readers who I am certain will enjoy to the content.

(Aside from Roz: you might recognise this bearded chap. My bookseller friend Peter Snell, of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, is one of the VLP readers.)

Roz What’s been successful for Vine Leaves Press? I’m thinking many readers of this blog might be Vine Leaves types…

Jessica Interestingly, poetry that is a bit daring in content, or has a unique theme, has been soaring lately! Also, our memoirs are very popular, and a few select novels also do well. But we are even more selective with poetry, so a note to poets: unless you think you have a collection that is extremely off-beat, or you have an extensive and interactive following online, please don’t query us with your poetry.

How to impress Jessica

Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?

Jessica No plots, rushed endings, lacking hooks, too much purple prose, stream of consciousness.

Roz Should an author get their book professionally edited before submitting to you?

Jessica Definitely. Despite all books going through three different edits (development edit, copy edit and multiple proofreads), we want to be reading the best product possible right off the bat. If a book is poorly edited, it’s going to distract us from seeing and understanding what is the most important—story and voice.

Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?

Jessica Oh, in this day and age it’s everything. It’s actually the first thing I look at before reading a submission in full. A small press cannot survive without active authors.

Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?

Jessica They are great fun, and refine skills, but don’t expect them to suddenly make you a brilliant writer. They are for practice and discovery. Not miracle-makers. But yes, take them! But only for the pure enjoyment of it.

Strength in numbers

Roz Many fine authors are now selfpublishing. The tools are mature and sophisticated, and some beautiful books are being produced. What do you think a publisher does that authors can’t do by themselves?

Jessica I can only speak for us as I don’t know what other small presses offer their authors. But we produce a professionally edited manuscript and designed cover and interior and incur all the costs.

We connect them with like-minded authors from our list in a private and very supportive Facebook group. This is a great cross-promotion tool. We do online promotion that they might not be able to do themselves. We steer them in the right direction regarding their online presence if necessary and offer ongoing support and guidance for their writing career.

If an author can do all the above on their own, then I urge them to self-publish. We are not necessary! Also, not every publisher will do the above, so choose wisely.

Roz Many indie authors will know you for your beautiful and quirky cover designs. When you’re working on a cover with an indie author, they clearly have the final say, with your guidance of course. But when you design for Vine Leaves Press, do other people give feedback on the suitability of a cover?

Jessica We will listen to all feedback, and if we agree we will revise. But ultimately, we have the final say and that is stated in our contract.

Roz How much of the publishing work do you outsource and how much is done personally by you? Do you have staff?

Jessica (left) and VLP partner Amie McCracken

Jessica I now have a partner, Amie McCracken. I sold half the company to her a couple of years ago, as it was getting too big for my own boots. So we make all decisions together now. I am the go-to for all things related to submissions, design, bookkeeping, our SPILL IT! column, the new 50 Give or Take flash fiction newsletter, general admin and upkeep, and Amie is the go-to for all things related to editing, typesetting/ebook formatting, contracts and the publishing schedule, and our author liaison. We share social media responsibilities, and outsource some marketing video production, some newsletter composing, most editing and all manuscript evaluations.

Roz Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?

Jessica Be a patient and understanding person. If you’re not, you will run into trouble and conflict with your authors. Be ambitious and have the ability to look into the future regarding expectation. You will not make money straight away. Up until last year, we were just breaking even every year; sometimes we would have a loss, and that was with volunteers on our team! We are finally starting to make some money. That took six years.

Marketing … the literary way

Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction, poetry and vignettes are trickiest to market… any thoughts? What’s your approach?

Jessica Don’t settle for the same-old. Be as innovative as you can. Post something on social media EVERY DAY. Build a mailing list. Approach publishing like a self-publisher. Traditional methods used by the Big Five do not work for a small press. You will end up bankrupt. One of our biggest sellers is a vignette collection (The Walmart Book of the Dead by Lucy Biederman). It sells because it really is unique and intriguing. Market to niche audiences, not the world.

Roz Approach publishing like a self-publisher? I want that on a T-shirt. That’s a great insight.

Many publishers have reps who sell into bookshops. And distribution deals. Do you have anything like that?

Jessica No we don’t have reps. All our sales are online, unless an author has managed to get their book stocked somewhere on consignment.

Roz I’m on the Vine Leaves mailing list and you work hard to establish a vibrant and provocative presence in your newsletters. There’s very much a feeling of a Vine Leaves family.

Jessica I am a hands-on team member that nurtures our authors as much as humanly possible. Being an author and all-round creative person myself, I understand the needs of my kind. This is why I started the private VLP group on Facebook where members (authors and staff only) can support each other and their work. I have worked years to establish an extremely friendly and happy environment at Vine Leaves Press in order to motivate creativity and productivity. If you become a VLP author, you become a part of a loyal and enthusiastic family of book lovers that will bend over backwards to help you out.

Roz Is that your primary source of marketing?

Jessica Yes, that is our primary source of marketing. Next in line are the videos we post daily on social media, and we are also trying our hand at a few Facebook ads (after very expensive training!) and have joined Goodreads as a publisher so that we can issue giveaways. We are always looking for new ways to promote the press and our authors. Oh! We’ve also just added the ability to buy a Vine Leaves Press gift card.

Roz I notice you get amazing reviews for your titles! Are those Vine Leaves contacts or are they the authors’ own contacts?

Jessica Generally, they are no-one’s contacts. They are true fans! 😊 Cool, huh?

Roz So cool I am frozen with envy. You also have a full creative life yourself, indeed several. Not only do you write, you’re a musician with two identities – vocalist with Keep Shelly In Athens @keepshellyinath and solo artist Bruno. You design covers. And you run Vine Leaves Press. How do you get time for all this – and a full family life which we haven’t even mentioned… do you protect your creative time? What’s a typical day, or week, or month?

Jessica Sometimes I don’t even know how I do it. And somehow everything seems to get done. The only schedules I keep are for Vine Leaves and for my book design, because there are other people relying on me to get things done. All the rest I do when I can spare a moment. I don’t know when. Sometimes I feel like I’ve travelled to a parallel universe to get my creative time, and then return a little dazed and confused.

And of course, for the last 14 months, a lot of my time has been spent nurturing my son. I don’t think I’ve had much sleep in that time, but I am still functioning! There is no typical day here. I do what I can when I can. With a toddler in the house, winging it is the only option.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

Jessica We’ve started the 50 Give or Take newsletter, a Vine Leaves project which will deliver stories of 50 words or less daily to your inbox in an attempt to expose great writing and great writers without chewing up too much of a reader’s time. Subscribe here!

Also a new music project is under way. It’s called Mongoa.

Finally I’m getting stuck into editing my long-lost novel (last touched in 2016!) How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness.

Roz And where can readers find Vine Leaves Press – and you – on line?

Jessica You can find all of my projects at iamjessicabell.com.

Roz again: My Nail Your Novel books are full of tips to help you avoid plotlessness, hooklessness and associated prose horrors, purple and otherwise.

And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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‘Five characters, five musical identities’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell

for logoMy guest this week is an old hand at The Undercover Soundtrack. She made her first appearance here in 2012 with a soundtrack she had composed, sung and recorded herself – which earned my undying envy (in a good way). She’s a singer-songwriter as well as a poet and novelist, so music is a natural way for her to understand her characters. In her latest novel, she writes from the perspective of five people, and used music to help her create their different voices and mentalities. Join me on the Red Blog to meet Jessica Bell (once again) and the Undercover Soundtrack to White Lady.

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‘How differently a child perceives the world’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell

for logoMy guest this week is another Undercover Soundtrack veteran. In fact, she deserves this title twice over, as she was the first of my guests who also wrote some of the music that helped her create the book (and she then made it available as an album). This time, she uses music in a different, but equally creative way. Her main character is a child who has behavioural problems and eccentricities, and struggles to understand the adults’ world. The metaphorical language of song lyrics, jumbled through a child’s mind, became a cornerstone for her to understand the character. She is Jessica Bell and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Shaking off the ghost – guest post at Jessica Bell’s

When I was ghostwriting, I longed to have a novel published with my own name on. Today I’m talking about my journey to make that happen at The Alliterative Allomorph, bloggish home of author, singer, poet and songwriter Jessica Bell.

Her name might be familiar to you as a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack, where she made a big impression by revealing she wrote her own unique soundtrack for her debut novel String Bridge. Yes, that Jessica Bell, I knew you’d remember her… Come over and see where this very cool lady hangs out.

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‘I wanted the words to sound like music’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell

I am seriously envious of my Undercover Soundtrack guest this week. As she developed her characters and their world, she found it natural to write the songs of the story too – and then headed into the studio to record them. The result? Her novel has its very own original soundtrack on iTunes. She is Jessica Bell, a poet and songwriter as well as a wielder of the literary art, and her novel is String Bridge.  Join me at the red blog to hear more.

In other news, I’m planning a newsletter!  Add your name to the mailing list here.

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‘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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How to judge writing competitions for children, adults, beginners and seasoned authors

How do you judge a writing competition? This is something authors are asked to do from time to time. How do you compare different styles and subject matter? What do you make allowances for? What do you never compromise on? What are the different considerations for child and adult competitions, local beginners or experienced authors seeking professional publication?

I’ve gathered some authors who’ve been there, done that… and asked for their tips on how to do a fair job.  

Literary

Novelist Ian Rogers @iantheroge is a slush pile reader for a prominent literary journal’s short story prize. Applicants pay a fee and submit a manuscript for a chance at publication.

What’s your system for judging?

Surprisingly, the applications tend to be relatively uniform, in the category of “serious literary fiction”.  Some take risks with humour, themes and form, which I suspect will not please the judges above me. But I value them as distinct and memorable, so I often give them a green light to get a chance of winning. If they later get a No, I want that decision to come from someone else, not from me.

What about gut instinct?

I’ve learned that certain interesting, funny or creative pieces might strike me as brilliant in some areas, but are lacking in organisation, prose quality or consistency.  In these cases, it’s a simple but painful decision to pass on them.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

Clear, meaningful decisions by the author in crafting a piece structurally, rather than haphazardly following a formula, or God forbid, slapping together a bunch of meaningful-sounding prose.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

For a contest, my standards are higher than if I’m reading for another purpose.  A brilliant idea and great potential would draw me in every time if I was reading for something less competitive, but for this contest, there will be more than enough pieces that succeed in both their potential and their execution.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

No tricks. And don’t front-weight a manuscript with higher quality material while the rest is padded out with rougher pieces. I took this route myself as a younger writer for fear of missing out on a contest, and shudder at my naiveite now. A winning manuscript should be in top shape from start to finish, and if it’s not, wait until next year.

Have you ever had to justify your decision to a disgruntled entrant?

Thankfully no—bigger contests keep the judging blind and impersonal with form letters, which takes the humanity out of the process, as if entries were being judged by machines rather than people.  Such distance sends a strong signal that entrants shouldn’t question the final decision.

Who’s Ian Rogers? More here

Literary vignettes and flash fiction

Flash fiction author and movie writer Jayne Martin @jayne_martin has judged the 50-word story contest for the Bending Genres journal. Author,  musician and small press publisher Jessica Bell @iamjessicabell used to hold an annual competition, the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award.

Jayne Martin

What’s your system for judging?

Jayne I looked for pieces where the writer clearly understood the genre and craft of microfiction. It’s a specific skill.

Jessica We had a team of five readers, including myself. We did not have strict judging criteria for the first round – vignettes do not follow standard rules – but we looked for originality, sound spelling and grammar, and the ‘it’ factor. The ‘it’ factor basically meant they impressed us.

The quarter-finalists were manuscripts we would be prepared to publish. These were then re-evaluated by three judges, including me, with a  score system. From that we decided a grand finalist and two semi-finalists. They were all then offered publication.

What about gut instinct?

Jayne Gut instinct is a big part of it. Either a piece moves you or it doesn’t. I’m looking for an emotional experience or takeaway. That is what will elevate one story over another that may be better written but leaves me cold.

Jessica We were judging for our own press, so our emotions played a big role. However, they were balanced our by our judging process.

Jessica Bell

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

Jayne Craft. Does the writer know their stuff?

Jessica If it triggers a strong wave of emotion, it’s got me.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Jayne It can’t be rough at all. It must be polished and professional.

Jessica Very rarely am I impressed by rough writing, since smooth writing is all part of making a book resonate with a reader.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

Jayne Before submitting anywhere, read your story out loud. Record it. Listen to it. You’ll find the places where it stumbles. And never ever send in a first draft.

Jessica Be yourself. Don’t try to write like someone else. Write from the heart; it shows. Make the judges cry, laugh and sneer.

Who’s Jayne Martin? I interviewed her here

Who’s Jessica Bell? I interviewed her here

An all-genres small press mentoring competition

This was my turn in the hot seat! I judged the Triskele Books Big Five mentoring competition in 2018. The aim was to find one manuscript to develop for publication.

What’s your system for judging?

My role was to choose a winner from the five finalists, so the main job of selection had been done. But those five entries were already a high standard with their own merits – and they covered a huge spectrum of styles and genres. There were narrators who were unreliable or dreaming; narrators who were unsure if they could trust their senses. Sassy voices; sad ones. Narrators who were on the brink of terrible events. Some were fiction; some were not.

To pick a winner, I looked for a writer who knew how to handle the reader. Whatever the setting or genre, did they know what feelings they were giving me? Did they know what questions I had and whether they should answer them…. or whether they should tease?

What about gut instinct?

For those questions, gut instinct became my biggest steer.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

For this competition, we were seeking potential and natural writing instinct. Roughness of craft wasn’t a problem because the right writer would pick up craft points easily.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition at this level?

Even if a competition is looking for manuscripts to bring on, don’t skimp on polishing. The judges want to see you at your absolute best, before any interventions, and they want to keep your strengths, not mould you. So show off those strengths.

Children’s writing competitions

Retired bookseller Peter Snell @peterjasnell judges the local heats of the national Rotary competition for secondary schools. The top three in each age category go to the national finals.

What’s your system for judging?

Each entry has to be considered in isolation, according to its own merits. A title is provided to entrants each year; interpretation is down to them. Each manuscript is judged on its own merits, Some entries are essays, some are poems, some are plays.   

I use three yardsticks in judging – the level and quality of imagination, the ability to engage the interest of the reader and the consistent power of the argument in each piece. I also consider grammar, spelling and punctuation, marking each script for errors as I read. I score each aspect out of 10 with a maximum of 40 points and write a short note for each entry highlighting good and bad aspects and my overall impression. This helps me with the final judging and comparison while also providing feedback to each entrant. I also produce a general report on the year’s entries. The points I raise are fed back to entrants by their class teachers.

What about gut instinct?

I read forensically so I’m able to disengage some of myself. Of course, some scripts sing to me, so I read every entry straight through first without judging. I then go back and examine with my categories. Sometimes I have to reread to make sure I understand what the author was intending.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

I enjoy a narrative flow that does not pull me up short or require me retrace my steps to puzzle out meaning. Of course, there are times when causing discomfort to the reader can enhance the atmosphere of a piece.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Some entries come from special schools. Entries from pupils with poorer motor skills can look rough but still have great merit. I make sure my judging is blind, not based on the kind of school.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition of this kind? And any don’ts?

Proof-read your entry. Don’t rely on spell checkers; they have no sense of context. Then read it out aloud, slowly. If you make corrections, rewrite the whole thing. Biro corrections on a printed submission are not a good look.

Don’t use big words unless you are sure you know precisely how to use them. A dictionary can be a good friend; as can a thesaurus if you need to avoid repetition.

Make sure you really understand the assignment title. But also try an original approach.

So, you’ve got your score sheet and your notes. What if you get a tie? How then do you pick a winner?

I discuss it with the contest organiser.

Who’s Peter Snell? You might remember him from our radio series So You Want To Be A Writer?

A local competition for first-time writers

Novelist and short story writer Annalisa Crawford @annalisacrawf judged a competition in her local town in 2017.

What was your system for judging?

Judging was easy. Most of the entrants were not writers and would probably not have entered any other writing competition. The fact it was local was the draw for them. The brief was to write a short story so I initially cast aside all the ones that weren’t stories – then had to reintroduce them when I realised I only had one left. That at least made it easy to decide the winner. I laid the others out on my floor and read the first pages a few times, removing any that had me stumbling or not understanding what they were trying to say.

What about gut instinct? I think sometimes it comes down to gut instinct. Judging a piece of writing is subjective and I think we’d be doing a disservice to the writers to stick to rigid guidelines.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

I like to be surprised, to be drawn into the lives of the characters enough for me to believe they’re real, and to still be thinking about it a few days later. I like interesting imagery and to be taken on a journey.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Not much, to be honest. I think any writer owes it to the reader to make their piece as perfect as possible. Having said that, although I’m harsh on the opening paragraphs because I need to be pulled in, once I’m there I’m more relaxed and forgiving. I’m not put off by an ending that doesn’t meet my expectations if the start is good.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition? And any don’ts?

Follow all the rules. Make the first page sparkle. Don’t overuse the thesaurus and fill the story with long, obscure words. Don’t fall into cliché. Make your characters do the unexpected.

Have you ever had to justify your decision to a disgruntled entrant?

Luckily, no. The winners were merely sent their prizes.

Who’s Annalisa Crawford? I interviewed her here

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my 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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How I made my writing career – award-winning novelist and short story writer Ann S Epstein @asewovenwords

How do you end up as a fiction writer? Some people learn to use their word skills for a career, then also discover a strong creative calling. My guest today, Ann S Epstein, wrote psychology papers for many years and then discovered joy in writing fiction. Now she has a solid catalogue of published short stories, a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her fourth work of longform historical fiction, The Great Stork Derby is released this week. We talk about this – and many other moments that slowly added up to Ann S Epstein, author.

Ann, was your family creative in any way or are you an outlier?

I didn’t grow up in a creative family, although my mother taught us to appreciate art and music. My father liked to make things for our small Bronx apartment, but these were primarily utilitarian: radiator covers, storage chests, and step stools. (I come from a line of very short people.) As a child, I loved to draw and write, and continued these activities long after my friends abandoned them. However, the arts were seen as a “hobby,” not a means of livelihood.

My brother and I both became social scientists – he an anthropologist, me a psychologist – and we each produced a lot of professional writing, but not creative writing. And yet, at some point later in adulthood, he began to write poetry and I started to write fiction.

Tell me more about that.

I thought it would be fun to try writing fiction when I retired. Then I asked myself, “Why wait? Why not give a go now?” So, I did, and I loved it.

Have you taken formal instruction in writing?

I’ve taken a couple of classes and several workshops, but most of what I’ve learned has come from being a long-time member of two fantastic critique groups. We’re supportive and encouraging, but also honest in our feedback. Our participation stems from a need to improve, not to be patted on the back. (Or skewered.)

I learn as much by reading and giving thoughtful feedback to others as I do from receiving their input about my work. We celebrate one another’s successes and, perhaps best of all, commiserate over our inevitable rejections.

I’ve also learned from developmental editors who make me think about what I’ve written. Their ideas and questions push me to go deeper and wider.

You also have a PhD in developmental psychology and an MFA in textiles. What fulfils you about these disciplines?

My 40-plus years as a developmental psychologist were extremely gratifying. I was a researcher and curriculum developer at an educational nonprofit foundation whose mission was helping at-risk children and their families and teachers. One of my books, The Intentional Teacher (published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children) remains a bestseller in the field, and has been translated into several languages. I still hear from readers around the world about how the book affected their relationships with children and the adults who work with them. Knowing that the foundation’s work, and my contribution to it, made a significant difference in the quality of their lives reassures me that my chosen career was meaningful.

I actually got my MFA 10 years after my PhD. As I said, I never stopped making art. In addition to drawing, I loved working with fibre. While I was in graduate school in psychology, macrame was the big thing. (I’m still doing penance for creating knotted and beaded jute wall hangings and planters.) The local YMCA offered a class in weaving. I signed up and immediately knew I’d found my medium.

Do they find their way into your writing?

Psychology and art certainly do. My character-driven stories explore relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, co-workers and even the nameless people we cross paths with who make us wonder about their lives, and our own. I’m intrigued by the challenge of making an “unlikable” character sympathetic by humanizing them.

My immersion in art makes me attentive to imagery. And I love textiles because of how fibre feels passing through my fingers. The act of weaving — feet pounding on treadles, heddles clanking up and down, shuttles flying back and forth — establishes a noisy whole-body rhythm. Each type of yarn, plant or animal, has its own smell.

Ultimately, in art or writing, I try to make the disparate pieces coalesce into a satisfying whole.

What non-writing jobs have you done/ do you still do?

In college, I worked summers at an office and a bank. In graduate school, I was a research assistant and a teaching fellow. After I got the MFA, I changed my schedule at the nonprofit to four, 10-hour days, and used the fifth weekday (and weekends) to make art. I exhibited my work in dozens of shows, and sold several large pieces to corporate clients. Later, when I began writing, I kept the same schedule and shifted some hours from creating at the loom to the keyboard.

I’m also a firm believer in (unpaid) community service. In high school, I was a Junior Red Cross volunteer. In college, I was active in the civil rights movement and tutored youth from low-income families. I currently serve on the board of my Jewish community centre.

You have four novels and a solid catalogue of short stories. What makes an Ann S Epstein work?

My work is character driven, both inner and relational, but I’m also attentive to plot as the driver of each character’s arc. The people I write about might be called underdogs or outsiders, those who are discriminated against because of poverty, religion, race or ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, handicap or other otherness.

My characters come from diverse backgrounds (gender, religion, race and ethnicity, countries) and ages (very young to very old). I favour ambiguity over tidy endings; I want readers to keep writing the story in their own heads. I’m not a nihilist or pessimist, but I accept that people are flawed. Yet I believe that hope is a renewable resource.  Many of my works are historical.

Any signature periods or settings?

They are set in the years from before WWI to after WWII, but bear messages for today. The novels often span several decades so that parts are more contemporary. I love researching the periods I write about, but my emphasis is on fiction, not history. Other than being a stickler for certain details (I abhor anachronisms), I invent people and events as long as they’re consistent with the time, place, and culture I’m writing about. I’m delighted, after finishing a manuscript, if I can no longer remember what is real and what I invented.

On your website you have a quote about Susan Sontag. To paraphrase: becoming a writer is a long process of apprenticeship and failure. You comment that you find this reassuring as you look at your own evolution as a writer. I can certainly identify with that. The first novel of my own that I published (after I was a ghostwriter) was a book I’d been incubating for about 18 years. I sent it to publishers and agents, who were encouraging, but really I was trying to write something I wasn’t ready for. Eventually I wrote that novel properly, and it taught me to be the writer I am now. So that’s what ‘apprenticeship’ looked like for me – and of course apprenticeship never ends. What did apprenticeship look like for you?

In the two decades I’ve been writing fiction, perhaps the greatest change was having the courage to write about things that were NOT part of my own experience. My early stories were inspired by the people and events that populated my childhood. However, I quickly learned the freedom of writing from my imagination, not my memories, although I’ll draw on the latter to add details.

Not having formally studied creative writing, my apprenticeship has meant incrementally mastering the craft, including how to write dialogue, where to start a story (endings are easier for me; beginnings are harder to nail), and when to kill my darlings. Like every writer, I’ve learned the importance of (re, re, re) revision.

Me too. I’m a total reviser. Revision is where I do my most creative work.

I also read differently than before I began to write. I’m not overly analytical (that would drain the pleasure), but I’m more aware of the mastery behind a passage that makes me stop in admiration, awe, and (I admit) an appreciative twinge of envy.

How did you end up at Vine Leaves Press?

In December 2015, I saw a call for submissions in Poets & Writers and sent a query for On the Shore. Two months later VLP requested the full manuscript and the following month they wrote that they wanted to publish the novel and included an amazing review by Peter Snell.

The bookseller Peter Snell! We’re good friends! I might even have introduced him to VLP/ (BTW, I feel I should mention our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer…)

Peter has also given the go-ahead to my two other VLP books, Tazia and Gemma and now The Great Stork Derby. Pending the response to this third book, VLP has also accepted a fourth. So, I’m among those fortunate authors who can laud and thank Peter for being our gateway to VLP publication.

An unexpected benefit has been joining the international VLP community. Not only do its members connect with a group of talented writers and staff, we support one another through every stage of the publication process, and cheer our individual and collective achievements in the literary world at large. I’m in awe of what Jessica Bell has created and continues to innovate and build upon.

Amen to that. And here’s an interview with Jessica herself.

Ann, tell me about your latest release, The Great Stork Derby.

Based on a bizarre but real event in Canadian history, The Great Stork Derby begins with a husband pressuring his wife to have babies to win a large cash prize. In 1926, an eccentric millionaire leaves most of his estate to the Toronto woman who has the most babies in the 10 years following his death. Emm Benbow convinces his wife, Izora, to enter the contest. His ambition becomes an obsession and Emm ends up disappointed by his large family and alienated from his children. Fifty years later, and now a widower, Emm is told by his doctor that he can no longer live alone. He can either go to a dreaded old age home, or move in with one of his disaffected offspring. The novel follows Emm as he tries living in turn with each of his adult children and attempts to learn that the true value of fatherhood is not measured in big prizes, but in small rewards.

That’s quite a concept.

The idea came when I stumbled on this weird event. As often happens with me, I knew there was a story, but the question was “What?” Or more accurately, “Whose?”

To find the heart of a story, I must first decide whose point of view to tell it from. An idea may incubate for years before that “aha” moment. My original short story covered the 10 years of the stork derby itself, written from the wife’s perspective. When I envisioned the novel, I knew it had to be from the husband’s viewpoint. As I said, I love the challenge of turning an unlikeable character into a sympathetic figure and Emm put me, and I hope readers, to the test.

The period from 1926 to 1976 was also fascinating to research. It encompassed the Depression, WWII, post-war boom, and emergence of the women’s and gay rights movements. So, another challenge was imagining how these societal developments affected the development of the Benbow parents and siblings. I had lots of threads to interweave in this book.

You’ve also written memoir essays. Has your memoir informed your work in fiction?

Both memoir and fiction involve storytelling. Character drives both. And creative nonfiction employs the structure and rhythm of fiction, that is, character(s) follow an arc or trajectory. They have desires, face setbacks, make discoveries, and either evolve or fail to change.

How do you think creativity operates in non-fiction if it must be based on fact?

I think of fiction as construction and memoir as reconstruction. Both mix fact and fiction. Fiction has elements of fact (such as details of time and place, the truth of human nature). And memoir is not strictly factual, but rather an honest attempt at recall. Writers and readers of memoir sign a contract in which they agree to accept that the events and people are described ‘as best remembered’.

To me, what makes memoir interesting is not a mere recitation of what happened, but the writer’s reflection and analysis. Unearthing what lies below the surface, letting the mind play with the message underlying the facts, makes the piece creative. And meaningful — to write, and to read.

Do you teach writing in any form?

For many years, I taught workshops on grant-writing, which I was very successful at; I brought in millions of dollars (public and private) for the nonprofit I worked for. The people who attended my workshops tended to be from small agencies in search of operational funds so they could serve their target audiences: children and families from low-income, minority or immigrant backgrounds.

I taught by putting students in the position of the people deciding who to grant the money to. I distributed five sample proposals that I had written, each with strengths and weaknesses, then had them debate who to grant the award(s) to. They learned from sitting on the other side of the table. I see this method as analogous to my saying we learn as much from critiquing others’ work as we do from getting feedback on our own.

You seem prolific as a short story writer. What’s your working routine like?

I don’t have a routine in the sense of sitting from X to Y o’clock at the computer, or producing a minimum number of words a day. That said, I write — or do writing tasks such as submissions or critiquing — pretty much every day, including weekends. Quite simply, I like to work! I’m an early riser, so I get an early start. I’ll usually knock off mid- to late afternoon to work in the yard, go for a walk or read. Around 5:00 PM, I head two blocks east for my daily playdate with my grandsons, aged nine and five. I keep paper and pencil handy during dinner (also at my bedside) to jot down thoughts that pop up. I think a writer’s mind never stops churning.

I mentioned I’m short. My work space where my laptop sits is an old oak kindergarten table (with child-size chairs) and I’m writing by hand at a child’s roll top desk (also antique).

Do you have any tips for submitting to literary publications?

Perseverance! You never know when something you’ve written will resonate with a reader or editor. I’ve submitted some stories dozens of times before they found a home. That said, don’t submit blindly. Learn what type of work each journal publishes and if/when you have a piece that fits (or are inspired to write one), send it in. And every time you get a response that says “Your submission wasn’t the right fit this time, but we’d love to read more,” take heart. I keep a folder labelled “Encouraging rejections.”

What question about writing do you find hardest to answer?

‘Where do your ideas originate?’ Occasionally I can trace when something I read or heard ignited a spark, but the path to the endpoint is too circuitous to pinpoint the exact source. As I craft each character or scene, I often ask myself, ‘Where on earth did that come from?’

No wonder the Greeks invented muses. Dipping into the creative well is like dunking a bucket blindly and seeing what you pull up. Thank goodness, my bucket has never come up empty.

An easy question, often asked by new writers, is how to go about writing. Should one write every day? If so, how many words? Is it best to knock out a first draft and revise it later? Should one make an outline or follow wherever the writing leads?

My answer is that there are no ‘shoulds’. My colleagues each employ a different method that suits them. So, I say, experiment and find what works for you.

Also on your website is another quote I love – from a personal essay by Peter Schjeldahl, which (in your words) ‘captures the “Did I really write that?” sensation. Writing is a present/absent process. One is at once fully immersed in the act, yet also removed to another plane’. Now you’re leaving The Great Stork Derby behind, what are your feelings? Do you want to linger with the characters and world?

My characters never leave me. Once I enter their world, I continue to occupy it. I think that’s why those with whom I’ve become deeply embedded migrate from a story to a novel. (And why they were great company during my solitary pandemic lockdown.)

However, once I complete a novel, while I may stop in to say ‘Hi’, I rarely linger. Recently, though, I pondered writing a prequel to a book I finished not long ago. The completed novel, which follows the seesawing friendship of two women from their teens to their 70s, touches on their traumatic childhoods as WWII orphans and I’d love to explore those early years in depth. The Great Stork Derby has a large cast of intriguing characters.  Maybe someday, I’ll write about Emm’s death and the continuing lives of his many children over the next 50 years.

Find The Great Stork Derby here. Find Ann at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @asewovenwords

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – novelist and award-winning short story writer Annalisa Crawford @AnnalisaCrawf

How do you end up as a writer? Some people train through formal courses; others work away in answer to an inner calling, then one day they have short stories that do well in competitions, and longer works that get offers from publishers. Today I’m talking to Annalisa Crawford, whose latest release is a novel, Small Forgotten Moments. We talk about this – and many other moments between those self-started beginnings, and now.  

Roz Where did your writing journey start?

Annalisa I’ve always had a very active imagination. My daydreams often featured my younger sister being abducted and me having to tell my teachers at school, or my parents disappearing into thin air in front of me. When I was very young, I was scared I’d make these terrible things happen just by thinking about them, so I started to write them down and make other people’s sisters get kidnapped.

Roz Were your parents creative artists of any kind or are you the outlier in the family?

Annalisa None of my family are artistic at all. My mum and dad were very practical people – they wanted me to have a trade or a skill (like touch-typing, which I never mastered). But despite not really understanding why I always wandered around in a daze, they were very supportive, especially when I started to submit short stories and they could see how serious I was.

Roz And you’ve done really well with that. Third place in the Costa Short Story Award 2015, a longlisting for both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Bath Short Story Award in 2018. That looks like the Midas touch, but I’m guessing that rejection is a large part of that journey…

Annalisa If you cast enough stones, one of them is bound to hit the target. Rejection is a huge part of the process of learning how to write, in my opinion. You have to suffer the pain to appreciate the joy.

I used to save all my rejection letters – I possibly still have them – because I was submitting at a time when editors sent personalised responses and they were so uplifting and encouraging. The judge of one competition I entered monthly was brilliant for my confidence. One of my favourite comments from him was: ‘Your writing is so good you really deserve to win more frequently.’ It bolstered me and made me try harder because I wanted to impress him.

I’m very proud of the competitions you’ve mentioned. The Costa Award was amazing because I got to go to the London Costa Book Award ceremony that year. The short story award wasn’t televised though, much to my disappointment, but I got to mix with quite a few celebrities. I was too nervous to fully enjoy it, but it gave me a taste of what I’d like to aim for in the future. A nice Costa Book Award win would suit me nicely.

Roz Let’s talk about your novellas, published by Vagabondage Press. How did you end up there?

Annalisa Back in 2011, ebooks were just starting to become a ‘thing’, although I don’t think people knew how big they would get. I had a novella called Cat & The Dreamer which was too long for literary journals and too short to be a real book, so I’d pretty much given up on it ever being published.

I found Vagabondage via Writers’ News – a tiny little article in the sidebar – and I sent it on a whim. I remember thinking I just wanted someone to read it before I shelved it forever. And they accepted it, which was incredible. It came at a time when I was starting to waver in my belief that I would ever get off the starting blocks.

Roz Vine Leaves Press have published a short story collection from you and your two novels. How did you find them?

Annalisa I’d already come across Jessica Bell, who started Vine Leaves Press, and was friends with her on Facebook – I think that must have been through my blog. I saw her mention the annual Vine Leaves vignette competition. I was between projects, so I spent a couple of months writing whatever came into my head. I chose a beautiful notebook from my extensive collection, and each story had its own page. When I ran out of words, I started a new page and a new story. I gave myself no pressure, and I really enjoyed it. That notebook is safely tucked away; it’s surprising how many of the stories remained true to their original concept without much editing at all.

Sadly the collection didn’t win the competition, but Jessica asked if I would consider Vine Leaves anyway. She asked me to add a few longer stories, which I was able to redraft from ones which already existed, as well as the Costa winning one, and off it went into the world.

(Note from Roz: that collection is You. I. Us – and Annalisa wrote about it for my series The Undercover Soundtrack.)

Roz It seems only a short time since you published your first novel Grace & Serenity. Are you a fast writer or did you have several books on the go at once?

Annalisa Yes, they’re just 14 months apart, and it’s probably the quickest I’ll ever publish two books. I’m still not sure how it happened. I don’t remember working on them in tandem, but there must have been a rest-redraft movement happening.

Both Grace & Serenity and Small Forgotten Moments were old novels that I couldn’t let go, so I wasn’t writing either of them from scratch. The basics of the stories were there and I cannibalised them. I took a black marker pen and crossed out everything that didn’t work – whole chapters were obliterated, sub-plots carved up, characters deleted. It was harsh but necessary. I think my theory was, if I got to the end and there was nothing left, I’d have to move on to something new.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t plan my novels so there are times when I hit the third or fourth draft before I realise what the story is. That was definitely the case with both of these books. I’m trying so hard to plan a new novel, but at the moment it’s just a series of images and concepts in my head.

Roz What are the defining qualities of an Annalisa Crawford book? Any particular themes and curiosities?

Annalisa Oh, what a great question. I have no idea. I never think in terms of themes, I simply tell a story that I’m fascinated by. I like to delve into the inner psyche of a person and force them to tell me why they are the person they are.

Strong mother-type characters tend to feature, and most of my characters are running away from something, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Roz Tell me about Small Forgotten Moments. Where did it come from?

Annalisa As I mentioned earlier, Moments was initially a very different story. It still centred around an artist called Jo and her painting (Zenna) which came to life, however the painting in the original story was based on a convoluted myth I made up. There was a dead boyfriend, a mafia-esque type connection, a stalker… I threw so much into this poor novel that it didn’t work at all. Embarrassingly, it earned a full request from an agent who quickly realised her mistake.

I printed it out and slashed it to pieces with my black marker pen. Some chapters had a single line left, others had nothing at all. In the original story, the painting was almost a subplot, so I knew I wanted to make it central this time and then I had to ask myself who Zenna was. And when I knew that, I had to ask why she was so important to Jo now. Then it got taped back together and the hard work started.

Roz What’s the significance of the title?

Annalisa Small Forgotten Moments refers to the amnesia Jo suffers from and the gaps which are never filled. It refers to all those little asides in our life we take for granted. Even though there are some very big things she’s forgotten, it’s the little things which really affect her.

Roz How do you recharge?

Annalisa Walking with my dog (and muse) Artoo and coffee with friends are both great ways to recharge. The views from my town are stunning, even from the balcony of my local bookshop where I stop for a scone and cup of tea.

Roz What do you most like to read?

Annalisa Reading is probably the best way for me to relax. I’ve heard other authors say they read with their editing head on, but I can quite happily read as a reader. I go for quirky covers or titles, or in the case of a novel recently because one chapter was half a page long, and I write short chapters too.

I have a couple of favourite authors whose books I anticipate, but on the whole the author isn’t hugely important to me.

Roz I happen to know from Facebook that you’re also a fitness instructor. Quite a difference from, if I may say it, sitting on your glutes dreaming into the keyboard. How did you end up with two such opposite professions?

Annalisa I came to exercise quite late – I was rubbish at sports at school (still am, actually – hand/eye coordination is not my forte) and there are only so many times you can be chosen last for a team sport before you give up trying. But I read a lot of exercise magazines and was drawn to the idea of lifting weights. It was only when I had my first baby and was still wearing maternity clothes when I returned to work that I decided to join the gym.

I enjoyed it, lost weight, saw a difference, and something clicked – I knew I wanted to share my love of working out. So, I retrained and luckily got some casual hours in the same gym where I was a member, which led to a permanent position.

Roz Do you find the two professions fit together?

Annalisa It’s a great way to switch off and really focus on my body.

Roz I find that with horse-riding. It’s ideal for clearing your mind (otherwise you find yourself dangling in a hedge).

Annalisa As a non-horse rider, I kind of assumed you could just let the horse do its thing and leave you to daydream… Obviously not! Weight lifting is much like horse-riding in that respect – you have to be very present because things can go wrong quickly if you lose concentration. And, obviously, sitting at a desk for hours is not good. I’m a compulsive writer when I’m in the middle of a project, so I could easily sit down before breakfast and not move until bedtime if I didn’t have anything else to do.

Roz Me too. On days when I’m not riding, my husband (Dave) has to send me nagging emails and Facebook messages telling me to take screen breaks. But I also run, and I find it puts me in an impatient and determined frame of mind, which helps me with certain kinds of plot problem-solving.

Do you have any other professions under your belt, present or past?

Annalisa In my head, writing was always my career, so I didn’t need another profession. I accidentally got a job in a college library and stayed there for 15 years, then I moved to the gym. I found a two-week intensive course to train as an instructor; if it had been a year or more  of studying, I might have talked myself out of it. In a different world, I’d quite like to have been an architect. I loved technical drawing at school – I think I was one of the last year groups to be taught it as a separate subject – but my maths would have let me down.

Roz How has your lockdown been?

Annalisa Lockdown has been a mixed blessing for me. On the one side, Grace & Serenity was published at the tail end of the first UK lockdown which meant some events didn’t happen, such as some in-person signings at my local bookshop, but those are definitely happening this year for Small Forgotten Moments. With Grace & Serenity I wasn’t quite sure how to use Zoom etc for online events, but I’m planning them for Small Forgotten Moments.

However, on the other side, the emergence of online literary festivals meant I saw a lot of events I would have struggled to attend in real life. I saw quite a few of the Hay and Cheltenham Festival.

I was furloughed from my job which meant I could really dive into the edits of Small Forgotten Moments. I was asked to make a couple of changes before I sent it to the developmental editor, so I took the opportunity to take one last sweep through the whole novel and found a lot of little changes I wanted to make. Without the time my furlough allowed, I think the novel wouldn’t have been quite so strong.

Roz Do you think the lockdown will work its way into your future books?

Annalisa I can’t currently imagine how I could write about the lockdown in a new and interesting way. It’s all still so polarising, half my readership would hate it.

However, the book I’m working on at the moment is based on a short story I wrote many years ago which in turn was based on something that actually happened to me. At the beginning of the story a woman wakes up and her town is deserted – no people, animals, birds, not even a breeze.

During the first lockdown, my town really stepped up and the roads really were that empty. Did you notice that where you are?

Roz I did. I noticed the quiet. I live in a London suburb, and most of the residents work in the centre of town. When lockdown started, I had a sense that the houses around me had never been so full of people, 24 hours a day, and that we were all in the same bewildered muddle, wondering how to get normality with these new rules. It was silent, yes, and a silence beyond the cessation of the aeroplanes or the normal commuting traffic. It was a pause of life. Anyway, you were saying… the emptiness…

Annalisa Experiencing it really gave me an insight into the range of emotions my character would be feeling, how it seemed to lay down on me as I walked around. Shut-up shops in the middle of the day were a lot more eerie than I imagined they would be.

Roz Is there a question you wish somebody would ask in an interview?

Annalisa Oh goodness, great question, and yet my mind has gone blank. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked what happens to my characters after the story has finished.

Roz You’ve never been asked that? I get asked that all the time! So I’m asking it of you now… what will you say?

Annalisa I’d worm my way out of answering, if I’m being honest. I love ambiguous endings. Not completely open, but with enough information for the reader to see two or more paths. It’s a trait I utilised when I was writing short stories and can’t quite shake off.

Find Small Forgotten Moments here. Find Annalisa at her website, on Facebook, on her blog and on Twitter @annalisacrawf

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – writing coach, novelist and memoirist Gina Troisi @Troisi_Gina

How do you get a career working with words? We all find our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their life and now have a distinguished publishing reputation. Today: Gina Troisi, who has award nominations, writer-in-residence posts and is now about to release a memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, with Vine Leaves Press.

Roz Tell me how you got here.

Gina I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade—it sounds cliché, but I clearly remember learning the writing process in the classroom, and becoming fascinated with it. I grew up writing furiously in journals, crafting stories and poems; it was a creative outlet I desperately needed, but I barely showed my work to anyone. I had very little confidence.

As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature, and after college, there was a stretch of years where I took writing classes out of a local woman’s home. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, but these classes offered me the best kind of solace. It was this fabulous teacher, Nancy Eichhorn, who suggested I apply for an MFA, and encouraged me to submit my work for publication. I began working on my MFA in 2007, and I spent that time focusing on craft and technique; I immersed myself in the act of becoming a better writer. When I completed my MFA in 2009, I began to send my work out for publication.

Roz Your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, is about your troubled childhood. Were there many steps before you felt able to show the manuscript?

Gina Oh yes!

Roz How many incarnations did it go through?

Gina In some ways, I’d been writing about the themes my entire life—about my childhood, about recklessness and the act of numbing oneself, and about the search for identity and belonging.

I’d been writing about those themes my entire life… my childhood, recklessness, the act of numbing oneself… the search for identity and belonging

Gina Troisi

Roz When I’ve worked with memoirists, it’s a long struggle to find the wisdom and insight to give readers a meaningful experience.

Gina I think writing memoir takes a great level of self-awareness. We need to get to a place personally where we understand ourselves—our actions and our decisions, our patterns, and the ways in which we’ve been shaped.

I remember hearing the author Joyce Maynard say that in order to write a memoir you have to “let the ashes cool.”

Roz “Let the ashes cool…” I love this.

Gina It takes time to process the moments that have made up our lives, and to gain an honest perspective. I had to reach a point where the “I” in my book was just another character.

Roz Also, we change.

Gina We encounter so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives. 

Roz Yes, and we might not realise unless we write about a time when we were much younger, or under great strain. I see it in my old notebooks, the things that upset or amused me ten years ago, twenty years ago. I recognise where the feelings came from, but I would not react that way now. And then other things are exactly the same, they never change.

The Angle of Flickering Light has been commended in several awards over the years, as far back as 2012. Tell me about its gestation.

Gina The book originated when I was in graduate school. My intent was not to write a book-length work. But I found that I was generating stand-alone essays with recurring themes and characters.

I originally presented the book as a collection of essays back in 2012, and I began sending it to agents and small presses. In 2013, I received interest from a small press, but the editor wanted major structural changes, and to morph it from an essay collection into a memoir. I dove deeply into that revision, but the press decided to pass. So I found myself with two versions of the book, and by this point, I wasn’t sure which was the more structurally sound. I took a break to focus on other projects, but continued to send the original version out to contests. At the end of 2018, I returned to the memoir with fresh eyes, and I spent about seven months reworking it.

A couple of authors from my graduate program, Penny Guisinger and Alexis Paige, had both published books with Vine Leaves Press. I read and loved both of their books, which led me to other VLP titles. The writing was exceptional, and Jessica Bell’s covers are amazing. I decided to submit, and to my great delight, they accepted the memoir.

Roz Inevitably a memoir will involve real people. How did you handle this?

Gina I changed many names and places. I also omitted details and characters, and sometimes merged and compressed events and moments. Every choice I made was to either protect the privacy of others, or for the sake of narrative clarity.

Roz Tell me about that beautiful title.

Gina The original title was Shadows on the Sidewalks, which is a title of one of the chapters. The chapter focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is struggling with heroin addiction. But while much of this book is about wandering and restlessness, about movement and motion, I didn’t want the title to indicate that the relationship in that chapter was the focal point of the book. It’s actually about the narrator’s relationship with herself.

The Angle of Flickering Light is a line from an intimate moment in the narrative, and I like that it’s an image, but also speaks to the idea of finding flickers of light in darkness. The book is largely about hope and resilience, and about searching for light within, rather than outside of oneself.

The book is largely about hope and resilience… searching for light within oneself

Gina Troisi

Roz Yes, it works well. As you say, the title is the reader’s lens for the whole book. The Angle of Flickering Light is also mysterious, alluring. It beckons you in.

Let’s talk about the structure you used for The Angle of Flickering Light.

Gina Structuring this memoir was the most challenging part of the process, particularly because it covers such a wide range of years. When I returned to the book in 2018, my main goal was to find and thread the narrative throughline more tightly in order to clarify and highlight the heart of the story.

Roz I love that moment – when I finally grasp the emotional purpose of the book I’m writing. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m always looking for it. That’s when I understand what to do with my material.

Gina Once I found the prominent thread, I attempted to tailor each chapter to illuminate it, and it enabled me to veer off into the past or the future as I saw fit—to move around in time more freely.

Roz Moving on, you’ve been widely published in literary magazines. Was it all leading towards this memoir?

Gina I think a lot of it was, yes. But there are also themes and subjects that tend to enter my work often, no matter what genre I am working in. Some of these are addiction and perseverance and mortality.

Much of my work explores the ways in which we survive. And I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people—in the way we connect with one another in raw and authentic ways.

Roz Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?

Gina Oh gosh, there are so many. Joan Didion, Andre Dubus II, and Alice Munro are a few of my heroes. Jeanette Winterson. Lynda Hull, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver for poetry. How about you?

Roz Many, many many. From your list, Joan Didion is a favourite. Also Hilary Mantel for the way she explores the humanity of historical moments. Ann Patchett for her sweeping sense of romance, even though she does not write romances, if you see what I mean. Taylor Jenkins-Reid for sass. Janet Fitch for rawness – read her and she seems to take your skin off. Meg Wolitzer too. I’ve just read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, very slowly. Not because it was difficult, but because I wanted to savour every moment.

You’ve studied for an MFA and also taken a writer in residence post. What did these experiences give you? Methods, routines, anything else?

Gina My MFA was a low-residency program, so I attended seminars and workshops two times a year for ten days at a time, while the rest of the year I worked one-on-one with mentors, and met monthly deadlines. This schedule taught me how to incorporate writing into my real life—to prioritize it over almost everything else, and to integrate it into my world despite my work schedule or personal relationships.

Roz This is so wise! I remember when that happened to me. I found myself among people who always had a book on the go, or maybe more than one. I had tried various creative pursuits, but had missed the essential lesson – how to make an art the centre of my life, which was what I needed. I suddenly felt at home.  

Gina The writer-in-residence post gave me the beautiful gift of time, and also allowed me to work with some wonderful creative writing students. Both experiences offered me inspiration, stimulation, and purpose.

Roz You’re a writing coach as well as an author. How do you protect your creative energy while also giving your best to students?

Gina I love working with students, and I find it feeds and nurtures me creatively. It’s such meaningful work. I am doing it less and less since I started my day job at an educational assessment company a few years back because in order to protect my writing time, I often have to say no when I’d like to say yes.

Roz You wrote a terrific post about this on Ian Rogers’s blog, But I Also Have A Day Job  In it you describe so well the artistic lifestyle – the freedom to wander, the patchwork of randomly acquired jobs that let you make writing the centre of your life. But you found it all had a price.

Gina For many years, I resisted the idea of a full-time job because I was terrified it wouldn’t allow me enough time to write. So I juggled part-time jobs with various schedules: I tended bar, I ran a writing center at a community college, I taught and tutored. I ate meals in the car while driving from job to job. I had no health insurance, barely any savings, and no money put aside for retirement. One day I added up how many hours I was working, and I found that I was working at least 40 hours a week, but without any of the benefits, like paid days off and holidays. And I thought, how did this happen? I decided it was time to reassess what I was actually resisting, and to try a new approach.

Roz How do you unwind?

Gina Hiking in the woods, visiting the ocean, listening to live music. And of course, reading. There are also times when I collapse on the couch and give in to Netflix.

Roz What are you working on now?

Gina I am working on two novels-in-stories. One of the collections revolves around a particular restaurant in a small New Hampshire mill town. It explores economic and class issues, and consists of a cast of characters who thread a larger narrative about the way it’s possible to find and form surrogate families.

The other collection takes place in a coastal Massachusetts town, and is focused on the lives of a married couple who lose their only child in a tragic car accident just after he turns eighteen. It poses questions about parenthood and loss and perseverance, and it sifts through what ultimately sustains us during times when it seems that nothing will.

Roz Profound questions. Do they have working titles?

Gina The working title for the restaurant collection is called Then You Were Gone, and the other collection is called What Remains.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Gina I find that most of what I have learned about writing aligns with what I have learned about living. That being said, I think the most important trait for a writer is perseverance. Discipline is a close second, but it is essential that we are able to handle rejection. I tell my students that the difference between those who publish and those who don’t is the refusal to give up, and I deeply believe that.

You can tweet Gina @Troisi_Gina, find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website. The Angle of Flickering Light is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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