A quick interview at the online home of book blogger Jo Barton, aka Jaffareadstoo. The questions are lighthearted, but they raise interesting issues about reading.
Writers and book bloggers have something in common – a TBR pile that’s neverending. We’re reading to keep up with recent releases. We’re reading as research. We’re reading to help our friends. And we’re reading a lot – an awful lot – to do our jobs. When do we read for ourselves?
Do you have a rule that if you start a book, you finish it? I used to. It was a habit instilled at school – abandoning a book was bad manners. I almost felt the author would know I’d sneaked out before they’d said their piece. I remember there was a moment when I decided I had to let go of that rule or I’d never get everything read that I had to. And I’m a slow reader. I like to appreciate a book, not bolt it. That raises another question – if reading is our job, do we still allow ourselves to read for pleasure? I know plenty of people in publishing who have lost their joy of the written word.
In this episode we’re spanning the entire spectrum of the book-reader continuum. What makes a good writing group? What makes a good reading group or book club? How do you organise such a group? How do you find a group that suits you? Should authors visit book groups or does it cramp everyone’s style? We have the answers!
It’s always a struggle to find time to write. If you’ve got a book in progress, it’s tempting to spend all your free moments on it. But don’t sacrifice time that you would usually spend reading. It’s a false economy.
Similarly, don’t fear that your reading is going to influence your work to a detrimental extent, or that you might end up copying ideas. The chances are you won’t. Your book is much bigger in your mind than anything you read, or watch, or any conversation you overhear. Any influence will be minor by comparison with the huge amount of work you’ve already done.
But if you stop reading while you write your book you might lose touch with the way prose tells stories, and you won’t be using your ideas to their maximum potential. We do many things on instinct, and those instincts are learned unconciously. Reading feeds our muse and our technique.
Today I’m at the wonderful Writers Helping Writers site, run by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Emotion Thesaurus fame. They’ve devised a series of writing lectures this year and have invited various coaches to be regular contributors, and I’m honoured to be on their list (note that nice award they have from Writer’s Digest). And because I wrote the piece as the year was turning, my mind was operating in resolution mode. If I was to identify a change that I’d urge writers to make, what should it be? Many of my author clients would do their work a world of good by reading more, but it’s job to persuade them. So here’s my persuasion. Do hop over.
You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.
Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).
That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?
Books are interior
A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.
This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.
Characters and reality
Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.
For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:
He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’
The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:
Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’
Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:
He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’
How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?
I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.
The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.
Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.
Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’
A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.
Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.
And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.
I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstormsso we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.
Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.
Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.
You really know you’re in a world wide web when an email arrives from a journalist on a newspaper in Malaysia. Elizabeth Tai contacted me for a series she was writing called reading revolutions. She’d seen that I had originally released my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, as a four-part serial on Kindle, and wanted to ask me how that worked and why I did it. We talk about pros, cons, cautions – and tips I’d give to anyone considering doing the same. Come on over…
And in the meantime, tell me: where’s the furthest-flung place you’ve had a surprise email from about your work?
What novels can you recommend about having the courage to be an individual?
My MC in Life Form 3 is the odd one out. He is in a regimented world that crushes originality. He begins to get an inkling that there is something much better than his monotonous life.
Life Form 3 is the story of his fight to come alive.
(Forgive the vagueness, but I’m keeping the lower-case about under my hat until I’ve got a draft that’s mature. And if those precocious italics are all Greek to you, my previous post explains all.)
Anyway, I’m trying to read as much as possible that tackles these questions – whether YA, MG or adult fiction. I’m particularly interested in stories that show a boring, grinding world without putting the reader into a coma.
And so I throw the floor open – can you help me build my Life Form 3 reading list? What novels would you recommend?
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.
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.
I’ve had this interesting question on an email. It’s several questions, actually, and it raises points that I’ve seen many writers struggle with. To sum up, it’s this:
I’m hoping you can help me understand what it takes to make a career out of writing and whether it suits me.
Okay! Buckle in, chaps. Here’s the full version.
I recently began wondering if I’m more of a hobbyist as a writer. I’m a short story/novella writer, wrote a lot of stories when I was young, and over the last several years began to think about writing to publish. I’ve had a lot of trouble with that— I’ve always suspected my stories are too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. I like the freedom in self-publishing, but I hate the idea of marketing.
This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but if you don’t market your work, nobody will know it exists. It’s that simple.
And you will do the bulk of the marketing yourself, whether you self-publish or get a deal with a publisher. A publisher will market your book for a brief period while it launches, then they’ll probably stop, but the book will still be a piece of your heart and you’ll still want it to have the darndest best chance possible. And even while the publisher is pushing it, they’ll expect you to do a lot of marketing alongside theirs.
So if your work is to be read by others, marketing is unavoidable.
I simply don’t know that I could build a steady platform, as I have little interest in social media.
Social media are great, but they’re not the only tool for marketing. You can market your books by advertising – on Amazon and Facebook, and in paid newsletters.
But let’s talk about social media and websites. These are not necessarily a way to directly sell copies of your book. What they do is this – they make you more tangible to readers. You are more findable if somebody googles you. Even if you only have a placeholder description on Facebook or Twitter or wherever, it can direct readers to your website or to a platform you do actually use. Meanwhile the reader has learned you’re real, you are the person who wrote that book. Or those books.
A website is a necessity, I feel, to show readers what you’re about. It’s your home base. Social media platforms are places you can go to meet people. Ideally, you need both.
Yes, all this internet networking is time consuming. But it can also be fun and rewarding.
It has bonuses you may not have thought of. On social media you’ll meet other authors who’ll help you out with unexpected opportunities. And if you’re a shy person, as most writers are, social media make networking a doddle. In the old days, you built your professional network by going to writing groups or launch parties and hoping you’d get talking to someone useful. Or hoping you’d pluck up the courage to talk at all (that’s me). On social media, you can check somebody out before you talk to them, and there are no awkward silences. You just type.
But I’ve also started losing interest in writing, after I began studying story structure and outlining. It really threw me off balance and I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods.
Is your muse killed by any sort of analysis? Some people do feel this.
Some authors write a spontaneous draft and edit heavily, thinking about structure and arcs once they’ve created the book as a free-flowing spirit.
But here’s a point – people who are aiming to write to a publishable standard will usually need to study craft. Although there’s loads you can learn with no outside input, you’ll have blind spots. Many of these are techniques and mechanisms you were never aware of – and with good reason, because they are not meant to be noticed by the reader. Structure is one of them.
And actually, when we discuss structure or any other point of craft, we’re actually seeking control of our work – to understand how we’re affecting the reader.
If you’ll allow me, I’ll quote from the introduction to my plot book –
‘When I talk about structure or form, I’m striving for tragedy, doom, comedy, romance, complexity, sadness, wonder… I’m interested in what does this and how.’
I do understand that analysis can seem to be deadening. But to people like me, it is also exciting and fascinating.
‘It really threw me off balance… I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods…’
New methods do! I wrote about this a while ago – the three ages of becoming a writer. Stage 1 is easy, intuitive, natural. Stage 2, you feel you’re doing it all wrong, you don’t sound like yourself and the joy has gone. Stage 3, it begins to fall into place. You don’t think about rules, you write with a new awareness, an enhanced intuition.
So you might not be failing at all. You might be in Stage 2, looking for Stage 3.
I question the idea of publishing often, thinking about the effort and whether I have the motivation and drive to actually see my stories through to publication (whether self or traditional).
Some authors take their time to complete a book. I’m one of them! You’ll find numerous posts about that on this blog, but here’s a recent one – Seven Steps of a Long-Haul Novel. You can publish as slowly as you want, especially if you self-publish.
However, if you publish frequently, it’s easier to find and keep an audience because you always have new books to offer them. That makes marketing easier (and it’s also why publishers prefer writers who’ll put out a string of similar books). Otherwise, you’ll have to do other things to keep them connected to your creative world and to keep them interested in you. But… social media let you do that. Another method is blogs and newsletters.
As for motivation and drive, if you’re going to be an author, you need a completer-finisher mentality. First, in the creation of the manuscript – all books pose challenges and you need to be doggedly committed to meeting them. It also helps if you love editing your own work. Few novels come out perfect in the first draft. Writing a book is a long game, even if it’s a collection of short pieces. Personally, I relish the process of refining and honing, and I find the book creates its own momentum. I love the process of making it ready for readers, both the writing and the production. It’s creative and positive, with achievements all the way. You might find this too.
I’m wondering if I just like writing as a hobby. In the writing world, there’s always the push to be seen as more than hobbyists (understandably, of course), so I’ve always felt pressure to publish. But I’m wondering if I only ever wrote stories for my own enjoyment, without much need for an audience.
There’s nothing wrong with writing just for you. I recently discussed this in a post How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish – which deals with similar questions. The cost of self-publishing is related to your ambitions and there’s nothing wrong with publishing – or writing – on a modest scale simply because it fills you.
Here’s a parallel from my own life. I have a horse, who I enjoy training. I know a lot of other horse owners, and many of them compete. Some of them think you’re not riding properly if you and your horse don’t have a competitive career. I don’t give two hoots about this. My riding is between me and my horse, having adventures together, enjoying our connection. That might be like your writing – it’s you and the page, doing your thing. A private pleasure that does not have to be measured.
I don’t want to stop writing, but I’m at the point where I need to make a decision on what I want to do. I was hoping you could help me understand what it takes to actually make a career out of writing and whether it actually suits me.
Emily, you’ve already understood the basics, because the questions you’ve asked are spot on. Yes, publishing is a separate undertaking from writing. But before you feel daunted, let’s see if I can help you feel inspired, because some of these elements may not be as bad as you think.
1 Yes, you need professional-level writing skills. It’s usually not possible to reach this standard without studying craft, dissecting how books work and getting professional feedback. But if one way of learning doesn’t suit you, there are hundreds of others, all heading for the same place – increasing your control over your material, and over the reader’s experience.
2 Yes, you need to market your work and yourself as a writer. Many authors, actually, dislike the idea of marketing. Especially the concept of self-promotion, which sounds obnoxious and embarrassing. I find it helps to think of doing your best for your work. Giving it the chance it deserves. You are the finest ambassador for your books – this is particularly true of authors who are, as you said yourself, too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. You might hate the idea of being an ambassador for your work; or you might find this is a liberating idea – you are your work’s embodiment and spokesperson, inviting readers to take a rich journey with you. That’s why we work on any idea – because we feel we’ll make something worth sharing. And this is where point 1 is important. If we’ve done the work on our craft, we know we have something we’re confident to share.
But think. Just because writing can be a career doesn’t mean it has to be. Take my example of horse riding. For me, the pressures of competing would ruin my pleasure. Moreover, there is nothing about competing that I want, even secretly. With my writing, though, I want very much for my work to find a readership, to be counted among other published work, and to build a career and reputation. This matters to me.
I ask you this: if you did not try for a writing career, would you feel you were missing something important that you would like to have? Or would you not feel like you were missing anything at all?
I’ve tried to show you that the issues you raise might not be as bad as you think, but I might well have confirmed the opposite. If so, writing as a personal pleasure is still a mighty fine and worthwhile thing.
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.
RozWhere 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.
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?
AnnalisaSmall 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.
My third novel Ever Rest, has been in the wilds for a few weeks now. It still feels very new to me. I’m still watching its reviews more than I should.
Several reviewers have mentioned they’d like to introduce it to their book clubs, so I’ve created these crib notes, to use as a primer before reading, or a refresher afterwards. I’ve included key themes, suggested questions for discussion, and an interview by Garry Craig Powell at Late Last Night Books where I explain my inspirations and intentions – which, of course, might be entirely irrelevant to your own reading of the book. Spoilers are flagged in case you’d like to avoid them.
The title is more ponderous than I would like. I wanted to call it Sleeve Notes, but Amazon’s rules require the words ‘Study Guide’ in the title, and prominently on the cover. There were other options, but they were even more earnest. So Study Guide it is.
Anyway, it’s formatted as an ebook and a PDF and you can download it free from all the major ebook retailers. Find it here.
PS For more of my creative doings, you might like my newsletter, here