What you can achieve if you try something a little scary… how I became a memoirist and novelist by @expatapple

Apple Gidley has lived all over the world, has taught English, sold SCUBA gear and negotiated British nationals out of jail when she was the British honorary consul in Equatorial Guinea. Her writing is powered by a fierce interest in the history of the many cultures she’s lived in and her latest novel, Have You Eaten Rice Today, brings to life Malaya in the 1950s.

My first question has to be: how do you get someone out of jail?

By getting to the police station before the person had been processed. No one likes paperwork.

The jungle drums worked fast in Malabo. I grew to dread the words ‘Apple, we’ve got a situation’. Charges were invariably trumped up, with the aim of getting a bribe – not something I ever paid. I think it helped that I’m a woman. I smiled a lot. Reminded the jailer-in-charge that it would be a terrible pity for the press in Britain to hear of Mr Smith being jailed for taking photographs of kids playing soccer, because the minister would look bad. It was blarney really, and I never showed how nervous I actually felt. The adrenaline would keep me going until it was all over, then I’d shake.

Maybe that’s why I don’t get anxious facing a roomful of people. Public speaking is not nearly as scary as dealing with one crabby man with a gun.

And that’s how you became a published writer, isn’t it?

A number of years ago I was a keynote speaker at a conference for families in global transition. It seemed to go well, and people suggested I write the stories down. It became my book Expat Life Slice by Slice.

You’ve continued to write, with another memoir collection and several novels. What has helped you become the writer you are now?

Reading. Reading. Reading. All styles, most genres, though I don’t like horror. And eavesdropping, for dialogue.

Who are the important people in your writing life?

My husband. He is a tough but fair critic. I’ve had to learn to listen. And I’m incredibly fortunate to have a group of five trusted people around the world who are my first readers. Also, I run the Writers’ Circle of St Croix in the Virgin Islands and am hugely supported by them.

I have also had fabulous editors, from whom I have learned so much. I don’t think they get enough credit for pushing us to be better.

How do you refill the well?

Fortunately the well hasn’t run dry yet. If I get stuck on something, I’ll walk the dog or weed the garden – anything rather than clean the house. Since I decided to try my hand at writing, I try to write every day. I get pissy when I can’t.

Where is home?

Wherever I happen to be hanging my hat. Currently St Croix. I suppose I’m a chameleon in that I’m adaptable. My life has been peripatetic, both as a child and an adult. I’ve always been up for trying somewhere new, something different. And you don’t know what you can achieve until you try something a little scary. There are a couple of places I would rather not live again but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to experience them.

What jobs have you done besides writing (and jail negotiations)?

When I married and we went abroad, I knew a career wasn’t on the cards. I feel immense gratitude that I was able to be at home, wherever that was, with my children but I also always became involved in the community. And I’ve been fortunate to pick up work in most places, if there weren’t visa restrictions.

I edited a magazine for Cheshire Homes for disabled people (Far Eastern Region) while living in Singapore and Thailand. It was a humbling experience. Any bad day I had paled into nothingness compared with the challenges faced by these disabled people. But that did not stop me haranguing them if they didn’t deliver an article they had promised me. My sticking to deadlines perhaps gave people a sense of normalcy.

I ran my own interior design business in Scotland. I preferred commercial work to residential, where we got tetchy exchanges between spouses. Then I sold SCUBA equipment in Texas. That’s a great leveller. No one looks good with a regulator in their mouth.

You are so right. Consider the Bond movies…

When we knew we were heading to West Africa I took a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in case the chance came along to teach English.

While there I wrote geopolitical reports for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which I enjoyed. I suppose it was there I started to consider writing as a possible job.

Your novels are historical fiction, Fireburn, Transfer and Have You Eaten Rice Today?, which is your most recent. What’s the appeal for you of historical fiction?

History has always fascinated me. I went to boarding school in Australia and I’ve never forgiven them for not allowing me to study both ancient and modern history. Instead I had to choose a science, which didn’t interest me at all. Anyway, for the writer, historical fiction involves diving deep into a period – not just the story events but the back story, the dress, the food, the manners, the way people spoke, the way people moved around. It’s fabulous.

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is an enigma. The title is thoughtful, but the blurb copy describes it as ‘intense, drama driven and suspenseful’. What pulls the two aspects together? 

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is a salutation used throughout Asia – a kind of ‘how’s it going?’ The timeframe of the novel is the early 1950s in Malaya when communists fueled general disgruntlement at the slowness of Britain to grant independence, merdeka. The communist terrorists had camps deep in the jungle where discipline was rigid, discomfort enormous and food scarce. Hunger drove many to surrender. It’s a story of misunderstandings and love in this violent period.

In your memoir collection Crucian Fusion, Essays, Interviews, Stories you mix fact and fiction, which can be tricky as readers usually prefer one or the other. How did you decide what to fictionalise and what to keep as truth? What boundaries about this did you set? How did you bring it all together in one work?

Interesting question! You’re right, people do usually prefer fact or fiction but I wrote Crucian Fusion as a thank you to St Croix, the island that has embraced me.

I’ve been writing the essays since I arrived here in 2013 – a diary of events and day-to-day happenings. Then, because I’m nosey, I wanted to learn people’s stories – and everyone has one – so I made a list of people, some of whom I knew in passing, who I would like to know more about. I ended up with eight conversations, which was such a privilege for me, particularly as one chap I spoke to has since died.

The short stories are pure self-indulgence. Three are historical. One brought to light a little-known piece of Crucian history – indentured labourers were shipped from India in the 1860s, a shortlived experiment that cost a lot in human misery and life.

Across all your books, are there recurrent themes and curiosities?

Actually, curiosity lurks in all my books. Without it I don’t think you can travel well. The meshing of cultures, the crossing of bridges literally and metaphorically. Love, death…. you know, all the usual stuff.

In the book I’m currently working on, dementia is a stream, particularly the effect on the spouse. It was also a theme in Transfer, now I think about it, but not up front. I think to suffer from Alzheimer’s, where you are still aware of life, must be the most Godawful thing for all concerned.

What do you like to read?

Historical fiction, of course! Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, Abraham Verghese, although I guess Cutting for Stone only just scrapes in as historical. All genres really. And absolutely anything by the Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey. I’ve just finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which was terrific.

Also, travel essays – particularly ones that border on philosophical. I love the way Bruce Chatwin wrote – The Anatomy of Restlessness truly spoke to me. As does anything by Pico Iyer – The Global Soul is chockfull of wonderful essays.

What are you working on next?

So here I am touting historical fiction but my WIP is a contemporary novel set in Venice. In my naiveté I believed there would be less research and it would be a faster book to write. Wrong! But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. Another month and it should be ready for beta readers. Maybe.

Some quick and perhaps frivolous questions…

Rice or bread?

With a book titled Have You Eaten Rice Today? and considering a large portion of my life has been spent in Asia – it has to be bread. I’m kidding. Rice.

Early mornings or late nights?

Late nights with a glass of bourbon, or wine.

Planes, boats or wheels?

Oh, that’s not a fair question. Planes, though maybe not so much now. Airlines seem to have gone out of their way to make the experience cramped and harried unless you’re up front. Although the exhilaration as you land somewhere new is still thrilling.

Boats because some of my best holidays have been sailing in the Caribbean or along the Dalmatian coast with our adult kids.

Wheels, because I love to drive. Especially on my own. That sense of freedom when no one knows where you are. When my children were little we lived in Thailand, and my husband was often away, so I’d bundle them into the car and we’d take off. Wonderful adventures before cellphones could track your every move. I miss that sometimes.

And you didn’t ask about trains….

By all means, give me trains.

I really love trains. A sense of distance, really going somewhere and seeing the scenery as you clickety-clack along the tracks. Europe is great for trains. Maybe it’ll be trains that get me back across the Atlantic.

What’s on your desk?

Clutter. But it’s my clutter and I know where everything is.

Find Apple on her website, on Twitter @expatapple, and on Facebook. Find Have You Eaten Rice Today? here.

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

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How to master back story – book now for my mini-course, September 21st

Back story is a vital element of novel and memoir, but tricky to use well. I’ve certainly been reminded of this when commenting on manuscripts at Pop-Up Submissions. Writers often make the mistake of including it right at the beginning, bringing the narrative to a standstill.

But once you learn some tricksy, back story is a versatile and exciting element that will add richness, depth and context… and even plot twists, if you play fair.

That’s why I’m teaching this course at Jane Friedman’s online school on Wednesday September 21st, 1-2.15pm ET, 6-7.15pm BST, but if that time doesn’t suit you, a recording will be available.

The course is for writers of any work that contains a story arc. Although the examples are mainly fiction, the principles also hold for memoir, genre and non-genre. Whatever you write, if you want to sharpen and hone your use of back story, this is for you. (Where have you seen Jane Friedman’s name before? She’s a powerhouse in the writing and publishing world. Also, she hosts my ghostwriting course.)

Follow this link to find out more about my back story course and book a place. Hope to see you there!

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The way we were – self-publishing 2005 and now

Look what we found in the attic.

It’s a self-publishing supplement from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain in New Year 2005.

When this was circulated, I was ghostwriting for Big Six publishers (when they were a Big Six) and hoping to get an agent for my own novel. My writer friends were on the same trajectory.

A book deal was the way – the only way – to get your work into the world. For posterity, for a career.

Self-publishing was a mysterious parallel universe. A few authors had used it to start good careers, but mainly because they got lucky. Maybe with influential reviewers. Maybe an agent bought a copy, as if they didn’t already have enough to read. If you didn’t get that luck, what happened? We never knew.

I think I had an early glimpse of a self-published book that didn’t get lucky. Our local second-hand bookshop had multiple copies of a mysterious grey novel that looked like no novel I’d ever seen before. It had a blank cover with only a title, which was curly, heavily shadowed and unreadable. I now realise it must have been an indie book that someone was desperate to get rid of, but at the time I was intrigued by its oddness. What was it trying to be? There were at least 20 copies and somehow this quantity, and the austere appearance, made the novel look like it knew something I didn’t. I believed that treasure came in odd disguises and I tried reading the first page. Oh dear, the prose was a droning info-dump and impossible to understand. But every time I went into the shop, those copies were still there, grey slabs of print that commanded a look because they were so wrong. Several times, I opened a copy and tried to like it. I wanted it to be a work of wonder and meaning. It wasn’t.

That seemed a shame. And the book seemed to embody so many of the things that could – and still can – go wrong with self-publishing. The general message at the time was: don’t do it.

Don’t do it. No, do

So when I found this self-publishing guide from 2005, I was curious. How did they make the case?

In the introduction, Tom Green notes how the publishing landscape has changed. It sounds familiar: ‘More people are chasing less space on the lists of traditional publishers and agents. Even established writers find themselves dropped without warning if they are not the flavour of the month and don’t have the required celebrity status to get coverage in the media.’

That could be today. But the reasons to self-publish in 2005 weren’t all negative. Tom also points out two clear advantages – control over the product, and control over other rights. Today, those are massive cornerstones of independent publishing – we decide how the book will be, we get maximum value out of other forms such as audiobooks, translations etc.

And with those freedoms came a warning. Again, a familiar one – the great potential to make mistakes. Not just mistakes of quality, like our friend with the unedited, mispresented grey doorstop, but financial mistakes. Then, as now, writers had to avoid overpriced services of dubious value, and contracts that strip you of your rights.

If only they knew

As I read, I thought how they couldn’t have known how much easier their path was about to become. Just a few years later, much of the expense and difficulty of self-publishing was swept away by two developments – ebooks and the miracle of the online world.

First, ebooks. All self-publishing in 2005 was print. It wasn’t that ebooks hadn’t been invented – Project Gutenberg made the first one in 1971 – but we hadn’t yet got devices for reading them comfortably. Who wants to read a book on a desktop or laptop?

And second, our online infrastructure – we hadn’t yet got the internet plumbing that allows us to sell books worldwide, via huge online stores that might be on a different landmass from the country we write in. That same internet plumbing also brought massive opportunities to share our learning so we can self-publish well.

So in 2005, books were paper chunks. Moreover, you had to guess how many to make (in the hundreds), then store and ship them or pay someone for that. Print on demand (POD) did exist, but not in the sense we know it. Although it was possible to produce one copy at a time, POD was more normally used by trade publishers for short runs of backlist titles.

Let us give hearty thanks for our highly evolved POD and ebook sales systems. Whenever I teach a course in self-publishing (yes, I do that), it’s the first thing I explain.

One interesting attitude in 2005 is that self-publishing was seen as a stepping stone. Joanna Anthony, who at the time was marketing director of hybrid publisher Pen Press, writes: ‘I believe there will be a time when all unknown authors self-publish to test the market and mainstream publishers will pick them up once they have proved they have a market’. Although that does happen now, many self-publishers are happy to stay indie.

Small world

So self-publishers of the 2020s can reach readers more easily, and with good-looking books – but that freedom has come at a price. The books world of 2005 was much, much smaller. Thousands of titles were published in the UK each month (about 8,000 a month according to the wholesaler Gardners), and that might sound like a lot, but they went out of print. Now, nothing goes out of print, and there are more new releases than ever because it’s easy. Soon we’ll have more books than there are atoms in the sea. Authors have powerful tools to market and promote their books, but it’s competitive and expensive – for some of us, prohibitively so.   

In the simpler days of 2005, marketing was still a big issue, and authors were advised they needed to take it as seriously as the writing.  

But they were also reminded that it could be an extension of their natural talents. Dick Sharples had a lot of cheeky fun with his book, A Year In Muswell Hill. It was a spoof of Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence, penned under the name Pierre LaPoste. As Dick built awareness for the book, he says, ‘angry letters by apprehensive local residents began appearing in the local press demanding that the book be banned, especially as LaPoste had promised his book would “do for Muswell Hill what Peter Mayle did for Provence”, in other words, bugger it up.’ The national papers got wind of the story (nice one, Dick), and turned up in Muswell Hill, hoping to interview LaPoste. Dick pretended LaPoste had fled to Provence and the book sold out several print runs.  

As I read the guide’s advice on marketing and other services, I reflected how lucky we are now. Authors of the 2020s can get advice and protection from several high-profile organisations – the Alliance of Independent Authors and Victoria Strauss’s site Writer Beware.

I turned the page and there was Victoria Strauss herself, sharing her knowledge and experience, helping writers avoid bad choices, already a strong voice to make the indie world a better place.

There were many surprises in this little publication, but that was the nicest.

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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Fantasy novelists – your first pages: 5 more book openings critiqued by @agentpete @mattschodcnews and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members, Matt Schofield, an award-winning war correspondent who now writes fiction.

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

As you can see, there is oodles to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something does or doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or eager to read more. Then your trusty hosts discuss the whys and hows.

We talk about:

  • Blurbs that promise the right things and seem to live up to their promise… or don’t.
  • Titles that set the right tone, or are hard to remember, or are too much like other titles.
  • An interesting case of slipped point of view – so easy to do when you’re settling a reader into a story.
  • Examples from many flavours of fantasy, all with their own sets of expectations – urban fantasy, timeslip, steampunk, epic, children’s, and fantasy on the borders of science fiction.
  • How much information the reader needs in the first pages and what else they need to draw them into the story and its world.
  • Worldbuilding – a whole subject of its own in this kind of novel, and it brings its own delights and pitfalls We talk about how easy it is to confuse the reader, and suggest ways to adjust the opening to avoid this.

Find the full show here. And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

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

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From travel journalism to inner journeys – Mark Chesnut @munderamedia on writing his first memoir

How do you make a career with words? And once you’re established in a niche, how do you then uproot to a completely new kind of writing? Mark Chesnut has done just that. For most of his life he has been a writer, editor and content creator for the travel industry, but he’s now just released a highly personal work, Prepare For Departure – a memoir of his relationship with his mother as she nears the end of her life. We talk about it all here

First, let me say that’s a great title!

Glad you like it! It came pretty early in the writing process and love how it works as a double entendre. Luckily, my wonderful editors at Vine Leaves Press also liked the title, so it stayed.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by following my natural interests, I guess. I wasn’t someone who at an early age would have said “I want to be a writer.” But my mother, Eunice Chesnut, went back to college when I was young and got her bachelor’s and then her master’s degrees, so I was raised in a household where there were a lot of books and a lot of writing went on. I remember falling asleep to the sound of my mother’s big black typewriter click-clacking in the next room.

I was the only kid living at home and it took me several years to become socially adept and make friends, so I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the ways I spent my time was writing — but it wasn’t literature. I wrote crazy things like promotional copy for my imaginary airline, Chesway Global, and program guides for my imaginary television network, ITV (I didn’t realize there already was an ITV in the United Kingdom; when I found out, I tried other names. IBS was another choice, until I discovered it also stood for irritable bowel syndrome).

In short, I used writing to explore my creativity and fuel my imagination.

Any angsty teenage writing?

Yes, I would write when I was feeling upset. I’d type out my feelings in ALL CAPS, to express the urgency of my emotions.

How did that lead to professional writing?

My first editorial jobs were in medical and university publishing houses, and then a tiny weekly newspaper in New York City. Already, though, I was writing about nearly every trip I took, just for my own benefit. I enjoyed recording my experiences and documenting my feelings about the trips I took.

Then a few years ago, my mother became ill and it was clear she wouldn’t be around much more. I started using writing as a way to sort out my feelings, the way I’d typed in all caps as a teenager. It was like therapy. I had been documenting my trips with words, but now I was writing about a different kind of journey; one my mother and I were taking together.

Most of your work is travel journalism – how did you choose that niche?

I must thank my mother for giving me a typewriter all those years ago, and I also must also thank her for giving me the travel bug. I grew up in Western New York State. But both of my parents were from Kentucky, so we traveled from New York to Kentucky at least three times a year, for the first 17 years of my life.

I learned at an early age that travel could be exciting, emotional and a wonderful escape from the stress of everyday life. It made me curious about seeing more of the world. During layovers in Chicago, I’d stand in front of a giant departure board and stare, trying to imagine what life must be like in all the destinations on that board.

I looked for work in publishing and advertising as soon as I graduated from college. I changed jobs quite a bit — like many recent graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives. I enjoyed working in advertising as well as medical and scholarly publishing, and my job with the free weekly newspaper was exhausting but a lot of fun. But none of them satisfied me. They didn’t tap into my passion. I was obsessed with travel, and I saved money and frequent flyer miles to venture out as often as I could with my meager budget and limited vacation days.

I realized my true dream was to unite my editorial skills with my wanderlust. I started applying for travel-related publishing jobs. I applied four times before I finally got a job as assistant editor at the travel trade publisher where I would work for years and for whom I still do freelance work. That set the stage for the next decades of my life.  

Where is home and why is it home?

I live in New York City, in a cool neighborhood called Jackson Heights in Queens. Just being there is like traveling the world. I love it. It’s totally normal to hear multiple languages spoken on just one block. You could see a woman in a sari, a Buddhist monk in his robe, a woman in a burqa, a gay couple holding hands and a drag queen heading to a show at a local gay bar. And nobody blinks an eye. Queens is the future.

How much time do you spend there?

Most of my time, working from home. But I travel at least once a month, and since the pandemic started, my husband and I have been spending a month or two in other places, working remotely. We’ve done extended-stay remote working visits in Hollywood, Mexico City, New Orleans and Guadalajara.

As travel and holiday-type activities are your daily bread, how do you get away from it all?

I block off one month per year to stay home. But it usually doesn’t work out. Either a very necessary press trip comes up, or an irresistible opportunity to go somewhere new.

When I’m really going on vacation, I visit family. And I like to go to places that inspire me creatively; places where I can disconnect but still feel engaged. But then I usually get so inspired that I’ll start writing or thinking of new projects. It’s hard for me to get away from work because my mind is always churning.

How did you cope with lockdown?

New York City was the first pandemic epicenter in the US — and Queens was the epicenter of the epicenter. It was intense. We stayed inside for weeks and could hear ambulances, day and night, heading to a nearby hospital. It was psychologically difficult and the uncertainty was scary, because at first no one understood what was going on. I was glad to have my husband Angel, who has a very positive personality, to alleviate the stress. We played board games, dominos, cards. We had dance nights where we’d watch musicals on demand and dance along with them. We made up things to do and enjoyed each other’s company, and that helped a lot.

What made you write a memoir? That, if you’ll forgive the figure of speech, is quite a departure.

It is. My usual writing is destination features, travel guides, hotel reviews and tourism industry news. Other than saying I liked a hotel suite or a meal in a restaurant, it isn’t that personal. Even though I’d been making my living as a writer for decades, the memoir was a whole new direction that required new skills.

Yes, informative material is quite like a mask. Or several masks – being useful or inspiring or amusing. Our deeper feelings and personal lives are almost irrelevant. But memoir requires introspection. And your memoir is about as personal as one could get, with big, difficult themes. How did that sit with you?

I started writing the memoir for myself, not for publication. It was a way of coping with my mother’s decline. But once I realized that I wanted to make it into a book, I looked for help. I signed up for memoir writing classes and had my writing workshopped, getting feedback from instructors and other students. I started reading memoirs by other authors with voices I could relate to or stories that were similar to mine. And I read articles and essays about the craft of writing memoirs and creative nonfiction. All of that helped immensely.

Also, in a memoir, we have to share and examine the less certain moments. Journalism usually involves being in charge of the material, but in a memoir we open up the times when we’re not in charge. We grapple with questions that maybe can’t be answered.

Writing about one’s personal experiences really does open you up to questions, many of which, as you said, can never be fully answered.

The classes I took were interesting and helpful. When I submitted essays about how upset I was about things that had happened between my mother and me, the other students and instructors would often suggest possible explanations for her behavior or attitude that I’d never thought about before.

When I was 12, for example, my mother and I walked into a restaurant in Leitchfield, Kentucky, and the waitress said “what can I get for you ladies today?” I was so embarrassed that my face felt hot, and I also felt hurt that my mother didn’t correct her. When some of my fellow students read that chapter from my memoir, they pointed out that she might have ignored the comment because it could have embarrassed me even more if she had been confrontational about the mistake. So while writing a memoir certainly can open up old wounds and expose your weaknesses and embarrassments, it can also bring new understanding and points of view that can be really therapeutic.

I’ve also found it very moving to get feedback now from people who’ve bought the book and found parts of themselves in the story. I’ve almost been brought to tears by some of the notes I’ve gotten from people who also felt like misfits when they were growing up, or who struggled to come out, or who’ve experienced similarly difficult moments as their parents were aging or passed away. The more I hear from readers, the more I realize that this book isn’t just my story, it’s a story about issues and experiences that a lot of people have faced in one way or another.

One reader wrote me a touching note that said she felt like she never had a voice for her experience of caring for her elderly father and finding an assisted living facility for him. Until she read my book she hadn’t found a voice that spoke to her about what she and her father were going through. That was such a beautiful thing to hear, and I can totally relate because when we’re dealing a situation with aging parents, we can often feel isolated; even our closest friends or family might not fully understand what we’re going through emotionally, or they may not feel comfortable hearing about it. I hope my book helps to give a voice to other people’s experiences, too. We all deserve to be heard, and to share our joys and our pain.  

A significant part of this memoir is the character of your mother.

Eunice Chesnut was a magnificent character, as well as a very cool mother, and a big part of writing this book was to keep her memory alive. She was an amazing woman but she wasn’t perfect, and she had her hands full with me, a strange, often bratty son who turned out to be gay; she had trouble feeling comfortable about my orientation.

How did you find it, portraying her in her full glory and difficulty?

To give the story depth and make it real, I had to show the happy as well as the challenging aspects of our relationship. I aimed to portray her and our relationship in a realistic, layered and multifaceted way, to show how love between a parent and a child is imperfect but can endure. I was concerned about doing her justice, and I was also nervous that some of her friends might think I was doing a “Mommie Dearest” job on her, making her look bad. But I’ve been getting good reactions from her friends, as well as from general readers, about how I portrayed her and our relationship, so I think and hope I’ve struck the right balance. People have commented positively about how the book portrays the complex and loving relationship between a parent and child.

Did she know you were writing it?

Eunice didn’t know I was writing the book. She did know I was taking notes on what was happening to us when she was in the nursing home, and sometimes when she said something funny or clever or deep, I’d whip out my cell phone and jot down what she was saying. I didn’t want to miss a thing.

I think she’d be a bit embarrassed about the more personal aspects of the book since she was a private person. Yet she was also super social and loved people, so I also think she’d be happy to see that so many people can relate to our story, that it’s making other people laugh and cry and might help some people as they deal with their own difficult situations.

Were there many drafts? How much input did you get from beta readers and editors?

The manuscript went through a lot of revisions. I’d submit a chapter for review in my class, then take their feedback and revise. Sometimes I’d resubmit that same chapter again later. I also got lots of input from an amazing little writing group that I formed with a group of other students.

One of the most important things I did was to step back from the manuscript for a few months. That was crucial, because I’d been reading, re-reading, writing and rewriting the same material for too long.  

When I finally looked at the manuscript again, I tried to read each chapter as if it were a standalone essay written by someone I didn’t know. I asked myself: What is the main storyline or point for each chapter essay? How does each chapter serve the overall storyline of the manuscript? And, why should I or anyone care what this essay is about? Is it funny, touching, heartbreaking, dramatic, informative, educational?

Reviewing my work through that lens, I realized several chapters needed major overhauls — thinking about what readers want and what would resonate with them, educate them, entertain them. I realized that I had to start seeing the work not just as a memoir about myself.

Would you ever write fiction? Or even poetry?

I’m more attracted to fiction than to poetry. I’ve done initial drafts on a few short fiction pieces, and at some point I may start workshopping them, sending them to journals, etc. But I realize that will require more education and research on my part, since fiction is a far cry from memoir, and an even further cry from travel writing. The one thing that all these forms have in common, of course, is that we’re trying to tell a compelling story. And, in my case, I see it all as a journey.

Find Prepare For Departure (published by Vine Leaves Press) here.

Find Mark on Twitter @munderamedia, Facebook and his website.

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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Using real people in historical fiction – how much can you invent?

I’ve had this question from M:

I’m writing a historical novel set in Australia in 1872. The fictional events are based on real events or phenomena. A few characters are based on real people, who I’ve researched. One is Thursday October Christian the second, grandson of Fletcher Christian, of the Bounty Mutiny fame. During his life he held positions of responsibility on Pitcairn Island. He is making a cameo appearance, greeting characters as they arrive in a ship.

My problem is this. There is very little information on him, so I am wondering how to describe him. There is information on his father, who was a colourful character, so I would like to model TOC 2nd on him. But what would you do?

No matter what you write, there’s one thing you must assume. Whatever you fudge, whatever you’re inaccurate about, will be found out.

Partly this is sod’s law. Your book will find the one reader who knows this obscure thing. But actually, it’s more than that. If you’re writing about a particular time, or a particular geographical place, or a particular exciting profession, you’ll attract readers who love that special story world. They’ll be geeks for it. If they spot something inaccurate, they might shrug and forgive you – or they might lose confidence in you altogether.

So even though we’re making things up, we have to be as respectful of reality as possible.

Also, we need to be careful about sources. Wiki is a good start, but it’s not necessarily the oracle. Double-check anything you find there. You might even have to be wary of experts. I’ve just seen a post on Facebook from a writer friend who’s researching Jane Austen’s plotting methods. She says: ‘A historian states something I know to be wrong, but it’s so often repeated that it’s now taken as fact.’

I know. That way madness lies.

But when, like M, you’ve done all the research possible and haven’t found what you need, what are your options? How many liberties can you take?

M is caught in a classic historical fiction conundrum: how strictly should she stick to the facts if she’s fictionalising?

Libel

First, is there a danger of libel? Not in M’s case. She’d like to use TOC 2nd because of the historical timing, and model his personality on his father, who seems interesting and memorable for readers. Both guys are long dead, so there’s no legal repercussion. And it sounds like the portrayal would be harmless and even a bit flattering.

How big is their role?

More importantly, this character’s role is incidental. You’d need to worry more if he had a more major role – and if he did, you’d probably find it easier to invent your own character so they can do all the things you need them to do – and speak as you need them to. But in M’s case, there’s probably little harm in splicing the personality of one TOC to the personage of the other. But M knows it’s not accurate.

More research you can do

That’s where I’d do some more research. Find out how much these particular facts matter.

How protective are historians about fictional portrayals of this character? How protective are his actual descendants or his cheerleaders who are alive today? (You’d be surprised who has cheerleaders, at least in the UK. Go to any tiny town and you’ll find there’s a local historical celebrity who invented pencil lead or washing powder.) I’d look for past instances where a portrayal of this guy might have rubbed people wrong.

It’s the same principle for writing stories about issues and cultures beyond our own lived experience. We might use sensitivity readers or specialist beta readers to ensure we’re accurate, authentic and respectful. So look for common misrepresentations and misconceptions.

You might find there are things you simply can’t do. Perhaps because of facts you’ve found. Perhaps out of good manners. Whatever you have to change, it’s not a setback. Constraints often give us much better ideas because they force us to be more inventive. I learned this while ghostwriting – many dead ends eventually became surprising breakthroughs. You might even find that a trivial moment becomes a pivotal character scene.

Not a setback after all

For instance, if M finds she must make her TOC bland and colourless, she could use her own disappointment. She could transfer the anticlimax to some of the characters and have them discuss their expectations. (‘Really? He was descended from Fletcher Christian? I hardly noticed him.’) Choose some characters who need to show their colours in some way – with a humorous bonding moment, or a falling-out (‘I hate the way you’re so judgemental’), or some other moment that drives the narrative onwards. Something new might develop because they talk about this. A straw might break a camel’s back.

You have remained accurate – and you’ve also found a way to advance the plot or character development. (Big hint: if the incident doesn’t drive the narrative onwards in some way, it shouldn’t be in the book at all. Maybe that’s the revelation – you needed to learn it isn’t interesting enough.)

On the other hand, you might find no problems with your plan. The chances are you’re safe to discreetly invent whatever feels true to the situation. If you feel the need to clarify, you could include an afternote that explains your sources and any assumptions you’ve made.

Also, remember that you’re writing fiction. The reader expects fiction; if you’re hamstrung by history and reality, they expect you to find ingenious ways around it. That’s what you do; you make it up while being faithful to what’s known. It’s what fiction writers of all hues do – we write convincing stories with a combination of research, empathy, respect and understanding of human nature.

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

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

John, when did you start calling yourself a writer?

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

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

And when did it happen for you?

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

Where did your creative urge come from?

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

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

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

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

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

Is there any crossover?

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

What was your publishing journey?

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

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

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

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

It felt right?

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

You now teach creative writing. How did that start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a writing process?

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

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

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

Tell me about your other short story collections.

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

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

And your novel, The Book of Ash…

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

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

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

What do you like to read?

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

What do you wish I’d also asked?

Not a thing! Such a nuanced set of questions!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eight points for writing a memoir in personal essays

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

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

Here’s the real work.

1 Look for a subject

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

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

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

2 Look for a running order

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

3 Look for repetition

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

4 Anxiety

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

5 Look for a title

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

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

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

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

6 It’s okay to make a mess

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

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

7 Structure will get you out of mess

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

8 Read with a pen

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with a quick guide to Rishi.

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

How poetry start for you?

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

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

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

‘Craft’ in inverted commas?

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me more about that.

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

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

How does a poem come to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puzzle solving! Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can think of it as working on two levels.

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

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

And the second level?

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

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

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

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

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

How do you improve your own craft?

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll give examples…

Can I edit this draft harder?

Can I edit this draft weirder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should I ask you next?

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

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

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

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