Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Former ghostwriter coming out of the shadows with books of my own. My Memories of a Future Life. Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award). Humorous memoir: Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Series for writers: Nail Your Novel.

Homepage: http://rozmorris.wordpress.com

Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by literary agent @agentpete , writer @simnett 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, thriller author Ed Simnett (who has a frighteningly interesting CV that will probably keep him in thriller material for years).

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. There were blurbs that told us too much and blurbs that left us puzzled. There were blurbs that promised a different tone from the actual text. There were scenes that drifted into confusing reverie before we had grasped where we were and whose experience we were following. There were titles that were too generic for the striking ideas in the actual book. There were awkward expositional parts, where clearly the writer was anxious about how soon they should be ‘explaining’ everything. Find the full show here.

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

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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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Device addiction, how we treat ‘others’, and a love of horses – talking to @authorgreene about World Fantasy Award longlisted Lifeform Three

I’m thrilled to share this interview with Randal Eldon Greene, who wanted to discuss my World Fantasy Award longlisted novel Lifeform Three.

We talk about the authors who inspired me, the novel’s issues and questions. Actually, where do we start with that? I love novels that pose questions! Here are some of them – what makes us human, how we are persuaded to conform even though we have free will and rights, how our devices enable us but also program us, how nature and animals are an essential escape, how we treat people who aren’t like us, why Ray Bradbury is a genius, toxic capitalism and corporate bullying, climate change, visions of the future and places I would be sad to lose. Here’s more about Lifeform Three if you want to know about it.

Randal’s also a writer, so we also get into the practical stuff – how I develop a complex set of themes and ideas into a readable story, how I juggle creative writing with other work that uses those same faculties, and why writing is always a long game for me. Do come over.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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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Standalone or series? Get started with this course at @JaneFriedman

Although book series have never exactly been out of style, they’ve had a real renaissance in the era of streamed TV. People love epic-length stories with vast worlds and rich characters – and that goes for their reading as much as their watching.

What’s more, a series can be rewarding for writers too – both commercially and artistically.

So if you want to write a series, what do you need to know? How can you devise a concept that’s series worthy? What decisions should you make at the outset and what can you develop as you go? What are the bad reasons to write a series (yes, there are some).

I decided to create this course after I received this email. ‘OMG, I’ve been working on my back story and I realise I’ve got an epic. However will I beat this monster into submission?’

I’ve worked on several fiction series as a ghostwriter and editor. Aha, I thought. That’s something I can help with.

The course will be taught live via Zoom at Jane Friedman’s site on Thursday February 17 at 6pm GMT, but if that time doesn’t suit you a recording will be available.

It’s for novelists for all age groups, adult and child, who are familiar with story concepts such as narrative arcs and structure, whether published or not, whether indie or traditionally published, who are taking their first steps developing a series.

Follow this link to find out more and book a place… hopefully see you there!

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No luck submitting my book to agents and publishers – should I hire a different editor?

I had this interesting email.

I’ve written a thriller. I worked on it for a few years with an editor who said it was ready to submit. However, following lots of submissions but no requests for the full MS I began to work with another editor. The two are like chalk and cheese and I`m now in a quandary as to the way forward. Is this something you can help with?

There aren’t any easy answers here. You’re dealing with a massive unknown – the reactions of the publishers and agents you submitted to.

No news is… no news

It’s possible that your manuscript is perfectly publishable in terms of writing standard, but not what agents and publishers are looking for in other ways. You might not be on trend, or you might be too close to a trend they have decided will soon be over (even if it won’t).

There was a time, a few years ago, when a publisher or agent might tell you if your writing made the grade in terms of quality. It was a thing: the rave rejection. Your writing’s great but we don’t know how to market it. Now they don’t reply at all.

The publishers and agents might also have reacted to personal characteristics you can’t change – gender, ethnicity, age. That’s pretty terrible, but it’s true, according to a dispiriting chat I had recently with a literary agent. You, personally, might not be marketable.

The two editors who gave different advice about the book

To your other point, about the different feedback from the editors you’ve worked with, I’m not surprised.

It’s possible that your second editor found extensive flaws, but it’s also possible that they noted you wanted a publishing deal, and thought the answer was a complete rework. The book might need those changes, it might not. It might already be darn good from a reader’s point of view.

And this brings me to another point. Freelance editors who are hired by authors don’t look for the same thing as editors who are hired by publishers. A freelance editor will judge the book by the suitability for the reader – will it satisfy them, is it fresh enough for current tastes. An editor working for a publisher will be shaping the book for the publisher’s current agenda, which may be totally different. A publisher might, for instance, be trying to forecast the tastes in the next two years because that’s when they’ll publish.

So… what should you do?

Do you need another editor? That depends.

No you don’t…  if you’re confident in the previous editor’s advice, and in the way the book has turned out with their guidance.

Yes you might… if you think you’ve now matured as a writer and could take the book to another level.

But will a new editor help you get a publishing deal?

That’s impossible to predict. Also, you might write many versions of this book, all of which would satisfy readers, and still not woo a publisher.

Fortunately, there are other good options! You could look for a small press who handles your genre and approach them directly. You’re more likely to get an actual reply and at least you’ll know if your book needs more work. Or go indie (in which case you will need editors for the production process, but that’s another story… more about that here).  

Best of luck.

Guys, what would you tell my correspondent? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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

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The resilient mindset, overcoming blocks and living every moment of the creative journey – interview at @insideyourhead0

Today I’m on a podcast that’s not my usual territory. Although I’m talking about writing and creativity, the podcast’s main focus is psychology, self-help, neuroscience and wellness.

Inside Your Head is hosted by my friend Henry Hyde, whose name you might recognise because we’ve podcasted together before. Henry’s a writer and designer, and has taken this new direction after a health issue. He wants to explore how we tick on many levels – from our physical health to other less quantifiable aspects of our lives that are central to our wellbeing.

And here’s where creativity and writing are relevant.

Resilience and self-belief are needed for the artistic life. You carve your own path. It’s a long game. You might make plans – and nothing will turn out as you thought it would. When I started writing seriously, I hoped I’d complete a book, and if it was good enough, it would be taken up by a publisher or a literary agent and I’d begin my author career. Certainly I’ve ended up as an author, with the kind of books I hoped I’d write (and readers who like them!), but absolutely nothing went as I imagined it would.

There’s also another kind of self-belief you need as a creative artist – to discover where you truly fit. You try lots of writing styles and genres that don’t suit you until you find the right ones. You wonder sometimes – actually, quite a lot – if that’s good enough. You’re teaching yourself an artform, and learning to express yourself, and learning who you are while you look for your own distinctive style. You’re often torn down or disappointed – but gradually these experiences teach you better who you are.

There’s loads more on the podcast. Henry knows that one of my day jobs is editing a medical magazine, so we talked about the problems facing doctors in the UK at the moment – which I see first hand, from their own pens. It certainly puts creative struggles into perspective when you talk to people who handle life and death. This led to a very interesting chat about emotionally demanding jobs, and the people who are suited to them and are also burned out by them – an issue I tackled in my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life.

So it’s a wide-ranging and often surprising conversation. Did you spot horses in the introduction Henry’s written? Indeed you did. Horses teach you a lot about your inner chatter, self-trust and self-compassion. Do come over.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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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Learning by doing: how I made my writing career – Nick Padron @nfpadron

How do you become a fiction writer? Some people have formal training; some never do. They create their own training, from their temperament and inner drive. That’s the case with my guest today, Nick Padron, a musician and composer, and also a writer of scripts and fiction. His latest novel, a thriller Where Labyrinths End, is published this week.      

Nick, my first question has to be this: how did you make careers in all these disciplines?

One at a time, really. I think creative people usually handle more than one artistic discipline. Actors paint, writers play music. Have you seen Bob Dylan’s paintings? Amazing. It’s pretty common.

I haven’t even heard of Bob Dylan’s paintings! Once we’ve finished talking, I will hasten to Google.

In my case, making music and literature came at different stages. Growing up, rock and roll music was all I cared about. Elvis and The Beatles were everything I wanted to be. It could’ve been a form of escape from what was happening around me as a boy in Havana, Cuba—which eventually broke up my family, and my mother and I ended up political exiles in New York City.

I never consciously set out to be a formal musician or a writer per se. Formal education was not for me. I learned these disciplines by ear, by imitating and osmosis, and sheer will, I guess.

Imitation and osmosis… I recognise that. If an artform appeals, we pick it up and try it. It’s an appetite.

It wasn’t until my 30s that the urge to write stories came to me. By then, I had already become a professional musician and composer, tried my hand at comedy sketches for TV, even cowritten a movie script. I had developed the kind of personal discipline needed to write—the learning and patience necessary to complete a novel.

I either work on music or on writing prose. To me, they’re all-consuming practices, requiring every ounce of creative focus.

How much crossover is there? Do the sensibilities or skills for one inform your work in the others?

These are very good questions. I don’t think there is a definitive answer to them. How much time I spend on each depends on priorities, really. The skills and sensitivities in both art forms do cross over. Putting words to a song is very close to writing poetry, and poetry very close to prose.

In music, perhaps the physical demands of playing an instrument are not found in writing, but arranging music, particularly the longer works—soundtracks, musicals, operas—does share similar demands. The rhythm of a story is not unlike that of a musical composition. Modern music, though, does diverge. The minimalism of 21st century popular music, where practically no musical instruments are used, all are computerized, moves the creative effort away from, say, the organic work of language as an instrument. Personally, I’ve only written words with a word processor, so I’m not one to talk. But, so far, I think technology has been far more influential on music than it’s been on writing. Then again, had Tolstoy had a laptop, he would’ve probably written four War and Peace sequels…

For sure. And if he was around now, his publisher would have demanded it.

So were your family creative or are you an outlier?

I am an outlier. Although, looking back, I realize my mother was a very creative person, in her own way. Her father, who died before I was born, was involved with a theatre troupe and had a passion for opera, and co-owned a movie theatre.

Is any of your writing autobiographical?

I do insert autobiographical touches in my work. You can’t escape it. Particularly when building characters, you see people you’ve known in them.

Would you ever write a memoir?

I don’t think writing a memoir would be fun—to me. But one never knows, maybe one day I’d want to, but not yet.

What’s the distinctive signature of a Nick Padron novel and short story?

I’m not aware of having a distinctive signature. I suppose there’s one. When I write, I consciously think of the action and settings in cinematic terms. I like the idea of movie-like storytelling enhanced by straight prose.

I’m not opposed to prose for prose’s sake either, if it works. That’s why my three published novels could easily be turned into movies, and still be interesting reads. I have writer friends who have read my works and spotted in them what one might define as a personal ‘signature.’ I suppose the time will come when my ‘signature’ will become apparent even to me. Until then, I’ll let my friends tell me about it.

I note that Ernest Hemingway is a guiding light for you. You titled a novella It Tolls For Thee. One of your short stories is titled Papa’s Bastard Son. Tell me about the importance of Ernest.

My mother told me Hemingway and I met once in Cojímar, a coastal town near Havana where my family owned a house. There was a restaurant there, I think it was called La Terraza, where Hemingway and my parents went for lunch sometimes. One afternoon, when I was five or six, my parents took me to lunch and old Hemingway happened to be there with some people. My mother said I kept running around all over the place, making a racket, and as I flew past Hemingway’s table he said something to me—probably told me to shut up and go sit down. Of course, I don’t remember any of it. But having annoyed the Old Master became a family anecdote.

I bet it did. That’s hard to beat.

There was a time too, it seemed everywhere I went Hemingway had been there before. Cuba, Key West, Pamplona, Madrid, even Venice. It was inevitable that I became interested in Hemingway’s work. Eventually, I read all of his books.

One of your novels, The Cuban Scar, has a pseudonym – Gabriel Hemingway.

The Gabriel Hemingway pseudonym idea came to me after I finished my first novel. I remembered Elvis Costello’s strategy to get attention when he first started out, changing his name to ‘Elvis’. So, I tried doing something like that with my first book. I used the pseudonym of Gabriel (after Garcia Marquez) and Hemingway, hoping the book would stand out in the marketplace. It didn’t. So, I’ve used my own name since.

There are other writers I find inspiring, Don DeLillo for instance. I’ve read most of his books. Mind you, I’m not a voracious reader. I wish I was. I do read a lot every day though, news, magazines, stuff online, fiction and nonfiction. But I could go for months without reading a complete book, probably busy with music. Sometimes I get hooked to a particular writer or a style or a period and spend a lot of time reading. When I was a young, I read the classics while riding in the NYC subways, Robinson Crusoe, Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, those books. Later on, the Russians, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev; modern classics, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Salinger, Lee. I had my Bukowski period, my Vargas Llosa period, my Oscar Hijuelos period. I suppose there’ll be others to come.

I saw in an interview that your first attempt at a novel eventually defeated you.

Yes, I did give up on my first try at a novel. I made what seems to be a classic beginner’s mistake, biting more than I could chew.

This is very familiar.

I wrote around a half million words. Now I realize, as a self-taught artist, that this unfinished novel was really my basic training as a novelist. I made every mistake a writer can make, over and over, until I learned how it’s done.

I did the same, though I eventually lashed mine into shape. But I wrote several simpler books before I was ready to tackle the first one for real. Would you ever go back to yours?

I’m not sure I could finish that first novel any more. But I’ve used passages from it. My first published short story was taken from the unfinished novel.

Nothing is ever wasted, is it?

Some of your work features magic realism. How do you use it? Why does it appeal?

If anyone finds ‘magical realism’ in my writing, it would only be in the prose and not in the story itself. A critic called one of my short stories “realistic magic.” I think I know what he meant. For instance, in Where Labyrinths End, the protagonist, Symphony Messina, is abducted and locked up in a dungeon-like place where she discovers she’s pregnant. The passage has a magical realism-type of atmosphere. But the ‘magical’ quality is all in the character’s head, not in the character’s personal experience. If you have a character who is superstitious or very religious or given to flights of fancy, the writing might acquire a supernatural aspect when inside the character’s mental universe. But my stories are set in reality, and any resemblance to magical realism is solely in the reader’s take of it.

What are you working on now?

I have several stories going at the same time, as usual. It’s something like my reading habits, reading two or three books at a time. This year has been a busy one for me. Three books of mine have been published between November 2020 and December 2021. One was a collection of short fiction, another was a novel set during the Spanish Civil War, and of course, Where Labyrinths End, my first thriller. I have plans to finish two or three other books. One would be a sequel to Labyrinths. Hopefully very soon.

Find Nick Padron on his website, on Twitter as @nfpadron and on Facebook. Find Where Labyrinths End here.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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 cope with a hefty report from a developmental editor

Getting your manuscript back from a developmental editor can be an ordeal. Indeed it’s a writing rite of passage. But – deep breath – we’ve all been there. So here is some friendly handholding.

1 Rest assured, you are not alone in feeling anxious or, indeed overwhelmed. Opening a document with reams of comments usually feels like being disembowelled.

2 So much commentary? Most of us aren’t prepared for the level of detail. But editors are sensitive to issues, ideas and nuances you never thought would matter. This is what you want. They are a supercharged, supersensitive version of your ideal reader. Also, they are primed to explore the nooks and crannies you haven’t explored yourself, probably because you were intent on other things.

3 Many of the editor’s comments will be questions and appreciation, not deletions and corrections. They are working with your material, not against it. They are your book’s advocate.

4 Your first reactions won’t be the most reliable or useful. But you need to see everything, and quickly, so do a fast read just to see what’s there. Streak through the manuscript, perhaps with wine or a hefty bar of chocolate, but don’t take the comments too much to heart at this stage. That’s not to say they will be negative, but your book is a sensitive nerve and your first read-through will not be in your calmest state of mind. So read it, maybe sulk and fume. Then put it away. That first essential task is done. Take a break.

5 After this, it’s not as bad as you think. Read the report several more times. Now you’ve seen the worst – which is what you were looking for in the first read – look for other kinds of comment. A developmental report should be constructive, not destructive. Its aim is to help you make a worthwhile book for readers. Appreciate the report’s full scope. It should tell you what works as well as what doesn’t work. It should ask questions that are helpful, and guide you to solutions, not dead ends. Almost certainly you will fail to notice the things that the editor has praised, or the things that are not as bad as you think.

6 Let it settle. After a few days you’ll start to get spontaneous answers from your subconscious. Also, the outlook will seem more positive, especially if the report recommended drastic changes. At first, these might seem disruptive or impossible, and you might not adopt every suggestion your editor makes. The best solutions will come from you anyway. But after a few days you’ll have a new perspective on the deeper questions and you’ll see new possibilities. You might even begin to like the changes that initially made you despair.

7 Your editor will be waiting for follow-up questions, but allow time for their commentary to bed in. You will solve a surprising amount on your own, and soon a new vision of the book will take shape in your mind. Once you have that, you’ll find the most useful questions to discuss with your editor.

8 Also remember: you’re doing this for your book, because you believe in it.

Psst… there’s loads about self-editing and getting critiques in Nail Your Novel and my Nail Your Novel workbook.

Is there anything you’d add?

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Wilderness woman falls into memoir writing – Wren Godfrey Chapman

Some people have always written. Some don’t become writers until friends and family urge them to. This is not usually a recipe for success, but Jeanette (Wren) Godfrey Chapman found a publisher, and her memoir Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School is published this week.

Wren, are there any writers in your family? Was the writing process natural for you?

There are no writers in my family although many write well. Writing this memoir was akin to roping in the squall from hell. Why would anyone in his or her right mind spend years chained to a computer in mind-boggling isolation, hacking away in mental anguish, only to trash godawful first drafts and start over from scratch.

Yes, writers know that particular hell. But you’ve seen more squalls than most, and your usual habitat is the adventuring life, not the hermitage with a typewriter. What made you want to put your life into writing?

After our mystifying mother died, my sister Susan (Suzanne in the manuscript) blabbed to our sainted father the adventures and mishaps of my childhood and young adulthood. Only she got the stories all wrong, so she told me to write them down. I did, and read them aloud to Dad. He laughed his head off and said I should write a memoir, since it sounded like I spent my entire life falling through beaver dams––literally and figuratively.

And that explains the title!

I recorded for my dad the vignettes that are in my manuscript plus around 10 other major events, but I trashed them after the first draft, as they refused to pull the story along a forward path. My wonderful Dad passed away at age 96 (he was still driving and playing golf) and I put the work in a drawer for over 20 years until a man I almost married, Sidney Snelgrove (Shepard Seagraves in the book), shockingly reappeared in my life.

In the late 1960s Sidney and I hitch-hiked to Key West with 10 dollars in our pockets. He became the owner of Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West and made, for years, around one million dollars a day in T-shirt sales alone. After 40 years, he bought a plantation just five miles away from my home. We reacquainted and he wanted to know what went wrong between us, so I let him read my old journal. Like my dad, he laughed until he cried and said it sounded like a book I should write.

Sidney died unexpectedly at age 74 and never saw the finished manuscript. He is terribly missed by many people. Including me. Many of the people in Pirate Girl are now dead.

Wren’s house, Sea of Peace

My Cherokee friend, Free, said I should name the book after my lessons in ‘Earth School’. His astute counsel has never left me and I try to live by his fine example––even though I mostly fail.

Before you decided to look for a publisher, you showed this book to people only for personal reasons, people who were closely involved with you. What’s it been like, opening the material to strangers? 

Except for a very early editor and folks in a writing workshop, I did not show my manuscript to anyone before publishing––especially people closely involved with me. But I did show it to the novelist and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen. Around a year before his death we went for a swim in Long Island Sound. He read and edited my chapter ‘The Bear’. We went for a walk on the beach and he carefully picked out a pebble and handed it to me with great ceremony. I still have it, of course.

On the beach: novelist and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen with Wren

And, hellish squalls or not, you’re writing another book?

Yes. I must be crazy to. Someone, please stop me.

It’s called The Killing of Black Bart, who is a character from Pirate Girl, and how he and several family members were murdered, murders that were never solved.

How did you build Pirate Girl? Is it all from memory?

Much of it is from memory. It’s difficult to forget being tied to a mast during a fierce tropical storm, but I also kept a detailed journal while living in the Bahamas and Colorado.

How did you meet your publisher?

I scoured the Internet for publishing companies that worked with interesting authors and subject matter and produced drop-dead gorgeous cover art. Vine Leaves Press won hands down, and I am grateful they accepted my manuscript.

Where did your adventurous urge come from?

I simply enjoyed the rich experience of life and grew up camping, canoeing and mountain climbing with my family. I never thought twice about living alone in stark wilderness. Also, in high school I read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and took to heart his quote: ‘I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page, and I could do anything I wanted’.

What do you like to read?

Memoirs by adventurers and travellers. Currently, I am reading Straight on till Morning, The Biography of Beryl Markham by Mary S Lovell.

What scares you?

Living in the once-great USA, now teetering on the cliff of fascism and authoritarian rule. Costa Rica here I come.

Is there anything else you wish you’d done? And anything you wish you hadn’t?

I have no regrets except selling my trawler Evening Star, which I lived on for seven years, and not buying that small coffee plantation in Latin America when I had a chance. And I wish I’d never fallen in love––the scourge of humankind.

Any final stirring words?

It is my fervent hope that folks of every age who read my book––especially women––will come away with the knowledge that no matter the vicissitudes of life, it is perfectly acceptable to fall in and out of love, search for one’s own authentic spirituality, and live life to the fullest.    

But hell’s bells, I’m still having adventures at 72 years old. Next summer I’m heading out to Montana for my third major vision quest. My first one was at 12 years old. My second was after a marriage dissolved.

This upcoming quest will be for how to face old age––not with tiresome grace and dignity, but with long white hair streaming down my back as I ride an old Indian motorcycle along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stoned, flying past wild azaleas and gnarly rhododendron (like me). In truth, I’m shocked to reach older age when I should be long dead many times over.

Find Jeanette on Facebook and on her website. Find Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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The accidental way to build a writing career – interview at @AnnalisaCrawf

How did I get where I am? I’ve asked that question of a number of authors (in my series, How I Made My Writing Career). One of my interviewees, Annalisa Crawford, has returned the invitation and today I find myself in her interview chair.

I’m probably a typical writer – introverted, at home in my own head, not the kind of person to thrust myself into the spotlight or to think I had anything significant to say. But somehow I ended up with my name on book covers, and writing novels for others, and even helping other writers to grow up into authors.

We discuss how that happened, the jobs I did that pointed the way, and how I discovered what kind of writing I should be doing.

Do come over.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Can we reclaim the term ‘literary fiction’? A conversation with Imogen Clark @ImogenClark

What’s literary fiction? Some authors – and publishers also – feel ‘literary’ is a label that puts readers off. (Not me!)

What are their misgivings about literary fiction? Are they justified? Can we reclaim it?

I was discussing this with Imogen Clark, who describes her novels as ‘contemporary fiction about families and secrets’, but her publisher, Lake Union, calls her literary, which she says she’s never found comfortable. We got chatting.

Roz First, let’s define literary. Here’s how I see it, in the broadest way. Literary as a definition of two parts. The first is a definition by exclusion. By this I mean a literary work doesn’t conform to a genre.

An example. If your book contains a murder and you write in a genre, you must follow certain traditions to satisfy readers. This doesn’t mean you have to be predictable, but you have to hit certain marks. So the murder might have to be explained or solved. Perhaps the killer will be brought to justice.

But in a literary novel, a murder might not follow those protocols at all. An example is Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, where a teenage girl goes missing, which has repercussions for decades, but the story does not solve the mystery or provide answers. Jon McGregor uses the event in a non-genre way, to explore rhythms of life, the ebb and flow of the seasons. He is interested in another kind of mystery – the mystery of life.

Imogen The first thing that people ask me when I say that I’m an author is what kind of books I write. That’s hard to explain when there isn’t an obvious genre like crime or romance to pin to them. So, when I heard you say on a podcast that one definition of a literary fiction book is that it can go where it pleases without having to hit any expected tropes I was delighted because this idea seems to fit with what I write more closely than any specific genre.

My books are all standalones with each exploring a different issue, but because I don’t have any limitations placed on me by reader expectations, I have the freedom to take the story in whichever direction feels most natural for the characters. Labelling my books as literary fiction avoids me having to say that they are a bit like this and a bit like that.

Roz The freedom to follow your own thread…. Exactly!

Here’s the second part of my definition. A literary work is a richer experience than ‘just a story’. In fact, some people would say literary fiction is plotless full stop, and I have to disagree. Some literary writers are very interested in plot – and very good at it. Some aren’t. But plot and pace aren’t the defining feature. The defining feature is this – literary fiction will offer an additional artistic dimension, perhaps through its themes or metaphorical shapes.

Imogen My books definitely have a plot and are quite pacey. They are very character driven too, unlike some genre fiction which can be more about the twists and turns of the story than the people who tell it. As well as the story, I try to explore an underlying theme which might not always be immediately apparent. For example, the plot might concern the uncovering of a family fortune, but the book may actually be about integrity and honesty which I would examine through the way that each character responds to the windfall.

Roz I also like to write fast-paced stories with a strong plot ethic – and just as you say, I create this from character. I love complex people who behave in ways that arise from their unique inner struggles, so we experience something unfathomable about the human condition. (Quick aside: if you’re struggling with plot, my plot book understands.) 

Let’s talk about language. Finely honed prose is regarded as a key aspect of literary fiction. But literary writers don’t have a monopoly on language. Many genre writers are fantastic wordsmiths – their prose is sleek, spare, vivid, perfectly judged for the job. I’ve heard writers say they think they’re ‘being literary’ if they write lush, lyrical descriptions. But that’s not, by itself, literary. I think it’s looking at the wrong thing.

Indeed, actual poems can be written with simple language. Look at this piece, ‘Before You Cut Loose’, by Simon Armitage. He uses ordinary words. The power comes from the thought and heart in the work, an emotional structure and order, a sensibility and sensitivity.

Imogen I think this is the biggest resistance I have to describing my books as literary. I make no great claims for my writing. It is rarely lyrical or lush and I worry that readers who are looking for beautiful and unusual imagery would be disappointed. I do use complex sentence structures and try to make my writing arresting and thought provoking, but I don’t write prize-worthy prose, which is what I think a reader would expect from a book calling itself literary.

I also worry that the term literary fiction has too many elitist connotations – and they don’t sit well with my work. I am a commercial author who writes books that I hope will sell rather than for the sheer beauty of the language. I think my typical readers might be put off buying a book described as literary because they might expect it to be ‘hard’ to read or have no plot when what they want is a novel that doesn’t challenge them too much in terms of its writing style but which does make them think.

Roz I fully agree that literary doesn’t have to be hard. It might be, but that’s not a requirement. To look at the Simon Armitage poem again, it is a simple scenario, but also a metaphor for something bigger – an exploration of loyalty. It could be many other things too.

And here’s where its power lies. It’s a rich experience. The recognition of the metaphor creeps up on you. And almost anyone could understand it at a deep level. There’s nothing elitist or difficult about a poem like this. It’s people and dogs. The poetry is in the situation, and the way it is finely and precisely tuned, to create an experience that deepens a mystery.  Difficult to write, but easy to read, easy to understand.

I think literary authors probably fall into many subdivisions. For some it’s about creating challenges for the reader – perhaps with the form, or resonance with other existing works, or intellectual games. But a work can be rich in literary terms without being a hard read.

That’s what I’m aiming for when I write. I’m not writing tricksy, difficult books. I want my books to be rich on many levels. I love story, so the story has to be gripping and surprising. But I also want to explore the situation in an unusual and fresh way, because that’s where the magic lies for me.

For some reason, I’m thinking of parallels in music. Artists like David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Kate Bush could write tracks with striking hooks, high drama and great distinctiveness, but also musically and lyrically sophisticated. If you want depth, they give you depth. If you want a memorable iconic song, they give you those too. Popular and accessible doesn’t have to mean superficial or trashy. That’s how I see literary fiction – it can be full-blooded enough to please both.  

Imogen I couldn’t agree more. I would love to see the stigma that has grown up around the term literary fiction being broken down. If a reader is looking for a book that explores a complex issue in a way that is accessible, but which also has a page-turning plot and some well-drawn characters then I hope they might read one of mine and not be disappointed.

Imogen’s latest book is Reluctantly Home. And mine is Ever Rest.

(And we are not difficult, purple or plotless.)

Find Imogen’s website here. Find her on Facebook . And tweet her on @ImogenClark

Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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