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Do I want to make a career writing fiction? A conversation

I’ve had this interesting question on an email. It’s several questions, actually, and it raises points that I’ve seen many writers struggle with. To sum up, it’s this:

I’m hoping you can help me understand what it takes to make a career out of writing and whether it suits me.

Okay! Buckle in, chaps. Here’s the full version.

Pic from Wikimedia

I recently began wondering if I’m more of a hobbyist as a writer. I’m a short story/novella writer, wrote a lot of stories when I was young, and over the last several years began to think about writing to publish. I’ve had a lot of trouble with that— I’ve always suspected my stories are too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. I like the freedom in self-publishing, but I hate the idea of marketing.

This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but if you don’t market your work, nobody will know it exists. It’s that simple.

And you will do the bulk of the marketing yourself, whether you self-publish or get a deal with a publisher. A publisher will market your book for a brief period while it launches, then they’ll probably stop, but the book will still be a piece of your heart and you’ll still want it to have the darndest best chance possible. And even while the publisher is pushing it, they’ll expect you to do a lot of marketing alongside theirs.

So if your work is to be read by others, marketing is unavoidable.

How do you learn the basics of marketing? Here’s a great book – How To Market A Book by Joanna Penn.

I simply don’t know that I could build a steady platform, as I have little interest in social media.

Social media are great, but they’re not the only tool for marketing. You can market your books by advertising – on Amazon and Facebook, and in paid newsletters.

But let’s talk about social media and websites. These are not necessarily a way to directly sell copies of your book. What they do is this – they make you more tangible to readers. You are more findable if somebody googles you. Even if you only have a placeholder description on Facebook or Twitter or wherever, it can direct readers to your website or to a platform you do actually use. Meanwhile the reader has learned you’re real, you are the person who wrote that book. Or those books.

A website is a necessity, I feel, to show readers what you’re about. It’s your home base. Social media platforms are places you can go to meet people. Ideally, you need both.

Yes, all this internet networking is time consuming. But it can also be fun and rewarding.

It has bonuses you may not have thought of. On social media you’ll meet other authors who’ll help you out with unexpected opportunities. And if you’re a shy person, as most writers are, social media make networking a doddle. In the old days, you built your professional network by going to writing groups or launch parties and hoping you’d get talking to someone useful. Or hoping you’d pluck up the courage to talk at all (that’s me). On social media, you can check somebody out before you talk to them, and there are no awkward silences. You just type.  

But I’ve also started losing interest in writing, after I began studying story structure and outlining. It really threw me off balance and I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods.

Is your muse killed by any sort of analysis? Some people do feel this.

Some authors write a spontaneous draft and edit heavily, thinking about structure and arcs once they’ve created the book as a free-flowing spirit.

But here’s a point – people who are aiming to write to a publishable standard will usually need to study craft. Although there’s loads you can learn with no outside input, you’ll have blind spots. Many of these are techniques and mechanisms you were never aware of – and with good reason, because they are not meant to be noticed by the reader. Structure is one of them.

And actually, when we discuss structure or any other point of craft, we’re actually seeking control of our work – to understand how we’re affecting the reader. 

If you’ll allow me, I’ll quote from the introduction to my plot book

When I talk about structure or form, I’m striving for tragedy, doom, comedy, romance, complexity, sadness, wonder… I’m interested in what does this and how.’

I do understand that analysis can seem to be deadening. But to people like me, it is also exciting and fascinating.  

‘It really threw me off balance… I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods…

New methods do! I wrote about this a while ago – the three ages of becoming a writer.  Stage 1 is easy, intuitive, natural. Stage 2, you feel you’re doing it all wrong, you don’t sound like yourself and the joy has gone. Stage 3, it begins to fall into place. You don’t think about rules, you write with a new awareness, an enhanced intuition.

So you might not be failing at all. You might be in Stage 2, looking for Stage 3.

I question the idea of publishing often, thinking about the effort and whether I have the motivation and drive to actually see my stories through to publication (whether self or traditional).

Some authors take their time to complete a book. I’m one of them! You’ll find numerous posts about that on this blog, but here’s a recent one – Seven Steps of a Long-Haul Novel. You can publish as slowly as you want, especially if you self-publish.

However, if you publish frequently, it’s easier to find and keep an audience because you always have new books to offer them. That makes marketing easier (and it’s also why publishers prefer writers who’ll put out a string of similar books). Otherwise, you’ll have to do other things to keep them connected to your creative world and to keep them interested in you. But… social media let you do that. Another method is blogs and newsletters.

As for motivation and drive, if you’re going to be an author, you need a completer-finisher mentality. First, in the creation of the manuscript – all books pose challenges and you need to be doggedly committed to meeting them. It also helps if you love editing your own work. Few novels come out perfect in the first draft. Writing a book is a long game, even if it’s a collection of short pieces. Personally, I relish the process of refining and honing, and I find the book creates its own momentum. I love the process of making it ready for readers, both the writing and the production. It’s creative and positive, with achievements all the way. You might find this too.  

I’m wondering if I just like writing as a hobby. In the writing world, there’s always the push to be seen as more than hobbyists (understandably, of course), so I’ve always felt pressure to publish. But I’m wondering if I only ever wrote stories for my own enjoyment, without much need for an audience.

There’s nothing wrong with writing just for you. I recently discussed this in a post How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish – which deals with similar questions. The cost of self-publishing is related to your ambitions and there’s nothing wrong with publishing – or writing – on a modest scale simply because it fills you.

Here’s a parallel from my own life. I have a horse, who I enjoy training. I know a lot of other horse owners, and many of them compete. Some of them think you’re not riding properly if you and your horse don’t have a competitive career. I don’t give two hoots about this. My riding is between me and my horse, having adventures together, enjoying our connection. That might be like your writing – it’s you and the page, doing your thing. A private pleasure that does not have to be measured.

I don’t want to stop writing, but I’m at the point where I need to make a decision on what I want to do. I was hoping you could help me understand what it takes to actually make a career out of writing and whether it actually suits me.

Emily

Emily, you’ve already understood the basics, because the questions you’ve asked are spot on. Yes, publishing is a separate undertaking from writing. But before you feel daunted, let’s see if I can help you feel inspired, because some of these elements may not be as bad as you think.

In summary:

1 Yes, you need professional-level writing skills. It’s usually not possible to reach this standard without studying craft, dissecting how books work and getting professional feedback. But if one way of learning doesn’t suit you, there are hundreds of others, all heading for the same place – increasing your control over your material, and over the reader’s experience.

2 Yes, you need to market your work and yourself as a writer. Many authors, actually, dislike the idea of marketing. Especially the concept of self-promotion, which sounds obnoxious and embarrassing. I find it helps to think of doing your best for your work. Giving it the chance it deserves. You are the finest ambassador for your books – this is particularly true of authors who are, as you said yourself, too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. You might hate the idea of being an ambassador for your work; or you might find this is a liberating idea – you are your work’s embodiment and spokesperson, inviting readers to take a rich journey with you. That’s why we work on any idea – because we feel we’ll make something worth sharing. And this is where point 1 is important. If we’ve done the work on our craft, we know we have something we’re confident to share. 

Here’s another post where I talk about the different ways we might view our writing.

But think. Just because writing can be a career doesn’t mean it has to be. Take my example of horse riding. For me, the pressures of competing would ruin my pleasure. Moreover, there is nothing about competing that I want, even secretly. With my writing, though, I want very much for my work to find a readership, to be counted among other published work, and to build a career and reputation. This matters to me.

I ask you this: if you did not try for a writing career, would you feel you were missing something important that you would like to have? Or would you not feel like you were missing anything at all?

I’ve tried to show you that the issues you raise might not be as bad as you think, but I might well have confirmed the opposite. If so, writing as a personal pleasure is still a mighty fine and worthwhile thing.

What would you tell Emily? Let’s discuss!

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

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Shades of the truth – talking memoir and fiction-writing with Scott Gould @Scott_Gould

  1. Embrace cliches
  2. Don’t write what you know.

That’s two pieces of writing advice you won’t see everywhere. They are from Scott Gould, award-winning short story writer and novelist. Scott has now crossed into memoir with Things That Crash, Things That Fly, which chronicles the startling and sudden break-up of his marriage. How was it, I wondered, turning the unsparing writer eye on your own character, your own actions, your own real people? We got together for a chat.  

Roz I’ll talk about your memoir in a minute, but first let’s discuss your other books. You have Whereabouts, a novel, and a set of linked stories Strangers To Temptation. There’s also The Hammerhead Chronicles, another novel coming later this year. What unifies your work – any themes, approaches, types of character?

Scott The first two are unified by time and place, both set in the US South and in the early 1970s. Why the early 70s? That’s when I was 12 or so (yes, Roz, I’m old) I was deeply affected by coming of age in that period of time. I remember so much from that era—the music, the social and political unrest, the crushes and the slow dances with the girls who were the object of aforementioned crushes—and that place…the humid, rural, silly and proud South. (Proud for a lot of the wrong reasons, I might add.)

Hammerhead is still set in the South, but it’s contemporary. I think I’ve mined my 1970s dry.

I guess what unites those books is my desire to look at a world and its flawed characters (flawed physically or emotionally or spiritually) and see how they navigate their own tiny spaces in that world. I like following them around and seeing if they can clean up and survive the messes they make. (That’s close to a theft from Faulkner; I think he said something about following his characters around. Sorry. But like Picasso said, “All art is theft.”)

I like taking clichés and stereotypes—like the Southern pick-up-mobile-home-hound-dog—and flipping them on their ear. I’m not one of these people who despise clichés. I actually love them because they give me something to experiment with.

Roz What an interesting way to think about cliches. Yes, I get that. All cliches start from a truth, a recognisable and resonant truth. Before an idea becomes a cliché, it is briefly the wisest thing in the world.

Scott Clichés exist because people have developed this universal idea of what something means. If I can flip it or etch a new aspect onto it, then I’ve made something entertaining. I think that will be real apparent with Hammerhead. There’s some wild stuff going on in that novel, lots of cliché spinning.

Roz So: your memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly. How was the transition to writing about your own life?

Scott It wasn’t a transition as much as a flipping back and forth over the years. And a great deal of my fiction is autobiographical. You can really see that in Strangers to Temptation. But I believe all fiction is based in some shade of the truth. Even if you’re writing about some fantasy world or some post-apocalyptic nightmare, and let’s say a character who limps and you want to describe that limp to the reader, and you suddenly think: “Hey, my uncle Jake used to have a limp. I’ll describe the way he walks.” That’s reality blended into fiction.

Roz I think it goes beyond small details. To make a story real, we draw on our experience of behaviour, personalities, emotions, relationships. The characters we most want to write are the people we want to understand.

Scott I always tell my students, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you know well enough to lie about.” That’s a mantra for my fiction writing. So I didn’t just turn off the fiction spout and start writing the memoir. The two are related, don’t you think? First cousins maybe.

Roz Indeed I do. When I published a collection of personal essays (Not Quite Lost), I realised they were the origin stories for my fiction.

Scott I had been thinking about writing the memoir for years—not right after I was separated and divorced, but a couple years after that, I started thinking: “I need to write this down. It’s got all the elements of a good story. Loss and desire, a fall and a redemption of sorts, darkness and light, tragedy and humor. Lots of interesting juxtapositions.”

Plus, I needed to do it for my heart. It was somewhat stitched back together, but the stitches were getting frayed. I remember thinking that if I could write it down and make it into a piece of art, I might come to some new understanding that would be healthy and healing. That was probably a foolish idea, but art has erupted from sillier beginnings.

Anyway, I think the book really took flight (pun intended) when I was awarded the teaching fellowship to go back to Italy and research a WWII pilot who was killed. I recall making a late-night, probably bourbon-fueled deal with myself: “If you get this fellowship and go back there and put yourself through that gauntlet of memory and anxiety, you better damn well get a book out of it.” Well, I did win the fellowship and I kept my promise to myself.

But I wasn’t writing the memoir steady, from start to finish. I would write some, then put it away, because it was too damn hard to face sometimes. Then I would get mad at myself and pull it back out and arm-wrestle with it again.

In the meantime, I was writing stories, and sending them out and trying to work on novel manuscripts. I guess I’m a juggler. I like to have a lot of things in the air. I was constantly in transition between fiction and the memoir. And that may have not been a bad thing. I wanted the memoir to have a definite arc to it, so maybe working on stories simultaneously was good for maintaining the idea of a narrative.

Actually, I’ve never really thought about that connection between the two. Thanks, Roz…

Roz The subject material is frank and honest. And very involving. I shared your certainty that the relationship could be salvaged, the many moments of surreal awkwardness, the sense of inevitability and disappointment. Were there many drafts before you reached this one?

Scott For better or worse, I’ve never had an issue or problem with writing extremely honestly about myself. In the Prologue to Things That Crash, Things That Fly, when I say, “I will tell you anything you want to know,” I really mean it. I think it’s the duty of any writer to be brutally honest with the reader. As a writer you’re trying to bridge the gap between your words and the reader’s emotions. And if you don’t develop some sort of trust with the reader, you’re doomed to fail.

Roz It’s the honesty that creates the relationship with the reader, which makes the narrative feel like a special encounter.

Scott And you achieve a level of trust by delivering information to the reader in a crafted way. Your use of specific detail, handling of point of view and narrative stance, characterizations…all of these craft elements (and many more) web together to make this comfortable, honest, safe place for the reader to exist. And that place is the story you are trying to tell. God, is this making sense? I feel like I’m blathering.

Roz Not blathering at all. This is a good definition of the power of prose – inviting the reader into your emotional sensations.

Scott I remember the early drafts of the memoir possessed the wrong tone. It was too whiny and too mean-spirited. And I knew it. But I still existed too close to the story. That’s why I needed some years between first and final draft. I needed to find the correct emotional connection between me and story, one that the reader would understand and allow.

Roz When I’ve helped writers with memoirs, they’ve often needed quite a bit of midwifery, coaxing them to look more deeply, to excavate further. Sometimes to forgive themselves.

Scott I always tell my students, when you’re writing a personal essay or a memoir, you are a character in the piece. There’s a difference between the ‘I’ that writes the story and the ‘I’ that lives within it. Put the ego and the fear and the anxiety aside, and treat that person in the story like any other character in a piece of writing. Tell the readers exactly what they need to know about that character.

If you can create separation between I-the-Writer and I-the-Character, it helps with the level of honesty, I think.

Roz Inevitably, a memoir has to involve other people who are also in vulnerable situations, in this case your daughters and ex-wife.

Scott I resisted for many drafts pulling them into the story. I suppose that was because they had already lived through the trauma and I didn’t want their characters to go through it again. I know, very weird and probably therapy-worthy. But a very well-known writer, who picked this memoir as a runner-up in a book contest, told me I needed more of my daughters in the story to make it work. So I dialed up their presence slightly, but carefully.

Roz I liked your delicate approach – they aren’t named and they’re seen mainly in glimpses. But it was enough. What lines did you draw about how you’d involve them?

Scott I was very selective in the scenes they appeared and very precise (I hope) in the way I used their appearances.

Roz Did they see the manuscript?

Scott They’ve known about the book for years, but they haven’t read the manuscript. Actually, as I write this, I’ve just mailed them copies. I’m a little anxious about that.

Roz I also thought the book ended in just the right place.

Scott Endings are always hard, right?

Roz They’re hard enough with fiction. Even harder with non-fiction. Life doesn’t just turn off. You could keep going for ever.

Scott I tend to adhere to something I heard the novelist John Irving say. He said that when he begins a novel, he always knows the last line. It gives him a compass heading as he navigates the twists and turns of the narrative. So when I began this, I knew I wanted to stop when I returned from Italy. I wanted that bit of homecoming, and I wanted my daughters there. That seemed like an logical emotional destination. Of course, the epilogue gave me the opportunity to expand the ending slightly and tie up some loose narrative threads. But for all intents and purposes, the story ends when I arrive back home after the Italy journey. That felt right, felt like the narrative circle was closed.

For a long time, the structure was wrong. I kept experimenting. I had an agent who wanted me to do some weird time-warp, Quentin Tarantino thing with it. And one agent who turned me down suggested I rewrite the book as a novel. (It was a disaster.) A hugely important moment for me was when I read this amazing memoir by Sonja Livingston called Ghostbread. It’s told in very short chapters. I was captivated by that idea of a very staccato rhythm. I thought, I can do that. I can break my story into tiny fragments, all of which add up to the total emotional experience of the story. And that’s what I did.

Roz You have three titles releasing within a short time – Whereabouts was last October, Things That Crash is this month and The Hammerhead Chronicles is coming soon. Was that deliberate?

Scott Whereabouts appeared last October from Koehler Books, this memoir in March from Vine Leaves Press. The novel that was supposed to come out in June from the University of North Georgia Press, The Hammerhead Chronicles, has been moved to February 1, 2022. (They want to wait until the pandemic is over so we can visit bookstores and stuff.) And I just found out I won a short fiction contest sponsored by Springer Mountain Press, and that collection of stories, Idiot Men, will come out this August.

Roz Wow, you can’t be stopped.

Scott It’s kind of strange and wonderful that all of this is happening at once. I don’t have any explanation for it. I’ve been grinding for a lot of years with nice, but modest results—stories in wonderful literary magazines and anthologies—but nothing on the book front. Then I hit my early 60s and the floodgates opened.

Some of these manuscripts had some age on them and I rewrote. Some were new.

I don’t really worry about publication. I love seeing my work in print, but I don’t set out with the goal of publication. I enjoy the process and I enjoy practising my craft. I enjoy taking a tiny speck of an idea and turning it into a fully-developed story.

I don’t mean that I love writing. Writing is hard and soul-crushing and exhausting…but, man, when you get it right, when you work the process and the craft takes over and you create a story when one didn’t previously exist? That’s a good day.

 Roz It makes it all the soul-mining worthwhile. So how did you come to each of your publishers?

Scott I had writer friends who published with them or I researched them on my own or I read a book and said, “This is really good. Who’s the publisher?” I kept my eyes open and did my due diligence.

 Roz Do you have a literary agent?

Scott No. I’ve had an agent at various times, and it never amounted to anything.

Roz Same here. I’ve had two. Each time, it was a confidence boost, and I felt I’d made the grade, but I didn’t fit the markets they sold to.

Scott I’m sure agents are wonderful and necessary for a certain type of writer…but I don’t seem to fall into that category, which is fine. The world is a big place and there’s plenty of room for everybody.

Roz Do you have any tips for submitting to literary journals? Has being published by them helped you get deals for longform work?

Scott A writer friend told me that if you aren’t getting rejected twice a day, you aren’t doing your job. I took that to heart. I submit relentlessly, realizing that I’m going to get hammered with rejections. I don’t take it personally. When a story is rejected, it doesn’t bother me if I know the same story is out to another eight or nine magazines. I’m a grinder. I put my head down and keep moving forward.

Roz Was your family creative and artistic or did you create your own path?

Scott Growing up, my family wasn’t super artistic, but my mother was an avid reader and insisted we always have a book in our hand. (I remember in the sixth grade, my parents let me stay up all night, one a school night, reading Robinson Crusoe, cover to cover.) So I was always interested in books and stories and language, which led to me being an English major in college (when I realized my basketball career was over and I wouldn’t be the next Larry Bird). In college I took a couple of creative writing courses and I was doomed to start chasing stories.

Roz Have I remembered this right… during Things That Crash, you were working in advertising. Was that useful in your creative writing, or even a welcome antidote?

Scott I took a too-long foray into the advertising business. Being a copywriter taught me how to be clear and concise and fast. But I eventually had to get out and return to teaching and writing stories. I thought, If I have to think up another clever, 75-word way to convince somebody to open a free checking account, I’ll jam this pen in my hand. I think some of the precision in my language comes from those years in copywriting.

Roz You teach creative writing. What level/age group?

Scott For the past 17 years, I’ve been teaching creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, one of the nation’s only public, residential high schools for the arts. I teach creative nonfiction to high school juniors and seniors (usually 16-18 years old), and they are amazing. They have such energy and such seriousness of purpose.

Roz I want to linger on that phrase: ‘energy and seriousness of purpose’. Creative people never lose it. This is why I love them.

Scott I love talking with them about images and structure and intent and craft. Some of them continue their writing careers. Some don’t. But they ALL leave with an appreciation for language and the power it contains.

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. Even if we are teachers ourselves, there’s always more to learn. Where do you do most of your learning?

Scott I’ve been writing for a long time, Roz, and every day I wake up and realize I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And I consider that a good thing. You see, as writers, we’re always apprentices, and if I ever get to the point where I think I’ve got it all figured out, I hope somebody is standing nearby who can slap me back into reality.

 Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Scott You will never figure out the perfect way tell a story or build a character or construct a scene, because the world around you constantly shifts, constantly brings new factors into the narrative equation. The important thing is that you always try. Sit in the chair, respect your craft, chase the language around the page and do the best you can. Keep grinding.

Find Scott on Facebook Twitter @Scott_Gould and his website. Things That Crash, Things That Fly is published on 10 March 2021 by Vine Leaves Press but you can grab a copy right now.  

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

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Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber

Martha Engber is a wordsmith in multiple ways. You’ve met her briefly – when she asked me to write a piece about my horse. Her most recent release is a YA novel, Winter Light, but that’s just one aspect of Martha’s art and work.  So here she is in full – editor, playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, writing coach, journalist.

Roz What’s the core Martha, your recurring themes, the character types you’re most interested in? And where did they come from?

Martha I grew up in a nuclear family of two older sisters, a mom and a dad. My mom strongly believed women should be independent financially and in action, a sentiment with which my dad agreed. As such, my sisters and I mowed lawns, played to win, stood our ground in arguments and otherwise always believed females can do almost everything males can, other than pee standing up, which I’ve since learned females more talented than myself can actually do.

Roz I can see this will be a fun conversation. Sorry, you were saying…

Martha So running through all of my stories are girls and women such as 15-year-old Mary Donahue in Winter Light, i.e., strong in the way of strong females.

Throughout life I’ve been annoyed, no end, by cliched women characters who act like men with boobs. They talk tough, they fight like ninja, they’re brought into stories to be tortured or killed as a means of providing male characters with that final burst of motivation to win the day.

Roz Give me the better version…

Martha Women are awesome at working together. They’re flexible both emotionally and creatively. They’re willing to help one another and ready to try, and try harder, and try harder once again using all available resources and every ounce of passion and intelligence. And no, they don’t hate men. Quite the contrary: they work with males, while at the same time always angling to create new paths for moving forward.

My next book, for which I’m seeking a publisher, is about two young Native American women warriors of opposing tribes. How they challenge one another can only be described as very female.

Roz Tell me about Winter Light.

Martha It’s a story about what I witnessed in high school during the blizzard year of 1978-79. The characters are dealing with alcoholism and addiction.

Roz How did you ensure the details were correct? For instance, the alcohol and addiction aspects wouldn’t be handled in a 2020s way.  

Martha I used my yearbooks and memories about fashion and music, and research to refresh myself regarding the politics and cultural events of the time.

Roz I love the post you made on your Facebook page, about your protagonist’s cherished concert T-shirts. And this, her playlist. Why was YA the most suitable approach?

Martha Actually I had no intention of writing a YA novel. I wrote a literary story.

I grew up when there was no “YA.” My favorite books were those that didn’t pull any punches: To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies. Such stories left me with lots to think about and opened my eyes to the strife others suffer.

Both as a teenage reader and as a writer, I hated the idea of an author dumbing down a story for me in order to make parents feel less vulnerable to problems that take place somewhere within all families.

While I didn’t witness alcoholism and abuse in my nuclear family, I heard and could see those harsh stories taking place almost right next to me. Stories that weren’t cute or cliched or focused on a sweet teen romance. Instead, they involved brutal truths about our species, that if we’re abused and unhappy, we pass on that misery and ugliness. Only those who are strong, smart and get a helping hand rise to overcome their lot in life.

Initially I was disconcerted to learn my story would be categorized as YA, just because of Mary’s age. But I’ve since been encouraged by two facts:  50% of YA readers are adults, and many contemporary YA books take on tough topics, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Roz You describe your work as literary. There must be a hundred definitions. What’s yours?

Martha Thank you so much for asking! Over the years, I’ve honed this definition: a story for readers who like to puzzle over human nature.

Roz You have another novel, The Wind Thief.

Martha The story literally arose from the fact I love winds of all kinds: breezes, gusts, headwinds, tailwinds, etc. I began to imagine winds as sentient, with different personalities and motives. I gave that belief to the main character, Medina, who allows that fantasy to envelop her in an emotional cocoon to protect her from a tragedy she suffered when she was a girl.

The research was fascinating, which is one of the reasons the book took me 10 years to write, though honestly, I seem unable to sufficiently plumb the depths of any story in a shorter time period. I typically work on a story until I don’t see even one more connection I make or one more angle from which I can view the characters’ actions.

Roz I love this. I’m also a long-haul writer. You’ve also been a journalist, with hundreds of credits in the Chicago Tribune. Any specialities?

Martha I enjoyed writing medical stories, since science is so fascinating. I also enjoyed the features that took me on one adventure after another. I’ve toured a haunted hotel; spent time talking to ice fishermen in sub-zero weather; met Imelda Marcos, the infamous Filipino First Lady who accumulated a vast shoe collection; and witnessed amazing dance and music troupes that include the Kodo Drummers from Japan.

Roz I’m envious of those experiences. What rich ore for your work. Speaking of rich ore, you’ve distilled your editing knowledge into a book on character development. Why characters?

Martha Characters are the story!

If writers develop their characters properly and let those characters lead, those protagonists will write an exciting plot.

Most readers only know if they like your book or not. If you were to question them closely, though, they’ll comment first and foremost about whether they love your characters, meaning they find them consistent, believable and admirable.

Like most writers, I failed at most of my initial characters. Then I realized throwing readers a lot of details about characters tells a lot about them, but doesn’t give readers what they need most, the one detail that explains how a character ticks. And that’s the concept of Growing Great Characters From The Ground Up.

Roz What writing craft question are you most commonly asked?

Martha At the beginning of workshops I ask participants what questions they’d like to have answered, and this is almost always on the list:

How do I find my protagonist’s motivation?

That leads directly into character development, which ends up looking like this:

character’s defining detail —> what they’re most afraid of —> what they’re motivated to do (run away from that fear!)

The plot consists of pushing them toward that greatest fear by placing ever bigger obstacles in front of them until they run straight into their worst fear. Boom!

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to learn. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Martha I think creative brains are like bottom-feeding fish: we’re constantly sweeping up every morsel for possible nutrients.

Biggest problem-solving moment: in semi-sleep just before I wake up. Most significant moments of enlightenment: while deep into editing a scene in which the characters are only inches away and I can see and hear and feel them.

Greatest generation of ideas: art museums –

Roz Me too. Museums and galleries are like drifting through a beautifully curated dream.

Martha … and the journeys of other creatives, especially podcasts like Hidden Brain and documentaries like My Octopus Teacher that explore how humans think.

Roz So what’s your writing process at the moment? Does it change from book to book?

Martha I continue working until the story gets less terrible.

Seriously, every story begins as a huge pile of dung. Then it’s a matter of using my shovel to find that stupid, irritating, tiny, brilliant gem within.

My writing life would be a lot simpler if I stuck with one style and genre. Instead, I write poetry, experimental short stories, journalistic/opinion/personal essays, historical fiction, etc. But I like that variety, and understand each story deserves its own shape.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

Martha A memoir. Only within the last few months have I managed to wrestle the damn thing to the ground. What’s emerging is a poetry-prose hybrid that captures my personal upheaval. While not perfect, the story now has its own quirky, appropriate dwelling.

Secondly, I’ve started a book for writers based on my workshop regarding show vs. tell, and what a misconstrued piece of advice that is.

Roz Oh, it is. I explained it in one of my books and an author wrote to me and said: thank goodness, I’ve never understood it before.

With editing, journalism, workshops and running an author career, how do you find time for your own creative writing?

Martha Juggling time commitments is so tough! I want to do everything before I croak, which makes me busy, indeed.

I most likely have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which means I have a high need to move. I do so every day: hiking, biking, running, surfing, etc. Energy expended, I can then sit down to think in an orderly manner. I’ve followed that behaviour pattern since I was a kid: dance around, then write.

Creative writing is my zen, meaning the deep place I go to meditate on life. Once I’ve taken in information about the world through my other activities, that writing time is when I get to chew on the ideas and pull out every possible nutrient, whether for a poem, short story, book or other project.

In a good day, I’ll get two hours of creative writing, one-and-a-half hours of marketing and one hour of writing planning (workshops, new story ideas, submissions). That allows me the other hours to work out and train my clients. I’m also a fitness instructor and personal trainer.

Roz Tell me about that. I’m also a gym fiend. (And guys, you can find Martha’s fitness blog here.)

Martha Woohoo!

Roz Body Pump, running, dance, horse riding…

Martha It sounds like you and I need to work out together sometime! After this pandemic, come visit.

Roz I used to suffer from RSI but discovered that the more exercise I do, the fewer problems I have with shoulder, wrist and back pain. Also, it’s an utterly necessary complement to the world of imagination and words. Of course, I think about work while exercising. Nothing stops me thinking. But the thoughts come differently when my blood’s up. If I’m chewing on a story problem, I take it for a run and I find a solution that’s more aggressive and daring than if I sat at a desk… I found the midpoint of my last novel that way. (Here I wrote about writing and exercise.)

How about you? How does fitness professional Martha merge with writer-journalist-editor Martha and how are they different?

Martha The beauty of a creative brain type is that creativity sweeps across every moment of my day. Every choice I make, whether going for a run, making chocolate cake or mapping out a story, are all just variations on the need to squeeze out every possible moment of enlightenment.

The trick to accomplishing that goal is to daily move amongst a healthy swirl of activities, because each feeds the other.

The body is very much a chemical lab, and each body represents a unique mix of chemicals. No matter your capacity for movement — people are different in what they can do — some type of movement is necessary to circulate blood and oxygen to the brain so we think better and have the energy to create.

And when we create, we make the world a better place.

Roz We do. Thank you, Martha.

Find Martha’s website here, her blog here, and tweet her @marthaengber

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How I built my career – writer, typesetter and editor Amie McCracken @amiemccracken

How do you get a career working with words? We all have our own routes. In a new occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve turned their wordy bookwormy passions into their profession. Today: Amie McCracken

Roz How did you get here?

Amie In a roundabout way to be honest. Though I have always been obsessed with story and books and reading, I went to college thinking I would become a journalist. I double-majored in creative writing and photojournalism. When college ended, I tried my best to find a job in magazines or a publishing house. Nothing panned out; instead I worked as a veterinary technician for my dad as well as a smattering of other odd jobs until my husband and I moved to Germany.

It was then that I started getting into the freelance editing world. It really is my passion, but it took me a while to figure that out and to find my groove.

Roz What was the first step and how did it lead to paid work?

Amie I have worked my butt off, a lot of it for free.

There really is no clear-cut way to freelancing. It takes a lot of networking (how I met you, Roz!) and putting yourself out there. I worked for a few small presses to begin with, had a few mishaps in working for the wrong people—a vanity press at one point, eek!—but gradually I have built my reputation and now writers come to me.

Roz Same here. I did a lot of things I wasn’t a good fit for, but while doing them I met the right people. It takes years, taking whatever comes along, and also jumping on opportunities.

Sometimes you have to be really cheeky. I became an editor with Cornerstones literary consultancy because I found one of their flyers, advertising their services. I wrote to them and said ‘I want to work for you!’ Fortunately, the cheeky pitch is much less embarrassing on the internet than it is in real life…

Amie I have done everything from editing calendars and textbooks to mentoring authors through the writing process to proofreading magazines. Last year I finally had to create a schedule because I was booking projects a few months in advance. And now I’m full up four months out.

I think I knew I finally made it when I felt comfortable saying no to projects that didn’t interest me. That is a place of power as a small business for sure.

Roz Tell me about the creative writing element of your degree. What foundations did it give you that you still use today? What did you learn about yourself as a writer?

Amie As an author, I still call myself a hobbyist. It has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t have the self-confidence to say I’m a writer or author. It’s purely because editing is my career, but writing is my creative outlet. I do not want to turn that side of my life into a business. Though I am very happy to help other authors do so!

Roz Was your degree useful for your editing work?

Amie The act of writing, and having studied it in college, has of course taught me a lot of skills as an editor. I think the simple act of immersing oneself in story, via writing, editing or critiquing others’ work, and reading, is one of the best methods of improving your own storytelling. In the same way that language is best learned by immersion, taking in the language through as many forms as possible, writing skills improve the more time you spend with stories.

There are skills I have built upon that continually add to who I am as a writer and editor. I believe that the voice of a story develops as you write it (and then is improved upon rewriting), and the same goes for your voice as a writer. It is like a fine whiskey, improving with age and as you learn to savour.

Roz You’ve published in a variety of niches. Sometimes you’re in science fiction territory with Devolution and Emotionless. Sometimes you’re overlapping with contemporary real life (Blink and your latest release, Leaning Into the Abyss).

Amie My novels Blink and Leaning Into the Abyss cross into the magical realism genre, and I would say that is actually my bent. Both Emotionless and Devolution dig deeper into the sci-fi worlds, but are very light sci-fi as I don’t explain complex technology or math like other true science fiction does. So for the most part I am a magical realism author.

Roz Tell me more about your affinity with magical realism. What magical realism novels first made you feel at home there?

Amie Alice Hoffman is my idol. If I could write as many varied characters and as prolifically as she does, I would be proud. Her writing is something to dive into and get lost in. Every sentence is crafted beautifully, and the magic is utterly subtle but permeates every moment.

Robin McKinley writes farther on the fantasy side, but the gentle build of her plots and the beauty of the magic involved always entrances me.

The same goes for Erin Morgenstern. Her stories are much more fantastical than I will ever write, but the depth and emotional pull of her characters always has me in pieces.

Roz What makes an Amie book? Do you have any recurring themes, character types you’re most interested in?

Amie My books tend to ask a major question. Emotionless questions what would happen if we could remove hormones from our bodies (I am type 1 diabetic and insulin is a hormone, so I wondered what would happen if I could remove the problem instead of fixing it).

Roz Ah, much SF comes from our own personal experience of science!

Amie My novel Devolution asks what would happen if humans stopped evolving and we had to rely on genetically modified babies to kick-start evolution again. Leaning Into the Abyss asks what life would look like with a major shift via a catastrophic event (the death of a groom just before his wedding). So my writing is heavy on theme and is brought to life by the characters.

Roz You also have a non-fiction book, Giving Birth To Motherhood.

Amie Yes, Giving Birth to Motherhood exists because I am a mother and went through a traumatic birth. It helps other mothers write their birth story while looking at it from a psychological perspective for the motivations behind actions and reactions. It is intended to teach mothers to heal themselves and find catharsis through intentional journaling.

Roz And you have a bootcamp for writers… Six-Month Novel.

Amie I started Six-Month Novel with a business partner (Charlie at Urban Writers’ Retreat) because we both felt there was a hole in the offerings. Charlie runs writing retreats, both for a day and residential, and I work directly with authors, but we wanted something longer term that allowed writers (and us!) to focus on completing an entire novel. We didn’t want it to be the same as normal writing courses; we had heard of too many people completing MFAs and then getting stuck. So we don’t teach how to write, we simply help you find the habits that work for you and then keep you accountable so that you can complete that novel you’ve been wanting to write for ages. It’s a programme that is intended for seasoned writers who feel stagnated or afraid to jump into their next project.

Roz How do you find time for your own creative writing? Do you have a routine or timetable?

Amie I’m a very self-motivated person. I was homeschooled, which for me bred ambition and taught me to get shit done. So when I have a project ready and waiting, I jump on it every moment I have. I do tend to work better with larger chunks of time, and my husband is amazing at giving me entire weekend days or even writing retreats that last a week or so.

Roz That’s a great idea. And a great husband…

Amie I make sure and schedule things like that into my calendar. I’ve gotten very good at time-blocking since my son came along—when he is at kindergarten during the day, I focus on work; when he is home, I focus on him; and when he’s asleep, I focus on writing. I don’t really know how I’ve managed to get so much done. I’ve only published books since having my son five years ago. I often wonder what I did with all that free time before I had him! And really wish I hadn’t wasted it… Though I was building my business and travelled a ton and learned a new language and wrote a few first drafts and ok, I guess I wasn’t that lazy.

Roz I recognise what you’ve identified here. If I’ve spent days or weeks thinking or researching, I feel like I didn’t get anything done. But that time is necessary. Especially in the early stages of a book. It’s discovering the territory.

Amie One of the best things I’ve done for my writing in recent years was to learn a second language (German) and try to write in that language. It has opened up a whole other set of books to me, but has also pushed me to realize what language does on a fundamental, sentence-by-sentence level. I’m much more picky with my words now that I understand the impact language has on meaning and intention.

Roz Do give examples! I have a smattering of school French and German. While learning them, I was intrigued by the things they have words for that we don’t. Both languages have separate words for the two connotations of ‘know’. They feel that distinction is important, whereas we don’t. And genders – if you’re of a poetic bent, linguistic gender must add another dimension to your work.

Amie Most definitely! One oft quoted source is German fairy tales. In German, a girl is called das Mädchen. Das is the neutral gender, so technically a girl is it and in the case of ownership, you would use the equivalent of his with that noun. For example with Cinderella, “Es war einmal ein hübsches Mädchen, das war sehr traurig, den seine Mutter war vor Kurzem gestorben.” Literally: “Once upon a time there was a girl, it was very sad, because his mother was recently deceased.” This example, and other gendered nouns for humans, has led to some frustration in recent days when equality comes into the conversation. But it has me wanting to see if I can play with my English and really pinpoint the intention behind a sentence using the vocabulary while also keeping the implication instead of stating things baldly—showing not telling.

Roz Speaking of endless quests of learning, the arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to work on. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Amie Books! I read widely, including non-fiction books about writing, but I love dissecting classics as well as contemporary novels.

Roz Me too. I learn far more from novels than from craft books.

Amie I read for pleasure, but also to understand story on every level possible.

Roz Sometimes people ask me if reading analytically spoils the pleasure. I find it doesn’t. It’s part of the pleasure, the appreciation. I can analyse at the same time as enjoying. That means I’m a very slow reader. I can be trapped by a paragraph, perhaps because of its imagery or because of the way it delivers an emotion that’s been carefully set up earlier.

Amie I inhale the written word.

Roz I love the intimacy of it. Print into eye, into brain, into heart. A remarkable process.

Find Amie’s books here and her editing services here. Get her newsletter here and tweet her at @amiemccracken

PS If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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

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

Beginnings

Roz Tell me how Vine Leaves Press got started.

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

Roz How many titles do you have now?

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

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

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

New titles

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

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

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

The style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to impress Jessica

Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?

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

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

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

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

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

Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?

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

Strength in numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica (left) and VLP partner Amie McCracken

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

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

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

Marketing … the literary way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roz Is that your primary source of marketing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to – and how not to – run an online writing community. And publishing post Covid. Interview with literary agent Peter Cox of @Litopia @agentPete

You’ve seen the posts here about Peter Cox’s writing community Litopia – the home of Pop-Up Submissions, where manuscripts are critiqued live on air by writers, readers and a chat room. Sometimes the guest critic is me! I’ve always been impressed with the show. For a start, it looks amazingly slick. But underneath that is a genuine love of books and reading, who value writing that is done well.

On one of our pre-show chats Peter remarked: ‘someone should write a piece about literary communities. I’ve made every mistake in the book.’

Someone definitely should, I said.

So here we are. We also talk about the publishing world post-Covid: what might publishers be looking for? What do readers want? Can that question even be answered yet?

But first, Litopia.

Roz Tell me about Litopia. What is it, how long has it been running, how big is it now? What made you set it up?

Peter Litopia has been going for decades.  It’s by far the oldest writers’ community on the net.  We’re probably due for our silver anniversary round about now.

Originally, I was an early member of one of the oldest virtual communities online, the WELL.  This was an odd collection of folk, many of them connected to The Whole Earth Catalog, who thought it would be fun to set up an intentional community in cyberspace.  People such as Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold.

Roz I’ve never even heard of that. I just googled it and found it stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. I love that. It’s so retro-futurist. (Retro-futurism, You heard it here first.)

Peter Looking back, the WELL was always quite cliquey.  If you didn’t happen to be in with the cool crowd, who smoked a prodigious amount of dope by the way, then you weren’t really significant in the community.

It was a wildly optimistic time.  People naively believed that computers would democratize the world.  “Access to tools” was the mantra.  “The Future” was an exciting place – and most of us believed we were already living there.  The horrors of venture capitalism, Facebook and creeping state surveillance and control weren’t even on the radar.

From my experience on the WELL, I thought it would be exciting to establish a community just for writers.  Most writers already had computers.  And I felt there was an unmet need for social contact that legacy organisations such as the Society of Authors could not fulfil.

Roz I’ve mainly come across Litopia in the Pop-Up Submissions show. For those who don’t know the format, it’s a Dragons’ Den for writers. Five manuscripts are critiqued on air by you, two guests and the observers in the chat room. It’s a brave thing to do live online. We’ve all encountered the ugly sides of social media, but you’ve managed to create a civilised and constructive tone. At the same time, the show doesn’t pull its punches. Everyone’s there because they want to see honest criticism and they want to learn. How have you achieved this?

Peter Thank you, Roz.  That’s the tone we want to strike, and I think we mostly do.  Obviously, our choice of guests such as you is important 😊  But seriously, I like writers, always have done.  They are unusual people, not always well-suited to the mundane world.

Roz Totally. Writers – and other creatives – look into cracks that others don’t even notice. They ask questions that can’t easily be answered and aren’t necessarily of practical use, but nevertheless seem to make life a little more worthwhile. We often think we’re on our own, too. At school, I was always interested in the wrong things or the unusual angles. I didn’t realise that this was characteristic of a particular profession. I thought I just didn’t fit. (I’ve written about that here – I write because I’m totally unsuited to anything else.)

Peter Writers definitely see things a bit differently, and thank heavens for that.  They challenge and expand our own definition of what being human means.  A world without writers would not be worth living in.  So they need our support and encouragement, but also, our honesty.  When you write, you necessarily lose much of your objectivity, and that why (most!) writers need honest feedback during the writing process.

Roz Yes – and I want to briefly talk about that. We lose our objectivity because we have to commit so much to the work. We have to believe in it, spend the time to get it right, often making themselves vulnerable. I never forget this when I’m giving critical feedback to writers. The text they give me represents a huge investment of faith. (I’ve talked about this before: Why your editor admires you.)

Peter I know.  I think it’s a great privilege to work with a writer at that kind of level.  What we can do on Pop-Up Submissions is to give some objective feedback, but not in a destructive way.

Roz What mistakes did you make with Litopia in the early days? And even in the later ones?

Peter A great many!  A few years ago, HarperCollins set up something called Authonomy, which didn’t last long, and I believe cost them a few million.  It really is not nearly as easy to set up an online community as it might appear.

The first I mistake made was not charging anything for it.  I carried all the costs.  This was a huge mistake, because people expected me to provide more and more – and got angry if they didn’t get what they were expecting.  I think people are beginning to understand now that the net has the same economics as any other part of life.  If Facebook is free to you the user, that’s only because they are ruthlessly mining your data and selling it at a vast profit to shadowy third parties, including people like Cambridge Analytica and the security services.  Are you really comfortable with that?  Personally, I’d prefer to pay a modest amount for membership of a site like Litopia, and forgo the creepy surveillance!

Roz So Litopia has evolved into its own beast… How does that compare with your original idea? Would that original intention have been possible, do you think?

Peter We evolve by reaction.  Everyone has access to me and can suggest whatever they want.  Some things are not going to be technically possible, but many are.  We’re quick to seize the technical opportunity.  Some technology is surprisingly cheap and under-exploited, that area is always of interest.

Roz I have to mention the technology. This show is seriously sleek. Many video-podcasts are essentially like watching a Skype call – a screen split between two or three speakers. Litopia is like a high-budget TV quiz show. All the presenters appear to be in a studio, behind a massive desk. Scoreboards pop up, manuscript excerpts appear with voice-over readings. There are snapshots of the discussion in the chat room. Drop-ins of writing tips from previous guests. A moody black-and-white section. There’s some serious video-fu in this show.

Peter Pop-Ups is evolving as much as any other part of Litopia.  We made the (difficult) transition from audio podcasts to live video a few years ago.  The bar for good video is much higher than for decent audio.  Increasingly, we rely on our members to keep Pop-Ups going, because it is a complex beast.  Our guests are booked from New Zealand.  Our live scoreboard is operated from Spain.  All our fabulous narrators are scattered over the globe.  It all somehow comes together live every Sunday.

We have a strong ethos of mutual help, which is far more important that any single piece of technology.  If a suggestion fits with our ethos, and is technically possible, then we’ll do it.

Roz Are you a writer as well? How did you end up as an agent?

Peter I fell into writing when a publisher suggested I should write a book for them.  It quickly sold 100k copies and became a UK number one bestseller. That hooked me.

Then I met Linda McCartney and wrote her cookbook, which was also a no 1 bestseller and sold millions of copies worldwide. I was generally dissatisfied with the representation I had, sacked the first agent, got another one, sacked that one, got a third one, sacked them and finally came to the conclusion that I could actually do it better myself.  I went to the US in my early days as an agent. New York publishing was far more exciting than here in London.

Roz I’m interested to know how NY publishing was more exciting… And seriously, many of this blog’s readers are in the US. Do you see much difference between the tastes of American and British publishers?

Peter Well rather paradoxically, NY publishing has traditionally been rather more conservative, rather more risk-averse than the Brits.  So you often have to sell a project somewhat harder.  The upside is that if one publisher wants what you’re selling, others are very likely to, as well.

There is still an insular quality to NY publishing that is rather frustrating.  However, the fruits of success are so very much bigger than in the UK.  New York is a rather flatter society than London meaning that it’s really not difficult to get a meeting with the top people in a company.  Access is a bit easier and doesn’t depend so much on “the network”.  Also, there is a real appetite for success, whereas in the UK, some parts of the business are still run on rather old-fashioned lines – I quickly grew fed up of being told rather smugly by certain London publishers that ‘publishing is not like other businesses, you know’.  Actually, it is!

Roz Have you noticed any changing trends in the kind of manuscripts people are sending you?

Peter Very little non-fiction, which is a pity.  Powerful non-fiction is the backbone of publishing.  I love polemics.  Escapist fiction is on the up and up.  Depressing teen dystopia is done for the moment, we’re already living that nightmare thank you very much.  Anything that gives us hope and inspiration is well received.  Big ideas with a strong voice are money-makers.

Roz What changes have you noticed in publishing since the pandemic started? Any words of advice for authors who are hoping to find a publishing deal?

Peter It’s very similar to what happened post 9/11.  I happened to be in front of the towers when the second plane hit, although I only saw the fireball, not the plane itself.  Immediately, they closed all exits from Manhattan island.  Everything went into “lockdown”.

It took many months for publishing to raise its head again and to figure out what sort of books they should be acquiring, and that’s where we’re at now.

Roz Authors wonder about it too. Some of us came to a standstill, wondering what to write, what could possibly be relevant in a world that had changed so much.

Peter Publishers are scratching their heads and wondering what sorts of books readers will be buying in nine months’ time. Any writer who can confidently answer that question will immediately have our attention.  Over to you, writers!  😊

Find Litopia’s site here, submit your own manuscript here, follow Litopia on Twitter @Litopia and follow Peter on Twitter @AgentPete

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.. And what have I been writing these past months, indeed years? This.

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How do you get your book out into the world? Q&A on getting published: Ep 3 FREE podcast for writers

The book that you created as files on your hard drive… eventually ends up between covers, sitting on a shelf or an e-shelf, perhaps next to other books you admire, ready to be read by strangers. Exciting! But how does it get there?

That’s what we’re discussing today in episode 3 of So You Want To Be A Writer – getting published. Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Is self-publishing covered? It is, but obliquely. Self-publishing is such a wide topic that we devoted other episodes to it, but this is a good grounding if you want to go it alone. Good self-publishers follow many of the practices that traditional publishing has honed for, well, aeons.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia

Last Sunday I guested again at Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every 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 we had PR agent Kaylie Finn @kaylie_finn ).

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then talk about how they’re working – exactly as an agent would think about a manuscript that crossed their desk. This time we had YA post-apocalyptic fiction, a World War II spy thriller, a farce set in the world of British TV, a literary post-apocalyptic adult novel and a Cold War memoir. Issues we discussed included introducing a world and characters, stylised language, versatility of tone, orientating the reader so you don’t lose their attention, introducing a character with a peculiar problem, writing comedy, believability of a story concept, what makes a YA novel YA, ingredients for a historical novel, and how to get a toehold in the very competitive market for special forces memoirs.

Fascinating stuff – as ever, I talked loads, and I also learned loads from the responses of Peter and Kaylie. (That’s Kaylie and Peter in the preview pic.)

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

And meanwhile, here’s what’s happening to my own much-edited manuscript, plus a few other writerly tales

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Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter?

A few months ago, a blogger challenged me with this question. Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter? (Why would anyone ask me this? I have a secret past.)

And just this week, John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors wrote about the ethics of ghostwriting, how he was initially doubtful but is now using a ghostwriter for books of his own.

So here’s the short answer. It’s complicated.

Who wrote that book? Maybe more people than you think.  

Publishing has always been a team effort. This is often a surprise to readers, and also to inexperienced writers. There’s a belief that the published book is exactly what the author first sent to the publisher.

The reality is different. Your manuscript is only the start. It becomes a patient in a long and intricate operation. It will have editors, of several varieties – some for the big picture, some for the detail goofs you didn’t know were possible (how many Tuesdays did you put in one week?).  There are also designers, marketers and publicity folk.

Your book may have germinated from just you, but by the time it greets the world, it’s had many midwives.

With ghostwriting, you add one more midwife. The writer splits into two people – the person with the life, ideas and experience, and the person who crafts that into text.

But… (I hear you say…) all those editors, designers etc are assistants. It’s the writer who’s at the helm, who ‘invents’ the book. The writer might have guidance, sometimes heavy guidance, but they do the most work.

Up to a point, yes. But sometimes a person has the raw materials but can’t turn them into a book. Maybe they could learn; maybe that would be impossible. Maybe they could write but don’t have enough time. But when publishers spot a commercial opportunity, they are chasing an immediate market. They need it done fast.

Commercial

This is a crucial word: commercial. Ghostwriters are generally used in the high-volume sectors of publishing, The books are usually fronted by a person who is marketable because of fame or life or expertise, but doesn’t have writing-fu. Or perhaps they’re too busy running businesses, winning grand slams or saving the world. So a ghostwriter is brought in – who can write exactly what’s needed and in a timely way. If all goes well, everyone benefits.

But.. (I hear you say…) isn’t it a cheat? To imply that a person can write a book when they can’t?

Qualms

I agree with your qualms. Morally it is questionable. It might undermine the skills of real writers. We have a myth that anyone can write a book, probably because everyone seems to. Mumble-minded sports stars can do it, so it cannot be very difficult. Indeed, they apparently dash off a memoir or tome of life advice without pausing their all-consuming day job.

Thus the use of ghostwriters might make the public (and your aunt) assume that anyone can toss off a book. In their spare time, indeed.

There’s also an issue of trust. The byline is sacred, isn’t it? It’s the promise on the tin. It should be the name of the person who sweated the book personally onto the page.

Well, the ghostwriter’s sweat doesn’t go unacknowledged. Money is a good acknowledgement. Ghostwriting is paid at a commercial rate and there might be royalties.

Ghostwriters aren’t always invisible. Sometimes we get a co-credit. That depends on the individual deal and whether it looks ‘bad’ for the ‘author’ to have had help. Getting murky again…

Murk

Oh yes, there is murk. Sometimes the ‘author’ isn’t co-operative, or isn’t as interesting as the publisher hoped, or some of their content can’t be used because of legal issues. The publishing team must salvage what they can to get a book on the shelves. Usually no harm is done. Usually.

I can see you’re itching to mention Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. Its ghostwriter has gone on record to say the book contained hardly any Trump, yet helped create his reputation (full story here ).

What other murk is lurking? Oh yes, the kinds of books you think should not be ghostwritten.

But surely not novels…

Do you assume ghostwriting is only for non-fiction? Memoirs, business books, self-help, autobiographies? You’d better sit down. A sizeable amount of fiction is ghostwritten too. (Writing fiction for others used to be my speciality.  Shhh.)

Remember: in commercial publishing, books are sold by names and notoriety. Verily, even in fiction. Put another way, if a celeb needed help to write their memoir, they’ll sure need help with their novel. Some are entirely up front about this.

Even among the ‘genuine’ authors, there are books that have many midwives. James Patterson makes no secret of using other writers to help him meet demand. Others keep their ‘assistants’ a secret, or possibly don’t realise how much is done to make their book respectable. Many editorial staff in big publishing imprints have had to rewrite a manuscript because the author reached the limit of their craft or the clock was running down. Editing and ghostwriting are two ends of a long and blurred spectrum.

Does that worry me? Yes and no. As a writer who works hard at their craft, I’m not thrilled if a book that needed substantial rescuing gets a good reputation it doesn’t deserve. But that is commercial publishing.

If that irks you too, you’d better sit down, because I’m about to reveal something bad. No, lie down; it’s thoroughly grubby.

Are you lying comfortably?

There are authors who are offered novel deals with en-suite ghostwriters because they are distinguished in other areas of life. If those novels do well, those authors become literary pundits, judge literary prizes etc.

With most ghostwritten books, the deception is largely harmless, because the writing is not the chief draw. The content is. But where the writing is the thing… Any writer who is struggling to be recognised for their skill and quality will find that hard to stomach.

And breathe.

But…

Before we write ghosting off as evil and underhand, we should consider one defining factor. For the writer (the actual wordsmith writer) a ghostwritten book isn’t the same as your own.

The ghostwriter creates a book that someone else would write…. If they could. They don’t write a book and have it torn from their hands. They create a book to a contract, for a purpose. They apply their craft and skill to raw material from another person – a life story, technical or business expertise, a special world. In that respect, the name on the cover and the face in the author pic are honest. They are the true soul of the book. (Though see the caveats above.)

Perhaps ‘ghost’ is the wrong term. Perhaps it should be ‘medium’.

Business

Ghostwriting is also a business arrangement, like any professional service. It has to be, in order to pay both ‘author’ and ghost – and at a decent market rate. Ghostwriters are hired by publishers or by people who’ll get a good return on their investment, and many writers use it as a second line to help fund their ‘real’ books.

Which means that, amid the chicanery and shadows, there is an honest living to be made by the ghostwriter.

Thanks for Venice carnival mask picture, Sweetaholic on Pixaby. Thanks Olivander on Flickr for the monkey. Thanks Actualitte on Flickr for the London Book Fair.

If you’re interested to know more about how to break in and how the industry works, I have a professional ghostwriting course.

And if you’re curious to know what I’ve been up to in my genuine writing life, here’s my latest newsletter

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Writing memoir, taking control, long-term careers – talking to Victoria Dougherty about the 21st century author

What qualities characterise a 21st century author? I got talking about this with my friend Victoria Dougherty and she wanted to chew over it properly on her podcast.

You might recognise Victoria because she’s been on this blog several times. She’s a prime example of the phenomenon we’re discussing. She writes historical thrillers and memoirs and develops into new genres as life goes on – because real authors don’t stand still and they know the world doesn’t either. We talk about indie and traditional publishing and the pros and cons of each, the peculiar challenges of memoir, how we love travel writing and places that are weird and adorable, Vladimir Nabokov, some guilty pleasures and how the fiction we’re writing affects the outfits we wear (very serious question). Do come over.

And if you’re curious to know more about my own adventures, here’s my latest newsletter

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