Posts Tagged Jessica Bell

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

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

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

Literary

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

What’s your system for judging?

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

What about gut instinct?

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

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

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

How much roughness can you tolerate?

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

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

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

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

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

Who’s Ian Rogers? More here

Literary vignettes and flash fiction

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

Jayne Martin

What’s your system for judging?

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

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

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

What about gut instinct?

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

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

Jessica Bell

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

Jayne Craft. Does the writer know their stuff?

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

How much roughness can you tolerate?

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

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

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

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

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

Who’s Jayne Martin? I interviewed her here

Who’s Jessica Bell? I interviewed her here

An all-genres small press mentoring competition

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

What’s your system for judging?

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

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

What about gut instinct?

For those questions, gut instinct became my biggest steer.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

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

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

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

Children’s writing competitions

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

What’s your system for judging?

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

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

What about gut instinct?

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

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

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

How much roughness can you tolerate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I discuss it with the contest organiser.

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

A local competition for first-time writers

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

What was your system for judging?

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

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

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

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

How much roughness can you tolerate?

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Annalisa Crawford? I interviewed her here

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

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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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Dear me: how fiction authors adapt to writing memoir

If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my newsletter you’ll have seen I’m taking a creative interlude to work on a collection of travel memoir pieces. It’s a new kind of book for me and it’s raising some interesting challenges, particularly as I’m used to the freedoms of fiction.

So I thought I’d gather together a few other fictioneers who’ve crossed into memoir to discuss the differences.

Let’s meet our novelists-turned-memoirists.

Jean Gill

Jean Gill @writerjeangill has published in a wide variety of genres – historical fiction, fiction in translation, teen novels and a goat cheese cookbook. Her memoir, How Blue Is My Valley, is an as-it-happens account of her first year living in Provence.

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers, who you might recognise from The Undercover Soundtrack and this post about ghostwriters and their soul projects,  had two novels published by small literary publishers, and then a big bestseller with her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair, which kicked off a career as a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs. She has continued to write fiction, and her second memoir is an account of her hybrid publishing adventures: First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It.

Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell @msbessiebell will also be familiar from The Undercover Soundtrack. She’s a musician, writing coach, graphic designer and publisher, has released seven books of fiction and verse. Her memoir is GO: A Memoir about Binge-drinking, Self-Hatred and Finding Happiness about her dysfunctional childhood, teen years and music career.

Real events

The most obvious difference between novels and memoir is, of course, real events. And this creates an artistic problem. Real life is messy; it lacks the structures that do much of a novel’s work. Personally I’m enjoying it; the need to stay within boundaries is a challenge. I asked my authors about the main challenges they faced with their material.

 

Joni: ‘The least interesting thing in a cancer memoir is the cancer. I had to distil the complex medical aspects of the story in a way that did justice to my experience while maintaining a compelling pace for the reader. I won’t even pretend I did that on autopilot. I had a terrific editor with an unsparing eye.’

Jean faced an additional challenge with her book because she was writing without a predetermined shape. It was a day-to-day diary of events as they unfolded. ‘Authors with any sense write memoirs looking back, so they can find patterns and resolutions. Instead, I was writing the book ‘live’ as workmen destroyed the house around me and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I haven’t kept a diary since the ones I gave up as a teenager with cryptic codewords.’

Jean says her approach paid off, though. ‘Fans have told me this is part of the book’s charm. The immediacy of all those first impressions, of being in love with Provence, is not filtered by artistic shaping. Moving to another country is always about what you take with you: physically, mentally and emotionally. I came to understand that from writing my memoir.’

How we come across

One of the hardest things to judge with such a personal book is how we’re coming across. As the writer, we know everything and the reader knows nothing, and I know I’m going to be relying on beta readers more heavily than usual. Joni and Jessica say they couldn’t have done it without editorial support.

Joni: ‘Beta readers and a good editor are crucial. I’ve had the good fortune to be edited and mentored by amazing professionals at Big Five publishers and prestigious small presses, so maybe I’m spoiled, but candidly, I was disappointed in the editor I hired to do First You Write. Even more disappointed in the copy editor. Fortunately, my beta readers were top drawer. The Midwives, my critique group at the time, was an amazing posse of well-read, widely published authors, including Barbara Taylor Sissel and Colleen Thompson. That crit group was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally and personally.’

Jessica says she also could not have done without a professional editor. She began by writing her book as vignettes, then attempted to fill the gaps. But I knew deep down that they were not satisfactory. When I invested in a professional editor, I discovered that many details were lacking. Because I knew my life so well, I didn’t have the same need, or instinct, to explore every fine detail like I do when writing fiction. When writing fiction, I am completely immersed in the details, and also creating those details for myself. When writing memoir, those details already exist. It’s so easy to not realize they aren’t apparent to your reader. The effort it took to dig them out was my biggest hurdle. I felt like I was constantly repeating myself, when in fact, I wasn’t at all. It’s really interesting how unreliable we are as writers of our own lives. I now know that I will still need that editor with my second, third, and fourth memoir.’

(Modest shuffling of feet: Jessica’s first editor was me. To slip into that role for a moment, I’ve worked on many memoirs and each time it’s a special privilege to be invited to help shape such personal material. I also happen to know that Jessica’s editor for the second version was Dan Holloway, so – a shout-out to him.)

Jean had an unexpected source of feedback when her memoir was being made into an audiobook: ‘If you want to know how you come across, nothing beats having to listen to the narration and having to explain to a top voice actor just how funny you thought that sentence was. Even now, the thought makes me hot with embarrassment.’

Real people

Inevitably some people in our memoir will be recognisable. What do we do about that?

Jean says: ‘I changed the names of all but immediate family and I let my sisters read it beforehand, so they could raise any objections. They didn’t.’

I’ve also been contacting people who are recognisable and letting them read the relevant excerpts. And Jean brings up another principle that I’m following: ‘I considered every word I wrote from the viewpoint of that person reading about themselves. Ask me again in a year’s time as the book is being translated into French, so all the villagers will be able to read it. My hairdresser has promised to let me know if we need to sell up and leave the village.’

Jessica says she asked permission from family and close friends to reveal their true identities. And that was nerve-wracking – I remember having a conversation with her behind the scenes on Facebook as she gathered the courage to show the manuscript to her mother.

‘I’m very lucky they gave permission,’ she says. ‘For those I don’t have contact with (or don’t wish to contact) I’ve changed physical attributes, names, and certain characteristics. Sometimes three people have been merged into one character. People who know me and the people in my memoir will most likely be able to work out who is who; I don’t think there is any way to avoid this. The only thing we can do is change our characters enough so that they can’t be recognised by random readers.’

Joni had to write about her family in close detail during traumatic events, especially her husband, Gary. I asked whether that was awkward.  ‘I did struggle with this invasion of Gary’s privacy. He was supportive in a very unexpected way: he didn’t read the book. He said he wanted me to tell the story I needed to tell without feeling like he was looking over my shoulder. To this day, he hasn’t read it. The one concession he asked was that I decline an option on film rights, even though we desperately needed the money. Chemo left us bankrupt. Thanks, American healthcare system! When the film option came up, our children were still small, and I wasn’t in remission. Gary and I agreed that if I died, a movie could be confusing and unhealthy for our kids in later years.’

With that in mind, I think we need a brief feelgood interlude. Here’s a very soppy picture of Joni and Gary.

 

The difficult memories

Jessica had to steel herself to revisit some of the events in her book and was tempted to leave them out. ‘I had a really hard time writing about them. But my editor convinced me to bite the bullet.’ (Just call me Rozweiler.)

Joni also had to grapple with difficult memories. ‘My desire to help other women with cancer far outweighed any awkwardness. Cancer destroyed me physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually, and financially, and while I was in that crucible, I craved honest conversation about taboo topics like money and sex. To leave out the awkward and even humiliating moments in that story would have been a disservice to readers with cancer, and it would have felt dishonest to me.’

What to leave out?

And not everything belongs in your memoir. Joni says: If life is a sprawling country garden, a memoir is a cut flower arrangement. Choices have to be made, and some are difficult. Here again, I have to sing the praises of my editor, the late, great Marjorie Braman at HarperCollins. Throughout the process, Marjorie focused a single beam of light—the book’s reason for being—on every anecdote, character, sentence, syllable. Much of what I know and practise as an editor now, I learned from Marjorie as we worked through Bald in the Land of Big Hair and my subsequent novel, The Secret Sisters. She never told me what to do, but she always asked the right questions.’

That pruning process might not be straightforward. Jean says that at the time of writing, one of her children was very depressed, and she found her own feelings of helplessness overwhelming. ‘This memoir wasn’t about trauma or therapy so the details of my private life were irrelevant. But I felt silly writing happy little thoughts without acknowledging that pain. This is how I dealt with it. I acknowledged it for the only person who mattered to understand:

‘Happiness is an utterly selfish emotion. How can you be happy when someone close to you, isn’t? How can you be happy in the face of war, starvation, poverty… And yet. How does your misery change others’ lives for the better? Who is helped by your depression? Isn’t it from some kind of secure self that you can reach out a helping hand?’

We are made of many memoirs

But Jessica says each of us might have many memoirs in us. ‘Just because something has happened in your life, that doesn’t mean it has a place in the memoir. For example, to the disappointment of those who have gotten to know me online, this memoir doesn’t talk much about my writing career. That’s an entirely different story, unrelated to my child- and teen-hood, and love life and music. And then there’s my humorous and devastating story of running a café-bar in Ithaca, Greece. I realised these didn’t belong in GO. They are not related to my psychological struggle. They are related to the side of my personality that is confident and ambitious. And they need their own book.’

So let’s sum up. Here’s the gathered wisdom on writing a memoir:

  • Beta readers and a good editor are crucial for helping us understand how we come across.
  • Seek permission from real people who will be recognisable, and if possible let them read the relevant sections. Change the details of others so they can’t be identified. Consider every word you write about another person as though they were reading it.
  • If your memoir is about difficult experiences, dig deep and remember that these details are part of the honest journey.
  • Not every experience will fit in one memoir. As with fiction, check that everything serves the story you’re telling. If it doesn’t, consider keeping it for another book.

Thank you to my panel. Here’s where you find them

Jean’s blog is here and she’s on Twitter as @writerjeangill.  Jessica’s website is here and she’s @msbessiebell. Joni says she’ll be hosting a memoir writing retreat this autumn, her website is here or you can follow her on Facebook.

And if you’re curious about the book I’m currently working on, here’s my newsletter.

Bonus! Here’s an episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss the memoirist’s art.

Any insights to share about writing memoir? Or questions? Fire away.

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2 days to get 7-novel box set – the band is about to split

Remember us?

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The band is about to split. Our magnificent seven will soon scatter. The box set containing our seven novels will evaporate at the stroke of midnight BST on Saturday 23 May.

We might even resume our normal colours.

Here’s a post that explains the box set experiment. Here’s one where we were asked just what kind of political statement we thought we were making. And, in case you feel like tackling a similar venture, here’s one where we explain lessons learned.

And here’s what it’s all about:

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And here’s a pretty thingy to watch

So, for the final time, you can get the box set on all ebook platforms here.

And in the meantime, I’m taking a blogging break this weekend, but I’ll be back with The Undercover Soundtrack as usual. See you there.

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How do we label ourselves as writers? Guest spot at Dan Holloway – and the box set is available NOW!

Women-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlForgive the capitals in the title. That’s the problem of being in a group of seven, rather excited writers who’ve been working towards this moment since November. Our ebook collection, Outside The Box: Women Writing Women, went live yesterday. If you pre-ordered it, it will have arrived on your ereader. If pre-orders aren’t your thing, you can grab it right now, because it vanishes on May 24. Oh, and it’s seven full-length novels, so clear a weekend or seven.

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authoright 1We’re getting coverage all over the place, including the UK national press. (This is why the release is such a moment of relief and excitement.) But today I want to highlight a particularly thoughtful, searching interview put together by Dan Holloway. He’s asked tricky questions:

Is this collection a marketing idea, a political statement or both? What are our common threads (aside from the possession of two X chromosomes)? danDo they help us come up with a ‘label’ for our diverse range of books? What should that label be? Do labels in fiction cause problems? What about the position of women writers in literary fiction? And, my own favourite: is it better for writers to be ambitious and fall short, or to succeed on more limited terms?

It’s a good discussion. Do come over.

And once again, this is our ensemble. And we are very excited.

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Bereavement, a bid to exist, a way to control an antisocial persona: why we write

why we write pauline blogWomen-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlFear not, I won’t inflict every post on you that we release for the Women Writing Women campaign, but this is one that celebrates and explores creativity. Pauline Baird Jones invited us to answer the question: why do we write?

Inevitably, this led us all to search for where we started. And here you see something we all have in common – not just the group here but all of us on this journey. Carol Cooper did it to get into the best gigs at college.  Jessica Bell did it because otherwise she felt she’d disappear. Jane Davis did it after a friend died. Kathleen Jones did it when she ran out of stories to read as a child on a remote farm. Orna Ross did it to give an overdramatic teenage personality a safe space to express. Joni Rodgers did it when blood cancer put her into isolation. And me? An overexpressive kid with something to prove, I guess, and too much shyness to be big in real life. Come over to Pauline’s blog and discover the full story.

And if you feel inclined to share, tell me here: why do you write?

 

 

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Seven genre-busting novels – introducing Women Writing Women

Women-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlYou remember I posted recently about authors collaborating? Well, I wouldn’t advise you to do anything I wouldn’t try myself.

If you know me – and some of my friends – on Facebook, you might have seen some coy posts about how we’ll be revealing a big secret project.

Well here it is.

Seven writers of quality indie fiction are releasing an ebook collection called Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.
We’ve each of us proved our worth with awards, fellowships, teaching posts and commercial success. We’ve all self-published to keep our hard-earned independence and our artistic identity. Now we are teaming up to create an ebook box set of novels that feature strong, idiosyncratic female protagonists. And it will be available for just a brief period – from February to May 2015.

Power in a group

Now here’s where we can explore the power of the group. We’ve already been interviewed by The Guardian books pages, Books + Publishing (the Australian counterpart of Publisher’s Weekly) and have interest from the arts programmes of BBC Radio 4. If any of us had approached them on our own, we probably wouldn’t have got even a reply. But together?

We hope there’s more to come. Much more. These last few months we’ve been working behind the scenes, making contacts, sending emails. Certainly I’ll have a lot of learning to share about pre-launch campaigns. I am learning loads from these guys. (I should say ‘women’, but you know what I mean.)

So what do we hope to achieve?

To hit some charts, obviously. To reach readers who are hungry for strong literary fiction beyond the bounds of traditional genre tropes.

We also want to prove that fine, original authors are self-publishing as a mark of independence and integrity, and doing work of value and quality.

You might ask: is that still necessary? Does anyone still consider self-publishing to be ‘vanity’ or second rate? They clearly do, because this is one of the issues we’ve been asked about most frequently. And we have all encountered attitudes in the books world that demonstrate we are regarded as inferior. Try joining a professional body, applying for a grant or entering an award, or requesting a review. (Happily, we are already changing minds. Book bloggers who are wary of self-published books have welcomed us.)

Who are we?
Our coalition is:
Me, obviously (more than 4 million books sold as a ghostwriter, creative writing coach for The Guardian, literary author, editor);
Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Publishing by The Bookseller;
Joni Rodgers, author/ghostwriter of multiple NYT bestsellers, short-listed for Barnes & Noble Discover Award;
Kathleen Jones, widely published Royal Literary Fund Fellow and frequent BBC contributor;
Jane Davis, winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Award hailed by The Bookseller as “One to Watch”;
Carol Cooper, physician, medical journalist, and winner of the 2013 BMA Book Award;
Jessica Bell, publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and author of the bestselling Writing in a Nutshell series.
You’ll also know them all from The Undercover Soundtrack, except for Jane who doesn’t use music in her creative process. (But maybe we can change that!) Find our ‘who are we’ page here. And yes, you can see we dressed up for the occasion.

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How much?
The collection is priced at USD$9.99 GBP7.99 – yes, that’s not throwaway pricing, but at roughly £1.15 per book it’s still a bargain. The box set (or e-anthology, if the word ‘box’ raises your hackles) will be available for just 90 days from February 20, though pre-orders have just opened now. Right this minute.

Out and about
We’ve got a host of blog appearances planned. We’ll be sharing plenty of information about the hows and wherefores, the triumphs and pitfalls. We’ll also be talking about our publishing journeys, our inspirations, our methods. And our work – our unconventional characters and their relationships, our themes and topics like body image culture, abortion, prostitution, euthanasia, domestic abuse, same-sex marriage, bereavement, psychological recovery and rogue healers.

If you have a blog and your readership would be interested in us, we’d love to be mentioned – or interviewed if that’s what you normally do. If you want to tweet about it and like lists of pre-prepared tweets, find them here. And if you post a review, fill in the form on this link and we’ll send you a digital swag bag that includes a free book plus lovely links, delicious downloads and some playful surprises.

Our hopes
If nothing else, we hope to bust some barriers in 2015. We want to prove that indie publishing is a positive choice for writers of quality, to show that writers can make good publishing decisions and lead the creative process. And if you’re happy with traditional publishing, we hope to add more power to your arm, by demonstrating that authors should be included in business and promotion decisions, treated as partners and offered fair deals.

It’s going to be exciting. Check us out at www.womenwritewomen.com.

7 unforgettable books by award-winning #WomenInLiterature. Only $9.99! Avail. Only 90 days! http://goo.gl/D1fyqW #WomenWritingWomen

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

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

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When book sales are slow… how to keep motivated

hare tortoiseThis morning I was scratching my head for a post to write, so I asked on Facebook for ideas. Immediately, Vivienne Tuffnell volunteered this great question: ‘How do you keep motivated when your books aren’t flying off the shelves?’

Before I could even type a reply, Zelah Meyer had countered with: ‘delusional optimism and a long-term view’!

 

Which is about what I would say (at least, the second bit).

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve done everything possible to ensure your books are up to scratch, with appropriate covers, well-honed descriptions and sharp metadata. You know the book’s good. You’re doing all you can, as your promotion budgets and tastes allow. But those sales aren’t stacking up.

How do you take courage?

Build volume

Keep calm and build a body of work. Actually, I see this as the only possible plan. Writing is a lifelong thing anyway. If you’ve had the gumption to start, and stick with it, it’s a default habit built over years. Having ideas is as usual as taking breaths. You finish a book and you don’t settle until you’ve got another under way.

Also, building a portfolio makes business sense. Whether we’re the Big Five/Four/Three/Two/AmazOne or an individual writer, this is what we’re doing. With more books we get more chances to be found by readers. And when we are found, we look like more of a presence.

Does this mean you have to churn them out? No. We are taking a long-term view. Write and publish fast if that suits your nature, your material, your market. If it doesn’t, you’re still building a body of work. However long the book takes, once it’s finished, it’s out for ever.

But everyone else…

What about all those posts on Facebook, G+ and Twitter where people share a stellar sales rank or triumphant sales numbers? Some days that can be like a big wet slap. Even though you know how sales ranks surge and plummet by the hour. What can you do, apart from congratulate them – and write?

First, remind yourself it doesn’t reflect on you or mean you should ‘do more’. (Except write. Did I mention that?)

And second, there is something you can do. Keep making meaningful connections, fishing in the internet sea for the other people who think like you, write like you, read like you. Writing is all about connection anyway.

Also, remind yourself how the ebook jungle has changed. I published Nail Your Novel when there was far less competition, and clocked up a good 10,000 sales with so little effort I couldn’t be bothered to count any further. I now can’t believe it used to be so easy. Now, with all the books clamouring for readers, we have to work so much harder for each sale.

Jessica BellCould you write non-fiction?

Author/editor/songwriter/poet Jessica Bell (left) wrote about this recently at Jane Davis’s blog. I hit on this strategy myself, completely by accident, when I wrote Nail Your Novel. In fact, if I hadn’t got those nonfic titles I’d be feeling pretty discouraged, simply because selling literary fiction is hard, hard, hard. My novels sell only a fifth as many as my Nail Your Novels. But that means I’m five times as thrilled by a fiction sale as I am by a Nail Your Novel sale (though I’m still quite thrilled by those, thank you very much).

 

What if you only have one book?

A significant number of writers have just one title, and feel no desire to write another. Creatively that’s fine. One book might be all you need to say. Ask Harper Lee. But you are likely to feel this sales problem very keenly. Especially if it’s fiction.

fordI do know writers who made a big splash with just one novel. For instance, John A A Logan with his literary thriller The Survival of Thomas Ford – but he published at that goldrush time, when a free promotion could work miracles. It was many years before he released another book, and the momentum he got with the first kept him going nicely. He also supplemented it with a lot of hard work on Kindle and Goodreads forums. Now, though, it’s rare that one book will get you noticed enough.

In this situation, your best bet is to go for volume (again). Team up with other likeminded one-book authors and form a collective. Perhaps release a box set.

If the book is non-fiction, you could use it to launch a speaking or tutoring career, which gives people more chances to encounter you. It’s the volume principle again – but you’re producing performances instead of books.

It’s not all about sales

Let’s remember we don’t write simply to chase sales. Except for a few stellar bestsellers, there are more lucrative lines of work. But the satisfaction factor? Every new comment from a reader, every email, every new review, tells me I’m writing what I should be writing. It’s worth the struggle.

Stop this relentless positivity, please

So this probably all sounds very well adjusted. Do ever stop being so darned positive? Certainly I do. I had a towering strop recently when I saw a report of a speech at a publishing conference where the delegates were discussing how much credibility to give indie authors. It all hinged on sales; nothing else. No thought for originality, craft, quality. It reminded me that the publishing world does not want to give authors credibility if they publish themselves – and if we do, they assume we must be at some junior, paint-by-numbers level. Which is insulting for just about everybody – genre authors included. After that I was not positive at all. Measured in that way, EL James would have far more credibility than Henry James.

But we’re playing a long game. For some of us it is longer than others, but the answer is the same. Write more books, and write them well. And remember the main contest you’re in is not against other writers. It’s against your own standards and hopes; the struggle to do justice to your ideas and your talent.

This post probably isn’t startling information. But if you’re also having a crisis of confidence, I hope it helps. And I really hope my optimism isn’t delusional. This is Zelah, by the way. She really can do this. I’ve seen her.

 Thanks for the hare and tortoise pic CarbonNYC

Any thoughts to add? Share in the comments!

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7 stages of writing a book – video discussion at IndieReCon

7 stagesDo you need help to get your novel started or finished? Four of us experienced scribblers talk about how we stay creative through the tough times and reveal our secrets for drafting, fixing and finishing, not to mention keeping our confidence. Solutions include running, composing music, meditation and lying on the floor scribbling on sheets of A4 using the hand you don’t normally write with.

My co-conspirators are Orna Ross (who is the author of Go Creative, several literary novels and leader of the Alliance of Independent Authors), Kevin Booth (who’s a translator as well as an author and trained as an actor before he took up writing), and Jessica Bell (who runs the Vine Leaves Literary Journal as well as having a parallel career as a singer-songwriter, which you might well know already from her appearances on The Undercover Soundtrack).

We’re forming the creative posse at IndieReCon, a free online conference for writers at all stages of their publishing careers. Do come over – and check out the other terrific events in the line-up. There’s info from all kinds of experts in publishing, writing and marketing.

Anyway, here we are, wrong-handed and full of ideas.

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