Posts Tagged memoir

How I made my writing career – writing coach, novelist and memoirist Gina Troisi @Troisi_Gina

How do you get a career working with words? We all find our own routes. In this occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve made writing the centre of their life and now have a distinguished publishing reputation. Today: Gina Troisi, who has award nominations, writer-in-residence posts and is now about to release a memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, with Vine Leaves Press.

Roz Tell me how you got here.

Gina I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade—it sounds cliché, but I clearly remember learning the writing process in the classroom, and becoming fascinated with it. I grew up writing furiously in journals, crafting stories and poems; it was a creative outlet I desperately needed, but I barely showed my work to anyone. I had very little confidence.

As an undergraduate, I majored in English Literature, and after college, there was a stretch of years where I took writing classes out of a local woman’s home. I was going through a very difficult time in my life, but these classes offered me the best kind of solace. It was this fabulous teacher, Nancy Eichhorn, who suggested I apply for an MFA, and encouraged me to submit my work for publication. I began working on my MFA in 2007, and I spent that time focusing on craft and technique; I immersed myself in the act of becoming a better writer. When I completed my MFA in 2009, I began to send my work out for publication.

Roz Your memoir, The Angle of Flickering Light, is about your troubled childhood. Were there many steps before you felt able to show the manuscript?

Gina Oh yes!

Roz How many incarnations did it go through?

Gina In some ways, I’d been writing about the themes my entire life—about my childhood, about recklessness and the act of numbing oneself, and about the search for identity and belonging.

I’d been writing about those themes my entire life… my childhood, recklessness, the act of numbing oneself… the search for identity and belonging

Gina Troisi

Roz When I’ve worked with memoirists, it’s a long struggle to find the wisdom and insight to give readers a meaningful experience.

Gina I think writing memoir takes a great level of self-awareness. We need to get to a place personally where we understand ourselves—our actions and our decisions, our patterns, and the ways in which we’ve been shaped.

I remember hearing the author Joyce Maynard say that in order to write a memoir you have to “let the ashes cool.”

Roz “Let the ashes cool…” I love this.

Gina It takes time to process the moments that have made up our lives, and to gain an honest perspective. I had to reach a point where the “I” in my book was just another character.

Roz Also, we change.

Gina We encounter so many versions of ourselves throughout our lives. 

Roz Yes, and we might not realise unless we write about a time when we were much younger, or under great strain. I see it in my old notebooks, the things that upset or amused me ten years ago, twenty years ago. I recognise where the feelings came from, but I would not react that way now. And then other things are exactly the same, they never change.

The Angle of Flickering Light has been commended in several awards over the years, as far back as 2012. Tell me about its gestation.

Gina The book originated when I was in graduate school. My intent was not to write a book-length work. But I found that I was generating stand-alone essays with recurring themes and characters.

I originally presented the book as a collection of essays back in 2012, and I began sending it to agents and small presses. In 2013, I received interest from a small press, but the editor wanted major structural changes, and to morph it from an essay collection into a memoir. I dove deeply into that revision, but the press decided to pass. So I found myself with two versions of the book, and by this point, I wasn’t sure which was the more structurally sound. I took a break to focus on other projects, but continued to send the original version out to contests. At the end of 2018, I returned to the memoir with fresh eyes, and I spent about seven months reworking it.

A couple of authors from my graduate program, Penny Guisinger and Alexis Paige, had both published books with Vine Leaves Press. I read and loved both of their books, which led me to other VLP titles. The writing was exceptional, and Jessica Bell’s covers are amazing. I decided to submit, and to my great delight, they accepted the memoir.

Roz Inevitably a memoir will involve real people. How did you handle this?

Gina I changed many names and places. I also omitted details and characters, and sometimes merged and compressed events and moments. Every choice I made was to either protect the privacy of others, or for the sake of narrative clarity.

Roz Tell me about that beautiful title.

Gina The original title was Shadows on the Sidewalks, which is a title of one of the chapters. The chapter focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is struggling with heroin addiction. But while much of this book is about wandering and restlessness, about movement and motion, I didn’t want the title to indicate that the relationship in that chapter was the focal point of the book. It’s actually about the narrator’s relationship with herself.

The Angle of Flickering Light is a line from an intimate moment in the narrative, and I like that it’s an image, but also speaks to the idea of finding flickers of light in darkness. The book is largely about hope and resilience, and about searching for light within, rather than outside of oneself.

The book is largely about hope and resilience… searching for light within oneself

Gina Troisi

Roz Yes, it works well. As you say, the title is the reader’s lens for the whole book. The Angle of Flickering Light is also mysterious, alluring. It beckons you in.

Let’s talk about the structure you used for The Angle of Flickering Light.

Gina Structuring this memoir was the most challenging part of the process, particularly because it covers such a wide range of years. When I returned to the book in 2018, my main goal was to find and thread the narrative throughline more tightly in order to clarify and highlight the heart of the story.

Roz I love that moment – when I finally grasp the emotional purpose of the book I’m writing. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m always looking for it. That’s when I understand what to do with my material.

Gina Once I found the prominent thread, I attempted to tailor each chapter to illuminate it, and it enabled me to veer off into the past or the future as I saw fit—to move around in time more freely.

Roz Moving on, you’ve been widely published in literary magazines. Was it all leading towards this memoir?

Gina I think a lot of it was, yes. But there are also themes and subjects that tend to enter my work often, no matter what genre I am working in. Some of these are addiction and perseverance and mortality.

Much of my work explores the ways in which we survive. And I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people—in the way we connect with one another in raw and authentic ways.

Roz Who do you like to read? Who are your influences?

Gina Oh gosh, there are so many. Joan Didion, Andre Dubus II, and Alice Munro are a few of my heroes. Jeanette Winterson. Lynda Hull, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver for poetry. How about you?

Roz Many, many many. From your list, Joan Didion is a favourite. Also Hilary Mantel for the way she explores the humanity of historical moments. Ann Patchett for her sweeping sense of romance, even though she does not write romances, if you see what I mean. Taylor Jenkins-Reid for sass. Janet Fitch for rawness – read her and she seems to take your skin off. Meg Wolitzer too. I’ve just read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, very slowly. Not because it was difficult, but because I wanted to savour every moment.

You’ve studied for an MFA and also taken a writer in residence post. What did these experiences give you? Methods, routines, anything else?

Gina My MFA was a low-residency program, so I attended seminars and workshops two times a year for ten days at a time, while the rest of the year I worked one-on-one with mentors, and met monthly deadlines. This schedule taught me how to incorporate writing into my real life—to prioritize it over almost everything else, and to integrate it into my world despite my work schedule or personal relationships.

Roz This is so wise! I remember when that happened to me. I found myself among people who always had a book on the go, or maybe more than one. I had tried various creative pursuits, but had missed the essential lesson – how to make an art the centre of my life, which was what I needed. I suddenly felt at home.  

Gina The writer-in-residence post gave me the beautiful gift of time, and also allowed me to work with some wonderful creative writing students. Both experiences offered me inspiration, stimulation, and purpose.

Roz You’re a writing coach as well as an author. How do you protect your creative energy while also giving your best to students?

Gina I love working with students, and I find it feeds and nurtures me creatively. It’s such meaningful work. I am doing it less and less since I started my day job at an educational assessment company a few years back because in order to protect my writing time, I often have to say no when I’d like to say yes.

Roz You wrote a terrific post about this on Ian Rogers’s blog, But I Also Have A Day Job  In it you describe so well the artistic lifestyle – the freedom to wander, the patchwork of randomly acquired jobs that let you make writing the centre of your life. But you found it all had a price.

Gina For many years, I resisted the idea of a full-time job because I was terrified it wouldn’t allow me enough time to write. So I juggled part-time jobs with various schedules: I tended bar, I ran a writing center at a community college, I taught and tutored. I ate meals in the car while driving from job to job. I had no health insurance, barely any savings, and no money put aside for retirement. One day I added up how many hours I was working, and I found that I was working at least 40 hours a week, but without any of the benefits, like paid days off and holidays. And I thought, how did this happen? I decided it was time to reassess what I was actually resisting, and to try a new approach.

Roz How do you unwind?

Gina Hiking in the woods, visiting the ocean, listening to live music. And of course, reading. There are also times when I collapse on the couch and give in to Netflix.

Roz What are you working on now?

Gina I am working on two novels-in-stories. One of the collections revolves around a particular restaurant in a small New Hampshire mill town. It explores economic and class issues, and consists of a cast of characters who thread a larger narrative about the way it’s possible to find and form surrogate families.

The other collection takes place in a coastal Massachusetts town, and is focused on the lives of a married couple who lose their only child in a tragic car accident just after he turns eighteen. It poses questions about parenthood and loss and perseverance, and it sifts through what ultimately sustains us during times when it seems that nothing will.

Roz Profound questions. Do they have working titles?

Gina The working title for the restaurant collection is called Then You Were Gone, and the other collection is called What Remains.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Gina I find that most of what I have learned about writing aligns with what I have learned about living. That being said, I think the most important trait for a writer is perseverance. Discipline is a close second, but it is essential that we are able to handle rejection. I tell my students that the difference between those who publish and those who don’t is the refusal to give up, and I deeply believe that.

You can tweet Gina @Troisi_Gina, find her on Facebook, Instagram and her website. The Angle of Flickering Light is published by Vine Leaves Press. Find it here.

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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I wrote a trauma recovery memoir in lockdown – what now?

This email just arrived.

I have completed a manuscript about my childhood trauma and how it shaped my life, to tell my truth, to finally heal and put it behind me. I need to know if it is good enough to publish and am therefore seeking an editor who can proofread and correct mistakes.

Has any other year taken us so far into reflection and self-examination? These last few weeks I’ve had many emails like this.

So if you’re considering these questions, here are some answers.

You don’t need an editor yet

The first phase isn’t to look for an editor! Especially not a paid one. But you’re right to seek another opinion on the manuscript.

Beyond spelling, proofreading and publishable writing

You need to look at more than spelling mistakes and proofreading.

Here’s something that few people suspect unless they’ve had a memoir published. The manuscript that the writer completes, in those solitary, searching hours, is not usually ready for readers. This is not a question of spelling and polish. It’s about writercraft and your audience.

The writer’s draft, the reader’s draft

We write memoirs, initially, for ourselves. And that’s a considerable feat. We collect the material, get it straight in our minds and set on the page. Talk our soul through its troubles, tell it to the page. Bring order, maybe catharsis, closure.

For some, that journey may be enough – and has immense value in itself. But that’s not usually a version you can publish.

Not just about you

For a reader, the memoir is not just about you. It is a journey for them to understand the world through your unique experience. While they will respect your honesty and ordeals, and will want to be on your side, they’ll need help.

There is much your reader will find difficult to understand – people, behaviour, motivations. So they will need context – more than you realise.

They’ll also need more insight than your private memoir might have provided – insight about the other people, insight about you. Memoirs of this type have to navigate some of our most uncomfortable behaviour – when we were deluded, or scared, or cruel. When you write for yourself, you might not have to acknowledge all these dimensions, especially if you’ve been harshly wronged. But if you write for a reader – who is a stranger –  you often need a higher degree of wisdom about everybody’s muddles, imperfections and worries. You don’t necessarily need to forgive or redeem them. But you do need to understand them.

You

You also have to apply these principles to yourself. Although you’re the ‘I’ voice, the reader doesn’t know you. To them, you are a character in the story, so you must present yourself with the same care, context and insight as any other character, so the reader can know you. This might involve considerable self-examination.

Writercraft

As well as reaching this state of insight, a memoir also needs writercraft. Real life is sprawling and messy. It’s writing craft that will organise this sprawl in a way that will keep the reader engaged.

You need a structure, with a beginning, an end, and some turning points along the way. Although these ideas are more commonly discussed for fiction, they’re just as necessary for real-life stories because they’re essentially how you keep the reader’s curiosity, empathy and attention. Real life doesn’t, in real time, fit narrative paradigms, but you can stretch and condense passages so they form a narrative shape that is compelling.

Especially, consider the ending. Your experience, as lived by you, doesn’t have an ending, but the reader needs one. Where will you let them go? At what point have you given them a satisfying experience? Your book’s ending might be anywhere in the real chronology – in adulthood if the story happened to you as a child. Or you might prefer a more adventurous structure – beginning with the present, swinging backwards in time, then coming again to the present with new eyes. Time in real life is unreversible; in narratives it can do whatever you like.

Other points about structure

There’s also the pacing. Someone else’s pain can quickly become abstract and repetitive. Even the most sympathetic reader can become dulled unless you keep a sense of narrative progress. There’s more about this in my plot book.

How many characters?

You also might have to reorganise your characters. In your personal memoir, the version behind closed doors, you probably included absolutely everyone. But this might be too many characters for a reader to grasp.

Why is this a problem? It’s because the reader is not you. To you, each person is different and distinct, drawn into your story in their own ways. You know all of these intimately, because you lived it, but you don’t have the space to give all that context to the reader. So in a memoir, you usually need to trim your characters.

Also, you need to think about them as dramatic roles in your journey. You often need to combine several real people into one character who represents a force – a supporter, a mentor, an antagonist.

A further point. Can you write about these real people? Even if they’ve moved on from your life and you don’t see them face to face, the internet can keep everyone together. And publishing a book certainly can. You are only a tweet or an email away from anyone’s reaction. You might have to worry about libel, so you have to be very careful about what you say about a person who can be identified.

To answer the question: do you need an editor?

An editor is not what you need at the moment. What you should do now is more drafts.

Keep this one. It serves a valuable purpose in itself. Start a new version, the reader’s version. This time, look beyond your pain.

Look beyond yourself too. A memoir needs to understand everyone, or at least give them the chance to be understood. This applies also to you. There’ll be things you’ll wish you’d done differently, for good or bad. Your actions, reactions and protective behaviour. Understand yourself in those moments and those decisions. You will judge yourself a lot, but while you do that, also remember you’re human. And so is everyone else in your story.

Although you might not need an editor at this stage, you might benefit from a writing buddy who can look at the manuscript and explain where they don’t understand your thinking, where you’ve failed to give context. If you’re struggling to find a structure, they can also suggest where you turned a corner and didn’t realise. And even where you might end.

This might take many passes. That’s normal. I’ve been interviewing a few memoir writers recently on this blog and their books took years – to acquire the distance, the wisdom, the fullest appreciation. Find them here.

First, breathe. Then write a draft for the reader.

Thanks for the green shoot pic, Neal Herbert, Australian Dept of the Interior

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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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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How to write a memoir about difficult times

I’ve had this question from Julia.

I would like to write a nonfictional account of my experience as a caregiver of my 80-year-old mum during lockdown. I’ve never done any creative writing. Where do I start? A diary, a memoir? I’ve been through a lot of struggle and want to put that on paper. Maybe someday I will publish it to share my experience with people facing the same difficulties.

First, Julia, capture the raw material. Start with a diary. Write it as often as possible, before you make any decisions about what to do with it.

How to write the diary

You might be self-conscious to begin with. You might worry about who will read it and what they’ll get from it. Forget that for now.

You won’t publish this diary. It’s notes that you will eventually use to create a book. So for now, it’s you and your thoughts, talking privately to a page or a recording app – whatever is comfortable.

Keep it simple. Just write what you did today. Then write whether that was usual or unusual, and how. If it’s usual, for how long has it been usual? Write how that made you feel, what was difficult and what was a pleasure, and why. Write what you think tomorrow will be like. Or next week. Write your hopes and pleasures and fears.

Do this every day, or as often as you can.

Don’t edit

Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t try to edit as you go. You’re not trying to write the proper book yet. That’s a separate job for later. Just capture vivid moments, hours, days, weeks, in all their honesty. But you probably won’t repeat yourself as much as you think. Even if the events are largely the same, your thoughts and insight will evolve. You will also become better at sharing deeply.

Add context

When you’re comfortable with this, start to include other material that will be meaningful for a reader. Context that lets us know who you are, where you’re coming from, how this is changing your life and changing you. At some point, write what you were doing five years ago, 10 years ago, one year ago. Anything that feels significant.

Don’t delete

This will be an emotional document. You might regret things you wrote in earlier pages. If so, do not delete them.

This is an essential part of your growth. It is the truth of the situation you seek to share. You’re not trying to be a perfect person; you’re aiming to be an honest human who is sometimes angry or self-indulgent or wrong or foolish. So if you find yourself disappointed about earlier writings, examine that disappointment, and what you would now do or think differently. Recognise also that you are likely to change your mind again.

Start planning the book

After a while, you’ll notice patterns and themes. Continue to write your daily accounts, but start a separate textfile or notebook. You’re now ready to think about the big picture. How you’ll use your diaries to create a book that can connect with others.

Certain material in the diary won’t be relevant. Also, you’ll need to add. But remember, a memoir isn’t your whole life; it’s usually the story of a specific struggle. You might have many memoirs in you. What is the focus of this one?

We are made of many memoirs

At the same time, this focus might be more complex and far-reaching than you initially thought – this situation might force you to grapple with other problems and issues. Or you might want to include material about other significant people – perhaps your mother herself. Write notes to experiment with these ideas. See what seems a natural fit.

Also, look for what makes your story unique. Although you are writing about a situation that others also find themselves in, yours will have a unique impact on you, and you will have a unique way of handling it.

From my interview with Peter Selgin, author of The Inventors

Other aspects to consider

You need to be objective, honest and fair, which is hard – see this interview with Peter Selgin.

Two more links on gathering material and shaping it for others to read. My radio show with Peter Snell. Also this post about the writing of Not Quite Lost (a much happier subject, but it started with private diaries).

More on choosing what to focus on, the idea that our lives contain many stories – how fiction writers adapt to memoir.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. 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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Our formative years, our formative music – The Undercover Soundtrack, Ricky Monahan Brown @ricky_ballboy

Most of us, when we use the term ‘formative years’, are referring to our teens, the time we began to discover who we would be. The music from that time is always stitched into our identity. My latest guest on The Undercover Soundtrack has a second set of formative years, with its own soundtrack – which began on the day he suffered a catastrophic stroke. The memoir he published was one of The Scotsman‘s Scottish Books of 2019 (and he is now a big noise in the world of edgy live storytelling… just look up Interrobang?!) Ricky Monahan Brown is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack – and watch out for the special discount for readers of the column…

 

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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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Reaching readers if you write in multiple genres – could crowdfunding be the answer? An interview

What do you write? Not so long ago, most authors had to choose a genre and stick to it. But many of us are far more versatile. Our minds and our hearts don’t stand still. Book by book, we push boundaries or leap into genres where we hadn’t previously felt at home. As life reinvents us, we move on in our work.

No-one worried about that in the Renaissance, but it rarely went down well in traditional publishing, perhaps for sound commercial reasons. But now authors have more tools to reach audiences by our own efforts. We can take charge of our careers and our creative destinies. Will this breed of polyphonic, genre-agile author finally have their day?

I do hope so.

This path isn’t always easy, and that’s what I want to explore today.

You might recognise my interviewee – Victoria Dougherty, who recently hosted me on her blog and has also been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack.

We’ve both got eclectic portfolios. I’ve done non-fiction with my Nail Your Novel books and literary fiction that sometimes nudges into futurism. Victoria writes Cold War historical thrillers and personal essays. We’ve both written memoir after a fashion – she has Cold; I have Not Quite Lost. And Victoria has a radical new departure into young adult historical romance, Breath (coming summer 2018). What’s more, she’s having her first stab at crowdfunding – another brave new world.

We’ll come back to the crowdfunding in a bit. My first question was this: how have you ended up with such a varied oeuvre?

Victoria Honestly, I think I’m just bored easily. And I’m usually writing more than one story at a time, too. I find it keeps the creative juices flowing and also adds texture to my work.

Roz How do you manage them all?

Victoria Currently, I’m switching between Breath edits, storyboarding a new Cold War thriller, and writing essays on everything from family squabbles to creating compelling male characters.

Roz So much for versatility. What’s consistent in your work?

Victoria History, spirituality, family lore, dark humour. All of those tend to find their way into my work in one way or another.

Roz I have recurring themes too. I am curious about forces that lie beneath the surface; unusual ways we can be haunted and how we seek soulmates. At heart I’m an unashamed romantic. Places with lively pasts are often a trigger for me – crumbled mansions, houses scheduled for demolition, seaside towns closed for the winter.

Victoria I’m so with you on this, and I, too, get haunted by places. I wrote The Bone Church after visiting an ossuary near Prague with my then infant son. There were bones piled up all over the place. It occurred to me how there were so many different manners of death in that small chamber. People who had died of childbirth, a sword to the ribs, plague, a broken heart. The whole experience made me ache – but in a good way.

The ossuary at Kutna Hora, Prague. Pic by David Staedtler

Roz Your latest project is for a new audience – YA fantasy. What steered you in this direction?

Victoria I never thought I’d write in this genre. Especially a romance, which is a genre I haven’t read very much of. But several years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Modern Love column in their Sunday edition. It was about my youngest daughter being born with a catastrophic illness and how that brought my mother and me closer together. It was also about the curious, counter-intuitive blessings that come with tragic events. Things like wisdom, deeper friendships and getting to know people so far out of my own little universe. Hospitals are tremendously equalising that way.

I could not have imagined the response I got from that essay. People began writing to me, telling me about their stories – their love stories specifically. I have a blog, Cold, where I write personal essays, so it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for people to tell me about their lives, but this was different.

Told you you’d seen this before

Without meaning to, I started training my writer’s eye on love. I noticed that every time I wrote an essay about love – especially the romantic kind – there was a swell of interest. Then I started writing little love stories for my own amusement – sometimes no more than a paragraph long. One of those, about a girl born at the dawn of civilisation, became the basis for Breath.

Roz And Breath is more than just prose, isn’t it? There’s artwork too.

Victoria I’m a very visual person. I love old photographs especially, and as I was writing Breath, I dreamed up a pre-Sumerian civilisation and imagined myself on an archaeological dig, excavating my characters’ lives. That’s when I started thinking of adding a visual component to this novel – original artwork from the world I’d dreamed up and old, brown-tinted photographs from some of the great archaeological digs, like the ones taken in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. And I loved the idea of writing about past, present, and perhaps even future archaeologists, as they uncovered my fictional universe and helped my characters solve the mysteries of their existence.

Roz So the visuals will be published in the book? Or will they be a separate special edition?

Victoria Both. I think prose and images go together like a face and a voice and can really enhance a story – especially if it’s a planned epic, where a whole world is being created. This isn’t to spoon-feed a certain aesthetic to a reader, never that, but to enhance their experience with elements of beauty and mystery that go beyond the written word. Take their imaginations even further.

Roz Let’s talk about crowdfunding Breath. How did that happen?

Victoria I’m one of 10 authors selected by Instafreebie – a company that connects readers and authors – to pilot a program that teaches authors how to use crowdfunding not only to fund projects but to energise and expand their fan base.

Roz To me, crowdfunding has one rather offputting aspect – having to push for contributions. But obviously you’ve found a balance that suits you. Tell me how you do it – and how other authors might be persuaded to embrace it!

Victoria This is without a doubt the hardest thing to get over. I’ve come to look at it this way: crowdfunding is a bit like venture capital for artists. No-one blinks when any other business raises money, but somehow artists are expected to self-finance, often work for free and even give their work away without any compensation. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking and in fact find it untenable.

Roz I’m totally with you there. I’ve blogged about it at length elsewhere. We can’t give the impression that books can be produced out of fresh air or just for love, like a hobby. Even priests and doctors get paid. All the other people who work for us need to be paid. Creating books is not free. And writing them isn’t either.

Victoria For most artists, entrepreneurship is the only way we can continue to do what we do. We need to move beyond our own reticence and value what we offer. Joy, meaning, reflection, empathy, and entertainment are worthy and important elements in our lives. They should never be taken for granted.

You mentioned doctors, so I’ve got a good analogy for you: I remember my doctor, who was from Sri Lanka and used to run a medical clinic for the poor there, telling me how once they started charging patients, the entire dynamic of the clinic changed. They were serving the poor, so they only charged a pittance, and were barely able to buy coffee with what they took in, but both the function and the spirit of the clinic changed remarkably. Not only did the patients become more vigilant about their health, they trusted the doctors more and were far more likely to listen to their advice and change unhealthy behaviours. The overall health of the clinic population improved as a result.

The same is true with us artists and the people who consume our work, I think. It’s a pretty basic human response – to invest in something that means something to you rather than just be a passive observer.

Roz I want to do some tyre-kicking here because what you say is so important. A lot of crowdfunding campaigns don’t meet their targets. How do we get people to care enough? Especially as readers could buy a book that’s already finished and have it immediately. What makes them want to pledge money and wait for the product? How are you tackling these challenges?

Victoria Not only has this crowdfunding process forced me well beyond my comfort zone, it has illuminated how to deepen my relationships with present and future readers so that they feel connected and my characters begin to feel like a real part of their lives. Like family.

Roz How are you doing that? Can you give examples? You’ve mentioned to me that it’s already been a formative and amazing experience. Tell me how! And what feedback have you had from supporters to show that it’s working?

Victoria For me, it’s about creating value and making the experience as interactive as possible. Writers spend a lot of time alone and most of us are interior people, but we’re not necessarily introverts. We love being able to talk to readers and feel honoured when they share their stories with us. In fact, I truly consider readers like friends. We confide in each other, support each other, and are there during times of loneliness and self-doubt. The rewards I’m offering in my Breath campaign reflect that. It’s not only a matter of offering advance copies, which are great, but deleted scenes from the novel, personal emails, an exclusive short story and even story-consulting.

Roz Are there any common mistakes that authors make with crowdfunding and community building?

Victoria The first mistake is that they won’t try it. I can tell you without reservation that even if my campaign isn’t a funding success, what I will have learned and experienced in this process has been worth it. As for campaign mistakes – there are a lot of them, and I would have made them all if I hadn’t gotten such excellent advice from Instafreebie.

Videos are crucial. People want to know who they’re dealing with. It builds trust and makes your page more interesting. Really thinking through rewards you offer, so that when people get involved, they feel like they got something substantial in return for their support. Always, always focus on the reader. That’s probably the most important part.

Roz You mentioned that Instafreebie is helping with tactics, especially in terms of using the campaign to establish a long-term fanbase. How does that work? Can you tell us a few surprising things they’ve taught you? What is the basis of their expertise?

Victoria First, they will be featuring our books in their newsletter and then sharing our campaigns with those who expressed interested in our genres. They’re doing their best to create a virtuous circle for us. Most importantly, they’ve taken us through – step by step – the way to build a successful campaign page. That doesn’t mean the campaigns themselves will all be successes – even veteran campaigners have unsuccessful campaigns under their belts – but it helps us minimise mistakes, certainly.

Roz I want to return to where we started – the author who doesn’t fit into tidy boxes. There supposedly are two ways to market books – by category and by author. The latter is the slow road, because we have to seek commitment on a deeper and more individual level.

But whatever we write, I think community will become more significant for all of us. And everything you’ve been saying here chimes with this prediction by Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors.

More and more authors will embrace the craft and trade of publishing and business as well as that of writing, and develop sustainable author businesses that allow them to make a living from their writing. At the heart of this will be working out their offering to readers and how to build a  community around that offering.’

I love this emphasis on community. Although writing is apparently a solitary activity, we have phenomenal resources for harnessing the positive energy that readers give us if they like our work.

I think readers enjoy keeping in touch and – like you say – feeling involved. I’ve particularly noticed it after publishing Not Quite Lost. People feel they know me. It opens a conversation and they want it to continue. And that’s lovely. It’s not cynical, about selling.

Some authors are setting up private Facebook groups – though I feel that’s risky because Facebook likes to move the goalposts if they think they can monetise. I’ve started using my newsletter much more. In that past, I didn’t know what to do with it.

I used to send newsletters only when I had a book or a course to launch. A year could go by before I had a piece of news, and all the while I was losing touch with people who hoped I was working on another book. So I decided I’d try writing more regularly, about the in-between times while a book is taking shape. Sometimes it’s about making progress; sometimes it’s about life and going round in circles. Like a blog but more personal. Some people unsubscribed because that wasn’t what they were expecting, or they’d forgotten why they were ever interested, but most have stayed with me. (Winning smile: if you want to try it out, it’s here.)

What I’ve described here is slow, of course. It has to grow organically. And here’s where I guess crowdfunding creates an occasion, a way to invite people in because it’s the start of something. It not only kick-starts a book, it can kick-start your community.

Have you got any final thoughts on this?

Victoria You said it so well. We’re in this for the long game and it’s not cynical. It’s actually very special and deeply gratifying.

You can tweet Victoria on @vicdougherty, find her blog here, here books here, and her Kickstarter campaign here. 

Thanks for the ossuary pic Davis Staedtler on Flickr

What am I up to behind the scenes? My latest newsletter

And this blog begins 2018 on two lovely best-of lists. Both The Write Life and Feedspot nominated it as a Top 100 site for writers and self-publishers. If any of you were instrumental in this, xxxxxxxx

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The culture of a close marriage and weird little trips – guest spot at Victoria Dougherty’s COLD

I ran into Victoria Dougherty a while ago in a Facebook group and recognised a kindred spirit. Not just because she writes fiction, personal essays and memoir, but because of the way she is inspired by family, place and relationships. (Take a look at this piece, Growing Old(er) Together, and tell me you don’t want to know her too.) She took a shine to Not Quite Lost and invited me to her blog, Cold, for a chat about the culture of a long marriage, the delight of exploring places that no-one else would bother with, the micro-cultures of quiet English towns and whether I should get out more. She raided my photo album too, as you can see. Do come over.

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A childhood home: read an excerpt from Not Quite Lost – in The Woolf

Those walls and rooms, the fields under that bright spread of sky, contained me in my earliest years. A family house is one of your guardians. As a quiet, imaginative child, I had spent as much time alone with it, on my inward paths, as I had with its people. I had a relationship with it in its own right.’

This is from the opening piece in Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, just published in the winter edition of The Woolf. The piece is an obituary for the Arts & Crafts house in Alderley Edge, Cheshire that was my family home and was demolished in February. The Woolf has made a special feature including my photos, so if you’re already familiar with the piece you can see the wood-panelled hall, the distant view of Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the house with its original windows and its ‘bus-garage’ makeover that I was so snooty about. And a rare sighting of the giant stone ball that caused a madcap afternoon long, long ago. Do come over.

Prefer to go straight to the book? Find it here.

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The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now available. And it looks like this.

Save

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