My new book, Saving Lucia, is out on 30th of April with Bluemoose books. My editor there has been Lin Webb and I have so enjoyed working with her. Look what we made, as part of a team at Bluemoose.
It occurred to me it would be fun to interview Lin, reflecting on the editing process for me, but also because I knew she would be full of advice and ideas and we thought these things might be really useful for a new writer – or perhaps any writer. I have asked her both general and specific questions, including those to highlight the particular challenges we faced on my own book. Finally, I wanted to draw attention to the role of an editor on a book. They are vital and you can learn so much. There is a degree of self-editing you do when preparing your manuscript for submission – and I hope you may find tips for this stage if that is where you are now – but when that book is accepted it is the skill of the editor which brings it to press: they see things that, perhaps, you do not and, with a firm hand if necessary, your book has a chance to be polished; to shine. It is vital, therefore, that you work with and not against them. I have had a few rocky writing and publishing experiences to date and I am sure most people do, but working with Lin has restored a sense of fun and self-belief, too: I will always be grateful to her. You will see, also, that Lin shows you how she is part of a team, for example referring to going back to Kevin and Hetha at Bluemoose and particularly Hetha (another very experienced editor as well as co-director of the press) on the thorny issue of punctuation in this particular book. Now that brought us to some tremulous then rather wonderful changes…read on.
TEN QUESTIONS WITH LIN WEBB, SENIOR EDITOR AT BLUEMOOSE, DRUMMER, WOODWORKER, AND ALL-ROUND GOOD EGG.
What do you enjoy most about editing?
I enjoy the whole process: familiarising myself with the text, getting onto the writer’s wavelength, and working with them to shape, smooth and polish their manuscript. Seeing the book go out into the world buffed up to a shine is deeply satisfying.
Building a rapport with ‘my’ authors is a bonus which enhances the editing process and has led to some lasting friendships. I’m very fortunate in working for a small, independent publisher that adopts writers into the Bluemoose ‘family’. The editor/writer relationship can be very different, depending on the context. Some editors make only two or three passes through the manuscript; I‘ll go through it dozens of times, getting to know the work as well as the writer does. The big publishing houses employ different editors for each level of editing, whereas I’m likely to see the work through from start to finish, albeit with back-up from other editors if needed and fresh eyes at the proof-reading stage. I believe that this makes for a better experience for the author, as well as a satisfying one for me.
Could you describe any particular challenges for you as an editor? That is, in general terms, what are the trickiest things about editing a book?
The aim of editing is to make the book the best possible version of itself (while preserving the author’s voice, of course), but some authors think that their book is already the best it can be and may be resistant to cutting or changing any of their carefully-chosen words. If I say that a sentence is unclear or over-complex and the writer retorts, ‘That’s just your opinion’ or ‘Nobody else has complained’, I know it’s going to be an uphill struggle at first. Eventually, one hopes, they will accept that I’m working on behalf of their readers, as well as with the writer and for the publisher, and become more receptive to suggestions for improvement.
As an editor of some years’ experience, might you comment on pitfalls for authors – perhaps about structure of narrative? I understand that there is a degree of subjectivity here!
One of the most common pitfalls is cramming in too much information too soon: an interesting opening is followed by a surfeit of explanation and a history lesson. The writer needs to know all the back-story, but readers need a lot less detail, and the essential elements should be dished out in small helpings.
Do you have any pet hates? Appalling things that your authors do. For example, sloppy speech punctuation, non-English words placed in italics, strange crimes against apostrophes – you name it!
I do wish that writers would check their default language setting in Word and change it, if necessary, from US to UK English before they start on their manuscript. I can change the submitted work to UK English, but I have to spend time checking for US spellings and punctuation differences. My other pet peeve is finding that writers have moved to a new page for a new chapter by pressing Enter repeatedly. (Anna’s note: WHO WOULD DO SUCH A THING?) This means that any changes to the text will move the start of the chapter, so I have to go through and delete the multiple returns and insert page breaks instead. If writers know how to insert page breaks, it saves my time for more important editor-y matters.
Other than these time-sinks, I don’t have a problem with people’s peculiarities of punctuation, spelling or grammar – although I’m sometimes surprised by new strange crimes against apostrophes.
Any advice for writers in terms of looking back critically at your own manuscript? Tips and things to watch out for?
Reading your work aloud is invaluable, as Nicola Morgan explains in Write to be Published (which I highly recommend). As well as listening for errors and repetitions, she says: ‘I imagine that my audience consists of a group of potential readers who would far rather be doing something else. My job is to hold them there. So, I’m honing my prose to ensure that each sentence, phrase and word works hard. If it doesn’t, it goes.’
Reading aloud is also the best way of checking that your dialogue sounds natural and that the speech tags aren’t obtrusive. There’s no need for variations like ‘he gruffed’. Some writers worry about using ‘said’ too often, but readers barely notice it. A further benefit of reading aloud is to hear the rhythm of the phrasing, plus the variations in sentence length and construction. Or the lack of rhythm and variations.
Beware of over-writing! It gets in the way of the story and covers the beauty of it with frilly bits. Over-descriptive passages can give an inflated idea of the significance of a place or person in the story; over-written description can also tempt the reader to skip past it. Look very closely at paragraphs you’re particularly pleased with and ask yourself if they could be improved by judicious pruning. Have you overdone the adjectives or the adverbs?
Might you tell us about highlights of your editing career – other than the fun we have had together and the fact that SL* is your favourite Bluemoose title to date? (*Joking.)
The highlights depend on when you ask me, since it’s always the most recent project. Every writer is different, every book is different, and with each one I learn something new; each one feels like the best so far. So yes, at the moment you and Saving Lucia are my favourites…
May I ask you about my own book, Saving Lucia, and a little specific insight here? What were the challenges you and I faced as we worked on this book, would you say?
It was important to ensure that the book is accessible to readers who, like me, aren’t familiar with the work of Joyce and/or Beckett, without losing the essence of it, leaving the influences visible to those in the know.
We had to rein in your fondness for obscure words, didn’t we? I think it’s ok to use unusual words as long as they don’t bring the reader to a halt, and if the context permits readers to bypass the unfamiliar words and look them up later. Repetition is not recommended, though. Another challenge was that there were so many passages in foreign languages that it looked rather like showing off. We had to cut those back.
Still on Saving Lucia, what about decisions we made on the book – for example, things we were hesitant about but pleased with later?
We ran into problems with nested single and double quotation marks when, for example, Lucia was reporting Violet’s telling of Bertha’s story, which included quotations. It looked messy, especially where closing speech marks were clustered. I asked Hetha’s advice and she suggested cutting out some of the quotation marks. I’ve never been in favour of unconventional punctuation, and it went against the grain for you, too, but we agreed to give it a try. Cutting away one level of speech marks made the pages a lot cleaner and, while I was going through the proof and finding strays that I’d missed, I started to wonder if we could get away with removing them all. Greatly daring, I marked up all the remaining quotation marks for deletion and tweaked the text slightly where necessary. When the typesetter sent the fresh proofs back, I was stunned at how much better it all flowed and I emailed it to you with a warning to take off your English teacher hat. Your unexpectedly enthusiastic response was a great relief, I must admit. I don’t think either of us expected the punctuation change to improve the book so much. Hetha and Kevin are also pleased with the finished result.
What next for Lin?
I’m editing Heidi James’s new book, The Sound Mirror, which will be out later this year.
And finally, tell us about books you like to read?
I like humour: I have lots of books by Patrick Campbell, Alan Coren, Bill Bryson, Carl Hiaasen and Terry Pratchett; only one by Brian Bilston, as yet. I hadn’t realised it before, but my fiction bookshelves are full of strong female characters, from Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise collection andAlexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Detective Agency series, via Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet’ books, Anne Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope and the Kathy Reichs ‘Bones’ novels, to all of Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books. I’m also a fan of Val McDermid and of Joanne Harris, whose short stories I’m currently reading, and I should have mentioned Dorothy Parker earlier.
Recent non-fiction purchases include Dreyer’s English for dipping into, and Tom Cox’s The Good, The Bad and The Furry because it’s cats.
Thank you Lin. It has been a tremendous thing. xxx
Thoughts based on my own experience of editing, being edited, reading full and partial manuscripts and synopses for free reads and as a beta reader, my submissions which went horribly wrong, those which went right and stuff which I regard as probably true. Feel free to write and tell me I have this all wrong. Here’s the thing: you have a manuscript you want to place and submissions you want to do and I have quickly put together twenty thoughts on this because I know your work matters a lot to you. Therefore, it does to me.
- Read your work aloud. Only then will you hear and feel the sentences that have gone awry and the rhythm and weight that feel off. You will begin to hear and feel what your reader does. This is not an optional add on, but an essential. It also helps if you print it off and read, but I truly find reading aloud is key.
- Always use CTRL 4 to identify which words you overuse. These may be particular adjectives or you might surprise yourself here – quirks you had of which you were unaware. (See point 1.)
- I am not an expert, but I think a major issue – and one which I know I have cocked up myself – is not advancing the plot quickly enough. Pah, you say. I want a prologue and stacks of description. I love that too. I mean, I’d happily roll around in words all day like a pig in clover (or shit – forgive me), but it can grate. You’ve got to hook your reader and there are many ways to do that. A good way to reflect is by looking at the first pages of books you admire – and ideally cross genre. Reading is your finest teacher anyway!
- Linked to 3 and hooking them. A superb first sentence. Paragraph. Spend ages polishing and refining. Read, read, read for ideas and training.
- The show don’t tell maxim…I am not sure I am the person to comment on this because I want both, so mix it up. Don’t bore your reader into submission or the recycling bin. Or trash file. Harsh, but I am sure I have been there. Don’t bury your reader in detail and scene setting.
- Tough love. You CANNOT send out work with spelling errors or sentences that don’t…make sense. Is is clear to which thing your pronouns refer? Can you handle speech punctuation? Again, reading it aloud will help here. Have you misspelt the agent’s name? Or got their gender wrong? God: check. It would be awful if your work didn’t even get a look because you cocked this up. But I do believe that would be fair enough. It’s a tough business.
- Your synopsis always contains spoilers.
- Choose your verbs with infinite wisdom.
- Learn to use a variety of punctuation because it’s gorgeous. I will tell you now, though, that I have to be taken firmly in hand about my very long sentences and over-use of the lovely semi- colon. Take advice because while it’s your book, just as, when you get a publisher, your book is maybe half-way there when it goes to the editor, at submissions stage your writing has to be shit hot. Or close enough. Otherwise I bet you’re going to get knocked out of the water by the other folks who were more attentive.
- Always take advice. You are up very close to this manuscript. Fresh eyes will be needed.
- Why are YOU the person to write this book? Strikes me that this is a helpful thing to think about when (well obviously before) sending your pitch – and telling them.
- Show awareness of your indie press or agent. It’s polite, respectful and shows you mean business and have done the groundwork; that you might be a fit. This is part of the work. Reading their titles is part of the work. I think of it like this: they put in the work and now you have to.
- My day job is as an English teacher. I am coming at this from two angles now: it is harder to write with economy and precision than it is to write prose larded with adverbs and metaphors. Sometimes (takes a deep breath) learning to write a book may involve relearning (or unlearning) things you have been taught at an earlier stage. Like using lots of exciting metaphors and similes and lots of ‘wow words’. Make the language work; think how you could unpack it and use it judiciously and inventively. Cut. Choose wisely, padwan.
- Learn to accept rejection and that plenty of people don’t ever reply even though they ought to. Learn that if you make spelling mistakes in your submission and on your submissions letter, arguably you asked for it anyway. Rejection is part of it all and it hurts; the key is to keep going and not to feel persecuted. Sometimes, you cannot learn anything about your manuscript from rejection because you don’t learn anything from a form letter. But review what you have written and also review you. Feeling persecuted is going to stymie your creativity.
- Back to the manuscript. Ask someone online if they could be a beta reader and offer to read their work, too.
- If you ask someone to look at your work or you ask for opinion and criticism, reflect and listen. It is too easy to assume it is a difference in taste if they suggest changes. Use this time to reflect on what’s been said instead.
- Don’t panic about what you should be writing. Write what you want to write, but keep your ideas lively on genre and on who your influences are and, perhaps, on whose work you see yours being like. Because you might be asked.
- If you are submitting a book – this in on errors again – there’s no excuse for not being able to use an apostrophe. Also, you cannot rely 100% on spellcheck – and I notice this is a particular issue for homophones. Check, check and check again. And. like I said before, read your work aloud because this will also help you to notice spelling errors as spellcheck is not intuitive and cannot master context.
- Take breaks: between submissions, put your manuscript away for a bit and reflect. New things may pop out.
- And finally – I appreciate this is not what everyone does – why not work on something else for a while if your work is not getting accepted? For a start it’s refreshing but also, you might find that this new thing is better and furthermore, should your initial manuscript get a look in you can tell the agent or the publisher that you have something else up your sleeve. People like amazing creativity, but graft is cool, too – and it needs to go hand in hand with all that artistry because writing and books are also commerce and best to get one’s head round that early on.
Hello. At some point I will start a regular newsletter, I hope, but in the meantime I will do a few updates here. Let me know if you find any of it interesting. I am off twitter for the time being – with ‘The Team’ (my older sons) in charge of things there. Writing – mainly in terms of getting work out there and prepared to publication standard – relies partly on teamwork. I’d say most if not all things do. Now, we have had a lot of upheaval at home; difficult situations to navigate, some of them complex and some a bit triggering for me. I need to keep a clear head and some things that I have seen on twitter recently have done me no good at all. But we are working together as a family – including my youngest who’s 8. He very sweetly just told me that even if everyone in the world totally hated everything I ever wrote, he would probably still think it was all great. So there we are.
So this week…we have been doing a second round of edits on Famished, which is my first short story collection. This is published by Influx Press in September and is my second book of this year. Influx has a great subscription service for the 2020 titles and you can pre-order Famished there already. Some wonderful events coming up soon, including Adam Scovell with Deborah Levy next week. I am so hoping to get to this! All events are on the website.
OOOH I love my cover for Influx.
Here’s a subscription link: https://www.influxpress.com/subscriptions
In addition to the second round of edits, I have written a new story for the text this week. It’s about potatoes, sex and death. Here’s information on Famished:
Something else new and of which I am extremely proud is that, for 2020, I have given a bursary to Birkbeck at the University of London for a Creative Writing Student. This is to help someone flourish who might be struggling with financial constraints. I am told it’s most likely it would go to a postgraduate MA or MFA student, but otherwise an undergraduate. In time, I hope to fund someone completely. Information will be up soon! I did not do an MA or MFA in Creative Writing. It wasn’t the route for me. I am, however, highly aware of how much an excellent period of study has meant to people. It isn’t just the teaching and reading; it’s the community, discipline and encouragement. Also, someone really brilliant may not have had a great deal of formal education post-16. I am a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor. Writing is not actually my day job. I know a little bit about this. I also know how I felt as a carer, managing multiple bereavement and mental health problems when I was at university. Looking back, I am not sure how I coped. I was mindful of this when working out if I could offer some money to make life a bit easier for someone else. OOH: look http://www.bbk.ac.uk/study/2020/postgraduate/programmes/TMFCWRIT_C here’s just one example.
Also this week, I have written and presented an interview to the wonderful Lin Webb, who has been my editor at Bluemoose for my forthcoming novel, Saving Lucia. When a book goes to the editor, I suppose I would think of it as about half-way there. You may have different ideas about how finished your work would be, but in all cases the work of an editor is vital. I have learned a lot from Lin about style and structure; things I thought I would be able to see but somehow could not. But also Lin’s warmth, kindness and sense of humour have been one of the best things to happen to me since I started writing a few years ago (I am still a newbie, you know). Publishing is, I have learned, a tough old business. But I tell you there are plenty of absolute diamonds around too – so fear not if you are moving in this direction. I asked Lin about editing generally and also to share a few thoughts on how we worked on Saving Lucia. This will be up after approval from the Head Moosefolk (teamwork thing again). I think the interview might be also be useful for those preparing their work for submission – but you can tell me later on, if you like.
Something else I am working on this week is for a collection edited by Dan Coxon. It’s for Mental Health UK and is a fund raiser; to be published in the autumn by Unsung Stories. http://www.unsungstories.co.uk/ (I am not sure if I am supposed to give the title yet so better not.) This is unusual and, I think, rather special. Because it is using spooky, eerie stories and employing Weird Fiction to explore mental health themes, with a sense of uplift and possible recovery. I know a lot about this because of my own mental health history. Largely as a result of extended and complex trauma, I have managed generalised anxiety, depression, OCD, flashbacks and dissociative episodes. I mean, I am still managing those things. All a bit colourful. But there’s something in Saving Lucia about…about how you need not be entirely fixed or better in order to go out into the world and flourish. If you are managing mental health problems, are reading this, and think that you cannot make things, please let me encourage you to know that this is not the case.
I am spending a little time on the only free read I will have time for this year. It is a full mansucript of a novel – and I do this for those who would not otherwise be able to stretch to editorial or a report from a literary consultancy before they submit. I hope I am able to provide help, clarity and encouragement.
I am keeping in touch with my agent this week about plans and then, between the end of February and September, I am going to rewrite the novel I have been working on for my literary agency. It’s called (I think I am allowed to say), The Zebra and Lord Jones. There’s expansion needed and I wanted to say that I have been incredibly lucky with Kate my agent, because she’s kind, ambitious for me (with me?) about my work, understands the constraints I work under and is really skilled at editorial. So this is great. I have a lot of work to do – but onward: I’ve got great notes.
In June, I have a piece out in a book by Dodo Ink. Here: blimey – look who’s on it. I feel properly shy. http://www.dodoink.com/blog It’s called Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health and I just learned my story, ‘In Order to Live’, which is a memoir piece about how I rebuilt my mind with reading, is being edited at the moment. So I wonder what I will need to do? It’s really interesting getting work back. I absolutely love editorial and, although this might be a bit sad, responding to comments and tracking changes really appeals to the nerdy, box ticking, fixing up and list making side of me.
AND FINALLY I understand that information will soon be up about the launch of Saving Lucia. Bluemoose has noted it for you already on twitter, but it is at Mr B’s Emporium in John Street, Bath and on Thursday the 30th of April. This is a wonderful independent bookshop which has recently expanded and the place is a joy. I will share information when I have it.
A quick but, I hope, bolstering post. (With some help from marvellous Victorian photographs – some edited later.)
I am just back from the primary school run. Ah, it’s a conservative place. I have, over many years’ parenting (my boys are 8-18 but also, at various times, there’s been partial care of others’ children), been introduced as ‘the crazy one’, ‘the mad one,’ ‘the nutter’ and, best of all, ‘the weird one (I was telling you about’ – thereby revealing that they’ve been talking about your particular weird behind your back). I used to get very upset about this. It’s because I have been described in this way my entire life and, despite parts of my brain wanting just to be me, weirdo, the other parts yearned for acceptance. This is not a comfortable thing. However, what does fitting in mean? If it means suppressing your character, oddities, imagination, beliefs and those things that make you you, then this is sad. You should be you. Certainly, you ought to reflect on others’ responses and needs; check your language and outlook are broad and inclusive – and you ought to self reflect because from that stems greater kindness to others. However, if you have earnestly done those things, then come as you are.
Because, other than that attention to kindness, detail and community, FUCK OFF, basically. Weird is great.
So, I am thinking I have grown into my weird a bit better. I think I might have raised slightly weird children. Actually, one of my offspring was described critically as ‘weird’ by a teacher and it was not meant in a positive way. So I quietly said, ‘And with that I am going to leave and maybe we can talk again at a later time while we consider what might be positive about weird?’
Woo. I was being that tough, but of course I cried all the way home.
Come off it, though; we are all weird. And I like the weirder end of weird. Here are some facts about me:
- I had a catalogue of imaginary friends well into my teens. This is (forgive me – but you see weird is also a response to trauma so we are going a bit dark suddenly) because I was beaten and scared and gaslit. I made myself into Frida from ABBA because I liked her red hair – my parents had ABBA albums – and my best friend was Agneta who had awesome counselling skills.
- When I was 16 my best friend was 88. She got me. She was weird too and liked bird skulls, tarot and Irish myths and legends. She was a storyteller, God rest her soul.
- I am really into Jesus but I swear a lot. Though not in church. Or when I am reading Mother Julian of Norwich because I can’t sleep and need a revelation of divine love.
- I am shit at mum groups. Always have been, but it took me a long time to admit it and see that this didn’t mean I was a social maladept, a bit boring or a bit of a wanker. I get restless and I don’t know how to keep it going. After 18 years of parenting I haven’t learned. The last one I attended, we somehow got onto sex and who was gay or not – and I ended up saying, ‘Well I’d identify as queer but I haven’t mentioned it because I’ve been married to a man for twenty years so it’s a relevant as fuck in that way. I married a man because that’s who I was in love with.’ There was an awkward silence. Then, ‘OH MY GOD YOU ARE EVEN WEIRDER THAN I THOUGHT’. To which I said, ‘I SAID QUEER AND QUEER IS NOT WEIRD, BABY.’ Whatsapp dismissal.
- I am an introvert but I just sang songs from Annie on the KS2 field at the top of my voice to make it easier for some reluctant pupils to go in. They were embarrassed. But they were happy. A child in KS1 recently said to me, ‘My mum says you’re weird but I really like you.’ Think about that sentence. There was another time when someone said to me (I remember it; I was outside the school office, attempting to partially conceal myself behind the bin while trying to hoick my tights up), ‘You are clinically insane.’ That was someone’s ma too. I was dumbfounded on this occasion because she was smiling and I was a bit struck on the word ‘clinically’ because as far as I knew she was an interior designer. It might have been the fact I was partially concealed behind the bin that prompted the comment, but more likely a sense, after having made various observations and tours of me, of having to express a dislike of something…off; odd; eldritch. To spit it out; like, if you thought you’d put a Minstrel in your mouth and realised it was a rock or some poo.
- I dress in a funny mixture of Victoriana and sports kit and my tattoo is in Latin.
- I carry my chickens about, crooning to them. They are totally into it. I can’t wait to start a conversation with the man who whispers and gurgles to his rooks, the lady who has a tiny glittering altar outside her house or the man who crosses the road every time he sees the local priest. I have a theory, which is that maybe, if you’re a bit odd, you notice more. And maybe – even more radically – you notice people who might be a bit marginalised but with whom you could have a great chat and suddenly everyone there is having a better day. What do you think?
- My thinking goes rat a tat rat a tat all day long; allusive; solving problems with quotations; snatches of song if need be. It is how I manage things but also I am always making stories and seeing links. I wish I had had the confidence to write books earlier – but it’s all coming out now. That’s because of the weird, you see. It’s liberated.
- I am fascinated by all things morbid and moribund and always have been. I have day trips to see particularly fetching memento mori. I am really fascinated by undertakers and embalming. It keeps coming up as a theme. In fact, the fascination just created a whole second volume of stories (we will see about that!)
- Here’s the thing: we are all a patchwork of oddities and everyone really is an outsider in their questing and difficult experience. It is natural to stick with a herd – and I am not rejecting being in groups of people – but I do think we could question such if we stick because we are scared of being on our own or because we are suppressing our oddities in favour of something that makes us more socially palatable.
So find your weird. Explore it in writing, as I have done and will continue to do. Ultimately, just be you: perfect and as you were meant to be, memento, spoon collecting, fancy dress you.
My publisher, Bluemoose, has just announced that the launch for my new novel, Saving Lucia, will be at Mr B’s bookshop in Bath, on the evening of Thursday the 30th of April.
Details soon, but save the date now! Books, drinks, cake, chat and hosted by my dear friend, the brilliant novelist and short fiction writer Lucie McKnight Hardy. Mr B’s is a wonderful independent bookshop. Here: https://mrbsemporium.com/ This will be a ticketed event so do remember to book in advance. If you cannot get to this, there will be plenty more to come and we will announce events about the country all in good time.
‘Violet Albina Gibson, the Honourable, was behind bars, wearing an immaculate black crepe dress, clasping her finest manners and a lovely lacquered pen for letters to Churchill and others…’
How are you? I am mostly okay and that is because I am doing fairly well in thinking of the day only in increments, pausing and limiting stress as best as I can, sitting with and observing tricky things and seeing them, mostly, pass.
I am an English teacher, young people’s mentor, writer and mother. Mental health problems are part of my history and of who I am. I am very open about this in order to make it easier for the next person. But I am autonomous and they do not define me. They may in others’ eyes sometimes, but not in mine: don’t let yourself define YOU if you manage these pesky things too. That makes it easier to tolerate and thus you can begin to ignore anything from others. And don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you cannot write because you have difficulty in corralling your thoughts or emotional life. The industry has its demands, that’s for sure, so go easy on yourself and curate some sturdy self-belief if you possibly can. When rejected, be cross, but don’t brew that awful feeling of persecution that will stymie all creativity – speaking from experience there!
I have written elsewhere about mental health problems. I have a history of them: generalised anxiety, major depression and then OCD in late childhood and adolescence. I have dissociative episodes, which are scary and unpleasant and, from time to time, I wake at night with vivid dreams and flashbacks. That happened at the weekend. Sunday was spent in a jumble of senses and feelings; things become much more acute: words burn – but then so does beauty. I have had some wonderful care, but I am not sure I will ever be entirely better – but that’s okay. I make this point in my next book, Saving Lucia: that you can go out into the world and be creative and do things, though fragile, faltering, imperfect and not entirely well. Human beings are messy and absolute brilliant at failure anyway! I still have to say, lest someone who is really struggling is reading this and thinking that they cannot do this and what a failure they are, that I have had all areas of my working and creative life curtailed by mental health problems. But we carry on – and help each other to. I imagine that if I had been supported and appropriate help found for me in earlier years, things would have been different and could be different now. That’s a bit sad, so I turn it outwards and imagine that perhaps my not being fixable has helped me to be a better teacher or writer – or perhaps better able to help others, especially, young people, in need and distress, or just a tangle. What is more, I distill from problems and from mental health crises some colourful material, a character or two and even a book (my first one).
Now, my situation has recently got a little more complex because one of my older two has not been able to complete school study and another of mine has SEN needs that have been unmet: both are in exam years, so I have additional caring and teaching needs at a busy time. I am just raising from my head from a fog of exhaustion because some of those needs were met during the night for months, and even when I was not needed, well I have been in a state of hyper-vigilance for the best part of a year with little respite. In addition to this, I have lately experienced what is euphemistically described as unhelpful behaviour across my extended family and it had cut to the heart of who I am. Some of it was also triggering because it reminded me on a visceral level of my mother’s worst excesses. My reaction was physical; I was doubled over – my body unable to process what I was hearing and seeing, and finding myself swatted back to an earlier pathology and, with my worries about my older kids who were rather caught up in it all, experiencing grief.
It’s good to keep busy though! How about you? What if you are managing other needs and your own are rattling round and you want to make something, or at least feel better? This is what I do. This is specifically about writing, but maybe some thoughts here are helpful for anything!
- I have two books out this year and various other short pieces; I have two more things being read and I am rewriting a book for my agent to be handed in in September. Some comments were made last week by a handful of people that I should not be mentioning this level of activity, because it is unrealistic for most people. Well, this is my reality and the thing is, for most of my adult life, I have not had the confidence to do it. I’ve seen things go down the drain and I – I want to say this because I have previously been ashamed – I have twice, because of mental illness, not finished a PhD. TWICE. So any comment I make about what I am doing is in the context of a skipload of failure. Ah – I might have lost you: point 1 is to share your success, whatever it is, and to be proud of it because you’ve done it in extremis. I don’t mean brag, I mean share.
- That nagging voice in your head that says you can’t write because…YES: there are things in the writing business that quite clearly to change. Obviously there are. But for all else, is the voice in your head yours? Are you putting yourself down all the time? I do it, but have learned to listen and say stop. Challenge that voice because it’s trying it on, frankly. For me, a voice comes in which I think is mostly my ma telling me what a worthless little creature I am. Listen and escort out. Now try telling yourself something different with the voice. When I do that, my shoulders go back and I feel a lift in my energy levels.
- Write. Just do it. It will probably be awful but that’s because, as I have often said, it’s your Frankendraft; your shit first draft. Your crappy first paragraphs. But this is how a short story or a novel gets started. You are going to cross most of it out but no part of this process is wasted. If you are having a tough day, try to do this. If not, read a bit, think a bit, research a bit. It’s all work.
- If you are a carer in some capacity, really try to box up a bit of attention just for yourself. Also, if your child is in a hole, do NOT get in the hole with them because you will make yourself ill. I know this because I have. Creativity is one release for you here and I have found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the fact I don’t have much time forces the words out. Don’t wait for ideal conditions. Just reminding you of point 3 here.
- Exercise. Step it up. If you can’t afford membership or a class, do it at home and do at least some of it outside if you possibly can. For me, the breathing and discipline of pilates is great and it makes me stronger and better able to deal with difficulty, Loads of free resources online.
- Find a tribe. That might be online and twitter is a great resource for writers (not the only one; it’s my preferred route), though don’t think any evidence suggests that a lot of twitter activity will shift books – unless you do non-fiction and your social media is all about that, for a platform. So don’t feel under pressure: engage on your own terms, mute and curate as you need to.
- Don’t feel bad if you don’t write every day. You are still a proper writer and enough of this tyranny already.
- Observe detail. It’s soothing and stimulating. I take pictures too. Leaves; an interesting hat; the shift of a tree in the breeze to an unusual angle. Buildings, stone, walls, streetscapes, faces, overheard conversations. Be observant and, I do believe that, as well as feeling better, you will find that stories rise up to meet you. Be ready for them.
- Don’t assume that those who don’t have your problems don’t have any problems. Some people’s lives are easier, maybe. But yours is the only one you have and look at you: you’re a stone cold miracle there. Don’t assume that other people have it sussed. And when you see writing types who seem particularly confident and want some of that, it is likely that they are blagging it or…just maybe…they are a bit cocky and I will wager that this is not the best for writing or the careful lifting up of others.
- Read. Lose yourself in a book. Read different books. I have built and rebuilt my mind with reading and I hope fervently that it can be this way for you too, if you need it. I wish you love and courage, Anna x
Here is what I am up to next year. Or rather, here is what I can tell you so far. Now look, readers and writers: things have got most tricky at Bookworm Towers. It happens. But, you see, never feel that if life is difficult, if you experience illness or are bereft, your creativity will wither alongside. Take heart; nurture it and believe in it. Make things. That is what I am continuing to do. In the midst of sadness I am writing another book.
What’s coming? In April, you can read my new novel, Saving Lucia. Here she is above. The book that started with a chance sighting of that photo above – the one where the elderly lady is feeding the birds, so very tenderly. She was the Honourable Violet Gibson and, in April 1926, she went to Rome and tried to kill Mussolini, She shot him in the nose. She got closer than anyone else. Lady Gibson was knocked to the ground, put in prison and, eventually, deported; thereafter, she was certified insane and spent the rest of her life in St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. Later, a fellow patient was Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. What if…and do you see the other women above? That’s Blanche, Queen of the Hysterics at the Salpetriere and that’s Monsieur Charcot demonstrating what happens under hypnosis. She is most remarkably responsive. To her right is Bertha Pappenheim, a prominent Jewish social worker, whose institute was razed by the Nazis. It was not until twenty years after her death that she was also revealed to be ‘Anna O’, in Freud and Breuer’s On Hysteria. These women have an extraordinary story to tell you, so stick around. The book is published on April the 24th, but Bluemoose Books is starting a subscription service, where it will be available to subscribers from (I gather) late February. Follow all news here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ Saving Lucia is part of Bluemoose’s all women catalogue for 2020.
Below is a gallery of images pertinent to what I have been writing about; from a bookshop of towering shelves, an old asylum window, Victorian portraits (the first one has a memento mori which has been added subsequently, but I liked it!), a devil, a baptism in 17th century Virginia, shades of grief, my late grandmother’s house on the Cleddau in Pembrokeshire (the setting for two books now), the holy well of St Non’s near St David’s and Walton West church on St Brides’ Bay in Pembrokeshire, fictionalised in the book I have just sent to my agent…(see below)…
In June, I have an essay in Dodo Ink’s Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health; it’s called ‘In Order to Live’ and is about reading and the imagination in my life, kid up, in the face of trauma. Reading as survival, in fact. http://www.dodoink.com/blog and – details when they are up – I also have some weird fiction in a new anthology by Unsung Stories; it’s a really interesting concept and one very important to me: weird fiction exploring mental health themes but also hopeful uplift on these themes. You will see!
In September, my first short story collection is out. Here.
This is already available for pre-order as part of Influx Press’s subscription service. https://www.influxpress.com/famished Hit the subscription button.
‘In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.’ Oooh and ugh.
Ah but that is not all my bravehearts. I have also, thus is the way these things work, submitted a second novel – witchery in mid 17th-century Somerset and Virginia called The Revelations of Celia Masters – and a second short story collection called Ravished. And if there is news, you will be the first to hear it.
I have written my first magical realism and handed my work in to the literary agency who this year signed me: Mackenzie Wolf, NYC and one of the best girls in the world, my agent Kate Johnson. I think I am allowed to say that this is called The Zebra and Lord Jones. I have been asked by a few people why I am with an American agency. This is partly because we are an Anglo-American crew at Bookworm Towers and I try to split my time as much as I can, partly because they also have a presence here and partly because of my literary interests and ambitions and where. And because of Kate. The best girl. I am desperate to tell you more about this book, set in Wales, London and Ethiopia during WWII – but I cannot. x
When we have had a meeting about it, I will tell you more about a thing which I am over the moon to be able to do: for September 2020 I am offering at least partial fee remission for an MFA (in creative writing) for a student from a disadvantaged background. I have asked if there can be a focus on someone whose life has been circumscribed by mental illness. This is because mine has been – and that’s really why I wrote a novel, Saving Lucia (back to top) about this theme, too. And I am building a writing retreat and teaching room in my garden. I do mean I am building it. With a bit of help, When I am up and running, I will tell you all.
Oh, there will be a lot to share. We will bring you events and news on Saving Lucia – here she is again and note the four windows and the bird on this beautiful cover, below – and I shall share them here and on social media and tell you about everything else that is happening. Saving Lucia is my third book, with the first two Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost no longer with their original publisher and on the move. We will bring you news on this all in good time; you can find copies floating about though!
I have chosen my FREE READ for 2020. I usually do four a year, but 2020 sees all this work on top of my day job (I am an English teacher, tutor and mentor for young people) and extra care for my two eldest boys who are in exam years and have additional needs. This is going to be a rollercoaster year, isn’t it?
I hope we get to meet and I wish you a Happy 2020 and much wonderful reading, perhaps writing. Oh – and I mentioned that I was writing a new book. Here is how it started. The image is of me with the two Shirley Jackson books which are the biggest influence on what I am writing at the moment. It’s called We All Live in a House on Fire -and have a Welsh cake for knowing that the title comes from Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. And I can’t tell you anything about what I am writing either. Except that I am a third of the way through and very excited. It’s strange how ideas bubble up. I was upset one night and couldn’t sleep. I started re-reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle and there we were. By 4.a.m. I had started writing chapter 2. I anticipate that I will have finished this new novel by the end of March. I write quickly; it’s just how I roll. I have written all my books in 3-4 months, but I wrote my two short story collections in three crazy weeks a pop. Everyone is different and, anyway, I’d say it’s not the writing that takes the time, it’s the editing. Imagine that, when your book goes to your editor – aside of what you have done yourself – it’s about half-way there. But you may feel differently!
But for now, it’s all about Saving Lucia. I hope you like it xxx