Think of all your creative endeavours as ONE BIG PROJECT.
In other words, do not pin your hopes on one book. Actually, do not pin all your hopes on the query, the acquisition of an agent or an indie publisher sans agent who will stick with you; do not pin all your hopes on the success of said book, a linear and clearly burgeoning career and further books following on from that and, PLEASE, do not pin your self-worth of any of the things I just described OR sit around thinking that if you don’t have recognition it isn’t worth it; you’re no good. (I have done all of these things until someone gave me the advice and then I tweaked my thought and began to feel better.)
Now, it may be that you are lucky enough to find artistic and commercial success quickly, to find and develop a niche for yourself and to be able to form/be given a team around you with which you can nurture your talent. I KNOW that a good number of writers are in this position, but I would bet that the vast majority of writers are not.
My seventh and eighth books have just been placed. Well, seven years ago I hadn’t started a book, so I know I have the ability to be prolific. BUT MY GOD. There have been some wonderful adventures in that time and I have made some brilliant friends and discovered many wonderful things to read, but until I tweaked my thought I would feel really wounded by two episodes of bad treatment that seemed to come from nowhere, the exasperation of waiting and ghosting, of publishers not wanting a second book from me (see waiting again) and of books that weren’t good enough to take forward. I have yet to have a breakthrough book in that I have not been particularly visible yet in not having been with a major publisher. And yet and yet.
The one big project. If you think of it as a series of creative endeavours, things begin to look different. Two books have led on to two years’ teaching, university teaching and workshops. I have pitched and written features and columns for national and industry press and kept a focus on mental health and wellbeing; as a result of that focus, I have been asked to take on further columns and workshops and to speak to university students about imaginative routes to publication and lots more. Because I have written all of my books – and particularly in the past three years – managing additional needs for my family and then my son was very ill for three years, and because I was teaching all that time, I have been asked to speak to MA students on time and on productivity; I have written a new book on gentle productivity and just set up a literary prize for carers. Do you see how all these things are connected, and that I might argue I can likely do them better because I wrote in hardcore circumstances and have not had a smooth path? Like I said, no breakout book, publishers not wanting further work and, at one point, my agent removing rights from a publisher. Rocky!
So, if you are feeling blue, look at the possibilities of what you might do to make YOUR one big creative project. Writing in other forms and genres? Offering copywriting and editing, mentoring, gradually accruing some teaching, doing an online discussion group, making an online themed retreat – just for starters! Don’t make it only about one book or about your books. When you shift your thought and begin to hustle and then to jostle sideways, things begin to look very different.
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
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.
‘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
So, I want to tell you how it feels to be writing what I am writing at the moment. It’s a strange time, because it is also a time of waiting. News of my first short story collection is out and I am receiving edits for my third novel, which is out next April. I have just written some notes for the latter – Saving Lucia, Bluemoose – and some thoughts on cover images; not, that is, what the cover image is to be, but concepts and thoughts I might want to be represented there. There is a further volume of short stories to be read (that is on submission), I have a novel waiting to be sent, and I have been gathering in time for my ongoing project; a new novel, the idea for which began germinating in spring when, quite by chance, I saw a newspaper article for autumn 1940 about London zoo…I can share some details, but not many. I want to tell you what I have been doing and how exciting it has felt, as well as delineate a few of its low points.
Yesterday I wrote a new chapter. In that I vividly imagined myself in St Nicholas’s Church in Deptford. Here lies Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, a huge favourite of mine, buried in an unmarked grave in 1593 and with a commemorative plaque: its plangent quotation from Dr Faustus made me shiver. Now, I hadn’t actually intended to visit Marlowe, but one of the young characters from the book goes to visit the grave of his father in the churchyard there and his mother tells him, not for the first time, about Kit Marlowe and his untimely death in a Deptford Tavern. There is a great deal in this novel about memory and grief and suddenly, with another shiver, I began to make some connections with the poet and playwright and some of the themes in the book. I can share those with you at some later date. Also that St Nicholas’s church turns out to have been badly damaged by an incendiary bomb on the very night the (true) event on which this novel turns occurred.
I realised, after sensible advice, that in this book, I had to stretch out the action and give it room; I made it first as a novella, but it didn’t work because it was too rushed. I had to allow more time for relationships between characters to develop and that the plot was not tight enough. I’d say that the two biggest flaws in my writing (your view may be different if you read my work) are that I over-express ideas because I love luxuriating in language and consequently a perfectly respectable idea gets lost underneath clusters of these over-expressed phrases which would be HIDEOUS for a reader. The second thing is that I describe too much – particularly about sensual detail, texture, landscape and the nature of a place – and advance the plot too little. I am learning to be flexible on all this. I have to be! I am not precious about my work, but I do tend to be stubborn about keeping long, poly-clausal sentences because I personally love them; sentences of many clauses held together by a range of punctuation. Work in progress, that one. I also have a really irritating habit of using archaisms and I’ve also had a couple of bitchy reviews about having to read my books with a dictionary on the side. I thought that sounded great, but again, work in progress! You want to be you, but you don’t want to irritate your readers, either. Is that a good maxim, do you think?
I am not a very confident person. Tricky background and so on; lots of truly unhelpful thoughts. I fake it; propel myself into a room. The teaching background has helped in this way. However, I am easy to crush (there’s an antidote or two to that, though). Now, I was told only the other day (and not for the first time) by a member of my extended family – sorry folks; I know you didn’t mean it like this, but it hurts – that when my next book comes out, it’s really hoped that no-one knows we are related. And someone else asked me to tell them what happens in what I am writing and what I am editing, then said, ‘Well I won’t be reading any of that. I don’t think I’d like that at all.’ People, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than say this to a member of my family, but it is not meant to hurt; it’s an expression of disapproval or a lack of interest because if I wrote it, it can’t possibly be good – or it will contain stuff that people would rather not associate with. What can I say? Sometimes we are swatted back to our earliest pathology. Sometimes, when people say such things, I am afraid that I hear my mother’s voice mocking and criticising: it is full of horrid triggers and can spin me into dissociation if I am having trouble coping more generally. (And I don’t mean this in term of criticism of my work by readers, because that is part of the process.) BUT my bravehearts, I want to say that although I had a jolly good cry the other day, by teatime I was in Ethiopia meeting a Grevy’s zebra, by late evening, I was watching Haile Selassie get his photo taken on Brighton Pier (when he was in exile) and by late at night I was back in Deptford again, by way of the Cleddau Estuary and I thought, oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination, (forgive the pink doughnut and the sprinkles, which truly don’t go with the plaque of Kit Marlowe and the sombre comments…no: fuck it. I LIKE pink doughnuts and sprinkles so…), oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination,
Writing a book is a daunting prospect. Here’s something that really helps me. It’s something Hilary Mantel said. That she ‘will do a little scene…then another little scene and try not to think of the enormity of the task ahead.’ That’s very much how I am getting this current book written. I know that, when I have written this post, and before (or after) I have cooked tea for the kids and sorted out domestics and helped with an English homework, I will be writing a ‘little scene’ about some evacuees arriving on St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire in 1939. I know that there is one particular lad called Ernest (he’s the boy from Deptford, if you remember that I was there, in the churchyard, regarding Kit Marlowe!) and that he is lodged with a family that I have based on what I know of that of a distant cousin of my maternal grandmother’s, she whose stories have, my whole life, affected by imagination so much. I have been imagining him all day, though: his life, the times, the details of the very stones and the sea wall around places I know well. So, when I come to write this scene, it will seem at least partly familiar. As if it were a figment of memory that has come forth, filling out a story for me. Again, that feels like magic; a gift.
I hope that, whatever you are writing and despite its ups and downs and the ups and downs of your life, you find solace and happiness as you are absorbed in the rich world that you are creating: something that did not exist before you made it. I hope that it is also so with your reading. Anna x