Guest Post: Angela Readman on ‘How to Keep Being a Writer’.

Angela Readman’s stories have won The Costa Short Story Award, Inkspill, and The National Flash Fiction Day Competition, and have been in winners anthologies for the Asham and The Bristol Short Story Prize.

Her poetry has won the Mslexia Poetry Competition, the Charles Causey Poetry Prize and the Essex Poetry Prize. Her first short story collection Don’t Try This at Home was published in May 2015 by And Other Stories. It is longlisted for the Frank O’ Connor Award, and won The Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection 2015 as well as receiving a Rubery Book Award for short fiction.

Before all of this, she considered quitting approximately 700 times so I think she is well-placed to offer all of us writers on how to keep going.

Vic x

How to Keep Being a Writer

I often see lists about writing and ways to improve work, but one of the hardest things about writing can be to continue doing it. How do we keep at it? Maintaining hope can be one of the most difficult things we do. Here are my tips on how to keep going.

1. Recognize the Buzz

Writers live with the myth of tortured artists, but we rarely talks about the buzz. That writing high feeling we get when we’re into it. We feel amazing having written, the way someone who runs has an endorphin rush. Remember the feeling, acknowledge it, go to your desk and write for the rush.

2. Finish Stuff

The sad thing is writing high wears off when we return to edit. There isn’t really an editing high. Its work we have to force ourselves to do (sometimes when it would be fun to just write something different.) That drawer full of unfinished work won’t make us feel like a writer. Finishing stuff helps.

3. Look for Things to Make You Keep Going

Writing can be a slow journey. It can take years to find an agent and get a book. This is when some of us lose faith. (Its fifteen years since I did my MA, five since I started submitting stories, and my book’s just been published.) Create small goals on the way to give you faith- submit to journals and competitions. These small bits of recognition keep us going.

4. Take Rejections as Lessons

Regarding rejections, it happens. Learn from it. It doesn’t always mean we suck, a rejection is many things. Often it is simply that our work doesn’t fit the agenda of the magazine. Read, look for where it suits. Look at the work again. Give it an edit. Read it again every time you submit.

5. Establish a Rejection Policy

There are some rejections that make us sad. That scene in Throw Momma from the Train where Billy Crystal sticks tape on his nose? We all do that, in some form. We have all said, ‘I quit! There are halibut who write better than me.’ Create a rejection policy-  a simple rule about rejection. In my case, I allow myself to sulk no more than a day or so, then I MUST submit something. (If we’re busy editing there’s no time to cry.)

6. Give Yourself Rewards, Especially if No One Else Does

There are hours we work without pay, months, years. There’s self doubt. Too often we beat ourselves up for what we don’t achieve, but forget to reward ourselves for what we do. No wonder writers get fed up! Find a reward. Buy something small, improve your writing space. The first time I won a story competition I bought a picture for above my desk so I can look up at something I achieved. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, it is taking a moment to acknowledge you did OK that counts.

7. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT Compare Yourself to Other People

Comparing ourselves to other writers is depressing. Try not to. Every writer meets someone who mentions JK Rowling when we admit we write- ignore these people. Think of writing like music, some artists are on The X-Factor, some play in indie bands. Our influences aren’t all the same, different people dance to us. Remind yourself this every time someone mentions JK Rowling.

8. Learn to say no. NO. NO. NO. 

Be a bitch, you’ll have to learn to appear a bit selfish sometimes. Live with it. That book won’t be finished without us protecting our writing time. Fiercely. People may attempt to lure us away, ‘It’s just an hour…a weekend….a few weeks…will you do me a favour?..’ They wouldn’t do this with any other job (‘Oh, you’re at work? Can I pop in for a cup of tea? ‘ Create a schedule, stick to it when possible. Recognise your writing saboteurs, and keep them at bay.

9. Try Something Different

Now and then, we are a unsure what to do next, where to submit, what to finish, whether to bother. When we get like this it can be a good idea to do something different. If you’re a story writer, write poems, if you’re a novelist try flash fiction. Let yourself do something you haven’t done. Writers are focused, with deadlines and goals, we have to be this way, but doing something for fun can take the pressure off. Write something you’re not sure you can. When I’m fed up with poetry, I write a story, or flash fiction. If I’m not sure where to submit prose, I write poems. It helps. It also provides work to submit to boost your confidence and get you through writing longer stuff.

10. When all else Fails, Fake It

If you still lack hope, fake it. Create lists of small things you’d like to do, work to finish, places to submit,  and continue to slowly work through it. Even if you think this is pointless, try it anyway. Eventually you’ll get acceptances, and, hopefully, build just enough belief to keep writing until the day a book with your name on the cover arrives.

Why I’m worried about ‘Go Set a Watchman’.

Did you re-read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to prepare? Did you read the first chapter in ‘The Guardian’ at the weekend? Did you go to a launch party? Did you buy it at one minute past midnight? Have you read it yet?

My answer to all of the above questions is: no. I have bought a copy but I must admit, I feel guilty and uncomfortable about it. Why? A number of reasons to be honest.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was the first book that made me realise the power literature has. It didn’t shy away from the pertinent issues of the day and it held a mirror up to an unequal, prejudiced society. Atticus Finch remains one of my heroes to this day and, following the revelations of the first chapter, I am worried that my view of him will be forever tainted. It’s kind of like finding something terrible out about the father you idolise.

So, not only could ‘Go Set a Watchman’ obliterate a hero in Atticus Finch, it could also damage my high regard for Harper Lee. What if ‘Watchman’ isn’t as well written as ‘Mockingbird’? How will the writer in me feel? That said, will it make me remove Lee from the pedestal I’ve had her on since I was sixteen years of age and bring about that she, too, is human and all writers must hone their craft? I could look at it like that but somehow I suspect I won’t be able to be that pragmatic.

Oh, and let’s not forget the rumours surrounding the publication of the book. Harper Lee has been a recluse for decades, shielded by her sister Alice Lee who died aged 103 in November 2014. By February 2015, it was announced the ‘Go Set a Watchman’ would be published later in the year. Is it coincidence that less than three months after her sister’s death, Harper Lee – who had vowed never to publish another book – decided to publish ‘Go Set a Watchman’, the failed first draft of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’? Did the death of her gatekeeper open Harper Lee up to manipulation and coercion? This is the part I find most concerning. Has an elderly lady with failing sight and hearing been taken advantage of by Harper Collins (a subsidiary of News Corp)? However, an independent investigation has found Harper Lee coherent and happy to go ahead with publication. I genuinely hope that is the case.

In the 36 hours since the release of the book, The Guardian are reporting sales of over 100,000 copies in the UK alone and I have – rightly or wrongly – contributed to that figure.

But I still feel guilt about reading it.

Vic x

Review: ‘Song of the Hive’ at ARC Stockton

‘Song of the Hive’ was the final act of the eight week stint of Writers’ ARCADE Rehearsed Readings and, although I didn’t manage to see any of the other plays, several of the writers involved in ARCADE intimated that they’d saved the best for last.

Song of the Hive

The bees are dying, Claire’s marriage is on shaky ground and lately she’s had problems finding the right words. When you lose control of your cognitive ability who do you become and what matters most?

Claire used to be able to taste words, now it’s all she can do to find the one she means. Told through a series of fragmented memories, this play is bang up to date in terms of environmental issues – fracking, selling areas of natural beauty to developers. It also felt particularly relevant following the recent general election. I think everyone in the audience could empathise with the helplessness felt by Claire during her struggle to preserve a place – and person – dear to her .

This heartfelt piece combined wider issues of environmentalism and politics with one woman’s struggle to save her marriage whilst trying to overcome progressive aphasia. Every aspect of this story was handled sensitively and the way my allegiance swung between certain characters was expertly crafted to reflect real life. Although this was a script in hand performance, there was no nuance missed and every actor really committed to the piece.

On the drive home, I had a discussion with The Boy Wonder about the play and we both realised we’d come away with different interpretations of certain events. That’s one of the many clever things about ‘Song of the Hive’, it’s ambiguous in the nicest possible way.

I really hope ‘Song of the Hive’ gets the recognition it deserves – and hopefully a tour.

Read more about Allison Davies and ‘Song of the Hive’ at Narc.

Vic x

Review: ‘The Dress’ by Kate Kerrigan

The Dress

OK, let’s just get this out of the way: the cover should make you want to read it. The cover was designed by Lou Brennan who is a professional fashion illustrator and, boy, does it draw you in! Looking at this sumptuous work of art, how could you not want to open the cover and devour the story inside?

And the story is as enthralling as the illustration on the front cover. Lily Fitzpatrick loves vintage clothes and the stories behind the outfits. She finds the fact that women have owned and loved pieces before her exciting. Thousands of people follow her blog and Instagram feed daily. However, Lily’s love of dresses hides a passion that she left behind several years ago: designing. But when Lily stumbles upon a gorgeous dress worn in the 1950s by a woman that shares her surname. With that, Lily sets out to recreate the dress.

The readers get to discover the story of the dress with Lily as well as the wearer, Joy, and the designer, Honor.

This story is not the vacuous yarn many may expect it to be. ‘The Dress’ tackles many serious issues including alcoholism and betrayal. It interweaves the story of three women in a similar vein to ‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham. It spans time and space, travelling from 1930s Ireland to 1950s New York to modern-day London. Kerrigan’s descriptions are beautiful; when Lily visited Miami, I felt like I was there with her thanks to the vivid explanations.

The story is, however, easy to follow and would make the perfect holiday read.

The relationships portrayed in this terrific novel are complex and believable. Whether it’s Joy’s relationship with her husband, the rich and successful businessman, Frank Fitzpatrick or Lily’s friendship with her best friend – Kerrigan doesn’t sugar coat a thing and that’s really refreshing. The characters jump off the page, they’re so realistic. I’d also like to commend Kerrigan for her compassionate portrayal of an alcoholic and for making this a story of, ultimately, redemption.

I urge you to read this book.

Vic x

Getting to Know You: Kay Stewart

Kay Stewart is a member of my writing groups and is someone I really admire. Her writing is always emotive, thoughtful and original. Kay’s story ‘The Chocolatier’ appeared in ‘Thrills ‘n’ Chills‘ published by Wild Wolf Publishing. Kay is also someone who has recommended several of my favourite reads over the last couple of years. Today, she’s on the blog to talk about her writing. Enjoy! 

Vic x

Kay Stewart

I am a PR consultant, married with two children/adults and live in East Boldon.

My writing can probably be described as contemporary fiction, usually with strong female protagonists.

I have always been interested in story telling from being really small.  This will sound very weird but when I was about 7 I used to play ‘two baller’ – juggling tennis balls against the back wall in the back yard and tell stories to myself, out loud.  The neighbours must have thought I was so odd but I remember not caring at all and just chuntered on, even pausing a story to have my lunch, then going back out to finish it off!

During my A levels I got fascinated by poetry and loved Ted Hughes and W H Auden.  I wrote quite a few poems for a year or so.  There was a 10 year gap when I didn’t write at all then a flurry when I had my son and stopped full time work, then nothing for another 13 years after having my daughter.

The MA in Creative Writing got me started again and gave me structure and confidence.  Elementary Writers is now a brilliant support as it is a weekly opportunity to discuss what I am working on and everyone gives me encouragement.

I am currently working on a novel about three women who share an allotment and a dark secret and its not going very well but I have pledged to try and finish it by the time my daughter’s A Level exams end.

The thing I like most about writing is the chance to explore different people’s points of view and get under their skin. I also like to play around with perceptions of people and challenge them, for example, I had a female head nightclub bouncer in one story.

One of  the hardest things about writing is getting your work out there and being published, everything else is lovely!

I have read more in the last 12 months than I have read for years and I have also read a really wide variety of books – they include Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘The Signature of All Things‘, Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge‘, Rupert Everett’s autobiography and Jen Ashworth’s ‘A Kind of Intimacy‘.

In terms of influences on my writing I love Marian Keyes and her ability to make me laugh out loud one minute then move me the next.  I want anyone reading my stories to feel the way I do when I read her.

If I had an autobiography I think the title would be ‘Kay:’ – as I like my name –  ‘Better to live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb’.

I am an aspiring writer rather than being fully fledged but would advise people to just keep on doing it and do it for their own satisfaction rather than trying to make money or other ambitions, so you stay true to your own voice.

My proudest moment was giving my mam my finished novel for her 90th birthday, just a pity it wasn’t/isn’t published!

If I wasn’t a writer I think I would be a gardener.

I have a blog – kaystewartsblog – which is a bit unloved at present but is about to have a make-over.

Getting to Know You: Jennifer Wilson

Today on the blog, I have the lovely Jennifer Wilson speaking to me. Jen is a member of my writing groups and has proved herself to be a very talented, versatile writer. In 2014, Jen won first place in Story Tyne. Here, she talks to us about writing. 

Vic x

Jennifer WilsonTell us a little bit about yourself…

I’m a marine biologist by training, and am currently working as a marine consultant in Newcastle. I’m passionate about the marine environment, especially the coast, and love living so close to it these days, in Whitley Bay. Outside of work, as well as writing, I’m a bit of a history addict, and enjoy making my own jewellery.

Do you usually write in a particular genre?

In the last couple of years I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, which I had never even considered before, but I enjoy experimenting with different forms, subjects and styles. Beyond poetry, I enjoy writing historical-related fiction.

Tell us how you got interested in writing.

I’ve always been interested in storytelling, since my parents and grandparents used to tell me stories as a child, including those that they had made up themselves. Being an avid reader, I started to think about making up my own stories using characters I liked, then moved on to making up my own characters as well. I dabbled a bit at university, but with studying, never really managed to complete anything. When I started working and moved back to the north-east, I signed up for an evening course at the local high school, and found I still enjoyed it as much as I always had.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us about it?

I’ve just finished the second edit of a semi-historical novel, and am already thinking about my next, trying to find a suitable setting for it. I think it’s going to be my NaNoWriMo challenge for this November, so it’s a bit vague at the moment, but will hopefully take shape soon. I’m also working on a collection of poetry, using pieces which have come out of the PoMoSco challenge, writing a ‘found poem’ every day throughout April.

What do you like most about writing?

I enjoy the freedom of creativity, and crafting new pieces from prompts, my experiences etc. In my work, everything has to be referenced, checked and reviewed to make sure we are providing accurate information; with my writing, people may not like it, but it cannot really be ‘wrong’.

What do you like least?

The struggle to find the right word or turn of phrase. And writing synopses. Trying to condense my draft novel into 300 words for a competition nearly killed me!! I was stuck at about 304 words for days.

Do you find time to read? If so, what are you reading at the moment?

I stopped reading for a while, but have recently dug out my Kindle again, and am reading on the way to and from work. I also love a Sunday afternoon curled up with a cup of tea and an old favourite. At the moment, I’m reading ‘Heartstone‘ by CJ Sansom. It’s the second of the series I’ve read, and I know I’m out of order, but a friend leant it to me, and I’m really enjoying it so far. I’m also dipping out of ‘The World of Richard III‘ by Kristie Dean. The book describes most of the places in the UK and Europe with a connection to Richard, and I’m working my way through to tick off those I’ve already visited.

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?

Although I only started reading their books in the last couple of years, I would say Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick. Both write fantastic historical fiction, and in particularly the sort I enjoy to write myself, about strong characters, whether real or fictional, and focusing on relationships, not just gory battle details.

When you’re a famous author and you write your autobiography, what will be the title?

What a question!!! I would love to be able to come up with something instantly witty and fabulous, but that’s a really tough one. In an ideal world, it should be something with both aquatic and literary allusions, as I’m hoping my life keeps including both, but honestly, I’m lost.

What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?

I’ve just had a piece published in Peeking Cat Poetry, one of my first pieces to be accepted, and I’m really proud of that. Also, I’m proud of having finished editing my draft novel, as the last time I tried this, the results were awful – this time, I’m genuinely proud of the final outcome.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

I enjoy being creative, so I think I’d be making more jewellery. I don’t think I’d ever want to change my day-job (other than to be a full-time writer), so on that front, I don’t think anything would change.

Where can we find you online?

You can find my blog at https://inkjunkie1984.wordpress.com/, or follow me on Twitter @inkjunkie1984.

Guest Post: Stephanie Butland

Last week, I went to a Read Regional event featuring Stephanie Butland and Debbie Taylor; it was brilliant to hear these lovely ladies talk about their writing processes.
Today, the lovely Stephanie answers a question she is asked regularly – ‘Which is more important: character or plot?’ Stephanie’s novel, ‘Letters to My Husband‘, is available now. You can read my review of ‘Letters to My Husband’ here. ‘Letters to my Husband’ was originally published as ‘Surrounded by Water’.
Many thanks to Stephanie for being involved in the blog. Please feel free to leave a comment. 
Vic x
Photo by Topher McGrillis

Photo by Topher McGrillis

Which is most important: character or plot?
This question comes up a lot when I do author events. Here’s the short answer:
CHARACTER.
As with most short answers, though, it’s not quite that simple.
For me, any book where a character doesn’t behave consistently goes straight on the ‘charity shop’ pile, whether I’m thirty pages in or fifteen pages from the end. I don’t care whether it’s literary, thriller or YA – if the author wants me to believe that a heroine who has never shown any interest in languages suddenly applies for, and gets, a job as a translator (‘Ginny dug her Chinese language books out of the loft, and it all came flooding back’) in order to move her to the other side of the world, I’m done with that book, and very probably, that author too. That kind of writing is just plain lazy.
But – a beautifully drawn, authentic character who does nothing isn’t going to keep me reading either. Put bluntly: stuff has to happen. Something must go wrong. And that needs to help the character to change. (No, I am not going to use the word ‘journey’. This is not ‘Strictly’…)
For me, the most compelling writing – the sort that leads to the most obsessive, no-I-don’t-have-time-to-get-dressed-today reading – is writing where character and plot form a spiral, one feeding into another. Witness George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in ‘Middlemarch‘. She is smart and philanthropic and stubborn (character). Therefore Casaubon’s proposal is attractive to her (plot). When she discovers the futility of his project and he refuses to let her help the way she thought she would, she becomes dissatisfied (character-driven) which leads to her becoming attracted to Will Ladislaw (plot). And so on. Eliot and Austen did this brilliantly; one of my favourite authors, John Updike, was a master. But witness, also, Sarah Waters’ Sue in ‘Fingersmith‘; Katniss Everdene whose every effort in ‘The Hunger Games‘ is motivated by loyalty and fury at the world; Harold Fry’s Pilgrimage is not at all unlikely, really, because we understand precisely what in his character drives him to do what he does.
So, the short answer to the character/plot question is ‘character’. The longer, less snappy answer is ‘character, driven by plot, which will drive the character to take in-character responses, which will ramp up the plot a bit more’. And when you’ve got more than one character following those patterns… that’s when you’ve got magic.
Letters to my Husband

Letters to my Husband