Earlier this year, I posted my interview with Gill James who as author, creative writing lecturer and small publisher gave me my first break into publication with my short story, A Helping Hand, when it appeared in the Bridge House Publishing anthology, Alternative Renditions.
That first break is, hopefully, just the start of many wonderful moments in writing and is a very special time for writers starting out on what they hope will be a long career.
Gill and I used to meet regularly at Winchester Cathedral’s wonderful Refectory to discuss all things books and writing related over delicious teas, coffees and cakes.
Anyone wanting to write must have an intense love of reading/writing as, without this, when the rejections for your work start to pile up (as they inevitably do), dejection kicks in and it is only too easy to give up.
That intense love for writing is what keeps writers going. It is also why any writer worth their salt does all they can to promote books, reading, libraries etc and this is something Gill, Felicity, Richard Hardie and I gladly do.
I first met Gill some years earlier at the Isle of Wight Writers’ Conference, run by Felicity Fair Thompson (whom I also interviewed earlier this year).
Gill moved north and started her own publishing firm, Bridge House Publishing. She took the name from where she used to live in Bursledon (Old Bridge House Road), which I pass most weeks on my way via the “delights” of the A27 to see family. It truly is a small world.
This post, and the second part which appears tomorrow, is the conclusion of my detailed interview with Gill. These posts focus on her life as a creative writing teacher and includes how-to advice, which we hope will be useful to fellow writers. For readers, this should give some insight as to what goes on inside a writer’s head before you see the words we produce!
I must say in some ways I wish Gill hadn’t moved north. I miss her and those cakes!
Allison: Outlining makes me focus on the story I’m meant to be writing and to test ideas. Do you outline, Gill? If so, do you prepare a long outline, especially for a novel, or just list major points?
Gill: I prepare a short outline according to Robert McKee’s theory: inciting incident, growing complexities, crisis, climax, resolution. I then make a chapter by chapter outline and as I come to each chapter, I’ll make a short outline for that. Things often change and I get more insight about characters and what’s likely to happen as I go. I use some of the other story theories as I edit if something seems out of kilter.
Allison: Robert McKee’s Story is one of the great how-to write books. While McKee looks at screenwriting, the principles he outlines apply to other fiction forms. I’ve found it useful in helping me with story structure.
Allison: As a creative writing lecturer at Salford University, is outlining something you teach or is it something writers should develop themselves?
Gill: Teaching at university is always about sharing your research and then leaving the students to make up their own mind. I hope that they will argue convincingly with me. So, yes, I teach them story theories. Yes, in addition they must find their own way. Every piece of creative work they produce is accompanied by a critically reflective piece. This really helps their development as a writer.
Allison: What is the greatest joy for you as a lecturer – seeing someone being published or that their work has developed to such an extent it could be? How can you help them reach that point? What is the single most important thing any writer can do to improve their work?
Gill: My answer to the latter is to remember to check for structure so the story makes sense as well as ensuring grammar and spelling are correct. I see all of that as part of one overall editing job!
Allison: The Three Act Structure is one of the major building blocks in creative writing. The You Tube clip gives a brief overview but to put it simply Act 1 is where you set up your problem, Act 2 is where your hero(ine) is struggling to deal with that problem and Act 3 is the climax and resolution of the story.
Gill: It is actually amazing how the students come on over the three years. I was really chuffed recently to see one of my students published. Her novel that she started with me came out eighteen months after she’d graduated. It was pretty good and got on to my Recommended Reads blog.
I was so impressed with her Hampshire-based publisher, John Hunt, that I sent something to them which was also accepted.
Our students are sometimes published in a small way while they are still with us – poems or short stories here and there. I send out a vetted opportunities list about once a week.
Each class included a workshop element where students are encouraged to share work. In this, and in more formal marking we identify what works well, what works less well and what are the most useful things they could do to improve.
Gill: This list usually includes:
- Show don’t tell
- Get the point of view right
- Kill some darlings
- Tighten your writing
- Set out dialogue correctly
In their final year the students have a two semester core module, Final Portfolio, where they work on their own projects, sharing work every week in a group of twelve and with a tutor. Four people send work to the whole group two days before the workshop and we all offer a critique. They then have to decide how to react to the comments. This replicates a normal critique group and also the editorial process to some extent.
We re-jig the groups at the end of the first semester so they’re working with different people.
Allison: How do you develop your writing themes? My main one is having characters that are not all they appear to be. This is particularly true for my rebellious fairy godmother character, Eileen, who does not look, yet alone behave, in the way we would expect from a fairy godmother. I have not written directly with that in mind but it emerged naturally.
Gill: The story comes fully formed but vague – in the middle of the night, while I’m driving, cooking or out walking. I can tell you the story in a couple of lines. Then I use other thinking opportunities to get to know the characters and the setting. Then I outline as above.
Allison: Do you “see” or “hear” your characters as you write? I hear my characters, gradually fill in a portrait of them and then begin writing. I also focus on personality traits rather than physical attributes, as traits drive a character’s responses and actions. I find the physical attributes come more easily once I’ve got the basic building block of personality in place.
Gill: I tend to see characters rather than hear them. It’s like a film in my head. My aim is to get the same film into the reader’s head. I’m often not really aware of them until I’m quite a way into the writing. I do think with characters you need to know the physical, the intellectual, the emotional and motivation within a particular story.
Characters can be naughty and go off and do their own thing. And they dictate to you sometimes. Once, after we’d been talking about this in my Masters class (Writing for Children, Winchester) I was sure the three main ones from my work in progress were sitting on the back seat as I drove from Bursledon to Basingstoke. They were squabbling about what I should do next!
Part 2 of this post follows tomorrow and looks at networking and again contains what Gill and I both hope will be useful advice for other writers.
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