What’s your story?
It can be difficult for a fiction writer to answer that. We have lots of stories from our tales of how we develop as authors (with hopefully increasing numbers of publishing credits) to each of the actual works we invent and rigorously edit before they see the light of day.
How to annoy a writer
If you want to annoy a writer, tell them you would write a book too if only you had the time. It will raise blood pressure!
Another good way to annoy them is, when they tell you they’ve written a book, say something like “Oh I never thought you could do that” as (a) it’s patronising and (b) ensures instant self-doubt in the less confident author. They will not thank you for it.
Alternatively try and claim nobody reads books any more. It’s not true though any writer would always welcome people reading more.
But on a more positive note…
How to cheer a writer up
By sharing thoughts and tips from other writers which hopefully will be useful. So on that note: –
Gill James and I share thoughts and tips on the joys of inventing stories. We hope you find them helpful. Gill also shares glimpses into her life as an author.
Gill is a prolific author as well as a publisher (Bridge House Publishing). There’s nothing to beat writing novels yourself in gaining a real understanding it is not as easy as it may look (or as some foolishly claim – this is another excellent way to wind up any writer).
I can’t think of any writer whose work was published immediately. There must be several edits to get the piece right (this includes this blog incidentally). One example of a book from Gill that went through many rewrites is shown below.
Allison: You are sympathetic to writers, Gill, given you have written many novels and know a lot about the difficulties authors face. What have been the best stand-out moments for you as a writer?
Gill: Three of my best stand-out moment have been:-
- When my first novel Nick’s Gallery was published in 2004. Sadly, it’s out of print. But I edited it, updated it and self-published it as A Gallery For Nick (eBook).
- When my novel Babel, the second part of the Peace Child trilogy, was used as part of a conference at the University of Salford on coping with an aging population. In this book there is a struggle against compulsory euthanasia for an aging population. One character also suffers from Alzheimer’s.
- Reading from my current work in progress during an evening with Jackie Kay at the University of Salford, where I’m a senior lecturer in English and Creative writing and where she is Chancellor.
Allison: Which of your books is your favourite and why? What are you currently working on?
Gill: My favourite is always the latest one. The latest published one is The House on Schellberg Street, a story set in England and Germany during World War II. This is the first book in the Schellberg Cycle.
I’m rather fond of the second Clara’s Story which is awaiting publication and I’m in the very early days of the third one: Girl in a Smart Uniform.
Allison: What would you say were the most important do’s and don’ts for a writer to follow?
My answers here are:-
1. DO read (and across genres, including non-fiction).
2. DO print work out and edit on paper and not screen.
3. DO put work aside for while and then re-look at it with fresh eyes.
One of my pieces on Alfie Dog Fiction has been a prime example of leaving work for a while, seeing its faults, correcting those and then re-submitting it and having it accepted.
Persistence and a willingness to listen to good writing advice (before deciding whether or not it suits your story) is important.
My DON’Ts are:-
1. DON’T submit work too soon, there will be things you will need to correct.
2. DON’T rush the spell and grammar checking. Your work must be the best it can be before submitting it anywhere. Use a good dictionary.
3. DON’T rely on your computer here. It won’t pick up everything. Nor can it detect a wrong word which is out of context but which is correctly spelt. My grammar checker hates the word “their”! I don’t know why…!
Gill: I agree with you on the whole. I’d also add:
- DO aim to write every day.
- DO read out loud for your final edit.
- DO start at a different place for each edit so you’re not always rushing the last few pages.
- DON’T beat yourself up if you don’t manage to write every day.
- DON’T take rejection personally. It never is personal.
- DON’T give up. If you want to be a writer you can do it. (It’s a big IF, mind.)
Tips, self-help and reading
Allison: Every writer in the world, including me, loves reading tips to help improve their work and/or chances of publication. My favourite, and most useful, tip is to always print out on paper for editing. I missed many mistakes early on in my writing life not doing that. Gill, what are your tips? What did you find out the hard way you wish you had known sooner?
Gill: Writing is mainly rewriting. I now accept I’m going to do 18 edits. I can write a novel in three months, but it takes me eighteen to do all the edits. I look for one thing at a time. I wish I’d known that. Really I should have done. I used to be a language teacher and I used to tell my students the same then.
Self-help writing books
Allison: What are your favourite self-help writing books? I love Stephen King’s On Writing, which is very down to earth. I also like The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker which is a long read but a fascinating study.
Gill: Yes, I like those too. I also like Robert McKee’s Story, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Rayne Hall’s Twitter for Writers. McKee, Vogler and Campbell both add to and simplify Booker’s ideas on plot. Hall offers reassuring common sense tips on making the most of Twitter if you’re a writer.
Allison: Sometimes help for writers can be found in other media. I recently thoroughly enjoyed Radio 4’s The Invisible College where “ghostly” writers from the past give their views on writing. There were only 3 episodes in the series. I hope Radio 4 produces more of these.
Allison: Which author do you think you learnt the most from and why?
Gill: Really difficult to answer. I like Stephen King because he writes well and his plots are technically perfect. I appreciate Melvin Burgess because he is so unafraid. I love Aiden Chamber’s use of language and narrative techniques. I endeavour to emulate what they achieve but I’m aware I need to find my own way of achieving these qualities.
Allison: Which author has inspired you the most and why?
Gill: I’m afraid I have again to name three: Louise May Alcott, David Almond and Philip Pullman. All three worked for years as “jobbing” writers, getting along fine and then suddenly had a breakthrough novel. This keeps me going in the hope that I constantly improve as a writer. I also enjoy their work.
Allison: This reminds me of David Almond’s Desert Island Discs.
Allison: When you read for pleasure, which is your favourite book/author?
Gill: I enjoy everything I read. Because I write for young adult I read a lot of books written for them. I can’t quite ever switch off that critical, analysing voice. Yet this enables me to enjoy texts I might not otherwise enjoy.
If anything takes me out of my editor’s head I make sure it get on to my recommended reads.
I regularly review for Troubador Magazine and also for the online books site for children’s books.
Allison: How do you develop your writing themes? My main one seems to be 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 usually perceive a fairy godmother to be and act. I have not written my stories directly with that theme in mind but it has emerged from the plots I write.
Gill: The story comes fully formed but vague – in the middle of the night, while I’m driving, while I’m cooking or if I’m 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.
Allison: Do themes develop as you go along for your writing or do you set the theme first and then write? I haven’t consciously set a theme. I hear the voice of my characters, gradually fill in a portrait of them and then I can begin writing about them. I also focus on personality traits rather than physical attributes. I think the former is more important. Traits drive a character’s responses and actions.
Gill: I tend to see the 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.
Allison: Many thanks, Gill, for your thoughts here. It can sound mad to anyone who is not a writer for authors to talk about seeing and/or hearing their characters, especially since we, of all people, know they do not exist. It’s always good for a writer to know they’re not alone here!
It’s also good to know that whatever technological advances happen, there will always be a need for well written stories. Stories are a basic human need, not as fundamental as, say, food or drink, but, for me, hell is a place where there are no books. Our world would be much poorer without them. And there’s nothing quite so special as when you are told for the first time your work has been accepted for publication…
Note: Don’t miss Allison’s next post on Friday 26th June 2015.
Visit Allison Symes’ website: Fairytales with Bite
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.