writing advice

Writers’ imposter syndrome

I’m no longer a new writer, I think I mostly come under the ’emerging’ heading. I’ve had a fair few successes, I’m doing ok. I’ve even taken over running the local writing group. Yet I still sometimes end up at writers’ gatherings feeling thick, left out, and like I shouldn’t really be there.

Some of this comes from not knowing the jargon. Surrounded by people with a BA in Eng Lit, or an MA in Creative Writing, they say things like ‘of course that’s a metaphor for…’ and my mind swings back to the pre-GCSE English class where we learnt that a simile is where you’re saying it’s similar to and metaphors are the other one. By which time I’ve missed the rest of the sentence anyway. Or they use some terminology I’m completely unfamiliar with, and since everyone else is nodding and looking serious, I don’t like to interrupt matters by asking what the blazes they’re on about. For the most part, I don’t need to know the technical terms – there are lots of bits of grammar I don’t know the rules for, let alone the names, but years of reading other people’s books, and absorbing the rhythm and typical ways of phrasing things means I can use them in context.

Sometimes they’ve seen themes in my work that aren’t there. I get suggestions to mine this a bit more, or go further with my exploration of that. It was just a story about a teapot, I want to say. I am not as deep and multi-layered as you think I am. The teapot is not symbolic, it’s certainly not a metaphor for whatever it is you just said that I missed while I was remembering what metaphor means, and I don’t want her to shatter it at the end. It’s a teapot, it’s for making tea in. She’d only have to sweep it up afterwards.

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

On Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme about working class writers last year, someone said working class stories are rock n roll to the literary novel’s classical music. I don’t think it’s purely class-based snobbery though, it’s genre as well (look at the lack of genre novels winning mainstream prizes). Most of the fiction I read is SF, crime or a mixture of the two. I read recently that a writer needs to keep up with the literary world. Listen to Front Row, the advice went. Read the books pages. Now The Guardian has good SF reviews, I often add things to my To Read list from there, but whenever I’ve inadvertently caught bits of Front Row (Radio 4 arts review programme) it’s always struck me as people being pretentious about books I don’t want to read, and events in London. The musical analogy caught up with me though and I had a (minor) revelation.

I like listening to music and I know a fair bit about it. The stuff I like, that is. Get me on glam metal, NWOBHM, certain strands of British indie, and I can bore for Britain. However, I neither know nor care what’s on Radio 3 or Radio 1, who’s on the proms this year or who’s just won a Brit award. Why should I, when the radio station I’m most likely to listen to is La Grosse Radio Metal? If I want to listen to old music it’ll be Benny Goodman not Beethoven. I don’t recognise anything I hear emanating from the flat of my opera-singer neighbour, but I can guarantee he doesn’t recognise my Bon Jovi tapes either. It doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than an opera buff, just that we have different tastes.

Note that different doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Nobody has any business saying that someone ‘should’ have read any book outside their favoured genre, and I need to remember that just because everyone else around the table has read Muriel Spark or Ian Rankin there’s no need for me to do so. I’m not going to tell people who don’t like SF that they should read Tad Williams, just like I’m not going to tell people who like hip hop that they should listen to Black Sabbath. That doesn’t stop me from wearing my Sabbath hoodie, and while I’m not about to buy a Tad Williams T-shirt I may bolster myself at writer’s gatherings by cultivating the secure separateness of the metaller in a crowd of Radio 1 listeners.

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In praise of the second-person narrative

You go into the library and take down a book. The librarian smiles at you as they pass, and you sit down to read. It’s written in second-person, ‘you’ not ‘I’ or ‘they’, and it begins to grate on you. How dare this author tell you what you’re doing? I’m not! you scream, every other line. You put the book back on the shelf and leave.

All the writing advice I’ve read says don’t use the second person. It’s contrived, it’s ‘experimental’ for the sake of it, it gets up people’s noses. For years I didn’t write, wouldn’t have dreamt of writing, fiction in the second person. And then I did, and I quite liked it, and now I can’t get enough of it, both as a writer and a reader.

I understand the feeling some readers have that it’s dictating to them, spying on them, describing them. After all, if a writer says ‘you’, who are they addressing except the reader? Who else is there? And yet…

I had one of those sudden shifts in understanding, like when I saw e-readers as the Walkman for the bus, with books as the LP collection you keep at home. The writer isn’t addressing me as reader, I’m eavesdropping on a conversation they’re having with someone else. I’m reading letters over their shoulder. They don’t know I’m here. Think of it like that and the second-person narrative becomes deliciously intimate, transgressive even. It’s where the reader gets to experience unfiltered lives, not the parts that ‘I’ choose to narrate about myself, or that someone else has observed about ‘them’.

I still wouldn’t overdo it, I’m sure a diet of purely second-person would get wearing, but then I also get sick of first-person and that seems almost prescribed in flash fiction. Reading someone’s early-draft short story recently, they said ‘is it ok in second-person or is it too gimmicky?’, which is sad because the voice fit the story, and assuming they weren’t using second-person to be experimental for the sake of it, then it’s no more of a gimmick than any other choice of tense or narrative voice. If it works for you as a writer, use it. If you’re unsure as a reader, try it again, only this time imagine your ear pressed against a flimsy dividing wall.

Writing a script with a partner

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JY Saville and Rosalind York at Chapel FM

I wrote about writing with a partner, for the New Writing North blog, so if you’re not sick to the back teeth of me banging on about Lavender Ink (the radio drama Roz and I wrote for this year’s Writing On Air), you can read about how we went about writing it, here.

Marvel at our logical approach, learn from our mistakes, celebrate our continued friendship, then listen to Lavender Ink itself (there’s a link at New Writing North or you can go straight to Chapel FM). Feedback, as ever, gratefully received.

Oh, and for those who read last week’s post which mentioned the renewed search for a day job, I’ve found one, so come next month I won’t have to worry about the Earl Grey supply drying up for a while.

Mentoring for the less confident

Everyone has something to teach. Yes, that includes you. It might not be unique to you, it might not be earth-shattering, you might have read it somewhere else in the first place, but you can pass it on and someone else will find it useful (not necessarily the person you’re passing it onto right now, but that’s another story).

Last week a newsletter from writer, editor, mentor, writing coach Rachel Thompson exhorted us all to become mentors, particularly if we’re looking for mentoring ourselves. The point she was making was that even if you’re not doing brilliantly, there will be writers who haven’t reached your level yet who might benefit from a helping hand (or a critical but encouraging word). Even if you’re an absolute beginner, passing useful tips around writers at a similar level is a good thing.

Are you teaching other writers? Rachel Thompson asked. Well, yes I am (and sometimes I chuck out some writing advice in this blog) but I still get the ‘who am I to talk?’ doubts. It’s good to remember that teaching or mentoring doesn’t mean you have to be a superstar in your field, or have all the answers. As long as you’re at least one step ahead of the person (or group) you’re trying to help, they’re going to gain something from you. And you don’t have to be at the same level in every aspect, as this audio diary from Tania Hershman illustrates.

Tania Hershman writes short stories and, more recently, poetry. In the audio diary (a week in the life of a writer who’s not writing much at the moment because her new book’s just come out) she mentions being a mentor for a couple of short story writers, and knowing what she’s looking for, what to suggest, in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to ten years ago. She then says that to do the same for poetry might take her another ten years, because she doesn’t have much experience in it yet. I can immediately see the sense in that, but it was refreshing to hear. Being a novice at novels doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to offer in flash fiction, for instance.

As if to illustrate this point, up popped an interview at Zero Flash with Chris Drew, a flash fiction writer who’s a well-known name among flash aficionados on Twitter, and hopefully beyond. With the usual drawerful of abandoned novels, he changed writing tack and took off. He’s only been submitting flash fiction for about eighteen months, but he’s already successful and has advice to share with new writers.

So come on, writers (artists, musicians, family historians…) think of something you can do to help the people following you. It might give you some insight into your own work at the same time.

How to write a query letter for a literary agent

Since I had the benefit of Penguin’s WriteNow insight day in Newcastle last week, including dissecting query/cover letters with literary agents, I thought I’d share what I learnt. I’m not claiming this is a definitive summary but I hope it’s useful.

The biggest lesson to take away was: agents are people too. You might think that’s obvious, but it’s easy to elevate them into some godlike figure in your mind, as you sit there redrafting the synopsis for the eightieth time. They’re gatekeepers, yes, but they’re also dedicated, enthusiastic readers who (bear this in mind as you press send and immediately start getting impatient for a response) read manuscripts in their spare time, at evenings and weekends when they might prefer to be with their family. They have their off-days, they’re subjective, and they respond well to politeness. Don’t be rude, don’t waste their time, and remember that a rejection only means they couldn’t see themselves championing your book in the face of indifference, it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.

Before you even get as far as writing that letter, you need to have finished your manuscript. If they love those first three chapters and ask for the rest they don’t want to be told they can have it just as soon as you’ve finished. It could take you a year (you might even run out of steam and never get there) and the space in their list has been filled in the meantime, or their needs have moved on.

Take the time and trouble to check the agent’s name, don’t address your letter to the long-deceased person the agency was named after in the fifties. Be polite but (British authors take note) not too humble or self-deprecating; under-selling yourself is as big a turn-off as over-selling and arrogance. Don’t try to be funny, quirky or cute – think of it like a job application.

Write a mini-synopsis like a back-cover blurb in your letter, to hook them into wanting to read your sample chapters. Remember you’re pitching one particular book at them, don’t cloud the issue by listing future/half-baked projects.

Tell them a tiny bit about yourself, particularly anything relevant such as a job that feeds into your novel, or that you’ve had stories published in anthologies or magazines. You can give them your social media and website details, but don’t expect them to go look there (it’s not a substitute for telling them the necessary stuff in the letter) and think about whether you want to point them at a Twitter account full of ranting. If you’ve self-published a book say so, but don’t try and twist it to make it sound like someone else published you.

It’s fine to say you’re approaching a particular agent because of who else they represent, particularly if you can say your novel fits well alongside them. However, be sincere – when you say you love the work of Client X, remember the agent loves the work of Client X so much they took them on and touted their book around editors, so will understandably be cheesed off if they find out you were lying.

Do not stalk the agent on social media.

If you haven’t heard anything after 8 weeks or so, a polite email is acceptable. Agents spend their working lives chasing editors so they understand that authors need to chase them sometimes. Do not phone them, or turn up at their office building.

They expect you to have sent your submission out to a handful of agents at once, but make sure you keep them updated (again, a polite email) if another agent requests the full manuscript or offers representation.

The Penguin WriteNow webpages have got some useful information, including the cover letter that a (now) bestselling author used when she landed herself an agent. An author I spoke to on the day recommended Miss Snark’s blog, discontinued in 2007 but still accessible as a searchable archive, it’s kind of an agony aunt format where the anonymous literary agent Miss Snark answers questions about manuscripts and submissions. This week on Twitter, a couple of useful links have been doing the rounds too: Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, shares her successful cover letter here and her agent Juliet Mushens writes about how to approach an agent here, and why you don’t get an instant response here. There’s another cover letter, from Louise Jensen, here.

Good luck, and thanks to the agents at WriteNow for sharing their time and expertise.

The over-analysed writer

I don’t mean over-analysed in the English Literature sense, where sixteen pages of hidden meaning can apparently be wrung from one paragraph of a novel. I mean, loosely, in the sense of data analysis. I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week (and believe me, I don’t say that very often these days) which looked at graphs of writing progress for one author on his way to a finished novel, courtesy of an app he’d used to log these things. Cheering to most of us, I expect, was the up and down nature of the thing, the long pauses where life intervened and writing was something that happened to other people, or the stumbling recovery made up of several days of adding a sentence, a paragraph, nowhere near target.

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My NaNoWriMo progress during November 2016

Now, if you’ve been around here a while you will have guessed that I’ve been measuring things like wordcount totals on spreadsheets for years. It was probably during one of my attempts at NaNoWriMo that I realised the motivational power of a graph with a line showing where the wordcount should be, and columns representing my actual total. Certainly it was through use of a daily wordcount tally that I realised how quickly a couple of hundred words in the library in my lunchbreak became a short story, a novella, a few chapters of a novel. There is a flip-side, of course.

I imagine that even for those writers working to a publisher’s deadline, life will intervene sometimes. A family emergency, illness, even the temptation of a sunny day after a fortnight of rain. Wordcount targets will not be met. It’s clear, therefore, that for everyone writing alongside a day job and family (I don’t just mean children, you do need to spend time with your spouse or your sister occasionally if you don’t want them to forget who you are) this will happen a lot. If you’re writing with hope but no fixed publication deadline, anything you’ve written that wasn’t there last month is a bonus. Look at that sharp red target line floating way above your little blue column, though, and it’s easy to get discouraged. What was I thinking? I can’t write a novel, it’ll take years. I’ve missed my target twelve days in a row. It may be your targets are over-ambitious, but that’s another matter.

In the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing at the moment (I don’t think that’s a real genre, I started calling it that as a nod to urban fantasy but a lot of it is set in northern villages and moors) I’ve had days when I’ve written nearly 3,000 words and wondered how I managed it, I’ve had whole weeks where I’ve written nothing. I will have written something else because I don’t have a regular day-job now, but not the novel. I’m a great fan of conditional formatting, so on a day when I’ve written at least 500 words of the novel the cell goes green when I type my wordcount in and I smile a contented smile. Simple pleasures. Crucially, I don’t have any targets. I don’t count non-green-cell days as failures. I try not to have too many consecutive blank days, but how many is too many?

Try an app, try a spreadsheet, try writing your target and actual wordcounts on the calendar in the kitchen for a month. One or more of these may give you a boost and keep you going. But if you find yourself being frozen by fear of failure, or beating yourself up over missed targets, ditch them and focus on the writing.

It’s not my gender that’s the problem

It’s not like I never get involved in women-only publications or events. I reviewed female-author books for women-only SF purveyors Luna Station Quarterly for a while, and I’m taking part in the York International Women’s Festival in March. However, I do that in the spirit that I would enter a competition open only to residents of the UK, or a scheme for Bradford council-tax-payers: I fit the criteria, criteria are sometimes arbitrary. I don’t do it because I think women are somehow special or a homogenous mass. ‘Women’ is too big a group for lumping together: the larger the group the greater the diversity within it, and the less use it is for any practical purpose.

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Class (social background, social capital, and contacts) and/or wealth are much more important as enablers or hindrances to getting on than gender is, particularly in writing. Let’s talk about competition entries first.

While it’s true that there are many free to enter writing competitions out there, pretty much all of the big prestigious ones (and many of the smaller ones too) cost money. Before I continue, I should point out that I expect first-readers, judges, administrators and all the rest to be paid properly for their time, and I understand that there are overheads to be covered, as well as the prize money. It doesn’t change the fact that it costs, for example, between £8 (flash fiction) and £10 (short story) to enter the Bridport Prize, £8 for the Bristol Short Story Prize, £10-£12 to enter the various Cinnamon Press competitions, £17.50 for the most recent Manchester Fiction Prize, or £25 for the Bath Novel Award.

In terms of special concessions to female authors, confidence is often cited. Women are not as likely to submit manuscripts to agents or publishers as men. Women are not as convinced of their greatness as men. I’ve met some pretty arrogant and overbearing women for whom this will not be a problem, and I also know plenty of shy, self-deprecating men. Social background comes into the confidence issue in a big way: if you’ve ever felt the slightest hint of ‘not for the likes of us’ you will feel it in the face of publishers and agents. Think your vocabulary might not be as vast as it ‘should’ be? Have an idea that everyone in publishing is a posh woman called Pippa who’s never caught a bus in her life? Now bear that in mind as you prepare to fork out most of this month’s disposable income in writing competition fees…

I was shocked recently to read a £3 reading fee described as less than the price of a coffee or sandwich. Now £3 is not a vast amount to me for a fee like this, though even the small amounts add up – it was the comparison I didn’t like, as though it was perfectly trivial for everyone. I would not pay £3 for a sandwich or a cup of coffee (I have paid £3 for a really fancy hot chocolate, and felt guilty about it later). When OneMonkey and I go out for a meal it costs us £20-£25 in total, probably because we don’t buy alcohol or a starter and are both vegetarian, but still that’s the sort of thing you’re up against. Do we pay for a treat we can both enjoy, or the entry fee to a writing competition I have little chance of winning? You’d have to be massively confident (or single-minded) to enter the writing competition if you didn’t have much spare cash.

Then there are writing retreats, editorial and critiquing services, workshops and conferences, writing groups. Not all of these will charge a fee (and some have low income concessionary rates) but even travel costs to events can be prohibitive. I saw a 3-day conference advertised recently, the price seemed high but considering you were getting 3 days probably not too bad, it was just over an hour away by public transport (we don’t have a car) but adding in the 3 days of travel costs nearly doubled the total price of attendance so I decided against it. Again, if you’re lacking confidence, and perhaps don’t know anyone else who writes or thinks writing is a worthwhile thing to do, you’ll think twice about spending the money.

Books cost money (though the Guardian still thinks describing books around the £10 mark as stocking fillers is reasonable), libraries are closing down and don’t always have the books that you need. Research resources that are a matter of paying to use the online database from the comfort of your own study for the better off, might be a stumbling block for others. Even carving out writing time is harder if you can’t afford a babysitter or an after school club, or haven’t got a spare room to shut yourself in with a notepad and pen.

I once went to a writing workshop where the tutor began by saying writing was (financially) accessible to everyone because all you needed was paper and a pen. Rubbish, I thought. As a hobby, maybe, but not if you want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, you need to type up your work on a computer and in some cases still print it out and post it off as a hard copy. Unless you’re exceptionally talented you need guidance and tuition (in person or via books) and preferably someone to read through your final drafts to give you an opinion, which might have to be an editorial service if you don’t hang around with other writers much. You need the money to enter competitions or pay the increasingly common ‘reading fees’ for magazines (or buy a book from the indie publisher before you can submit your own manuscript – I get why they want to do that, but I’m not buying a book I’ve already read from the library just so I can send them my work and then probably not even be one of the ten people they publish next year). You need the confidence that you’re not just throwing all this money away. This is not a women-only problem.