Pop over to Vanessa Gebbie’s blog where she’s interviewed me about my creative writing critiquing service. It was really good to get into some depth about the process, aims and background of Inkspill Critiques.
What are Inkspill’s strengths when it comes to evaluating and giving feedback on a piece of work?
I’m delighted to have Vanessa Gebbie here at my blog today. Vanessa and I have been internet buddies for years now; we met each other in an online writing forum and I remember always being impressed with her writing. Vanessa has always been generous with her writing advice, with sharing her experiences and cheering people on. She’s a genuingly inspiring individual.
Her previous books sit on my shelves – a signed hardback copy of Words from a Glass Bubble, Storm Warning and Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. The Coward’s Tale is Vanessa’s first full lenght novel after specialising in short stories, and it is a truely beautiful and magical read. I picked Vanessa’s brains about the journey that led her to publication.
SP: How did you come up with the idea for The Coward’s Tale?
VG: Well, the honest answer is that I didn’t. I wrote a short story based on a modern retelling of the Doubting Thomas story, using images attached to the man over time (but without the religious elements!) – and then thought – OK, where there’s one Apostle, there tend to be eleven more – so maybe there’s a bigger project here.
SP: Where did you find your inspiration?
VG: That’s always a hard one to answer – but the place where the novel is set is based on Twynyrodyn, part of Merthyr Tydfil in the south Wales valleys – that’s where my family is from. I loved that place, as a child, used to go and stay with my grandmother as much as I could. Maybe that place worked its way through the system and gave me inspiration. I never wanted to go ‘home’ – always thought of those streets as my home, I felt hapier there than anywhere else. So I suppose that feeling allowed me to spend a lot of time (in memory) back there, for the five or six years it took to write The Coward.
But also, I have always been acutely aware that we carry the weight of past events with us, perhaps things that happened before we were born, even – and that seemed a good starting point for an exploration of this theme for a whole community.
SP: What is your method for developing ideas?
VG: Just writing, and seeing what happens.
SP: How did you plan the novel, or did it evolve organically as you wrote?
VG: I don’t plan much, if at all. I don’t sit down and work out a plot, and then write it. I know that works for a lot of writers, but it doesn’t for this one. I see writing as ‘telling myself a story’ – and if I knew the story before I sat down to write, how boring would that be! It evolved completely organically – each section getting written over time, put away, kept on a memory stick somewhere. I didn’t bring the whole thing together until one deliberate stint at my writing retreat – when I printed out all the sections for the first time, then had a look at what I had. A lovely moment. But of course, that was when the hard work of editing and polishing started – that took me almost a year. I guess if you are a plotty writer, you dont have that hard work at the end? Don’t know.
SP: How did you tap into the myriad of voices that are in The Coward’s Tale?
VG: By letting the people speak for themselves, not trying too hard to ‘make them up’.
SP: Did you encounter writers block at any time?
VG: Yes. There were a few unfortunate events along the way which knocked me back a bit, and I lost confidence in the novel, and in my abilities as a writer. And also, nuts as it seems, I was also like that when something lovely happened – like winning a prize with a section of the novel – that would have the effect of freezing me too. Expectations got higher – could I deliver?
SP: How did you overcome this?
VG: To begin with I concentrated on other work – teaching and editing. I was lucky – Salt had commissioned me to produce a text book on writing short fiction in 2009, and I had that as a project to concentrate on – something which was using completely different skills – a great thing to be doing.
But as for zapping that feeling of being blocked – someone gave me a great tip a while back – typing blind. It works if you use a computer to work on – which I do. Either turn the screen off, on a pc – or, on a laptop, stick a teeshirt over the screen, or turn the font to white. And type like the blazes. You are cutting out the feedback loop – can’t see what you are writing at all. It feels absolutely stupid to begin with, but for me, it really works – some of the best bits of The Coward were written looking at a tee-shirt.
SP: What was your overall process for writing The Coward’s Tale?
VG: I wrote it over 5/6 years, whilst also writing all the short stories in Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning and editing Short Circuit. I have never been the sort of writer to only have one pot on the boil. I’d write a bit, then put it away and do something else. I used to wake up in the night and try to remember how many characters there were in the novel – I still can’t quite work it out…(!)
SP: Did you go through several revisions?
VG: Loads! I had an Arts Council Grant for the Arts to polish the novel with the help of the wonderful novelist Maggie Gee – in six months, I must have tackled the complete manuscript four or five times, but before that each section had been polished separately… it was hard work.
SP: How did you manage this?
VG: In that final year, I initially sent the whole manuscript to Maggie Gee, and she read it closely and made pages of notes. We would meet in London at The British Library and discuss the points she made, then I would go away and work on whatever we’d agreed. I was incredibly focussed, and disciplined – most unusual for me. I was very aware I was working thanks to public money, and determined to do it properly. We’d meet again – and the points would get finer and finer, more and more subtle. But Maggie was very clever – she kept some really major things out of discussion until right at the end – or nearly – some radical shifts took place almost at the end of the process. I think now, looking back, if she’d suggested making those changes at the beginning, I would have hated it, and refused! But they were so right.
I had built up such trust in what she had to say – but also trust in the novel – so by the end of the mentoring period, I was able to consider a suggestion and decide for or (occasionally) against it, and feel happy with that. It was huge learning curve – I loved working with her.
SP: What was the process of getting the novel accepted for publication?
VG: I had an agent, since 2008, after winning a prize at Bridport. He knew roughly what I was writing, and was waiting for the manuscript. In face he’d waited for far too long – and had been very patient.. But after working with Maggie, the novel was in good shape. I sent it to my agent, via email. He came back to me quickly to say he loved it, and didn’t want any more changes. He was going to send it out to publishers as it was, and they’d either go for it, or not. I felt dead pleased with myself.
Then, I didn’t feel quite so clever – before sending it out, he asked me to resend the file, without track changes showing. Wally that I am, I’d sent him the tracked version – and it looked ghastly!
He sent it to a list of superb publishers. I had my fingers crossed strongly for one in particular, but wasn’t lucky with them. I am very glad he didn’t send me the replies as they came in, until he had some positive news. A lot turned The Coward’s Tale down, and I still don’t know what they said – I asked not to see the feedback. I don’t do rejection well – never have.
In the end, that two great publishers wanted it – so I had a choice, and we had meetings with them both, one after the other. I asked to meet not only the editor who would be working with me, but also the sales and marketing teams. One publisher had plates of warm Welsh cakes, and the other had bags of toffees – isn’t that great? (Both of these mean a lot in the novel!)
In the end, it was an easy decision – Bloomsbury loved the book as it was, and wanted minimal edits. The other publisher thought it would be best if it was made more commercial, and thought I needed to work on it a lot more.
I’d already been at this for too long – it was time to stop – and I felt more at home with Bloomsbury in the knowledge that I was nearly there. My editor, Helen Garnons-Williams, her assistant Erica Jarnes, the paperback editor Tram-Anh Doan and the whole team seemed to love the novel as much as the author did. We were off -
SP: What was it like to hand over the novel to the publishers?
VG: Interesting! I was really involved in the publishing process, from the design of the hardback cover (the work of Holly MacDonald), to working on the various stages of editing, to making the map which has ended up in the paperback edition, and of course doing my bit for marketing and publicity. (Like this! All so important.) But at some point you have to let go and get on with other things – and I will do that soon.
SP: What was it like to hold the finished book in your hands?
VG: Really lovely! I have three dirfferent versions. The hardback, the UK paperback, and the US trade paperback. All are rather gorgeous.
It has been a long journey, and hard work. But worth every minute.
Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Vanessa!
The Guardian recently hosted a discussion lead by several creative professionals about what it means to be an artist living in today’s society. Offering advice and sharing experiences, much of the discussion can be applied to any struggling creative. Here are the highlights:
1. Be in it for the long haul
“You’ve got to be in it for the long haul; making connections, understanding your own art practice and making a meaningful contribution all take time, risk and learning from mistakes. Project Management isn’t taught in art schools but most of the time professional artists are doing this anyway by trial and error.” – Pippa Koszerek, artist and curator
As a professional creative, you must wear many hats. It isn’t just about the creative work: you also have to be your own manager. This is often something less intuitive to creatives, and is not particularly taught on academic creative courses.
There are so many aspects to this side of the creative career, and all of them take time to learn and build. Don’t get disheartened. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it is better to get something wrong and learn from it than to never try for fear of failure.
Keep steadily plugging away, and soon you will realise that you’ve created a network, opened doors to opportunities, learnt how to manage your time and resources, and built up a meaningful portfolio.
2. Make connections
“The age old tradition of ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ still remains an employment mantra, even for young artists.” - Rosie Percy, The Guardian
From my own experience, I know this to be true. Tapping the ‘hidden market’ can open up so many more opportunities than trailing websites and jobs pages and applying for projects that hundreds – if not thousands – of others are grappling for.
By making connections, you are not only making personal links with other creatives and professionals who can share and support you in your creative plights, but your communication can open up opportunities for collaboration or recommendation. This type of ‘people sourcing’ is often a company’s first port of call before they splash out time, money and effort on national job vacancy marketing.
You can make connections by attending conferences, workshops, exhibitions, etc, and get chatting. But web presence is equally important. It goes without saying. Social networking sites, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, are perfect for professional and creative networking.
By seeing what others are up to, and being open about your own projects, you open yourself up to discussion, which often leads to meaningful connections. Having your own regularly updated website or blog is also an important aspect of your online presence – it provides an easily accessible place for your newly made connections to find out more about you and your projects. Showcase your knowledge, passion and portfolio via your website.
3. Be your own intern
“[Use] your work experience and [put] together a proposal to fund an idea or initiative of your own.” – Rosalind Davis, artist, writer, lecturer and curator
“If you’re going to work for no pay, then work for yourself and for your own benefit, or in a group of artists for the mutual benefit of you all… not for somebody who’ll just replace you with another unpaid intern after they’re done with you.” - Alistair Gentry, writer and artist
I cannot agree more.
There are too many unpaid internships that take advantage of desperate graduates in an over-saturated market. Though internships have their places – you can make great connections and gain valuable experience – some companies see interns simply as a source of free labour.
Furthermore, unpaid internships are always unfair. Most people simply cannot afford to do them, unless they have external support. When it comes down to it, unless a parent or guardian can support the intern financially, there is no way an unpaid intern can support themselves. It is a bias system that favours the priviledged.
But, never fear, there is an alternative. Create your own internship. You are a creative after all. What can you do that will increase your experiences and knowledge base, without becoming a slave to the non-wage?
This is something I have done myself. I set up my own literary magazine and, before that, used print on demand technology to create an anthology for an online writing forum. Those projects, that I managed myself, gave me an edge in my first interview for a job in publishing – and I got the job. I could have equally spent weeks of my life in an unpaid magazine internship – that is, if I even got the intern position in such a competitive industry – photocopying and stapling papers in the corner.
Use your noodle, be creative, and gain experience on your own terms, for your own benefit.
4. Supplement your creativity with a regular (part time) job
“In terms of passion, keep looking at art, keep going onwards with your work, keep talking to artists and do not get a full time job in a non art field! Too soon that reliable income becomes a reason for you not making your art.” – Rosalind Davis
“The Arts are notorious for not paying well. I really enjoy working in the arts sector to support my artistic practice, however there are a lot of benefits to having a regular part-time job. Other industries pay much more and artists have so many transferable skills.” – Pippa Koszerek
For a lot of creatives, the main motivation is not the money. How could it be? But saying that, creatives still need to eat and pay the bills. You may never make enough money to live off of from your creative work. It’s a sad truth. And if you do end up with an income which enables you to work creatively full time, you will probably have already invested a lot of unpaid time and effort (see points 1, 2 and 3!)
So, the solution to this will probably inevitably be a paid job – possibly relating directly or indirectly to your creative projects, but perhaps not. However, it is important to keep your main creative goals in perspective. Don’t get stuck in the rat race. Keep being inspired.
5. Not enjoying it? You’re doing it wrong!
“If you’re suffering for your art or trying to become an artist is tearing your psyche or your life apart, you’re doing it wrong. I’m constantly trying to disabuse aspiring artists or art students of the romantic notion that you sacrifice your life at the altar of art until such time as a gallerist rides by on a white horse to sweep you up because your art is so awesomely essential.” – Alistair Gentry
The cliche of the suffering artist is so last century. Creatives are empowered people, going against the social grain and filling their lives with meaning. At least, that’s the plan.
If you’re not enjoying your work, or you’re not enjoying the lack of money (see point 4), maybe this life isn’t for you. There’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in trying something out before you realise it’s not what you want to do. Life is too short to strive so hard for something that you have a mental breakdown.
On the other hand, you have to be responsible for your own creative career. You have to act positively and fight for what you believe in. No one ever said it would be easy. Just don’t let it get you down.
6. Understand your motivations and the concept of funding
“If you want to be an artist, then ask yourself, is my work sustainable? Am I going to have to beg others for money for the rest of my life? Do I want to make work that people want to see, or am I going to make work that nobody except an elite group of awardees will ever see?” – ‘SpeaktotheHand’
“There is an essential argument that not all art should be popular – not because it isn’t good, but perhaps because it is challenging accepted norms or making a controversial or difficult statement. The second related argument is about the academic and intellectual capacity of art; if your work is positioned is a place where you are effectively adding to new knowledge – academic PhD level, for example – where you are building on work that has been made before you at an extremely high level – it isn’t likely to popular with a majority. But it may well be very highly regarded, extremely worthwhile, even move the field on and become part of the canon.
“Public funding exists to ensure this kind of work (and other “non commercial”) can be made: it’s for the public benefit in terms of the national ability to contribute to universal and/or international debates/issues/fields of knowledge.” – Dany Louise, freelancer working with artists and arts organisations
“One of the Arts Council’s prime criteria for grants was and is that there is an identified and genuine audience for the work. So ‘nobody is interested’ is also wrong… And just to state the obvious: professional artists also pay taxes.” – Alistair Gentry
Lots of quotes here, but I think they raise issues in an important debate. Firstly, as a creative, your motivations will effect your work priorities, and how you go about your work. Do you want to provide projects for mass public consumption? Do you want to make as much money as you can from a project? Do you want to challenge social archetypes? Do you want to contribute to new academic research?
The answers to these questions will inform another important question: Am I able to get funding? Should I be able to receive such funding? Why?
Even if a project qualifies for funding, there is not enough to go around. Public arts cuts have dramatically effected the creative industries and this, too, must factor into your thought process and your artistic motivations. Important points to consider – with no right or wrong answer.
A lot to think about, and a lot to do. But perhaps the most important thing to remember is this:
There is no set path to creative success. Everyone will have a different journey based on their intentions, motivations, talent, personality, medium and connections. Oh, and you might want to take a walk in a field and keep your eye out for a four leafed clover. ‘Cause not matter how hard you work, you’re still going to need some luck.
In today’s post, Karolina Sutton (a literary agent at Curtis Brown) reveals what agents and publishers are looking for in a novel.
These are some highlights from her presentation at Royal Holloway, University of London.
- Agents and publishers want something extraordinary, something with an original concept.
- Imagination and good ideas make more money than beautiful writing.
- Short story collections are a bad idea – they are really hard to sell if you are a first time author. Instead, try pitching them to magazines.
- It is very difficult to ‘launch’ literary fiction without getting listed for a prize. It can be the difference between selling 300 copies and 2,000.
- Women’s/’reading group’ fiction = holy grail.
- Don’t write ‘coming of age’ novels – they aren’t original enough!
- 80% of rejections are because the novel is ‘too quiet’ and not distinctive enough.
- Titles are extremely important. Sometimes, novels can be accepted for publication solely on a fantastically brilliant title!
(One last interesting point: Publishers are only allowed to put forward a few books for prizes, so the smaller your publisher, the more chance you may have…)
Agents do want to fall in love with your work. But if you want to be published, good writing is not the only thing you need. There are a lot of considerations to be made about the state of the market and the saleability of your novel. If you’re pursuing publication through this route, these are some important factors to consider.
Next week: How to write great titles.
Karolina Sutton, literary agent for Curtis Brown, visited our university to share her industry insights. She says that a good agent will help you pitch to publishers, help create a great title, and get you the best royalties, rights and editors.
Work submitted to publishers via agencies have a better chance of being read than unsolicited manuscripts because it means someone in the industry has already recognised its merit. Here’s what Karolina had to say about pitching to agents:
- You can submit query letters to more than one agency, but not more than one agent in the same agency.
- It is better to submit directly to an agent, rather than just general submissions.
- Submit to agents that you think might like your book and who have similar titles or genres on their list. For example, an agent who deals only in high-end experimentational literary fiction probably won’t want to read a YA sci-fi.
- Make your query BRIEF. You won’t need more than three paragraphs.
- Don’t use humour in your query. It is too subjective.
- It is helpful to mention your intended genre.
- Don’t mention writers that you like if you aren’t writing like them.
- Mention any writing credentials (e.g. MA), but don’t rattle off a huge list of small-press publications – select a few of your best.
- Mention any life experience that is relevant to your novel. For example, if you’re story hinges on deep sea diving and you’re an expert diver, mention it.
- Send hard copies of the first 2-3 chapters of your novel.
- OR email the whole thing as a Word document. Then the agent can decide to read further if they wish, without having to wait for you to send the rest.
- Use standard formatting.
- If you haven’t heard back within four weeks, feel free to send a follow-up email.
- Don’t re-submit to the same agent if they have rejected you and have not ask to see a re-write.
- Always let the agent know if you’ve sent your work to other agents, and if you’ve been signed.
Remember, it’s not about grabbing any agent you can. You have to work closely with you agent, and you have to trust them. Select the agents you approach with tact and intent, and hopefully this will lead to a strong career-enhancing relationship.
Part 2 next week: What Do Agents and Publishers Want?