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Writing and how to stop

By Richard

Dusk – sumptuous – opulence – inured – angst – whisper – nemesis – tryst. I liked the sound of words when I was a little boy. Of course I did not know what they all meant. My father understood, he was a word man, a publisher, he smiled and said nostalgically, “Ah yes…” Perhaps he thought I would follow him, but no…

I did not have a writing life. I had ideas and coined phrases about people when I was in my early 20’s, but they did not blossom. After sitting in front of my typewriter for hours, I just got up and went for walks. I saw a lot of Chelsea and Fulham, and had many new ideas. But I soon decided that I was happier not trying.

Sculptor? Photographer? I ended up making documentary films, where there was always writing needed, starting with a proposal, then through ideas to narration and drama sequences. I used to search for new writers. They were nice people and I made a few friends but most of their results were disappointing. Then economy spoke. Producers don’t want to spend money, and if they can hire one person instead of two, they’ll come in under budget.

“The script is part of the job, old chap. You want to work, don’t you?” So my fingers settled on the keyboard.

“Pretty good, old chap. Got another one for you.” So I was working, but with other dreams. Fiction is about people, it gets personal, and that’s what I wanted.

“You’ll be up against it, old chap. Everybody’s a writer these days.”

“So are they all lonely?”

“Writing is something you do on your own. Get used to it. Got another one for you about computers…”

It wasn’t until I was forty-something, in the Michoacan Hills in Mexico, living in an American ex-pat community, sharing a printer with a woman novelist who used to be a male painter, that I discovered letters. I would write 15 pages to people I used to know in London. I couldn’t stop. Others got 20 pages. I hoped they weren’t busy when my letters arrived. It took time, so I told myself I could always just not do it, then I found I could stop. It was a revelation, like recovery from an addiction. For years I was free.

Coming home from another life in the Caribbean I felt dry, cold and empty. I needed something to do while the film industry came to terms with my desertion and offered me jobs again. I did a short course at the City Lit. I was not sure what I was getting from it, but I met two lady poets who ran a retreat for writers near Perpignan in the French Midi. It was not until I got to Paziols that I learned that the writers were all women—nine of them—with me the only man. In the afternoons we sat around a rough wooden table in a French Farmhouse and read aloud extracts chosen by the two poets.

Overcoming my intimidation, it fell to me to read a verse from Midsummer by Derek Walcott. It turned me inside out. Only I knew that the poem was describing Port of Spain, Trinidad, that place I had lived in for two years before returning to London leaving behind almost everything I knew and loved. That was it for me. I was up at five the next morning, wandering in the half-light with tears streaming, and as soon as I thought I could type without waking the nine women, I started something, I had no idea what. I read a few paragraphs to the two poets.

“You did this since yesterday? What is it going to be?”

“Yes, since teatime actually, and I don’t know what it is.”

“Then I can tell you this will not turn out to be a short essay.”

Nor did it. Seventy pages showed it to be a novel. But I did not know how novels worked. I listened too much to other beginner writers. I got confused. I knew how to stop and I did, for decades.

I have had several ideas for other books, all novels, and mostly with fictional heroes colliding with famous historic figures: Joseph Banks the explorer, President Kennedy. It is as if I have got lost in history searching for my inspiration.

A few years ago Whitstable became my world and at the WhitLit Festival in 2019 I met Lin White standing behind a table covered in short story books, all by Whitstable writers, and soon after that I arrived at the Marine Hotel in Tankerton and met the buoyant bunch calling themselves Writers of Whitstable. Then I wrote stories set in Whitstable. Within a year a runner had reached out from the short story group and I was among five new novelists who broke surface together. It was clearly the moment to think again about my lost work, and with much encouragement from those others I am now cutting new chapters. I can’t wait to finish because I have an idea for another novel, set on the Isle of Sheppey in 1817, to begin after this one.

I still love those beautiful words: Dusk – sumptuous – opulence – inured – angst – pristine…

She left at dusk in sumptuous opulence, inured to the angst that whispered of her nemesis. She was sanguine, she owned the panacea, fear was for others. Thin black clouds severed the pristine blue, and she felt a tiny shiver. There would be hazards, but they had told her she was invincible. This was her first tryst alone. She hesitated…

Perhaps I have a story coming?

Writing and publishing

By Lin

I’ve been involved with Writers of Whitstable for several years now. I’ve become a regular member of the novels group, working my way through several novels one chapter at a time, and have encouraged the shorts group through three short story collections so far. It’s been my pleasure to meet writers of all kinds, from experienced writers who have already been through the publishing process to those who have just started to try their hand at putting words together in some sort of structure.

I work as a freelance editor, proofreader and typesetter, so am experienced in the business side of writing and publishing. This has enabled me to support the Writers of Whitstable to publish three collections of short stories, most of which feature local settings. We’ll decide on a theme within the group, and then people will submit stories to the group for feedback. They’ll then work further on the stories and submit them to me.

I collate the stories, give them all a final check and polish, typeset the book, proofread it with the help of the writers, and then publish the books via Amazon. We also have a bulk order printed, which we can sell at fairs etc. The covers have all been designed by one of our writers, with consultation with group members. Members are also encouraged to supply illustrations for their story if they wish, with art being created by the writers themselves or by family or friends. Everyone is credited for their own work, and retains the copyright – they just grant us publishing rights for the collections.

The group members benefit from seeing how the publishing and business side of writing works, and what it’s like working with an editor, and they get to hold their published work and share it with friends and family. I benefit because I get to go through the publishing process so I can speak from experience when helping my clients to negotiate uploads and ISBNS etc.

I’m also busy with my own writing, and am determined that this year will be when I finally get one of my novels in a state ready to print. All made possible because of the support of Writers of Whitstable, of course!

Why not take a look at one of our short story collections? They’ll give you a good idea of the variety of writing we support, and help introduce you to the writers.

So where do I start?

By Guy

So, where do I start? Perhaps how I got my contract?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I have a website. I have a buoyant garden consultancy. I also write when the opportunity arises in local magazines plus I give talks across the South and East of the UK about my day to day. I could ask I suppose, perhaps I will when the book is published (it is up to the Publisher if they like the book enough to invest in publication.) Suffice to say, it’s not really important to me at the moment; perhaps I was noticed by somebody and that somebody passed my name on. Or perhaps, as with so much of life, it was sheer luck. I will add here, it was mentioned that they were after a writer who could give a new perspective on a traditional craft, which is certainly what I do in my talks – I encourage people to read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, when dealing with pest and disease; I have explored why economists keep failing to foresee crashes by the simple expedient they don’t understand natural growth. (I am currently exploring in a different project – which can be found on Instagram as a graphic novel – the relationship between our interaction with two dimensional art and our interaction with social media. Are they the same?)

That aside, when I was approached, it was via email. Of course I checked the credentials of the business, I also checked it was not from a random email address. Once I was satisfied it wasn’t the usual spam, I talked it over with my wife, who has much more experience of publishing (her father being a moderately successful garden writer in the 1960’s). She gave me some questions to ask, importantly, what’s the offer?

The commissioning editor replied with a friendly outline of what was required and what they were offering. To put it simply, you write us a 45,000 word book on a set subject with 150 images, on time, we give you an ‘advance’. Being under contract, I can simply say it wouldn’t pay a mortgage and you get it in 3 tranches – on signing, on delivery and on publication – so the onus is on it being the best damned gardening book ever written in order to get the 10%ish on each sale and for me to get another commission. But, this is – according to a client writer of theatrical music – standard fayre. (A friend of his was offered £3k for her debut novel, but by happenstance a bidding war erupted around its publication which ended in an 18k offer. It has since gone on to foreign rights and film rights, so she is laughing. That is the dream we all have. But these things are exceedingly rare and to some extent ‘who you know’). The lesson, he says, ‘be nice to everyone you ever meet, they may hold the key to your publishing greatness’. Anyway, the subject I was offered was not suitable to the time of year – it being about pruning espalier fruit and the offer coming in June. The editor gave me a list of what other subjects they were looking for (another stroke of luck I guess), I chose Protective Growing – which to most people’s ears means greenhouses. It doesn’t, but that’s the premise of my book. I have since reached out across the globe to enhance the book further (and hopefully increase markets and sales.)

The contract itself was simple and heavily weighted in favour of the publisher – who it must be said is sticking their neck out on an untested author. It outlined what was expected, what wasn’t allowed and in what timeframe. I was also provided with an example chapter and a set of guidelines for reference. As the book has progressed, the editor has been most helpful, reading it chapter by chapter. I am told, this is unusual. Most writers write the whole piece, confident of their ability, only to find it drastically cut by the editor, so be warned – I have been given a great deal of leeway, but they have a style they like and one must be prepared to adapt and compromise. They know the market. I will also say here, the draft chapter I present, is never the first draft. I will write the bulk of it. Go away and research an idea. Muse on it. Rewrite and re-edit, then present. There has been a lot of waiting for outside contributions and a fair bit of nudging. What most helped the direction of writing in this instance was, after giving the signed contract back, I used Joanne Bartley’s template on her website, including a sample Introduction (this was shot down in flames, so I rewrote and resubmitted within the day) to introduce myself formally. This introduction has been rewritten several times since.

Ultimately, if you want to be a professional writer, what I’d recommend is that you keep writing and take every opportunity that is out there to show your talent, whether it be an article, a blog, a short story competition or reading a poem aloud in a bookshop. This may not lead to the great publishing deal, but it gives you practice and it gives you a formal history. Discipline has been mentioned by some. I think passion is more important. If you really care, you don’t mind getting up at 3am to write for two or three hours, then going to work for 9 hours etc. Having a contract and the promise of a market is a great focus. Seven months in, I thought I had finished the book, but I have just scrapped a chapter entirely. Martin Amis recently stated the days of an author earning his crust purely from writing is over. Was it ever truly thus?

Return to Study

By Helen

Months before lockdown, I signed up for a two year post-graduate university course. Perfect timing, as it turned out. A good friend, who knew that I mainly wrote non-fiction, put the idea into my head by enthusing about this wonderful lecturer and fantastic course called Science Communication that would be just up my street. After years of writing textbooks, I had run out of things to write about. I felt becalmed with a fossilised use of language, and sentences that arrived on the page in the passive voice. I studied science more years ago than I care to admit so I guessed my knowledge was out of date. New ideas have replaced the old facts that we regurgitated onto exam papers decades ago.

Science communication as a subject you could study hadn’t been invented when I was at school, so what is it? It is about examining the many ways the general public learn about science. But it’s also about how social and economic policy influence the context in which people learn, and scientists work. I learnt a lot about the history of science and history in general, which I hadn’t studied since I was thirteen. I’ve also learnt about the way film makers change real events to create a winning formula that will do well at the box office. I have always watched nature documentaries but now I’m watching with a critical eye and ear; trying to spot where animal noises have been added afterwards to a scene that would have been naturally quiet. Now I notice how the emotions are ramped up using music. I also watched the film Hidden Figures to analyse how the three Black women scientists were portrayed, and compare that with other stories showing scientists in books and on television.

There are lots of distance learning options these days for anyone who needs the flexibility and doesn’t want to travel away from home. But there’s a lot to be said in favour of learning face to face in groups, and I’m definitely a groupie, even if it’s on zoom or Teams. I found part time study was useful because it gave me the time to think that I needed. It took me a while to ramp up to writing essays again, but I have been delighted with the results. When your future career doesn’t depend on getting a good grade it takes the pressure off straight away. But I must say I was horrified to hear that some postgraduate courses still have exams and I wasn’t prepared to put myself through that again. The modular structure gave me the chance to put together topics that interested me. But I also asked around about what the lecturers were like and decided to follow the good ones. A good lecturer is just as important as an attractive topic, though that can be complicated by staff often being engaged on short term contracts.

I am not quite old enough to start boasting about my age, but one of the things that put me off signing up was worrying about how other people would see me. Would I be seen as a grey-haired old lady with a bus pass in her purse? At enrolment, I bristled a bit when some helpers assumed I was either a member of staff or somebody’s mother. But once I joined my lecture/seminar group I felt completely at home. The age and gender mix was good, with a couple of other grey heads: there were three PhD students as well as the five us doing MAs. Only two of the group had just completed their first degree, and all of us had work experience of various kinds, which made discussions really interesting. To start with I was anxious about expressing my thoughts but I found the others listened to me and said they valued my ideas. One thing I noticed was how easy it is to get stuck in a particular point of view, and find yourself defending it long after you have forgotten why you thought it was true. People of any age can get stuck and well-managed discussion is a very good way of challenging fixed ideas.

When I told friends what I was going to do, one thing that surprised me was the number of them who couldn’t imagine wanting to study for pleasure. Some looked puzzled and asked how I would fit in the work. But I don’t see reading and writing as a chore, especially at the moment when I can’t go anywhere or do any of the other things I usually do. The big benefit I hadn’t expected was the feeling of belonging to an academic community where I found challenging things to think about like colonialism, and the way so many museums were financed by the profits from slavery. But equally important, I have been encouraged to write differently, which was what I really wanted.

Submission Blues

by R.J. Harrison

Just the other day, determined to clear out junk before the offspring have to do it, I came across a short story I wrote as a teenager, complete with a typed rejection slip from a magazine that is now defunct. It put me off creative writing for decades.
Back in the saddle, I have rediscovered how much of a craft writing is. My juvenile adventure story had all the passion and no technique. I pretend to others, and sometimes myself, that being an author is nothing more than leapfrogging writer’s block and letting all that creative prose pour out onto the page. When I read posts by other would-be authors, that appears to be their opinion too. Wherever will they get their ideas from, and what colour should the book cover be? Typewriter, laptop, or pen? Nothing about adverbs, Oxford commas or dodgy dialogue.
Personally, I am stuffed with ideas, the book cover is someone else’s problem, and my biggest challenges are point-of-view, show-and-tell, and continuity. How is it that a character I killed off in chapter two pops up in chapter twelve unbidden, and right as rain? Dodgy plotting, too.
The one thing an aspiring writer needs is a beta-reader or two and preferably many more. Your friends and family will not cut the mustard. They’ll be far too fond of you to tell you the truth. They will give you what you and the rest of us desperately want. Affirmation. To be liked, and to have our work enjoyed. They will encourage and support you, but what we need to improve is honesty.
More than that, we need honesty from people in the same boat. Writers who can add to our arsenal of skills and techniques by pointing out not only where our efforts are not working, but who can also suggest ways to put our compositions right.
That’s one reason I joined Writers of Whitstable. For a start I don’t feel so lonely tapping away under the shadow of a lethal pandemic, a bewildering Brexit, and fascism lurking in the wings across America. That’s an Oxford comma. Right there after ‘Brexit’. I look forward to monthly meetings, come rain or shine, with other writers who can help me and who, sometimes, I can assist in return.
A case in point is my short story ‘Taken for a Ride’. That too earned a rejection slip from a competition panel, without the least comment as to why it was rubbish. That’s how it often is. So, what was wrong with it? The Writers of Whitstable licked their lips and got stuck in. Amongst their number are published writers, a dramatist, copy editor and others who really know what they’re doing.
Taken for a Ride’ was inspired by a piece I read in New Scientist magazine. It turns out there’s plausible evidence for something called Quantum Gravity. Amongst other implications, one QG concept is the notion that whilst our time is going ‘forwards’ time may also be running ‘backwards’ in a parallel dimension. So, what, I thought, might happen if you met yourself going the ‘other’ way in time?
I wrapped it up with a bit of romance and scenery from Reculver. Lobbed in a few metaphors such as trains going to and fro on the same line and boats going up and down the Swale. Lots of science stuff too. The point at which the self meets the self is called the super-position. Brilliant. Except it wasn’t, as my rejection slip proved and my critical friends in W.o.W pointed out.
I had rather laboured the science bits, and got so lost in the implications and explanations, that no-one cared about the characters. In fact, although it all made sense to me, it didn’t make sense to readers. They were taken for a ride and didn’t like the journey one bit. That is the value of beta-readers. They can be usefully frank. As one of them put it:
‘You don’t need to explain. It’s creative writing, and could be at Reculver, or on Mars if you like.’
He was right, and it was enlightening too. I didn’t need to persuade readers it was possible, or plausible. Fiction is entertainment. It simply had to feel like it was true to the reader, and for that, I had to stay closer to what the main character was thinking and feeling.
That understanding alone was liberating, and looking back over the last year, I suspect my writing has improved not only through practice, but because of the helpful and entirely free feedback from W.o.W members. If you want to write, and you want real support and appraisal, then why not give W.o.W a try?

Taking risks and being brave, isn’t that what writing’s all about?

by Jo, founder of Writers of Whitstable

It was winter 2012 and I was a lonely screenwriter new to town. I’d tried a paid-for writing course at the Horsebridge Centre, but meeting on a Sunday was tricky with a family, and it was pitched at beginner writers. I wanted a simple writing group where friendly writers would read my work, and let me know how I might improve a story in the next draft. There wasn’t any group like that around. Should I start one?

No, I thought to myself. I’m shy and this would take leadership.

No, I told myself. No one would come and I’d feel like a failure.

No, I told my husband. It will take lots of organisation and commitment; what if I changed my mind and didn’t want to be doing it a few months down the line?

The idea buzzed around my head and didn’t quite go away. Then one day I realised that a writing group set in Whitstable could be called Writers of Whitstable.

WOW! How could I turn down the opportunity to start something with such an exciting name?!

I listed the group at meetup.com, and I put a postcard in the newsagent’s window. Four writers wanted to try the new group, so soon I was trying my hand at leading meetings.

This was where things went wrong. I’d never led anything in my life. I was the quiet girl at school. I never put my hand up and I never dared venture an opinion. I ran WoW meetings like I was still that little girl. I set vague rules and then I didn’t say anything when people ignored them.

In one meeting someone completely rewrote another writer’s story and handed them a “better” version. This didn’t go down well with the writer in question. She pointed out that she thought she was on the right track already, and there was nearly a fight. The writer has since found an agent , published two books, and had a TV adaption optioned. I think she was on the right track and WoW didn’t help her at all.

In another meeting a writer completely took over, and spent the whole session boasting about how Scorsese wanted to option his screenplay. I still don’t know if this was true, and you’d think I should have worked it out after hearing the details for a full ninety minutes. Most of the writers at that meeting never returned.

It would have been easy to quit and think I didn’t have what it takes to run a writing group. Yet, somehow, I pressed on, changed what I did, tried things. There were clearer rules. I told people what kind of group it was supposed it to be. I ensured the people who attended knew what to expect. And instead of quitting after three months, as I could so easily have done, the group’s still going strong eight years later. It’s led to three spin off groups for novelists, it’s published three anthologies thanks to Lin White, the group’s talented editor; and at least a hundred local writers have tried the group over the years.

The lesson I learned from running WoW is that taking a risk is the very best way to get better at anything. The writers who come to a group like WoW are all taking a risk, putting themselves on the line when they send a piece of writing to other members. That’s just plain brave. They are hoping that everyone will say “that’s just great, it’s perfect.” But most likely someone will say, “I’d love it more if it had a sharper ending.” Or, “I’m not convinced your character would do that.” It’s hard to hear a piece of work needs a second draft, but the writers who listen to feedback and learn from it will be likely to become better writers.

I sometimes tell my children that people have a “bravery muscle.” The more risks you take, the more regularly you put yourself out there, the easier it gets to try new things and not accept stasis and fear. Fear holds you to the spot; being brave moves you onward. As writers we know this, because we write stories about characters overcoming weaknesses and changing. We also have a sense of it because creativity is all about risk.

I’ll give you an example. Imagine writing about a story about a dragon. We might make it green and breathe fire. The writing group members will read that story and say, ‘that’s a fine dragon.’ But what if some brave writer doesn’t want a safe green dragon? He wants a purple dragon that can time travel, and it doesn’t breathe fire, it breathes hope. That’s a risky story, but shouldn’t he dare to try it to see if it works?

I’ve stopped being nervous when I chair a WoW meeting. I don’t mind the organisation. I no longer worry that people won’t come. I know it will go on and on and entertain me. Yet I still feel scared when I wait to hear what people think of my stories. And that’s the thing I thought I wanted, the thing I thought would be easy.

It’s right that it scares me, because daring to fail is part of the writing game. If someone tells me my story has weaknesses then I should tackle them. Just like I tackled being the worst writing group leader the world had seen.

A bravery muscle isn’t a real thing (I hope my kids know this) but my imaginary bravery muscle felt stronger after launching WoW; so I dared to lead a community event. It grew a bit stronger after that, so I launched an education campaign group. I felt I could lift a weightier risk so I published a treasure hunt, launched two writing websites, became vice-chair of governors at a local school, and even got a job where I sometimes speak on TV. That’s not bad for a quiet girl from Leeds. If I ever get time-travelled back to school, I wonder, would I dare to raise my hand?

Maybe that’s a short story idea, and I can add the purple dragon too! I hope I will be brave enough to send that story to my wonderful friends at WoW.