Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Wellbeing for Writers

Wellbeing for Writers

When it comes to novel writing it’s a jungle out there* and in there as well. You spend inordinate amounts of time deliberating and procrastinating and then crafting your work, before seeking out ways to get your book seen or heard or experienced, while simultaneously trying very hard not to starve or lose faith in the whole process. It’s no wonder writers – like other creatives – seem to have more than their fair share** of mental health issues.

Writing is a mostly solitary process where you live in your head and then try to sneak a book out, piecemeal, before your critical mind can stop it at the gates. Some days the muse can’t stop talking; other days there’s no forwarding address. Bill Withers singing Ain’t No Sunshine about sums it up. 

If it’s that painful a process, why do we do it? All kinds of reasons. We have stories to tell, or personal history to make sense of. Some of us were so inspired by an author or a book that we thought: I want to be that and to do that for someone else. For others, books were an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. And there are always those who think that novel writing is a clear path to fame and fortune. (And good luck with that!)

Whatever your reasons for writing, here are some suggestions for making the path a little less arduous.

1. Write consistently
If you can, write every day. And even if you can’t, develop a routine so that the muse knows where to find you. The creative mind can be trained, like a muscle, so if you start off small and consistent you can apply progressive overload to increase your word count over time.

2. Avoid the comparison trap
It’s easy to find authors with dozens of successful novels under their belt and then think ‘I could never do that’. Similarly, if you belong to a writers’ group or if you belong to online writing forums*** there will always be people with more talent, more success and more imagination than you. Conversely, there are also lots of people who yearn to write but lack the opportunity or courage. Chances are, you won’t hear about them. As a friend of mine said recently, even if you only write 500 words in a session that’s still 500 more than you started off with.

3. Let go of resentments
Seasoned writers understand that agent and publisher rejections come with the territory, but when you first start out it can be devastating to have your work rejected. But that’s just it – it’s your work, not you. And what about the agent who promises she’ll be in touch within eight weeks and you still haven’t heard a peep ten months later, despite a follow-up email and those semi-humorous nudges on social media? Or all the friends who promised to read / review / venerate your book, or those two TV producers you posted copies to, one of when you had a meeting with a few years ago?**** It’s over – move on, my friend. 

4. Seek feedback on your work
Not the first draft – yeesh, nobody else needs to see that. I keep a first draft in an exercise book and the only reason I still have it is that I fear its awfulness might render it fireproof. 

What you want is: A What works and why? B) What doesn’t work and why? Run for the hills if you hear the word ‘nice’, or better yet ask questions A and B and try to receive the answers objectively. In a similar vein, if you’re lucky maybe that next rejection contains a nugget of valuable information. Perhaps having a chair as a protagonist might not be the best way to reinvent noir crime noir?

5. Develop your craft
The majority of first drafts smell like silage on a hot day, which is why we have second drafts, etc. But you have to have something to work with so get your ideas down and then you can get on with the serious work of revision and excision. The first draft is play and every draft after that is generally as playful as wrestling a giant hedgehog. Learn from other writers, both the ‘how to’ books and by studying what successful authors do in their own novels. Experiment, change the point of view, change your own point of view about your work, and if all else fails start again with something else. The first 10,000 word milestone can often be the hardest to reach. 

6. Find your tribe
Whether it’s a local writing group, an online forum, or a dedicated bunch of beta readers willing to provide nuanced feedback on your work-in-progress, there are people out there who are able to help you. It doesn’t hurt to repay the favour either. Whatever you’re going through – whether it’s writers’ block, the rejection blues, or the sheer bloody frustration of trying to create something coherent out of nothing – someone else has been there before you and that surely means there is a way through it. 

7. Let go of your expectations
A smart writer once said, “The price of adventure is uncertainty.” Well, okay, it was me, but I had a point. For every JK Rowling, Maya Angelou or Stephen King there are vast armies of wailing writers demanding their turn. Any writer who tells you otherwise is either a saint or a liar. But no one really knows what awaits us on the writing road. Does it help if you’re aesthetically pleasing, young, in the zeitgeist, well-educated, well-connected or independently wealthy? We'll, now that you mention it, most of those ticked boxes will make the PR easier and a good education will give you better tools for writing – although these can be learned. But above all else – and we’re not talking celebrity books here – what makes a good book is good writing.

8. Step away from the screen
Even if you write with pen and paper, as I do sometimes, the chances are you spend an inordinate amount of time at your computer – and much of that time might not even be spent writing. (Finding old Klaatu albums or watching Quantum Mechanics videos doesn’t count as research unless your protagonist is a Quantum Mechanic and she enjoys retro Canadian rock.) Get outdoors, go for a walk, garden, get to the sea, or socialise (yes, you can take a notebook along to steal people’s conversations). How can you expect your characters to come to life on the page if you don’t live off it?

8. Change your perspective
Maybe your world doesn’t have to revolve around your book? Maybe you have a choice and that starts with changing the way you see yourself. Labels may be descriptive but they can easily become restrictive too. I’ve been a novelist, a comedy writer, a greetings card writer, a columnist, a freelancer…but every one of those was also a construct in my own head. What happens when things change? What is a columnist without a column? (Impoverished, for one thing!)

Buddha apparently said that the root of suffering is attachment, so why not try letting go of your attachments as a writer? Remember that writing is a part of life and not the other way around. 

9. Exercise choice
This is my own view so feel free to disagree: we always have a choice. Maybe we can’t change the external circumstances but we can choose how we respond to them. Choose kindness, both to yourself and to others. Choose discernment in how you use your time. And remember the people and things that are important to you, regardless of how your writing is going.

* A little nod to Monk fans everywhere, even though I’ve never seen it.

** I know; it’s a stupid phrase. 

*** Yes, I could have used forabut I prefer not to.

**** You will let me know if this gets too autobiographical, right?

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Joanna Larum - author and book reviewer

It used to be said that there were no guaranteed routes into publishing, but self-publishing has driven a coach and horses through convention. Now, the process for turning a manuscript document into an ebook or a paperback is a straightforward one that pretty much anybody can follow.  My guest today is Joanna Larum, who is active in the publishing world as both a book reviewer and an author.

Joanna, you’re an author and a book reviewer, so to some extent you see both sides of the literary coin! When you are writing, does your experience as a reviewer influence the way you approach your own work?
I don’t think so. I’ve been writing for much longer than I have been a reviewer so I think all the bad habits were ingrained in me!

What was the inspiration for your latest novel, Martha’s Revenge?
It’s the third part in a trilogy about a family during the Great War. It didn’t start out as a trilogy but, like Topsy, it grew until I realised I couldn’t fit the entire story into one book. It began when I read a newspaper report from 1912 about two children who were killed by their parents in Middlesbrough. That was the seed and the story grew around it.

As a serial and published novelist, has your writing process changed over time? 
I hope I’m more careful now than I was 40 years ago but it’s only in the last five years that I’ve published anything. Before 2014 I kept my writing to myself. I’m still not sure if it was a good idea to ‘go public’! 

I think many writers are introverts at heart, preferring the company of their own creations. What started you writing in the first place? 
I write because the stories keep jumping around in my head and I’ve got to write them down to stop them taking over.

Who are your favourite authors?
I enjoy modern day writers like Joy Ellis, Charlie Gallagher, and Gretta Mulrooney, plus earlier writers like Georgette Heyer, Barbara Erskine, CS Lewis, Tolkien, etc. Actually, I will read anything that has words in it. 

Were books an important part of your childhood?
As a young child (pre-school) my older sister used to read stories to me but would stop reading them aloud as they got interesting because reading in her mind was quicker than reading aloud. By the time I could read, I had a mountain of stories to read to find out the endings! I only went to school to learn to read because I knew that everything else could be found in books and I could read about any subject. I left school at the age of 6 but my mother insisted on me going back, which I thought was a nuisance as I had a lot of reading to do!  I began my writing career at the age of 8, which was when I read a book with a poor ending and so I wrote what I thought was a better one.

I was a very picky eater as a child and my mother used to let me read while eating because then I ate more because I didn’t notice what I was eating. I read sauce bottles and cereal packets if there aren’t any books about. I used to read the Grocer magazine when all else failed and there’s not a lot in that for a child! (My parents owned a shop.)

Do you have a writing routine?
I start every morning, as soon as I’ve cleared the breakfast and cleaned the cats’ dishes and trays. I keep writing until I’m forced to do something else.

What do you think are the greatest challenges for modern authors?
The two that come to mind are advertising and getting readers to read your books.  If readers don’t know about your books, they can’t read them. There are so many wonderful authors whose books aren’t read because they get lost in the ether among so many others.

Do you choose your book titles at the beginning of the writing process or does each one emerge as the novel progresses?
I give everything I write a title from the beginning but, as I never seem to be in charge of the story, I often have to amend the title as I am writing the book. I've had some very bossy characters who have refused to do what I have planned for them and so Daniel's Way became Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Have you run ad campaigns for all your books, and if so did you follow a campaign plan?I've had ad campaigns for the last two books I have published. Before that, it was only what I managed to do on Facebook sites, which is rather limited without funding. I'm happy that the osmosis process seems to be working as each of my books seem to attract new readers as they come out but, of course, I'd love to be able to make a huge splash! That will have to wait until I win the lottery!

What book are you working on next?
I’m writing a teen fantasy fiction, which has been in my head for the last five years. I’ve also got to write my next historical book. The characters are ready and waiting for me. I need a few more hours in the day!

Where can we find out more about your books? 
All my books are on Amazon, in paperback and as ebooks.

Have you written anything else besides novels?
No. I stick to my stories.

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice as a novice writer, what would it be?
Don’t listen to other people who try to put you off! And don’t always believe what you are told about the best way to publish your books!

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Jill Burkinshaw on Book Promotions

For most writers, there is a clear order of service when creating a book:
1.   Write the first draft.
2.   Despair at that draft and then edit the entire manuscript.
3.   Repeat step two until you are happy with the manuscript.
4.   Submit the manuscript to an agent or publisher.
5.   Wait for fame / fortune / that long-desired TV or film deal.
6.   The End.

However, getting published is just the start of another journey and both published and self-published authors may need help to reach their target audience. My friend Jill Burkinshaw is a Book Promoter at and she has agreed to let me play inquisitor.

Jill, thanks for joining me in cyber space. I’ll start with the obvious question: What methods do you use for promoting a book?

Hi Derek, thank you for this opportunity to chat about my work.  I use several methods of promotion.  I organise Blog Tours and for these I try to fill the slots with as many review stops as possible.  The tours will run for 7-10 days (or longer if I have enough interest).  I ask for the reviews / blogs to be shared in as many places as possible, including Goodreads and Amazon.  I also host Launch Parties that enable authors to engage with readers.  In addition, I (and others) post, promote and share on multiple Social Media platforms and in groups.

Sometimes, if it is not possible to fill with review stops, some Blogs will host guest posts.  This is something provided by the author - maybe the rationale for the book, a little about one of the characters, or maybe something about the author.

In all cases the post will include the synopsis for the book and buy links.

Okay, for the uninitiated, what is a blog tour?

Before digital books became the norm an Author would often do a Book Tour.  They would travel around visiting bookshops and do book signings and other promotions.  Some still do this for Paperback and Hardback books.

A Blog Tour is the virtual equivalent.  People who have Blogs or websites will contact a Blog Tour organiser and express an interest in joining tours.  Bloggers who are hosting a review stop will receive a copy of the book in digital format.  This is usually kindle but other formats are often available.

Blog Tours are a very effective way of getting a book noticed.  The Blog Tour host will post and share the Blog in as many places as possible and all their friends on Social Media will also share.  Many readers look for book suggestions on Social Media and all the sharing gets the book noticed by a wide range of people, which has a positive impact on sales.

Do you prefer to work with books that have recently been published?

I organise Blog Tours for new releases, republished books and also for books that have been released either recently or some time ago.  In most cases even a book that was released a few years ago will benefit from a Blog Tour to bring it to the attention of readers who may have not noticed it when it was first released.

I have also arranged Blog Tours for just the first book in a series that have all been published because readers who read and enjoy Book 1 will often buy and read the rest of the series.

A Blog Tour can be beneficial for any book at any time although there are no guarantees that a Blog Tour will result in sales.

I am not sure if this is in the remit of the question but if a reader finds and enjoys a book by a new author they will often read the backlist.  Getting a book in front of a new reader will hopefully help the sales of all books by that author and it has a snowball effect as more readers will be picked up along the way.  I think any book can be the start of a good thing so if an author has a ‘favourite’ in a series it is always worth starting with that one in the hope readers will connect to the enthusiasm.

How essential is it  for an author to actively participate in the tour?

I wouldn’t say it is essential.  I have arranged Blog Tour for publishers where the author doesn’t have a Social Media presence and they have been productive.  However, what I have found is that readers like interacting with authors and Social Media is an excellent platform to enable that.

Also, many authors lead very insular lives involving many hours sitting writing.  Interacting with readers via Social Media and email allows them to socialise virtually, which is good for everyone.

There are many book groups on Social Media (especially Facebook) that allow readers, authors and aspiring authors to achieve support and encouragement and many, many readers use these groups to get reading suggestions.  We all have massive To Be Read (TBR) lists that just grow and grow.

What’s the one thing you’d like writers to think about when they decide to use a promoter?

Firstly, be aware that despite all our efforts there are no guarantees that a Blog Tour or other method of promotion is going to result in sales.  Do try to find a promoter who is experienced in your genre.  I try to promote many genres but my favourite genre is Crime Fiction and most of my contacts and network are Crime Fiction readers so that is the genre in which I get best results.  However, it is also the biggest genre so finding a promoter for Fantasy or one of the other genres may be difficult.  It is always worth joining groups for your genre and asking or looking around to see who is promoting that type of books.  If you agree to a Blog Tour the organiser will need a copy of the book.  If you are published your contract could prevent you giving out free copies of the book.  Be careful who you give the book to. Most people are honest and really just want to help but there are some who pirate books so protect yourself and your work as much as you can.

How important is social media to authors?

In the current environment Social Media is a very important forum for book promotion.  Now that Digital books are the norm we all need to take advantage of the vast marketplace that is Social Media.  The more platforms you can access the better your book will do and interacting with readers and authors will encourage others to share posts, etc., therefore promoting your work.

How did you become as a book promoter?

Book promotion is just something that happened for me.  I have always read books avidly - we used to swap them within the family.  One day I was introduced to Goodreads and started finding my favourite authors on Facebook, learning about the importance of reviews along the way.  I decided to set up a Blog as a place to keep all my reviews where people could find them and read my thoughts.  Knowing that others could read my reviews and criticise them was really frightening at first but I found the positive comments far outnumbered the negative ones.  My confidence grew along with my Social Media network and I began to be invited on Blog Tours.  I realised that there was an opportunity to reduce my working hours and backfill with freelance work, which would enable me to work virtually and spend time with my ageing Dad.  It didn’t all work out to plan and the changes were gradual, but I am now in a place where I am happy in my work-life balance.

I have worked with several Digital Publishers: Bloodhound Books, Joffe Books, Junction Publishing and also several successful self-published authors.  I have experience in several areas of publishing.  I am conversant with the Royalty System and I set up and managed the Stison system for Bloodhound Books for a while.  I manage Social Media Promotion for Joffe Books.  My duties with self-published authors vary from managing reader lists and communications, creating and managing paid adverts, calculating ROI, and proving whatever support services I can.  This can include proofreading and basic editing (I am not qualified but my history as an analyst means I spot many errors that have been missed), formatting books for Kindle publication and of course promoting on Social Media.  I have a wide range of skills that could be utilised in different areas of the publishing process and the all-important book marketing that follows it.

What sort of books do you like to read?

My preference is for Crime Fiction. I like fast paced books, in particular psychological thrillers.  I am not a fan of books with a lot of descriptive text but I could be in the minority on that one as I know other readers do like to read about the setting and house d├ęcor, scenery, etc.  I like grit and gore so definitely more thriller than mystery!  That said, I do read other genres - I enjoy historical fiction and I like to read that genre as often as time allows.  Via my work with Junction Publishing I have read and thoroughly enjoyed dystopian, fantasy, horror and other genres so nothing is ‘excluded’ really.  If I like the synopsis I will read it and if requested I will try my hardest to fill Blog Tours and promote it to the best of my ability.  I know that every author passionately believes in their work and I try to match their commitment.

Where can authors find you online?

I'm very easy to find, and happy to hear from any authors who think they might benefit from my services!


Twitter:      @books_n_all

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Click to Kill by John Carlo

Author John Carlo celebrated the publication of Click to Kill earlier this month, so we met in a cybercafe in cyberspace. While we enjoyed virtual snacks and an exchange of ideas, I tried to pin him down about his motivations, inspirations, and writing practice.

Over to you, John!

How did you start writing?

I’ve always written, from as far back as I can remember. Songs when I was a kid, and into my teens. Truly terrible poetry when I was a student. Various stillborn attempts at screenplays, teleplays and novels in my twenties and thirties. Fiction, mainly in the form of novels, ever since.

Did you always want to be a writer? 

Even when I was in bands as a teenager (this was in Seattle, pre-Grunge) I was a lyricist. I knew that one day I would write longer works. Song lyrics weren’t always the best place to tell the stories I wanted to tell. That being said, I have the deepest respect for great lyricists, they really are the poets of our age.

If you could describe Click to Kill in one word what would it be? 


What inspired you to write Click to Kill?

I live in London now, and I wanted to create something characteristically British. The Brits love an underdog, and they’re rebels at heart. From folk tales to Shakespeare to today’s works, most of their most famous heroes are really anti-heroes, and there’s a rich dystopic tradition. The contemporary interpretation of that was someone with modern powers – which would have to involve the digital world – but who was reluctant, sardonic, flawed and yet often invisibly moral. Someone who does wrong in order to do right. It’s not a uniquely British archetype, but it dwells deep in the national psyche.

Your hero, Rigby Goode, has the power to erase identities. Where did that idea come from?

I read an article in the newspaper about how difficult it’s become for people in law enforcement and intelligence to go undercover, because so much of our lives these days is in the public view. So, it struck me that there must be people in those organisations who are employed to go through and delete the digital footprints of individuals who need to disappear. Like any other technology, it wouldn’t take long before someone worked out how to use it criminally.

The team who do the identity erasing are called Toshers, is that a historical term?

Yes, it comes from Victorian London. Toshers were people – mainly children – who lived in the sewers. They collected copper coins that fell through street grates, or anything else of value. The material they collected was known as ‘tosh’, hence the expression ‘a load of tosh’, meaning items of dubious value.

The dark web is humanity’s new sewer, and this team dig around in digital effluent, so they are the modern toshers.

What has been the hardest part of Click to Kill to write?

This book has gone through many edits. None of it was hard to write, the difficult part was deciding what to leave out. The basic idea can lead off in many different directions – and in fact it did. I had to make hard choices about which direction the final manuscript would take.

Think of it like a movie where we had too many takes and too many scenes and too many characters. Ten times as much material ended up on the editing room floor as made the final cut.

Why did you choose Click to Kill as the title of your novel?

The title came to me about halfway through the writing, and I’ve been frustrated having to sit on it. I knew it was catchy and wanted to get it out there. It sums the book up really well.

We considered other titles, including ‘Tosher’. But fifty percent of thriller/mystery books today are bought as Ebooks, which means customers aren’t going to be spending hours browsing bookshops and reading back covers. The title needs to be immediate and do what it says on the tin.

What do you hope people take away from reading Click to Kill?

There are some very dark themes in this book, including paedophilia and alcoholism. Although it’s a thriller, there are also elements of the non-fiction genre known as ‘victim victory’. It’s about individuals overcoming both inner and outer demons. I hope that anyone reading is encouraged to believe that they can overcome whatever holds them back in their own lives.

Where and when do you tend to write?

I’m not (yet) a full-time writer. I have another career which includes a start-up tech business. I write a lot when I’m travelling to meetings. I use an app on my phone called ‘Notes’. I type ideas, passages, dialogue, sometimes whole chapters, into the Notes app. It automatically replicates on my computer. I then copy and paste the text into the evolving manuscript.

Other times I sit in my front room when everyone else is out. I also write late at night in bed. I try to be as flexible as possible and let the ideas come whenever they want to. My job is to catch them.

Who is your favourite author? 

Too many to mention, but three who have had a big influence on me in the last few years are James Ellroy, Haruki Murakami, and Roberto Bolano.

Ellroy for me is the best novelist in the English language today. He’s elevated the crime genre to the status of fine literature. It’s inspiring because it means don’t be afraid of your genre, or constrained by it. Be proud. Make it as brilliant as you can. Don’t dumb it down, ever.

From Murakami I’ve learned a lot of technical skill. Handling time, for example, which can be difficult in thrillers. To create tension, you often have to go deep into a character’s experience of a particular moment in time. A scene taking place over thirty seconds of fictional time might be described over five pages. So then to switch gears after that scene and move forward, say, three months, can be difficult unless executed well. Murakami is a master of that kind of technical transition.

Bolano is all about characters. I’ve never had a problem coming up with plots, but sometimes they felt as if the stories were happening to the characters, rather than unfolding because of them. As a result, my characters sometimes felt wooden. Bolano goes deep into the inner values and subtleties of his characters, which makes them incredibly human.

Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to writing? Something you notice yourself doing or something you pick-up in other’s writing.

I notice convenience now all the time. Writers introducing circumstances in which characters have to react in certain ways, but which don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The other is putting dialogue in characters’ mouths that is really something the writer wants to say. It’s part of what I’ve learned from Bolano. If you want to make a philosophical point, for example, you need to devise a character for whom that point is important to them. You then have to construct a world where that character might legitimately reside. And so on. Simply having another character say something philosophical when the author feels like it is just lazy and sloppy.

Do you have a writer’s habit that helps you ‘get in the zone’?

When I was a student I used to work either in the library or the student union. Dead silence or chaos. Both work for me, but nothing in between.

What’s a piece of advice you can give to aspiring authors?

Keep returning to the basic tell/show conundrum. Don’t tell, show. Force yourself to make sure every word that appears in your fictional work emanates from a fictional source. Dramatize thine exposition, as Robert McKee says. It’s not the only rule of writing, but it is the most important one, especially for authors learning the craft.

Click to Kill can be purchased in paperback or ebook by clicking on the link below:

Friday, 19 October 2018

Emma Timpany - Travelling in the Dark

Emma Timpany is the author of Travelling in the Dark, a novella published by Fairlight Books. A local launch will be held at the Falmouth Bookseller, Church St, Falmouth on 23 October at 6pm. All welcome. Emma has previously published two short story collections and has recently co-edited Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing.
How did you start writing?
I started writing a regular diary from the age of eleven. It was in those pages that I began experimenting with words. I mainly wrote poetry, as it was my first love, as well as bits of prose. I attended my first creative writing class, a summer school, while I was a student at the University of Otago. After graduating, I continued going to evening classes in London and Cornwall and eventually my first short story was published in 2010. So from the beginning to my first publication was a slow process which gradually unfolded over almost thirty years.
Did you always want to be a writer? 
Yes, but for a long time I didn’t think that it was possible. There was so much I didn’t know and I had little time to put into it. When my children started school, I began to have regular time to write and joined a local writers’ group. All my life I’ve loved reading fiction; I feel it’s important for writers to be readers.
You have experience in editing other people’s work. Do you think this helps you in your own writing? 
It’s something I’ve only started doing relatively recently, working as an editor on Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing. I enjoyed it a great deal because it’s very collaborative. The writers I’ve worked with have been pleased to have close attention paid to their work and are happy to make changes they see as improvements. I feel the same way when my own work is sympathetically edited.
The general editing notes I make are always suggestions – there’s no onus on the writer to accept them if they don’t want to – and alongside these I pick up on any typos or unintended errors.
How is editing someone else’s work different from editing your own writing? 
It’s much easier to edit someone else’s work because the writing is new, fresh and unfamiliar to me. Even a relatively brief short story of my own of, say, 2,000 words, might go through as many as fifty drafts before it’s finished. By this time, when I read the work I will miss even obvious errors, seeing what I want or expect to be there rather than what actually is there. One challenge as an editor is trying to stay true to the writer’s unique voice and not to impose my own ideas and style too forcefully. I’d sum up my editorial approach as ‘a keen eye and a light touch’.
You’ve previously written short stories. How do short story and novella genres compare to you as a writer?
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately and, in fact, have started to feel as though they share a great deal in common.
It’s something to do with their succinctness – they are both intense, concentrated forms which gain power from withholding information and not spelling everything out, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and absences themselves. In both short stories and novellas, everything is pared down to its essence and sometimes becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Another trait they share is that novellas and short stories can be read in one sitting and so it’s possible to hold them in your mind in their entirety.
If you could describe Travelling in the Dark in one word what would it be? 
What inspired you to write Travelling in the Dark?
The inspiration came after I travelled to New Zealand after an absence of seven years with my husband and two young children, a year after the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011. As we went back to lots of places familiar to me, it occurred to me that – while I was flooded with memories of the past – my children had no idea what had happened in those places. So the journey we were making was happening on many different levels at the same time, in the visible present and the potent past.
It also struck me that whatever difficulties we go through as adults, parents of young children have no choice but to keep going and carry out many practical, repetitive and tedious tasks each day whether they feel like it or not. Some might consider this a terribly mundane and unimportant subject to write about, but in this story the love and care that Sarah can continue to give her child in the present day acts as a powerful antidote to both her present and past suffering. Some might even say it’s heroic.
The nature descriptions in Travelling in the Dark are breath-taking. Did you choose New Zealand as a setting for this reason?
My home landscapes of Otago, Southland and Fiordland in southern New Zealand have always been the main inspiration for my writing. It’s a wild, unique and beautiful place but also threatening and intimidating. The immense power of the natural world dominates and makes human life seem small in comparison.
The places mentioned in your novella are mostly fictional. Did you base the descriptions on any real places in New Zealand?
Yes, all the fictional places are based on real places but most have been changed in some way, some merged, along with the possible routes Sarah can take. I wanted to do this as I’m aware it’s easy for people to assume that fiction is actually thinly disguised ‘fact’ or ‘the truth.’ I wanted to signal very strongly that these are fictional characters and fictional events occurring in a fictional place.
You describe many different types of scenery in your novella (New Zealand, Greece, etc.) When you are writing these passages do you recall the places from your memory or does it help to have a picture of them in front of you?
Interesting question. I write from memory rather than from actual visual images. I feel as though I can ‘see’ these places just by thinking about them. It’s very important to me for not only memory but imagination to play its part in the creation of fiction and have free rein. Imagination and the creative process are powerfully transformative, changing what once had some basis in reality into new and interesting shapes and patterns. What I’m writing is not factual, and I find it fascinating to see the alterations and versions my imagination makes.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through your writing? 
That writing is extremely hard work, but true freedom – which is incredibly rare in this world – is to be found there. In what other occupation can you become anyone or go anywhere?
The act of creation is powerful and addictive and, when it’s going well, can seem the best feeling in the world. The stakes feel very high to me between success and failure, what I want to achieve and the actual result. I spend most of my time rewriting, polishing, perfecting and cutting anything unnecessary out, whereas what I love best is writing new work.
When I am happy with what I’ve written or, on the rare occasion, a story is gifted into my mind and flows out, as if something other than me is speaking through me, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s like being able to fly. But when things aren’t going well, it can be very bad. Light and dark, yet again, something I always come back to – the brighter the light, the darker its opposite. I try to be patient and realise that silence, frustration and rejection are all part of a writer’s life, even after publication.
What has been the hardest part of Travelling in the Dark to write?
I started this book six years ago and the first draft arrived fluidly and quickly. Since then it’s gone through dozens of drafts and countless transformations. The final rewrite I did – with help from my mentor Clio Gray – was the hardest as it meant rearranging the book (yet again). But I believe these final changes also made it publishable.
In this final stage I had to discard some scenes I was very fond of, and yet some parts of the writing have remained exactly as they were in the first draft. Beneath the surface of this book, I see so many other drafts and variations, rather like the layers of an archaeological dig. In a way, this is rather fitting and similar to the layering of time and memory in the story itself.
Why did you choose Travelling in the Dark as the title of your story?
The title came to me very early on as I wrote the first draft, and never changed. It was inspired by something the New Zealand writer Robin Hyde wrote ‘…who travels with his dream travels with a dark torch.’
For me, this really summed up the strange compulsion writers have to find their way to a story or finished piece of work, even to find out what they feel and think, out of thin air. More literally, the story opens with Sarah and her child on an aeroplane flying through the night sky. Another crucial scene in the novel takes place in the darkness as well.
What do you hope people take away from reading Travelling in the Dark?
I hope that it gives people who have lived through challenging experiences a sense of not being alone with their difficulties. When I was growing up and trying to understand my own feelings, I was helped mostly by books because no one ever spoke about those things.
We are all imperfect and have faults and flaws; Sarah’s fight is to face up to her past difficulties and help a friend in need, and her challenge is not to repeat the patterns of the past in her relationship with her child.
Many of the recent tributes to Stephen Hawking described him as a hero. In Travelling in the Dark I was trying to show that everyday bravery and kindness in the face of numerous setbacks is kind of an achievement in itself and might even be thought of as a difficult, quiet kind of heroism.
What does writing mean to you? 
It’s been my support and pleasure for thirty-seven years, and I hope that it continues to be so for the rest of my life. Every human being and every life is unique and immensely complex – at its best, writing can capture some of the strangeness and wonder of life and express what it is to be human.
What inspires your writing? 
Landscape, memory, trying to pin down complex feelings and emotions.
Do you have a writing schedule? 
My writing time falls between 8am to 3pm on weekdays during term time but is often interrupted for various reasons. Time and good health are gifts which can be lost at any moment. I try to remember that the time I have is limited and precious and to make the most of these hours.
Where do you tend to write?
I write at an old oak desk that used to belong to Great Western Railways in the front room of my home in Cornwall. When I was younger and didn’t have a desk, I’d always sit on my bed in my tiny room in Macandrew Bay and write there, looking out the window at the ever-changing light on the hills of the Otago Peninsula and the water of the harbour.
Who your favourite author? 
Very difficult question to answer. I always come back to Katherine Mansfield’s long short story ‘At the Bay’ (which some might argue is actually a novella).
There are so many books and authors I enjoy and learn from, as the stacks of books dotted around every room of my house will testify. Works I’ve enjoyed recently include Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I love reading and rereading my favourite books, as I always find something new in them. I enjoy reading biography, memoir, poetry and creative non-fiction as well as fiction.
Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to writing? Something you notice yourself doing or something you pick-up in other’s writing.
I always feel that fictional deaths, especially those of children, must be absolutely necessary and hard earned. In far too many novels horrible things happen to children and young people, especially if they are female. 
My own children dying before I do is my greatest fear and so is something I never want to imagine for myself or for any of my characters. That said, far better writers than me have handled this subject with the utmost skill, grace and dignity – one example is found in James Baldwin’s brilliant work Sonny’s Blues, another in Kate Clanchy’s short story The Not-Dead and the Saved.
Do you have a writer’s habit that helps you ‘get in the zone’?
The quieter it is, the easier I find it to work. I get my best work done when it’s just me in the house and my cat is nearby asleep on the sofa.
Do you feel like you writing style has changed over the years?
I think my writing comes from the same place but I can see, looking at old work, how my writing has improved over the years simply from practice. I’ve learned a lot of techniques and got much better at editing my own work. But I still tend to say as little as possible, and to ‘write short’.
I thought I might be able to sustain longer narratives as I became more experienced. It still might happen. I learn most from reading the work of other writers and thinking hmmm…how did they manage to do that?
What’s a piece of advice you can give to aspiring authors?
It sounds very basic but read in your genre. If you want to write contemporary short stories then read every contemporary short story collection you can get your hands on. There will be plenty in your local library and short stories are broadcast on the radio most days. Try and think about why you like some of the stories more than others. A combination of reading and learning creative writing techniques will improve your work and, most importantly, help you understand when things go wrong. There are a huge number of resources available online now. Keep trying and practising. As with any skill, it takes time to get better, and practice (everyday, if possible) is at the heart of this.