Susan Mansfield talks to a mentor and aspiring novelist in the Scottish Book Trust’s new writing programme
A NOVEL can be about anything. Absolutely anything, says Beatrice Colin. About a songwriter in New York at the beginning of the jazz age. Or a woman drinking coffee in a cafe in Glasgow.
Or three women drinking coffee in a cafe in Glasgow, talking about writing. I’m in Tinderbox in Princes Square with Colin, the author of five novels, including The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite, which was picked as a Richard & Judy “best read” in 2009, and Katerina Vasiliou, a winner of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in the same year, who has just completed her first.
As part of the “professional development package” included in the award, Colin has been her mentor for a year. They’ve met in places very like this one to chew over the latest draft of Vasiliou’s novel, Pinching Doesn’t Hurt, and to compare the highs and lows of the writing life. Hearing them talk about it is illuminating: it’s difficult; it’s also a long, hard, lonely slog with scant prospect of success; but it’s also the best thing in the world.
One thing’s for sure, it’s a stark contrast from the rags-to-riches stories of authors such as JK Rowling, which have helped promote the myth that a best-selling novel is a good way to make a fast buck. These days, almost everyone seems to be writing one – or planning to. Many people’s list of resolutions for 2012 is likely to include getting down to a bit of writing.
Vasiliou says: “So many people say to me, ‘Ooh, you’re writing a novel, I’d love to write a novel’. I think, well, do it! Even if it means staying in on Friday nights and getting up at six on Sunday.” And there’s the rub. Mary Heaton Vorse had the right idea when she said: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” It’s more about perspiration than inspiration.
Caitrin Armstrong, writer development manager at Scottish Book Trust, has some sage advice for anyone hoping for overnight success. “If your aim is to make a quick buck, this is not the thing to do. Industry insiders estimate that for every thousand novels submitted to publishers and agents, only one or two are published. It’s very, very difficult to get to that stage. You have to do it absolutely for the love of it, or because there’s a drive, something making you do it. For those who actually want to achieve publication, it’s going to be a long and difficult journey.”
But for those who truly love to write, no amount of realism will put them off. Vasiliou did a masters in creative writing in Edinburgh, graduating in 2005. She wanted to write a play, but it wasn’t working and she shut it in a drawer and got on with her day job for a disability charity. Then, two years later, she started work again on the same story. “I suddenly realised I had 20,000 words. It was like a compulsion rather than anything else.”
“I think you write because you love writing,” Colin says. “It’s a bit of a rollercoaster career. It isn’t really a career, it’s something that you do, and if you’re lucky people keep paying you. There’s no security, even if you’re successful. You just have to sell the next book, the next book, the next book.” Her first two novels were published by a small press, then her agent died, leaving her back at the starting blocks. But her third novel The Lumious Life of Lilly Aphrodite, about the film industry in Weimar Germany, was picked up by a major publishing house, endorsed by the Richard & Judy Book Club and translated into seven languages. Her latest novel, The Songwriter, is also acclaimed, and she has written a novel for children.
As a Scottish writer of historical fiction set in the 20th century, she was a natural choice to mentor Vasiliou, whose book is set in the Borders in the 1940s, and tells the coming-of-age story of a young woman with learning difficulties. After five drafts, she is ready to send it to agents and publishers. “It’s a love story, set in a very interesting period,” says Colin. “You should put that in your pitch to agents! It’s very, very good. When I finished it, I wanted to give it to my friends to read. I think it’s a very important novel, because people don’t usually deal with that kind of thing, but it’s funny and moving as well. It’s been really fulfilling to see someone develop so much.”
The New Writers Awards, run by the Scottish Book Trust for Creative Scotland, offer those with a proven commitment to writing, but who have not had a novel or collection published, a valuable first step on the ladder. As well as a £2,000 money award, there is a bespoke development package, which – if that suits the writer in question – will include mentoring. Previous mentors have included writers Bernard MacLaverty and Louise Welsh and agents Judy Moir and Maggie McKernan.
Vasiliou says it has made all the difference to her. “I think a lot of it is to do with confidence. The people at the Scottish Book Trust thought of me as a writer, which I was struggling to think of myself as. It was a massive confidence boost. Beatrice was really good at offering fair, balanced criticism, asking me questions, making me go back and think about things. It was great to have the solidarity of someone to talk to.”
“Writing a novel is a very, very long drawn out process,” says Colin. “It’s nice to have somebody to cheer you on and give you confidence. Once Katerina e-mailed me and said: ‘I’m going to chop out one of my main characters’ and I was able to say: ‘No, no, everybody feels like that sometimes. Just sleep on it, it will be alright.’
“It’s very hard to get people to read things for you and respond. Everybody’s got a vested interest: your partner doesn’t want to upset you by saying it’s appalling, your mum loves everything you do. Usually when you’re writing, you know the weak points yourself, but you ignore them. Somebody pointing it out really helps. Also, we’ve had various conversations where I’ve said: ‘This bit doesn’t quite work,’ and Katerina has said: ‘Yeah, it does!’, and she’s been right. It’s knowing when to have the confidence to stand up for yourself.”
Caitrin Armstrong says that new writers today are particularly in need of support at a time when publishers are tightening their budgets, just like everyone else.
“For so many people it’s very difficult to break through and get to that next stage. There is more pressure on writers now to do things like publicity. Self-promotion is something that doesn’t come naturally to many people.”
But the business of writing is what it has always been: answering the urge to tell a story, create a world. And that urge is widespread. One needs only look at the runaway success of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which began in 1999 in San Francisco with 22 people. Last November, more than 250,000 around the world pledged to try to write 50,000 in a month (a short novel, similar in length to The Great Gatsby), and some of the novels which started life on the programme in previous years (such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants), have gone on to become bestsellers.
Vasiliou says: “What I get real satisfaction out of is creating a mood, a feeling, something you hope to provoke in somebody else. You feel it inside you and then you use words to express it, and if you feel that those words translate the feeling or experience you want to convey, that is just amazing.”
Colin says: “ I think even more than ever you have to really, really want to write, and you have to be philosophical. If you sell the book, that’s fantastic. If you don’t sell it, you’ve still got a fantastic piece that wasn’t there before. Probably the best feeling is when you finish a book and know it’s good. That’s the biggest high of all.”
And, of course, there are still sleeper hits and emerging best-sellers. There are rewards for those prepared for the long haul. Caitrin Armstrong says: “I would say to anyone who enjoys writing and fancies giving it a go to do it. Just be prepared to work hard and spend a long time getting there. Somebody’s going to get there, and most people who win the [New Writers] Award say they would never have dreamed that they would manage it.” That means you could too.
Inspiration plus perspiration
If this is the year you’re going to write that novel, here’s some advice from the wise.
Make the time
It might sound obvious, but writing requires a significant time investment. “If you really want to write a novel, you are just going to have to make it your priority, it’s as simple as that,” says Vasiliou. “Every month is novel-writing month.”
“Writing a novel is a bit like running a marathon,” says Vasiliou. “ Don’t make sprints, just take it slowly and do a bit at a time. If you write 500 words a day, you will get there. ”
Don’t let the bad days grind you down. “Everyone has bad days,” says Vasiliou. “Don’t think, ‘I’m not a writer, I can’t do this’. Keep coming back to it and keep facing up to it. It’s like gymnastics, you have to exercise your muscles to make them stronger.”
Nothing is wasted
“For most writers, progress is two steps forward, one step back,” says Colin. “Quite often I’ll come back to something the next day and think: ‘I know that’s completely wrong, but I know what should be there instead’.”
Read a lot
“And go to concerts, watch films, go to art galleries,” says Vasiliou. “These are all creative inspirations, they all feed into writing.”
Write from the heart
“You can tell when work doesn’t come from an honest place, when it’s posing a bit,” says Colin. “It has to be completely honest.”
Don’t be scared of people stealing your idea
“If you give 20 people the same idea, they will all write completely different novels because everybody sees the world differently,” says Colin. “The idea is important, but it’s the writing itself that really matters.”
Don’t be afraid to cut
“In the first draft you have to over-write to be able to get your thought process out there, and then you realise you don’t need it,” says Vasiliou. “I remember Beatrice saying to me: ‘Are you sure you need all these words in a sentence?’ And I thought, no, of course I don’t.”
Be wary of making major changes once you’ve started
“You can write a novel hundreds of ways, but once you’re written it one way, you have to follow it through that way,” says Colin.
Be prepared to discover things about your characters and story as you go, but have your ending in mind
“Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost,” says Colin. “It’s a good idea to have an ending in mind when you start – even if you end up changing it.”
• For the New Writers Awards, and mentoring, see www.scottishbooktrust.com. For National Novel Writing Month, see www.nanowrimo.org.