Vanessa Gebbie has won numerous awards for her short fiction including a Bridport Prize. An extract of her novel, The Coward’s Tale, won the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Novel in a Year.’ A.N. Wilson chose it as his novel of the year 2011 in the Financial Times, describing it as “an extraordinarily lyrical, moving, funny evocation of a Welsh mining town and its inhabitants as seen through the eyes of ‘the coward’, who witnessed the collapse of the Kindly Light pit. A poet’s novel, really.”
When did you first start writing and how did you go about starting your first novel?
I started writing when I was a child; I produced a newspaper at the age of 6, the first issue was written in blue crayon! I wrote dreadful poetry when I was in my teens; I’ve still got it and it makes me giggle. I didn’t write much apart from comedy, skits and sketches until I started writing fiction properly in late 2002.
I remember I was once shopping in Brighton during a thunderstorm. I dashed into Waterstones, and I picked up two books that I’d heard about from the old 3 for 2 table. I needed a third, so I ended up picking Austerlitz by W G Sebald. I drove home, sat down with some tea in my wet trousers and I didn’t get up again until I’d finished it. 400 pages. I have to thank that man so much; that’s when I turned from someone who had bought a book to someone who had become a writer. It pushed the switch. He broke the rules, but he did it in such a way that it was exciting to read. It unlocked the feeling of ‘I want to do this.’ His themes were jumping up and down in my head because they were mine as well.
How did you get into teaching?
I think I’d found the thing that I loved doing and I wanted to pass on the love of doing it. I’m a totally non-academic tutor; I’m very craft based and I try to open up creativity in people. I think that story telling is almost innate in us. People sat round fires in caves in the Stone Age, telling each other stories. I don’t think they would have just said, “I went off and got a mammoth today”. We have an ability to hang onto the important facts and drip feed people with the important bits. You don’t give it all up front, you make them want to know the next bit, keep them involved by creating a character that draws them in and putting that character in a situation they can empathise with; make the reader want to find out how they resolve this thing. The most successful pieces of writing are those where the reader, almost despite themselves, becomes seduced into the world of the story.
What is your advice for writers who are just starting out?
1. Read as much as you can, not just the things that you’re told to read by parents, tutors, and reviewers. Read the back of the cereal packet. Read both good books and bad ones. Whatever genre you want to work in, you’ve got to get a sense for when you’re improving. Write as much as you can, and at some point you will find that the words take on a shape and rhythm of their own; it’s almost a physical thing to recognise what it feels like, that moment you change from being the person in charge of the pen to someone not deliberately creating something. You’ll find the point when a character takes off and does their own thing; you need to recognise that, and not refuse to let the character do what they want. Don’t use the characters as the puppet. Be a tool to the character, so you’re following along behind them.
2. Listen to your own instincts as a writer, and then edit, edit, edit. You’ve got to use the complete other end of the brain; be hard-nosed and use the knowledge you’ve built up about genre, structure, what works and what doesn’t; sharpen and polish your work. That may mean cutting a huge amount of words or cutting a story down by a third. I think a lot of writers don’t do enough, they leave it raw. There’s no point in doing things by half; “if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well,” said my old Ma.
How did you go about approaching an agent?
I was extremely lucky. A few years after I started writing, I was going down the short story route, where I was having some successes, a Bridport Prize being one of them. The anthology of winners gets sent to a London agency, A M Heath. I didn’t hear anything back, so I’d forgotten all about it until I went and had tea with another writer who had an agent. She said, “I love what you’re writing and I would like to introduce you to my agent.” Her agent happened to have just read my work and was asking around for my contact details. I was convinced that he wouldn’t be interested. If you haven’t got an agent and don’t know where you fit in, what you see in the press can make the world of publishing seem like the world of famous people who get huge advances for their memoirs. It’s important to believe in what you’re doing, but you must do it as well as you can. Don’t just think that everything you write down will be wonderful; you have to work at it until you’re blue in the face. When people read it, it seems easy, but writing really does take a huge amount of effort.
What are your tips on writing a covering letter and synopsis?
Keep it short; be aware that you’re going from being a creative into the world of commerce. A pitch has to be accepted by an agent and then a publisher so you need to be aware of where it might fit in, who the ideal reader is, and why people will want to read it. You need to succinctly and precisely explain what it’s about, why you are of interest, and what else you have done in creative writing that makes you stand out from the other hundred. Stand outside yourself and ask, “Why should they go with me and not the next person?”
What advice would you offer to writers whose novels are at first rejected?
First of all I’d give them all a hug. I know what rejection is like, I had four or five years of writing short fiction, and when you hear the words, “sorry not for us,” it is a kick in the teeth. I have many friends who are superb writers who find that their work doesn’t fit the bill. At that point the reality is that if you want your piece of work to be taken on by a publisher, you just have to pick yourself up and keep going. It could be that it’s the novel people keep in a plastic bag under the bed, the practice novel. When you’ve written the next one, publishers might want to see that earlier one.
The number of people who get put off and quit at that stage is sad. Part of being a writer is having to accept that your hopes will be raised and then dashed, whatever level you are at. Look at the Booker Shortlist; they were all rejected at some point, but they didn’t let it stop them. There may be reasons that agents don’t feel that your work fits into their field but you must not take it personally, you must keep going. If the work is good enough, it will find a home; edit, edit, polish, polish.
You have got to be prepared for rejection. I did short fiction too and I was laying myself open to a lot of rejection. It always hurts when someone doesn’t want one of your babies.
How did you know when the editing stage was finished?
I took a year to polish it. I knew I had reached the end of my own abilities, and it’s important to know when you don’t know any more. I went to the Arts Council for a grant to work with Maggie Gee, whose work I love. I don’t think we should ever be too proud to say that we need help. Together we polished the structure and changed some character relationships. It took a long time until I was happy with each sentence. Then you take a deep breath, send it off to the agent and wait for feedback. Within in a week I had a message saying, “I can’t think of anything we need to do to it.”
That’s my other advice to people working on a manuscript; you have to get it as good as you can. The days are gone when an editor will spend months with you. I’ve got a business background so I’m furiously aware of publishing as a business. If you want to get books out there, you have to tune in to the business side and not be precious; you have to cultivate a hard nose.
How hard was it to find a publisher?
I use social media, I blog and I have a website, and through that I got an invitation to go and talk to the Publishers Publicity Circle. It’s part of understanding the business; I was with Salt Publishing before and they have no publicity team, so if the writers did nothing, the book did nothing. You need to be involved, it’s a team thing. If I’m asked to do something by Bloomsbury I will do it, but I will also tweet and Facebook. Use your presence to discuss and not witter on about yourself. Create a name for yourself before you have a book out there; that’s what the internet allows us to do. Building a profile is a very useful thing to do.
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Image copyright of Edward Reeves