This week I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by the wonderful writing organisation Writing East Midlands. They have been a big part of my writing story and I will be joining them next year as a tutor, offering a one-day Be your own Writing Coach course. To answer their questions I had to think quite deeply about what it was like to be a writer starting out, a writer getting rejections, a writer thinking about giving up… as well as then thinking through what has been helpful for me over the years, and what was it like to find an agent and then a publisher. In this interview I offer my thoughts about whether writing can be taught, and what advice I would give to newbie writers. Here it is:
A Chat with Joanne Burn
Joanne’s short stories have been published in several fiction magazines, and her debut novel, Petals & Stones, is due to be published by Legend Press on 6th September 2018. She lives in the Peak District and is represented by Ella Kahn at Diamond Kahn & Woods Literary Agency.
We talked to Joanne at the beginning of June, 2018.
Hi Joanne. Firstly, your debut novel is being published in September. Tell us about it.
Petals and Stones tells the story of Uma, who discovers her husband’s infidelity just hours before his untimely death. The novel is about love in all its forms, the corrosive lies we tell ourselves and how those lies come to shape our lives. It’s also about belonging, and what a relief it is when we are finally ‘home’.
What was it like hearing that your book would be in print?
I felt euphoric for about a week. Everything looked bright and beautiful, no problem insurmountable. I think a big part of that was relief. I already had two unpublished novels sitting on the shelf, and the idea that there would soon be a third had been, for a while, filling me with a deep, dark doubt; I had been wondering whether I needed to rethink my choices in life. Hearing the news from my agent that Legend Press had made an offer changed all that. I knew that I would continue writing novels, and that was such a joyful realisation. None of us need permission to write, but it can feel as if we do at times.
How did Writing East Midlands support you in your journey to publication?
Writing East Midlands has been a big part of my writing journey. In the early days of my second novel I applied to their mentoring scheme, which at the time was offering three writers a year the opportunity to be mentored by a published writer from the region. It was such a confidence boost just getting through to the interview stage (I didn’t get selected for mentorship), and as part of the process I spent a day with the other candidates on a professional development course; this day was full of insights for me.
When I didn’t find representation for my second novel, and submissions to independent presses turned up nothing too, I took a break from novel writing and decided to spend a year writing short stories. I attended a couple of short story writing courses offered by WEM and had four short stories published the following year. Again, this was the confidence boost that I needed at the time and helped me find the energy to start my third novel, which became Petals and Stones.
I’ve enjoyed the writing conferences organised by WEM, and have come away each year with something of great value: the confidence to set up a blog, a new approach to networking (for introverts!), my first twitter follower, a new writing friend, inspiring words from guest speakers, and detailed feedback from a literary agent.
What any writer can tell you is that writing can be a long apprenticeship. There are many times along the way when we don’t believe we’ve got it in us. The setbacks and rejections can be so disheartening. Writing East Midlands has been there for me in the background, offering opportunities and courses that have given me something to work towards, the offer of a little help, as well as insights, advice and new connections.
This year you are joining us at Writing School East Midlands as a tutor – what is your course going to focus on?
As a writing Coach, I work with writers at all stages of their writing journey. One of the most common requests is for help with procrastination. My course is about how we can find the inspiration, motivation and confidence to start writing, to keep writing and how to enjoy the process. The course will help participants gain insight into what it is that they personally need to do to write regularly. How exactly we go about the practice of writing can be wildly different from one writer to the next. But there are certain common themes around creativity itself that can be really helpful to understand if we want to cultivate a writing process that works for us.
There has been a lot of debate in the media about whether writing can be taught. What is your perspective on this?
Writing technique can be taught, and can dramatically improve the quality of our writing. Reading lots helps with this too. But the only way we become writers is by writing. It is only ever through putting words on the page that we find our voice, and hone our craft. We must make mistakes, and plenty of them. My experience has been that there are always new things to learn – layers of learning that are best absorbed at different stages of a writer’s experience. Lots of this can certainly come from external sources (fellow writers, books, courses) but some of it we can only really discover for ourselves, through the process itself.
We are welcoming Penguin Random House to the region this year, for the Write Now initiative, to find new voices from unusual backgrounds. They have been asking people for their favourite first lines from novels – do you have one to share?
A favourite first line for me is from The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini: I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. This simple sentence takes us right to the heart of the novel. Immediately I’m moved by the idea of a single moment impacting the whole of a life, and I’m intrigued to know what happened. Despite the advice to never open a novel with talk of the weather, I love how a frigid overcast day evokes a sense of trepidation.
What advice would you give to a writer just starting out on their writing journey?
You matter, and your writing matters; nobody else can write what you will write. Expect your writing to be rubbish in the beginning, and during the early stages of any new writing project, because that is how it works. Expect doubt, contradiction and insecurity; read nothing into these things. Write regardless of how you feel about life, yourself or what you’re producing, because that is what will make you a writer. Be tough with yourself when you need to be tough – keep disciplined in order to get your words onto the page. But also be kind to yourself: rest, play, and laugh about it all.
Find out more about Joanne on her website here