On February 20th we’ll be at the British Library for our reading, writing and publishing event: Reading and Being Read. To get you in the mood, we’ll be presenting a series of features throughout the month focusing on the great work of some of the writers and small presses who’ll be joining us on the day.
Here, Susie Nott-Bower, writer of The Making of Her, talks to us about the magic of writing…
Susie, you said that writing is magic, and ‘Like all creative acts, it has the potential to transform both the writer and the reader’ – can you elaborate on this a little bit? In what ways do you see the potential for the writer and reader to be brought into a magical/transformative relationship through the text?
If creativity is the act of bringing the new into being, then fear is the ogre barring the way. Every writer will encounter fear as she begins to create. Just as fairy tales involve the hero meeting an antagonist and overcoming hardship in order to begin a new life, so the act of writing can bring up every fear-based personal issue to confound us – self-criticism, doubt, procrastination, pride and frustration being just a few. If we can persevere in the face of the ogre we may, with a pinch of grace, give birth to something new both on the page and in ourselves. That’s one kind of magic.
From the moment a reader opens a book another, relational kind of magic occurs. To quote E.M. Forster: ‘We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly.’ So the magic of writing allows us to do what is impossible in human terms: not only to walk in someone else’s shoes but to enter their mind and their heart, to be privy to their reality. In so doing, we have the potential to change our own beliefs, outlooks and behaviours.
The Making of Her was published by Linen Press in 2012, and you’re now working on a second novel. How did you come to be published by Linen Press, and what’s your experience of being published by a small press?
Writing lore states: on completing and thoroughly editing thy manuscript, thou shalt submit it to a selection of literary agents. I duly sent off the first 30 pages and synopsis of The Making of Her. Although I had a couple of requests for the full manuscript, no-one was willing to take a punt on a book with fifty-year-old protagonists. After a particularly brutal rejection from an agent who held onto the full manuscript for months, I was ready to throw in the towel. I emailed my writer friend Derek Thompson to cry (virtually) into his shirt. He told me not to give up, saying that ‘things can turn on a sixpence’. He’d told me about a small publishing house based in Edinburgh called Linen Press. As a last throw of the dice, I sent my opening chapters. Within 24 hours, director Lynn Michell emailed me asking to read the whole thing, and then – subject to some revisions – offered me a contract. Meanwhile, a card arrived from Derek containing a sixpence…
What followed was, in effect, several months’ mentoring with an excellent editor as we worked through The Making of Her together, chapter by chapter. Because Linen Press only publishes one or two books a year, I had Lynn’s undiluted attention throughout the process. Without her input, The Making of Her would not be the book it is today. She suggested revisions and adjustments of emphasis and then had the good faith to let me write them in my own way.
Then came the most challenging part: a steep learning curve in publicity and social media. It’s a simple fact that, unless you are published by a large press or your novel has won a major prize, it’s virtually impossible to a) get your novel into bookshops and b) get it reviewed by newspapers or magazines. Fortunately, online book and lifestyle bloggers were willing to review The Making of Her and Waterstones gave me a signing (just before they stopped offering signings to unknown authors). So there are upsides and downsides to being published by a small press: you may not make much, or any, money from your novel but you will, if you are lucky and persistent, have people read it. Which, for me, is the most important part.
You’ve worked in theatre and television, did you have to do much research for The Making of Her or were you writing from experience?
I wrote The Making of Her from experience. I’d been a director/producer in television for more than ten years so it was fairly easy to translate my own experiences into a story about a cosmetic make-over programme. However, I did have to research the surgical procedures. I ran all these past a kindly cosmetic surgeon who was astonished that I’d gained my knowledge from Cosmetic Surgery for Dummies!
What’s your daily routine for writing?
When I wrote The Making of Her, I gave myself the very achievable target of writing 2,000 words a week. By setting a relatively easy goal each week, I knew I’d be more likely to complete it. I created a schedule which I ticked off, week by week (anal, moi?). Within a year, I had my first draft. I was lucky enough to belong to a small critiquing group which met every two weeks. This helped me keep the editing on track.
I took a lengthy break after The Making of Her and committed the all-too-common mistake of abandoning my second novel, Reborn, a third of the way through the first draft. I recently read that novel-writing is 70% planning and 30% writing, and this does seem to be the case – I’ve just returned to planning it all over again. I’m definitely a plotter rather than a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) and once I have a viable step-sheet I feel confident to move forward.
Finally, if you could be reborn with any magical power, what would it be?
Magical powers often come in threes, so I’d choose the powers of persistence, positivity and pleasure. Without persistence, novels don’t get written – and certainly don’t get published. Positivity is vital given the highs and lows a writer passes through. And pleasure? Sometimes it’s all too easy to get lost in the maelstrom of I must get an agent / publisher / advance / best-seller – and pleasure (the bedrock of writing) goes into hiding. It certainly did for me. So my goal today is to rediscover the pleasure of writing. To paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert, a completed art work is only a souvenir of the process. In the process lies the magic.
Thanks to Susie Nott-Bower for a little bit of glitter and sparkle! You can see Susie at Reading and Being Read on 20th February.