Welcome to another of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction, short story writer and spotlightee Trish Nicholson. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Trish. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based.
Trish: I am from the Isle of Man so I’m part Celtic, part Viking, and like many islanders, seem destined to wander. After fifteen years of living and working in various corners of the world, I’ve settled in the ‘winterless’ Far North of New Zealand, on top of a hill overlooking a lake which is my daily inspiration.
Morgen: I’ve moved five times in my life, the grand sum of sixty miles. A lake would inspire me too – I love water and yet live in the middle of England, three hours away from the sea but I do plan to have a house with a sea view eventually. How did you come to be a writer?
Trish: I’m not sure at what point one calls oneself ‘a writer’. Writing came in somewhere in all the careers I’ve followed, research, interpretation, newsletters, press releases and so on, but in the 1980s I was asked to write a regular column for a UK management magazine and a number of features for national newspapers. So I suppose you could call that the start. But my background is anthropology and whenever I could, I was travelling, not only around Europe for my work, but trekking in the Himalayas and in South America, feeding my curiosity and indulging in photography. In the end, these interests won – I left the UK for my first overseas job in rural development in Papua New Guinea and worked there for five years. Writing then was mainly in a personal journal – lots of extraordinary happenings to scribble down.
I worked in the Philippines for a further five years after that, with more research in Vietnam and a year in Australia. After my return to the UK, all that experience led to a couple of commissions. I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book on anthropology; Earthscan asked me to co-edit and write new material for the 1999 edition of The Green Travel Guide, and I worked for a UK university as a gobbeter, writing synopses of research reports for their website. Poor pay but wonderful practise for a writer – reducing great wads of text to 500 words. That’s probably where my love of flash fiction came from.
And then I settled in New Zealand. At first, I was too busy planting my hillside in native trees to do much writing, but now I write full time and love it.
Morgen: Having an interest in photography must help when designing book covers. You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Trish: I write short stories as well, but yes, most of my published work is non-fiction – management, anthropology, tourism, and latterly, travelogues. They’ve all arisen from my overseas working and travelling, some involved extensive research. Masks of the Moryons for example, an eBook about the Easter pageant on Marinduque Island in the Philippines, was based on three years in the field – it was the basis of my doctoral degree, but of course, had to be completely restyled for publication. I’ve even written a short popular-science book, but that combines short fiction with anthropology; it traces how humans evolved as storytellers – that was huge fun to write. And my latest book explores the relationship between readers and writers when they ‘meet’ in a story. No shortage of topics to write about.
Morgen: I purely write fiction (or non-fiction about writing) and have more ideas than I can cope with, even writing a story a day for my 5pm Fiction slot. Writing non-fiction and short stories, are there any differences or similarities between writing non-fiction and fiction?
Trish: I find it difficult to switch rapidly between them, I need time to soak my brain in the right sort of thoughts for each, but the writing craft is basically the same. I write creative non-fiction – I don’t invent things, but use creative writing techniques to describe people, events, landscapes, and to evoke atmosphere, just as you might in a novel, the difference is, I have to make sure the facts are accurate and verifiable. I am more productive with non-fiction, perhaps because, though I’m using my imagination, I’m not inventing complete scenarios. With short stories, the completing and editing can take weeks, even months, especially with flash fiction – others call it procrastination, but if I’m still tinkering with a story in my mind, I call it ‘positive procrastination’ and that’s okay by me.
Morgen: One of my Monday night writing group writers can spend a day tweaking a paragraph. I don’t have that much patience (or time!). Do you write under a pseudonym?
Trish: Heavens no, no pseudonym, I have enough trouble keeping up with one identity.
Morgen: 🙂 It’s hard enough work marketing one as well. What have you had published to-date?
Trish: For the last couple of years I’ve been writing for Collca, a non-fiction digital publisher of e-Books and Apps. They produce some interesting BiteSize series. Although my books are longer, I have two titles in illustrated BiteSize Travel: Masks of the Moryons: Easter Week in Mogpog, the one I mentioned earlier about the Philippines, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. I especially enjoyed writing these because I could use lots of my photographs – one of the advantages of digital publishing compared to the huge costs of colour photography in print.
In February this year, they released the first title of a new BiteSize Science series: my study From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters. It has a super cover – a gorgeous picture of an Orang-utan with such a knowing expression, I’m sure her head is full of stories. I kept it short and easy to read because I am passionate about the dangers of political and corporate spin-doctors using storytelling to manipulate us – story technique is big business these days. It’s a cautionary tale because our brains not only function around stories, we are primed to believe them – it projects shadows of George Orwell’s 1984. It was interesting, too, because it introduced me to a relatively new field – the psychology of fiction.
And this month Collca released my latest title which is completely different and a full-length volume – Inside Stories for Writers and Readers. It’s about creative prose but it’s not a ‘how-to’ book, more like an entertaining companion to inspire both writers and readers. We talk about them as if they were two different groups, but a reader’s experience completes a story, so I wanted to bring them together to explore storytelling. Chapters give insights on key story elements like Inspiration, Character, Theme, Voice, and so on, and I analyse fifteen of my own stories as illustrations. I include comments from professional critiques, warts and all. I’ve never seen that before in a book on creative writing and I can understand why, but I think that kind of sharing is a good way to grow as a writer, and as a reader for that matter.
**NOTE: the cover pic is of the print edition which includes also the complete text of From Apes to Apps, the eBook version contains only an excerpt.
Morgen: I haven’t either and I’m enjoying reading yours, albeit only a few pages in, especially as I regularly edit others’ short stories. Have you self-published? If so, what lead to you going your own way?
Trish: Frankly, I couldn’t cope with the technology of self-publishing, and it would be a huge diversion taking time away from writing, so no, I have never self-published.
Morgen: I’ve only self-published on Kindle (and that’s really easy once you’ve done it once). I do plan to paperback my chick lit novel as it’s set in the town I live in (and uses 30 real locations from here) and will see how that goes when the time comes. Are all your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Trish: All my recent books are eBooks, but Inside Stories is available also in paperback, and From Apes to Apps is included in the print edition as another perspective on storytelling – I’m delighted about that. I do read eBooks as well as paperbacks, they each have distinct advantages. In fact I sometimes buy both versions to use in different ways.
Morgen: I’ve heard a few people say that, especially if they loved an eBook and just want the paperback to own it. I don’t like damaging the spines of paperback and have probably 1,000+ eBooks on my iPad so will probably stick with that unless I go to author events where you can’t beat a ‘real’ signed book. Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
Trish: Traditionally, covers and titles are a publisher’s prerogative because they are marketing decisions, but Mike Hyman’s working style at Collca is consultative, which is great. The final result is usually a team effort.
Morgen: That is great. Not all authors get a say. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Trish: I was a bit of a tomboy in my younger days, usually up a tree or tramping aimlessly with my dog, but when I did read, it was about the great explorers. The discovery of the White Nile and Stanley in Africa come to mind though I can’t remember the authors. I think it was the subjects that had the most influence on me at the time – a definite urge to escape! Later, I discovered Joseph Conrad and enjoyed all his books. It’s hard to pick just a few but Steinbeck, Orwell, and Rushdie stick in my mind, and latterly, new Asian and African writers. And of course I read a lot of travel books. But I’m not sure how much any of them has influenced my writing – it’s hard to analyse. A reviewer once wrote that my style reminded her of Paul Theroux (without the grumpiness), but I’ve never consciously tried to emulate any particular style, I think you develop your own by writing as much as possible.
Morgen: I grew up with an older brother so I think I still am a tomboy (I can’t remember the last time I wore a skirt). Although I do remember reading Nancy Drew, I loved the Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone adventure books, which is probably why I love (writing and reading) second person viewpoint stories. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Trish: I have a completed manuscript for a long travel narrative based on my years in Papua New Guinea which is currently being considered by a publisher, so my fingers are quietly crossed on that one. And there’s what I fondly call my ‘magnum opus’ – a long-term project, a sort of biography of stories, from oral traditions through to writing, printing and other key historical and social influences. It’s a labour of love involving a huge amount of research, but I don’t yet have a publisher for this, so other projects keep jumping in front of it.
Morgen: Do let me know how you get on with that. Maybe you could do another spotlight when it’s available. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Trish: I don’t like strict routines but I do write pretty much every day, usually in the morning when I’m fresher, and sometimes do editing or research in the afternoons, read in the evenings. I can’t say I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block, although some days I’ll be in a mood for one form of writing rather than another, or maybe only editing. I try to keep ahead of schedules to allow time for these little foibles. Some writers thrive on pressure, on deadlines – I’m not one of them, I prefer peace and calm.
Morgen: One of my favourite quotes if Douglas Adams’ ‘I love deadlines – the sound as they whoosh by’, although I endeavour to stick to mine. No one likes being kept waiting. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Trish: I know all the writing advice says you should not, but I do edit to some extent as I write. If I’m not happy with a paragraph it is hard to make the next one flow smoothly from it. So I don’t normally need too much reworking when it comes to the full edit later. I’ll do a couple more ‘passes’ for tweaking and polishing, and then it goes to a professional editor. Editing is key – as writers we are too close to our work to know how it is being read by others, and we need that feedback.
Morgen: I tend to do a mixture too. I’ve done six NaNoWriMos to-date and although you’re not supposed to edit while you write, because the minimum is 1,667 words a day, if I know something’s wrong I’ll either change it or cross it out so that I can see later whether it can go (or I put ‘MORE HERE’ if something’s missing). Do you have to do much research?
Trish: For me, research is a great source of ideas as well as data. I do it for fiction, especially to get those little details that lend authenticity to a story. For non-fiction of course I do a lot of research, even on topics I’m familiar with, to check details from my journals or to update information. I enjoy it so much the problem is having the discipline to stop when I have what I need.
Morgen: It’s worth spending the time researching because there will always someone who knows more about a subject and will gladly point out errors. I mentioned earlier about marketing one name being enough work, do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Trish: I work with my publisher on marketing as most authors do these days, but I try not to let it dominate my time. As for me as a ‘brand’, I break the first marketing rule – I’m not known for one specific genre. I keep jumping out of the box. Unless I can create a ‘brand’ out of the ‘unexpected’ I’d probably best forget it. I love interacting with my readers on Twitter, but I’m not sure I want to feel packaged, labelled and stamped somewhere on my anatomy with a barcode.
Morgen: Glad to hear that. I started writing various genres so I think as long as readers see that, they won’t expect one thing – and really, they should read the blurb anyway. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Trish: Favourite is the complete freedom to work on whatever I feel like when I get up in the morning, or to go for a walk instead, but what has surprised me is that if I go a day or two without writing I become restless and discontented. And I find the next project is bubbling away at the back of my mind as I complete the current one – there’s no hope for me now!
Morgen: I quit my job in March 2012 and although I’ve never been poorer (well, only once since I left home), I love what I do. I’ll be teaching creative writing for my local council next year so the cherry on the proverbial cake. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Trish: Write whenever you can, even for a few minutes, and about anything that interests you, regardless of genre, to develop the wordcraft, the ability to put thoughts, feelings and observations into words and sentences. To communicate what we think we are saying is harder than it might seem, so the second piece of advice is to get feedback on your work and thicken your skin to listen carefully to it. It doesn’t mean you necessarily follow it, but it lets you know how you are being read by different readers and that is crucial information. Lots of reading of course – go outside your comfort zone. Basically, read, write and listen.
Morgen: Absolutely. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Trish: Only one, I have a Twitter account as @trishanicholson which I used initially to let people know about weekly blog posts on my website. The number of visitors to the site is directly related to tweeting about it, but it has proved valuable in other ways. I learnt a huge amount about social media, blogging, and other subjects by following up links; I’ve made numerous mutually helpful contacts leading to reviews, guest posts and other promotion; chatted with people who have bought my books, and formed some genuine friendships.
Morgen: Twitter is great, although I can lose hours if I have the timeline open (I follow about 1,800 people – about half the number who follow me) and can’t keep up with everyone’s saying so I check every now and then, and retweet anything interesting. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Trish: Probably the same as it holds for everyone else – rapid change and uncertainty. And I think the only way to live with that is to try new things and be adaptable. That’s how I first became involved in writing eBooks. Even though it is still a pioneer field for publishers and mainstream reviewers don’t yet pay as much attention to digital publications as they should, it’s where the opportunities are, and they will expand.
Morgen: I agree. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Trish: You can find regular updates on the HOME page and weekly articles on the BLOG of my website: www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com and there really is a tree house you can visit. And Collca has an author page for me on their website: http://collca.com/TrishNicholson.
Morgen: Thank you, Trish. It’s been great chatting with you.
Trish: Thank you for having me, Morgen, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you – some of your questions I haven’t thought much about before.
Morgen: It’s taken me a couple of years to adapt these questions (and I’ll keep tweaking them) so I’m delighted they were useful. Thank you again for joining me today, Trish.
I then invited Trish to include an extract of her writing and this is an excerpt from the Introduction from Inside Stories for Writers and Readers:
“Stand still, traveller and read.”
In a letter to a friend, Mark Twain claimed not to like reading novels or stories. When challenged that he wrote them himself, he replied: “Quite true: but the fact that an Indian likes to scalp people is no evidence that he likes to be scalped.” It seems he was being characteristically contrary because a comment elsewhere to his daughter penetrates the heart of storytelling: “It is so unsatisfactory to read a noble passage and have no one you love at hand to share the happiness with you. It is unsatisfactory to read to oneself anyhow – for the uttered voice so heightens the expression.”
Stories and their telling are a shared encounter. A story is not complete until the listener or reader has experienced it and achieved his or her own understanding. Oral storytelling may no longer be a regular occurrence for most of us, nor reading aloud by the fireside, but audience and storyteller are coming together in new ways. All writers are readers, it is part of our obsession with words, and the number of readers who have started to write is increasing. Everyone, it seems, is writing these days: it’s getting harder to tell readers from writers – maybe there is no significant difference other than a tilt in one direction or the other. We are all born storytellers: our brains function around narrative, it is inescapably the way we perceive and understand life and the world around us.
Certainly the relationship between readers and writers has changed radically with digital communication. Readers want to know their favourite authors; follow them on social media; learn the ‘inside story’; post reviews, and become more involved. Writers set up websites; write blog posts, and open Facebook and Twitter accounts to interact with their readers. Some authors use digital media to write interactive stories, where readers can choose alternative plot paths and outcomes. We love talking about the stories we read, and I have never met a writer who didn’t enjoy talking about their craft, or gain something from sharing the ideas and stories of other writers.
Thinking through these changes, I thought it was time to celebrate stories in a way that brought readers and writers together – an inclusive book – this volume is the result, aimed to inspire both writers and readers to a deeper appreciation of that ‘chemical reaction’ between two ‘voices’ when a story resonates with a reader. And there is a whole chapter on ‘voice.’
Many of the insights in Inside Stories are applicable to any length of fiction, but the focus is on short stories – there are several reasons why I chose to do this.
On a practical level, the brevity of short stories allows us to see their wholeness, to understand more clearly how the various components of a story such as theme, structure, character, are woven into a seamless tale – they can be read and reread in a brief time. The fifteen stories included here are my own because only these can I analyse fully, tell you what inspired them, how they were written – or rewritten – and what critiques have said about them.
Literary short stories offer a particular and unique writing and reading experience: they are not simply stories that are short. Although infinitely varied, defying any agreed definition, the compactness, depth and language required to tell a complete story in as few as 500 words, or even as many as 5,000, has created a recognizable form that many would claim is the most difficult in fiction writing. Every single word in a good short story has significance – in sound, rhythm and image as well as meaning. An experience of a life condensed yet deeply penetrated, a short story can provide rich insights not only into our own lives as readers, but into the craft of writing.
Despite the challenging nature of the form – or perhaps because of it – many successful novelists began their career by writing short stories. Others, like Alice Munro, made the short story their career. Teachers of creative writing encourage students to learn their craft through writing and reading short stories as well as longer prose. The form has a great deal to teach us.
Finally, in a fast-moving world where images and texts stream endlessly passed us, our attention spans shorten accordingly – we expect everything to be offered in ‘super concentrated’ form, not only the laundry powder. It is nearly twenty-five years since Saul Bellow issued the warning: “The modern reader…is perilously overloaded.” And the volume and range of published material has expanded since then.
Short stories should be ideal reading in such an environment, but popular though they are with readers, publishers are wary of them and critics and reviewers pay them scant attention. They deserve better, so the form has a major character part in Inside Stories.
But this is not a ‘how-to’ book. Rules for writing can be useful guides, but even standard strictures on punctuation and grammar have been creatively and successfully flouted on occasion. For me, there are only two unbreakable rules: keep reading, and keep writing. So this is a book of ‘show and share’ rather than ‘tell and teach’, and I have included ‘also-rans’ as well as winning or shortlisted stories because we can learn from reviewing our problems as well as our successes, and sometimes, our reasons for writing have nothing to do with competitions or publication.
Because we need structure to avoid muddle and to make ideas accessible, I divided Inside Stories into chapters that emphasize certain topics, but the problem is that the magic of a good story is in its wholeness. Character, voice, form and theme have to mesh in our minds and on the page as a holistic experience for a reader. Though we are obliged to talk in parts, the inclusion of complete stories reminds us of this wholeness, and I indicate connections in the text to integrate the various points.
Each chapter is a bit like a workshop: exploration, followed by articles to dig deeper into particular aspects, and then a couple of stories are analysed to illustrate the chapter’s topic. The illumination and encouragement from attending a reading or writing group, or a workshop, can last for weeks, but the benefit of having such insights in a book is that you can go back to ‘listen’ to something you only half heard the first time, and pause when you want to ponder, make a pot of coffee, or pour yourself a beer.
Much of the inspiration for this book was sparked by the joys, frustrations, whinges, moans and exaltations of writing and reading friends on four continents – this is my ‘thank you’ for their company over that rugged landscape.
Trish Nicholson began a 30 year writing career as a columnist and feature writer, later drawing on her background as an anthropologist to travel and work in many countries, researching and writing about other cultures, tourism, and travelogue. Living through some extraordinary situations, she developed a passion for storytelling. Her short stories have won international competitions and been published in anthologies. She lives in New Zealand, Aotearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud.
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