Wednesday, 31 December 2014

What have I learnt from 2014? Sharing thoughts about getting back on track when life derails you.

Sunset at Sennen, Cornwall
So, here we are again, at the cusp of the year, the transition point where we look forward and back. As I review the past twelve months, I rejoice in many things: the love of family and friends, a comfortable home in one of the most gorgeous cities on earth, professional progress, two significant writing competition wins, a growing network of supportive writing allies.

However, 2014 has also been a ghastly year. I started it with fine, overly-ambitious plans. In January a very dear friend went missing. Many weeks of agonising anxiety later, her body was found. I struggle on a daily basis with this, because she was a special, joyous person who’d been such a significant person in my life – and now she was gone, far far too soon, into the dark. A couple of months after her funeral, my brother-in-law, staunch, cheery, loyal and loving, devoted to my sister, had died – his death also completely out of the blue.

Shock and grief derail you. In despair and devastation, work is something to cling to. It gives shape to the days, it provides distraction. However I have at times taken on too much, driven myself too hard. I’m not one of life’s delegators – I always want to do it all myself. Over the past three years I’ve trained myself to work at dead of night – I’m a natural owl anyway. But I’ve taken it too far and for too long, to the detriment of health and concentration. And apart from the spurts of creativity which led to those competition wins, my own writing has ended up like the relative you haven’t rung in ages. Week by week it becomes more difficult to pick up the phone.

So what now? No resolutions – I don’t feel brave enough for those. Resolutions are broken and you’re burdened by that breaking. When I ran my workshop/retreat in St Ives in the autumn, we agreed it was better not to talk of ‘goals’ and ‘targets’ so much as anticipated ‘benefits’ from what we do.

Here, then, are how I hope to create benefits in my life in the coming year:


I need to find a better work/life balance and a better balance between helping other writers and paying attention to my own creativity. I don’t want to feel exhausted all the time. I want to refill the well and dip the bucket into the well.


I’ll continue to run my workshops in Oxford because I absolutely love face-to-face teaching and interaction. I’ll be running my second Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in April and I can’t wait to see St Ives again. I’ll be teaching at the Writers’ Festival at the University of Winchester in June and in July and August will run creative writing summer schools on two Oxford University programmes. I’ll continue to edit and appraise manuscripts and mentor writers, of course, but will be wary of over-commitment in these areas.


I have so many stories waiting to be written or waiting to be revised and published. I won’t set specific dates but I will aim to get more of my work out into the world this year, not locked into hard drives and tucked into folders. The important thing, whether I have two readers, two hundred or two thousand, is to make the work available on my own terms.

How to do this? I have to learn to inhabit my own stories once more. When working on a client’s manuscript, in a way it becomes my manuscript – I have to live inside that story to discover its achievements and its flaws, to evolve suggestions for improvement. It’s an incredibly rewarding process and it’s a great responsibility when a writer entrusts their work to me – but at the same time, it puts me at a mental distance from my own imagination and my own plots and characters.

Re for revive

To sum up, 2015 means rebalancing of elements and rediscovering of joy – I hope. I aim to redefine the structure of my time, because I’ve slipped into a habit of being in Fictionfire mode seven days a week. I need to set aside days for my own writing and days for being free of all of it. I want to read more – I want to rediscover splurge-reading, from cover to cover, not getting through a book in sporadic, interrupted segments.

Someone very wisely said to me recently that I need to try treating myself as I would a client. So, balance, focus, kindness, honesty, nurturing myself instead of hectoring myself – I will try to incorporate these into my writing life.

As the New Year dawns, you might like to examine how you balance the elements of your life. Do you give yourself downtime? Have you evaluated where you stand and where you want to go and analysed how to optimise your chances of getting there? Bereavement makes us take a step – no, several steps – back from our own lives. Where are you in your life’s journey? (I hate to use the ‘j’ word, but it actually is the best metaphor for how we see our life-stories unfolding). If you’re young, you see numerous potential routes ahead and the sheer choice may dizzy or alarm you as much as excite you. If you’re older, those choices may have narrowed and you may worry that you chose the wrong paths. Is it too late to retreat? Can you make the best of the path you’re on? Can you choose another?
Sunrise over St Ives Bay

Take the long view of your life. What do you want to achieve with it? Achievement doesn’t need to mean money and glory. Achievement is that sense you have within yourself, quiet and satisfying, that you’ve made progress, that you’ve added something to the significance of your life that wasn’t there before.

I wish you balance, focus and the joy of creativity. I wish you love and fulfilment. I wish you every benefit you would wish for yourself in the coming year.

Fictionfire Literary Consultancy - the new series of Focus Workshops in Oxford will be announced imminently. Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat in St Ives in April - places are already very limited. Sign up on my website to join the mailing list for news of workshops, courses and new developments.

Photographs copyright Lorna Fergusson

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Author interview: Katharine E. Smith - juggling tasks and jumping off the page

I'm delighted to welcome Katharine E. Smith to Literascribe today. Katharine runs Heddon Publishing, freelances as an copywriter, editor and proofreader, has two very young children and, oh, has found time to publish two novels as well! Her second novel, Looking Past, has just come out. In this interview we discuss, among other things, the challenges of multi-tasking and a shared love of St Ives.

Welcome to Literascribe, Katharine. As writers we often struggle with balance – you’re juggling writing, running a business and looking after small children. Could you discuss the challenges you meet and how you deal with them in order to keep your writing productivity going?

It’s definitely a juggling act. I know that’s a real cliché but it’s true. My children are two and five so really do need immediate attention much of the time. They have to be my priority and I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, I have two days a week when my two-year-old is in nursery so those are my official work days, and I prioritise my paid work for Heddon Publishing and freelancing during those days.  I work from home and I must admit I relish coming home to an empty house and being able to get my head down, uninterrupted, for a few hours. I also fit in little bits here and there, whenever I am able – great for emails, that sort of thing, but for editing, proofreading and writing I need space, time and solitude.
Katherine's covers feature commissioned artwork
 by Catherine Clarke
Then there’s my own writing. This I do in my ‘spare time’ (i.e after children are asleep, dinner’s been eaten, and when I probably should be in bed). My great ambition is to get to a point where I am at least partially earning my living from my books I don’t think it’s likely right now as I simply don’t have enough time for the amount of marketing and promotion I think is necessary. I have managed to complete and publish two of my own novels in the last few years, alongside two pregnancies, and starting two businesses… putting it that way it appears that good things come in twos for me. Having said that, I hope I’ll be writing many more than two books (two children and two businesses is about right though).
As you can imagine I don’t get a lot of time for housework…

The view from The Island, St Ives
(copyright Katharine E. Smith)
I know that setting is absolutely crucial in my stories and I see you’ve chosen Cornwall as the location for your first novel and Yorkshire, your home county, for your second. Which setting has been easier to describe?

I’d say Cornwall has probably been easier, because it’s the place I feel most drawn to, and where I’ve actually done a fair bit of my writing. My parents still live in Yorkshire and I do love it, but there’s just something about Cornwall… particularly St Ives. I know I’m not alone in feeling as I do about Cornwall and I just find that when I’m there I feel really alive. I hate saying that as I think it makes me sound a bit pretentious, or just a bit mad, but it’s the best way I can describe it. I feel like I’ve got loads of energy and ideas seem to come to me easily. I’m sure that’s partly just being on holiday but I really do love being there.

The roofscape of St Ives features on the cover
Writing the Town Read tackles interesting subjects: you have relationship drama and self-discovery but also powerful social issues – gangs and terrorism. Did you feel this made the novel cross-genre – or no particular genre? Did this reinforce your desire to publish it through your own imprint? How did you set about marketing it?

I struggle with genres. I always plump for ‘Contemporary Fiction’ or ‘Contemporary Women’s Fiction’ but they are both so general. And also I don’t really believe my books are solely for a female readership. I suspect that their subject matter will appeal more to women than men although I’ve had excellent reviews from an ex-US Marine so I reckon that’s a pretty manly vote of confidence! Writing the Town Read comes up in the Mystery and Romance categories on Amazon, neither of which are quite right though there are elements of both in the book. I got a one star review from an American reviewer whose only comment was ‘not a clean romance novel’!
I did send Writing the Town Read off to a number of agents and I received some good feedback, particularly from one, but in the end they thought that my main character, Jamie, wasn’t immediately appealing enough. That is kind of the point with Jamie – she is a bit annoying and opinionated but her heart’s in the right place and she does learn throughout the book that there isn’t always a precise right or wrong.
I had a growing interest in self-publishing and I was approached during my maternity leave during 2012 by an author called Michael Clutterbuck, with regards publishing his book Steaming into the Firing Line. It’s a book of short stories about the days of steam, and this became the first Heddon Publishing title. Mike took a chance on me, allowing me to work on this when opportunity allowed, and the rest is history. Heddon grew from there and I decided that if I didn’t find a publisher by my birthday last year I’d add my own book to the Heddon titles – which is what I did.
In all honesty I’m still working on the marketing side of things! I really don’t have a great deal of time for marketing my books, and I wish I did, but I do my best. I have had the cover re-done this year, by an excellent artist – Catherine Clarke – who has also done the cover for Looking Past. I think this has really helped, and I had an excellent result from a free promotion recently but I’m still chasing the elusive recipe for marketing success.

Do you edit and proofread your own work, given that’s what you do professionally, or do you ask someone else to bring a fresh eye to it?

I do actually do the majority of this work myself. I feel like I should be able to, given that it’s my profession, however I do also acknowledge that I’m that bit closer to the work and more likely to miss something. Luckily I have my dad and mum who are always willing proofreaders and, I’m sure Dad won’t mind my saying that he can be quite a pedant. I’ve also had a trusty band of beta readers working on Looking Past, who discovered an excellent typo – ‘an udderless boat’. Although to be fair, the boat probably didn’t have udders so it wasn’t strictly untrue.

What do you like and dislike about being an independent publisher?

I like the freedom and the flexibility that comes with independent publishing. It enables anybody and everybody to become published if they wish. I enjoy the way that authors retain control of their books. For my own books, I get to decide what goes into, and comes out of, them – and the authors I work with at Heddon have that control as well. I will always consult authors on major editorial suggestions and they have the final say.
The downside, I suppose, is the world of marketing independent books which seems so vast, and I’m only now really starting to try and find my way around it. Whilst I make it clear to the authors I work with that I can only do so much with regards marketing, I would still like to have some more tried and tested methods which I could share with them, as well as use for my own ends…

What do you most love about writing?

I just love writing. That’s not a great answer, is it? But I love sitting down and knowing roughly what I want to write about then finding all these words and ideas flowing onto the page/screen, which seem almost to come from nowhere.
It’s exciting and I just really enjoy it. I do like a bit of peace and quiet and losing myself in my writing – so I can get a bit grumpy if interrupted. Writing can be a good way of venting frustration. I’m getting better at expressing myself verbally but writing always had the upper hand for me. There is more time to think about what you are writing, whereas speech is immediate and usually spur-of-the-moment, and it can easily come out wrong. There is usually more time with writing to get it right.

What’s your favourite piece of advice for writers – or your favourite quotation about writing?

OK, I didn’t have a favourite quote prior to this but I’ll be honest and say I Googled ‘quotes about writing’ and unsurprisingly there are a lot of good ones! I’m going to use this one because I read her book when I was at primary school and I reference it in Looking Past – and I think she is someone who wrote for the best reasons, and whose writing will, I hope, always provide meaning and food for thought for us all.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Anne Frank

 Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed on Literascribe, Katharine, and good luck with all your writing and publishing activities!

Writing the Town Read

Looking Past

Katharine's blog, Jumping off the Page:

Heddon Publishing website:

I totally echo what Katharine has said about St Ives - and bookings are now open for my next Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat in April. If you're keen to recharge your creative batteries in Cornwall, visit to find out more!