Today, I’m talking to author Frances Campbell. Frances’ debut novel, The Past Is Another Country, was published by the innovative (now-defunct) publisher, Citron Press. Frances uses writing as a tool for wellbeing and has run writing groups with people suffering from mental health issues, cancer as well as with women offenders. She’s also run mainstream classes at Glasgow University. Frances, a Scot, has recently moved to Melbourne.
Frances, can you tell me how you first came to be published?
My first piece of published work was a humorous article for a national women’s magazine. I only did it because I was chairing the local writing workshop and felt duty bound to complete the set exercise. The fact that I wasn’t passionate about it gave me objectivity. I studied the magazine’s house style and copied it. After reading it out at the workshop I submitted the piece and was astonished when acceptance came back with a cheque!
Tell me about your writing ‘process’.
I wrote my first novel, The Past Is Another Country, in longhand. For fiction, I think about the start of a scene while staring out the window at the sky. Then I fall into a light, daydreaming trance. Pretty soon, the characters start ‘living’. I watch and listen then drag myself out of it and start writing before they got too far ahead of me.
I know the writing is going well because I’m chuckling or crying. I often note in the margin when I’ve had a strong emotional response – because after umpteen rewrites I forget the initial impact was punchy.
One obstacle in writing a non-fiction book is the worry that I’m not an expert. Maybe it should be written by a counselor, sociologist or philosopher. Then I remember that the word ‘author’ is in ‘authority’. You become an authority through the act of writing the book.
I used to work on one piece at a time but not anymore. The project becomes too important. If it’s not going well it’s a real downer. These days I warm up with writing poetry then move onto non-fiction.
You’ve written two novels in different genres and are now working on a non-fiction book. You’ve also had short pieces, including feature articles, published. How do you find switching between these different forms of writing? Or are there thematic links between them?
My second, as yet unpublished, novel, An Atheist’s Prayer, was based on my experience of being a bone marrow donor in Queensland. Before starting it, I wrote an article about being a donor for The Herald, a Scottish broadsheet. It was so ‘real’ that the editor even paid more than the going rate. The interest in that article helped sustain me through years of work on the novel.
My current non-fiction book has grown directly from the theme of one of my writing for wellbeing classes. I started the class because I was interested in the topic of belonging. I found out so much about it, I wanted to share what I’d learned. The theme of belonging is feeding into my poetry too.
Were the shorter pieces part of a deliberate strategy to develop your career as a writer?
I hoped I could earn enough from feature writing to maintain me while writing a novel but eventually realized I couldn’t. The advice to feature writers at the time was to furnish pieces to a dozen markets, often using the same material with a different slant for each. I found keeping up with so many publications and their changing staff time-consuming and I didn’t have much talent for finding different slants.
Then I remember that the word ‘author’ is in ‘authority’. You become an authority through the act of writing the book.
How do you research potential places to submit your work?
I haunt the bookshelves, talk to other writers, consult Writers’ Yearbooks. But I heard of Citron Press – who published The Past Is Another Country – from a colleague of my husband. The colleague was listening to a programme on BBC Radio about this new print-on-demand publisher and he sent for their submission pack and passed it on to me. He had never even met me. He just knew from my husband that I was writing.
If a piece is accepted for publication, do you often have to rewrite or rework material?
No. Once, an editor asked me to lengthen a short story from 800 words to 2000. I was considering how to do this when I remembered it had begun life as a 2000 word story and I’d cropped it for a competition. So I dug out the original. Yes!
How does being a creative writing facilitator tie in with your approach to your own writing?
It’s introduced me to new creative stimulants and made me much more playful. I write poetry now and I didn’t before. That’s because the shortness of poetry suits wellbeing groups where people are invited to write in seven minute bursts. They come out with such wonders. They say: ‘I don’t know where that came from.’ It demonstrates the creative spark in everyone. It takes the pressure off because you learn to trust the creativity is there, like oil.
Have you ever done a book proposal for one of your books?
I bought a book called The Writer’s Journey by Julia McCutcheon, a former editor, because it showed how to construct a book proposal package. She recommended writing a sheet for every member of the decision making team at the publishers – from editor to finance. It worked out at about eight pages. I dutifully put one together. But when I looked at agents’ websites they are specific about what they want and have slight differences from each other. I don’t have a publisher at the moment but clearly a proposal is vital for non-fiction.
I’ll post the second part of Frances’ interview on Wednesday. In it, Frances talks about grants and support available to writers in Scotland.