Literary life

Jane Clarke (writing as Jane Lythell)

Jane Clarke (writing as Jane Lythell) - Credit: Archant

Novelists, feature writers, bloggers and graphic novelists – they’re all writers, but the title they are given is defined by the number of words they write. Four Kent writers share their stories

Name: Alexandra Campbell

Genre: Garden blogger and blogging coach

Twitter: @midsizedgarden

According to Alexandra, blogging is no longer just a way for people to tell their friends about their holiday, it’s become a “very personalised mix between keeping a diary and journalism.”

With a little technical know-how everyone can do it and individuals, businesses and even the Royal Family now share their experiences and expertise through the internet.

For those learning how to write a blog, however, it can be a little daunting so Alexandra decided the only way to ensure she passed on accurate advice through her Kent and London-based workshops would be to set up a completely new blog, in a topic she wasn’t known in, to test out her ideas.

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Evolving through her love of gardening, Alexandra launched Middle-Sized Gardens in December 2013 and within six months it was ranked number six in the top 10 gardening blogs by Cision UK.

It’s based on her own gardening experiences of “muddling along at home with not as much time or as much money” as she would like and Alexandra believes the key to a successful blog is having a very firm focus.

Publishing posts of between 700 and 1200 words on a weekly basis from what she describes as her “small and chaotic room”, Alexandra says: “A good post is something that someone would either want to share or talk about.

“Each post begins with an idea rattling around in my head. I will carry on with the gardening or shopping until it comes to the point when I think ‘I have just got to get this down on paper.’

“I then start with a trial headline just so I know where I am going, then basically dump everything down; you can always make it better.”

Alexandra then starts to think about whether she has the right photographs and admits that, when she started out, she didn’t use enough images but adds: “The great thing about blogging is that if you want to change something, you do.”

Having creative freedom is what Alexandra enjoys most about blogging: “It’s your blog and you can do what you want to do. If you get it wrong, it’s only you; you’re not letting anyone down and if you do well you can really feel you’ve achieved something.”

Top 3 Tips

1 Know who your readers are and focus on them.

2 Make sure you give them something that they really want or need.

3 Decide what you want to achieve from your blog and set yourself measurable goals.

Name: Geoffrey West

Genre: Feature writer and novelist

Twitter: @GeoffreyDWest

Regular Kent Life readers will be very familiar with Geoffrey West’s work, as for the past eight years his town features have been a highlight of each edition.

Following in the footsteps of his mother, Geoff has always written but, upon hearing about his practical lifestyle and love of DIY, it’s surprising to discover his writing career began in 1989 with a commission to write Blue Jean photo stories for the teen magazine Jackie.

His next commission was on more familiar territory and, based on his own restoration experiences, Geoff started to write for magazines such as Do it Yourself and Period Living.

It was through the latter that Geoff approached Sarah Sturt, Kent Life’s editor. “I’d been doing something with the Landmark Trust and they were working on a house in Ramsgate that had belonged to Pugin, a Victorian architect.

“So I rang Sarah in case she wanted an article on it, which she did, and then I wrote a town article, and then another and another.”

When asked about his favourite town, Geoff quickly asks if he can have two. “I love Canterbury, especially around the cathedral. It’s got a wonderful atmosphere and it’s also where I’ve set my Jack Lockwood crime novels.

“I love Sandwich too, the sea, the history and the river. There are some lovely old pubs and shops there.”

For Geoff, one of the benefits of writing features is “talking to nice people; an article about the history or the facts of a place is deadly boring, so you have to try and make it interesting by finding interesting people.”

A task that usually starts by “looking on the net to see if there are any clubs or societies, a mayor or artist – someone who looks a little lively.”

When it comes to the actual writing of the feature Geoff confesses: “The articles are supposed to be about 1,200 words but I usually end up with about 2,000. The hardest bit is cutting it down.”

Working on magazine articles in addition to other commissions and the writing of his crime series takes a huge amount of juggling and when asked whether he plans everything in advance Geoff laughingly says: “No, the total opposite. I’m very, very scruffy and very disorganised. I usually work late into the night and get up late.”

Yet with hundreds of features and several published books to his name, it’s a process that obviously works.

Top 3 Tips:

1 A good article writer needs enthusiasm, an enquiring mind and the ability to listen to people.

2 Don’t be restricted by the advice to write what you know. Follow up on whatever you’re most interested in and write about it. Your enthusiasm will come across in your writing.

3 The best articles are a little bit out of the ordinary and contain people, not just cold facts.

Name: Jane Clarke writing as Jane Lythell

Genre: Novelist -Psychological Thrillers

Twitter: @janelythell

Landscapes have been inspiring writers for centuries and for Jane Clarke it’s the coastline around Folkestone that she feels a special connection with. “I just have a passion for it, it’s beautiful.”

She adds that the screeching of seagulls provided the backdrop for the writing of her debut novel The Lie of You and that the scenes set in Deal and Dungeness are critical to her psychological thriller.

The plot line was inspired by a true life event and Jane explains that it all began with a speech she heard in her head.

“I literally heard the opening speech fully formed in my head. One woman talking about another – ‘she thinks she’s got everything but she hasn’t’ – and I thought, what could make someone feel this much hostility for another? The whole idea for the novel came from that speech.”

The book is narrated by the two main characters and Jane adds: “Very early on I felt that I had to do it in the voices of the two women, get inside their heads and tell their stories as truly as I could and not take sides.”

The result is an intriguing and disturbing tale that Jane’s agent loved, despite it initially not being long enough: “It was only 60,000 words but she gave me the confidence to build in more scenes.”

The finished novel is 87,500 words long and Jane retreated to an apartment at the Grand Hotel in Folkestone to develop her story. One of the advantages to this, Jane explains, is that her partner, Barry, is also a writer and when she’s written a scene she reads it out loud.

“I used to be embarrassed if he was downstairs so that’s one of the reasons I like being in Folkestone, I’m up in my little penthouse reading out loud in different voices and no one can hear me.”

Each time Jane visits she brings a few home comforts, including her desk lamp and radio, despite the fact she writes in silence. “I adore music but I can’t listen to it when I’m writing, I’ve found I get too stuck in it.”

A morning writing routine works perfectly for Jane, however, and after her shower and cup of tea she begins to write, standing up.

“After about an hour and a half I treat myself to a cafetière of real coffee. It’s all ritualised. I heat the cafetière up and I have to have hot milk – it’s a treat, a reward.” And one that evidently works as her second novel After the Storm will be published in January 2015.

Top 3 Tips

1 Put the work into your characters and let the plot come from them.

2 Get people you trust and respect to read your manuscript and listen to their reactions.

3 Make your manuscript as good as can be before you send it to a publisher.

Name: Ellen Montelius

Genre: Graphic novelist

Twitter: @ellenmontelius

Finding the right words to express an idea can be tricky but Ellen says her first challenge is always choosing what medium will best communicate her idea.

With writing, drawing, photography and mixed media art skills at her disposal, Ellen finally decided that, for her latest creative project, a graphic novel was the answer. She adds: “Creating a graphic novel is not for everyone, it’s very time consuming and restricts any time for a social life.”

Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to mind as she’s “so into this project it’s become an obsession.” Drawing inspiration from her love of beekeeping, Ellen is creating a series of short, seasonally inspired, stories drawn and displayed in sequential order, just like a comic book.

The text is kept to the minimum, leaving her hand-drawn black and white illustrations to tell the full story. Writing is still at the heart of the book, however, and Ellen says, “I start out with a script, I see the pictures in my head but in order for the pictures to work I have to do a script of what is going to happen page by page.

“It’s a very slow creative process but I like it because as I’m writing and drawing I come up with ideas; it’s like being an animator.”

As a child Ellen loved comics, but says: “The first graphic novel I was awestruck with was Mouse by Art Spiegelman. It’s based on the personal experiences of his parents who had been in a concentration camp during the holocaust and I was like ‘wow, graphic novels can be serious, tell a story and change your perspective.”’

Using her own, far more peaceful, experiences as an artist and beekeeper for her semi-autobiographical novel is something that Ellen says she can get away with because she can “exaggerate the realities to make it an even more engaging story, just like the characters in television shows such as The Office and Extras.”

She’s also using her beekeeping course experiences and knowledge of both the environment and climate change to feed into the story in a “positive way.”

She adds: “I just want to raise awareness of bees and tell people through my book how they can help them but in a way that it comes through the story.”

Ellen explains that her script is likely to change several times as she pares down the words and that it will take her another two to three years to complete, but getting to the next page and the urge to see what happens next is keeping her going.

She also uses competitions to spur her on and revealed that learning about an annual competition run by Myriad Editions last August galvanised her into action.

Ultimately, it also gained her an editor’s attention when a 20-page extract of her novel Auto Defrost – named after the function on her microwave as a metaphor for man-made climate changes – was long listed.

Top 3 Tips

1 Find the time to read and write.

2 Join a creative writing group that will

support your writing and give you practice of different writing methods.

3 Enter competitions and put your work out there for others to see. n