Write Advice – author Eley Williams discusses finding inspiration

Eley Williams
21 May 2019
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Mo Harber-Lamond

Inspiration may come and go, but there are plenty of ways to get over writer’s block. In her second session with our students, Eley Williams discusses ways around writer’s block, people she goes to for feedback and when to submit your novel to agents.

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3 February 2020
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Q – Hi Eley, and thanks for joining us again. On the PWA course I’m really enjoying learning about the process of giving and receiving constructive feedback – which I initially found a bit scary. Do you have a group of trusted critics or do you seek feedback as widely as possible?

EW – Glad to be back! You know, I still feel very guarded and growly at the idea of sending out drafts. I want to say ‘I know! I know that nothing works!’

Susan Sontag wrote:

The writer must be four people:

The nut, the obsédé
The moron
The stylist
The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence. A great writer has all four, but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

I take this to heart and swallow about four-fifths of my bodyweight in pride, then send drafts of completed short stories to some select people to read. I met them on my MA, and it’s funny; we don’t write in the same style at all, but as I grew to learn their styles or interests in our workshops, I came to value what I saw as their strengths and insights – some for dialogue, other for setting, others for sure editorial sentence structure.

Feedback can feel searing, but often it’s better than the self-criticism we inflict on ourselves. Seek it out and give it generously! We all benefit from it, and also remember that no one is ever entirely right if they point out flaws – they’re just reading well in a different way.

Q – Sometimes it’s difficult to find inspiration for story writing – I’m currently suffering a bout of writer’s block. I’m about to go away for a few days, and I’m hoping this will inspire me. What do you think are the best ways to trigger the imagination and conjure up a storyline?

EW – Marcel Proust had a cork-lined room to absorb any superfluous sound that might cause distraction, so this might sound counterintuitive, but I hope on your trip your surroundings are inspirational because you’ll be able to make time for being bewildered and distracted. Find details that you might overlook in your day-to-day, and think how a character might describe or react to them.

A great kickstart for writing, I find, can be settling on a central image. You might have heard of Visual Verse – each month an image or artwork is chosen and used as a prompt for poetry and prose, with some commissioned writers there to show what they can bring.

Most novels for literary fiction are made through an agent, and they would ask for at least the first third of the novel.

Eley Williams

Q – If you do want to get your work out to the world, at what stage in writing a novel should you approach publishers, and how do you go about doing that?

EW – Good question. I’m sure your tutors can give examples and particular advice, but I would cautiously estimate that most novels for literary fiction are made through an agent, and they would ask for at least the first third of the novel.

They also love a synopsis (a breakdown of what you see happening in the rest of the book) which should be short and ‘give away’ the ending. They are looking to find work that they can shape and help find the right publisher, but the more they can read, the more they can trust your vision.

I would suggest making a list of your favourite authors or those that have inspired you (or who claim your favourite authors as inspiration) and find out via Google who their agents might be. Then see on their associated site whether they have submission guidelines. In a cover letter, say explicitly what drew you to them as an agent, and why you hope you might be a good fit.

Again, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for this. I would also say that if you feel comfortable or able to enter into competitions or submit to journals in your genre, give it a go! And tell the agents that you have. It will give them a sense of what literary sphere you feel most at home with – even if it’s just aspirational.

They’re out there seeking great work and someone to cheerlead – go get ’em.

I think both Ireland and Scotland have a better culture of reading short stories, and for funding opportunities to allow them to have journals or column inches.

Eley Williams

Q – As a huge Muriel Spark fan (and a Scot) I wonder if you think that short story writing – as opposed to novel writing – lends itself to a kind of vernacular expression that depends on what is unsaid, but understood? Would you say there’s a more favourable market for short story publishing in Scotland?

EW – Interesting, and wonderfully expressed. In terms of practicalities, I think both Ireland and Scotland have a better culture of reading short stories, and for funding opportunities to allow them to have journals or column inches. And thank goodness for that.

I also think that I agree with you as per the ‘unsaid’ being possible in short stories – it is a ‘brief’ enough time to contain held breaths and for those to be charged, horrifying, erotic, beguiling, stilling, violent etc. In novels, the sheer number of pages means that this is difficult to sustain, for both reader and writer! Not impossible, but more challenging.

Q – Eley, thank you for your time!

EW – Thank you so much, and I look forward to filling my bookshelves with your work!

Eley Williams

Eley Williams' Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press, 2017) was awarded the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 2018. With stories anthologised in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story (Penguin Classics, 2018) and Liberating the Canon (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2018), she is a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Royal Society of Literature.

Edit Your Novel

Begins: 3 February 2020