“No pressure”: UNISON authors in conversation

Wendy Hudson is a local organiser based in UNISON’s Glasgow office. Kathleen Jowitt is an assistant education officer at UNISON Centre. But they’ve got something else in common beyond working for UNISON – they’re both award-winning authors, Wendy for Four Steps, which won a Golden Crown Literary Society Debut Author Award, and Kathleen for Speak Its Name, which won a Betty Trask Award. In this conversation piece, they talk about how to fit writing in around a full-time work pattern, what their colleagues make of it all, and why writing isn’t just for those people who can afford to have it as their job.

Kathleen: So, let’s start with the inevitable question: are you working on a book at the moment?

Wendy: Yes! I’ve just started the fourth book! How about you?

Kathleen: I’m wrestling with book 3 (it’s the sequel to book 1), which keeps on shifting and changing and going in different directions from what I expected. It’s just over 90,000 words at the moment, and I think I probably need to write a bit more and then cut a load out.

Wendy: Ah, that’s tough when the story is always changing and it feels like the “ands” will never end! It’s easy to get frustrated, but I’m sure if you go with the flow you’ll end up happy with what you have in the end. When I start a new book I somehow always manage to forget that torturous part of the process and then I’m back in to it again and I’m like, oh no, I forgot this bit…worth it though.

Kathleen: Haha – so true! Good luck for book 4 – what’s the premise this time?

Wendy: It’s about a group of ten people who head to a remote Scottish island for a “survival experience/skills week” – led by the main character who is a woman and a survival expert. As you can imagine, it’s all gonna go horribly wrong and end up a real situation. I’m really looking forward to getting in to the psychology of that situation on a group dynamic and also writing all the adventure parts and getting to actually use some of my own survival/bush skills/foraging knowledge!

I like to move around Scotland with the stories and I’ve been gradually touring the Islands so that’s how the idea came about. There’s lots of sunny desert island and snowy mountain survival stories out there, but I don’t think many rainy Scottish island ones!

Kathleen: That  sounds like it has a lot of potential to get really interesting – that kind of closed environment reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie, but with more outdoors! It is always nice when you don’t have to do too much research because you already know about the subject. And I like your point about rainy Scottish islands – you don’t actually have to go all that far from home to get into dangerous situations, and yes, it’s unusual in terms of what’s already on the market, but it’s probably actually more plausible than all the desert islands! Are you going to have the romance element in there again or is this one going to be pure thriller?

Wendy: Yes, there will be romance…as much as I always think I’ll write a pure thriller, there’s always two characters determined to fall in love… What’s your 3 book about?

Kathleen: Book 3 is based on the fact that because of the way that the Church of England has painted itself into a corner, someone in a same-sex marriage can’t be an ordained minister. So I’ve got one of my characters from book one into the situation where she has to make that choice; meanwhile, her partner is trying to finish her PhD while her supervisor gets himself bogged down in academic scandal.

Feedback so far is that there needs to be less church politics in there, or more other stuff to balance the church politics out. (I am going to have to cut so much in editing!) What really does help is knowing how it has to end, and what has to have happened to make the ending satisfying, and in some ways that’s only landed quite recently.

Wendy: I always dread feedback from beta readers. Although I’m normally told I need more here, more there, add another chapter here, and what about more there…I normally finish at around 80,000 words and end up adding more than I take away.

I always regret having a deadline set for book 2 because I wanted it to be so much more but it got a bit rushed around the ending and it’s probably my only writing/story regret out of the 3 books. So no more deadlines for me!

Kathleen: So was your publisher OK with the idea of not setting a deadline, or did you have to negotiate? In theory, one of the things I really like about self-publishing is being able to do what I want when I want – in practice, I’m fretting because it’s getting on for two years since I last brought out a book and what if everyone’s forgotten about me?

Wendy: If you’re already an established writer with them, my publisher likes you to submit a proposal around what your next book is going to be about and then there are deadlines for submitting the actual manuscript if they say they want it and offer the contract. But in theory you could submit the proposal once the manuscript is done  which can take the pressure off – it just means you might have quite a wait to be slotted in to the publishing schedule. Also from submission of the manuscript through the various editing processes with them it normally takes between 10 months to a year for the book to be done.

Kathleen: I guess that leads into the question about fitting writing in around work. Writing isn’t your full-time job, because your job is your full-time job, so how do you fit it into your day/week? And then how do you make sure it remains something you enjoy doing?

Wendy: I find I really have to be in the mood to write otherwise I’m not very productive and get frustrated that I’ve wasted time, which is annoying as it is so difficult fitting it in around the day job. Writing has always been a hobby and I never imagined actually getting published, but now I am I find it hard not to put pressure on myself to get the next one written. I want to keep the readers happy! I did take a seven month break between the last release and now – only writing notes and ideas – but I’m back on the wagon again with book 4 and I think the break did me some good.

Kathleen: I think it’s so important to take decent breaks to stop yourself getting burned out. When work takes a load of emotional energy, and writing does too, then you can’t write at 100% all the time. I do a lot of writing on my commute, but I also make sure there are a couple of weeks in every month where I don’t write, and read other people’s stuff instead.

Wendy: I don’t know how you manage to write on a commute! I can only write hidden away in my box room and my girlfriend knows not to interrupt unless she’s bringing coffee and biscuits! Do you write in the evening after work?

Kathleen: The thing with my commute is it’s a 50 minute train journey each way, and we’re all commuters who just want to be left to mind our own business, so assuming I get a seat (which I almost always do in the mornings at least) I can get my head down and write. And I simply wouldn’t have time otherwise, so I… do. I tend to write longhand on the train and then type it up in the evening, when I’m too tired to come up with anything original.

Wendy: Do you think you would ever write full time? It’s a question I get asked a lot and I’m not sure I can imagine it. I don’t know if I would enjoy it the same way – I think maybe the pressure to pay the bills through writing would be too much!

Kathleen: I don’t think I would want writing to be my full time job – as you say, so much pressure to make it pay the bills! Doing it in my own time means that I can give a book the space that it needs to get it as good as it can be. I mean, I’d probably write a bit faster if I had more time to do it in, but I’m not sure it would be worth the trade-off in terms of the extra pressure. Maybe if I had money coming in from somewhere else I would feel differently, but I guess in that case it still wouldn’t be my full time job! And I’d have to have an eye on what would sell, too… no, I like the fact that I can write about whatever I feel like and not worry too much about who’s going to buy it!

Wendy: As my lead characters are generally women who identify somewhere on the rainbow, I have a brilliant LGBT following who are real champions of books with characters and stories that represent them. So I like to attend events with a focus on the LGBT writing/reading community, as it’s fun to meet readers who have really supported me along the way and meet other like minded authors.

What’s the best message or contact or review you’ve had from a reader that’s really made your day and made it all feel worth it?

Kathleen: Someone on Twitter called my first book a ‘powerful gem of a novel’. How much do you talk about your writing with colleagues? Are they supportive? I didn’t say a word about writing anything until I’d finished my first book and decided to self-publish – and I only said then because someone asked me directly. After that it got around quite fast. But everyone’s been really encouraging.

Wendy: I mentioned to one or two colleagues that I’m close to that I was writing a book, but you know, how many people say that right?! I remember being at my desk when the email came through from the publisher saying they wanted to publish my book and the small yelp that escaped me before I swung around on my chair! Everyone was like, “What’s happening?” and when I told them the majority were like, “Wait, you wrote a book?!”

Since then they’ve been really supportive and I get a good turnout of colleagues and stewards I work with at my book launch events and most have read at least one, if not all of them. Many colleagues have given friends and family members signed copies for presents!

But when I’m writing something new I generally chat to very few of them, bounce ideas and test out titles and covers with them – but I’m very conscious of being a real bore about it!

Kathleen: Your colleagues sound lovely! And what a fantastic moment that first small yelp must have been! Working on the team that I do, I occasionally get drafted in to run a creative writing workshop, which is something that I really enjoy doing.

Wendy: I’m forever being asked to edit things! Have you found since people discovered you write that they have quietly admitted they also like to write?

Kathleen: Yes, there have been a few people who have told me that they write. I won’t name names! And a few people who have told me they wish they did (I always say, ‘Give it a go!’). So that brings up another question – what would your advice be to someone, maybe one of our members, who wanted to have a go at writing but didn’t know where to begin? What gave you the push to get started writing in the first place?

Wendy: My motivation was simply turning 30 and deciding I’d said, “I want to write a book” enough times and just had to get on with it or shut up about it!

Kathleen: And have you ever had any creative writing training? Would you recommend it, if so? Or did you just sit down and start writing?

Wendy: My editor gave me a great bit of advice once, “you can’t edit nothing”. It stuck with me as it’s so true. I think if you have that great idea knocking around, just get it down. Don’t worry about grammar and all those things, just get the story down and the editing can happen later. Set yourself small goals – maybe try writing 500 words in your first sitting, and then see where it takes you. I don’t have any formal creative writing training (unless you count a B in my English GCSE!) which proves if you have a great story, a bit of natural talent for telling that story, and you’re willing to learn and take some criticism – there’s nothing stopping you!