Trust your gut
There are so many rules about writing. The way to spell a word. How to punctuate dialogue. How you need a verb in a sentence. Not like this. And you how you shouldn’t start a sentenced with ‘and’. But you can, and you can start one with ‘but’ too.
Rules are there for a reason and for many they are incredibly helpful. But sometimes you ‘just know’ when something is right even though facts or common sense tell you otherwise. You know, some decisions refuse to allow you to consider them carefully. Take my decision to marry Ian as an example…
We had only been going out together for six months when he got a job offer in Dubai and left England. For the next year we only got together three times for a handful of holidays after which we got engaged. Six months later Ian flew in the day before our wedding and we left together the day after for what would become 32 years together, mostly oversease. Back then my better judgement told me that we hardly knew each other and were slightly crazy but my instinct told me it was the right decision. I tried hard to weigh up the pros and cons, to analyse my decision and to work out whether we were doing the right thing, but my mind refused to go there. I ‘just knew’. It would not take any amount of reflection. If you are someone who knows me well, I am well-known for analysing the life out of every decision I take. Usually. But not this time.
Our decision to run The Lindsay de Feliz Award for a New Writer of Expat Memoir was a bit like that. When Lindsay was found murdered last December, Jack, Jane and I were devastated. The author of What About Your Saucepans and Life After My Saucepans had been a dream to work with and her fans loved her for her optimism and vulnerability. In a flash I knew we had to create an award in her memory. We would ask Summertime authors and our team of freelancers to donate towards a bursary that would publish another first expat memoir for another writer. Entries closed at the end of July.
Judging the Lindsay de Feliz Award for a New Writer of Expat Memoir has shown, again, the role that gut instinct has to play in our decisions. Our winner was an outsider. As the team and I read the entries, scoring them on elements such as plot, place, characterisation and whether we were compelled to read on on or not, we added up our scores. The numbers were close. We had a heated discussion, Man Booker style, and selected our final five. Those five would be sent to our panel of expatriate authors: Robin Pascoe; Mariam Ottimofiore; Ilana Benady and Grace Olivo. The numbers had told us who should go forward but, as I said, they had been close. Something did not sit easy with me. One of the entries was bugging me. That night thoughts of the compelling plot, the vivid characters, the universal theme buffeted me awake. I ‘just knew’ one missing entry needed to be sent to the panel. And so I made an executive decision and added her to the list. Our final five became six.
A clear winner
Over this last weekend the results arrived in my inbox. This time the numbers were clear. There were three front-runners and one of them was way ahead of the race. The winner was my ‘gut feel’. Sarah Koblow, author of Count Only Sunny Hours, has won the Lindsay de Feliz Award for Expat Memoir and will be published by us at Summertime Publishing in 2021.
Sometimes you can’t just put your finger on why something feels right but it does. Sarah began her professional life as a social worker and is a trained emotional logic coach. She has lived in America, Bahrain, Qatar, France and the Netherlands and now makes her home in the Lake District in the UK. Her life in a sprawling, complex family of seven sisters was affected by secrets and her later life overseas with a young family coloured by loss, illness and addiction. Yet Sarah is a survivor with a positive attitude and faith that has beaten all the odds and led her to reconciliation. One of our panelists described her work as, “Really well-written, natural, vivid and insightful. A combination of light-hearted observation and sombre subject matter is handled effortlessly. I would definitely read this book.”
Count Only Sunny Hours is universal in appeal. We are thrilled that Sarah will get to share her story with the world and Jack and I are honoured to be publishing it.
Sometimes it pays to go with your gut.
Another highly commended...
We would also like to highly commend Claire Hauxwell for her entry. It impressed us so much that we are giving her a spontaneous bursary of £1000 towards publication.
How to show your authority
When I teach my Definite Articles and Release the Book Within courses I introduce my students to what I call ‘The 8 As’ they need to follow in order to write effective content that other people want. One of those eight As is authority.
You need to be able to prove your authority on a matter in order to be a credible writer on the subject. When I wrote the first edition of A Career in Your Suitcase back in 1998 I felt I had enough authority to be able to write such a book on portable careers. I had lived in four countries and maintained and grown a career as a writer and teacher while being an ‘expat wife’ and a mother for ten years. I thought that was enough. And, maybe back then, because my book was the first of its type, it was.
So, a reflexologist could write about reflexology. Someone who has run their own business for a number of years with a degree of success could write a book on entrepreneurship. Someone who has had triplets could write a book about having triplets and so on.
However, these days, just having ‘been there, done that and got the tee-shirt’ isn’t enough to convince a publisher or discerning reader of your authority. You need to be able to prove your theories are credible and back up your arguments. You do this by asking really established authorities or experts to say something about the topic in question too. You need to be connected to the experts in your field and know them well enough to ensure a response to an email. You are going to need to ask some of them to write a back cover review or a foreword to your book some day.
Now, the new author reflexologist can reach out to a reflexology teacher perhaps. An entrepreneur can reach out to an author business owner with a bestselling book of high-renown who lives in their town. The mother of triplets can ask a TV family psychologist she once went to school with for comment. But even that may still not quite be enough to convince a publisher.
Show the reader that what you say is not a load of subjective tosh by adding statistics from recent surveys or short quotes from leading newspapers that prove you may be right.
You also need to prove you know what you talk about with case studies, stories of people you have worked or interviewed personally who have experience of the concept you introduce in your book or article.
Four steps to authority
I advise my students and new author clients to ensure they show their authority in what they write by including the following four elements:
Follow this pattern and reach out to others with proven and authority for their own expert opinion and in so doing you prove you too have authority in the subject and have a right to be writing a book or article on the subject.
So, reach out, make connections, ask your contacts for referrals, use LinkedIn and ask. Most experts are flattered that you thought of them.
A surprising learning
You will have heard me talk about how much I learn when I teach or mentor others. Just as our kids are our greatest teachers, so too are our students and mentees. However, at the start of August I found myself in the unique position of judging the Lindsay de Feliz Award for Expat Memoir. This is a one-time award that Jack and I are holding in honour of a wonderful author, based in the Dominican Republic. Lindsay had worked with us towards the publication of two great memoirs – What About Your Saucepans? and Life After My Saucepans. Then, last December, she was found brutally murdered, lying in a shallow grave outside her own home. The award is our tribute to a great writer who met a tragic end.
The deadline for submissions was 31st July and so our month began with sifting the entries so we could make a shortlist to present to our panel of judges: writing friends of Lindsay, Ilana Benady and Grace Olivo; expat author and publisher, Robin Pascoe and expat author and award-winning blogger, Mariam Ottimofiore.
Doing so presented a new learning experience for me, or rather a ‘hammering home’ experience. We created a set of criteria by which we were giving entries marks out of five: the five elements of SPICE, of course (specifics, place, incident, character and emotion) in addition to plot, pace, writing ability and sales potential. Then I added two more critical categories, elements that have me closing a book after a few pages if it is not holding my attention: was I hooked by the first paragraph and did I want to read on after the first chapter?
As I read through the entries it took a frighteningly short amount of time to get a sense of whether the book ‘had legs’ or not and while I spotted when those crucial elements were present, it was when they were missing that I was most struck. I expect it’s pretty much the same with relationships. We notice a person’s flaws more easily than their qualities. Once we have noticed the flaws it’s hard to move beyond them.
Reading the entries was a great reminder to me of what matters most in a memoir, what keeps me reading, makes me care about the protagonist and able to picture the action and characters for myself.
Should the opportunity ever present itself for you to be able to review a new book, judge a writing competition or work through submissions to a magazine or publisher – grab it.
I would now like to take this opportunity to congratulate our shortlisted winners:
The winner will be announced in September and will be published by us in 2021 at Summertime Publishing (expat family) or Springtime Books (other genres).
Life's lucky dip
I’m getting fed up with this. Or as my friend Marilyn wrote on Facebook recently: “I’m done”.
And I am ‘done’. I’ve had enough of not knowing when this pandemic is going to end, and when I’ll be able to have friends for dinner safely. I’ve had enough of worrying that I might be asymptomatic and putting those I do come almost into contact with (no hugging) at risk. This morning in the shower I found myself comparing how I’m feeling to desperately searching in a ‘bran tub’ for hidden treasure.
Are you familiar with the ‘bran tub’? Some call it a ‘lucky dip’. When I was growing up I’d love visiting to local village fetes on a summer Sunday afternoon when locals would man stalls such as the coconut shy, the ‘bash a rat’ and the hoopla. My favourite game stall, without a doubt, would be the ‘bran tub’. I’d pay my sixpence, or whatever, and wait in line to be able to bury my arms past their elbows in a deep, dry, gritty barrel of wood-shavings, until my grasping fingers landed on a prize. A worthless, plastic prize most probably, but finding it would make feel like the luckiest girl in the world. You’d always want to get to the bran tub early in the afternoon, because the earlier you visited the more prizes were buried in the bran and the greater your chance of striking oil.
So, this morning, as I squirted Aesop body wash into my palms, I got to thinking how life, right now, after 130 days of lockdown, feels like scrabbling around in the bottom of a bran tub in the late afternoon, hoping against hope that there was still something worth having lurking there.
Writers get most of their ideas by ‘getting out there and doing stuff’. I’m endlessly inspired to write by the places I visit, usually overseas, and the people I meet, the conversations I have and the things I notice when I am ‘out’. At a time like this the opportunities to do the things I need to do in order to feel ‘writerly’ are limited. It’s hard to come up with new things to write about. It’s scraping the bottom of the barrel.
What’s left then when the new places, people and experiences have shrunk to nothingness? What’s left to get those creative juices flowing? Well, I have noticed that what’s left, what is always left, is how you feel about it. The emotion.
When I teach people how to write with SPICE (Specifics, Place, Incident, Character and Emotion) in order to create compelling stories, the easiest three to master are S, P and C. During lockdown we have less I, but even now there is never any shortage of E. We have loneliness, boredom, frustration, confusion, sadness, bitterness, anger, sure. But we also have what I call ‘pockets of joy’, the times when you realise life has slowed down enough to allow you to notice the lingering scent of geranium long after your Aesop body wash has been placed back on the shelf. The bliss of being able to sit outside a café again with a flat white and how you eat the tiny cookie in the saucer in four bites rather than stuffing it in whole, noticing it was chocolate chip today.
I have a book beside me on my desk called The Poetry Pharmacy. In its pages there are poems designed to help you through the toughest of emotions: depression, lack of courage, obsession, displacement, grief, losing the spark. But even here, in a sad poem, there is joy to be found in the way it resonates, how it makes you see the situation a little differently and, importantly, how this emotion was the catalyst for something of great beauty – a poem.
I challenge you, today, when you too feel that life’s lucky dip is getting old and dry, to examine what might still be left there at the bottom of the barrel after all – how you feel.
Now go write about it.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer