Guest post: Anna Stephens on Learning to Write

Image result for godblindTo conclude this mini-series of posts on Anna Stephens’ debut Godblind, as I do with every author featured here, I invited Anna to talk about any topic that she felt was relevant but more importantly, something that she was passionate about. For me, one of the most interesting aspects about Anna, as an author, is the fact that she has ‘trained in the art of the written word’, having gained a degree AND qualified as a proof reader. She hasn’t just taught herself how to write (I mean, in a way, every writer does teach themselves in that they explore their own voice as they write, and learn how to speak with it), but she has also formally learned how to write.

Before I introduce Anna for the last time in this mini-series, I’d like to thank her for her time and efforts in participating in both the interview and submitting this guest post. I’d also like to thank the guys and gals over at Harper Voyager for sending me an ARC of Godblind. And lastly, I’d like to thank you, whoever ends up reading these posts, for taking an interest in them – I hope you have enjoyed them as much as I.

And please, do yourselves a favour and: BUY THIS BOOK! Godblind is going to be one of the big releases this year, debut or not, and I am sure you will love it as much as I did.

Learning to write.

The excellent Mike Everest has been good enough to allow me free rein on his website, much to his trepidation, no doubt. Though, that said, he has provided some guidance on the topic he’d like me to discuss.

First, of course, who the hell am I and why bother to read this?

My name’s Anna Stephens and my debut novel, Godblind, is being published on 15 June by Harper Voyager. It’s the first in a trilogy of gritty epic novels in which the country of Rilpor is forced to defend itself against the invasion, not just of warriors without mercy, but of their equally bloodthirsty gods. It’s been said that Godblind will make you laugh, it will make you weep, and if you have a certain gender presentation, it may well make you wince.

Mike, being the curious little bunny he is, put his day job skills to the task of digging into my background and finding out all sorts of nefarious things i.e., he asked me and I told him. What he discovered was that I’m an author who did well in GCSE English, did English and Classics at college, got a degree in Literature at university, qualified as a proof reader, and now works in communications writing all sorts of copy for an international law firm.

Mike wanted to know whether my writing-related qualifications made me a better writer.

Firstly, let me point out that there are a lot authors out there with degrees in creative writing, not Literature. There are a lot of writers out there with a Masters in creative writing, or who teach the subject at college or university. I am in no way claiming to have had the same experience or educational background as them, but I guess they were too busy being ace to write a guest post for him, so you’re stuck with me.

But it is a valid question and I think the simple, short answer is yes, it did help. But I’ll qualify that by saying I think my entire degree helped even more.

I studied part-time at the Open University while working full-time (yes, it was bloody tough). I finished a six-year part-time degree in five years, and if you double up the courses into one full-time, three-year degree, you get this:

Year one – introduction to the humanities and an introduction to literature

Year two – creative writing and advanced creative writing

Year three – Shakespeare and the 20th century novel

So in essence, an intense period of creative writing was followed by an intense period of studying 15 Shakespeare plays and something like 30 selected sonnets, followed by a whole range of texts from the 20th century – texts in translation, plays, poetry of the 1930s, Irish poetry, novels and more.

I think the biggest benefit I gained from structuring my study this way was that I delved into the craft of writing before I was confronted with some difficult texts. After two (part-time) years of creative writing, I studied Shakespeare for the first time, and then I studied everything from Daphne Du Maurier to Manuel Puig, Bertholt Brecht to Caryl Churchill, Seamus Heaney to Philip K Dick.

I’d learnt to deconstruct a text and discover what made it work before I was faced with this extraordinary range of literature, and that was a huge help when it came to analysing why I liked – or didn’t like – a piece of work.

So that’s a skill that I still have, and one that I continue to use by writing Goodreads reviews and when providing feedback to my writing group. When it comes to my own work, it can be difficult to find the requisite distance to objectively review it in the same way, but that’s something I’m getting better at all the time.

The proof reading qualification was something I paid for myself when I was toying with the idea of being a full-time proof reader. This has probably been the most practically useful tool I have, even when it just comes to rereading this before sending it to Mike. Are there going to be typos in Godblind – I sincerely hope not, and I proofread it myself, as did a Harper Voyager proof reader. But then, 124,000 words does have a tendency to blur, so who knows.

For someone who is contemplating self-publishing or is placed with a small publisher who may not have proof readers at its disposal, I’d say it’s worth every penny to learn how to proofread.

As for the degree, it’s easy to say yes, go study, do it, it’ll make you a better writer, but not everyone is in the physical, mental or financial position to do so and the last thing I want to do is put off anyone who wants to write but now thinks they need a degree to do it.

But you know what you can do instead and it doesn’t cost even one penny? Get a library card. Go to a big library and check out some textbooks on creative writing. Pore over them, make notes from them, complete the exercises set out in those books, then return them and check out some more. Repeat.

Read the difficult texts, the ones you don’t necessarily understand, the ones outside your comfort zone. Read Shakespeare and work out for yourself why he’s the greatest playwright ever. Read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. Read realist novels, and nineteenth century novels. Read science fiction and fantasy and romance and thrillers. Read classics like Homer and Euripides (if you want to find one of the earliest examples of the “Strong Female Character”, read Euripides’ Medea and also his Electra – they’ll knock your socks off).

Read good books and work out why they’re good. Read bad books and work out why they’re bad. Read everything. Study characters, study voice and world building and plot structure. The library can give you all this and more.

And always, always, keep writing.

Image result for godblind anna stephens

Anna Stephens is a UK-based author of gritty epic fantasy. She has a BA (Hons) in Literature from the Open University and has wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember. She much prefers the worlds she makes up to the real thing, even if most of her characters meet sticky ends.

Anna lives with her husband, a huge book, music and movie collection, and no pets. She intends to remedy this lack of furry friends as soon as fame and fortune strike.

Anna’s debut novel, Godblind, is published through Harper Voyager on 15th June 2017, with the sequels coming in 2018 and 2019.

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