Edit. Share. Cut. Author Chris Vick on the process of writing
Ahead of the closing date for Mid-Somerset Festival Creative Writing entries, we caught up with our judge for this year’s competition, Chris Vick.
Chris is the author of CILIP Carnegie shortlisted Girl. Boy. Sea. as well as several other books for young people. His books have been published in several countries and languages.
To anyone still hesitating over the keyboard, Chris has this to say –
All the time I come across people thinking that they can’t write or they shouldn’t write, and actually everyone can and everyone should. One of the reasons people don’t do it is because they put up their own barriers. I hope that writing competitions like this encourage people to have a go.
The Mid-Somerset Festival is very fortunate to have Chris Vick, a local writer, as a supporter – although the inspiration for his work, and many of his books, is miles away beyond the coastline. In the first week of the year, our blog editor met up with Chris to hear about his latest book, and to get some advice on how to be a better writer.
To begin with, we wanted to find out about Chris’s first steps as a writer.
MSF: What brought you to writing? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Chris: I wanted to be a writer for almost as long as I can remember. It was something that I enjoyed more than all of the things that you do at school, more than anything else.
I read a lot obviously, most writers do, and I found a kind of weird addiction in writing. I describe it as a bit like when you read a book that you really like, and you’re locked into that world. There’s part of you that’s always wanting to return to it. Writing is like that – times 10. Well not always, sometimes it can be very difficult, but when it goes well, when you really love the story that you’re creating, it’s hugely addictive. Nothing else has come close.
I had the idea that it would be great if I could write and become published when I got older, and then I didn’t write for years and forgot all about it. Just before my daughter was born, she’s 20 now, I read an interview with J. K. Rowling who is a couple of years older than me. I thought if I’m ever going to do it I kind of need to crack on.
There’s no natural point or event at which to start. I just started writing and found I rather liked it.
MSF: Do you have a favourite part of the writing process?
Chris: The grass is always greener! Today I was editing my latest book, taking advice from my publisher. Editing is quite structured, there’s a set of things that you have to do, and you’re working on something that’s already created. It’s very much about tidying up, cutting and pasting, dialling this up and toning that down. So whenever I’m doing that I wish I had the blank page. When I’ve got the blank page, which is a bit like driving along a road and all of a sudden the road expands, and you can go in any direction… then I wish for the structure of editing.
I think the beginning of books – or perhaps not even the beginning – when you’ve been writing something for a little while and it suddenly clicks. You think, ‘Hold on, I actually know what I want to do with this book!’ Sometimes it’s there from the start, but most often it takes a bit of cutting and exploration. That bit when it really bites, or you get a sudden idea that changes your perspective on the whole thing, I really live for those moments.
MSF: The Mid-Somerset aims to encourage and provide a sense of achievement for participants. As someone who completed an MA in Creative Writing, and has been shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie prize, how important do you think it is to get some guidance – but also validation – as a writer?
Chris: I don’t know if it’s essential but I think it’s better. Writing is far more collaborative than I ever imagined it was. I thought it was a very solo, and to a degree, lonely experience. There’s still a huge amount of it that only you can do, but writing for competitions, writing groups, getting input from other people, is hugely beneficial – even if you ignore the input.
As a professional author, the input I get from my agent and my editor is vital. Being part of a writing community is essential to me and very important for many. How important is validation? That’s a more difficult and deeper question. I am two kinds of person in terms of writing – I’m an author and a writer. The author needs validation, whether that’s shortlisting on a prize, people liking your book on Amazon or Goodreads, or in a critique group in the early days. Hearing from people that they like your stuff is really nice. Ultimately, for the writer side, what other people think of your work is none of your business.
For anyone that gets published it takes years, and you have a long time without getting any validation at all, yet you still have to enjoy what you’re doing and believe in what you’re writing. If you’re looking for validation, and you therefore write what you think the market will like, you won’t create your best work.
MSF: You write very convincingly about the sea, do you think it’s necessary to have personal experience of something to write a story or poem that feels authentic?
Chris: Sorry to give a vague answer, but it depends. It’s the old adage, isn’t it? Write what you know!
If you’re writing about a place and you’ve been there, or not just been there, but there and thinking about writing – describing the sights and smells, the atmosphere and tone, the characters – absorbing all that and actually writing notes, that’s going to create something that is perhaps more authentic. That said, research (especially with the fabulous interweb) can get you a long way. I’ve never been to Paris, for example, but I would watch a whole bunch of movies about Paris, I would read some books about Paris, I would watch some videos about Paris.
Of course, when people are writing historical fiction, they are often by definition writing about something they don’t know, because they weren’t there. You can’t write about the trenches of the First World War with any kind of conviction coming from a personal perspective, because it’s not possible.
So I think both experience and research are really important, but underpinning both of those is passion. Write about what you care about, even if you’re really passionate about this place on the other side of the world that you’ve never been to. Writing takes a long time, it’s hard work, you’ve got to be passionate about it. So actually, passion is more important, really, than personal experience versus research.
MSF: Yes, if you’re really passionate about something, the sense of excitement comes across naturally really well. The beginning of Girl. Boy. Sea. is so gripping. How does a writer make an adventurous story so exciting? Is it technique? Or is it just a matter of writing completely from the heart?
Chris: Well, it’s funny because that opening section with the storm wasn’t in the original draft. It was my agent who said, ‘You can’t just start with them in the middle of the ocean, you need to show why and how we got there.’ That’s where this mixture of passion and personal experience comes in, because I’ve certainly been in a few storms, and I’ve certainly seen a few storms as a surfer, but I’m not a sailor. I’ve never been on a yacht in a storm.
It’s quite weird with writing sometimes, because that real emotional writing from the gut stuff, which you’re a bit funny about, is sometimes the bit that gets the best reaction from other people. Also there was a lot of editing, both in terms of editorial advice on rewriting, but also in cutting, to the point where I was thinking this is too staccato now, there’s no flow in it. It’s cut down to the bones of the adventure, but actually maybe that’s right.
Once you realise what it is you’re really trying to do, then it’s a question of just cutting out all the stuff that is superfluous. That’s part of the slog of writing.
Okay, this is a bit of a metaphor. So I’m a darts player, and I’ve got my darts. And you can see on the board there are three darts in the bullseye, and you go ‘Wow!’ The reality is there were hundreds and hundreds of darts, and then what I’ve done is I’ve taken out all of the ones that aren’t in the bullseye.
MSF: The sea has inspired many writers and great stories, why do you think that is? And why is it a place that you return to?
Chris: One answer to that question is I don’t really know, and that’s the attraction. It’s a mystery. It’s a very mysterious place because it’s – haha – it’s fluid. It’s changing. I spend a lot of time in Cornwall, a lot of time surfing, a lot of time at the sea.
I love watching the seasons change, when snowdrops come up or when the leaves fall, but it all happens very slowly, though every day there’s some tiny little changes. If you’re walking the dog on the clifftops, you can be in the same location, looking at the same view, and it can be completely different within a few hours. There’s that kind of dynamism to the sea, which I think is fascinating. I think it’s beautiful. I get a bit SAD and a bit claustrophobic in buildings. I like light and space, and you don’t get more light, or more space, than the sea.
Also there is that sense of adventure and exploration. You know, imagine our ancestors standing on the shore and saying, ‘Well, what’s out there?’ Let’s face it, there’s that sense of danger as well.
MSF: Why did you choose to write for young people?
Chris: I don’t think I have. I know that sounds weird. What I mean is okay, yes, I did go and do a course, which was about writing for young people, but actually, those are the stories that came to me.
A story I’m working on at the moment is a picture book. I may well write a nonfiction book, which isn’t for young people, it’s for adults or all ages, about conservation. So in a way the story chooses you.
Another big factor was that when Harry Potter and Philip Pullman came along, it suddenly became okay for so-called grown ups to read kids books. A lot of us read those books, and then realised how good they were, especially Pullman’s. I thought, if these two writers are writing for young people, and their work is so amazing, what else is out there? So I read Neil Gaiman, Meg Rossoff, and my hero David Almond, just for my own pleasure. Then I found that I was writing very much in that sort of age group as well. As David Almond himself has said – with writing for young people there are very few rules. You can really experiment, and you can do some quite wild, wacky and strange things.
I suppose I also have to fess up and say, I’m not really a fully formed adult yet either. Part of me is still a teenager. It’s a very strange time when you are not a child anymore, but you’re not drawn down by the responsibilities of adult life, so it’s quite an electrifying time as well. Some of the books which aren’t even YA books, like A Clockwork Orange or Catcher in the Rye, are books about young people. I am a writer of books for young adults, but not exclusively.
MSF: Can you tell us about the book you’re working on now?
Chris: It’s a conservation book about whales and whaling. It’s called The Last Whale. I’m half Norwegian, and my uncle worked on a whaling boat. I come from a long line of seafarers, and two days a week I work with a charity called Whale and Dolphin Conservation. So the book is a thinly disguised family story, over three generations, from whalers to conservationists. It’s also about the decline of whales, why we need them, and why they’re important.
MSF: Is it advisable for all books to have a message? Do writers have a responsibility to change society for the better?
Chris: Of course you need to be responsible as a writer, in the sense of not being socially irresponsible and giving out bad messages! But I don’t think it’s the role of writers to be any kind of angel. Some people, like Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, can write something about righting wrongs that has social change and justice at its heart. That’s brilliant, and you can definitely do that, but I don’t think it’s part of the job description. Unless you’re really qualified to do it, I don’t think you should.
This is where art is wonderful – it gets into the weeds, the complexities, asks questions, and explores difficult things without providing answers. What fiction can do is get into things in a way that can be really uncomfortable sometimes, and that’s good. What it is to be human – messed up, difficult, morally complex, all of those things – you should explore in writing, without pointing fingers and without providing answers yourself. Even with something like 1984 which is a polemic with a very clear political view, it’s still complex, still a satire, and it doesn’t have too many answers.
MSF: What advice would you give to people who are about to submit their work to a writing competition, particularly for the first time?
Chris: Show it to someone. Show it to a couple of people and get their input.
Edit your work. Writing is rewriting, so don’t just write one draft of something and then think, ‘Well, that’s great, isn’t it? I’ll send that off!’ Because it won’t be great. Even Shakespeare wouldn’t have written one draft and thought it brilliant. So rewrite it.
The writing doesn’t have to be fancy and elegant and poetic. It can be, if that’s your style. A lot of people (and I made this mistake myself) think they need to write in a ‘writerly style’, when actually they should just speak from the heart.
Imagine you’re with a couple of mates who you know really well, and you’ve just got to get this story out. How would you tell it? So voice is really important, it just needs to be original, an original voice but not fancy. Stephen King is one of the best writers because it feels like it’s somebody sitting you down and telling you a story.
Edit it, share it, rewrite it, and let’s have a bit of voice, let’s have some passion.
I’m a sucker for a good story, we all are. I work quite often with young people in schools, with under confident writers. Some of them don’t have the skills (you can get the skills) but they’ve got a great story to tell. If I sit down and read 50 stories, the ones that will really stick out will be the good stories, rather than the good writing.
Or I could be really impressed by something which is a bit woolly or weak in terms of a story, but the writing is outstanding. Some writers, like Ian McEwan, could write about having a cup of coffee and make it brilliant. Equally, a great story would be memorable even if the technical skills and grammar aren’t there. It doesn’t matter if the story is fantastic.
A great story that is well written, that’s the Holy Grail, but it can be left or right of that golden point, for sure.
MSF: New writers from well beyond the sphere of the Mid-Somerset Festival will be inspired to take their writing forward with the help of your insights. We are very grateful indeed to you, Chris, for sharing your expertise.
A reminder that the closing date for entries to the Mid-Somerset Creating Writing is 19th January 2022. Join us for Creative Writing Day, with Chris Vick, on 19th March 2022 at the Bath Citadel.
The Last Whale by Chris Vick is available to pre-order now.
Interview by Rosemary McEwen