Recently we interviewed local author Helen Beal. She is the author of 3 books and a collection of short stories.
We talk to her about her writing style, book clubs and…… Scrabble.
WBNW – Hi Helen and thank you for taking the time for this interview.
With 3 books behind you, a collection of short stories and a new book on the way you appear to be quite busy in your writing career. How did you first discover you wanted to write?
HB – Hello there and thanks so much for the opportunity to chat to you about a huge passion of mine – books!
To answer your first question – like most writers, my desire to write is founded in my love of reading. I am told I was picking up books at the age of one, albeit upside-down, and my mother taught me to read when I was three, partly, I suspect, in order to achieve a quieter life. Since then I have been voracious and eclectic in my reading habits. Incidentally, I now read very well upside-down – it can be useful in restaurants and occasionally on the wrong side of a desk at work.
I find joy in words and there is a sublime deliciousness in discovering a new, spectacular story. I’m reading The Night Circus at the moment and before I was even a third of the way through I wanted to read it again already! It’s a story about worthy adversaries – one of my favourite films is The Thomas Crowne Affair (I prefer the Rene Russo version) and I love this theme. It’s also magical fantastical.
I’ve tinkered about with words for as long as I can remember, but it was attending a creative writing course at West Dean College that really turned the wheels on my authorial ambitions.
WBNW – You seem to be big a fan of games, in particular Poker & Scrabble. Does this love come over in your writing?
HB – I really hope so but only the readers can judge that! I was new to poker when I started writing Rich in Small Things – the character of the protagonist, Melissa, was partly inspired by my reading of Victoria Coren’s book ‘For Richer for Poorer’ where she describes her love of the game and the ultimate winning of a major international tournament. Now, I’ve played quite a lot online and with friends and it is a brilliant game – there’s luck of course, but there’s so much skill and psychology too and that’s what makes it really fascinating.
I am utterly addicted to Scrabble. I play Words with Friends pretty much constantly on my phone and like to play face-to-face Scrabble as much as possible. I also have a Sunday lunch and Scrabble club in Chichester that recently started and is massive fun. I love all word games – it’s that joy in words again. I find an absurd amount of pleasure in playing a word I haven’t played before on the board – like when I find myself saying it or writing it for the first time. I also have a number of words I like to play as often as possible in Scrabble regardless of the score – things like “yak” and “yurt”.
WBNW – You have mentioned on your blog that you are a fan of Philip Pullman (I’m a huge fan myself!). Are you a fan of fantasy fiction in general? Who would be your favourite?
HB – I’d say I’m a fan of fiction in general and I don’t really like pinning myself down to a genre. I love startling stories, with characters that are so engrossing they start crossing the fine line between real and made up. Sometimes I feel I know characters I read better than ones I see most days – and that’s probably true! I think I rebel against genre fiction a bit because I perhaps perceive that to be predictable or formulaic whereas I really like to read new, quirky stuff. I very much enjoyed a local fantasy fiction writer’s book – Dog of the North by Tim Stretton – probably because although it is fantasy, it’s not full of elves and unicorns, but set in marvellous make-believe almost Italian landscapes with a wonderfully flawed, brutal but lovable almost anti-hero and some very strong female characters. One of my favourite all time books is Stardust by Neil Gaiman and I already mentioned The Night Circus. And, as you know, I am a big Pullman fan. Someone once said me and my cat reminded them of Lyra and her daemon which I took as an enormous compliment.
I’m also occasionally into Sci-Fi – I love the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I read a lot of William Gibson at university and also had a real thing for K-PAX that was later made into a film with Kevin Spacey.
WBNW – You now live in Chichester where you run both a book club & a writing group. Could you tell us a bit about these?
HB – I moved to Chichester from London to write a book! I didn’t know anyone here initially and was a bit of a hermit, working full-time and writing every spare minute I could. I did gradually make some friends though, and one I played squash with and I were saying we’d really like to join a book club, but the nearest one we could find at the time was in Petersfield – and we were a bit lazy so she suggested I set one up locally. That was four years ago and we now have well over one hundred members. It’s a great group of people who share the love of reading – lots of different backgrounds. We meet once a month at The Ship in Chichester and read all sorts of things. Everyone says it’s so good to read something different, that they wouldn’t normally have thought of reading.
I took a little time out of work to concentrate on my second novel and any writer will tell you that writing is a very solitary task so it’s good to get out there and socialise every now and then! It’s also excellent practice as a learning writer to share your work and learn to receive and give constructive feedback. I initially joined a Saturday afternoon writing group in Bognor – but the organiser then had a baby and needed to focus on her new addition so I took on the group and moved it to Chichester (I mentioned I was quite lazy). We meet once a month on a Wednesday evening in the Park Tavern and we’re currently working towards publishing our first anthology of our work based on the theme ‘Reclaimed by Nature’. Again, it’s a really mixed group but I think everyone’s excited by seeing their work in print for the first time.
WBNW – I understand that you yourself attended a writer’s retreat in 2011. How did you find this experience & would you recommend it for other writers?
HB – Go to the writers’ retreat! Katy Lassetter does a wonderful job of networking and bringing creative types together. The retreat I attended was at Cobnor in beautiful surroundings with activities on the water and in the outdoors that freed the mind and exercised the bodies! Three of my favourite local authors were there – The Chichester Book Club (aka Three Sussex Writers) – Jane Rusbridge, Isabel Ashdown and Gaby Kimm – all incredibly accomplished, talented experts in their fields that shared their knowledge and experiences with us.
As I said earlier, writing is a solitary experience and the meeting people who share the same hopes and fears is invaluable. Writing is a craft and something you can always learn more about, always hone, always be better at. Also – I met a brilliant children’s writer at that retreat – Rachel Turner. Her first book, Dragonflu was recently released – I read and it loved it so much I immediately bought a copy for my nephew.
Over the years I’ve been on quite a few writing retreats and on various courses. There’s always something to take away.
WBNW – For those that have not yet read your books – how would you describe your writing style?
HB – There are two words in my mind whenever I am thinking of my potential readers when I am writing – they are ‘engaging’ and ‘enjoyable’. I might have a story to tell, I might even have something I think is important to say, but, if I want people to read my books, I have to find a way to tell and say it that draws the reader in.
There are a lot of things to handle when you’re working on something as big as a novel – balancing pace and character development is tough and you have to sprinkle in some description too…
Overall though, I write contemporary commercial literary fiction which sounds like a mouthful but essentially what I am saying is that my stories are set in the now, they don’t necessarily fit in a defined genre but I hope they are really readable (we’re back to engaging and enjoyable!). My books are often described as unconventional, unique and quirky, which I like very much.
WBNW – How do you prepare when setting out to write a new book? Do you have a routine? A special place?
HB – I’ve only written three books so far and they’ve all been quite different experiences to date. There’s definitely a ‘pre-period’ where I do a lot of thinking and researching / reading on the subject I am planning to write about. This normally seems to overlap with finishing the previous. For example, right now I am in the final editing and publishing throes of Riding a Tiger (my third novel about a super yacht hijacked by Somali pirates) and I am thinking about my next which is going to be big on conservation and over-population. These first few months are the most exciting – the characters start to form, the story line develops. Shortly I’ll start the actual writing. Writing is a discipline – some days it’s like dragging blood from a stone, others it’s like you can’t stop it rushing out. Then there’s the editing phases and there are lots of different approaches to this.
Some people rush out a first draft and then rewrite from scratch. I write quite a bit – set the routine to one or two thousand words a day for a few weeks then clean up, rip up, write more and the same again. It’s hard graft but there comes a day when you realise you are THERE! It’s done. It’s euphoric! And then more editing begins until it’s ready to release into the wild. I don’t really have a set routine – I write when I can around various other things. Some days I can’t stop writing, other days all I want to do is go and read in the park. Other days I have to do really boring stuff like earn money. I mostly write at home but also write a lot on the train (I spend a lot of time on the train), I take short breaks to Cornwall or the Alps and write more there. I wrote a lot of Rich in Small Things when I was in New Zealand for a month. And the tearooms in St Martins Square are very welcoming and make a good log-fire you can spend a couple of hours beside. When things get tough in a book, and they often do, a brisk walk at East Head is awesome for working through the issues and getting back to my desk refreshed and full of new ideas.
WBNW – Do you think that today’s expanding on-line social platforms help or hinder a writer’s ability to publish and advertise their work?
HB – We’re at the middle-start of an incredibly exciting time. When I began writing a few years ago, the gatekeepers were literary agents who flicked through their slush piles and decided what would be presented to the, very few, publishers. Now, the gatekeeper is becoming the readers, which is probably exactly how it should be. I’ve been working in technology since I graduated and am well used to technology disrupting markets. I’ve independently published and my titles are available in print. They are printed on demand as orders are placed. They take a couple more days to deliver but the quality is excellent, particularly on the hardbacks. In the old days (read two or three years ago) I would have had to order a print run of hundreds or thousands of books myself, had them sitting in a spare room and mailed orders out if they came in. This is hugely preferable to warehouses full of books that get pulped. Sure, we can all argue about the environmental impacts of producing reading devices against printing on paper, but I am a technology advocate and, against all odds, I love my Kindle (yeah, I can’t give a book to someone, but I can still read in the bath, my house is much less cluttered and going on holiday is about half as heavy as it was!).
The point I’m trying to come to (sorry!) is that there are more authors publishing than ever before, it’s a crowded marketplace, there’s a lot of competition, there’s a huge amount of noise. Social platforms have their place but the number one thing authors always have to do is have their work professionally edited (given in traditional). Personally, I am unconvinced by Facebook and Twitter’s capabilities to sell books (although all my main protagonists have their own Facebook pages – Herbert – the giant tortoise who is the narrator of my first novel has a LOT of friends!) – certainly sites like Goodreads are really valuable. Good books will sell by word of mouth. If your book is good, and properly edited it has a chance. Tweeting about it won’t help. And we only have so many hours in the day. Choose the battles you can win. Personally, I get frustrated with big ‘cover reveal’ events and such like. I want to know the insides are good. I can find out for myself, but if someone I trust tells me that, I’m more likely to buy.
WBNW – I know it’s a tough question but what’s your favourite book store?
HB – This is also a fairly controversial subject! Bricks and Mortar book stores are having a really hard time in this market and we only really have Waterstones left on the high street – the one in Chichester is great – really helpful staff, support for local writers (signings and launches). Amazon has an incredible business model and for so much more than books. As I said, I have a Kindle and therefore buy most of my books this route these days – and as a writer, it’s this e-platform that sees more sales than all the rest put together. I work in the City of London a couple of days a week and recently discovered Daunt books – fantastic for a little explore in my lunch hours!
Thanks again for the opportunity to chat with the Worthing Book Network!
To find out more about the Writer’s Retreat workshops in Chichester, click here.
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