Mentor Me: Novelist Josephine

This week’s Mentor on Monday is novelist Josephine Greenland. A self-starter, she’s done it all: Poetry, short stories and novels. Her publisher Unbound helps her nature focused, mysterious and often slightly fantastical visions come to life. A “writer in exile” from homeland Sweden, Josephine shares her tips and lessons learned from the writing world.

1. How do you sit down and write?

When writing the first draft of a story, I prefer sitting in my own flat at my desk in peace and quiet, where I can concentrate on the task and there are no distractions. I always have my notebook in front of me with my ideas and will add ideas/points to it include as I go along.  When editing a story, I prefer sitting in a different space, such as a café, as the new setting helps me approach the story from a new angle, and often makes me notice things I didn’t notice while working on the first draft.

2. What writing is important to you? (encourages, empowers, shares…)

For me, writing is a means of questioning the status quo: society, our own position within or outside society, invisible rules we take for granted, etc. This in turn leads onto making things visible: both on grand scales such as social injustice, prejudice and hate crime, and on the minor scale in terms of family secrets and interpersonal intrigues. I believe that bringing attention to these kind of issues, which people may deny or ignore, leads to the empowerment of individuals and marginalised people.

3. What writing do you do?

I write fiction: mainly novels, but also short stories. Occasionally I dabble in poetry. I write both for YA and adults, generally in the genres of mystery, drama and crime, often with a hint of folklore and the supernatural. Nature and people’s relationship with the environment is a common theme in my writing.

4. How did you get onto that?

I got into writing already as a child, once I’d learnt to read. I read a lot of fantasy as a teenager, but as I grew older I moved more into magical realism and exploring how the supernatural works in realism. I further developed this focus at university in my creative writing courses, where my undergraduate dissertation was on modern fairy-tales. During my MA in Creative Writing I became more interested in the role of nature and the idea of writing back to your home country, a bit as a writer in exile, which explains why my first two novels are both set in Sweden, where I’m from.

5. What connections did you have to make?

I had to make connections with other aspiring writers so I could have proofreaders, and also published writers for professional feedback and advice. In order to be updated on what magazines and publishers were accepting submissions, it was also important to establish a social media network, mainly on Twitter. In order to understand the writing, editing and publishing process, I had to listen to author talks and panels at book festivals and events held by the university creative writing departments.  

6. How did you make them?

Through my creative writing courses at university where all lecturers were published writers. Through book festivals, creative writing workshops and guests lectures and, most recently, through Facebook and Twitter. My publisher, Unbound, has a Facebook group for all its authors and this is has enabled me to communicate directly with both emerging and established writers who have experience of both self-publishing and traditional publishing.

7. How did you keep them?

Through active use of social media such as Twitter. This is a very effective way of getting in touch with the wider writing community as well as discovering new magazines, journals, publishers and agents. In all, expanding and developing your network is crucial in maintaining writer connections. Through Twitter I have been able to follow my old university lecturers and keep them updated on my own work. Being an active member of the Unbound Author Facebook group helps me build a rapport with the other writers there. We have our own community where we can share ideas, stories, concerns, get guidance from other writers who have got their books published, and make use of their contacts.

8. What did you find hard when breaking into the industry?

Developing pitching skills for agents and publishers. As a creative writer especially, I think it can be hard to sell and market your work a bit as one would a consumer product. It’s a kind of language that it takes practice to harness and use effectively. I still need to improve marketing skills such as managing my author website and blog, as I’m generally not a social media person and not experienced in technology.

9. What used to be hard but now isn’t?

Concerning writing, the process of finishing a novel used to be difficult as I often failed to finish the story and just ended up revising the beginning again and again. Working on my debut novel with my tutor at university helped me overcome this barrier. Since joining Unbound I have become better at networking and more confident in reaching out to writers and agents to make my name heard. The more contacts you have, the bigger the chance you have of properly getting your foot in the door and breaking through, so I believe that taking initiative in networking is crucial for any creative artist. Having gone through the novel submission process once, I am more comfortable with writing pitches now. Again, this is something that will keep improving the more you do it.

10. What shortcuts are there available?

The Writers and Artists Yearbook which is updated every year gives a great overview of the agents and publishers you can submit your manuscript to and includes some useful advice on pitching. It saves a lot of time that would otherwise be spent google searching publishers. Writers and Artists also host multiple events and workshops on editing, pitching and advice on hooking agents, if that is available to you. A great kick starter into starting or completing a body of work are the Arvon Writing Retreats hosted by the Arvon Foundation. They have three locations across the UK and host courses in a wide array of genres and styles. I got started on my debut novel at one f their courses for Childrens’ and YA Fiction. All course tutors are published and established writers.

11. Is there someone you accredit your success to, apart from yourself?

My parents, who have always been avid proof-readers, editors and supporters of my work. Finding proofreaders can be difficult as people sometimes don’t commit due to time/work and life in general, but I’ve always been able to rely on my parents to proofread and give me feedback. Also my university lecturers, particularly my first creative writing tutor in my first year of undergrad who believed in me and encouraged me – I believe their support has helped me stay true to my writing voice  and keeping it unique. Also my dissertation tutor in my MA who helped me understand how to plan and structure a novel. I’d also like to give special thanks to poet Jo Bell, who’s critical and very constructive feedback during a One-to-One Writing Surgery probably is the reason why I got two of my poems published.

12. How many times did you have to say “I can do this” before you did it?

I think I have always known that I had it in me to get published, even as a 12-year-old when I started writing my first novel. It was such a passionate dream of mine to be a writer, that this passion alone fuelled the work and perseverance that resulted in my first publication, so I did not have to say “I can do this.” It was more after the first publication, after which I got quite a few rejections, that my confidence wavered and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up my previous success. I think it is the pressure of following up a success that results in a lack of confidence and the need to remind yourself that “Yes, I can do this.” I had the same experience when starting my second novel (at which point my first novel had been crowdfunded and sent to editors), as I wasn’t sure I’d be able to live up to the first novel and produce another publishable manuscript. I think reminding yourself that “I can do this” is something you have to do consistently throughout the creative career as each project you embark upon is different and tends to be more ambitious than the last.

13. What is your daily habit that you swear by to get shit done?

Turning your phone and internet off when you sit down to write. Even though you need to google things now and then as you write, it’s best to have the internet off as it’s easy to, with just a few clicks, get distracted from your work and end up wasting twenty minutes. Be rigorously organised. Designate one hour of every day to non-stop writing without distractions or pauses. On the weekends, try to allocate at least three (breaks in between such as a walk then recommended).

14. What is the most unobvious thing about your industry that you have to do? (e.g. exercising, eating well)

Writing involves a lot of sitting still, so exercising and keeping yourself healthy is definitely a top priority. I find that a run or walk clears my mind (and airs it out to), and often helps me come up with new ideas or solutions to plot problems.

15. What out of industry secret is there to doing what you do?

Not quite sure what would be out-of-industry, as I work like I think most writers do. The only thing I can think of is the music I listen to sometimes to get me started with writing. As my novels are set in Sweden I find that listening to ambient, Nordic background music helps me find the mood and tone of my story.

16. If you could start again, go back to being a 16 year old, is this the path you would take?

Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I don’t think I would have started out in any different way than I did.

17. What do you wish the path into your industry was like?

More straightforward and completely independent of markets and profits. Traditional publishers are very much dependent on current trends and guaranteed sells for survival, so many novels that push the margins or sit in between two styles often get turned down, simply because publishers don’t know where to place them in the market.

18. What is the path like?

It is free, open and gives authors a better chance of making a solid living out of their writing. Authors would be independent masters of themselves and not dependent on what kind of stories their publishers and the market wants.

19. What do you think all mentors should do?

Be critical, honest and encouraging. Push your mentees, challenge them even if you what you say may seem daunting. It pays off in the end.

20. What do you think all mentees should do to get the most out of their mentor?

Ask your mentor about their own writing experience and path to publication. Ask to see some of their work. Be completely honest and open about your strengths and weaknesses in writing and any new genre, technique or area you want to explore. Always ask for detailed feedback. Challenge your mentor at times. Even if they have more experience, you are the author at the end of the day and it is up to you whether you take on board their feedback or not. Some editing suggestions are based on personal taste and all authors have different tastes when it comes to writing, even if there are only subtle differences. Also, ask them what contacts they have in the writing industry, as these could be useful to you.

21. Do you offer mentor services?

I have offered mentor services in the past, when I was a mentor for Manuscription Magazine, a journal publishing writers aged under 18. I would happily do so again, as I believe the mentor learns as much about writing as the mentee.

22. How should someone get in contact with you to be their mentor?

Find my contact details through my website at www.josephinegreenland.com or send me a message via Twitter at @greenland_jm, or my Facebook page Josephine Greenland Writer.

23. How fulfilling is your job? If so what makes it fulfilling.

My job as a writer is the most fulfilling profession I have as it allows me to be myself and explore parts of myself I didn’t know existed. Creating stories is a way of discovering and re-discovering both yourself and the world. It helps you understand the world better, and I never feel as alive as I do when writing, because I get the chance to live multiple lives.

24. What three books/ podcasts would you recommend for someone looking to break into your industry?

The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, new edition comes out every year. On Writing – A Memory of the Craft by Stephen King. If you want advice from an author, you may as well learn from a master. I don’t listen to podcasts that often, but one I’ve heard of is Minorities in Publishing by Jennifer Baker, which discusses “the lack of diversity in the book industry”. This can be of particular interest to emerging writers struggling to get their foot in the door.

Published by toobusytowrite

My page is called “too busy to write” because we all think we are. Where you’ve been and who you’ve met may be nothing but something to fall asleep on now, but in 40 odd years they will be the stuff you try and remember.

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