Over the next few weeks, I will be conducting “interviews” with various members of the Christchurch Writers Guild – both members of the committee and others.
We will begin with Beaulah Pragg, the newly-elected President of the Guild; she is also one of the co-founders. I first met Beaulah when I came upon her book, The Silver Hawk, on the shelf of PaperPlus Hornby, noted down her details, acquired the book, and emailed her. Soon after that we organised a meeting, got discussing writing in Christchurch, and from there the Christchurch Writers Guild was born. Beaulah also works for the Christchurch City Libraries, teaches writing courses and is overall an inspiration to us all.
To begin, Beaulah, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
I’m twenty-six (for about another month). I work at the library and teach creative writing to children. I started writing back in 2005, with my very first National Novel Writing Month (Nano) and pretty much went from there. Have to admit, I wasn’t very good at Nano. I’d get bored with my story too easily, or get stuck, but I was too stubborn to give up, so I invented the world-building Nano, which I’ve done ever since. I just fill up the 50,000 words with character interviews, descriptions of stuff, random scenes from all kinds of POVs. At some point, all that information clumped together in my brain and I wrote the Silver Hawk. Now I’m trying all kinds of techniques to prod the sequel into shape.
What do you enjoy the most about the creative process?
I love the characters & social world-building. I’ve never been much good with magic systems or street maps, but I can tell you the history of a family back five generations. I have this cool timeline software that helps me keep track of all the backstory, and a family-tree program to manage all the inter-marrying. The trick is to let all of that go when it comes time to write the actual story. Just because you know the names of his three brothers, and their wives, and their second cousins, doesn’t mean you need to include them!
What do you find the most frustrating?
Honestly, the excessive world-building can be a bit of a curse, because you get stuck in things having to be a certain way because of other stuff you’ve already decided about his cousin’s ex-wife. Then, when I bravely tell myself to let it go and do the right thing for the story, I now have to go back and deleted said cousin’s ex-wife, or re-write her story to fit. I feel like there are so many threads and sometimes it’s hard to get them to come together in any pleasing kind of tapestry.
You have independently published your novel, can you please tell us a little about the process, the positives and the pitfalls?
That was back in 2013, so I expect some things have changed since then. I went through the query process and even got some bites from various agents, but they all said no in the end. I just wanted people to read my story, so I googled self-publishing and jumped on CreateSpace, Kindle (KDP) and Smashwords. I worked through their various formatting guides, threw together a cover and pushed ‘go’. I was really lucky. People have been so supportive and I’ve learned so much since then. The original book was full of mistakes, but my readers were also my friends, so they pointed them out in a nice ‘we still think you’re awesome’ kind of way.
I set up a book launch with South Library and got a whole heap of books printed for it. When they arrived, it turned out there were still a bunch of errors. Mum said I couldn’t sell them and paid for a last minute emergency reprint locally. Cost a heap and she wouldn’t let me pay her back. I felt really bad. It did change my blasé attitude toward spelling and grammar though. I highly recommend getting a professional editor, even if you do everything else yourself.
Please tell us a little about the inspiration behind the CWG.
Going through the process of self-publishing The Silver Hawk, I felt like I was the only person doing this kind of stuff in Christchurch. There didn’t seem to be a group for me. Everything was still all about being ‘good enough’ to get accepted by agents or publishers. When I met Angela and we realized we had both gone down the same self-publishing path independently, it seemed natural to want to create a group. The CWG is about having a place to go where you’re accepted and can talk about writing—whether you do it for fun, want to publish yourself or win a publishing contract. I just wanted to show people that we’re not alone. We’re here for you, whatever you want to do.
How have social groups such as the CWG and SpecFic influenced your writing endeavours?
It’s been great to watch that sense of community grow—to share our stories and learn from each others’ successes and failure. I’ve loved workshops like ‘Show, not Tell” because they’ve given me a chance to play and extend my writing. I’ve enjoyed going to conferences in Auckland and Wellington, meeting fellow SpecFic people and realizing there are a whole lot of people trying to do exactly the same things as me, and they’re awesome. I really believe that we have power as a community that we don’t have on our own. When be believe, as a group, that something is possible, we find a way to make it happen.
So yeah, being part of these social groups has helped me grow, not just as a writer, but as a person.
How can the CWG help and support our authors?
For me, it always comes back to those social connections. You are responsible for your own words and what you choose to do with them. We’ll help you out if you need advice, whether it’s about semi-colons or formatting a manuscript, or even handling a bad critique. We’ll run workshops where everyone can get together and practice their craft. But the main thing is that CWG is a place where you can find other people travelling paths very similar to yours. The support comes not so much from the organization, but from the people who populate its meetings, workshops and forums. We’re committed to that support being unconditional and unprejudiced. As long as you treat others with respect, we’d love to have you.
What do you predict for the future of publishing and writing in general?
We’re rapidly transitioning into a digital age. Barring catastrophic digital collapse, zombie apocalypse or other excuses to return to a primitive post-apocalyptic survival scenario, I expect most people will be reading digitally in the not-too-distant future. Certainly the traditional publishing model is collapsing. We can see that right now. The thing is, just because books aren’t being made and sold the way they used to be, doesn’t mean people aren’t reading. Story is a fundamental part of life. We all need stories to make sense of the world, and we love authors who make us think or make us feel.
So writers will still be needed and stories will still be read. Our job, as a group, is to look for new opportunities and pounce on them, feeding back what we’ve learned to enrich the whole. There’s no point bemoaning what is gone or trying to halt the wheels of change. I can’t tell you what the future will bring, but I can tell you I’ll be watching with baited breath. There are all kinds of exciting new ways to connect with our readers, if we’re brave enough to give them a go.
As you have insider knowledge, what role, do you feel, will the libraries play in this future?
Libraries are about so much more than books. People come to us for the community, for a place to work or study, or even just for help navigating the overwhelming mass of information out there. I get questions that range from “What should I read next?” to “How do I install Overdrive on my iPad?” and all kinds of unusual things in-between. The libraries are committed to staying relevant, which means keeping up with technology and being that support for people’s informational needs.
As a teacher of creative writing, what are some of the pitfalls you have seen?
I teach creative writing to children, so some of the issues I’ve seen are really just part of the learning process – things like “Use your quotation marks!” and “Please paragraph, sweetheart. It’s really hard to read a whole page without any gaps in it.”
Having said that, the children I teach are incredibly imaginative and have so much fun with their writing. I think one of the pitfalls for us as adults is to forget that this stuff is meant to be fun!
Any advice for aspiring writers out there?
Write. That’s a really good place to start. Keep your notes organized so you don’t expend precious mental energy trying to remember whether he had green eyes or blue. I use Super Notecard, which is just amazing for this (and also free up to the first 100 cards, so try it out).
Develop a safe, supportive community where you can share you writing and critique other people’s work. You can only improve as a writer if you let people give you feedback, and if you practice looking for ways others can improve. I’ve tried all sorts of groups and forums for this purpose, and my favourite so far is definitely Scribophile (which I just joined a week ago after our new Guild secretary, Judy, recommended it). Scribophile is also free for low-level users and has an excellent karma system which means you get back what you put in. I highly recommend giving it a go.
Finally, when you think you’re done and want to get your story out there, please make sure to find a professional editor. Even if you’re going for a traditional contract, you’ll stand a much better chance if your text is clean.
Oh, and join the Guild, so then you have people celebrate and commiserate with along the way.