Fiction? Memoir? It depends on the lens seen by Catherine Simpson – 4 March 2020

The speed and enthusiasm with which our speaker captured the interest of the audience last Wednesday evening was great for the others but not so easy for me, being used to typing on my laptop instead of using a pen. However I tried my best to keep up, so here goes…

Catherine Simpson’s writing career started eleven years ago, although she had been writing since she was eight years old. For her, making up stories was inevitable, as she grew up on a farm where the only books were the bible (handy for pressing flowers) and a selection of agricultural tomes.

After a career in banking and the civil service she moved into journalism, where she realised she could earn a living with words, crafting real stories about real people into something readable. Catalysts for going further into writing were an inheritance and her daughter Nina being diagnosed with autism. One effect of Nina’s condition was that Catherine had to spend most of her time in the house, so she made the most of it by enrolling in an Open University creative writing course, then taking an M.A. in creative writing.

For her first book Truestory she drew on real-life events, introducing humour alongside the darker moments. The child in the story is autistic but is a boy, and real names are not used. The initial chapters of this won her a New Writer’s Award and a mentor, and she altered it after suggestions that she should change the point of view to the mother’s. By this time she had an agent, who found her a publisher, Sandstone Press. They published on the condition she would be willing to talk about autism and mental illness, and a large part of her work now involves speaking to various groups about the subject.

During a month’s seclusion for a fellowship she studied the diaries of her sister, who had taken her own life. By the end of the time she had a much clearer picture of how to write about three women in her family who had died ‘too young’, in her words. Their stories and other family remembrances became her next book, When I Had a Little Sister.

The publisher 4th Estate published this one. With a large publisher the book comes out in hardback and audio versions as well as paperback, and Catherine herself was the voice for the audiobook, using her strong Lancashire intonations that suit the words so well.

She read us passages from both her books, which triggered memories in the audience as well as giving us a few laughs. When writing, she tries to find ‘the line where laughter turns to tears’.

She said memoirs are a window into an aspect of life, but an autobiography is a full life story. As you sort out the memories in your mind, it makes you understand why other people did what they did, as you try to see things from their viewpoint. If you feel ashamed of the memories they can be hard to write about, but she thinks the shame evaporates once they are written down. When others read the book they may feel exactly the same, and find it helpful.

When writing, she starts with an initial idea, then writes a scene with the characters to see how it goes. She writes scene by scene and fits them all together at the end. She thinks anyone can learn to write if they have an interest in it. The Open University and M.A. course taught her things she had been unaware of, like point of view and writing in different tenses.

She suggests aiming for 100 rejections in a year. When you receive one, file it away. The more there are, the sooner an acceptance will come in. Celebrate success and keep a spreadsheet of successes, to remind yourself how well you have done in the past.

Some comments from the Q & A session

Don’t worry about the length of your book. Always make sure it’s the best it can be before you send it out.
An Elevator Pitch is around three sentences, giving the protagonist, genre, antagonist and a hook for the story. A Book Blurb sets up the beginning of the book, and a Synopsis tells everything, including the end of the story.
If writing about people who are alive don’t use any identifiable description. Changing the name might not be enough if the person has recognisable characteristics. Or get their permission in advance.
If writing using diversity, be aware of stereotypes. Be sensitive to others.

By the end of Catherine’s talk she had convinced us we could write something about our own family, which is the sign of a talk well received. Thank you, Catherine, for a very interesting and entertaining evening.

Jennifer West

P.S. Although the Open University and other courses teach various aspects of writing, so do the workshops that AWC runs and workshops at the SAW conference. I have certainly benefited from them in my years in the club.

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