How do you want the reader to feel? An evening with Karen Campbell – 25 September 2019

Karen Campbell was our speaker this evening, on her second visit to Ayr Writers’ Club. She has had a varied life, studying English at university, and then joining the police force before becoming a press officer for Glasgow City Council. She did a masters course in creative writing at the University of Glasgow, and when she moved to Galloway she decided to concentrate on her writing. She has written seven novels, the latest being The Sound of the Hours, which is set in Italy during World War II.

One of the tips she received on her writing course was to ‘write what you know’, so her first novel, The Twilight Time, was about police work. She sent it out to prospective agents, and received twenty rejections before it was accepted. Her agent subsequently had twenty more knock-backs before a publisher accepted the book. A number of the publishers had said that her novel fell between genres, but the one who published it liked the fact it was different.

Some key points about writing and her road to publication

Submit novels to agents rather than publishers, because they do the work for you once they take you on. She told a depressing story about one publisher’s slush pile and the person who was tasked with rotating the submissions from the bottom to the top, without reading any of them, before sending the manuscript back to the writer once it reached the top again.

Karen’s first five books were about the uniformed section of the police, and included the dark humour they needed to have, to handle difficult situations and the challenges they meet in dealing ‘without fear or favour’. Did you realise a young copper would have to remember not to start marching in time to the beat of an Orange or Republican march, for fear of showing favouritism?

If you write crime novels, get the terminology right. The police tend not to read crime fiction, because they would be constantly saying, ‘That’s not how you’d do that,’ or ‘No, it’s not called a burglary in Scotland, it’s house breaking.’ There’s a tip for us all. Double check the post mortems, coroners, or fatal accident enquiries you have in your novel.

When you submit a novel to an agent you need to treat it like an interview for a job. You wouldn’t expect to be successful if you apologised for not being very good, would you?

People are more than one thing, and we shouldn’t assume what they are like and how they think by the way they look. Karen’s books show characters behaving in unexpected ways, to make us think about our own prejudices.

For short stories: Think about how you want the reader to feel after reading it. Where is the beginning? What shape is it, and what is the arc? She recommended that, ‘less is more’ and we should stick to one point of view. Ideally we should be left wondering, ‘Ah, but what happens next?’ Every word counts in a short story, but don’t underscore what you want to say. Give people space to feel the emotions of the story, rather than telling them.

In a novel she doesn’t plan much, but she knows what the beginning and end are. It’s like a car trip, where you know your destination but might take detours along the way. Sometimes you might have to add in extra references if you discover a key item is only mentioned once. Nobody will know you had to go back to change it.

Some questions

What about writer’s block? Karen suggests that there is no such thing. If you are stuck, write about how you feel about being stuck. What does the computer screen look like? Is the room too warm? Too cold? Is there a draught at the back of your neck? If you are stuck in a novel and can’t think what to do next, write the bit you want to write even if it’s not in sequence, and it can be a bridge to what went before. Everything you come up with is writing that might be used sometime.

Would you let go of the story for TV or film? Yes. One of her novels was in Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. It was edited down to fit the format, omitting unnecessary characters. Karen felt the same emotions came through at the end.

Was it difficult writing about other topics rather than the police? She feels all her books are about people, the police ones were just a particular kind of people. Her latest novel came about when she discovered a war memorial to an African-American soldier in a hilltop Italian village. She remembered the feeling of walking up the track to the village, wearing a backpack, and wondered how the soldier would have felt.

Are you worried about cultural appropriation? You should look for the humanity of the person, by searching for how you would feel in the situation. One of her books, This is Where I Am, has a main character who is a Somalian refugee. Because we see things from his point of view, we know he is articulate, although his English is not very good. You know how you feel on holiday abroad, when you try out a phrase to ask for something, then the sales assistant says something back to you and you are lost? Well, that’s how he feels surrounded by Glaswegian-accented locals. Always write the story from how you yourself would feel in that situation.

Karen gave us full value for our evening out, and by the end everyone had taken copious notes. I for one would welcome her back to the club any time.

Jennifer West

One comment

  1. Great blog Jennifer. Makes up for my not being there (almost).


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