11 March 2020
Beth Miller is a published novelist.
Q: Since your last visit to the Surrey New Writers Festival, you have published The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright (2020). What can you tell the festival about this recent publication?
A: I’m going to be reading from it at the Festival! Kay Bright is a fifty-something stationery shop manager, who one day abruptly walks out on her long marriage, to everyone’s shock. In the aftermath, she falls out with her grown-up daughter Stella, travels to Australia and Venice, climbs Snowdon, discovers something terrible about her best friend, and faces up to the repercussions of a secret she has kept for more than thirty years. We also hear from daughter Stella, who has plenty of her own crap going on.
Maybe a better summary is the title of my favourite review of the book so far (a one-star): ‘Language, threesome, blasphemy, abortion, disgusting!’
The book has done pretty well, despite, or perhaps because of, disgusted reviewers. It was, for a short time, number one on US Amazon in the slightly niche category ‘Women’s Divorce Fiction.’
Q: You used to work as a sexual health and HIV educator, so you have a lot of knowledge on the topic of sex. Do you do any type of research (if any) before sitting down to write a first draft?
A: Hahaha I love the idea of doing sex research. I ought to do more of that. No, I don’t do any research in advance, sexual or otherwise. I write the first draft, then work out what it is that I need to research. Otherwise I end up wasting days finding out, say, the exact nature of a seventeenth century condom (perhaps made of linen, or sheep guts), only to realise that it’s not necessary to the story.
Q: You are giving a workshop on how to write “Sizzling Sex Scenes” and your work has been described as “delightfully filthy”. What is the best part about writing sex scenes?
A: I love writing a sex scene. It helps me get to know my characters better, because they are often surprising once they get their kit off. I like it when a sex scene I’m writing makes me feel slightly hot under the collar – I sit at my desk saying ‘good gracious!’ and fanning my face. I tend to think that if it has that effect on me, and I know what’s coming (as it were), it will probably also have that effect on the reader.
Q: What is the hardest thing about being a book coach? Can you tell us a bit about this work?
A: I love book coaching. It’s a chance to hear someone’s story, and join them in grappling with the bits that aren’t working, as well as help them recognise their writing strengths. Every coaching session is different. Some writers I only see once or twice; they might be quite near the beginning and just want help getting going, or they might be near the end and want me to advise on their agent or publisher submission. But there are other clients I’ve been seeing for several years, and watching their work emerge from an initial idea to a finished, published book, brings me great joy. Some of my clients have had great successes recently – an American book deal, interest from several agents at once, a six-figure advance from one of the biggest publishers – and I feel as happy for them as if it was me those things were happening to. OK, almost as happy in the case of the six-figure advance.
The hardest thing about coaching is that sometimes my head is so full of other people’s stories that I don’t always feel like tackling my own.
Q: How do you find working as a creative writing teacher in Brighton? Do you find that this role has helped or hindered your writing?
A: I teach on the two-year Creative Writing Programme in Brighton, at New Writing South. It’s a great course. As with coaching, the best thing is hearing so many distinct voices, so many different stories. It never gets old, asking someone to tell their story and being surprised, every time, over what they’ve come up with; stories I could never have thought of in a million years.
Mostly teaching helps my writing, because being surrounded by creativity makes me want to get on with my own stuff. And sometimes it helps when I see how someone’s made a mess of something and realise that I do that too. Occasionally it hinders me, if I can only spare enough time to read other people’s work rather than write. But that’s a time management issue which I have spent a long time grappling with, and I’m sure I’ll find a solution to it in the next fifty years or so.
Q: What advice would you give people who want to get into writing/ become authors?
A: 1. Writing and publishing are two completely different things. I’ve coached people who haven’t written a word yet, and they’re already talking about possible publishers. I say to them – though they don’t like it – write because you like writing, and learn to write better because you like writing. It’s a long hard road to get published, and there’s a real lot of work that needs to be put in first, so if you don’t much like writing, and you don’t want to become a better writer, you might want to take up a different discipline like macramé or mindful colouring.
Related to this: getting published is not the same as winning the lottery. You probably won’t make much money at all. Most published writers have other jobs. I’ve published six books, but still earn nowhere near enough from them to give up other work. Not that I’d want to – writing full-time is a horror story for me.
2. If publication is a goal, then two things are essential: being persistent, and being able to tolerate rejection. (Three things I guess, because it helps to have a decent story to tell.) Persistence is the big one. It took me ten years to get published. If I’d given up at any point during that time, I wouldn’t have got published. Nearly every published author has a similar story.
3. Finish the first draft. Until you finish it, you don’t really know what the story is. Stop tinkering with those commas in Chapter Two! Get on an write a messy, lousy first draft. You can sort the mess out later.
4. The first draft is meant to be shitty. It really is. It’s fine. You can’t edit a blank page, but you can easily edit a rotten ol’ mess.
5. Your own individual voice is the main thing you have going for you. Your story probably won’t be super-unique, and your writing might not be as fine as Mantell, Orwell, Ephron, etc. But your voice, that’s your superpower. No-one else has had your experiences or knows exactly what you know, and so no-one else can tell this story the way that you can. As I’ve said above, that’s why I like teaching and coaching: all those different voices, so different to my own.
Interview conducted by Beth Roberts.