Today is my stop on Leila Segal’s blog tour for her collection of short stories, Breathe. Leila was born in London, of Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian descent. When she was little, she started to write. In 2000 she visited Cuba – as soon as she arrived she knew that she wanted to stay. She lived first in Havana, then in the rural far West. Breathe – Stories from Cuba is her debut collection, written during this time. Leila is director of Voice of Freedom, a project that works with women who have escaped trafficking. She reads her work regularly in London – find out more at www.leilasegal.com.
In 2000, I rented a room in Havana and set out to write short stories. I’d written since I was a child, but how did you become a writer? How would the work in my notebooks become finished stories that people would want to read? Armed with Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande, I decided to find out – my short story collection Breathe is the result. Here is what I learned in the process:
- Be persistent. Don’t push discomfort away – it will stimulate the best work. Indecision, difficulty – explore them on the page. Confusion and conflict in my new Cuban reality created the stories in Breathe.
- Let your fingers write. Ignore the inner critic; she can help you edit later, but don’t let her kill what is precious – you, on the page.
- Write when you wake up. You’re still in thrall to the subconscious, which will weave its images and symbols into the words. Keep a notebook by the bed.
- Turn off the phone. In Cuba I had no internet, no phone and often no electricity. I would sit in the dark looking up at the tropical sky – hours and hours of peace. There was space for thoughts to flow, and for me to hear them.
- Be brave. ‘The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear,’ says Al Alvarez in The Writer’s Voice. Let yours sing on the page – it might be fiercer, or more surprising, than you’ve allowed.
- Start anywhere. The story exists inside you, a living whole; pull it out by its finger-tip or toe.
- Read. Voices that excite you will sing and dance in your head, ready to inspire when you sit down to write.
- Seek out the new. Listen and observe. ‘When people talk, listen completely,’ Hemingway said.
- Creativity is capricious. Follow where it leads.
On working with editors
Trust is essential. Your editor must ‘get’ your writing, otherwise there will be a permanent tussle. Voice and style are a matter of taste – an editor should not try to stamp out yours, but rather advise on story structure, character development and language, so your ideas are communicated to readers. An editor is a step away; you’re too close to raw creation to know how effective you’ve been.
My editor for Breathe saw where there was ‘too much’ writing that detracted from the emotional punch of a story; he encouraged me to let go of clunky endings and complicated beginnings that were really just preambles in my head, to get right to the meat of the story – what readers crave.
He saw where characters who were clear in my head didn’t convince – they were fully imagined, but had I got my imagining onto the page?
An editor can spot factual and logical inconsistencies, repetition – or complexity that needs to be explained. In one of my stories in Breathe, the contrast between the narrator’s point of view (a tourist), and that of Cuban characters seemed obvious to me – but, as my editor saw, it was not to the reader. In another, there was too early a ‘reveal’ – for full impact in a story about racism, revelation of the character’s race had to be left until the end.
I was fortunate to have a skilled and patient editor for Breathe, who allowed me to develop the collection at its own pace, but that’s rare – more often, publishers want manuscripts that are ready to go. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by professional fiction editors, offers practical, effective techniques to transform your work from first to final draft.
Some of my favourite books on writing:
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande (Macmillan)
Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg (Rider)
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, ed. Larry W. Phillips (Simon & Schuster)
The Writer’s Voice, Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King (Quill)
Breathe: Stories from Cuba by Leila Segal is published on 21st January (£6.99, Flipped Eye).