Elizabeth’s first book was Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo (Signal, 2011). Described by The Times as ‘the most delightful read of the summer’, her most recent is Edith and I; on the trail of an Edwardian traveller in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2013). In between finishing her third book, The Rubbish-Picker’s Daughter, about an Ashkali community in Kosovo, she is researching Chasing the Eagle, which takes a look at the Albanian diaspora across the world.
She also finds time to be one of the newest members of the Itinerant Writers Club.
Here, wearing only her pyjamas, Elizabeth explains what writing means to her.
Which came first, writing or bee-keeping?
Like most writers, I guess, I’ve been writing with the dream of being read for as long as I can remember. Funnily enough, one of the first things I remember writing as a 6 year old was a collection of poems about ‘minibeasts’ which my mother typed up for me and stapled into a little booklet. I then smudged the typewriter ribbon all over it. But, when I started on Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo (which eventually came out with Signal Books in 2011), I’d already had poems and short stories and a few pieces of journalism published, not to mention a terrible romantic novel and a book about libraries (The Borrowers; a tour around Britain’s libraries) not published.
In fact Travels in Blood and Honey came following wise advice from my partner, Rob, who saw me beating myself up about not making enough time to edit the ‘libraries’ book when we moved to Kosovo, and told me to stop wasting energy on a book about the country we’d left behind, and start writing about the adventures we were having in Kosovo.
We read about authors who write only in their room, at their desk, for a specific number of hours a day, with a target number of words. They might require a conveyor belt of bacon sarnies or the smell of wild roses to find a river for their creative flow. Others can write any number of words, at any handy table, for any length of time. Do you have any tips on finding the time and place to write?
I am promiscuous about place but I am boringly regimented about time.
When I decided, more than 10 years ago, that I was going to be serious about writing, I set myself what seems a rather pathetic goal:to write for a minimum of 5 minutes every day. And if I didn’t manage it one day, I would carry those five minutes over and do 10 minutes the next day. Although that target seems spectacularly unambitious, it was a great way to start because you can’t ever have an excuse not to have 5 minutes to write in a day – you could do it while you ate your lunch, or go to bed 5 minutes later – and inevitably when you start doing 5 minutes, you often end up keeping going for much longer.
After 6 weeks working like that, I increased to 10 minutes a day, and so on, and for the past 7 years I’ve been aiming to do a working day (i.e. 8 hours) of writing every week, which I block into my diary like any other commitment. It’s my favourite time of the week, and if I can get away with it I don’t even get dressed that day – just sit in my dressing gown at my computer for 8 hours straight.
A lot of new travel writers struggle with natural dialogue and characterisation, focusing too much on description. Do you have any advice?
I struggle with that too. The times when I think it’s worked most successfully have been when I’ve been very aware during the experience I was describing of how people are showing their feelings or their personality through little tics – observing the scene I’m in with the narrator doing a voice-over in my head. When I come to write up those experiences I can retrieve the details much more easily to share with others. The problem is that during the most interesting experiences – when you’re genuinely excited, on edge, afraid, angry, stunned – the adrenaline shuts up the narrator in your head so it’s often those scenes where I’m left with little recollection of the details that will convey the scene most powerfully to a reader.
Just as I was really beginning to believe this was going to happen I got an email to say that the publishing house was folding and they couldn’t afford to bring the book out…
Perhaps the more experience you have as a travel writer, the better trained your voice-over narrator becomes… but it would be a terrible Faustian deal if that stopped you having the full impact of the most intense experiences as they happen!
My method for writing 500 to 5000 word articles is to throw down ideas onto the page then slowly shape them into some kind of form. Should I have more discipline when writing a book? Do you create an outline of each chapter before you start, with a beginning and end already in place? Or does the book mutate as you write?
I’m sure it’s different for different people but for all my full-length books I’ve always had a structure before I start producing the prose – I know that there are going to be a certain number of chapters, and what each one will deal with, and how the themes of the book will be developed through each one. Then for each chapter I have that bundle of notes, facts, images and ideas that I’ll draw on, in just the way you say you’d write a shorter article.
How do you decide what to filter out from your notes, diaries and research and what to keep in?
I’m sure if I was a great writer I wouldn’t have to worry about that kind of thing, but my method is really prosaic – once I’m clear about what the themes for the book are, each paragraph has to pay its way to moving those along. When I was writing Travels in Blood and Honey, I wanted to share my emerging relationship with Kosovo, so the book felt something like a love story. But also my developing skills and identity as a beekeeper, and also the human relationship betwen me and Adem’s family (the man who taught me beekeeping).
When I was editing the book, I went through the whole text and colour-coded every paragraph to show whether it was developing the first theme, the second theme or the third theme. If there was a paragraph that wasn’t highlighted, meaning it didn’t contribute to any of those, then it had to go. Whether that process is evident in the book or not, I don’t know, but it was a good filter for me. I’m doing something similar with The Rubbish-Picker’s Daughter, and I think I’m getting better at doing it before the editing phase, so hopefully there will be fewer perfectly-formed paragraphs on the cutting room floor this time.
Tell us about how you landed that first publishing deal for Travels in Blood and Honey.
It was a messy process! I sent my synopsis and sample chapters off to loads of agents and publishers, and one of them finally got back to me and offered me a contract, on condition of editing the book in various ways. That was very exciting, and I met their editor and discussed ideas for the front cover, watched the book become available for pre-order on Amazon, and worked on the text. Just as I was really beginning to believe this was going to happen I got an email to say that the publishing house was folding and they couldn’t afford to bring the book out.
I felt like I’d been jilted at the altar, but eventually I went back to the process of sending an (admittedly now better, more tightly-edited) book out, with the dubious qualification of being able to say that it was considered to be ready for publication by what had been a reputable publisher, and Signal Books said that they would publish it.
What do you think about self-publishing?
This is a long answer…
Through the experience of publication of my first book I learned a bit more about how the process of being published works. Signal are a small publishers, but I have friends who are published by bigger names who say similar things – that even with a highly commercial publisher, you are doing much of the publicity yourself. One travel publisher I talked to about publishing my second book, Edith and I, was very honest and said that my expectations of what they could do to promote the book were unrealistic and that they would probably be able to devote a total of one day to promotion!
I realized that I enjoyed not only the writing, but all the other bits of producing a book – I’ve worked as an editor, and was able to spot things which the copy editor working on my first book had missed. I really enjoyed working with the designers on the front cover (I was lucky that Signal Books agreed to my recommendation of some very talented friends, Su Jones and Paddy McEntaggart, to do the design) and I enjoyed marketing the book – offering talks or signings to any group I could think of. I was lucky that Signal arranged things like an interview on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage but in the end it was me who put together a programme that included a baklava-making demonstration (using a recipe included in my book!) at the London Book Fair, talks and signings at schools, universities and bookshops, and 16 printed reviews in places as diverse as the Transition Haslemere newsletter, and The Times (you can read an article in more detail about the way I worked on this promotion on the London Writers Club website.
I decided I would be able to manage this whole process myself, buying in the expertise for things I couldn’t do (typesetting, proofreading, design, print, distribution). I set up Elbow Publishing and produced a trial book, The Little Book of Honey with the same designers who’d made such a gorgeous front cover for Travels in Blood and Honey and discovered that it was indeed a really fun process I also learned from some mistakes along the way.
By then I was convinced that Edith and I should be published by Elbow Publishing, meaning that I would get the return on all of the marketing effort I would put in, and I wouldn’t have to compromise on my vision for the book. I was still able to get an interview on Radio 4, a lovely review in The Times, invitations to literary festivals and blogs, and talks and signings. The book was reprinted last month and although sales are slightly lower than with my first book, the money I’ve made is about the same, and I’ve been invited to more talks, meaning that probably more people have heard the story than with the first book. And I’ve enjoyed almost every minute!
Some would-be authors do not have the means or opportunity to attend writing workshops or take academic courses, can you recommend any other ways to learn and practise the dark art of writing? How useful are writing clubs?
I’ve never been to a writing workshop (though some of them look wonderful) or academic course since I left university. But the two writers groups I’ve belonged to – one in Greenwich and one in Prishtina – are both credited in the introductions to the books I wrote when I was attending them because the groups were essential in getting the books written. They inspired me to write, knowing that there would be readers waiting for the next instalment each week; they gave constructive criticism, and sometimes they didn’t even need to do that, because just in the process of reading out loud to a real audience a piece I had loved in the quiet of my room, I realized its weaknesses, its damp squibs or its clumsiness.
I can point to plenty of opportunities – and book sales – that have come about solely because of having had an active presence on Facebook or Twitter
Now that my moving around (splitting each month between the UK, Kosovo and Albania) means I can’t attend a regular group in either Greenwich or Prishtina I have been really missing the moral and practical support of these groups – which is why I was so happy to find the IWC online!
Would you agree that for today’s writers promotion across all social media plays an essential role in achieving success; should we all have websites?
I really enjoy the promotion through social media, partly because I am passionate about promoting Kosovo, so I am happy to use any opportunities to promote the country as well as my writing about it. I know that for some people self-promotion feels gauche or arrogant, but, as a travel writer friend of mine said last week, it’s actually arrogant not to work at promoting your writing – as if you assume that everyone will hear about it even if you make no effort to tell them! I can point to plenty of opportunities – and book sales – that have come about solely because of having had an active presence on Facebook or Twitter, or my website.
The one I’m most proud of recently which led to no book sales at all, but was a wonderful experience and has led to loads of great feedback from friends and strangers, and more than 35 000 views on YouTube since it came out last week, is an advert LandRover made in the ‘Accursed Mountains’ of Albania with me as a voiceover, talking about why I love this place.
What makes you want to write?
When I first moved to Kosovo my friends in England always asked me ‘is it very dangerous?’. Kosovo is so misunderstood as a country (no, I feel far safer here than I did living in London!) and I realized that people only knew it as a place of blood, whereas for me it was a place of honey, and that was a story worth telling.
I’m a teacher by training and I guess the best teachers are storytellers, and I think the best stories also teach you something.
I’m really enjoying writing The Rubbish-Picker’s Daughter which comes out of the work of our charity, The Ideas Partnership…
I’m currently fretting about how to do a good job for IWC member Helen Moat’s Flash Fiction page…
One day I still want to get The Borrowers; a tour round Britain’s libraries published…
And so many places I want to travel to…
I also really need to get dressed now.