In the second part of my interview with Viccy Adams, I asked her about coping with challenges, advice to her younger self, and what creative success looks like. Read part one of the interview here.
What support has been essential to you along the way?
People. 100% people. I’ve always wanted to make a career as a writer, and I’ve always written from when I was little. I’ve also always known I didn’t want to be a journalist – I always thought it would be creative writing and maybe some academic writing as well. And my parents have always been completely supportive of that, although they’ve always wanted me to do it by a sensible route, so the fact that I chose an academic pathway and I was interested in lectureships and so forth, that was something they could understand and see as a way for it to pay. But they’ve always hugely encouraged me in reading and writing, and they’ve never said, ‘People aren’t writers, that’s ridiculous, what are you talking about…’
And supportive friends I think, and having lots of other writers who’re friends, so you hear the gripes of what everybody’s going through and you can map that experience onto your own. And having people to look at your work, because I think that external feedback’s really important.
Initially you need feedback just to validate the fact that somebody’s read your work – and then you get to the point where you want to change your work.
That would probably be a sea-change for me: I couldn’t accept criticism or the need to edit until I started my M.Litt. Until then I was very much: “I write a first draft and I finish it and that’s it done, that’s writing”. So learning to edit my work and make big changes and not be afraid of it and to accept criticism. Initially, to accept criticism; then to accept it gracefully; and then to respond to it. And that’s something I see in teaching a lot: people who aren’t actually ready for feedback, even if they’re asking for it. Or they’ll take feedback but they aren’t willing to make changes to their work. And some people get there when they’re nine, some people will never get there by ninety. And I’ve now reached the point where I positively enjoy people saying, make a major change there. I think initially you need feedback just to validate the fact that somebody’s read your work – and then you get to the point where you want to change your work, and that’s when you want to hear criticism, and if somebody says, ‘I really hated that bit, this wasn’t plausible,’ your response is: brilliant! I knew there was something wrong with that!
Can you identify any points at which you made a leap forward with your work?
Finishing the first draft of the London novel felt great, because that was my first single piece of long-form fiction, and in terms of learning what it means to produce something of that size, that was wonderful. And I think that’s something that I slowly built up: so for my undergraduate dissertation at St Andrews I produced a 9,000 word short story, and I remember starting out on that thinking, woah, I’ve got to write 9,000 words! And then for the M.Litt I had to produce 30,000 words, and that was a collection of short pieces which were each about 2,000 words long, and at that point I discovered that I was writing naturally to that kind of length. So when I got to the PhD I was looking at section novels and short stories – essentially what I was writing was chunks, like short stories – and I knew what that size of words and ideas and development looked like, I just had to transfer that across to a more sustained piece – and I found I was writing things that were naturally falling at about the 5,000 word mark. So doing the novel in London was another personal marker for me. Doing something of that size, and thinking: that wasn’t too bad, I could do that again.
I’ve been reading loads of young adult fiction, because I think that’s a wonderful way of seeing how that classic three-act structure unfolds.
I can’t imagine someone sitting down and writing a novel straightaway, I think that’s so brave, in terms of how you would deal with that mass of information. It’s not that I’d say to somebody don’t do it, it’s just for me I stumbled into short stories and loved them, getting an idea out quickly and then learning to refine that. I think what I’m working on at the moment, and where I’ve still got a long way to go, is plot, and letting things happen. I’ve always tried to underwrite rather than overwrite, and that means that often I forget to tell people where the story’s set or what’s happening – like they should infer it from the fact the character’s wearing a blue T-shirt… So I’m trying to unpick that tendency. I’ve been reading loads of young adult fiction, because I think that’s a wonderful way of seeing how that classic three-act structure unfolds in a really clear, non-subplotted way.
Have there been any times that have been particularly difficult?
Every day! I don’t think writing ever gets any easier; it does get more interesting. The more you learn to criticise yourself, the further you can push yourself. At the same time, I know it’s important not to beat myself up if I’m going through a period where I can’t write anything new – so rather than going, oh my god I’ve got writer’s block, it’s case of going, okay, I seem to have run out of creative juice, maybe I’m having some personal issue … or more often I’ve just finished a piece – like even just finishing a story I feel emotionally exhausted – and I have to take a couple of days of just doing some reading. And doing some freewriting makes me feel better about that situation, and I can also use that time to edit.
The more I take myself seriously as a writer, and take my writing seriously, the more rewarding it is. I’m getting less nervous about creative writing teaching. Going into a classroom, I used to get very nervous about teaching and other situations where everybody’s looking at you, and I realised I was really focusing on the ‘being looked-at’ side of it, and the concept of looking the part. So reminding myself that what these people need is the knowledge and experience you have – anything else isn’t actually important; I find that really calming.
What are you proudest of?
A couple of my stories that I wrote for the M.Litt, anybody who read them cried. I had 90% crying feedback from people, and I felt really proud of that, because it was an honest emotional reaction. I really like it when I make people cry.
Any advice for emerging writers? What do you wish you’d known?
Advice to early-me: probably, get over yourself. So, as soon as you think you’re doing something because you’re a writer – oh, I stay up late, I don’t get up in the morning and write cos I’m a writer, that routine really works for me … get over it, that’s what early-me needed to learn. And anybody who’s resistant to editing like I was needs to move beyond that romantic view that you write and that’s it done. That’s wonderful if you’re writing a journal or writing for therapy; if you want to be a professional writer and you want to have readers, you need to learn to edit – and one round of changing the punctuation does not count as editing.
Also, time-management is something I’ve learnt over the years, so I’d say get that sorted as soon as possible: set boundaries. Work out what’s important. It’s taken me all of these years to get organised, and I’m still learning.
What would creative success look like to you?
Booker prize! I’m very reasonable about it, I accept that it might not be until my sixth novel or something that I win it… But for me that would count as having made it. I would accept any other prize as well – but I particularly like the Booker.