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Guest Post | An Evening With Maureen Johnson

An evening with Maureen Johnson event
On Saturday 5th October I was lucky enough to be invited by Waterstones Birmingham New Street* to blog at Maureen Johnson’s stop on her book tour at her store. Maureen chose to answer audience questions rather than give a dedicated talk, and she answered many including questions on writing, procrastination, publishing practices and puppies. Below are some of the most interesting questions and answers.

Do you have any tips for those starting out as writers, or want to be writers?
I have lots of advice. My first piece of advice is that when you first start writing you will suck at it. A lot of days you will sit there and think 'I am so terrible at this, why am I so terrible at this? I should give up! This is too hard, I know what goes in the beginning of the story but I don’t know what goes in the middle.' In the middle you’ll be thinking that you can’t finish, you’ll be thinking that you should not be doing it, you will be thinking all kinds of things about how you will fail. That’s all totally normal, so when you think that you are going exactly right – that’s good! That is exactly where you want to be. Everyone I know, those who are professionals and have won awards gets to a point where they’re like ‘I am the worst at this’, they want to quit, they want to give up. Everyone I know who is also a writer is currently late on their books, they think they’re horrible, they’re like ‘why am I doing this?’ That’s all normal, that’s great. 

Really, the only way you can learn to write is by writing and by reading. Anyone can do it, it’s a very open field which is why people like me can get into it. Look at me! I’m not a shining example of anything here and somehow this is my job. Just keep going, even when it seems too pointless or seems too hard or seems too easy as long as you keep going you are still writing. And really, that is how everybody succeeds.

You can only finish a book by finishing it. And finishing it is an ugly process, by the end of it you have like sticks in your hair and you’re eating things from the floor and thinking eurgh I’m a horrible person – that is how the end of books look.

I’ve just finished a three year writing course and I just can’t really write right now, do you suggest anything to make writing fun again?
There is nothing writers are better at than putting off writing. I’m putting it off right now. I should really be working. I’ve never gotten more done in my house than when I have a book due. I once put in a new kitchen floor. At 2 in the morning. Putting yourself in a limited atmosphere helps. Blocking yourself off as much as possible, sometimes even just doing small amounts of time. Say to yourself I can’t get up for fifteen minutes, I can’t do anything for fifteen minutes except write. Set a timer, and at the end of the fifteen minutes you can do what you want. And then have that timer set for fifteen minutes and set it again. You’d be amazed at how much you can do in fifteen minutes if you concentrate, because you know that you get a little vacation in like seven minutes. Turning off the internet for a while can help. Putting yourself in a situation where there’s nothing else to do, by getting out of the house and taking yourself somewhere where you can’t do anything else. That feeling where you think I can never ever do this much writing again? It passes pretty quickly.

Can we chat about coverflip? What do you think needs to happen in regards to gendered covers in the publishing world in order for there to be some change?
For some context, I did something sort of by accident recently called ‘coverflip’. When you are a female author you more often than not will get a certain type of package that goes on your book, whether or not it necessarily reflects the content of your book is often questionable. So with coverflip I said pick a book and imagine an author of a different gender writing this book and how would it be presented differently. I did it without really thinking about it…. And then I walked away from my computer. I came back and there were loads of responses and all these people had made these amazing covers, it got picked up for all this media coverage and it became a big conversation.

What to do about it? Part of it is the larger social context of what does it mean, and the problem is when you see something and you think oh that’s a women’s cover, it is also sometimes seen as a little less worthy. You will sometimes see adjectives attached to books written by women like “breezy”, “a light read”, “a fun read”, “a beach read”, “a summer read”. I’ve never seen a book called breezy that’s been written by a man. So not only do we get a different package, a different set of assumptions comes with the package. I do think it’s a problem.

We have a lot of evidence that says books that are written by women are reviewed less, books written by women are taught less, and the list goes on.

There really isn’t a gender connected, in general books are for everybody. The more that we bring attention to it helps, and the more that people think ‘what are these packages trying to tell me and how can I approach it differently’ – can I pick up something that I would not have picked up before? Should I try something that I think is not supposed to be for me? All covers are – they’re not evil, they’re not bad, they’re not a conspiracy – they are just an attempt to sell books. If publishers thought that you wanted a different package they would put it on. Really they’ll give you anything you want because they just want to sell the book.

I think as we unpack this and we comment on it and people start picking up other things it will get better. I think eReaders help. Never be embarrassed about reading, if anything hold up the book you are embarrassed about and yell “look at me! I’m reading Twilight!”. It’s okay to read anything. But if you are embarrassed, eReaders hide that.

I really think it is in the hands of book buyers, and it is the hands of readers, and it’s in the hands of librarians and it’s in the hands of teachers. If librarians and teachers make it known that the cover is put on by somebody else because a lot of kids don’t get that. If we buy differently, if we comment differently I think that’s how it happens. I think publishers are more than happy to change these things.

You can read a little more about the event and my impressions of Maureen over on my blog here. A massive thank you to Waterstones Birmingham New Street, Hot Key Books and of course Maureen herself for putting on a fantastic event.

*Ticket for event c/o Waterstones.

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