Anneliese Mackintosh is a successful writer, editor and performer based in Manchester. She's been published in numerous publications and currently works as a consultant editor for Cargo, an indie publisher in Scotland. She loves to write short stories, which she's won many an award for and has recently finished writing her first novel. It's fair to say Anneliese is one to watch! I was lucky enough to have her spare a moment to talk to me about writing, self-editing and where she finds her inspiration...
What do you enjoy most about writing?
Writing is my antidepressant. After a day of writing, I feel good about myself, and happy about my place in the world. If I haven't written for a week or two, I'll start to become grouchy and miserable. It's better for everyone when I'm writing.
Which authors have influenced your work?
So many! And most of them are unconscious too. I think every time I read something that affects me strongly, either positively or negatively, it somehow ends up feeding into my work. If I've had a week where I've been so busy writing I haven't had time to read anything new, I'll often feel drained of inspiration until I take a break, read something by someone else, and then feel refreshed enough to carry on with my own work again. That's partly just to get a break from my own voice, I guess, but reading something by someone else can also help me tackle a problem from a different angle. Reading someone else's work is a bit like borrowing someone else's brain for a while.
To come back to your question (I'm not trying to shirk it, honest), my earliest influence was Roald Dahl. I loved the way he addressed the reader directly, and adored his grotesque character portraits. I think I got a lot of my early sense of humour from his writing. In my late teens I was influenced by Charles Bukowski, Anaïs Nin, and Jeffrey Eugenides... I spent a while trying to emulate the writers I loved when I was younger, and could never quite figure out why my stories didn't work. Now, I might feel inspired by certain writers, including Miranda July, David Vann, and Mary Gaitskill, but I never knowingly set out to imitate anyone else. It's very important to me that my writing comes straight from my own heart.
When and where do you like to write?
I'm at my most productive when I'm sitting at my desk in silence. I have a computer app called 'Self Control' that blocks social networking sites for a limited period of time, and I'll often use that when I work. There's no way to override it once you've set the timer. Amazing how much more work I get done when I can't access Facebook or Twitter.
Sometimes, though, sitting at a desk - bereft of all social contact - can get a bit lonely, so I'll go to a cafe for a couple of hours. I find when I'm around people it encourages me to work, as I feel dead self-conscious, sitting there with my Mac, and I want people to think, 'Hey, check out that woman. Look at her go. She's a writing machine.' Writing in public only really works for first drafts for me, though. Editing in a noisy place is more difficult, as it gets too distracting.
Other places I write include: bed (dangerous); sofa (dangerous); public transport (dangerous); and inside my own head (most dangerous of all). In some ways, I don't think I ever stop writing.
How do you find inspiration for your stories?
I'm currently drawing on a huge amount of personal experience, and the more prescient question lately has been what not to include. Normally my fiction is written as a reaction to something, usually something I'm angry about. I'm not very good at confrontation in real life, so writing a killer short story about something that's upset me is a way of releasing tension. In fact, most of my short stories are a big two-fingers-up at something or other.
When I'm not writing about my own life, I get inspiration from all over the place. Several times a week I'll overhear something or read something or see something that causes me to think 'that'd make a great story'. It's remembering the ideas afterwards that's the tricky part. That's why it helps to carry a notebook. I write things in my phone sometimes too. Or on receipts. Or beer mats. The ideas I write on beer mats tend to be terrible, as chances are I've had a few beers before writing on said mats.
How important is it to bear the reader in mind whilst writing?
Hmm, I'd like to say 'not at all', because two bad things can happen when you bear the reader in mind. On the one hand, it can cause you to patronise your reader by giving him/her too much information and not allowing his/her imagination to take hold. On the other hand, you can become crippled by worry if you start trying to second-guess how your reader will feel about your work, and it can cause you to self-censor, and lead to writers' block.
But having performed my work in public a lot over the past few years, I think you've got to bear your audience in mind to a certain degree. I read all my work out loud into the mirror, so I guess I'm imagining my reader is me. If my reflection starts to get bored, then I know I'm in trouble.
As an editor, do you have any tips for self-editing your own work?
Continuing from my last point, read aloud and perform your own work as much as possible! Even if you're just performing to a mirror, as I do, or a hairbrush, or your cat. Hearing the stuff spoken out loud makes all the difference. If you find you're continually stumbling over the same sentence, or you hear the same word repeated unnecessarily, or you find certain parts of the text are dragging, then edit, edit, edit.
Also, a bit of distance helps. Try and take a couple of weeks once you've finished a draft before doing the final polish. You'll be less precious about it then, and be able to see it more clearly.
I find coffee helps too. I'm a terribly ruthless editor after a strong cup of coffee.
What is the most common mistake you notice whilst editing other writers' work?
Probably a lack of authenticity in the voice. A lot of beginner writers try to write in the way that they think they should write. They're either imitating other writers, or trying to live up to some sort of Victorian ideal of what they think A Writer Is Supposed To Sound Like. I've found the longer I've kept writing, the less clever I've tried to be, and the better it has made my work. Bit odd really, but I guess I'm saying: to become a better writer, stop trying so hard.
You're a brilliant performer! How do you prepare for a public reading?
Thank you very much! I do put in a lot of preparation for my performances. I think carefully about what I'm going to read at each event, and try not to run over the allotted time slot. Some writers always read for much longer than they're meant to, and I don't think it does them any favours. In fact, wherever possible, I'll try and read something ever so slightly shorter than the time slot I've been given. I like to leave the audience wanting more.
I'll read something aloud to myself several times before a performance, in front of the mirror, as I've said. The mirror is handy because I can practise making eye contact, so once I'm on the stage it's less of a shock to have a sea of eyeballs staring back at me.
I often continue to edit the piece as I practise it, as I find better ways of saying certain lines. I think it's important to get really comfortable with the feeling of the sentences on my tongue before a reading, because it's easy to lose my place or garble phrases if I'm not familiar with them.
When I arrive at a venue before a performance, I'll always stand onstage and take a moment to look at the room. That makes it less scary when I get up to read in front of the audience. I also take time to make sure the microphone is exactly where I want it before I read. No point reading beautifully if no-one can hear it.
I used to drink two and a half glasses of wine (no more, no less) before each of my performances. I would not recommend that. Actually, when I perform sober, I get much more out of it. And so does the audience, I think!
What are you working on right now?
I've just finished working on a novel, which my agent is sending out to publishers now, so I'm crossing my fingers for that. I've also got two more novels on the go, and this week I'll be looking at which one of those I want to plunge into properly next. One of them is death-related. The other is sex-related. I think I'm going to go with the sex.
Favourite book of the year so far?
'Legend of a Suicide' by David Vann, without a doubt. It was published in 2008, but I read it this year, at just the right moment in my life and my writing career. It spurred me on to finish my own book, and gave me hope.
It's a collection of short stories plus a novella, all set against a stunning Alaskan backdrop. The whole experience of reading the book is more like a novel than a short story collection. The pieces feed into one another, and although they're fictional, they explore the true event of the author's father's suicide. The way David Vann deals with that event in the book is fascinating. That's all I want to say without giving everything away, but it blew my mind.
I had the pleasure of hosting an event at Waterstones last month, where David Vann was one of the readers. He is a super nice guy and I just about managed to speak to him like a normal human being instead of a massive giggling fangirl.
Best piece of life advice you've ever been given?
Yikes, I don't know... Someone once told me the fable about a king who was given a ring which was engraved with the words 'This too shall pass', and the words made him feel happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy. I've been through some really tough things in recent years, and that phrase has come back to me often. Sometimes it helps me to think of the transience of human experience. No matter what you go through in life, it will not stay that way forever. Even grief fades and changes over time. I often feel extreme highs as well as extreme lows, so the phrase is also useful to me when I'm feeling manic and a little bit too euphoric. 'Watch out,' that phrase says to me, 'this feeling won't last forever, so don't do anything stupid.' That phrase won't be of use to everyone, of course, but I've found it helps.
See more from Anneliese Mackintosh here.