Jessica Bell is a writer, editor, musician, book cover designer and the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and Vine Leaves Press. She is also an editor/writer for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide.
In addition to her novels, poetry collections and her bestselling pocket writing guides (Writing in a Nutshell Series), she has published a variety of works in online and print literary journals and anthologies, including Australia’s Cordite Review, Writer’s Digest, and the anthologies 100 Stories For Queensland and From Stage Door Shadows, both released through Brisbane, Australia’s eMergent Publishing. Jessica will be teaching a one day workshop on How To Publish A Book as part of WriteCon16 in Zürich on 21/22 May (book your place here).
I first encountered you as an author, but I’ve since found other Jessicas popping up all over the place: musician, writing coach, litmag editor, cover designer, poet, workshop organiser. Which came first?
I started writing poetry when I was about twelve, inspired by the Greek landscape, but then I soon dove right into music at around thirteen/fourteen. My parents were (well, still are) musicians, so I was surrounded by music for much of my teen and young adult life.
Zürich has a thriving literary programme in various languages for readers. But ten years ago, the opportunities for English-speaking writers were limited. Thankfully Zürich Writers Workshop changed all that and The Woolf grew from a desire to connect and inform writers. What kind of a writers’ scene do you have in Athens?
A very small and narrow one. There are some English writers here, and I’ve met up with a few on occasion, and though they are absolutely lovely people, I don’t have much in common with them on the writing front. The ones I’ve met are very focused on writing romance books set in Greece, or travel writers writing about Greece to boost tourism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that kind of writer. Yes, my debut was set in Athens, but it’s so far from Shirley Valentine that I very much doubt readers of Greek island romance would desire to pick it up.
Many of our readers are expats or third culture kids. What do you see as the benefits of living in a different country to the one where you grew up?
There are many fabulous reasons, but I think the main one, as a writer, is that I’m able to experience the way a different culture behaves and I can therefore incorporate those differences into my writing. I love to include characters of various cultures in my books. The culture clash between them is great for tension and relationship dynamics. Of course, I think it goes without saying that being so close to everything in Europe is a godsend. I wouldn’t be able to travel to so many wonderful places so often if I still lived in Australia.
Where does the Vine Leaves journal come in? Who are your readers and how does it work?
Vine Leaves started in late 2011 with my co-founder, Dawn Ius, to draw more attention to the vignette. As it says on our website:
“Vignette is a word that originally meant ‘something that may be written on a vine leaf.’ It’s a snapshot in words. It differs from flash fiction or a short story in that its aim doesn’t lie within the traditional realms of structure or plot. Instead, the vignette focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It’s descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere.”
I believe our readers are people who really enjoy the manipulation of language in a way that isn’t considered the ‘norm’. This doesn’t mean that everything is ‘poetic’, or so experimental that it would take a room full of professors to encrypt it. What it means is that our readers, and writers alike, understand that every word used in a vignette is a choice. To write an excellent vignette, one needs to only use words that have a great amount of weight and significance to the vignette’s overall purpose.
For the first three years we published a new issue every quarter, but from this year forward we are only publishing biannually because we’ve now also opened Vine Leaves Press to unsolicited submissions. We’ve now ventured into book publishing! However, if you’d like to submit your vignettes to the journal, you can find out how here.
Tell us a bit about why you wrote the Writing in a Nutshell series? Was that driven by a desire to pass on what you’ve learned?
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says a writer needs to focus on short assignments to avoid feeling overwhelmed. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how it reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. If you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. The same applies to learning writing, editing and publishing craft. If writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting, and piece by piece, it will come together.
With more than eleven years of experience as an editor and writer of English Language Teaching (ELT) materials for various ELT publishers worldwide, I know that “breaking down” language and tasks into smaller focus areas is an effective learning method. After much experimentation on myself, and volunteer aspiring writers, I discovered it is extremely effective with writing, editing and publishing, too. And so the Writing in a Nutshell series was born.
Your novels all have a powerful voice—whether it’s the torn musings of Melody in String Bridge or the range of distinctive characters in White Lady. How far is this talent with voice connected to your ear for music?
I’m really not sure, to be honest. I do suppose I have an ear for how language should sound rhythmically due to my experience with music, but I wouldn’t say it has a direct effect. When I write I just try to sound authentic. I don’t write stories. I write ‘real’ life. So my voice is a natural result, I think, of wanting to make the narrative sound as realistic as possible. And even when I’m being ‘poetic’, I believe that is realistic too. Because I strive to portray the ‘truth.’ It can be literal or symbolic, or through trying to make the reader feel what my characters are feeling by using poetic prose to create an atmosphere.
When you begin a book, do you start with the voice and find a story to fit, or does character development dictate the tone? Or perhaps you’re a rigorous planner?
I’m all over the place and unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll start writing a character, and a story evolves to fit him/her. Sometimes I’ll think of a plot idea and develop characters to fit that. Sometimes I write without a plan, and sometimes I write with strict chapter by chapter summaries. It all depends on my mood and what kind of book I’m writing. If I find that I need to organize my thoughts, I’ll plan. For example, I needed to plan White Lady so that all the plot and sub-plot points would link up together properly and make realistic sense. String Bridge and The Book weren’t planned. I wrote String Bridge completely out of order motivated by what the main character was feeling. I then pieced the excerpts together and filled in the gaps to create a flowing narrative. The 1st draft of The Book was written from beginning to end in three days, without a single scribble on a notepad to guide me. It just goes to show there is no ‘right’ way. Whatever works for you and gets the book written!
What made you self-publish your novels, and was that the right decision for you? Why?
My debut, String Bridge, was actually first published by a small press in America called Lucky Press. I guess they weren’t so lucky after all because they went bust only six months after my book’s release. I was then confronted with a big decision. Do I let the book go out of print only after six months and completely waste all my marketing efforts? (I’d also written and recorded an accompanying soundtrack to go with it.) I decided to take the matter into my own hands. Since then I haven’t looked back. I love having control over the publishing process. And I especially love that I’m able to publish books that aren’t ‘commercial enough’ for the Big 5, and still have the opportunity to build a dedicated readership that enjoy reading books by a writer with a different voice. This way I get to be the real me. Not a product that has been developed with profit as the main motive to sell it. Of course, we all like to make money. But that’s honestly not why I write. I design book covers to make money. I edit and write text books to make money. I organize workshops to make money. I do voiceover acting to make money. But the writing? That’s just my heart and soul finding a vehicle to express themselves. And if the result of that expression is making money, fabulous! If not, then I have everything else to keep me on my feet.
As an experienced cover designer, you must have a strong opinion on what does and doesn’t work. What are your key principles when creating a cover?
Subtle colour combinations. If bold and vibrant, not too many! Space (very important!). Focus on portraying a theme and/or emotion, not specific story elements. People are attracted to visuals because of the way they make them feel. Which is why you often see TV commercials implementing a narrative that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with the product, but has managed to grab your attention because it has pushed the right emotional buttons. For example, while I was in Australia, I saw an advert that captured my attention. The narrative shifted from scenes in various homes with happy and relaxed families and individuals. Cooking, reading, playing with a baby, a writer content at his desk, etc. All the people in this advert were smiling and at complete ease. In a literal sense, it looked like it was an advertisement for either a furniture store, or a real estate agent. There was no text, until the end, when the Bank’s name popped up, along with something about their new easy Internet banking system. What was their message here? Bank with us and you’ll be able to enjoy life completely stress free. This is what I believe a book cover needs to do. It needs to show potential readers how it’s going to make them feel, not by telling them what is inside, but by pushing the right emotional buttons to make them take a look at the blurb and see what’s inside.
And apart from a busy year of speaking engagements–Zürich, Chicago, Dublin–what’s next for you?
I really want to try and get my books into audio format. Which won’t be too hard, because I’m also an experienced voiceover actor, and have my own recording equipment. The problem is finding time. I think I will try to get started on these this year. I also want to write another album. I miss music!
In advance of our May weekend and your session–How To Publish a Book–what are the most common errors writers make when putting their work out there?
They RUSH. And try to learn everything there is to know before they’ve even finished writing. By trying to do everything at once, you lose focus, and miss (or even create) errors. You really do not need to start thinking about retailers, distributors and marketing, etc. until the book is ready. So don’t rush. Get your book ready for publication FIRST. Step by step. Focus on writing the book. Then focus on editing the book. Then focus on cover design, etc. Through each step of the process, make sure the result is as good as it can possibly be. Then you will have the brain space and power for the logistics of getting it out there and for sale.
Finally, if you’d not embraced the world of writing and language, what else would you have become?
Oh, that’s easy. A rock star. (I still dream about it.)