Monday, 31 March 2014

Karen Jones writes a letter to herself

I'm delighted to welcome Karen Jones to the blog, here to celebrate the launch of her first collection, Upside Down Jesus and other stories. These stories have made it to the top in loads of big-name big-deal writing prizes - the title itself is from a Mslexia prize winner. (Tracy Chevalier loved it). 

I asked Karen if she'd like to write a letter to her younger self, just like Vanessa Gebbie, Kerry Hudson and Andrew David Barker have done for us in the past. You're in for a treat. A double treat, in fact - because there's a copy of Upside Down Jesus and other stories for one lucky reader - all you have to do is leave a comment on this post and your name will go into a hat (I'll take photos, it'll be amazing) and if I pick you Karen will mail the book out your way. 

Over to Karen now, writing to Karen then.

A letter to me in 2001

Hello You,

It’s 2001 and for some reason your fashion choice for hair and clothes is ‘looks like she’s from the future or Star Trek’. There you are, in a holiday apartment in Blackpool with the two most important people in your life, and in a way it’s thanks to them that you’ll start to take the idea of writing more seriously. You’re watching Cartoon Network because it’s a British seaside family summer holiday, so the wind and rain is keeping you indoors. That advert between cartoons for the writing course, cleverly placed to attract all those stay-at-home-feeling-slightly-trapped mums like you, it’ll catch your attention.
          You’ve already written a novel – and I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it’s truly awful. It’s possibly the worst novel ever written. If anyone ever wants to give an example of how not to write a novel, of why all tell and no show is so relentlessly dull, they could use your first novel as a perfect example – but you’ve never had the courage to let anyone see your work. You think this course might be the thing to help, to give you a push, to give you confidence. (Incidentally, that there was ‘the rule of three’. You haven’t learnt about that yet but when you do it will become something of a feature in your writing – as will these pesky dashes.)

           Your youngest son will start school next year, you don’t work since becoming Mum’s carer after she had the stroke in 1991, so you know you’ll have the time to dedicate to the course, the time to really make a go of this writing thing. When you get back from holiday you’ll contact the course organisers. You’ll have to send samples of your writing so they can decide if you have any talent worth nurturing. Later you’ll realise that this is nothing more than an exercise in massaging your ego – they’re not going to turn away anyone who’s willing to pay for the course. They’ll accept you, praise your writing abilities, you’ll believe them.

The course will turn out to be a bit of a letdown and your tutor’s comments are often unhelpful and vague but it will give you that confidence and willingness to share your work.  In 2002 you’ll send out a couple of stories to writing competitions. You’ll win one and come third in the other earning £750 from your first two efforts. Sounds great, eh? Ah, well, not so great. You see, after these two immediate successes, you’ll think that’s it, you’ve done it – you’re a writer now. The crushing blow of rejection is yet to come.

And there will be rejections – a lot of rejections – but you’ll be surprised at how quickly they stop hurting (well, okay, the pain will lessen and having a self-pitying tantrum on the living room floor will eventually become a thing of the past).

You’ll join a fantastic creative writing site run by the BBC called Get Writing and this is where you will really start to learn, by reading and reviewing other people’s stories, by paying heed to their reviews and by reading the free advice posted by published writers and creative writing tutors. You’ll also discover that the internet is a terrifying place and that people are often not what they seem or claim to be. The internet will remain a terrifying but incredibly useful place.

When the BBC closes the site down you’ll move to another, More Writing, and there you’ll join a small critiquing group. This is where your writing will move to a different level. These seven or eight writers will rip apart every aspect of your stories, will catch every error, home in on every detail. By then you will have the confidence to do the same for them. With their help you will garner more success, winning or being placed in competitions, gathering publishing credits in places like Mslexia, The New Writer, Writers Forum and Flash 500.

You’ll start to meet up with your writing group once or twice a year at a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales for writing weekends. You’re reading this and thinking, “Spend a weekend in a cottage with people I’ve never met before? Are you mental?” Don’t panic, thankfully they’ll all turn out to be just as they are online – clever, funny, helpful and encouraging. Each time you meet you’ll come home with a story that has been so improved by their critiques, it will go on to be published or win a competition. You’ll also have a stinking hangover, have gained 3lbs of mainly cake-based fat and have a hankering to play Articulate every night after dinner.

Between 2004 and 2008, you’ll write another novel and it will be better than that first effort because now you’ll actually know how to plan, how to create interesting characters and give those characters authentic dialogue. You’ll still stint on description – that hasn’t changed here in 2014 – but you won’t bore the backside off people with tell, tell, tell any more. That novel won’t see the light of day either. At heart you’ll always feel that you’re a short story writer and this is where you will continue to have success. Don’t beat yourself up about mainly writing short stories – it’s okay. An idea will be what it’s supposed to be, and if it’s supposed to be micro or flash or short or long, just let it end when it should. And, believe it or not, you’ll even write poetry now and then. What’s even more unbelievable is that it’ll get published. No, I’m not joking.

In 2014 you’ll decide to gather some of your favourite stories into an anthology and publish them. Like many people, your attitude to self-publishing has changed but you’ll still be apprehensive. Don’t worry – it’ll all go okay and people will be very supportive.

Oh, and you’ll also be about half way through writing another thing – a long thing – a thing you refuse to call a novel in case the word scares it away.

You’ll never be a millionaire, you’ll probably never even make a proper wage from writing, but you will love it and you will get better at it and you will always find time to do it, no matter how many other things are deemed more important.

Remember that when those first rejections hit the doormat. When those envelopes scrawled with your own handwriting tell you all you need to know before you even tear open the flap. When you read competition winning stories and think, “What? Seriously? This won?” Remember that you do this because you love it and because you can. That’s all that matters in the end. Though money is always lovely.

With love,

Me. x


Thanks so much for sharing your journey to here with us, Karen. I know the anthology is already selling well - may it continue to - and may your 'thing' get its other half writ soon.

Oh and I love how the Karen from now is looking up at the Karen from Star Trek like she's about to get beamed-up.

So, to WIN a copy of Upside-down Jesus and other stories, all you have to do is:

- comment on the end of this post
- or retweet the daily tweet I'll do on Twitter saying something like "RT this to be put into the draw to win Upside-Down Jesus.." only (maybe) more well written
- do either of these (or both!*) before 5pm next Monday (6th April) and you'll go into the hat 

*each person will only go into the draw once, but we appreciate all your comments, RTs and sharing of information.

About the collection:

A child struggles to overcome her fear of the upside-down Jesus, a man dons his 'egg-stealing coat' once a week, a teenager becomes obsessed with the colour purple, an old man keeps his wife closer than others would like, a psychiatrist considers the folly of his patients, and a little girl watches her neighbour slowly disappear.

Click -

To buy from Lulu

To buy from Amazon

To follow Karen on Twitter

To get to Karen's blog


Patsy said...

Karen, you're one of the first people I ever met after coming across them on the internet. I think you were also the first person I'd heard refer to axe murderers in that context too.

Odd isn't it that we can be more worried about sending out or words than in sending ourselves into the unknown.

Miss McFish said...

Hi Karen, great letter, with many points I'm sure we call all relate to!

And 'hi' to you, Teresa - you've been a bit too quiet lately, glad to have you back! x

BettyMcFab said...

Lovely to hear about your development as a writer. Good luck with your short story collection and that long thing!

Karen Jones said...

Ha - yes, Patsy, my husband's dire warning that I was setting off to meet people who would turn out to be axe-murderers never came true, thankfully. Or should I say, so far.

And that's very true - I was far more comfortable with meeting a bunch of strangers than I was with letting people read my work. Odd.

Karen Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Jones said...

Thanks Miss McFish (what a fabulous name).

And thanks to you too, Betty McFab (another great name.

Samarita said...

I've read some of Karen's work online and would love to read the newly released short story collection. Thanks Teresa (and thanks Karen for sharing some of 'your' story).

LDLAX-Man11 said...

I just bought your book and look forward to reading it. Both my sons write and I'll have them read this letter.

Petra McQueen said...

It's like reading about myself, Karen. Although you are braver than me and have done an anthology. That's my next step (after winning the Booker, of course). Good luck with all the next stages xxxx

Nora Nadjarian said...

I like the "letter to yourself" idea! And yes, I can also relate to a lot of the content of that letter. Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

I like the title, the Upside Down Jesus. That got my attention.

I'm not just commenting because I like the idea of winning a book.

... Ok, that might be what got me reading, but I did enjoy the letter too.

And a lot of the stories hinted at in the summary of the collection sound really intriguing so I think I might buy a copy anyway (will leave it a week though just in case I do win!).

Karen Jones said...

Thanks everyone.

I'm glad so many of you could relate to the letter. I think many of us have similar journeys, especially if we have children and our time is never really our own.

And I'm glad the story summaries are an enticement to buy. Writing the stories in the book was easy compared to sorting out blurb and cover.

rainbowmaker said...

Us writers, we are all on the same path. We start off unable to share what we've written, convinced it's rubbish. Then, we take the first step and find a world full of people willing to help, to review, to encourage us to be brave enough to expose ourselves to rejection. Rejection - that's the bad news. The goods news is we meet people like Karen and are enriched by the experience. Good luck with this collection Karen. I look forward to your first novel!

Teresa Stenson said...

Thanks and hello to everyone who has commented so far. Really pleased Karen's letter has been so popular, here and on Twitter.

There's just over 6 hours for more comments to come in - so if you haven't commented and you'd like to be in the draw say hello soon!

I'll be posting the result on Wednesday.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading the Upside Down Jesus in Mslexia - loved it and it really stayed with me so very happy to stumble across you on twitter, via Teresa Stenson. And with a whole collection out! Woo! Will definitely be reading it one way or another. Winning a copy would of course be incredibly cool. :)

Karen Jones said...

Aw, that was a lovely thing to say, Anne. Thank you.x

Karen Jones said...

Wow - you remember the story? That's great - I don't think any of us could ask for anything more than one of our stories sticking with someone. Thank you, Vicki.

Teresa Stenson said...

I thought that was awesome, too - thanks, Vicki!

Perry said...

As usual, I come late to the party. That was an interesting read, Karen, though many of the recent events were known to me already.

Writing is in your blood. It will never leach out no matter how much alcohol you drink. Instead, as you have shown, it gets more concentrated with application and the result is those fluid, unaffected stories that comprise Upside-down Jesus. May you write many, many more.