Helen Moffett wears many hats. She cut her teeth as an academic editor, and soon came to specialise in what some call development editing. This means acting as much more than a copy-editor: the role is an amalgam of academic supervisor, agent, mentor, advisor and sounding-board. Increasingly, Helen is focusing on fiction editing, where she has worked with some of Africa’s best and brightest writers.
Some authors Helen has worked with: Diane Awerbuck, Lauren Beukes, Andrew Brown, Mike Cope, Nadia Davids, Richard de Nooy, Tom Eaton, Liesl Jobson, Sarah Lotz, Sindiwe Magona, Siphiwo Mahala, Amina Mama, Zakes Mda, Thando Mgqolozana, S. A. Partridge, Jamala Safari, Elinor Sisulu, Jane Taylor, Ivan Vladislavic, Terry Westby-Nunn, Makhosazana Xaba.
Under Helen’s poet hat, her first collection of poems, Strange Fruit, was published by Mojadji Books.
On the 15th of this month, Helen’s choose-your-own-adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, will be released (as an e.book) under the pseudonym Helena S. Paige. This book is co-written with Paige Nick and Sarah Lotz. Hard copies of this book will be released in November 2013.
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
I only stop editing when the deadline intervenes and the MS is torn from my twitching hands. I agree with whoever said “Writing is rewriting”.
2. What research do you do for your book?
I write such different stuff, it depends. When I write academic pieces, research has to be very deep, and takes far more time than the writing. When I’m writing or editing anything else, I mostly just fact-check everything. My Google search history ranges from boring to bizarre: on the same day, it once included EU trade agreements and sea-urchin gonads. Occasionally, research is pure pleasure: for A Girl Walks into a Wedding (the second in the erotica series by Helena S. Paige, which Sarah Lotz, Paige Nick and I are writing), I spent a few days visiting wedding venues and chatting to wedding planners – in the Cotswolds, in the prettiest spring weather.
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
It depends entirely on what I’m writing. If it’s a poem, it can be as little as 50 words. If it’s something academic or serious non-fiction, I rarely go past a thousand words a day. But for lighter stuff, I can go at a gallop, and have been known to produce 5 000 words in a day. But then a lot are chaff.
4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?
Poems fly in the window and flap at me until I write them down (corny, but true). My academic writing is a bit like constructing a case, using building blocks of research/evidence and cementing them together with logic. For fiction, sometimes the entire thing is clear before I start writing. Or I can see a particular scene or character in my head, so I write it all down, and hope the next scene will form in my head. But I’m not sure that this is good writing practice: I recommend outlines, also collecting bits and pieces and putting them into some sort of order first.
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
I was once commissioned to write a paper on child rape. Towards the end, my mind’s eye was so flooded with horrors, I got into my car and drove it straight into a highly visible tree. I find that when I have to write something important but difficult, it helps if I get really angry. Once I hit a certain flashpoint of rage, it all comes boiling out.
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Ah, trade secrets. As an editor, I sometimes work with authors who are blocked, and find that Louis Greenberg’s words apply: “Editing is therapy at a cheaper hourly rate”. Intractable writer’s block is often rooted in some personal anxiety or issue. When I get writer’s block (in my case, the sense that my brain has been scraped bare), I’m lucky in that a long walk almost always solves the problem. There’s something about repetitive movement or action that shakes thing loose.
7. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
Before I do that, I research the publisher carefully. Every day, publishers get manuscripts that simply do not match the kinds of books they publish. I encourage writers to read local writing and study catalogues carefully to pick a good fit between their MS and a publisher. Once I submit, I keep the cover letter short and practical. I include a brief bio and list of writing I’ve already published, a short but juicy synopsis, and a paragraph about the market it’s aimed at. The latter is critical, along with a description of how it might fit into the local publishing scene: something like “set in the world of teenage skateboard gangs on the Cape Flats, this book has the gritty humour of Sally Partridge’s YA novels, along with the moral dilemmas of Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood”.
8. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
Nothing earth-shatteringly new: remember that writing may start as a gift, but it survives as a craft. So the more you do it, the more talented you’ll get. And that old chestnut also applies: the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get.
But one thing doesn’t get stressed enough: befriend, support and share your work and experiences, good and bad, with other writers – you’ll learn so much from each other. And be happy for them when they get published. It’s a combination of common sense and good karma. If you’re lucky (see point about hard work above), one day it will be your turn.