In this episode we speak to the fantastic author Virginia Betts about her love of Gothic stories, the advantages of different publishing routes and the ways that her neurodiversity inspires her creativity.
Virginia's website: https://virginiabetts.com/
Hello and welcome to Page Parle. This is the show where we speak to authors or experts on the work we read in scintillating stories.
My name's Virginia Betts, and I'm a writer and a poet I'm an actor and I'm also a tutor of English.
You write various different mediums, as you've said, so... Do you approach writing prose and poetry differently?
It's a very different process for me. I don't know if other people approach it in a different way, but I see it quite differently. So poems, I tend to write all in one. I will be on a walk or I might be swimming or something like that.
And if I'm inspired, a poem will come to me and I have to rush out of the swimming pool, or I have to get home chanting it over and over to write it down, or I might be sitting in my garden and I'll get inspired. Once I got inspired by the sound of a little drip in my water bottle, and it inspired a whole poem.
I sort of imagined Going inside the barrel and hearing the sound of this dripping water. And then looked at the spray, the sprinkler, saw a little spiderweb. And it was all the details that I noticed. So poetry is something I rarely edit very much as well. I've always been a writer of poetry and stories ever since I was really small, actually.
So when I was about three years old, it was when I wrote my first book, was a couple of bits of paper that I had to sellotape together when I was only about three or four years old. It was about a horse. I think I called it the Sand Horse. It was about a little horse that jumped off the fairground, galloped across the sand, came to life and, and had adventures.
And it was only a few pages, obviously, very messy, but I wish I still had it. I don't know what happened to it. I used to keep everything, but it's probably in a box in my mum's loft. That was my first kind of outing. When I was at school, I wrote one called The Bog Man about the Tollund man who was came to life. It was a bit gruesome because I've always liked a bit of horror. I'll explain more about that later and why I like that.
But that actually became a story in one of my books which I adapted into a much more grown up version and it was less horrific and it was a bit More of a romance really, in a way, at the end. Anyway, it had some horrific bits in, but it became quite a nice ending. It developed into something a bit more grown up.
I think with stories I edit a lot more. I tend to go back and back and edit and re-edit and sometimes it evolves into something quite different to the original idea. But I will run with it. I am writing. slow, very slowly writing a novel.
And that is a very long process. That's very disciplined and a great deal of editing. I like the short story genre.
I like reading it because you write it. It's a complete version. A complete item that you can read and enjoy, and then you move on to the next one.
So I quite like writing those. It's a very different process. As I say, I tend to edit a lot more with stories. Poetry just a quick once over, one or two words I might change, but nothing much. It tends to come out all in one go. People say, well, don't wait for the muse. You have to be really disciplined, but with poetry, I've definitely got a muse that will just say, there's a poem in your head and it.
When you are sitting down to write, what does your personal writing process look like?
I dare to say it's really, really messy. It's usually a book. I have notebooks galore everywhere, I'm a bit. Addicted to pretty notebooks, glittery ones, or furry notebooks, I got a Beatles notebook recently from Liverpool and things like that. So I'll fill up different notebooks for different stories or different poems, but usually it's just lots of scribbling with a pen a fountain pen, usually.
Love to write with old fashioned equipment. That is it. beautiful old fashioned Victorian fountain pen, and I have, ink, and if I could write with a quill, I would. I tend to sort of scribble lots and lots of notes, like, make a lot of mess, have it on one page, and then ten pages later, I'll carry it on because I've got something else in the middle.
So that's how I start something. I wrote one story, the first story in my book, The Camera Obscure, I wrote the first story on a train going up and then the second half coming back. And it was all scribbled and scrawled everywhere. And then I will type it up and it's then that I will start to edit and maybe change things.
But they always start in handwriting and then they continued on the computer. I have my little laptop and If I'm writing stories, I have to move around, I have to sit on the bed, or on the sofa, or on a train, as I said.
It's really interesting, all the different ways that people write and go about creating. It's so lovely to get that insight, because nobody creates in exactly the same way.
It's an artistic process, so it's very personal.
I expect some people who paint pictures are the same. They might start with a scribble in a notebook or they'll be on the beach and get inspired. I've even written poems that have started to come into my head. I like going to karaoke, so I might be sitting in the pub and singing a song. And I'll think, oh no, oh no, I've got this like lyric that keeps playing around in my head.
And it's obviously going to come. into a poem. So I'll use a beer mat or something. And I know that sounds really cliched and the sort of story that people make up, but it's quite true. So yes, I have got beer mats with poetry on and I've kept them. I keep them because I think, well, if I ever get really famous, the museum will want them.
Ah, yes, yes. And my, my special wing just for me
The story was first created on a beer mat.
You speak quite openly in your piece about neurodiversity and the role that's played in your life. So do you feel that neurodiversity plays a role in your creativity?
Definitely. I think that my interest in words and the way I I'm so visual is part of my neurodivergence. I was diagnosed with autism when I was mid to late 40s and it wasn't really a surprise once I knew about that particular condition and the way that women are diagnosed or misdiagnosed.
When I left teaching to start my own tuition business in 2013, I had many, many students who were on the spectrum or maybe dyslexic, had different sort of neurodivergence. I started to feel quite a kinship with them. I don't know if they were drawn to me or they'd gotten really well with me because I was probably the same in many ways.
Eventually that led me to get diagnosed with Irlen's which is like a visual processing difference. I could see words and it's literally like, they float about on a screen. And sometimes I can have a whole text, like when someone's speaking. But like an auto cue, it will roll and I can sort of see them.
I know people talk about synesthesia and they see musicians. Sometimes they go, I can see the music notes kind of in front of my face. And it's a bit like that where your senses kind of mix and I can see the words. I walk myself through my stories. So if it's about someone walking into a street or on a journey somewhere, I'm in that story and I try to see every detail of it and travel with them.
And that's why I have so many different characters with so many different things going on because I feel like I can be that character, and then I can be another character, which I think must aid my performing, my acting as well. I just can turn into a character. In fact, I think with Autism you tend to play characters and roles anyway, so every day you might be slightly different because you're so used to acting in a neurotypical way to get through the world.
I hate to say disorder. It's a difference. People always say disorder. It's not a disorder because I find that all of these things which are disabilities that can be abilities in the right circumstances. So I really do champion it. I really am an advocate for neurodiversity. I hope I give my students confidence to be different or to approach things in a different way as well and to really accept their differences and that you can do anything certainly in the right circumstances with the right support.
I think that a lot of the time neurodivergency is over. pathologized, I believe is the right word, where all of the difficulties are highlighted. A diagnosis depends on things that you're struggling with, as opposed to some of the wonderful things that come with neurodivergency. And creative expression, I believe, is a key part of that. Neurodivergency, I think, can be a very positive thing, as opposed to focusing on all the negatives. And it's very evident in the creative work you produce that it really does fuel your expression.
I love the Victorian Gothic and that is definitely influenced perhaps in some of my poems and some of my stories.
I write ghost stories. I write sometimes quite gritty noir stories, which are quite modern. But all of them have the thing in common which is beautiful language. I like beautiful expression, beautiful language, and I like a lot of detail. Some people like a page turner. I don't really like reading something that's too fast.
I like the build up and the detail. So even my modern stories will kind of allude to that. And I particularly like the idea of the serial. Novels that used to be written sort of by Dickens as an example. So they'd be in the Strand Magazine and you'd have to wait for the next one.
And I've loved the Sherlock Holmes story. So and I love that sort of serialization. You have to wait. And I've done that in my book. Though most of the stories do finish, about three of them have got sequels. And the last story in the book, the longest one, is going to be a running kind of sequel.
A serialization of a few stories. I like that idea that you have to wait for another story with the same character. And actually, I've got two stories in the same book where characters have kind of wandered.
into the other story. So they're mentioned and there's a connection between two totally different stories, but a character from one story has just sort of wandered into another story and then wandered out again.
Do you have any advice for people beginning their publishing journey?
You need to decide whether you're going to go for traditional publishing, which is where you submit your manuscript or whatever you've written to the big publishing houses and they will then perhaps give you an advance to write your book and other books and help you publicize it. So that can take some time.
I was way too impatient because I wrote my books over the lockdown. And I was already 50, so I didn't want to hang around. For my novel, I will try that traditional publishing route to get an agent and all that sort of thing. I joined the Suffolk Writers Group and I've, got lots of advice. They're brilliant, actually. We've got a huge writers network in Suffolk. Loads of places where you can perform your poetry and your stories, There's also hybrid publishing, but you have to be very careful. They sort of help you. They format it, they do all the hard bits that I would have found hard at the time. They have an editor, although I'm a perfectionist, so of course I edited and edited and edited myself.
And they have cover designs which I chose. You have a lot of control. You do have to pay them to get those things in place. So you must be careful that you can afford. what you pay and check very carefully what your package will include. And that they're reputable and not there just to take your money and do nothing.
That's what I think you need to look very carefully at that your product is going to be good and check of the things that, come out of that publishing house. And negotiate the price you pay so that you're happy with it. Or you can self publish, IngramSparks are good as well, because the bookshops are more keen to accept your book in the shops. If you go with... Ingram Sparks, then KDP, although I've got my books on Amazon as well, and they have got into local bookshops, and Waterstones
so, gradually, they are accepting it. So, even my poetry book, which I had some help at Tim Saunders Publishing to get it formatted. It's on Amazon, but it's also in shops that are local shops anyway. So you just have to make the choice that's right for you. If you want to do all their formatting and you know how to do it and follow it step by step, you can happily self publish.
And a lot of people will tell you that self publishing is taken very seriously. It sells quite well, but you have to do a lot of legwork. So you have to promote it actively, but even with traditional publishing. You get pennies as royalties, so unless you make it really big, you're not going to make lots and lots of money out of your book.
You might have someone who takes it up and really, really promotes it, but you still have to do a lot of promotion yourself, even with a traditional publisher. So be prepared to do book talks, get out there, have social media on every single site, and try to do it regularly.
What do you think are some of the ingredients to a good story?
Oh, it's different for Everyone, but one thing is the characters. I've got to buy into the characters or like them in some way. So even if they're Really a villainous character. I think I'd like them to have some traits that I can relate to or like about them. I've written one about a complete murdering psychopath, you can't really like them at all.
It was really interesting to give that person a voice, actually. However, I think you can see where their flaws. Or should I say evil, if there is such a thing, came from. So I think understanding being maybe the devil's advocate for even bad characters, something about them that you can think, oh, there's a depth to that character, is what I find interesting.
I actually was listening to an author talk the other day, and he was saying that he started off his kind of reading journey when he was very young, reading the Sherlock Holmes stories. And that's a perfect example of a heroic character with flaws. So I think that is interesting.
Nobody's perfect. So I really enjoy that. It's a structure that's sort of a slow burner for me something that has, as I said, beautiful language and a structure that slowly reveals with a lot of tension. Something that keeps me intrigued. For me makes a good story, but I like to feel that I could be in that story myself in some way when I'm tutoring. Actually, I tend to teach the children to look at all sides of a character, so they might be doing Macbeth.
for GCSE. And the standard thing for Macbeth, or I should say the Scottish play, is that everyone tends to blame Lady Macbeth and say, Oh, she's so evil. She's so terrible. She persuades Macbeth to do the murder and he didn't really want to, it's all her fault.
And that's, for me, it's too straightforward. So I always look at the line where Shakespeare plants the idea that she's had a child. The child's not in the play. Where is that child? Did the child die? Is that why she is unbalanced? Does that give her a motivation for being quite unhinged and behaving that way?
As a woman, she was quite powerless at the time, all her power and position would have come through her husband. Maybe that explains her desperation for power. So I say, look, she's not a good character. You can't agree with her or like her, but you can kind of understand why characters might behave in a certain way.
And that's what will get you the grade 9, but it's also more interesting to explore it in that way. To look at Macbeth, and think about his motivations. He begins immediately considering...
He's very enthusiastic about it.
Yeah, I mean, as soon as the witchers say, you're going to be king, he doesn't kind of say, oh, you're talking rubbish. How am I going to be king? Or, oh, that would be nice. I might inherit the title because I'm somewhere along the line, you know. But no, he just starts considering the horrid image. So before Lady Macbeth even gets to him, he thinks about murdering the king. So. You know, he's not all good and he has no conscience, even at the end, he's pretty much more worried about being caught.
So his flaw is really about not being a proper man and the masculinity.
And she actually has a conscience and feels remorse later on. So it's very interesting to not look at it in the standard way and that's the same way I like to read stories as well as write them and make a character with a flaw or a bit more intriguing and it gradually gets revealed that this might have happened to them or that might have happened to them.
Not saying I agree with like a psychopathic killer, but
you'd be surprised how many authors I've met when you ask what are they working on? It's like, oh yes, a terrible murder story. And they're the loveliest people.
What's in your imagination is much worse than what you see in front of you.
So gore and things, they don't really interest me, blood and gore and things. But the psychological tension and horror, that's what interests me. My story, as I said, The Bog Man. that I wrote. It's kind of set in the 30s, and they are on a trip taking this specimen to a museum, but the woman on the journey is quite unhappily married.
She's just newly married, and she's not very happy, and she feels they perhaps shouldn't have... resurrected this, this so called specimen she sees him more as more of a human. And then something happens, and he sort of comes to life. So, I won't give away the rest, just in case you want to read it. But it became quite sad.
But there, is a sequel, and I've written the sequel from her husband's point of view. I like to see every. point of view in a situation. Imagine myself in their shoes and why people do what they do.
Fantastic. Well, thank you. And actually that leads really neatly into the next question of, do you have any tips
for aspiring writers?
I want you to try to force your stories or your writing or your poetry, whatever you're writing, particularly a novel. If you sit down in front of a blank screen, it's terrifying. You think, oh no, I can't, I've got no inspiration. I'm blank. Everyone gets so called writer's block.
So if you can't write one day, don't worry about it. You've got all the time in the world. Take a walk. That kind of contradicts the way that I was saying I was impatient to get the book out there. But I try not to worry myself about it. Take a walk, take a breather. Don't think that the muse is going to be something you have to wait for.
Write anything. If it's like a couple of sentences or an idea, scribble it down and then you've done something. Don't just sort of sit in front of a screen and panic and try to force words out because you won't... probably like it when you read it back. So, so write something down in note form but don't feel obliged to write a whole chapter.
Other people would say be very disciplined and make sure you write a thousand words a day, but I can't, I personally can't work like that. I think if I... get even a few scribbles down and an idea down, then I feel that I've done something useful and I've been productive. And then the next day I might write 3000 words or a whole story in one sitting, go back and edit it.
So it's really what's comfortable for you, don't panic yourself and think I have to do this every single day. I must do this. You will meet deadlines, but you can. I go about it in a very sort of circular way and I don't think I've got to write a certain amount of words every day.
Write what you enjoy reading. what you enjoy writing and creating. I don't really know where my ideas come from. I know that I think they are inspired by, and some of them very deliberately allude to Victorian ghost stories or Gothic stories. Some of them come from. real life, but they've been heavily adapted and fictionalized. So none of them are really based on real people.
But real people might influence them a little bit. I'm in all of my stories in various guises and forms, but I'm also none of those characters. They're all bits of my personality, but of course, none of them are completely me, Just keep writing, just do it, , even if you think it's a bit rubbish, hold on to it and look at it again later, and you might be surprised you can use the material in some way. As I say, the Bog Man story was one that I wrote when I was 11, but I actually.
Totally adapted it and changed a bit, and I think sometimes I'll start stories years ago, scribble them in a notebook and then pick it up. And I think, oh, that's, that's not bad. That might fly. So you come back to things.
So I think just write and get out there and. Perform your work. Somewhere, there'll be a place where you can go to a writer's workshop or a cafe or that get used to reading your work or get other people to read it for you and see how an audience maybe reacts to it if you're shy.
I like performing. I'm quite a shy person in real life, but I like performing. So I'll go to these writers cafes that they have in Suffolk where I live, and I really enjoy performing my own stories in poetry, and I like hearing other people perform, they have this thing called Get On Your Soapbox, so you can read your work or perform your work.
You can actually see people's reactions to the work. People are really supportive. Join writers groups is a really good tip.
So the Suffolk Writers Group, I joined that. I've got loads of tips about publishing. I've met tons of people. It led to returning to a bit of an acting career, professional acting. I performed for the Suffolk Poetry Society, a play in verse, and then I. joined Black and White productions and I've done a couple of historical plays, and one coming up next week.
So join groups and get support, get mentors, get people to help you. That's, that's important. Bounce your ideas off other people. I'm also in the Wolsey Writers, which is our, our local theatre and, and that's a great group meeting. As well, where you can, you can bounce your ideas of people and they can read chapters if you want them to do that and react to them, which is just really helpful.
You don't have to listen to anyone's advice, but it's nice to have people chip in and you can take as much as you want on board, but it's just nice to have other people in the same situation who are shy about their work and feeling that, oh, is this good?
Is this okay? And would you like to listen to this? And, and it's usually very good. So that's, that's great. It gives you confidence.
I'm so glad to hear that. That's wonderful. Thank you
so much for coming to speak to us today. If people would like to hear more from you in the future,
where can they go?
I've got a website. It's called virginiabets. com. And there's a lot about my tutoring on there. There's a blog which I'll be probably adding to today or tomorrow. And. my performances and links to my books as well. But my books are on Amazon. That's probably the easiest way to get hold of them. One's called Tourist to the Sun.
It's a collection of poetry. And the other one's called The Camera Obscure. So yes, virginiabets. com or Amazon for my books. And feel free to message me through Facebook. I'm on everything. I'm on TikTok, Facebook, Twitter.
Oh, wonderful. Well, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to speak to you today.
Thank you. It's been brilliant to talk to you. Thank you so much for liking my work as well.
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