Fiction can be a powerful healer, and on 22 November 2022 twenty members and friends of WiPS joined an interview with our international guest, bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud who co-authored The Novel Cure, and moderator, Bhakti Mathur, to learn what bibliotherapy is and how fiction can help us cure life’s ailments.
Neuroscientists suggest that reading for six minutes a day is as beneficial as one hour of meditation. During reading our heart rate stills and our brain waves change and, in short, we de-stress. By implication then, bibliotherapy can play an important role in mental health. We heard fascinating examples of this, such as the WW2 doctors who recommended Jane Austin to soldiers suffering from shellshock. Since good, well-written, fiction can be immersive it offers its reader an opportunity for catharsis, reflection, perspective-taking, or escape – all of which can be healing.
Bibliotherapists work to understand their client’s reading preferences and life circumstances then write “prescriptions” recommending three of four specific books for them to read. Prescriptions are dependent on the unique needs, tastes and preferred choices of each client, and writing them is an evolving, artful and intuitive process. Having said that, three common ailments that Ella encounters and her related recommended reads are: Motherhood (becoming a mother for the first time): The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt; Retirement: The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul; and Bereavement: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Ella finished her talk by offering recommendations on how to increase reading, which included listening to audio books (while multi-tasking); creating a “reading nook”; reading aloud with someone you live with (i.e. adult to adult); creating a reading-aloud reading group; and joining a book club. Although bibliotherapy sessions are typically one-on-one, Ella advised that group sessions are also gaining in popularity in social services settings.
I am at first-draft stage of my debut novel and have recently been feeling dissatisfied as to the course of my protagonist’s journey. I have lost the proverbial plot so to speak! I was therefore hoping that Sherryl Clark’s two-hour Masterclass on “Using story structure for stronger novels” would get my thinking and writing back on track. I wasn’t disappointed.
Sherryl’s key message was that a story is about movement. The writer’s job is to get from point A to point B (through all the various highs, lows, pitfalls, fortune reversals of the protagonist(s) etc.) whilst keeping the reader interested/engaged/committed/hooked whatever the outcome/ending. Her point was that without structure, the writer could be left with a lot of words which don’t have flow or direction, i.e. the story may end up/become either rambling or episodic.
Sherryl provided us with a very comprehensive set of slides in which she referenced and highlighted some well-known story structure models including the “Hero’s Journey” and variations on “The Three-Act Structure”. She suggested that we have on hand a copy of the structure diagram which we felt worked best for us. She also listed the textbooks on structure which she used in her classes and/or for her own writing. In addition to reading books on structure, she recommended that we watch films and analyse them.
The main thing she advised us do though was get back to writing the words on the page. As someone who is still at first-draft stage, I appreciated her point that if we felt structure was holding us back then we should save it for our second draft, and just make sure the key points of structure are in the final version!
Sherryl Clark’s Masterclass on Creating Deeper Characters was incredibly detailed and insightful. I had been struggling with character development in my stories and when I found out about this class, I was eager to sign up to learn more on how to create memorable and in-depth characters. I had done character interviews before, but I learned so much more from Sherryl’s guidance and explanation through each question and aspect of a character interview, and why we would want to dig into those areas in a character’s past. Understanding the “why” really helped me to see the importance and value of doing the exercise.
Creating a timeline for a character was something new to me and I had never done it previously, but I can see how this would be helpful for fleshing out a character from beginning to end to recognize how an event in the past might affect current behaviour and personality. The Free Writing activity she suggested was also a great strategy to help us get started in character building and allow the creative juices to start flowing without worrying about editing.
Although a lot of the content related to adult novel writing, Sherryl also provided ways to adapt and apply the process and skills for short stories and children’s books during the Q&A session. I thoroughly enjoyed the session and learned so much that I am excited to start writing again! I look forward to attending the next masterclass.
Six months on, and the writing workshop regulars are bonding over laughter as the group forms its own dynamic personality, marked by comfort and camaraderie.
We have updated the rules to expand the word limit to 2,000 but to restrict re-writes to two rounds. The diversity of the prose submissions we’ve seen speaks to the exceptional talent of the participating WiPS members.
Two of our regulars are working on novels, painstakingly submitting a chapter each month, leaving the rest of us in suspended anticipation as we wait to find out what has now happened. Other members are wistfully looking back on memorable experiences through the form of personal essays, while the rest entertain with short stories ranging from spooky to satirical. But the fun doesn’t stop there – this past week we even made up our own drinking game called “Andy, you’re on mute” with self-explanatory rules.
In between sessions, we stay connected through a WhatsApp group about upcoming deadlines and the occasional sassy meme nudging everyone to get back to their writing.
Our Book Club has now been running for four months and we have read and reviewed four books, with opinions varying from “Meah!” to “Fab!”
We are a warm and friendly group, welcoming all opinions on our book choices and enjoying a lively, inter-book discourse via WhatsApp. During our monthly Zoom sessions, we have some great discussions about the books and the issues they raise. We don’t always agree, but where would the fun be if we did?
Holding meetings over Zoom means that anyone in a reasonably compatible time zone can take part, which is a definite and unforeseen bonus. Of course, it would be lovely to get together in a physical space as virtual gatherings do have their drawbacks. With that in mind, we are considering holding a face-to-face session in the autumn for our Hong Kong members. We will be polling you on this and we welcome everyone’s input.
Meanwhile, I think it’s fair to say that the Book Club is proving to be a popular feature of the WiPS programme.
John Saeki and Pete Spurrier on how to earn your stripes in Hong Kong’s publishing industry. (Moderated by Suzanne Andrews)
Publishing John Saeki’s The Last Tigers of Hong Kong (ISBN: 978-988-75546-1-5) in the Year of the Tiger was serendipitous: Covid had delayed Blacksmith Books’ earlier planned release. It was equally unintentional that WiPS held its event on the eve of the International Day of the Tiger, 29 July (shamefully, we were not aware there was one!).
But nothing was left to chance in John Saeki’s research for his fascinating book. Historical references were hard to find, which probably explains why no one else has tackled the topic, and they were painstakingly and meticulously hunted down. Drawn to his subject by the sheer contrast of Hong Kong’s image as an urban jungle and the roaming of a ferocious wild beast at its fringes, Saeki spent many months in scanning newspaper archives; trying to locate New Territory’s villagers who were old enough to have seen a tiger in the wild; and reading the tiger tales of American missionary Harry Caldwell and descriptions by biologist G.A.C. Herklots.
Then endemic in Fujian Province, the South China tiger had extended its territory. There was nothing to stop it wandering, as it did yearly, into Hong Kong to prey on domestic and wild animals – and sometimes also people. Scary as this scenario might seem, the author laconically commented that over the period of the tiger’s presence in Hong Kong (possibly until as recently as the early 1960s), humans killed far more humans than the tiger ever did!
In his turn, local publisher extraordinaire Pete Spurrier told us that non-fiction about Hong Kong (and China), historical or contemporary, sells much better than fiction by Hong Kong-based authors, whose work generally competes less well with that of international writers. Importantly, too, local publishers are less interested in the rest of the region: if you write about Singapore, then find a Singaporean publisher, or go to New York or London.
A good working relationship between author and publisher is essential (as Saeki and Spurrier had). Authors need to be confident. If they are not, they may be turned away for fear they will be unable to help the book’s public promotion. This is an essential part of marketing in the industry today. Having a social media presence is not enough: you need to be out on the road doing interviews and book signings.