For the first Author Interview of 2020, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to one of my fellow Jersey Writers Social Group members. Her writing a CV is an impressive one, and since 2016, her name has appeared on Long and Shortlists for an eye-watering list of competitions. Flash 500, Reflex, Retreat West, Eyelands, Fish Publications, Wells Festival of Literature, Mslexia Annual Short Story Competition and The Bridport Prize. The creme de la creme of writing competitions, who have recognised the writing talent of Dreena Collins.
In September last year, Dreena entertained a packed Maria Richie Room at the Jersey Arts Centre, during the 2019 Jersey Festival of Words captivating us all with her engaging wit, and her passion for creative writing.
During 2019, Dreena self-published three volumes of her excellent short stories and flash fiction, The Blue Hour, The Day I Nearly Drowned and, most recently Bird Wing. The Amazon reviews alone are glowing.
Tessa: I can imagine you being an avid reader as a child. What children’s books hooked you in and have stuck in your mind over the years?
Dreena: From quite a young age, I was captivated by novels. I remember reading Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild), and marvelling at how hefty the book was, thinking I couldn’t possibly ever finish it! Within a few years, I had also read and fallen in love with The Secret Garden and The Hobbit. There was a lot of escapism in my reading, and I romanticised the locations, picturing myself in archaic or fantastical clothing, in unusual settings.
In secondary school, I moved on to Steinbeck (via Judy Blume, naturally!) and eventually in my later teenage years, I loved the classics, especially Jane Austen. So, all in all, quite a diverse mix, really!
I work in education, and at heart, I’m an English teacher. I firmly believe in the power of reading to change people’s lives and provide them with opportunities. Being able to read gives you access to learning, but also to a whole world of pleasure and imagination, so I am a great advocate for adults reading to children and for encouraging people to find something that appeals to them. I’m sure there’s a book out there for everyone.
Tessa: My first literary success was winning a Blue Peter Badge for writing poetry, aged seven, but my passion for writing took a serious hold when I was about eleven. At what age did you decide you wanted to write?
Dreena: I’ve always loved writing. At the age of five, I wrote a short rhyme for the school’s Harvest Festival (which I could still recite, but I’m too embarrassed to share here!).
At primary school, I also wrote some tediously long ‘short’ stories. At that time, it was most definitely quantity over quality. That urge to write stayed with me during secondary school, and for GCSE English, we were given coursework options that were often either empathetic writing or analysis. I chose empathetic every time, writing from a character’s point of view, and in the end, I had to produce an additional piece as I wasn’t allowed to submit anything but creative work.
I also studied creative writing as an optional module at University, taught by Patricia Duncker, who went on, herself to win McKitterick Prize and the Dillions First Fiction Award for her novels. I admit my writing was patchy and sporadic in the period between University and 2018. It’s only in the last two years that I have settled into it in a structured and disciplined way.
Tessa: I am someone who finds writing a flash fiction a challenge. I believe you have mastered the art; as your self-published collections of short stories are a testament to. I believe that having the ability to write flash fiction helps a writer get to the heart of what they want to say. What first drew you into writing flash fiction?
Dreena: It actually started when I realised that my stories were often on the long side. I produced several stories and started looking to enter them in competitions or as submissions, and often they were over the specified word count. This gave me pause to reflect on whether my stories could be ‘tighter’, and I started to deliberately challenge myself to edit ruthlessly, and to be as concise as possible. Now I enjoy the challenge and have found that it makes me not only more precise in my writing, but actually more experimental.
Flash Fiction lends itself to breaking the rules, playing with form, tone and structure as its akin to poetry in some ways. Plus, you can’t be too formal or stick to the rules when you are slashing words here and there.
Tessa: Many of the stories that appear in your books have been both short and long-listed in competitions. How long did it take you to compile each collection of short stories?
Dreena: I don’t write every single day, though most days I do, and either way I do something towards my writing on a daily basis – planning, sorting out my files, editing, or social media updates. I do often write though, several times a week, and I can produce a short story every week to ten days, or one, two or even three flash fictions in a week. Not every piece is usable, of course.
For my first collection, The Blue Hour, it took me around eight months to have enough usable work, but by the time it was launched, I already had several stories for book two, as I had carried on writing during the whole (mind-boggling!) publication process. I was ready for book two after around four months but decided to wait. I have published around six months apart in each case.
Tessa: I am thinking about self-publishing my first novel, and was wondering what, as a self-published author, you believe is the best way to market your books?
Dreena: I am an absolute convert for social media. Before my writing journey, I had a Facebook profile that I used to keep in touch with friends and a defunct Twitter account I had never used. Now I am active on Twitter, have a Facebook Author Page and an Instagram account. I have found enormous support in the writing communities on Instagram and Twitter, and have had fabulous feedback and encouragement from many other ‘indie’ writers around the world that I have never met. Something I would have been cynical and suspicious of in the past, and you do have to be careful, but these days I try to share the support, and encourage others, too. Conversely, face to face is impactful as well: I’ve had a book launch event, a book signing and given a talk and these have all led to contacts and sales.
I have also found that, in the main, people are inordinately supportive and helpful. I have reached out to people I have only interacted with online, or to long-lost friends, and they have all said yes when I have asked them to help as beta readers, or to write reviews, etc. I would say, use any contacts you have – however tenuous and don’t be too shy. Most people are nice and will help.
Tessa: I understand you are currently writing your first novel. As your writing has been described by an Amazon reviewer as ‘all human behaviour is here‘, I cannot wait to get to know your characters. Can you give us a flavour of what your book will be about?
Dreena: My novel is a mystery, bordering on a psychological thriller, from the point of view of a middle-aged woman, trying to unpick the circumstances of her grown daughter’s death, abroad. I feel there’s a lack of literature with female protagonists in their late forties, fifties, early sixties. We have seen lots of stories from the point of view of young women, and more recently, several elderly protagonists. It seems bizarre not to have more in between, given women of this age are often avid readers. I’m also planning to build on my experience of writing flash by incorporating a series of short flashbacks, dotted throughout the book, from the point of view of the daughter, giving the reader glimpses of what (may have) happened.
Tessa: As we all appreciate, fitting in your writing around work and family is not always easy. How many writing hours do you manage to squeeze into your week?
Dreena: It varies greatly depending on my schedule. On average, across the week, I probably write for about ten hours in total, but that excludes all the things I do outside of the formal process of writing up. It’s surprising how much admin there is to do and how much prep for social media. Social media, making images/ quotes using apps, posters, emailing people, researching competitions etc. is all very time consuming but, bizarrely, I enjoy all of that, too.
I plan a lot in my head before I put pen to paper – I plot ideas in the shower or the car, while making dinner etc. – and I will have a list of words or phrases on my phone that I can draw on once I start, as I am constantly noting down things I hear, or think of. I am not a detailed plotter in the strictest sense, as I don’t produce lots of mind maps and character sketches, but I generally know what I am going to say before I begin writing. That means I can get a piece done in a few hours, without much need for revision afterwards. I am unusual in that I edit as I go, and only really need one quick revision for line edits and typos the next day.
Sometimes I have those rare, precious moments were a flash fiction comes to me almost whole, and I will write it up on my phone in bed or during a break, and it will pour out of me and need very little editing. I am completely immersed then, and can’t type fast enough. Those moments are truly magical.