February Focus: Gillian Atack, author of The Storm Within the Rose: My Family and Alzheimer's

Gillian Atack is a multi-genre author from the UK, however her most recent release, The Storm Within the Rose: My Family and Alzheimer’s, is a real life non-fiction book about the disease. Even though the subject matter includes themes such as death and the horror of Alzheimer’s (as well as humor and love) it's in the context of real family situations, which many young people could encounter within their own lives.

'Alzheimer’s – it’s just about forgetting things. It can’t kill you, right? Wrong. The Storm Within the Rose is a heart-wrenching, heart-warming and sometimes rib-tickling account of my family and my mum’s gradual decline into the greatly misunderstood world of Alzheimer’s," Gillian's description says. "Suddenly being left responsible for every aspect of my mother’s life was like being dropped into the middle of a horror story. A different side to her I didn’t know emerged more and more frequently, a side that shocked me. Nobody warns you about this or the unknown impacts and how to cope with them. So I wrote this book.'

Gillian is 57 years old and lives in Morley, West Yorkshire (UK). A few years ago a chapter in her life came to a close and she decided to mark it by writing about the experience. Her writing caught the attention of the Writers Bureau with whom she completed an online writing cause, and they awarded her 'Student of the Year – runner up – 2017'. They also invited her to write a blog for them! Alzheimer’s Society then put her book in their Knowledge Centre for their healthcare professionals to refer to.

To begin with, writing was therapeutic for Gillian; it helped her come to terms with losing her parents. It was then she realized how enjoyable and challenging writing was. It now makes her feel happy and gives her a sense of achievement when an idea works. When she began, Gillian had no experience, but she taught herself so many new skills, and she still wants to continue learning. She personally recommends writing as a form of self-therapy because in her experience writing about such issues changes your anger and grief into something productive and positive, thus allowing you to start letting go and healing. But, when she's not writing she enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter and grand-daughter and also enjoys reading, walking and caravan holidays.

Gillian's favorite author is Kate Mosse because of her story telling technique and attention to detail. Her main protagonists are put through some terrible experiences which they can’t be certain to survive, making her books real page-turners. Gillian is currently reading 'Labyrinth', and recently reviewed 'Finding Pandora' (thanks, Gillian!) by E. Rachael Hardcastle. Though she normally prefers tea over coffee or hot chocolate, when writing, her favorite snacks are chocolate with a cup of tea (or a glass of red wine).

Research for Gillian's book was very important. Even though this was based on her family, because of the theme, she also wanted to back up her experiences with facts. The project she's working on at the moment, however, is historical fiction, spread over a few different time zones, so it’s now important for her to check facts and immerse herself within the atmosphere of each zone.

But when asked what inspires her, she answers her personal experiences, and there are many in The Storm within the Rose. Even though her new project is fiction, she's still used a grain of personal experience to build her story. Generally, though, she gets new ideas by observing people and situations, and asking, “What if?”

Gillian tries to write every day through the week for about 4 hours per day. At weekends, she writes when she feels like it and the amount of words varies. "If I am writing a draft, it could be up to 2000 because I just write what comes into my head. If I am revising what I’ve written, it can be a lot less because of all the different factors I have to consider," says Gillian, "such as, are my characters sounding real, could I describe something better, or did that sentence make sense?" She advises that writing a book is never easy and that writing a good beginning is difficult because it is so important to get the early pages right. The beginning sets the scene for all that follows, but the ending is just as difficult; it has to be satisfying and intriguing. Also, Gillian admits that letting someone else read her work when she's finished is difficult. "That’s when I'm full of self-doubt. I hate the feeling that nobody will like what I’ve written. Once I’ve started writing though, the first draft is probably the easiest because I just write in the knowledge that I can change it later."

Gillian loves the freedom to write without worry. "I love taking a piece of my writing, then shaping and molding it like a sculpture, before turning it into something that entertains," she explains, "so maybe I should say what I love most about writing is the delete key!" Thankfully, Gillian hasn't experienced true Writer’s Block yet because she always writes something, even if she knows it’s not that good. She accepts sometimes she'll have to hit delete, but never considers it as wasted time. Whenever she writes, she acknowledges she's developing her skills. Sometimes when her writing isn’t flowing, Gillian will take a few days to break from it and often this helps to get her back on track.

She disagrees that writers have to be introverts and loners, because she believes they are profound thinkers who need to absorb what happens around them. When they're thinking, they can be quiet and uncommunicative; that’s why they are seen as introverts, but in reality, they're observing and taking note. Gillian says, "Mixing with people keeps you connected to the here and now and that is very important for a writer."

On the topic of word-building, she added, "world-building makes your characters and the world they live in real. Build your main characters by doing an interview with them. Find out everything about them - their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses."

Gillian says she has only finished one book and left it about a month before editing it. "I asked a couple of people to do a read through. After taking note of their comments, I formatted it so I could send for a proof copy," she explains. "Reading my work from a book helped me distance myself from it so I could read it objectively." Gillian pretended the book wasn't hers during this time to easily identify the errors. As well as editing, she also thinks a good cover is important, but that the blurb on the back is more so when it comes to sales. When Gillian looks at a book, she always reads the blurb and would never decide to make a purchase using the cover alone. Having read a few self-published books, she disagrees with a negative view that some people have, stating most indie books are of poor quality. She says there is a lot of professional help around with regards to editing and cover design. "I’d never designed a cover, written or edited my own book before, but I decided to have a go for myself, which does give it a distinctly “homemade” feel. I would like to think this adds to the reader’s curiosity and could in fact be a unique selling point."

Gillian also admits marketing is something she struggles with. Social media can be good if you have a lot of friends or followers, she believes, or attending book launches and festivals. Articles in local and national newspapers help boost sales for her, too.

When asked what advise Gillian would give to young writers in a primary school, she says, "write about the fairies, princesses, witches and monsters that you imagine and make up games about, or ask an adult to write words to describe the characters you make up." And when asked that same question about secondary school students, she said, 'write down your thoughts and use your imagination without limits to make something creative." Her advice is different here, because primary school children have very vivid imaginations and have few inhibitions when it comes to sharing them. "If we could bottle our imagination aged 4 and use it when we are older, I believe we could all be creative geniuses!" says Gillian. She continues, "Anybody can write and I believe with practice most people could write well. There are many creative writing courses and I’ve completed one, but I’m still unsure if it helped. It gave me the confidence to let someone else read my work and it taught me that positive criticism is always good, but passion cannot be taught." If you do not have a passion for writing, Gillian feels you may lack the determination and self-belief needed to produce something interesting and readable. But she states she finds it challenging to write about a character who is evil or holds different beliefs than herself, because to give them extra dimension she must try and understand what makes them tick, which can sometimes be almost impossible. There are some books Gillian does feel slightly uncomfortable about reading because of this, but if risky topics are essential to the story, she agrees the author is brave not to avoid or skirt round them.

Gillian believes that success means different things to different people. "I feel successful because I have written and self-published my book by teaching myself the necessary skills," she says. "So as a writer, I see success as something I achieve when I meet a goal." But she continues to advise that to become a bestselling author, she thinks having a good online presence and marketing is important. Without this, she says even the best books will not sell. "I think if an author gets their book on the Amazon bestselling list, this will add to their status. But the reality is that for most self-published authors, this may be a difficult goal." She continues, "And rejection is something we all experience and it’s just a case of picking yourself back up and getting on with it." In the world of publishing, rejection does not mean your work is of poor quality. Gillian advises that even JK Rowling got her first Harry Potter manuscript rejected twelve times, so whether criticism is good or bad, she welcomes it and has used it before to improve her work. Of the negative comments and questions she's had so far as a writer, she's noticed 'writers are loners and introverts' appears frequently. Sometimes, she's also told she thinks too much.

The book is available to purchase on Amazon, or to get a special edition reduced price copy, email the author direct at Gillyruth1603@gmail.com, or contact her on Facebook @Stormwithintherose. Don't forget, you can also contact Gillian through www.gillianatack.wixsite.com/homemade, where she keeps a blog and is happy for readers to get in touch with her.

*photograph courtest of Gillian Atack