Writers – are they born or made?

I have a confession – I’ve never taken a writing course. I didn’t go to university, was only too happy to leave the boring old classroom behind, and actually, thanks to a snide remark from a teacher (which I later realized was intended as a joke), I didn’t even take English my last two years of high school. As for Pam, she only wanted to be a farmer or work with horses.

So, although we were avid bookworms and lived most of our time in our imaginations, the idea of becoming novelists was as far-fetched as joining the space program. On the plus side, we had a mother who was a born storyteller and we constantly played creative games in which we acted out different characters and adventures. From the age of 5, I obsessively read every book in the library, plus cereal boxes, newspapers, billboards, soup can labels. By the time I moved to London, I was regularly writing ten page journal-type letters to the friends I’d left behind. Ah, remember the days of snail mail? Still I might never have dared to publish anything professionally if I hadn’t lucked into a job in a literary agency. Such is fate.

But then again, working in publishing, I met so many editors and agents for whom the reverse was true.  It was their life-long ambition to be a published author. They’d taken all the right steps – English Literature and Language ‘A’ levels, graduated with honors in English at Oxford or Cambridge, studied all the great masters and what was the result? Total inhibition. After years dissecting the works of Tolstoy, D H Lawrence, Dickens, Shakespeare, they were far too scared to pen an original piece of writing, too burdened by all that knowledge of sentence structure, plot devices, subtexts and character analysis to risk producing anything less worthy than the geniuses they admired. Instead their lives were dedicated to nurturing and guiding raw talent, helping literary novices and unabashed dreamers get their manuscripts on to the bestseller lists.

Which makes me wonder – are writers born or made? These days creative writing courses abound, something that barely existed when I was young. There are brilliant books on writing for those wanting advice.  I read those obsessively for a while: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, Stein On Writing… I could go on and on.  Mostly what they did was provide glorious encouragement while allowing me to pretend that I wasn’t just a hopeless procrastinator who’d rather do almost anything than take the disciplined, daunting action of putting words to paper.

Do I wish sometimes that I’d had more formal education? Often. Do I think it would have led me to penning incredible Pulitzer Prize-winners instead of commercial fiction?  I doubt it. I’d probably be like those editors I met, comparing myself to the greats and stultifying my own creativity for fear of producing second-rate work. The one-day local writers group I attended had me so terrified of reading aloud and being found lacking, I couldn’t scribble a single word. Which is probably why I’ve avoided writers workshops and novelist gatherings like the plague, while envying the brave souls like Sue Moorcroft who find in them inspiration, community and even lead retreats!

So what do you think? Is creativity something that can be taught? Can a brilliant teacher improve your craft? Or lead you from mediocrity to masterpiece? Or is writing a passion that will find a way to emerge despite the odds? And what about people like Jeffrey Archer who, with no previous literary ambitions, decide to sit down one day and pen a bestseller – indeed a long string of bestsellers – as a means to avoid bankruptcy? A born storyteller? Or just the type of bold lucky bastard we can all agree to hate?

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Deadlines – an indie author’s perspective

Deadlines – you think when you’re an indie writer, you’ll be free of them. When I left magazine publishing, I was only too happy to escape the mounting panic as the dreaded date approached, production managers shrieking for copy, editors making last minute changes, art departments scrabbling to find a picture for that impromptu article just slotted in. Entrepreneur.com has an interesting article on it here.

Time urgency,’ they say, ‘kills attention spans, rational decision-making skills and, at its most acute, the body itself by contributing to factors that lead to heart disease.’ Now if that thought doesn’t cause you stress, I don’t know what would.

Still, deadlines can be both a blessing and a curse to authors. How many writers have taken their own sweet time to craft a masterpiece of a first novel only to find themselves hopelessly blocked and paralyzed by the need to produce a second masterpiece within their publishing contract’s allotted schedule of 12 months? Some like Margaret Mitchell never go on to write another book but for writers who work within the traditional publishing system, the deadline is both a goad to action and the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

So if you’re an indie writer, can you put all that behind you? Of course, you could. Most likely no-one’s demanding to see the first draft of your next novel or calling up to check on its progress. Take the week off. Heck, take the month or a whole year off if financial gain or productivity isn’t all that important to you. But still, most of us set targets. If you’re a serious writer, you’ve probably come up with your own discipline. Readers expect a follow-up book and competition is too fierce to make them wait for years. But at least whatever goals you set are your own self-imposed pressure. And when life interferes as it always does – like Lorraine’s husband’s unexpected knee surgery this week or the demands of Pam’s elderly in-laws – you can usually give yourself a little breathing room without feeling like the world is crashing down on your head. And that’s a good thing.

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Penny in the swear jar, ticket to hell or just a colourful character?

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it, that all writers face today? Honestly it may seem that Americans and British both speak English but often times the words, not to mention the sensibilities are, literally, oceans apart.  That being said, how do you satisfy two audiences divided by a common language?

Let’s start with spelling.  Yes, most of us know that in England the word is ‘colour’ and the female parent who makes your sandwiches before you head for school is ‘Mum’.  Whereas in America it’s spelled ‘color’ and your father’s wife is ‘Mom’ (or possibly ‘Stepmom’ but we don’t have to go there). Still, with hawk-eyed readers always quick to pounce on misspellings and typos, we’ve found it beneficial to point out in the first page that they’re getting a dose of English spelling, like it or not.  We actually tried producing a separate edition for our US ebooks but then we were accused of ‘Americanising’ our characters when they were clearly British and we gave up on the attempt.

And then there’s slang.  How many people actually speak the Queen’s English as enunciated by a BBC newsreader?  So yes, we do tend to put quite a bit of slang into our novels, well, just because we dig it, mate.  Some American readers love the quirkiness, some are completely baffled, some are forgiving but struggle with the meaning.  Like it or not, there are differences in the way Americans and English speak and with Lorraine living in Colorado, she’s particularly sensitive to not creating American characters who all talk like surfers (‘way cool, dude’) while aware that many of the people she meets still think that ‘Brits’ are either extremely proper ( ‘I say, my good man, tally-ho)’ or (Gor blimey, luv) talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Touchiest of all, we’ve noticed Americans are much less tolerant of swearing.  Whereas we English (or maybe just our friends) occasionally pepper our sentences with epithets such as ‘bloody hell’, ‘crap’, ‘bugger’, ‘Christ Almighty’, ‘Oh God’ or the occasional F-bomb (as used to such comic great effect in Bridget Jones Diary), there are sensitive readers, particularly on the other side of the pond, who believe such disgusting language has no place in print.  We had what we thought a mild to moderate amount of cussing in our first novel – not without some debate as to whether it was absolutely necessary for character development – but it was enough for one indignant review to ask ‘if the two sisters competed for who could come up with the foulest curses?’   Since several of our books today are marketed as cosy crime we actually conducted a US readers’ poll on the topic, curious to get some first-hand opinions.  The result? Some would stop reading if a character constantly swore although most would accept a soft occasional ‘damn’.  But almost everyone was offended by ‘taking names in vain’.  Not that I think it will totally change the way we write but, jeez, who knew?

And apologies for the lateness of this post.  Pam was on holiday (vacation) in the New Forest and Lorraine was spaced out taking care of a laid-up husband (damaged ankle.)  So if there are any typos or mistakes without Pam looking over it first, (she bailed and went to bed), blame it on Lorraine’s blasted American spellcheck.

Editor? Proofreader? What’s in Your Indie Budget?

So you’re hot on language, your grammar is impeccable, your style puts Strunk and White to shame and like Akeelah you could win any old spelling bee. Why would you, as an indie author, need to pay for outside help? Well, you only have to read a few Amazon reviews to know that readers can be an unforgiving bunch, quick to spot a typo or a missing space between paragraphs. As an indie author you have to make some difficult choices about how much assistance you can afford to enlist. We wrote a whole post on the importance of a good book cover and we still feel that unless you’re amazingly hot stuff at art, you’re probably wiser to leave that to a professional. But here’s Ellie Campbell’s take on things.

 

Having a good editor is brilliant. Our first editor, Emma at Arrow Books, was instrumental in whipping How To Survive Your Sisters and When Good Friends Go Bad into shape. She pointed out that the endings were too short, the middle was too long, told us which characters needed motivation or fleshing out, where we’d over-described, repeated ourselves, or missed some vital information. After our rewrite, she did a massive line edit, cutting, stretching and pulling those babies until they cried uncle and turned into halfway decent novels. And did we learn a lot from her! These days we rely on our two sets of eyes, multiple drafts and hard-won experience to get the story tight and hopefully catch any glaring errors. We might then send the book to one or two amazing friends who can be trusted to say things like ‘your hero’s a bit of a creep’ instead of just ‘it’s great, honest’. BTW, if you have discerning friends like that, never let them go. They’re pearls beyond price.

 

Then copy editors, what an amazing job they do. Who knew that you’d been misquoting Shakespeare or the words of that pop song for your entire existence? Or what year Madonna adopted her black biker jacket, cropped bleach hair, ‘bad girl’ look? How could the fact that your own heroine changed from blonde to a redhead halfway through the manuscript escape you? A copy editor will check facts, correct misspellings, grammar and punctuation, notice when you switch from British to American English, or say ‘10’ instead of ‘ten’, warn you of potential lawsuits and altogether bring clarity and consistency to every element of your manuscript.

 

In fact Ellie Campbell has been saved from all kinds of awkward bloopers by copy editors, and anything they might have missed (or we’ve introduced in the flurry of a last-minute re-write), our proofreader, Wendy Janes, will spot. Traditionally proofreaders come along at the end of the process, when the edited manuscript has been printed as a proof, looking out for printing errors, spotting those awkward word and page breaks – and of course the dreaded typos.

 

Meanwhile, about those typos – isn’t it amazing how you can read and re-read the book numerous times, scan each word line by line, yet still those little devils slip past you? Apparently the reason it’s so hard to spot your own typos is because your clever busy brain skips over details like transposed or missing letters because it knows the meaning you’re trying to convey and focusses on that. In other words it sees what it expects to see. And that, more than anything, is why we need outside help. But perhaps you have a different experience. Or another professional you – and your writing career – couldn’t live without?

 

The Fine Art Of Book Promotion

Hooray, finally, it’s out!  Our short story collection – LOVE, LIES AND OTHER DECEPTIONS – is for sale on Amazon, birthed perhaps with more of a raspy mumble than a shout.  Oh, we’ve mentioned it in our newsletters, blog posts, blasted a multitude of tweets on Twitter, posted the news on our personal and professional Facebook pages and offered it at a special launch price of 99 cents.  Our review team has received advance copies and so far we’ve garnished five reviews, happily all 5 star.  And so off goes another book baby into the big wide world.

Which begs the question – how do you get your book noticed? When our first novel, How To Survive Your Sisters, was launched by Arrow, the publicity department handled everything, arranged radio interviews and a Daily Express two-page spread.  We had a brief glorious taste of the celebrity author life, flowers from editor and agent, champagne launch parties. We sat outside Waterstones signing copies as Lorraine’s American (and born salesman) husband, Gary, dragged unsuspecting passers-by over to our little table.  Alas, the whole thing coincided with the stock market crash and despite good reviews, our sales, although respectable, could hardly compete with the massive despondency that hit the publishing world that year.

Our third novel Looking For La La was also our first self-publishing venture.  Boy, were we innocents!  It was only when our agent asked us where were the reviews, where were the blog posts, that we realized we had to take control of our destiny.  Luckily that book had an interesting back-story, based on a lipstick-imprinted anonymous love postcard Pam’s husband received through the mail and which Pam, like any dedicated author, had promptly used as inspiration for a murder mystery. We contacted all the chicklit sites and started a whirl of interviews and blog posts.  We also put ‘La La’ out on free, joined a zillion Facebook ‘free novel’ sites, redid our web page, started developing a Twitter following. Our previously undiscovered novel shot up the Amazon charts and we became much more media savvy, not to mention befriending some wonderful bloggers who still support us today.

Recently though we’ve been questioning which efforts produce results and which aren’t worth the time. Does anyone pay attention to those ‘free book’ Facebook groups except for other authors hoping to promote? We don’t think so. Is it really worth paying for any promotions, except, of course, for the highly-competitive Bookbub? Some things you do because they’re fun, like Lorraine’s party for a hundred plus friends to launch To Catch A Creeper, where everyone dressed up as cat burglars and had a whoopee good time, although with all the alcohol consumed, not too many remembered to buy the book. Professional book tours provided a hell of a lot of action but also a lot of work, writing endless original and witty copy. And when sandwiched between a YA vampire story and a slice of steamy erotica, you have to question if the audience you’re reaching is the one you want!

Still we can all agree that promotion is important and glowing reviews most important of all. But how to get them? We just finished a free stint of our novel Million Dollar Question with over 20,000 downloads.  Will that lead to a jump in sales now that it’s back at full price?  Or a slew of new readers?  When we find out, we’ll let you know.