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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A critical mass of writers…

Let me tell you about my favourite event of the year (excluding Christmas of course). It’s the annual Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference (which is happening as I post this). Well – my favourite events (plural) of any year are writing conferences. I go to as many as I can – but always the RNA conference here in the UK, shortly after which I fly to Australia for the Romance Writers of Australia Conference. I also go to similar events in the USA – when time and budget allow.

I spent a lot of one conference with my foot resting on a bag of frozen peas… but I was not daunted.

Why?

Because writing conferences inspire me. And terrify me. And exhaust me. They make me laugh and sometimes cry (that was mostly the year I hurt my foot the day the conference began).

A writing conference may attract anything from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand writers. I’m not sure the point at which writers hit critical mass – but there is something about a writers’ conference which I find no-where else.

At my first RNA conference I was an unpublished hopeful. Within minutes of arriving I met an author whose book I read. An author whose books I loved. And she talked to me. TO ME! That was a proper fan-girl meltdown moment for me. And it opened my eyes to something important… writers are people. Until then, they had seemed mystical entities on a plane far above the real world.

In the fifteen years since then, I’ve been to many such conferences and met people who are now among my closest friends. I found my first publisher at a conference. And my agent is at this one.

At the Romance Writers of Australia conference, I get to meet up with other writers of rural romances.

Nine books later, I still learn new things at each conference from the speakers (mostly writers) who generously share their time and knowledge.

At each conference I find new friends – writers who understand the joys and frustrations of writing. We sit up late at night talking, drinking wine or cups of tea and probably eating chocolates, but always offering each other support and understanding and encouragement. We laugh together and occasionally cry together, but we are always there for each other.

Industry panels are a wonderful way of keeping pace with a rapidly changing publishing world

And conferences are FUN! The conversation, the laughter, the jokes and stories and kitchen parties. I am always exhausted by the end of the conference, but the joy of the weekend fuels my writing energy.

At conferences, no-one is allowed to say ‘no’ to a little extravagance.

So, if you aspire to write or are already writing, can I presume to offer a suggestion… If you haven’t already, find a writing association that suits you and your genre. Find other writers to share your journey. And then go out there and enjoy. That’s what I am off to do right now…. See you again soon.

There’s always time to relax and just chat.

Writing in Italy … about Italy

I’m feeling fond of Italy this week. There are two reasons:

  1. I’m travelling to Italy on Wednesday to lead the one-week Great Writing course for Arte Umbria. Then I’m staying a second week to lead their writing retreat.
  2. The book I’m writing, currently entitled The Summer of Finding Out and scheduled for publication in May 2018, is set in Umbria, too. In fact, the rear of a small hotel my heroine, Sofia, lives in, bears an uncanny resemblance to the gorgeous terrace, gardens and pool of Arte Umbria‘s venue, Tenuta di Poggiolame, complete with its panoramic view.

Sue Moorcroft at Arte Umbria webThis will be the fifth year I’ve led a course for Arte Umbria and naturally, I’m looking forward to it. Who wouldn’t, when their ‘classroom’ is a sunny terrace?

But I’m also excited about the retreat because I’ll actually be in the book’s setting as I write. I can go into an Italian town to do my research; chat to people who live the Italian way of life; immerse myself in the culture, sounds, smells and sights. I’ve long wanted this experience. When I wrote The Wedding Proposal, set in Malta, the temptation was enormous to go there for a week to write. If I hadn’t been travelling so much that summer anyway, I would have done it, but there were just too many things against the idea at the time. If I recall correctly I attended the RT Booklovers’ Convention in America and taught in France and Italy.Sue working on terrace web

But this time … this time it’s different. I’ve been able to bring my writing schedule and teaching schedule together beautifully. It also marks a change in my life as next year my publishing schedule is so tight that I won’t be teaching anywhere (unless somebody invites me to a great country to do so). But two writing retreats are scheduled for Arte Umbria and I will be there … I wonder if I can pull off being in the midst of a book set in Italy again?

Photo 06-07-2013 14 24 14 (1) web

PS The first booking has already been taken for Arte Umbria‘s writing retreats in 2018. If you’d like to know more or even make your booking, click here for my page on the Arte Umbria website and here for the booking form.

 

You might not want to read my latest book…

That seems a strange thing for an author to say – but the book I just finished writing is a bit … Well… it has lines in it like…

10 0 * * * root /exc/dbdump Cdiv –f + | gzip –c >      and so on.

I guess this is where I confess that I am a bit of a geek. Or nerd. Or techie… there are a lot of words for it.

In my day job I do database and workflow design with large computer systems for making TV programmes and films. I’ve just finished writing a training course for system administrators, including some pretty advanced IT ‘stuff’. The book is almost 400 pages long. I think that’s longer than any of my novels.

The cover is definitely not as pretty as my novel covers.

Although it’s a totally different type of writing, as I did it, it occurred to me there are some similarities between writing a technical training course book and writing a novel.

First – good grammar and spelling and sentence structure are essential for both. Punctuation too.

A novel has to show an unfolding story – provide some background and explanation – otherwise what happens next won’t make sense. The same is true of a training manual. The early chapters (well… lessons) prepare the attendees for what’s ahead and give them the knowledge they need to carry on.

There’s no dialogue in a training guide, but it does have to contain explanations of various things – presented in much the same way as the trainer does when speaking.

Part of me wants to open the technical book at random and turn something like this…….

… into this and see if any of the students notice.

You have to maintain the reader,s interest in whatever you write – a novel or a technical manual. It’s probably easier in a novel, because the reader is there for enjoyment. Although, a lot of people enjoy learning new things as well.

And of course, there has to be a climax… That’s easy in a novel – the moment of greatest conflict and resolution.

In a training course – it’s the exam. And the happy ever after comes when you pass and get the certificate. And you may even catch the glimpse of a promotion or pay rise in your future.

In totally honesty, I enjoy writing novels more than writing technical manuals – but both provide their own challenges. That’s what I like to do all the time – challenge myself. And I do believe that whatever you write, if you do your best to write it well, the experience will make you a better writer for all things.

And now – it’s back to the Aussie bush and my next novel.

The second time is the charm

Six years ago, I did a half day course with Michael Hauge. Who’s he, you ask. Well he’s the guy that most of Hollywood goes to for help to improve their scripts and storylines. He’s worked with the likes of Will Smith and Julia Roberts and Morgan Freeman. His credits include everything from Sci Fi epics like I am Legend to more character based films like The Karate Kid.

Two very different films but the same rules of storytelling apply to both

Two very different films but the same rules of storytelling apply to both

He is now primarily a teacher – and what a good teacher he is. Although he has worked mostly on feature films, he also works with authors and he has a lot to offer to offer on the subject of story structure, character arc and plotting. His great ability is to distil a complex book of 100 thousand words down to the key elements. To make it simple.

That half day course I did six years ago opened my eyes, and I have been drawing on things I learned there ever since and I still pop in to his website from time to time to read articles and advice.

I have written six novels since I did that first course. This week, as part of the Romance Writers of Australia conference, I was back in his audience again, for a full day seminar.

The Romance Writers of Australia conference - always a good place to learn more about my craft.

The Romance Writers of Australia conference – always a good place to learn more about my craft.

So it seemed a good idea to nominate six important things I took away from this day.

  1. The primary goal of every story is create an emotional experience for the reader.
  2. The hero or heroine is not someone who is heroic… they become heroic during the course of the story.
  3. Emotion arises from conflict, not from desire.
  4. A book should give a before and after picture of our key protagonist and their life… and we should be able to see the differences clearly.
  5. The reader needs to empathise with their key character and we need to create that empathy before we start showing the character’s flaws. That way, the reader will cut the character a little slack.
  6. Most Hollywood blockbusters (and the same can be said for successful novels too, I think) are based on five visible goals….
  • To stop (something happening). This includes a lot of crime, sci fi, thriller horror and superhero films)
  • To escape (from somewhere or some person). This would be a disaster film and some thrillers and horror films.
  • To deliver (someone or something to some place). This is not common – but the best example is Lord of the Rings.
  • To retrieve (someone or something). This is a film for Indiana Jones. It’s also any kidnapping film or heist story.
  • To win (a contest or sports event or to win someone’s love). This is the most common form of film.

I have to say some of the concepts he raised made me struggle a bit – but that’s good. Struggling to understand what we do only makes us better at it. I guess I’ll be applying what I learned today to the next six novels I write.

The session in full swing.

The session in full swing.