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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Summer in Winter, Christmas in August

I’m thrilled that, finally, the announcement has been made that I’ve signed a new three-book deal with Avon Books UK (HarperCollins). Because announcements are never made until all parties have signed the contract, and the contract takes a while to prepare, the agreement was actually reached back in March – and it has nearly killed me not jumping the gun and announcing it myself! But I’m thrilled to continue working with the fantastic Avon team.

The first of the three new books is The Little Village Christmas. The next will be a summer book and the last another set at Christmas. This makes my position as an author ‘seasonal’. Every book will have a seasonal title and cover. You can see that I began exactly this way in my original contract with Avon.

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So, what does it involve to write books with such an overt seasonal slant? Frequently, I’m working on a book set in the ‘opposite’ season to the one I’m experiencing. I’m proofing The Little Village Christmas now, reading about snow and ice while sunlight is streaming through my window (if I’m lucky!). I’m thinking about Christmas decorations, raffles and big coats. Avon has been hard at work writing a Christmassy blurb and creating a Christmas cover. Amazon has even sent out the first promotional email (thank you all those who have preordered 🙂 ).

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My paper proofs

On the plus side, the book I’m actually writing is my Summer 2018 book, working title The Summer of Finding Out. I had the huge pleasure of writing a good chunk of it while on my Arte Umbria writing retreat. (NB If you’re interested in joining me on the writing retreat next year you can find information here.) To write a book set in Italy while I was in Italy was a special experience. My hero, Levi, paints the scene I could see from the terrace and I took hundreds of research pix in Orvieto, to which ‘my’ Umbrian town of Monteliberatà will bear some resemblance. After running out my camera battery I sat down for lunch with a couple of lovely people from the course and remained after they’d gone, sipping Orvieto Classico and making notes about what I’d seen, heard and smelled as I’d walked the cobbled streets earlier.

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I have to be honest, I planned my writing schedule around writing about Italy while staying in Italy. I defended it against the necessity to edit The Little Village Christmas and even asked for a couple of days extension to my deadline in case I needed it when I returned to the UK.

When I’ve finished the first draft of The Summer of Finding Out I’ll be returning to The Little Village Christmas in order to perform a few more edits for the German publisher. Then I’ll write a two-part Christmas story for My Weekly, due in by the end of August, and return to The Summer of Finding Out to write the second draft.

All this time, of course, I’m promoting Just for the Holidays, which is my Summer 2017 book! And in the interests of such promotion you might like to know that Just for the Holidays is only 99p on Kindle and Kobo right now …

Whatever books you love and whenever you like them – Happy Reading!

 

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?

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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.

 

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?