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.

Unless of course you have a blog to write…SaveSave

Stepping Into The Time Machine plus Cover Reveal

What do you have hidden in your closet?

Pam and I have been writing together as ‘Ellie Campbell’ for so long that sometimes even we forget we ever did things differently.  Recently we rediscovered some of the 140 short stories we each had published in those early years and decided – huge shock – we actually found them really entertaining.  So much so that we decided to gather some of them up into a collection.  Between world travels, multiple changes of first stone age-style word processors, then computers, plus my inability to hold on to copies or the actual magazines, many are probably lost for good, but we managed to come up with twenty funny, romantic, twisty or reflective short tales, soon to be released as Love, Lies And Other Deceptions.   It wasn’t easy to pick a cover to reflect so many diverse themes, but our talented designer Andrew Brown came up with the following. And here it is – ta-da, drum roll, please.

For us, part of the fascination was remembering the two people and the mindset that created those stories.  As mentioned in an earlier blog I started writing in my twenties, working in London publishing and living the muddled chaotic single life so hilariously described in Bridget Jones Diary.  Pam was the mother of three small children when she took the creative writing class that launched her.  We both had very different themes and topics, many reflecting our interests and lifestyles at the time.  Looking over them was was like stepping into a time machine. Now that we are… cough, cough, cough… quite a few years older, would we – could we even? – write anything similar?  Personally, I hardly know that earlier me.  I can see she was cynical, moody, sometimes romantically hopeful, sometimes despairing – and inevitably attracted to every possible variety of emotionally-unavailable womanizer, but I don’t think I could totally recreate her world viewpoint from my happily married self.  (I also suspect she might have been a wee bit more intelligent than I am now but that’s another story.)

Then again don’t we all have similar experiences when revisiting our early work?  Sometimes you look back on things and find it hard to believe you ever wrote that story, painted that picture, or took that photograph. Sometimes it shows how far you’ve moved on.  But then not only do you, the artist, change but also the way you feel about it can change with each viewing.  We’re all familiar with the awful creative roller coaster – one minute loving the work in progress, the next seeing only the flaws and deciding it might be time to give up writing for good because you’re obviously hopeless.  And then coming back again after some blessed time has passed and being amazed to find some merit in there after all.  The successful are those who can see through the illusions and persevere anyway but I bet many of us have an unfinished manuscript in our closet somewhere that we discarded in disgust.  Perhaps rightfully so, perhaps… well, who knows?

Anyway, Love, Lies and Deceptions will be available on Amazon any day now and we’re super excited. And yes, we intentionally omitted to specify which of the two sisters wrote which story.  We thought it would be more fun to leave the readers guessing and maybe to answer that question we’re always asked – does writing together mean you lose your original ‘voice’?  We don’t think so but perhaps in the end the stories tell the tale.