Catching up with Margaret James!

Margaret James 1

Welcome back, Margaret! I was amazed when I realised that you were my first guest in 2013!

I was amazed, too! My goodness, doesn’t time fly? Perhaps this is because writing a novel is such a long process and sometimes another year goes by without us really noticing? It’s very good to be back. I see that since we were last in contact you’ve had several of your books published by Endeavour Press.  Many congratulations!

Thank you! I love the cover of your new novel ‘Girl in Red Velvet’, which is book 6 in the Charton Minster Series. What inspired you to create this series?

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The inspiration for the Charton Minster stories was driving past a country house in Dorset at least a decade ago. I wondered who lived there and later that evening my imagination started to run riot, conjuring up a whole family and their descendents. The first novel in the series is The Silver Locket, which is Rose Courtenay’s story. The subsequent five novels are about Rose’s children and grandchildren and even her great grandchildren.

Who is the ‘Girl’ in Red Velvet?

The girl in Girl in Red Velvet is Rose Courtenay’s granddaughter Lily Denham, who goes to university in the 1960s and meets two men who become her friends, the three of them have some great fun together, but then Lily finds she is falling in love with both of them. She makes a choice which looks as if it will turn out to be a very bad choice indeed. Or will it? What do all three of these people want and how will they get it? I hope I’ve given them plenty of challenges but that I’ve also given all their stories satisfying endings.

Do you remember the 60s with fondness?

I do because I was young and at university myself and having a lovely time living away from home. It’s quite difficult for younger people alive today to realise what a huge place the world was then. I went from living in a small rural community where I never met anyone who wasn’t British and white to living in a big city where I met and made friends with people from all over the world.

What is next for Creative Writing Matters?

We’re expanding our range of writing-related services all the time. We run two major international competitions (The Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize which incorporates the Trisha Ashley Award for a humorous story) and we offer mentoring and various shorter courses and smaller competitions, too. We’ve found that offering feedback on competition entries has proved very popular so next year we will be doing more in that respect by offering feedback on some of our short story competitions as well as on entries for the Exeter Novel Prize.

What is next for Margaret?

It’s reading the entries for this year’s Exeter Story Prize, which closed on 30 April. We’re constantly astonished and impressed by the range and quality of entries, so although this is a pleasurable task it’s always quite demanding, too.

I wish you every success with all your amazing ventures. Reader’s can follow Margaret on: Facebook Twitter    or you can visit  Margaret’s blog

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Catching up with Sally!

 In November 2015 I interviewed Sally Bridgewater, Creative Writing Courses & Competitions Coordinator for Writing Magazine, who was about to embark on an extreme writing challenge of hitting the 50,000 word target for the NaNoWriMo Challenge – but in one day!

I thought I’d catch up with Sally and see what has happened since.

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Hi, Sally, welcome back.  Can you share with us what has happened as a result of completing the challenge?
Doing the twenty-four hour wordathon was a fun challenge, but I wouldn’t class it as life-changing. I did really appreciate getting the chance to write a piece about it in the Writing Magazine, which is my first proper published article. It did really help me get the rest of my novel draft done back in November 2015, and getting a full draft down on paper gave me a lot more confidence that I really will finish this novel one day.
Have you submitted the finished draft yet? 
Nowhere near! I took a break after NaNoWriMo in 2015 – one of the downsides of taking on extreme challenges is that afterwards you usually feel in need of an extreme rest. So I only picked my novel back up in April 2016, when I started world-building and generally trying to re-plot the whole thing. I just aimed for twice a week as I’ve been pretty busy with other things, and that gave me a good stretch of steady progress on it over the summer.
Believe it or not, I have not yet gone back and re-read what I wrote in the wordathon or in the rest of that November – as soon as I started working on the novel again I knew I’d be changing so much that there wasn’t too much point in working from the draft outwards. I still don’t see it as a waste of time though – doing that really rough draft gave me a rough sense of the characters, the world, the plot, and most especially got me far enough to imagine what would happen at the end. All of that was crucial, and as I am a first-time novelist I don’t think there was any other way for me to work out a full plot from my first ideas. I’m hoping with my second or third book I won’t have to write completely discarded drafts though!
I hope not. However, I can see how completing this punishing challenge has taught you so much and given you a tangible first draft to build upon.
In November 2016 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo again, of course, and I was aiming for a complete rewrite of the novel with my new plot. Even though I was the most prepared I’ve ever been, with a spreadsheet of all the scenes I was planning, unfortunately life got in the way. I finally reached the top of the waiting list for a much-delayed jaw surgery during November so I had to give that priority. I thought lying on the sofa recovering would give me lots of time to write, but it turns out that healing is a lot more tiring than it looks! I didn’t want to push myself while I was obviously not at full health, so I’ve not given myself a hard time about it.
I hope you are fully recovered now. What are your writing goals for 2017?
Get this second draft finished! I have recommitted to writing 1000 words a day, and it’s really working pretty well at the moment. I use the Jotterpad app on my phone to write on the bus on my way to and from work, and I am genuinely surprised how much easier I find it to do that than to carve out a chunk of time to sit at my computer – somehow that just feels more like Hard Work. I am using all the psychology tricks I can to make it easier, such as congratulating myself just for making the three short taps it takes to open the Jotterpad on my phone. I know that’s all I have to do really, and then once it’s actually in front of me it’s much easier to contemplate doing the actual writing.
I am also using a site called Beeminder.com to keep me on track – it makes a graph of a goal you want to achieve, so in my case I have one tracking the number of ‘days I worked on my main fiction project’ and I’ve set my target as only three days a week. This is because if you fall off the line on the graph of how many things you said you’d do, then Beeminder charges your credit card an ever-increasing amount of money. It is scarily effective at keeping you motivated, I’d seriously recommend it for anything you’re stuck on.
I’ve then got a great writing project I’m looking forward to in April – my friend Tonks and I (who helped with the Wordathon in the first place) have agreed to do ‘Camp NaNoWriMo’ and make it Editing Month. The real twist is that I will edit her first draft and she will edit mine. It’s a little scary but we trust each other and it will be so much easier seeing how to improve someone else’s work rather than your own. So that gives me a deadline to get the second draft done!
If anyone would like to follow developments, they can like my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SallyBridgewater. I could do with your support!
I wish you a very happy, healthy and successful 2017!

An Interview with Carole Blake

[Update: 27/10/2016]

It is with great sadness and total shock that I have learnt that Carole died last night. She was an amazing lady and inspiration to many, myself included. My sincere condolences to her family, her many friends, colleagues and authors that she represented and respected so much. She will be greatly missed.

Val


My guest this month is Carole Blake, a lady whose amazing career has taken her from working as a secretary in a packaging company to forming the incredibly successful London literary agency, Blake Friedmann. This journey involved becoming the first Rights Manager for Michael Joseph, then Marketing Director at Sphere, before starting up her own agency in 1977. Five years later she merged with Julian Friedmann’s Agency.

Throughout this time Carole has worked tirelessly to develop the careers of her authors and yet still found time to serve on many boards and institutions to contribute to the industry she loves so much. In 2013 Carole was the recipient of the Pandora Award for her ‘significant and sustained contribution to the publishing industry’.

Photo by Jack Ladenburg

Carole Blake, co-founder of Blake Friedmann. Photo by Jack Ladenburg.

Welcome, Carole!
Did your childhood inspire and nurture your love of books?

My childhood home didn’t have many books, but I was always focussed on them & asked for them as presents. I can remember my first ever rag-books (made of a linen-like material) that I used to ‘read’ in the bath before I could actually read. I loved turning the pages and pretending. Once I could read, my early favourites were the Rupert books, which I still have, with my parents’ messages & dates written inside. When I was 8 I asked for a bookcase for my Christmas present. I got it (& only relinquished it when I moved house 8 years ago). I then set out to catalogue and categorise all the books I owned. I worked out a complicated system of letters and numbers and wrote them inside each book, then listed them all against their titles and authors. Very proud of it. Some years later when I discovered the Dewey System I was crushed. I had thought I was being entirely original!

Was it challenging for a woman in your early career to progress in the industry as you did?

I don’t remember it as difficult. I answered an advert in the Evening Standard, went for an interview & got the job. I commuted from Mitcham in Surrey to Marble Arch, & found myself – a working class girl, in a cotton dress and a white cardigan – working as a secretary to a team of university-educated art experts working on a multi-volume art encyclopedia. I kept a low profile, soaked up information like a sponge (including which pieces of cutlery to use when we went out to restaurants) and made friends there (50+ years ago) that I am still in touch with. It was literally a life-changing experience.

Who inspired you the most to keep moving forward? Are you naturally self-motivated to achieve?

The lovely people I worked with at Rainbirds, in my first job, were extremely encouraging. Working there for 8 years kick-started my life-long love of art. It introduced me to the classics (I compiled a company-wide order of Penguin paperbacks every few months. We could get a discount if we ordered 30 or more. Soon I stopped asking anyone else to mark up the Penguin stocklists, because I was ordering 30 at a time myself. I read my way through all the Russian and French novelists, and I remember crying on the no 16 bus as it went round Marble Arch because I finished Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and found it unbearably sad. How nerdish is that for a teenager in the swinging 60s?

But later when I was marketing director of Sphere, Edmund Fisher fired me, quite rightly. I was running the marketing, publicity, rights and contracts departments and wasn’t juggling them very well. We were having a row – we had a very volatile relationship over the three companies and 12 years that I worked with him – and I was in the middle of resigning. When I realised he was firing me I withdrew my resignation and sued for wrongful dismissal. I knew he hadn’t followed all the right procedures (indeed he hadn’t followed any procedures at all!) and as I was a director, I was employed by Sphere’s then owners, Thomson Newspapers, so he didn’t actually have the right to fire me at all. I won, they settled out of court, and I discovered I had a list of authors who wanted to be represented by me if I started an agency. So I did. The fact that Edmund fired me was the best thing ever to happen to me. I would never have had the courage to ask someone to stop paying me if he hadn’t. No one in my family had ever started a company. If I hadn’t been out of work for 6 months, dealing with lawyers it would never have occurred to me to do so.

You are also encouraging new blood into the publishing industry through your associations with UCLA postgraduate publishing course. Is this something you feel passionate about as much as discovering new writing talent?

Given my start in the industry, remembering how kind people were, and aware that it’s a much more difficult area to get work in now I think the least I can do is to encourage and help others into a business that has given me such a wonderfully satisfying lifestyle. I’ve been associated with other postgraduate publishing courses as well, and am always happy to talk to people wanting to get into the book world.

I am the only person in my company who doesn’t have a degree; many of my staff have several. I didn’t have to go through the purgatory of unpaid internships, which I think are morally indefensible: we pay our interns properly.

Whenever I can I try to introduce people to others in the industry who can be of use to them. We have actually employed more than a dozen of our interns over the years – it’s so much more successful than a 40 minute interview. We also have an annual get-together of all our past staff, past interns. It’s officially known as networking but we all know it’s a great gossip-fest. So great to see where people have moved on to. You might have heard of the singer Dido? She was my assistant for 4 years and was an ace at selling serial rights!

Her parents were both publishers. I work with her mother at Rainbirds in the 60s, sold books to her father when he was running Sidgwick decades later. He and I used to lunch together and regarded ourselves as in-laws while she was working for me. When she resigned ‘to spend more time on her music’ I gave her a very motherly speech. ‘Can’t guarantee to keep your job open Dido.’ I don’t think she’s ever wanted to come back to publishing again …

I do quite a lot of public speaking – at literary festivals, conferences (I’m an honorary vice-president of the RNA, a member of the HNS) and I teach a course on how to sell rights. I’ve been a board member of The Book Trade Charity, and its Chairman, and President over many years and am now a Patron.

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Your guide ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is widely used throughout the publishing industry. How much of a challenge has it been to update it?

An extreme challenge, as you can tell from the fact that I’ve not managed to deliver it yet. It took Boxtree (later to become an imprint of Macmillan) several years to persuade me to agree to write it in the first place. And then I renegotiated the delivery date several times, in order not to be in breach of contract (how embarrassing would that have been for a literary agent?). Same has happened with the contracted update/new edition. My agency is SO much bigger & busier than it was when I delivered the original manuscript – 20 years ago! – and so much has changed. I now know what I want to write, what I need to update, what I need to add … but time is the enemy. My editor at Macmillan (a friend) is understanding … up to a point. I now so want to have this new manuscript behind me. There are so very many more ways to promote a book now (social media?!) and I am now writing it but in such small spaces of time.

You represent many of my favourite authors, but two especially. Could you share with us what it was that you loved so much about ‘Lady of Hay’ and the amazing Barbara Erskine?
Likewise, when Elizabeth Chadwick’s first manuscript arrived on your desk did you instantly realise that you had found gold?

Two authors very close to my heart: both are good friends.

Barbara Erskine: I was already representing her short stories. She wrote many, and magazine editors around the world would line up for them. We had talked about an unusual novel she was thinking about writing. Two time periods, linked. We talked about it for a long time: years. I remember saying at the outset that it would be vital that every time, at the end of each chapter, the reader was required to move from present to past, from past to present, it must be a wrench. Each time period must be equally compelling, and hard to leave or the novel would be broken backed. Oh my … did she deliver. But although publishers and editors always ask for something new, a fresh voice – they always actually want something that is recognisable. I submitted the partial manuscript for 4 years. ‘I don’t know if it’s a contemporary novel, or a historical?’ Me: it’s both. ‘I don’t know if it’s a love story or a mystery?’ Me: it’s both. Every editor who arrived in a new job found the manuscript on their desk. When Maggie Pringle arrived at Michael Joseph in 1983, she read it, loved it, & recognised it as something fresh and new and exciting, and she was allowed to buy it even though it had been rejected twice by other Michael Joseph editors over the years. They auctioned paperback rights back then and it set a record for the highest paperback advance for a British first novel. This summer it celebrated 30 years continuously in print – quite something for a commercial novel. And it’s in print in many other languages too. In 2017 it will be celebrated for its 30th anniversary in German.
Barbara and I are friends. We’ve worked together for so long: we have even been on holiday together. That Nile cruise will never be forgotten. The only holiday that I’ve ever got a holiday-tie-in best-seller novel from – ‘Whispers in the Sand’! Barbara always stays with me at home when she’s in London overnight.

Elizabeth Chadwick: the early chapters of ‘The Wild Hunt’ arrived in the late 80s in a brown envelope – back in the days when submissions were made on paper, via snailmail. And back in the days when I opened my own mail every morning at my desk. I read it as soon as I opened the envelope and knew there was something very special in my hand. A few weeks later I had sold it, via auction, to hardback and paperback publishers (back in the days before publishers always published in both formats themselves.)

‘The Wild Hunt’ won a Betty Trask award, and Prince Charles was the person giving out the prizes for The Society of Authors that year. That was quite a memorable evening!
As with Barbara, this led to publishing success and a long and on-going friendship. Elizabeth stays with me when she’s in London too, and we often talk into the small hours.

I think it is unfair to ask you which are your favourite books or authors, but of all the novels you have read are there a few characters that really stayed with you? If so, why?

There’s no way I could choose between novels by my clients – I represent them all because they are so original, and so special. It would be like asking a mother to choose between her children! Not that I think of my best-selling authors are children for one moment. But the novels – apart from those written by my clients – that always stay with me are Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (I finished it on a no 16 bus going round Marble Arch roundabout in the late 60s, crying my eyes out), and Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. A haunting work.

You have travelled extensively in your work, but where do you enjoy going to relax and explore?

Italy, always Italy. I go for art, music, food (and Negronis!), shopping. Venice, in particular if I had to pin it down more narrowly. I was lucky enough to take a sabbatical earlier this year and I spent 5 weeks in Italy: Florence, Siena, Padua, Mantua, Venice. Absolutely heaven.

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Is it your love of detail that first led you to becoming a collector of dolls’ houses and miniatures (OOAK)? Where did this begin? How is the collection growing?

I’ve always loved houses, furniture, interior decoration. My home is full now so miniatures are the way I buy furniture. I dare not add up the number of miniatures I own … they are stored in many boxes, and I’ve had to forbid myself to buy more until I’ve finished building the 5 floor Regency house which will be taller than me. And I’m forbidden to do any more work on that until I’ve delivered my next book. In addition to that house, I have a Georgian hand made one that I bought already finished. That is fully furnished. I also own an antiquarian bookshop which I made from a kit. Every book is real; they can be opened and read (with a magnifying glass). Most of them are miniature copies of real antique illustrated books that I buy from a particular maker whose work I really admire. I have more than 1000. And I have two more kits to build – they are going to become a row of shops. And then there is the greenhouse, and a conservatory, both full of flowers. My favourite collection though is mouth-blown cranberry glass. Five (miniature) cabinets full so far. The most satisfying thing I achieved myself, was laying a floor of terracotta tiles. Real tiles, 1:12 scale. Laying the tiles was easy: the grouting was murder, the air blue!

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What other interests do you enjoy away from the world of publishing?

Early music – I still buy cds because I enjoy the booklets. I’ve got about 5000, all stored on a hard drive and easy to find. But I also like Meat Loaf (that’s Elizabeth Chadwick’s fault!). Art – I always make time to go to exhibitions. I find cooking very therapeutic, and always have freezers-full of home cooked food. I enjoy a variety of crafts – I make greetings cards, keep scrapbooks, make jewellery (I have 1000s of beads, and like to buy them on my travels), and I love taking photographs (check out my 56 Pinterest boards, and my Instagram posts!). I took 8000 photographs during the 5 weeks in Italy. And of course reading. I read a lot of non-fiction for relaxation as a change from the fiction that I work with. I love history, memoir, African wildlife (I’ve been to Africa on safari many times). And I collect books about the publishing industry. I’ve recently taken up knitting and crochet again. But there’s not a lot of time to fit these in around work!

You have achieved a great deal in your career, but what is next for Carole Blake?

I’ve got to make time to finish the new book. Then I can get back to (miniature) house building …

Thank you for the fascinating insight into your career and for sharing some personal photographs of your lovely miniature worlds!

Meet Jan Jones!

JanJonesI am delighted to welcome Jan Jones as my guest this month. Jan is not only an amazing writer of romantic fiction but the organiser of many successful Romantic Novelists’ Association Conferences.

Hi Jan – thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to complete the interview. This year’s conference at Lancaster University was, amazing, as usual. The speakers were from all sections of the industry. How have you seen the event change and grow since you became the organiser?

Hi Val,

Since 2005 when I took over as organiser, the conference has grown from just over a hundred residential delegates to over two hundred. We’ve also increased the number of choices, added extra Sunday afternoon sessions and offer a Thursday pre-conference arrival.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association is a very supportive organisation. When did you join it and make your first break into print?

I first joined during the 1980s when I was writing magazine stories, took a break, rejoined in 1994, then made the breakthrough from NWS to full in 2005.

Your career began in mathematics and computing, so when did you realise that you were a writer at heart?

Oh, I’ve always known that, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to live on it. Computer programming was a much more bankable skill.

Do you prefer to write long or short fiction, YA or adult, historical or contemporary?

All of them. I have a dreadfully low boredom threshold. I like the variety and challenge of writing different forms and genres. As to length, I think when you first get the germ of an idea, you know what sort of size the story will be. When writing serials I have to squash the story into a few compact episodes, so it is an immense relief to then expand it to the length it always should have been and self-publish it.

Do you have a strict writing regime and work ethic?

Erm, no. I’d like to, but life keeps getting in the way. I just write whenever I can. Late at night is good, because everything is quiet and I don’t have the sense of having left chores undone. I try to only have one project on the go at one time, but I generally have two or three in various stages. There are very few points during the day when I’m not thinking about whatever the current piece of work is. The worst time for me is during RNA Conference preparations. I can’t keep a book in my head as well as all the conference arrangements, so I have to completely stop writing at the end of April and not pick the book up again until July. The upside is that by then, I’ve forgotten how much I hated it!

That is a long time for preparation. No wonder the conferences are such a success. What was the best piece of advice you were given as a new writer?

That everyone has something useful to teach you and that you never stop learning. What I worked out for myself was to believe in my own voice, to dare to be different, and to never give up.

What inspired The Penny Plain Mysteries?

I came across a strange jigsaw when I was clearing my mother’s bungalow that gave rise to the first Penny Plain story, but as for where the characters came from, I have no idea. I think all writers have people lying dormant in their subconscious, just waiting for the right setting.

What are you working on now?

I have recently got the rights back for the three Regency novels published by Hale, so I am revising them ready to self-publish. I am enjoying it tremendously – it’s just like meeting old friends and falling in love with them all over again.

I love that description. So what is next for Jan?

Keep on keeping on! At the last count I had something like nineteen projects waiting for my attention, ranging from finished novels to be done-something-with to tantalising germs of ideas with half-a-dozen lines of notes to anchor the thoughts in place.

Good luck and I wish you every success with them. Thanks for sharing some of your writing experience and world.

More from Jan

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An Interview with Amy Durant

Amy Durant

Amy Durant, Publishing Director of Endeavour Press

Where did your love of books originate?

My dad is a children’s book author, and he worked at Walker Books when I was little, so I grew up surrounded by books, and I fell in love with reading from an early age.
Do you have a favourite genre?
My favourite genres are historical fiction and literary fiction, although I read everything from sci-fi to military history.
Have you any desire to write a novel?
Yes, I have a few ideas and I hope to write something myself eventually.
What was your route into the publishing industry?
I was quite lucky – the first internship I undertook landed me a job! After completing my MA in contemporary literature, I applied to a few internships and a was taken on for a month with Endeavour Press. Straight after that I began working with them full-time as a publishing assistant, and now I act as Publishing Director.
How has Endeavour Press evolved in the time since it first took up the challenge of becoming the UK’s leading independent publisher?
Endeavour Press has evolved enormously since I first started work with them in January 2013. Back then we were publishing around 15 books month, and we only had about fifty authors on our books. Now we have five new imprints (Endeavour Press Germany, Venture Press, Pioneering Press, Albion Press and Endeavour Press Creative) and in total we publish 30 books a week, and we have a list of over 500 authors.
Could you tell us about the History Festival and what has been planned?
The virtual history festival we have set up will run from the 18-22 April. We have 50 authors signed up, some from Endeavour Press, and some from other publishing houses, and we will be running various online events, mainly on Twitter and Goodreads. They will include competitions, author interviews, reader Q&As, cover reveals and exclusive extracts from upcoming novels.
What is next for Amy and Endeavour Press?
The great thing about Endeavour Press is you never know what is around the corner! We are in talks about launching more imprints this year, and we are always scouting for new authors to work with. I have also just started a part-time PhD on English women’s writing in the seventeenth century, so hopefully I will be able to find some interesting forgotten texts to add to our classic books imprint.
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An Interview with Ben Adams

I am delighted to have author Ben Adams as my guest this month. Ben’s critically acclaimed novels Six Months to Get a Life and Six Lies chart two men’s journeys as they strive to make sense of their respective midlife crises.
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Welcome, Ben,

Please share with us how and when you discovered the joy of writing fiction!

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy making up a story. My dad is blind. Instead of reading books to me, he used to captivate me at bedtime, making up stories that would transfix me and keep me awake for hours. I caught the bug and used to invent equally inventive stories involving the most hideous of monsters. As I got older, my fiction expanded to include ingenious excuses for not having done my homework. Roald Dahl expanded my imagination still further as did Douglas Adams and Sue Townsend. But ultimately, I blame my dad.

When and how did you make the break from unpublished to published author?

I always wanted to write a novel. In my 20s I dabbled with crime fiction but too many hours spent staring at blank pages and a lack of life experiences meant that I couldn’t make my stories sing.

In my 30s I mostly wrote boring work-related web content and the occasional acerbic complaint letter to the authorities or to the dog over the road – it defecated on my drive.

And then my 40s came along. Sometimes it takes a life event to set you off on the right track. Six Months to Get a Life, my first novel, was ultimately triggered by my own family upheaval. It’s a story about a man overcoming a divorce and doing his best to build a new life for himself and his children. Having been through the pain myself, I felt able to give my characters some real depth. It was the first time I had felt truly able to write something believable, something memorable.

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And luckily, I found a publisher who believed in the characters as much as I did.

How would you describe Graham Hope, your protagonist in Six Months to Get a Life?

Graham, like a lot of the characters I invent, is a fairly unremarkable fellow. At heart he is a good guy but like most people going through a divorce, he can occasionally be a bit maudlin. And even bitter. He’s someone who generally knows what the right thing to do is, even if he doesn’t always do it. He’s concerned about his relationship with his children. He’s also concerned about his relationships with women. Or rather his lack of relationships with women.

It isn’t easy to take a difficult subject and inject humour and hope into the story successfully. How did you balance the harsh realities of life against the sense of renewal and wit?

The simple truth is that no one would have enjoyed Six Months to Get a Life if Graham hadn’t been able to laugh at himself. If a story about coping with divorce, learning to live separately from your children or arguing over maintenance payments didn’t contain a few comedic release points, the reader would more than likely be contemplating suicide by the end of chapter 3.

The same goes for my second novel, Six Lies. Dave Fazackerley, the protagonist in Six Lies, discovers after she has died that his mother wasn’t his mother after all. And to make matters worse, he was already reeling from his wife’s decision to run off with a librarian. About the only thing Dave actually managed to cling on to was his sense of humour…

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Writing a novel is a major achievement for anyone, but how hard have you found getting to grips with marketing and using social media to build up your author platform – or are you a natural?

I am probably your typical author. Inventing stories is my passion. I love talking to people about mine and their stories too. But trying to understand the difference between a Facebook page and a Facebook profile, uploading content to a website, getting my head around boring twitter protocols and ridiculous book marketing websites is, quite frankly, the bane of my life.

I do understand the need to establish a good author platform though. Twitter indirectly led to me being invited on to the BBC Breakfast sofa. It also led to you and I connecting. These days, few authors will be successful without a bit of investment in their author platform.

What tips would you give to anyone, of any age, who is determined to become a published writer?

Firstly, you need to write exceptionally well. The best way to do that is to write, write and write some more. The more you write, the better you will become. Oh, and read a lot too. Learn from writers within your chosen genre, but don’t copy them.

Secondly, you need to build your emotional resilience. Believe in your own talent. Don’t let a little self-doubt put you off. Imagine if JK Rowling had thought, ‘Oh, this is crap,’ when she was giving Harry his lightening bolt scar and gone off and got a proper job.

Thirdly, see the previous question and take a deep breath…

What is next for Ben?

I have written my third novel in draft form. Provisionally entitled ‘Trouble in the Staffroom’, it is a school-based drama-come-romp. I am really proud of the draft as it currently stands and am loving the feedback I am receiving from beta readers. Hopefully, Trouble in the Staffroom will be published in September to coincide with the start of a new school year.

I am really enjoying reading Six Months to Get a Life and wish you every continued success.

@benadamsauthor

Ben Adams on Facebook

Ben’s Website

An Interview with Margaret James and Cathie Hartigan

I am delighted to welcome two successful writers and tutors of creative writing to my blog this month, Margaret James and Cathie Hartigan.

Margaret has been a shining light to me and many unpublished authors as she was the New Writers’ Scheme Organiser for the Romantic Novelists’ Association when I first became published. Cathie is a prolific writer, lecturer and founder of CreativeWritingMatters.

Welcome!

Hello, Valerie –thank you for inviting us to chat with you! It’s lovely to be here.

You are both successful writers so my first question must be where did your own writing journeys begin?

Margaret: I started writing short stories while my children were still babies and eventually I began selling them to women’s magazines.

Cathie: I was a hobby writer until about ten years ago, but after a foundation course with the Open College of Arts, I began having success in short story competitions. Since then I have taken my hobby much more seriously.

CreativeWritingMatters is the inspirational name of the business you founded along with Sophie Duffy. I love the logo. Could you tell us about CreativeWritingMatters and how it came into being?

Cathie: CreativeWritingMatters came into being when I left teaching in mainstream education. The flexibility of being freelance meant we could offer workshops and short courses on all aspects of writing. The competitions came later following the success of a flash competition that we ran for our students.

The name came about because of a conversation I had, during which I became rather too vehement about the importance of creative writing. ‘Creative writing matters,’ I heard myself shriek. Our logo features Sophie’s cat, Henry, the star of her story in our Cat Walks ebook. He’s perky and forward-looking, just like the three of us!

You have jointly written an excellent handbook and a workbook on aspects of creative writing so obviously have a great working relationship, but how do you set about working on a non-fiction joint project as opposed to your independent fiction?

Margaret: I first met Cathie when she joined my local writing group, Exeter Writers. I loved her short stories and she was kind enough to say she liked my own writing, too. We collaborated on producing an anthology of members’ work and found we got on very well. We both teach creative writing (Cathie teaches face-to-face while I teach online) and, after we’d finished editing and producing the anthology, we decided to write a guidebook for our students.

When we wrote The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook, we wrote alternate chapters and then we swapped files and edited these chapters. It all seemed to work well! But when we wrote The Short Story Writer’s Workbook, Cathie wrote the whole of the first draft and then I did a heavy edit, making the second draft twice as long as the first. This approach worked very well, too. We find our non-fiction writing styles are very similar. A few months down the line, we often can’t remember who wrote what.

Will there be more in this series?

We enjoy working together so we intend to produce a handbook for novelists and we have other projects in the pipeline, too. We hope to produce some more anthologies featuring either our own work or that of other people.

You are both very experienced tutors so I would like to ask:-

Margaret, what three tips would you give to an aspiring unpublished novel writer?

  1. Plan your story and know roughly how you want it to end. But don’t be too rigid in your planning. Be prepared for the story to change and grow while you write.
  2. Your reader should want to spend time with your characters. So don’t write about people you don’t actually like or don’t find very interesting yourself. Your characters ought to be your friends.
  3. A novel is a big project. So whenever you get tired or disenchanted – which you almost certainly will – take some time out to reflect and to think about how and where you want this story to go.

Cathie, what three tips would you give to an aspiring unpublished writer of short stories?

  1. Use vivid and specific details that tell a lot, rather than generalisations. If a character puts up an umbrella, we don’t need to be told it’s raining.
  2. How much time you have to set up your story depends on the number of words that have been stipulated by the competition or magazine. Your story needs to develop and reach its resolution without a sudden rush at the end. Once finished, check the balance of set up, development and resolution, then be prepared to cut ruthlessly at the beginning.
  3. Use dialogue and gesture to reveal character rather than word-hungry narrative.

The Exeter Novel Prize is going from strength to strength, what inspired this, and how do you see it evolving?

Margaret: The Exeter Novel Prize came into being because it filled a gap in the world of novel-writing competitions. It’s open to previously published and also self-published novelists. There is more information here: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/2015-exeter-novel-prize.html

Will there be a CreativeWritingMatters short story competition in 2016? If so, what advice would you give to entrants?

CreativeWritingMatters runs lots of competitions for both short and longer fiction, so here is some general advice.

  • Read the rules.
  • Abide by the rules.
  • Start your story as something interesting happens.
  • Round off your story with a satisfying ending.
Read Making the Grade by Cathie Hartigan

Read Cathie Hartigan’s story, Making the Grade!

What is next for Cathie and Margaret, jointly or independently?

Margaret: I’m about to start the second draft of a novel and to plan a new non-fiction project that has nothing to do with writing.

Cathie: My debut novel, Secret of the Song will be out later this year and there will also be another collection of stories by the three of us at CreativeWritingMatters. Right now, the characters in my next novel are twitching for me to get on with it.

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience and advice with my readers.

Thank you for inviting us! It’s been great to talk to you.