Pre-published writers often hope to find a magical silver key in my routine which guarantees publication. If there is such a magical key, it’s so well hidden I haven’t found it.
As I have often said (and will continue to say) I am a proud member of Swansea Writers’ Circle. The selfless friendship and support I have found within its ranks of past and present members gave me the confidence to seek publication and make decisions that have changed my life. Recently a new (and very talented member) paid to attend a publishing course. He then e-mailed the group and asked a very pertinent question, “How and on what basis are creative writing tutors given their credentials.” I wrote this in reply to the group – it is entirely my own view and does not in any way reflect that of Swansea Writers’ Circle.
Credentials? You have pinpointed the whole crux of creative writing/scriptwriting/classes.
As Rob Gittins (Film and TV Scriptwriter and long standing writer of East Enders) said in his talk last week, when he was sent the syllabus and notes for a scriptwriting module on a creative writing degree course, he didn’t understand a word of it. This from a writer with literally hundreds if not thousands of TV, radio and film scripts under his belt, not to mention awards and acclaim from the public, actors, film makers and directors.
Years ago when I was published by Headline my editor took me down to the post room where interns sorted unsolicited manuscripts. One of them was dividing scripts into boxes. When I asked why, she explained she read the first paragraph of each script and from that could determine which creative writing course they were following, East Anglia, Manchester, Cardiff etc. The tutors were well and truly putting their stamp on their students. To good or bad effect? Who knows?
I taught creative writing in DACE Swansea University until they wanted me to develop and mark modules towards a degree in creative writing, I’d already given my notice due to pressure of work but I would have left anyway after that. How can anyone possibly measure and mark creativity on a 1-10 basis? How do you measure success and entertainment value – (and let’s face it that’s what writers are – entertainers) when a script’s value is determined by its audience. Give me a sci-fi script and I simply wouldn’t understand it. A historical novel – if it’s well researched and written I’m ready to dive right in.
I am continually appalled by the “rules” quoted at me, “don’t use adverbs” (I know Stephen King doesn’t like them because I read his book on creative writing – which is is interesting if you’re writing for an American audience) always use Courier pt whatever, always have 3 subplots, etc etc etc I also remember the stunned silence at a meeting of a novelists’ association when an author with one magazine article to her name lectured Rosamund Pilcher (she of the Shell Seekers, Coming Home etc etc) on how to achieve publication by following rules she’d gleaned from a weekend writing course. Fortunately Rosamund Pilcher had a sense of humour.
I have a rule. It either works or it doesn’t. If you’re unsure stick the m/s in a drawer for two months then re-read you’ll soon get your answer.
What I do know is every agent, publisher and film maker is looking for something ground breaking and new that has come from the mind of a new and exciting talent. They haven’t a clue what they’re looking for but they’ll recognise it when they see it, and it won’t be a pale imitation of Harry Potter, or 40 Shades of Grey and it might even come from a writer who has broken every rule in the book. Think James Joyce and Kurt Vonnegut.
When Richard Adams wrote Watership Down he walked into a publisher dropped the m/s on to an editor’s desk and said “This is a book about rabbits, read it.” She did and the rest is history.
Advice – the best I can give any pre-published writer is write what you want – if you are passionate about your work, others may see and share your passion, some readers may not share your enthusiasm in sufficient numbers for you to achieve success in the only terms that matter – your own measure.
Don’t listen to detractors, have faith in yourself and if I was going to add a final piece of advice, it’s before signing up for a creative writing class always check the published work of the person running it. Most (not all but most) successful writers I know are too busy earning a living to run classes. The old adage “those who can do, those who can’t teach” applies to writing just as it does to everything else.
I know how much courage it takes to join a writer’s group when you haven’t published a word and burn to write. You wouldn’t be members of the circle if you didn’t have what it takes. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I walked up and down the pavement outside the old Swansea Reference library one Wednesday evening plucking up courage to enter. A member saw me, welcomed me, walked in with me and changed my life. Have faith in yourselves and your work, fellow writers. There is no magic key – set out pen, paper and write.
Do you write full-time?
Since 1994. That year I wrote five commissioned books (one Catrin Collier historical, one Katherine John crime and three raunchy modern romps as Caro French). They were Caro French’s debut and swansong, but I will be eternally grateful to the editor who gave me that commission because it enabled me to give up full-time work become a full-time writer. I also started novelising TV series around this time as one of my ambitions was to write film and TV scripts and I thought it would be a good way to learn from the masters.
How is your day structured? If your day isn’t structured how, and when, do you find time to write? Do you work set hours?
What’s structure? I leave bed when I wake, sometime between 5.30 and 9.00 am, make expresso, feed our cat and head for my study to check e-mails. Within seconds our Labrador, Charlie bursts in demanding gravy bones. When my long-suffering husband, John wakes he makes breakfast and brings mine to my study (he’s an angel and I simply couldn’t function without him). I read the news headlines on my computer while I eat. I rarely stop for lunch but try to exercise for half an hour every day. Generally when I’m flagging. The best days are when my children and grandchildren telephone or friends visit. If I haven’t a “talk” or event we watch a film or drama if we can find one, if we can’t, we chose an old favourite from our DVD library, before going to bed with a book. For me, it’s usually a research book.
Do you try to keep to the same writing hours each day or does each day differ?
The writing hours end when I’m exhausted usually around 7-8 p.m. but every day differs because with luck, I’ll be further into the story I’m immersed in. I’ll take a break if I’m giving a talk that day, or embarking on a research trip.
How do you juggle your writing life with personal life, business life, other forms of writing etc?
Looking back I wonder how I ever wrote when my three children were small and I worked full time as a Business Consultant. (I wrote from midnight until 4 in the morning) I certainly couldn’t have written without John’s support. After fifty years of marriage he still insists he doesn’t mind me disappearing into my study and insists he enjoys travelling to “research” sites all over the world.
When is your best time to write? And are you always chasing your own tail? Or are you organised?
To write – the early hours and just before a deadline. My study looks a mess with maps laid out on a side desk, trolleys full of books, and overflowing “In” trays but 99% of the time I can lay my hands on what I want. The one habit I can’t cure is writing vital information on the backs of envelopes and then spending days looking for them.
Do you feel guilty if you don’t write?
Guilty no – writing is my passion. I feel immensely privileged to be able to make my living doing something I love and I will never regard writing as work.
What about procrastination? Does it affect you? How do you get over it?
Procrastination comes with research. I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it and always do far more than necessary. Writers’ Block? Sign a contract and you can’t afford it.
How do you fit in social networking and self-promotion?
I accept I’m dreadful self-promotion. Social networking sites I see as a mixed blessing. I’ve made some wonderful friends through them and they’ve enabled me to keep in touch with the cast and crew who worked on the film of my book By Any Name. After seeing how hard they worked on set during 20 hour days it’s wonderful to watch their careers taking off. I try to visit my Catrin Collier and Katherine John Facebook pages daily and occasionally tweet if I’m setting up a book promotion or giveaway. An author’s life is not lunches at the Ivy and publishing parties, (although I’ve enjoyed both ) but 99% writing. Family and social time (real life) is rare and precious. My children and grandchildren live at a distance and lead busy lives. I told Susan Sallis once I live simply. Her reply, ‘Is there another way for a writer?’
Who do you live with? Family, children, animals, alone?
My husband, John and occasionally if he’s in the area our eldest son Ralph. We have an adorable Labrador, and two cats, (one a gift from an editor). They are last of the menagerie my children accumulated.
Do you still live in Swansea?
I live on the edge of the Gower Peninsula. We once placed an auction bid on a derelict isolated cottage on Rhossili Down. I wrote a ghost story about the house and withdrew the bid. Ridiculous? I know, but I couldn’t have lived there after imagining horrific events. Several of my books are set in Pontypridd, which in some ways will always be home. Whenever I return I’m surrounded by real friends, the kind who are supportive even when you phone them at four in the morning.
My most successful book, One Last Summer was inspired by a trip to my mother’s home town of Allenstein now Olzstyn in Poland. She fled the Red Army in 1945 and in 1995 we returned to the dream house her father had built for his family in 1936. For the first time she talked about her upbringing in Nazi Germany, her father’s death when she was twelve, and what it was like to refugee with nothing more than the clothes she stood up in. She gave me her own and her mother’s wartime diaries. I used actual events, created fictional characters and penned, One Last Summer. To my amazement, after being told by several editors no one wanted to read a wartime book written from the German perspective, One Last Summer sold in translation, became a bestseller in several European countries and there are even pirated editions in Turkey. It’s also recommended reading on the Holocaust Day Memorial website.
Does the area you live in affect your writing?
The stories I burn to write affect my writing more than my location. Swansea Girls was set in the town and encompassed some of my own experiences, but I’ve written about Tiger Bay in Cardiff, Craig y Nos in the Swansea Valley and two of my most successful books were set in Poland. One trilogy is set in Mesopotamia during the First World War (modern Iraq) the other features John Hughes the Welsh entrepreneur who founded a steelworks and town in the Donbass in Ukraine, a beautiful country.
When did you first know you wanted to write?
I can’t recall a time when I didn’t. One of my earliest school memories is being punished for writing a story in block capitals about pigs falling down a well and landing on the moon instead of practising joined up writing.
How many books have you written, what is your latest title and your relationship with your characters?
Written – probably over a hundred. Published – 52 under six pseudonyms. (Not sure how that happened) I’ve also written 3 film scripts in the last year. Characters – Alexander Cordell told me that he had to kill one of his because she was haunting him. At the time I didn’t understand. Shortly afterwards I finished a book at 4 in the morning and picked up the telephone to talk to a friend who would understand my elation. I only realised I was trying to contact my fictional detective, Trevor Joseph when I tried to dial. So yes, Alex, they haunt you. Occasionally I feel my study is filled with their ghosts and now Owain Glyndwr has moved in.
How do you begin writing a book?
The historical – with the story. I populate it with characters representative of the era e.g. the Beggars and Choosers, trilogy, has striking miners, strike-breaking police and soldiers, and business people who risked bankruptcy by extending credit to miners. One Last Summer, Prussian Junkers whose families had lived in East Prussia since the thirteenth century as my family had done, Russians, Poles and American and English soldiers. Publishers demand outlines. I rarely stick to initial thoughts. One editor rang me midway through the 8th book of the Hearts of Gold series. After a brief conversation she said, “Did you hear that? It was your outline hitting the bin.”
How long does it take you to complete a novel?
The longest was probably Long Road to Baghdad which I started when I was working full-time. I spent two years researching before I wrote a word or developed a character and ten years writing the book. The shortest, a Katherine John crime book By Any Name, I completed the first draft in 3 weeks. As with most of my crime books I started with an image. A bloodstained man (not his blood) running down a motorway at night into oncoming traffic. I had to finish it because curious, I didn’t know who he was or why he was there. I realise that probably sounds crazy but it’s the way I write crime. Filmed by Tanabi, starring Cengiz Dervis and Samira Mohammed Ali it was released on Amazon Prime in 2017
How much planning and research do you do?
The historical Colliers demand enormous research. The stories are factually based, written in “actual event time”. Aside from archives I try to interview as many “experts” as I can. Either survivors of the era, if it’s within living memory ,or academics if it’s not.
Do you go out to do your research?
I try to visit the area my books are set in – although Iraq proved difficult. One Last Summer was the result of the trip I made with my mother to her childhood home in East Prussia and after it was published the Polish Libraries invited me to give talks, I’ve returned several time since. I love travelling and the largest file on my computer is my outline file. There are synopsis of books waiting to be written set in Africa – Antigua – Russia – Albania – Cuba – China – Turkey – USA . . .
What was your first novel and how many have you written now?
My first full-length novel was Heir to the Dragons, Guinevere’s life before she met Arthur. I wrote it after ignoring Alexander Cordell’s sterling advice “to write what I knew”. I entered it for the Georgette Heyer Memorial prize and it returned so quickly I wondered if I put it in the stamped addressed envelope. I hadn’t. My second full-length novel was set during a slave uprising in Cuba in 1814. Neither sold. My third novel Long Road to Baghdad gained me a commission to write a book set in Wales during the thirties – Hearts of Gold. But Hearts wasn’t my first published book. That was a Katherine John crime, Without Trace.
What are you currently working on?
Glyndwr 2 Glorious Shall Their Dragon be.
I’ve completed the first book in a trilogy that may run into a quartet of historical novels, featuring the life of Owain Glyndwr. When the director friend who’d filmed “By Any Name” (now on Amazon Prime) suggested I research the life of legendary Welsh Hero Owain Glyndwr, with a view to turning the project into both book and film I knew very little about Glyndwr . Now I believe he was the greatest Welsh patriot, military tactician, politician and philosopher who lived.
I began by reading as many translations of original medieval manuscripts as I could lay my hands on, some like the “Pennal Letter” written by Glyndwr himself. He was a devoted husband, father, family man, highly educated linguist, and in turn, soldier and warrior, lawyer who practised in London’s Inns of court, politician, country squire, charismatic leader, and courtier but above all a noble of Welsh royal lineage. (and like all Welsh nobles despised by the nobility of Norman extraction)
The wealthiest Welsh Lord of his time, he could have settled into a comfortable old age surrounded by his wife, children, friends and bards, instead he sacrificed everything he valued, his family, wealth and life for the cause for Welsh freedom. Six hundred years ago he dreamed of a Welsh Parliament with representatives elected from and by the free Welsh, two Welsh universities one in the North and one the South staffed by the most learned Welsh, and a Welsh church free from the corruption of Canterbury. His thinking was centuries ahead of his time. A hero who now lives in my head as well as my book, and one I am looking forward to furthering my acquaintance with.
Writing Place Readers like to know if authors use the kitchen table, a shed in the garden, have a beautiful study or a cupboard under the stairs. Where do you write? Have you a special desk, pictures, a view from the window?
I have a book lined study apart from the window and the wall facing the desk. Above my enormous desk are photographs of my family dating back to 1850, some from the Welsh side, some from the East Prussian. When the Red Army marched into Allenstein my grandmother had less than 5 minutes to pack and leave her family home. She abandoned her jewellery but took the family photographs. Aside from books, there are gifts from my children including mechanical jumping pigs and pictures drawn by my grandchildren which sit happily next to my accounts and business files I only have to go into the room switch on the computer and look around to feel the need to write.