Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the ongoing guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome to this site author Roz Morris, whose blog has been an essential part of my writing life. She’s an award-nominated author, book doctor, ghostwriter and writing teacher. The highlights of her insightful responses are marked in blue.
(This is an #IWSG post, and I’m scheduling this up early due to previous commitments.)
1. At what age did you start writing fiction? What prompted you?
I’ve always written. I was a shy kid who didn’t talk a lot out loud, but made up stories constantly. So I wrote a lot, but never thought it could end up as fully-fledged books. Two people made me change my mind.
The first was a schoolteacher when I was 17. When she talked about Shakespeare and Dickens she brought them ferociously alive. She cornered me after an exam and I thought it must be because I’d written something dumb. Actually, she said: ‘your essay on Chaucer was brilliant and you should write novels’.
I still didn’t take writing seriously until, 20 years on, I met Person Number Two – I married a writer. While getting to know literary agents and publishers, I got a break as a ghostwriter – and published about a dozen novels under top-secret conditions. I still see copies of them around people’s houses today but I can’t tell you what they are! But I didn’t feel I’d earned my spurs until I released a novel under my own name. My first novel was My Memories of a Future Life. It arose from one of those ‘what-if’ ideas – you can go back to past lives by hypnosis, but what if you went forwards?
My second novel, Lifeform Three, is about a future time where all the countryside has disappeared – except for one glorious green valley with an old house which is now a theme park. It was inspired by my love of the English countryside and horse riding – I thought how long will this last? Lifeform Three was longlisted for the World Fantasy Award.
And now I’ve got a narrative non-fiction book as well – Not Quite Lost: Travels Without a Sense of Direction.
2. In your opinion, what makes a successful novel?
I can only answer as a writer. Rewriting is the big secret. Successful books aren’t just a string of well-chosen words; they’re a hidden mechanism of structure and characterisation as well. The best piece of advice I could give an aspiring writer is to learn how to critically appraise your own work.
3. What are the top books on your reading list right now?
I’m always tripping over things I want to read. At the moment the queue looks like this.
- The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier – it’s about two men who swap identities, the classic ‘double’ story. I’m looking forward to her take.
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – the novel about a siege in a South American embassy. I’m rereading it because its vibe fits well with the novel I’m currently writing (Ever Rest).
- The Constant Gardener by John le Carre – It’s classic le Carre territory, with tangled conspiracies and characters who are mesmerising and vulnerable. I started reading it a few months ago, then got diverted by another book I had to read for my work. I have it on the nightstand, ready to start again.
- Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss – about a planet where the seasons are enormously extended. I’m eager to see what he does with such a potent idea.
4. You’re a renowned ghostwriter. Could you point us to some resources for those interested in breaking into this kind of writing?
I get asked this a lot, so I created a course. It explains what ghostwriting is, where ghostwriters are used (they’re far more common than you’d think!), how to pitch for a project, how to find opportunities, how to handle the client … everything you need! .
5. Which authors have been your biggest influences?
Too many to list! I must have been reading since I first plugged brain into eyes.
I love authors with a graceful turn of language, an eye for the unusual, compelling characters and a strong storytelling drive. Iain Banks was an influence on My Memories of a Future Life – his novel The Bridge has a character living two lives.
For Lifeform Three I was influenced by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for his combination of futurism and nostalgia.
I like Barbara Trapido, Sophie Kinsella, Barbara Vine and John le Carre for their human, vulnerable, troubled characters. (Yes, you don’t often see those writers mentioned in the same breath!) Joan Didion and Helen Macdonald for their unsparing observation. Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and Gavin Maxwell for the deep affection in everything they write.
6. What would you recommend to an author seeking to build a platform?
Choose a few social media sites where your kinds of readers tend to hang out. I principally use Twitter and Facebook. Depending on the books you write, you might find Instagram or Wattpad are good for you.
A website to display your work is important. You might also have a blog to create shareable posts and bring you a wider audience.
A newsletter – collect email addresses from people who are interested in your books and send out an occasional message to let them know what you’re working on.
Take your time. Treat it as if you’re moving into a new town and trying to find the people who are most like you. Be friendly, and see who you get on with.
7. As a creative writing teacher, what advice would you give to aspiring/ emerging fiction writers? Could you talk about your own journey as a writer and writing teacher in this context?
Read a lot! Although you can learn storytelling techniques from movies, you must also learn from prose because prose has its own characteristics.
When I’m teaching, I often find aspiring authors trying to use tricks from movies that simply don’t work in a book – like scenes with a lot of characters talking. And, conversely, they don’t realise that prose makes other kinds of scene very easy – such as passage of time.
While reading, analyse your reactions – if you like a character, ask yourself what the author did to make you feel that way. This is how I learned – and I still do.
8. In your opinion, what factors should guide an author when deciding between self-publishing and going the traditional route?
I’d always advise to look for a publishing deal because you need the widest options possible. You can always decide to self-publish if that’s a better situation.
If you get an offer, look at the long term. A publisher will give you two kinds of help – what are they worth to you?
1 There’s editorial help – producing the book to a publishable standard. There are standard processes, like proofing, and there are more specialised processes such as developmental editing for the audience and designing a cover that will attract the right readers.
2 There’s also marketing and publicity. Does the publisher have good influence? Will they get your book seen in places that you couldn’t get to by yourself or by hiring dedicated book PR?
You need to weigh up the publisher’s expertise, experience and connections. Also, look at what they will take from you – not just the sales income, but other rights such as
• Translation rights
• Other editions – your book can be an ebook, a print book, an audiobook, a movie…
• Reversion rights – if the book doesn’t sell, can you reclaim the rights and take it to a different publisher or publish it yourself?
• Non-compete clauses – some publishers won’t want you to write anything else while you’re under contract to them.
9. You’ve written books targeted at writers. Could you tell us more about the impetus behind them? What sort of writers would benefit?
My Nail Your Novel books! I’ve mentored a lot of writers, and I wrote the Nail Your Novels from the issues they most commonly have trouble with.
Book 1 is a step-by-step plan for writing and revising. I wrote it because I realized so many writers were starting out with a great idea and then getting muddled or disillusioned. Or if an editor suggested they restructure, they were completely lost – they’d got a manuscript of 65,000 words, how on earth could they move plot threads or combine characters? I realised I did this kind of thing without turning a hair, so I wrote Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. Book 2 builds on that with the mistakes I commonly see with characters. Book 3 is plot. And the books are short and bite-sized – you can dip in, find a helpful suggestion, and get back to your writing.
10. Some writing and publishing professionals believe that creative writing cannot be taught— that those who profess to do so merely spot existing talent and help polish it. Where do you stand on this?
There are two elements here.
1. Talent – every profession on the planet involves using an aptitude. I would be useless in any job that involves maths, for instance, because I have no natural feel for numbers. But I’m lucky to have a flair for words, and so I’ll gravitate to professions where that sensitivity will be an advantage.
I think creativity is difficult to teach if a person doesn’t have the natural inclination. I know a lot of people who tell me they simply cannot ‘invent’ or make those creative leaps.
2. Speaking as a teacher, I’ve noticed that inexperienced writers have certain things they do very well, and other areas that are blind spots. This is where we see the other element – work. A tutor can guide and steer, but the writer has to put in the hours. All arts are learned by self-directed study. And it’s often frustrating, so we need a lot of persistence too.
So I agree that we can’t make a person creative. They either are or they’re not. But – except for the odd genius – even the talented people have blind spots and they need to be directed by experienced hands. But innate talent makes it easier to learn a craft to a professional standard.
11. Tell us about your latest book: Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. How did this lighthearted travel memoir come about, and did you have an ideal reader in mind when you wrote it?
Not Quite Lost started with a big leather-bound diary I carry with me when I travel. After a while I had so many stories about odd places and adventures that I thought I’d publish them properly. I guess the ideal reader would be people who enjoy Bill Bryson’s humour and sense of wry wonder, and also a bit of Jon Ronson’s sense of absurdity. And, to bring things full circle, one of the stories is about how I finally started writing as myself instead of as a ghost.
Have you read books by Roz Morris? Have you worked with an editor, book doctor or a ghost writer? What was the experience like? Would you like to talk about the influence of writing teachers? Do you have questions for Roz ? As a reader what genre do you prefer? Do you read novels, no-fiction, or short fiction, or all of these forms?
Roz Morris is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future Life; Lifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers (Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2012), has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Her first non-fiction collection, Not Quite Lost, is now available. Find out more here. When not at her desk, her favourite place in the world is on the back of a horse, exploring the old commons, byways and woods of Surrey, UK. Her website is here, her blog is here, her Facebook page is here, you can tweet her as @Roz_Morris.
This post was written for the IWSG. Thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh for organizing and hosting the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) every month! Go to the site to see the other participants. In this group we writers share tips, self-doubt, insecurities, and of course, discuss the act of writing. If you’re a writer and a blogger, go join rightaway! Co-hosts this month are: Olga Godim, Chemist Ken, Jennifer Hawes, and Tamara Narayan!
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