A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Julie Cohen is a novelist, creative writing teacher and all-round maven of the printed page. Her novel Dear Thing is a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club 2014 selection; and damn right, because it’s outstanding. She kindly agreed to answer a few rather obvious questions.
First of all, congratulations on Dear Thing being a Richard and Judy Summer Pick! How does that feel? What, if anything, has changed since the announcement was made?
Thank you very much! Needless to say I am thrilled. Although Dear Thing isn’t my first book, it’s the first that’s had such a presence in the shops, because of the Richard and Judy promotion. People keep on sending me photos of my books in train stations, airports, motorway services… I’ve had a photo of a stranger in a bikini on a sun lounger reading my book in Portugal (I think the gentleman who took the photo asked permission first), and I’ve had readers get in touch to tell me that the book has affected them in some way. It’s been a wonderful experience.
I don’t think that much of anything has changed, except that more people are reading my book. My days still consist of wrestling with an unruly plot. But I will admit to visiting my book in Paddington Station every time I go to London.
How do you work?
I write full-time, which translates to sitting at my desk from 9 to 3 every day that my son is at school, and staring at my computer. I try to take weekends off, but during the school holidays I often have to get creative in finding time to write, especially as my husband travels a lot for his job. At the moment, I’m working on the first draft of a novel, and I try to write 1000-2000 words a day. Every now and then I manage a bit more than that, but I can’t write much more than 4000 words without my brain leaking through my ears. Some days I get a bit stuck, and have to pause to do more research, or plan out where I’m going next—I spent all of this past Friday fiddling with Post-It notes.
Of course a writer’s job isn’t just getting the words on paper; for the past few months I’ve been promoting Dear Thing, working on the proofs and final touches for my next hardback, Where Love Lies. So sometimes it feels like you’re working on three books at any one time, between writing, getting a book ready for publication, and promoting.
I also teach creative writing, so if I’ve got a course coming up, I have to allocate some time to that. Though most often that gets done in the evenings, after I’ve finished my word count for the day.
Are you a planner or a pantser?
I am sort of halfway between a planner and pantser. I usually know the general shape of my story before I begin; I know what sort of themes it has, and the sort of journeys the characters have to take, and of course I have an idea of story structure and what sort of climax and ending I’m building up to. But I often don’t know what individual things will happen, or precisely how any of these events take place. So I have a vague road map, but I discover the landmarks along the way. Which is more fun, but possibly also more precarious. The thing that I often find, though, is that even though I haven’t planned specifics, I’ll often weave the solution to future plot problems into the novel as I write, without having any idea that I’m doing so. So for example in Where Love Lies I wrote that the heroine’s husband, Quinn, keeps on having his bicycle stolen by a local ‘yoof’, which is something that just seemed a little bit amusing when I was writing chapter two. But that became quite a symbol of the way Quinn is, and it plays a very relevant part in the final chapter of the book.
Your remit as a writer has evolved over time, from Mills & Boon through chicklit to more hard-hitting commercial fiction. Is this an unalloyed good, or have there been challenges along the way?
The way I write has changed as I’ve got older, I think, but to me, it’s been on a continuum. I try to challenge myself with every book I write—otherwise I would get bored—whether that be tackling something new in subject matter, or style, or structure. I’ve learned something from everything I’ve written. Writing for Mills & Boon right at the beginning of my career taught me about intense and economical characterisation, focusing on the core of a story, and fast pacing. It also helped me think about my reader’s expectations—to consider what a reader wanted when picking up a particular kind of novel, and to think of new ways to satisfy that need. When I started writing longer romcoms, I used all those lessons but let myself explore different types of character and storyline and interest; so I wrote a book about comic book geeks, and a book about Regency re-enactors. But I was also able to write about gender roles, and grief, and alcoholism, and the loss of a baby, and identity. I’ve always felt that just because a book is fun and easy to read, that doesn’t mean it’s not able to look at some pretty big issues.
My more recent books are more serious, and deal with their issues front and centre, rather than wrapping them up in a fun, frothy plot. I feel more freedom to experiment a little bit with structure, and to relax into my language and imagery; to dig down deep into my characters’ emotions and stories; to be more wide-ranging and subtle in symbolism. But I think I still use the lessons of characterisation, structure, and pacing that I learned with my very first books, though perhaps in a different way.
Do you think the industry has substantially changed since you began? Could you do what you’re doing if you started out now?
The industry has changed a lot in the twelve years since I first started trying to get published. For writers, I think the most substantial change has been in the availability and acceptance of self-publishing. I think if I’d started writing with the self-publishing climate as it is today, I might have been tempted to self-publish the first three books I wrote, which were rejected by everyone in the world. Knowing myself, I probably would have, because I am really impatient and obsessive, and also I was really in love with those stories at the time. And taking the long view, that probably would have been a bad idea. Not that I think those books are incredibly bad and they would have ruined my reputation forever, though they’re not particularly good: I think that they would have been some major distraction. I would have spent a lot of time working on them, promoting them, building an audience and an image, and I would have found it difficult to keep on writing at the speed that I did, or being as flexible with trying out new challenges. I might have been putting out work that wasn’t fully-formed, instead of letting it go, and concentrating on honing my skills to become a better writer. (I’m not saying that this is everyone’s risk with self-publishing; but it would have been mine.)
Also, working with a lot of skilled and talented publishing professionals has really helped me develop my writing. I’ve been lucky enough to have a marvellous, canny agent, and several quite astonishingly amazing editors, including one who was my mentor for many years and who helped me grow my career. I might have made similar contacts eventually if I self-published, but it might have taken me a lot longer.
What’s the most important piece of advice you have for writers starting out now?
Just write. Don’t be afraid that what you’ve written isn’t good enough—or worse, that what you’re going to write but haven’t written yet isn’t good enough. Get the words down on paper, and then some more words, and then revise and change them and write some more, and eventually, maybe after a long time, but eventually, if you love writing enough and you work hard enough, it will be good enough.
Finally, we always ask our guests to recommend five books, with a word about each. They don’t have to be in any of your genres.
The five best books I’ve read this year, in no particular order:
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh: A neurosurgeon’s memoir, full of triumph and tragedy, that shows how fragile and precious life and personality are.
Saga 3 by Fiona Staples and Brian K Vaughan: This graphic novel series is absolutely wonderful in every single way. Aliens, robots, interplanetary war, ghosts, lots of laughs, blood, sex and true love.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: I’m an unashamed King fan and this sequel to The Shining was a treat.
Cotillion by Georgette Heyer: I’ve read this a lot and every single time it is better and better. My favourite comfort reading.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel: It’s an obvious choice, but it blew me away.
For more information about Julie, her books, and her excellent advice and services for writers, visit her website.
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.