‘The sound of a typewriter brings me happiness’ – historical fiction and non-fiction author Cordelia Biddle @AuthorBiddle

When Cordelia Biddle was nine years old, a schoolteacher told her she could never become an author. Cordelia has proved that teacher everlastingly wrong with two works of non-fiction, five Victorian mystery novels and two standalones. Also, 12 murder mysteries written with her author husband. Her latest release is They Believed They Were Safe, set in the 1960s, published at the end of 2022 by Vine Leaves Press.  

Let’s rewind to that teacher. What did she say?

She said I didn’t ‘possess sufficient imagination’ to become an author, which was my dream. It’s needless to say that I presented the wretched woman with a copy of my first published novel.

And you teach creative writing now too.

She’s the reason. No one should have a dream squashed. I share that story with my students. Sadly, it often resonates because they’ve also experienced rigid, judgemental educators.

Can you pinpoint where the dream started?

My dad, Livingston Biddle, was an author. He spent hours sequestered in his third-floor office, typing and chain-smoking. The sound of a typewriter still brings me happiness.

Although he wrote novels, poetry was one of his passions, which he passed to me. Many of my parents’ friends were in the creative arts; I’m endlessly thankful for that early exposure.

You describe yourself as a historian as well as an author.

I’m rigorous when it comes to historical research. Every detail must be correct: locales, choices of language, clothing, the creative arts and popular culture. I admit to being a research geek and will pore over archival materials analysing an era’s zeitgeist.

I’m currently working on a novel, I Remember You, told from the perspective of a house (in second person, which is a challenge). The story encompasses 200 years of American history. I want each decade, each cataclysmic historical event to resonate, and I want to place readers squarely within the action.

What an interesting concept. Send a copy to the wretched woman.

I notice the name Biddle in the title of one of your non-fiction works – Biddle, Jackson and a Nation in Turmoil. Do explain!

In the late 1830s the financier Nicholas Biddle – my ancestor – battled President Andrew Jackson over the issue of central banking in the US. The fight was fierce and played out in politics and media. Biddle represented a cultured, educated elite. Jackson was his opposite, a frontiersman who loathed ‘the moneyed aristocracy’ – bankers and their banks. His adherents were self-made Americans, many with little to no education. Rightly, they believed they’d been disregarded within the upper echelons of politics and commerce. Jackson supporters pilloried his opponents and physically attacked voters. One senator carried loaded pistols into the Halls of Congress.

What I found fascinating were the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. Yes, banking was the core question, but it devolved into vitriolic attacks that leapt across political issues and polarised the nation.

Give me the complete works of Cordelia Biddle. How many books have you published?

I’ve published two works of non-fiction and seven novels, five in the Martha Beale Victorian mystery series in 1840s Philadelphia. I found the societal issues compelling, as well as dismaying. Philadelphia wasn’t incorporated into the city it is now; it was a compilation of districts and townships, which allowed lawbreakers to escape across internal lines. I created a strong, iconoclastic woman protagonist who must battle classism, racism and sexism while solving crimes and working towards social justice for the oppressed. Child sex trafficking is one of the evils I address, as is the grinding poverty that encouraged it. And, of course, the status of women of all classes.

They Believed They Were Safe, your latest novel, seems a departure from Martha Beale.

Again, there’s a crucial historical aspect: 1962 in a peaceable, small New England college town. President Kennedy’s assassination hadn’t yet cast a pall over the nation, and the northern US existed in a 1950s feelgood haze. I felt compelled to depict the dichotomy between appearance and reality. Mabel Gorne, my protagonist, is naïve despite her age (she’s just entered graduate school) and begins boarding with a seemingly upstanding older couple. All seems blissful, but she carries dark secrets she hasn’t yet acknowledged; and the husband possesses clandestine longings of which his wife is unaware.

What are you wanting to explore?

The novel revolves around sexual trauma. It’s blunt and terrifying. Mabel copes with rape at a time when perpetrators were often excused and the victims blamed – reactions that, tragically, continue to this day.

What makes a Cordelia Biddle book?

My purpose in writing each of my novels is to expose psychological and physical attacks on the vulnerable. If readers cringe, I feel I’ve succeeded. If they respond to their outrage with actions, better yet. The #MeToo Movement provides a vital link to current issues of abuse and ones that had been buried.

All my books are female-centric. All have a moral to impart. One of the reasons I enjoy using differing historical periods is that I can examine women’s lives and allow readers to make connections between present and past. I also love existing within earlier timeframes. I feel as though I’m taking the reader by the hand and saying, ‘Look at what I discovered! Shall we keep exploring?’

What’s next?

You’re the first to hear the news. I plan to continue Mabel Gorne’s story. She survived sexual assault as well as hideous emotional betrayal. I want to discover where life next takes her.

What’s your process?

I start with a barebones idea and follow the characters’ leads. On good days, I feel like I’m taking dictation from these fictional folk. I’m demanding with my wordsmithing, so I edit each morning before jumping into the subsequent phase or chapter. I’m never certain what may occur next, or who will walk into a story, which makes for a thrilling ride. When I finish a first draft, I return and deepen the narrative and then return and return again. My favourite questions are: What if? And: What couldn’t possibly happen next?

You teach creative writing at Drexel university in Philadelphia. What do you think can be taught and what can’t?

Some students have natural gifts; a few struggle but their progress is all the more rewarding for being hard worn. Drexel attracts students from Asian and African nations. Those differing voices and cultures make for a dynamic mix. My goal is to enable intimate knowledge of fictional characters, whether within assigned weekly readings, or critiquing their classmates’ work or analysing their own. I encourage my students to keep writing no matter where their careers take them, and to remember they have a friend and ally who will read future works in progress.

It’s exhilarating when a science major decides writing a novel is a goal. None have published yet, but I’m convinced they will. Hint: look for a riff on Jane Austen set in Lagos, Nigeria.

Have you any formal qualifications in writing?

My training was as an actress. I studied in New York City, and started writing my first novel while appearing on the daytime drama, One Life To Live. I had a tiny part and plenty of time in an empty dressing room. Scripts for the soaps were fairly conventional. I railed against the lack of anything remotely literary and commenced what would become Beneath The Wind – a standalone set on a world tour in 1903. Marital discord, an illicit love affair, a rebellion in Borneo, and the death of a child. I found my voice as an author as well as my love of dark and intricate tales. I still can’t revisit that child’s death without weeping, which makes me wonder whether I invented the story or channelled it. Either way, the scene remains vivid and harrowing.

Acting must surely have set you up for writing…

Acting, I believe, is perfect training for a writer. As authors, we inhabit other characters, exist within their brains and bodies, probe the fears and wounds everyone hides. Authors become playwrights, performers, set and lighting designers; we create the narrative and the physical and emotional mood, but we also live within those complex lives.

How do you decide whether an idea needs to be non-fiction or a novel?

The subject matter makes those decisions easy. I would never have fictionalized the lives of Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel (in my other non-fiction work, Saint Katharine, the life of Katharine Drexel); both possessed drama in abundance. However, non-fiction requires complex characterizations and cliffhangers just as fiction does. I call my approach ‘informed conjecture’. I read personal correspondence, ponder relationships and consider motivations. Why did Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel make certain choices? What brought each joy or sorrow? What infuriated them? In Katharine Drexel’s case, racism made her rage. I felt myself reliving her fury as I wrote her biography.

My latest novel They Believed They Were Safe began as a short story, but the characters pushed me to lengthen the tale, which indicates how deeply I’m involved in the lives of the people inhabiting my keyboard and brain.

You’re married to Steve Zettler, also an author. How does it work, a house of two authors?

I can’t imagine anything better! Our dinner conversation always circles around works in progress. We each provide willing ears as well as useful observations and queries. Because we met as actors, we relish the collaborative process. We challenge each other to grow. His last novel, Careless Love, made me sob at each reading.

You’ve co-written a series of mysteries with Steve under the name Nero Blanc.

Steve and I penned 12 murder mysteries. They’re crossword mysteries, thus the black-and-white themed pen name. In each, readers help solve the crime by doing crosswords alongside one of our protagonists, a crossword editor, Annabella Graham. (Say it fast and it becomes ‘anagram’.) And, yes, our marriage survived. Probably because Steve has a quirky sense of humour and I’m grim. We did, however, discover that we needed a strong outline, a device neither of us employs when writing solo.

Some quick-fire questions:

Writing solo or writing as a duo?

For me, they’re entirely different. Solo is for moodiness and internal drama. Duo makes for a more manageable narrative line.

Three books you’d grab if your library was on fire.

My battered copy of War and Peace, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (signed to me), Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence (signed ‘her book’).

The oldest thing on your writing desk.

My mother’s Estabrook fountain pen – useless now, but I can still picture it in her hands.

The thing you do when you’re procrastinating (as a writer).

Extremely nerdy, but I love to read the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. I’d always hungered for a set. Steve found one and surprised me. Forget gold and gemstones. Give me words.

The thing you do to unwind.

Walk through the city and stare into upper windows, imagining previous inhabitants’ lives. I also practise piano (I’m a new learner), and go to the gym, although my motivation is finding time to read. On the bike machine, novel in hand and I’m lost to the world. Woe betide the person who interrupts to ask me what I find so fascinating.

Find Cordelia on her website, tweet her as @authorbiddle , find her on Facebook and Instagram

Find They Believed They Were Safe here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Let nothing stop you finishing your book – interview with Joanna Penn @thecreativepenn

A lot of people start writing books. Right now, ’tis the season for starting all sorts of great things. It’s also the season to vow to finish the book you lost touch with.

How can you turn your good intentions into a finished work?

We have the knowhow!

My friend Joanna Penn has invited me to her Creative Penn podcast to address a problem many of her listeners have asked for help with – how to finish a book they started writing. Or even, how to start in the first place and keep the engines firing all the way to the end.

No excuses. We’ve heard them all. And we understand them. We’ve faced them down ourselves.

We bring you understanding. Tactics for the difficult times. A bit of tough love. And a plan to really make this happen and feel mighty proud of your achievement.

Come on over.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Easy reading is hard writing –  why hard writing is worth it and how to do it

I have a friend on Facebook who posts thoughtful quotes about writing. This, from literary agent Jonny Geller, struck a chord. ‘One thing you learn working with good writers: the easier it was for you to read their story, the harder it was for them to write it.’

My last novel took 23 drafts, and people find this surprising. Why would you rewrite that number of times? But you get seized with love, a love for what the book could be.

And that love can be hard won. A creative person thrives on a mission. If the mission hasn’t arrived when we’re ready to work, we have to somehow find it, which can be thoroughly dispiriting. Nick Cave has just written about trying to start his next album. He talks about a profound feeling of inadequacy, ‘the familiar feeling of lack.’

Every time you listen to a complex and beautiful album, or read a complex and beautiful book, its creator has likely been through this.

Once the mission is found, the work begins. In my 23 drafts of Ever Rest, I was all the time grappling with the very essence of the book. Everything went on the analyst’s couch. Was this scene in the right place? Should I move it? Should I use it for a different purpose, perhaps to make exposition more interesting, perhaps to create a more exquisite conflict? The next revision, I’d change it all again.

Frequently, I’d change a scene’s point of view. Indeed, the novel began as one point of view and became seven, because that’s what I eventually needed.

What a lot of fuss, you might say. And how disorganised. Roz, I thought you had a process.

I do have a process, but there is no faster way. A book has to find what it wants to be, its personal mysteries, its distinctive humanity. And this hard and haphazard journey is also a joy (eventually).   

I promised to tell you how

So if this kind of writing is also your inclination, here are some lights to guide you.

The words are just the skin

How to revise your novel without getting stale – take a tip from Michael Caine

The slow-burn writer – what takes literary writers so long?

Revision is re-vision

I rewrote my novel through a critique group and now I’ve lost my way

Making my honest art – writing and publishing literary fiction

Seven steps of a long-haul novel

And my Nail Your Novel book about process!

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Audiobook lovers, lend me your ears

Very quickly… the audiobooks of my first two novels are now available again – My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three.

The links above will take you to a range of audio stores and subscription services. If they’re not yet at your usual store, they’re going through the back channels and should be visible shortly.

And did you know you can get audiobooks at libraries? If you can’t see them listed at your library, just request them. You save money AND I get a small royalty for every copy borrowed – a win for everyone.

What are my novels like? I’ll let these reviews do the talking.

Where’s Ever Rest? I’m delighted to report that the audiobook for Ever Rest is in progress and should be available early in 2023.

And… that’s it for now!

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Thriller writers – your first pages: 5 more book openings critiqued by @agentpete @anniesummerlee and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was longtime Litopian Annie Summerlee @anniesummerlee , who has published short stories in a range of online publications.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)

As you can see, there is masses to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or disappointed, or laughing at things they shouldn’t, or eager to read more. It’s our job as trusty hosts to pinpoint the whys.

We talk about:

  • Blurbs that don’t set up the story’s unique intriguing world, or tell us about the characters, or set up the story’s fascinating central dilemma.
  • Titles that are too general, or set the wrong tone, or not memorable enough, or just right.
  • Where the author’s real interest is – how a sparkling line can help the author play to their true strengths.
  • Openings that dawdle too long in setting and description or characters who clearly won’t be important.
  • Whether it’s too soon to veer into back story and how much to include.
  • Language that inadvertently comes across as comic.
  • Misconceived opening scenes and whether the author would be better starting with a different kind of situation.
  • Whether a novel sounds like a thriller – or something else! And what that ‘something else’ might be.

Find the full show here. And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘When creative is your job title, you have to keep earning it’ – author, poet, sculptor and memoirist Guinotte Wise @noirbut

Guinotte Wise is currently two people. Guinotte the sculptor, making found objects into quirky metal creations. There’s also Guinotte the writer, who has published poetry, novels, short stories – and most recently a memoir in essays, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next. That’s about all the other people he’s been, of which there are quite a few.

Guinotte Wise with Geiger counter guitar made by another rogue creative, his friend Chris Simmons

But let’s start with writing and sculpting. Creativity seems to have been welded into his DNA. He says:

My great-uncle Jack Gage Stark was a pretty well-known California impressionist painter back in the 1930s to 50s, and I met a relative at the one family reunion I attended, Maude Guinotte, who was a sculptor and a wonderful character. She worked in clay and bronze. One of many stories about her; she bought a new Chrysler convertible to drive to the coast, hated it, traded it for another after a couple hundred miles, disliked that one, traded it, so the (perhaps apocryphal) story goes, it took maybe five Chryslers to get the trip done.

And my mom wrote Dorothy Parkeresque poetry from time to time—really good sardonic stuff.

You’ve also been a bullrider, ironworker, labourer, welder, funeral home pickup person, busboy, warehouse worker, bartender, truckdriver, postal worker, ice house worker, horse groom, paving field engineer. How did those happen?

I started working and squirrelling away money at 12 or so—I thought we were bankrupt and that meant people coming and taking the furniture and carpets. I kept money in a desk drawer against this catastrophic time, after I spent some for necessities like a Red Ryder BB gun ($3.79 at a local hardware store). I worked hard at a lot of jobs from then on. I should be a millionaire by now, but that pinnacle escaped me.

A bullrider, though! How did you get work as a bullrider?

I went to bullriding school in Texas, and, before that, I’d hung around jackpot rodeos in little towns, watching then competing. You go to the arena office, show your affiliation card, pay a fee, draw your bull. Then you’re on your own, you and that bull.

It was not lucrative. I remember a very good bullrider, when asked by a local radio station how much he made in a year, said $15,000 (this was back in the 50s), then they asked what his yearly expenses were: he said $20,000. When asked why he did it, he said, “Too lazy to work, too nervous to steal.”

And a funeral home pickup person?

That came up when I was in art school. I worked nights, from 6pm to 6am. I had to wear a suit and get a decent haircut. If nobody died, I would sleep or study, talk to the night people. From 6 to 10 I’d usher people into state rooms, to see friends or family at rest. People die at night a lot; a night man named Verne and I would pick them up in a hearse.

I have to tell you this one; Verne and I went to pick up a deceased person, and it was 3am. Verne would always lay on the gurney and sleep while I drove to the house or hospital. At a stoplight a carful of partying girls drove up next to us and started laughing and hollering at me; they could see Verne in a suit laying with his hands on his chest—then he sat up to see what all the noise was and they burned rubber for a block getting out of there. The stories I have about that job.

Assuming these jobs were a process of self-discovery, what did you discover?

I discovered one night while having a cigarette and watching the smoke from the crematorium next to the mortuary that I was increasingly bummed by this job, although I liked the people and the pay was decent, but I just had to find something else. I had turned 21, and I got a job bartending at The Jubilee Room, a reporters’ bar, a cops’ bar, a sports figure bar. A Damon Runyonesque mix. I liked it there. And I could slide freebies across the bar to school buddies.

How did this colour your writing and art?

I’d say all my jobs coloured my art and writing, especially the construction jobs, bridges in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Minnesota.

You settled into a career as a creative director in advertising. Why that?

It was what I’d wanted since high school. Everyone tried to talk me out of it—you know, the ‘starving artist’ stuff. I started on the art side in a bullpen, and graduated to an office, had some shops of my own, worked at big agencies. It can be precarious; when creative is in your job title, you have to keep earning it.

In advertising, as in any business-oriented writing, I presume you had to write to constraints. Now you don’t. Any thoughts on that?

Actually the discipline was wonderful. Sometimes in print ads you had wordcounts and the art director would ask you to cut 35 characters so he could fit it to a graphic. You do it, and you know what? It’s better copy.

Also, you had to write around industry restrictions and client dictums—one client said no contractions, which can look awfully stilted and  school-teacherish in ad copy.

I’ve written four books of poetry, books of short stories, a novel, an essay collection, and I’ve killed some darlings—not enough, I’m sure, and I must admit, it was sometimes comfortable writing to rules in an agency situation. But try to write a 30-second TV commercial for a car. Daunting. 60-second radio, better, but no pictures—you’d better know how to make pictures in the mind. I credit NPR in helping me do that. And Stan Freberg, what a genius.

Why does sculpture appeal to you?

I can’t answer that in any conventional way. I’m not being difficult—I just can’t. It’s a fugue state with me. Time becomes non-time. I used to do assemblages as a kid and a day would elapse.

You describe your style as ‘found object’ art. Your newest book, Chickens One Day, Feathers The Next is similar – the found objects of a life. A bit about rodeo riding. A bit about advertising. A bit about motorbikes. Most of all, it’s about liking the things that make us who we are. Tell me your version.

That’s a very good version right there, your version.

I love that title. Do tell me more.  

There’s an essay in the book with that title; it’s something a very good friend used to say if the newspaper headlines mentioned a prominent death; he said it when JFK was killed. I think it was juju against the reaper. Rudy served in Vietnam, three tours, wounded twice. He was a captain in the USMC and when they stuck him behind a desk he quit. He bought into a ski resort in California, had a position with a big drug company. He was killed by a carjacker in Fresno. It’s his title.

Where do you write?

In a kitchen breakfast nook. Though I have a great mid-century modern office in a loft in a separate building—a studio we built for my wife’s silversmith work. I just slide into that booth in the morning, and only get up to do my walking periodically, or various chores.

Everyone who reads my blog knows I’m fond of horses. How do horses figure in your life?

In Chickens there’s an essay ‘The Horse Worrier’ which opens ‘Horses haunt my life’. As you know, Roz, they are so, so special. They’ve owned me for over 50 years. Fascinating, wonderful, giving creatures. I was privileged to know them, have them as friends.

One of my poetry books is titled Horses See Ghosts, and they often appear in the other poetry books as well.

You write everything – poetry, essays, short fiction and novels.

How do you decide what form an idea deserves?

I think I save horses for poetry. Nonfiction can start anywhere; presently as a list of things I just don’t get (NFTs, crypto, atrocities of Russians in Ukraine, Lego, $50,000 bottles of bourbon, Kanye, Heizer’s ‘City’…). I have a half-finished private eye book, some ideas floating around, a possible screenplay…

What’s the weirdest response you’ve had to any of your works?

I don’t know if it qualifies as weird, but I had a sculpture show in Santa Monica, shipped a dozen big pieces out there, and it sold out. I’m lucky to sell four pieces a year here in the Midwest. Go figure.

Also, a well known agent in New York read a piece of mine in a lit mag, contacted me and asked if I had a novel ready by any chance. I sent it to him. He said, in effect, have you got another one ready?

In all that, are there themes or life questions you always return to?

As a subject I like good bad guys who win over the bad guys. No one is all good, no one. I’ve known some really good bad guys, bikers, loners, marchers to their own drumbeats. People I met in paving, construction, rodeo, heavy equipment advertising, horses, writing, farm people, biking. Hot rod enthusiasts. A cop or two. Real hippies.

What is Guinotte wise about?

There was a kid whose folks were mean; they gave him a box of horse manure for Christmas. He looks at it, brightens up and says, ‘There’s got to be a pony around here somewhere!’ Optimistic. That’s me.

I’ve been flitting through your pictures on Facebook. At random, I’ve picked this.

Tell me about it.

My favourite gloves. I wore ’em today when I upended the big flower urns after a hard freeze last night. I have a dozen pairs of new mule-skin Wells-Lamont gloves, and heavy-duty Tillmans, and I reach for these. That was a postcard for my last show at The Hilliard Gallery in KC. I didn’t have any sculpture finished enough to shoot, so I used those gloves to say I’d been working.

That is admirably resourceful. Some quick-fire questions.

Hooves or Harleys? Harleys don’t die, but they also don’t nicker and gallop up when they see you.

Early mornings or late nights? Early to bed, not so early to rise. Love bed. Love sleep.

Any near-death experiences? Right now, I’d say.

Are you louder on the page or louder in real life? Page. Big talker on the page.

Find Chickens One Day Feathers The Next here.  Find Guinotte at Facebook, at his website and tweet him at @noirbut

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How do you make a career with your writing? Lessons from several years of author interviews

‘Dear Roz, how do I get a career with my writing?’ – Anya

Dear Anya

You might already guess what I’m going to say: everyone finds their own way, and a career happens after an apprenticeship of muddling and wandering. That muddling period might be long, or it might be short if the stars align. (It will still feel long to you, even if everyone else tells you it’s short.)

Planning might help, but luck is more important; outrageously so.

But here’s where I can be more encouraging. Luck doesn’t have to mean dramatic big breaks. Luck can also be small stepping stones that together line up into your own individual and unexpected path.

Also, most of those stepping stones are not random; they are choices you make yourself. You try this and that, and even if this and that were not what you hoped, they helped you stumble across a better this and that.

For a while now I’ve been running a series of interviews where I ask writers how they made their careers. I’ve seen lots of those stepping stones and choices.

So here are a few general principles.

You might follow in the footsteps of creative family members.

Connie Biewald’s family encouraged creativity. One of her brothers is a musician. Her father built furniture.

But every principle has a contradiction. Your family might believe that arts are only a hobby, not a means to earn a living. No worries. You’ll do it anyway.

Like Annalisa Crawford. And me!

You might take a writing course or two, or even a degree.

Like Ian M Rogers.

Or you might teach yourself as you go along.

Like Apple Gidley. Actually, like everyone. Even if you take a degree course, that’s only a few years – a blip in a writing lifetime. Your real education as a writer starts from the moment you discover reading, when words become your playground, your workshop, your analyst, your element.

You might decide there’s a point where you own that you are a writer.

John McCaffrey describes how he had always ‘couched my writing in deprecation when asked, but decided I was making light of real accomplishments and harming my true self’.  

You might use your writing sensibilities in adjacent professions.

Many of the novelists I interview are editors or teachers for other novelists. Some use their writing-fu for more down-to-earth purposes, as journalists – like Martha Engber, Mark Chesnut (and me!). Ann S Epstein wrote psychology papers for many years. Ian M Rogers edits academic and business materials. Rishi Dastidar is an advertising copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. John McCaffrey writes grant applications.

Or you might keep your writing mojo for yourself.

Connie Biewald says she decided early on to not try to work in the literary arts – ‘I thought it would take my writing energy away’. Even so, she hasn’t strayed far from books – she teaches reading and writing in schools and is a librarian and growth education specialist.

Or you might work in something completely different.

Martha Engber and Annalisa Crawford are also fitness instructors.

Although you might have imagined your destiny was novels, you might find you also write other kinds of books.

You might write manuals for other writers, like Martha Engber, Jessica Bell, David Starkey, Alexis Paige and me.

Because narrative is intrinsic to your way of living, you might surprise yourself by writing a memoir.

Like Gina Troisi. Elaina Battista-Parsons. Jessica Bell. Mark Chesnut. And me.

You might, if you’ve been at it long enough, answer yes to most of these statements.

Like me!

You might do a lot of unpaid work to get started.

Amie McCracken describes how, in the early days, ‘I worked my butt off, most of it for free’.

But you learn your worth.

You learn that when you contribute to another person’s creative work, you give something of value. You learn to ask what value you’re getting. In the early days that might be a training experience or contacts or a reputation. But there comes a point where you can charge the full value that you’re offering.

Creativity doesn’t switch off. You might also do other artforms.

Steve Zettler is an actor. Nick Padron and Jessica Bell are musicians. Ann S Epstein weaves textiles. Melanie Faith is a photographer. Mat Osman… well, if you know the band Suede, you’ll know what Mat does when he’s not writing novels.

You don’t do it alone.

You might set out alone, perhaps in secret, but you’ll gather others around you. Some will be fixers and mentors – editors, critique partners, publishers, other authors. Some will be cheerleaders – advance readers, reviewers who are pleased to see new work from you. Some will stick with you, some will become an inner circle who’ll see the wobbly days, who’ll tell you the truth or help you find what your truth is. You have publication credits, books in the world, people who have read you and want to know you because of that, maybe want to work with you too.

And there you are, with a writing career.

All the interviews I mentioned:

Connie Biewald

Annalisa Crawford

Ian M Rogers

Apple Gidley

John McCaffrey

Martha Engber

Mark Chesnut

Ann S Epstein

Rishi Dastidar

Jessica Bell

David Starkey

Alexis Paige

Gina Troisi

Elaina Battista-Parsons

Amie McCracken

Steve Zettler

Nick Padron

Melanie Faith

Mat Osman

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to make good decisions about book cover design – interview with Jessica Bell @iamjessicabell

How do you judge if your book cover is attracting the right readers? How do you brief a designer, especially if you have little knowledge of design or marketing? What do book cover designers wish authors knew about the process?

There is no better person to ask than Jessica Bell, who you’ve seen on this blog in a number of guises – a memoirist, novelist, poet, publisher, musician and Undercover Soundtrack guest. Jessica also designs witty, eye-catching book covers, both for indie clients and for her imprint Vine Leaves Press – and she’s just released a book Can You Make The Title Bigga? The Chemistry of Book Cover Design.

….Who’s that lurking behind Jessica?

First question: how long have people have been asking you to write this book?

I have a lot of people asking for advice (which I no longer have time to give), and thought it was time I wrote a book so I could give that advice.

The title made me laugh because I’ve seen this problem so often in many areas of book design. I call it ‘Why Can’t We Emphasise Everything?’ syndrome. Creating a cover isn’t like packing a suitcase. You’re not aiming to cram everything in, especially with a cover. You’re creating a distinctive work, with atmosphere and emotion. Space is as important as detail. (There’s more about this in the book.)  

Jessica, aside from clutter, what are the other main mistakes you see with covers – and authors’ ideas of what a cover should be?

Three things:

They think they can send me any old photograph and that I’ll be able to work magic on it. It doesn’t work like that, and I explain why in the book.

They want a cover image that includes details I cannot possibly find on stock sites. They don’t realize that the big 5 publishers have the budgets for custom photo shoots or illustrators to create exactly what they want, and they don’t realize that can cost $2000 or more, whereas a cover with stock photography is likely to cost $500.

And bad typography! The style of font can make or break a cover, even if the imagery is suitable.

If an author or publisher doesn’t know what they want on a cover, how do you arrive at a design?

I send authors a questionnaire. It includes questions about plot, characters, setting, symbolism, themes, etc, which give me a good picture of what the book is about and who the target audience would be. This works really well – it’s much easier for an author to talk about their work, than what they would like on the cover.

In the years I’ve known you, I’ve seen your own books evolve through several makeovers. What was the thinking behind each rebrand?

I used to have a problem designing my own covers, because my pre-conceived ideas are loaded with both my attachment to the story and my visual ideas, and my idea of what kind of readers would like my books. I tried targeting various audiences until I reached a point where I decided to just be true to myself as an artist.

How did they work out?

I find it really difficult to be objective, which means none of my own makeovers have worked. I do have success with makeovers of other people’s books though. A recent example is Melissa Addey. I re-covered two of her series and she tweeted that sales were up 20%.

For my last novel, How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness, I ended up designing a whole bunch of covers and then got votes from my followers, and also ran a poll on PickFu.

It’s really interesting to look at the voters’ comments on the poll. They’re not what you’d expect! I suppose that proves your point – it’s hard to be objective about your own book.

Yes, the cover that was the most popular was not the one I wanted to use. But I decided to trust the public, and so far so good. It’s the first novel of mine that sells consistently and I continue to get comments saying how the cover made them want to read the book.

Authors and publishers often change a cover as a reboot to reach a new audience. How much can you change the look of a book and still be faithful to the text?

The key is to stay true to your target audience’s expectations about the kind of story. What we want to do is trigger an emotional response from the target audience. As long as the cover triggers the correct response, that’s fine. Obviously, you’re not going to put a naked couple on the cover of a book about golf.

In the book, you talk about how you initially create three sample covers when you’re working for a client, one of them a wild card. Also, that you’ll go wilder with covers for your imprint, Vine Leaves Press. What do you think is the bravest cover you’ve designed? (My own nomination is Hate Mail by Michelle Robertson for Vine Leaves Press.)

I totally agree! I worked on a couple of other ideas before being struck with the one it is today. I wish I had kept them to show you. Basically, everything felt too busy and too suggestive of content, and I also felt that having too much on the cover would give readers too many expectations of content. I wanted the content to speak for itself. To be nothing other than what it is: hate mail that you have not yet read. You know it’s going to hurt, but not how much. You know you probably don’t want to read it, but you are compelled to in a way you cannot understand. I wanted readers to have that same anticipation Michelle would have had before opening her inbox. I think this cover does that.

You mentioned (very kindly) that you wanted to discuss my covers… let’s do that! Anything you feel like saying…

I adore how the covers of your first two novels use subtle colours and very soft imagery that portray bold ideas, and that you are not focussed on making your titles BIGGA!

The big titles! Because, as we were all told in the early days of self-publishing, the book title has to be readable in thumbnail. It ain’t necessarily so.

I think having big titles is something many indie authors are stuck on from the days when they generally just released eBooks and not print. Also, the titles of books are visible on their product pages anyway, so big titles aren’t a necessity. But by all means, make your titles huge if that’s the trend in your genre.

Your latest novel, Ever Rest, is also subtle, but with that splash of colour that really makes it stand out. And it’s so clever using the ripped vinyl cover! A cover I wish I had designed myself.

While we’re on the subject, you might already have twigged this, but when I redesigned My Memories of a Future Life, I was inspired by the first cover you made for your novel Bitter Like Orange Peel.

I loved the use of texture, which – to me – looks rich and literary, and the floating, vulnerable figure with the sense of a luminous inner journey. I was so interested to see in your book how that cover attracted the wrong readers for Bitter Like Orange Peel! What a shame. A beautiful cover that sent the wrong message. I guess we don’t know until we get feedback.

Yes, it attracted the YA crowd, which was not my intention.

You mention you had problems deciding on a title and cover for your design book. I think we can all relate to that. Would you be prepared to share some of the rejects here, both title and cover?

Here is the first cover I designed which is dire:

And how did you find the right one?

After designing this horrible thing, I realized I was just not inspired by the title. And where had my humour gone?! I started brainstorming with my Vine Leaves partner Amie.

(Here, dear readers, is the secret backstage transcript.)

J: Been working with this concept all effing day and can’t make it work. Think I need to scrap it.

A: I think maybe it has something. But it isn’t super-cohesive.

J: When in doubt throw it out.

A: And sleep on it.

J: I think the title is the subtitle. The main title needs to be clever. And fun. What about ‘Let’s Break It Down?’

A: Not in love with that.

J: ‘Take A Leaf Out Of My Book’?

A: Ha ha ha. What about ‘Don’t Judge’?

J: Haha, but I can’t make that work visually. ‘Then The Client Said…’

A: Haha.

J: ‘CMYK My Bitch Up?’

(Many more hahahahahahas.)

J: ‘Can You Make The Title Bigger?’

A: Hahahaha.

J: I could do some clever typography with that.

A: I actually really like it. Especially with the subtitle.

Find Can You Make The Title Bigga here.

For more of Jessica’s book cover designs, check out her design website and her publishing house website Vine Leaves Press. Connect with her on Twitter @iamjessicabell Facebook @jessicabelldesign and @jessbell.vineleaves

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Becoming you – how to develop confidence as a writer

On a recent episode of Litopia’s Pop-Up Submissions, we intended to talk about writer confidence, then the show went in another direction. But it’s worth a proper discussion.

Litopia founder Peter Cox, who is also a literary agent, told me confidence is a major issue for his members. ‘Either it never gets a chance to develop, or gets fatally knocked by so much conflicting advice (thank you, internet). But without a sense of self-confidence, I don’t believe a writer can develop their own true voice.’

Voice

First, let’s define voice. It’s what makes you unmistakably you. Your style. Your thematic signature. The distinctive hue of your world. As Peter says, this comes from confidence.

Here’s my take.

I remember when I wasn’t secure about my voice and other distinctive whatnots. I regularly rebooted myself, to be like the authors I was reading, or to act on feedback from critique groups or other publishing people.  

I seemed to be a jigsaw. A bit of this and that. And changing all the time.  

But gradually, I discovered that if a technique or approach didn’t fit me naturally, I couldn’t keep it up. It was a strain, like clothing that was too restrictive. But sometimes a new thing did fit. I kept it, and once I used it, it changed anyway, bent to my own shape.

If you do enough of this…

…eventually you’ll know…

  • Your writing style – whether it’s poetic or not, descriptively detailed or not, pacey or not, emotional or not.
  • Your thematic signature. There will be certain aspects of life you’ll tend to write about, and certain characters – because those are your curiosities as a member of the human race.

Curiosity. Look closely at this word. It’s highly individual. It’s how your originality works. Originality also comes from confidence – when you know it’s okay to do what you’ve never seen before. 

You’ll also know what flavour of book you’re suited to write. If you like the conventions of the crime genre, or the horror genre, or paranormal, medical thrillers or historical romance, or whatever, write them. They are genuinely you. The readers who like those conventions will enjoy your enthusiasm. If you like the nuances and ambiguities of life, and metaphorical resonance, you have a literary bent. Write that. Perhaps you’re a mix of genre and literary; often they’re on a spectrum. Learn who you are and be that.

Muddling and fiddling

This sounds so inefficient and clumsy. Is it really a way to learn?

It’s the only way. Because writing isn’t just a technical skill. It’s an art as well, and the art is, arguably, the trickier aspect. It comes from a complex and unique source – our inner landscape.

This holds for other artforms besides writing. Recently I interviewed a visual artist who said he gets inspiration by meditating, by submerging in an inner world he doesn’t listen to in everyday life. Actors also do this kind of deep exploration. Just last week I met a manager at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She said that much of actor training is about understanding themselves, and to an extent that most of us never consider. What they respond to, how they make others feel.  

Whether actors, artists or writers, we all create from this unique source. We find it by discovery, by dismantling what we do and rebuilding, trying on feedback or advice, listening for the change that rings true, that enlarges what we can do. Slowly it becomes an inner courage, to be who we are.   

When does this experimenting stop?

It doesn’t. There are always new things to learn as writers, readers and human beings. Also, each book goes through cycles of confidence – at least, mine do. I start in a muddle. After a while, some ideas sing well with it. Some don’t. I can treat feedback constructively, especially negative. I can recognise feedback that doesn’t align with my intentions, so it doesn’t demolish the work, which certainly happened a lot in the blundering days.

So that’s how I’d define confidence. How would you define it?

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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What you can achieve if you try something a little scary… how I became a memoirist and novelist by @expatapple

Apple Gidley has lived all over the world, has taught English, sold SCUBA gear and negotiated British nationals out of jail when she was the British honorary consul in Equatorial Guinea. Her writing is powered by a fierce interest in the history of the many cultures she’s lived in and her latest novel, Have You Eaten Rice Today, brings to life Malaya in the 1950s.

My first question has to be: how do you get someone out of jail?

By getting to the police station before the person had been processed. No one likes paperwork.

The jungle drums worked fast in Malabo. I grew to dread the words ‘Apple, we’ve got a situation’. Charges were invariably trumped up, with the aim of getting a bribe – not something I ever paid. I think it helped that I’m a woman. I smiled a lot. Reminded the jailer-in-charge that it would be a terrible pity for the press in Britain to hear of Mr Smith being jailed for taking photographs of kids playing soccer, because the minister would look bad. It was blarney really, and I never showed how nervous I actually felt. The adrenaline would keep me going until it was all over, then I’d shake.

Maybe that’s why I don’t get anxious facing a roomful of people. Public speaking is not nearly as scary as dealing with one crabby man with a gun.

And that’s how you became a published writer, isn’t it?

A number of years ago I was a keynote speaker at a conference for families in global transition. It seemed to go well, and people suggested I write the stories down. It became my book Expat Life Slice by Slice.

You’ve continued to write, with another memoir collection and several novels. What has helped you become the writer you are now?

Reading. Reading. Reading. All styles, most genres, though I don’t like horror. And eavesdropping, for dialogue.

Who are the important people in your writing life?

My husband. He is a tough but fair critic. I’ve had to learn to listen. And I’m incredibly fortunate to have a group of five trusted people around the world who are my first readers. Also, I run the Writers’ Circle of St Croix in the Virgin Islands and am hugely supported by them.

I have also had fabulous editors, from whom I have learned so much. I don’t think they get enough credit for pushing us to be better.

How do you refill the well?

Fortunately the well hasn’t run dry yet. If I get stuck on something, I’ll walk the dog or weed the garden – anything rather than clean the house. Since I decided to try my hand at writing, I try to write every day. I get pissy when I can’t.

Where is home?

Wherever I happen to be hanging my hat. Currently St Croix. I suppose I’m a chameleon in that I’m adaptable. My life has been peripatetic, both as a child and an adult. I’ve always been up for trying somewhere new, something different. And you don’t know what you can achieve until you try something a little scary. There are a couple of places I would rather not live again but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to experience them.

What jobs have you done besides writing (and jail negotiations)?

When I married and we went abroad, I knew a career wasn’t on the cards. I feel immense gratitude that I was able to be at home, wherever that was, with my children but I also always became involved in the community. And I’ve been fortunate to pick up work in most places, if there weren’t visa restrictions.

I edited a magazine for Cheshire Homes for disabled people (Far Eastern Region) while living in Singapore and Thailand. It was a humbling experience. Any bad day I had paled into nothingness compared with the challenges faced by these disabled people. But that did not stop me haranguing them if they didn’t deliver an article they had promised me. My sticking to deadlines perhaps gave people a sense of normalcy.

I ran my own interior design business in Scotland. I preferred commercial work to residential, where we got tetchy exchanges between spouses. Then I sold SCUBA equipment in Texas. That’s a great leveller. No one looks good with a regulator in their mouth.

You are so right. Consider the Bond movies…

When we knew we were heading to West Africa I took a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in case the chance came along to teach English.

While there I wrote geopolitical reports for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which I enjoyed. I suppose it was there I started to consider writing as a possible job.

Your novels are historical fiction, Fireburn, Transfer and Have You Eaten Rice Today?, which is your most recent. What’s the appeal for you of historical fiction?

History has always fascinated me. I went to boarding school in Australia and I’ve never forgiven them for not allowing me to study both ancient and modern history. Instead I had to choose a science, which didn’t interest me at all. Anyway, for the writer, historical fiction involves diving deep into a period – not just the story events but the back story, the dress, the food, the manners, the way people spoke, the way people moved around. It’s fabulous.

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is an enigma. The title is thoughtful, but the blurb copy describes it as ‘intense, drama driven and suspenseful’. What pulls the two aspects together? 

Have You Eaten Rice Today? is a salutation used throughout Asia – a kind of ‘how’s it going?’ The timeframe of the novel is the early 1950s in Malaya when communists fueled general disgruntlement at the slowness of Britain to grant independence, merdeka. The communist terrorists had camps deep in the jungle where discipline was rigid, discomfort enormous and food scarce. Hunger drove many to surrender. It’s a story of misunderstandings and love in this violent period.

In your memoir collection Crucian Fusion, Essays, Interviews, Stories you mix fact and fiction, which can be tricky as readers usually prefer one or the other. How did you decide what to fictionalise and what to keep as truth? What boundaries about this did you set? How did you bring it all together in one work?

Interesting question! You’re right, people do usually prefer fact or fiction but I wrote Crucian Fusion as a thank you to St Croix, the island that has embraced me.

I’ve been writing the essays since I arrived here in 2013 – a diary of events and day-to-day happenings. Then, because I’m nosey, I wanted to learn people’s stories – and everyone has one – so I made a list of people, some of whom I knew in passing, who I would like to know more about. I ended up with eight conversations, which was such a privilege for me, particularly as one chap I spoke to has since died.

The short stories are pure self-indulgence. Three are historical. One brought to light a little-known piece of Crucian history – indentured labourers were shipped from India in the 1860s, a shortlived experiment that cost a lot in human misery and life.

Across all your books, are there recurrent themes and curiosities?

Actually, curiosity lurks in all my books. Without it I don’t think you can travel well. The meshing of cultures, the crossing of bridges literally and metaphorically. Love, death…. you know, all the usual stuff.

In the book I’m currently working on, dementia is a stream, particularly the effect on the spouse. It was also a theme in Transfer, now I think about it, but not up front. I think to suffer from Alzheimer’s, where you are still aware of life, must be the most Godawful thing for all concerned.

What do you like to read?

Historical fiction, of course! Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, Abraham Verghese, although I guess Cutting for Stone only just scrapes in as historical. All genres really. And absolutely anything by the Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey. I’ve just finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which was terrific.

Also, travel essays – particularly ones that border on philosophical. I love the way Bruce Chatwin wrote – The Anatomy of Restlessness truly spoke to me. As does anything by Pico Iyer – The Global Soul is chockfull of wonderful essays.

What are you working on next?

So here I am touting historical fiction but my WIP is a contemporary novel set in Venice. In my naiveté I believed there would be less research and it would be a faster book to write. Wrong! But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. Another month and it should be ready for beta readers. Maybe.

Some quick and perhaps frivolous questions…

Rice or bread?

With a book titled Have You Eaten Rice Today? and considering a large portion of my life has been spent in Asia – it has to be bread. I’m kidding. Rice.

Early mornings or late nights?

Late nights with a glass of bourbon, or wine.

Planes, boats or wheels?

Oh, that’s not a fair question. Planes, though maybe not so much now. Airlines seem to have gone out of their way to make the experience cramped and harried unless you’re up front. Although the exhilaration as you land somewhere new is still thrilling.

Boats because some of my best holidays have been sailing in the Caribbean or along the Dalmatian coast with our adult kids.

Wheels, because I love to drive. Especially on my own. That sense of freedom when no one knows where you are. When my children were little we lived in Thailand, and my husband was often away, so I’d bundle them into the car and we’d take off. Wonderful adventures before cellphones could track your every move. I miss that sometimes.

And you didn’t ask about trains….

By all means, give me trains.

I really love trains. A sense of distance, really going somewhere and seeing the scenery as you clickety-clack along the tracks. Europe is great for trains. Maybe it’ll be trains that get me back across the Atlantic.

What’s on your desk?

Clutter. But it’s my clutter and I know where everything is.

Find Apple on her website, on Twitter @expatapple, and on Facebook. Find Have You Eaten Rice Today? here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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