Northumberland-based writers Caroline Roberts (publisher: Harper Impulse, contemporary romance) and Stephanie Butland (publisher: Bonnier Zaffre, commercial literary) are doing a joint gig at the Berwick Literary Festival in October. They’ll be chatting to Newcastle blogger and creative writing tutor Victoria Watson about writing novels and getting them published. I caught up with these two marvellous and inspiring writers for a sneak preview of that discussion.
Caroline and Stephanie are in the fortunate position of being in-demand: their publishers are clamouring for more words and deadlines are a constant presence in their lives. But it wasn’t always like that. Their ambitions to write started when they were children – but from ambition to reality has been a combination of fate, hard work and sheer bloody mindedness.
‘Dad was a book wholesaler in Cornwall,’ says Caroline, ‘so we were surrounded by books. I was always writing stories and poems and making my own little scrapbooks. I went on to study English Literature at Durham University just because I loved reading so much!’
When her children were older Caroline considered how she might turn her love of writing – and the novels she was crafting – into more of a career. ‘I began looking for an agent or publisher. I lost count of the knockbacks after about 80 rejection letters!’ The breakthrough came when she connected with the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) at a conference. ‘I realised I’d been going about things the wrong way. I’d been wading through the pages of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, picking publishers and agents that seemed right. But through chatting with the RNA and people I met at that conference, I realised that publishers or agents attending such conferences were the most likely to be looking for writers. Obviously, I couldn’t go to every conference but I could check out who was going to them.’
Caroline’s current novel. Her new title will be out before Christmas.
‘The childhood passion for making little books was me too!’ says Stephanie. ‘And I did an English degree. I kept writing bits and bobs but didn’t find my niche.’ A breast cancer diagnosis in 2008 was the turning point for Stephanie. ‘I started blogging about cancer as a pragmatic way of managing peoples’ desires to know how I was.’ Blogging morphed into more focused writing when Stephanie began to apply her specialist skills in Edward de Bono’s creative thinking techniques to her writing and to write about them. ‘Things really took off with the blog and I decided to write a book.’ But where to go from there?
Fate intervened. ‘I saw an auction on Twitter. An agent was offering to read your manuscript. Everyone on Twitter got behind my bid: I think they felt you couldn’t really bid against cancer woman! And that’s how I got my agent, Ollie Munson. He read the first three chapters of How I said Bah! to cancer and wanted the rest of the manuscript… so I got on with writing it!’ A second book on life after cancer followed and then Stephanie decided to write the novel ‘I’d been thinking about all my life’.
Stephanie and Caroline agree that it is an amazing privilege to earn a living doing something you dreamt of doing when you were five.
‘But,’ says Caroline, ‘It is a job. Deadlines won’t wait. You can’t say to your publisher: it’s my daughter’s wedding this month (which it was) so can you just wait a bit. Of course, passion and a good story are essential, but so’s the work ethic.’
Stephanie agrees: ‘No matter how inspired you are, no matter how brilliant your idea, you have to put the work in. And you have to keep going through the drafts until your work is the best it can be.’
Having the idea for the next book, even while they’re working on current drafts, is important to both writers. They’re also keen on ideas files and keep a stash of newspaper cuttings, pictures from magazines, notes and anecdotes, as well as jotting down thoughts and overheard conversations. As Stephanie says, ‘You pour everything into that first novel. But then there’s the next one to write!’
Stephanie and Caroline have helpful things to say about all sorts of aspects of writing and getting published including: working with editors (‘a huge relationship’); recurring themes in writing (Stephanie once panicked that she was writing the same book twice, she wasn’t: like most writers, she has ‘preoccupations’); and about agents (negotiating overseas sales and holding out for bigger deals are not always in a writer’s skills set). Finally, they both agree that the most important relationship for a writer is with readers, and they love meeting them: ‘without them we’d be pointless!’
I asked them for a word of advice for those who’d like to be doing what they are doing. Both women turned to other writers for motivation.
‘I have a sign by my desk that says: Don’t get it right, just get it written. Which is Dorothy Parker. It’s hugely helpful. You’ve got to get that first draft down, get the story written. Then you can edit and polish,’ says Caroline.
For Stephanie, it’s Kingsley Amis’ words of wisdom: the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.
To apply the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair at their session at the Festival, follow the link below and book a place.
At the Festival: Caroline Roberts & Stephanie Butland will be chatting about writing and getting published with Newcastle-based blogger and writing tutor, Victoria Watson.
Where: Holy Trinity Parish Centre
When: Saturday 21st October, 10am