The Romaniacs welcome author, creative writing tutor and qualified brick layer, Sarah Duncan to Tuesday Chit Chat.
Sarah, it is a pleasure to have you on our blog and thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
First things first – I’ll get the kettle on. Tea or coffee? Maybe I can tempt you with a hot chocolate or cappuccino? We cater for the tastes of nine Romaniacs, so the cupboard is well stocked.
Tea, please, strong and milky. I don’t drink coffee as it makes me talk too much and wave my hands about even more than I do already.
Caffeine free it is then. We Romaniacs have followed your blog http://sarahduncansblog.blogspot.co.uk/for some time now and your posts always offer solid, sensible advice. How much of what you share has been learned through personal experience rather than study?
Generally whatever I write about on the blog has been triggered by something I’ve experienced or something I’ve read or from a problem one of my students has had. But when I started teaching ten years ago I was drawing a lot from books on creative writing – I’ve got over 400 books on the subject – so it’s a mixture.
400 books? Who knew there were so many? As a tutor of creative writing, what are your thoughts on naturally talented writers? Do they exist or at some stage, should all aspiring authors take a writing course?
Craft is craft, and why not take short cuts if they exist? There are a few very, very lucky people from whom words of publishable quality just flow naturally, but most of us will have to use craft to get there, whether that craft is taught or learned from experience. A class will also give you a ready-made support group of people going through the same ups and downs.
Personally, I’m not a naturally gifted writer, I needed every class I took and still take classes when I can – last year I went on courses at Arvon and Winchester. I don’t see what people have against them – if you like them, do them, if not don’t. Writing isn’t a “one size fits all” business.
I also think that women find it hard to stick their hands up and say ‘this is what I want to do’ when a lot of us are also juggling work and family commitments. A course may give us confidence and validation that what we’re doing is worthwhile. And it IS!
It so is, Sarah. Do you read and critique for the RNA NWS and if so, for what are you on the look out?
I don’t, I simply don’t have the time.
Having written a novel and had it rejected because it is similar to one the publisher is about to print, would you advise a rewrite or suggest sending the novel to another publisher?
Oh, 100% send it out again. It’s all opinion anyway. The only time I’d re-write is if a lot of different sources were saying roughly the same thing AND I could see what they meant AND what I could do about it.
I find writing first drafts so difficult that it’s easier for me to slog away re-writing and re-writing until it gets published than start something new. Plus I have a strong bloody minded streak and if someone says I can’t do something, I get very determined to prove them wrong. But generally, if it’s hit a blank everywhere and I couldn’t see what the problem was and neither could anyone else, I’d be prepared to move on – for a while. It’s often easier to see what the problem is after a break.
Is an agent always necessary or is it best to deal directly with a publisher?
You don’t need to have an agent, but I personally wouldn’t be without one. The bottom line is that an agent will always push for more money from the publisher – my agent has always got me more money than I would have got myself, and from lots of sources I wouldn’t have known about. 85% of quite a lot is worth more than 100% of not very much. In addition they deal with the business side of things like invoicing and knowing who’s buying and things like that, all of which is stuff I don’t want to do.
What difference would it make to an aspiring author that a publisher only publishes eBooks and not paperbacks?
This is a really complicated question where the landscape is constantly shifting and no one knows any of the answers and it’s tricky to sift through the spin and opinion to find any hard facts. I’d go for the print and digital publisher for several reasons…
Firstly, while eBooks are growing, they are still a small percentage of the market in reality – I’m sure we can all name several people who are avid book readers but are adamant they don’t want an e-reader or don’t know what an e-reader is. I went to a talk on epublishing recently and the speaker asked how many of us had had a Kindle/e-reader last year – no one put up their hands. They then asked us how many had acquired one this year – most of us put up our hands. I then asked how many of us were regularly using their Kindle/e-reader, at which point most hands went down.
If you want to sell in volume, i.e. make money, you need to sell in print as well as digital, unless you’re writing in a genre such as erotica, where eBooks sell very well and epublishers are well established.
Secondly, anyone can set themselves up as an epublisher; it requires very little capital input, just some website skills. People often do it for the best of motives then come a cropper as they realise that it involves lots more work than they thought. The company folds, leaving the writers it has signed with broken dreams – and nothing published.
I know of one company that boasts extensive editorial experience, but when you look at the detail, it’s all with their own self-publishing business. I’m not saying that all epublishers are bad, but there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors around… Do your research, learn about the business, don’t accept everything at face value.
Thirdly, the advance. Print publishers pay decent (ish – they’re all been cut these last two years) advances while I don’t think any epublishers do. Money up front IMO is worth any amount of jam tomorrow, in the form of a larger % of royalties.
If you’re tempted by an epublisher a) look at their track record both in terms of what the company has done and where individuals have previously worked and b) work out what they’re going to do for you that you can’t do yourself. If they’re not offering an advance, previous experience, substantial editorial input or marketing, then why are you considering it? Better to self-publish in those circumstances, especially as I believe a print publisher may pick up a self-published eBook, but they certainly won’t touch one that’s been published by another company.
A very thorough reply – thank you.
I started writing short stories in 1999, did an MA in 2000/2001, wrote a novel as part of my MA, it got rejected by everyone, I sulked for 6 months, then I re-wrote it (90% of it in the end – I said I was determined), sent it out, got an agent 48 hours later, did a bit more work, sent out to publishers, auctioned 8 days after that. It was worth the sulking and rewrites!
What were the high and low points?
Sending it out after all the re-writes and getting a call from an agent almost immediately. I’ll never forget that – I ran round the house shrieking. (After I’d rung off, of course.)
Low point – there haven’t really been any. I mean, I didn’t like being rejected first time round – who does? – but it meant I rewrote and made a much better book and have been able to have a career on the back of it.
What’s been the most memorable, unusual and enjoyable pieces of research you’ve done to date?
For Kissing Mr Wrong I went to the battlefields of the Somme. I had never been there before and wasn’t sure what to expect, but they were extraordinary – very moving, inspiring, overwhelming. I spent most of the time in floods of tears but felt very proud to be British. My editor gave me back the ms with the memorable note “Too many cemeteries.” I hated doing the cuts, but she was right – it wasn’t a guidebook.
Do you enjoy that aspect of writing?
I love research but it’s a great way to procrastinate so it’s best done after I know what the story requires rather than before.
On those days when you are totally inspired, the muse sits on your shoulder and you sit down to write, what triggers that motivation and gives you the creative kick-start?
I don’t know, it’s very unpredictable. A looming deadline helps, as does a good night’s sleep and not much other stuff going on in my life. Something doing a daily blog has taught me is that if you sit down and try to write, you will.
What turned you away from your successful acting career?
Acting is a tough profession, and very tough for women. I was never dedicated enough to put up with the negative side. Also, if you’re not employed you can’t act, and your career is totally controlled by other people giving you work. Writing can be done at any time, whether someone is waiting for the results or not.
Inside every writer is an actor. What are your thoughts on this?
Writers want to communicate, and a lot of them come from careers where communication is important such as acting, teaching or journalism. I certainly act out all my characters and say the dialogue out loud in different voices.
[Romaniacs - it's ok - we're normal ]
LOL! No, I did it afterwards because….
Why brick laying? (Chuckling now because Spell-checker wants to write brick lying. That old nugget.)
…I had a big garden on a slope and wanted to build walls and steps and terraces – over 1 km in total. I could afford either bricks and cement, or labour, but not both. So I did a course to learn how to be a brickie – the only woman there – and built my walls myself. If you can bake and ice a cake you can mix cement and ‘butter’ your bricks – it’s the same skill set. It’s harder physical work shovelling cement and lugging bricks around than icing a cup cake though, but there’s no danger of getting bingo wings.
Finally, if you were not a writer or tutor, what would you like to do?
A landscape historian. Basically, I want Stewart’s job on Time Team.
Many thanks for joining us for a chat, Sarah and we look forward to seeing you again soon.
Whose turn is it to wash the mugs?
Good luck. x