The Perfect Blend: Coffee and Kane


Guest Post from Jenny Harper: A writer’s path is littered with obstacles

I’m pleased to welcome fellow author, Jenny Harper, to my site today, with an excellent blog about the perils of being a writer.

Over to you Jenny…

Jenny Harper PWL_FC

A writer’s path is littered with obstacles

Have you ever gone on a writing course? Read a book about plots, characterisation or dialogue? Done a degree in Creative Writing?

I have. I’ve done all of those things, except the last one – but my first degree was in English Literature, and it put me off creative writing for decades. I knew I could never be Tolstoy or Dickens, or even Monica Dickens, come to that. And all that close analysis of texts made me so self conscious about structure, words, imagery, metaphor and the rest that I was like a rabbit staring into headlights – frozen.

So I wandered through a career in publishing (I was a non fiction editor for Collins and Cassells), magazine editing, journalism and finally corporate publishing (I produced magazines and newspapers for corporate giants such as BP, Total, Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Scotland and a number of insurance companies, as well as local authorities and government departments). Only when retirement was looming did I finally pluck up the courage to look at creative writing again.

After floundering around a bit with scraps of ideas and miserable efforts to ‘write a novel’ (everyone can write, right?), I spotted a course that sounded just great. It was in a castle in the Scottish Highlands. The tutor was best-selling novelist Anita Burgh, and I could use a week away from work.

So I went on the course and became a novelist, didn’t I?

Wrong.

I certainly learnt a lot, met new friends (including author Jo Thomas whose career has just gone stellar), and had a great time – but all I learned was how much I didn’t know.

I went on more courses, including a wonderful week in Corfu with Katie Fforde and a week in the fabulous Chez Castillon in France with Veronica Henry.

I read books on writing.

I became increasingly confused.

After all, celebrities seem to be able to knock out a best seller the first time they set pen to paper, so why couldn’t I?

I became bogged down in scene lists, three-act structures, beats, conflict, points of view, themes – all the technical bits and pieces that underpin a novel.

Finally, I learned that it takes most novelists an average of nine novels before they find a publisher. I threw the lot away. I listened to my inner voice and simply wrote. All the advice and lessons I had had over the years must have sunk in, because the things I had found so hard began to flow naturally. I gained confidence. I drew on the support of fellow writers. I joined a lot of social networks. I networked in the real world. I became a writer!

Here are my top tips for anyone on a similar journey:

1)    Tell the story you want to tell (and make sure you know which character’s story it is).

2)    Focus, by asking yourself what your story is really about ­(not a synopsis of the plot). Try to capture it one word, then in two sentences.

3)    Dig deeper. Get right inside your characters.

4)    Persevere.

5)    Don’t be afraid to get help – from writing buddies, mentors, beta readers or editorial agencies.

And finally – please tell me I’m not the only one who has been on this journey!

Jenny CC 2 web

Bio:

I live in Edinburgh, Scotland, but I was born in India and grew up in England. I’ve been a non-fiction editor, a journalist and a businesswoman and I’ve written a children’s novel and several books about Scotland. Nowadays I write contemporary women’s fiction with bite – complex characters facing serious issues.

Face the Wind and Fly is about a woman wind farm engineer with a marriage in trouble and a controversial project to handle. 

Loving Susie is about a female politician with a complicated family history and at odds with the world.

Maximum Exposure, is about a newspaper photographer with job to save and some growing up to do.

My latest novel People We Love is about an artist who is struggling to support her family after her brother’s death. She needs friends, and reasons to be happy, and her journey is a strange one.

Links:
People We Love UK: http://amzn.to/1CUmBTV
Maximum Exposure UK: http://amzn.to/1vRUqRD
Loving Susie UK: http://amzn.to/1qfSorq
Face the Wind and Fly UK: http://amzn.to/1xf3IJf

***

Thanks ever so much for such a great blog Jenny. My writing journey has also been littered with potholes, fits, and starts! I’ve never done a creative writing course either- I’ve always been wary of them- they always seem to add pressure rather than make you feel more capable- or maybe that is just me!!

Happy reading everyone,

Jenny xx

49 Responses to “Guest Post from Jenny Harper: A writer’s path is littered with obstacles”

  1. Sue Lovett says:

    Thank you Jenny, this has given me hope! I finished a creative writing masters a year ago. I learned so much about the mechanics of the craft, read oodles, but….my writing self has frozen. Have started this year to try and connect with others who write (social media, RNA) and trying just to free write – everyday, without judgement. Most of all, trying to love writing on the page, once more…

  2. Phaedra says:

    Great blog she really went through a lot to become a writer, but sounds like she has it down perfectly now.

  3. David Wind says:

    A very interesting look at writing and what is necessary to move forward. Thank you to both Jennys for this post

  4. Julie Frayn says:

    Jenny, you are not alone! I have taken so many courses (sadly, not in Corfu or France or a castle in Scotland – sigh), and I had the same result. Could not make those pieces fit my story! I finally wrote it my way and voila, a novel. Now 3, soon to be 5. Good advice!
    Julie Frayn

  5. Mike Markel says:

    Jenny, you’re definitely not the only one on that journey. Many of us are getting over our fears (I’m still working on my own feelings of inadequacy about not being Elmore Leonard, when I know I shouldn’t be comparing myself unfavorably to him or any of the other greats) and finally trying novels after the better part of a lifetime doing “practical” jobs. All of your five pieces of advice are crucial. The one that resonates most with me is “persevere.” Today, anyone can publish, but the number of people who can break through remains discouragingly small. Thank you for the wise post.

    • Jenny Harper says:

      Thanks for coming in to look and comment, Mike. I don’t know about ‘wise’, it’s just what works for me. But you’re right – you do need to develop a thick skin and a huge dollop of self belief, and keep on keeping on. It makes me sad to think how many writers never saw their work in print (or ebook) before the recent digital revolution – almost certainly a few masterpieces lost, and a lot of cracking reads too.

      Keep on writing!

  6. Gilli Allan says:

    Great post, Jenny. My journey was very different – almost a mirror image of yours. Although I, like you, also don’t have a degree in creative writing! I was published very quickly – the first book I wrote. I was complacent -“this is easy”, I thought -particularly after my second was also published. Only then, after my publisher ceased trading, did I go through the learning process you describe.
    Everyone’s journey may be different but it’s NEVER easy. Congratulations on your success. ‘People We Love’ sounds like an intriguing read. I’m always interested in artists.

    Atb, Gillix

  7. Jackie Weger says:

    Jenny, I loved reading this post and a writer’s journey. I have been to conferences and writer’s retreats and came away wondering ‘what the heck?’ is writing all about. The path you took make you a better writer though, because your grew up and matured and now you understand and actually know a character’s motivation. That works. Best to you and yours and wishing you tremendous great good luck with your books.
    JackieWeger
    No Perfect Destiny

    • Jenny Kane says:

      I just love this blog today- all our journeys are so varied- I, as I said above, am deeply distrustful of creative writing courses as such. I guess all the different routes we’ve taken to produce our words give readers a much greater wonderful variety of texts to read. Jen xx

      • Jenny Harper says:

        I know quite a few people who’ve done creative writing degrees. Some of them include a load of literary criticism – thanks, I did that on my first degree. Lots of them come out the end still ignorant about basics, like not really understanding Point of View, or why you should be consistent with it. Some great writers emerge from them too, but they’d probably have risen to the top anyway.

    • Jenny Harper says:

      Thanks Jackie. You need friends too! And I’ve been blessed with those, both during my writing apprenticeship and after – as you know. See how many eNovellers are supporting me here?

  8. Jenny, you are so right. I actually parted ways with a publisher because the editor wanted to tell me how to write my own stories, and she had NO sense of humor…which is what I write. As you say, we all have to follow a path of our own.

    One thing, though: a writer must learn the craft of writing, which you did. Also, grammar, punctuation and that lot must be learned, and then, if need be, sometimes messed with.

  9. Pete Barber says:

    What an inspiring piece. Thank you Jenny & jenny. I’m sure you absorbed a lot of good information from the courses you took, but I agree, you just have to write words. The mechanics are easy to install, but without interesting characters who know where they’ve been and where they want to get to, any story, no matter how well constructed, will fall flat. I certainly admire the locations you chose for the courses, though :-).

    Pete

    • Jenny Harper says:

      Thanks Pete! I went to the castle a few times, for different courses. It was a beautiful place. The owners sold up and now run courses in Italy (but I haven’t been). Chez Castillon in France is the most beautiful place, run by Janie and Mickey, two amazing people. If you ever get the chance, just go for the buzz! (Oh, and the food and wine, of course). They also host writing retreats and I know a few writers who go regularly.

    • Hi Pete – Janie here from Chez Castillon ! Jenny mentioned us in her wonderful blog so just wanted to say – If you feel in need of a writing retreat – or indeed a course or a combination of both – then do check us out http://www.chez-castillon.com – we’d love to see you out here in SW France!

  10. Jenny Harper says:

    Thanks Jinx. I used to be an editor and I can be a bit anal about punctuation and spelling. A lot of writers I know are dyslexic, and struggle with these things, but they’re terrific storytellers – they include some very big names – so I try to rein in my snobbishness. It’s the words that matter, an editor will sort out spelling and grammar. BUT – never let your book appear in public until it has been edited properly – that just looks really amateurish. The craft though – there’s so much to learn! Structure, point of view, dialogue, character, motivations, how to handle the back story or flashbacks, timing … you know… It takes confidence, too, which is why you have to develop a thick skin and a lot of self belief!

  11. Grace Lowrie says:

    Great post! Studying English Literature put me off writing for a long time too – all so daunting and intimidating. But now that I’m learning to relax and just get on with it I’m grateful that so much of the technical stuff I was once taught, seems to creep into my work anyway – almost without me knowing it! Thank you for your refreshing honesty, you are an inspiration.

    • Jenny Harper says:

      Thanks Grace! Yes, I do find that imagery and metaphor, in particular, seem to come to the fore a lot. I love sowing little seeds early on then developing and pulling them through. I love the thought of being an inspiration! Hope my honesty helps.

  12. Despite all the courses I’ve taken and taught, all the books I’ve read on writing fiction, and many years of practice, I still haven’t come close to mastering the craft. On that, Hemingway and I are in complete agreement…

    Great post, Jenny!

  13. What a great post, Jenny. You could write a novel based on your trips to becoming a writer. Sounds like it was fun and exciting, I’d love to travel like that. Looking forward to reading your book.

  14. Hi Jenny. You’ve persevered – that is what brings success.
    I’ve been a professional writer all my adult life. My first job was writing advertising copy, and I’ve done almost everything since then. No such things as creative writing courses when I started out – but now I conduct them. My learning was through trial and error. I’m still good at the latter!

    • Jenny Harper says:

      The courses have all been useful in some way. It’s the degrees I worry about, just a little. I know people who expect to pop out the other end writing bestsellers, or winning the ManBooker or Pulitzer awards. Like most crafts, the best way to get better is to practise – but we can all use tips along the way.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  15. Oh it’s so good to hear that there are many out there for whom the formal training is so off-putting. I’m sure it’s helpful in many ways but it’s good to know that the most important quality for a writer to have – that of being an amazing and unfettered story teller – doesn’t require a degree!

    • Jenny Harper says:

      Spot on, Dianne! The training wasn’t off putting though – it just didn’t produce the desired result. I have an organic approach to writing – I do what ‘feels’ right. I can’t think in terms of acts and beats etc, my characters refuse to be pushed around like that. I just keep trying to up the ante – add the unexpected.

  16. Mary Smith says:

    Oh, Jenny, you are not alone on that journey – there are many of us. You are so right to advise people to persevere. And to find some good writing buddies who will offer support. Best of all, though, is to tell the story you want to tell.
    I didn’t realise your fourth book is out – on my tbr list, as I enjoyed the others so much.

    • Jenny Harper says:

      Thanks Mary. I think the People We Love is the best yet (she said modestly). And yes, I really do rely on my own writing buddies – they see things completely differently and spot flaws I hadn’t seen (and vice versa). I’d be lost without them!

  17. Dale Furse says:

    Ooh, yeah. I used to love writing courses now I love your top tips, Jenny.
    Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • Jenny Harper says:

      The courses were great – I met terrific people, some of whom have remained good friends. But they’re just one step along the path, eh? I’m glad you like my tips!

  18. Sometimes, all the books and courses etc just fog the issue and make everything more confused, although they can be fun! I’ve always thought one of the best ways to understand writing is to read published stories and novels. Glad you got to this stage now, Jenny, and are going from strength to strength.

  19. Bill Daly says:

    Well done in persevering and getting so far with your writing, Jenny. I’ve never attended any creative writing courses or seminars -I’m too afraid of finding out all the things I should know about writing – and don’t!

  20. Hi Jenny
    So true – it’s very easy to get bogged down in the ‘right’ way to approach what’s a pretty inexact process!
    I had to laugh because I, too, went to uni to study English literature and although it didn’t put me off writing it did put me off reading!

  21. Jenny Harper says:

    If only we’d known at the time…

  22. RP Dahlke says:

    I love blogs like this where I learn about new-to-me authors and get insight and encouragement too! Thanks, Jenny

  23. I highly recommend “People We Love.” Fantastic story, full of heart and healing.

  24. Jenny Harper says:

    Bless you, Lorrie! I’m delighted to say the People We Love is starting to get some really good reviews. I’m so happy people like my work – after all those years of trying!!

  25. Great post, Jenny! I totally agree with the advice, giving emphasis to perseverance… I think it’s the most important quality one can ever have if they want to succeed 🙂 And no, of course, you’re not alone on your journey 🙂

  26. Gill Stewart says:

    Really interesting and inspiring journey. I particularly like your top tips. We should really all keep those in mind!


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