On Wednesday 11 November 2009, the crime writer, R J Ellory, came to talk to Solihull Writers Group. We usually have at least two speakers during our writing year. They are generally enjoyable and informative, but over the past few years I have not felt the need to take copious notes.
Roger Ellory was different. From the minute he began to talk, I was reaching for paper and pen to capture the nuggets of inspiration he was offering. He excited me and made me think everything was possible. As he said, "A published author today was an unpublished author yesterday. A writer is someone who has to write. They have no choice, so never apologise just because you haven't been published."
You wouldn't think that 96% of writers work full-time; that the average earnings of best selling authors is £7,000 a year. If a publisher gives you an advance and your book doesn’t make the requisite number of sales to meet the advance, you won’t be offered a second contract.
We were curious to discover Roger’s background and his inspiration for writing. He told us much of his life had been devoted to drug rehabilitation following his brother’s early death from a drug overdose. He first started writing ate the age of 22 during a course on nutritional and dietetic therapy for drug rehabilitation after noticing another student engrossed in a novel. He wanted to write something which held the reader’s complete attention.
Over the next six years he wrote twenty-two novels in longhand and spent £12,000 on photocopying and sending them out to publishers and agents. He collected over six hundred rejection letters and decided to let the matter rest. He was £40,000 in debt and needed to recoup his losses.
The day after the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, Roger remembered a conversation with his grandmother. She told him, “Don’t live a ‘what if?’ life.” Looking back, he realised the time he felt most happy and creative was whilst he was writing. He began again and wrote three books in seven months. He sent the second manuscript out to thirty six publishers.
Thirty five manuscripts were returned with rejection slips. The remaining publisher was Bloomsbury. Having not heard from them for three months, Roger rang them to ask for the return of his manuscript so he could start sending it out again. The person he spoke to had read the novel and liked it, but he needed to get twelve other people within the company to read it and agree to accept it for publication. This took a further two months before a contract was signed.
Roger received £5,000 in advance. The manuscript was taken to the Frankfurt book fair where three translation rights were arranged. This paid for the advance.
Roger doesn’t think anyone can write full-time. A writer has to get out and “do stuff”. He also told us to “Write about your passions, don’t fall into the trap of writing about what you know – if you stick to that you’ll find yourself limited. You have to write the book you want to read, not the one you think other people would like.”
Roger works very quickly. He currently writes 2,500-3,000 words a day whilst researching simultaneously. Most of his novels are crime thrillers set in the US, so his attention to time and details has to be meticulous. He can produce a 120,000 word novel in 6-8 weeks.
He believes there are three types of novel.
(i) A page-turning pot-boiler where the reader is hooked in the first paragraph or page. The plot twists and turns. Afterwards, a little like a Chinese meal which leaves you feeling hungry, you can’t actually remember what happened in the book.
(ii) Literary fiction – a triumph of style over substance.
(iii) Books found on Desert Island Discs – compelling narrative tells the story in a way that can’t be put down. You read the book again and again, buying copies as gifts for friends and acquaintances. It is challenging, human emotionally engaging and changes your perspective on life. Talking about the book will always include a narrative by the reader on, “This is how it made me feel”.
Non-fiction books convey information. The primary purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion, not to educate people, so too much information or detail is not helpful. A story can be organic and grow.
Roger recommended two books for the aspiring novelist.
• On Writing by Stephen King
• Paris Literary Review Anthology No 1 published by Picador
When asked how to go about getting an agent, Roger directed us to his website. He thoroughly recommended getting an agent because publishers will not consider unsolicited manuscripts any more. They can also be successful in negotiating substantially larger contracts than an author on their own. An agent will take 10% of earnings but will be concerned with the author’s best interests and leave them to do the important job of writing.
The importance of dialogue in a novel was discussed. When using dialogue, you can achieve the same result in three lines where it might take six pages of description. A fast pace novel has a scene or dialogue of significance which is pivotal to the plot every 1,000 words.
The easiest way to edit writing is to read your own work as a reader. Print it out and read it aloud. A writer becomes a writer by writing. If you read something you have written six months ago and can’t see how it could be made better, you are not improving as a writer.