Julia Williams is the author of seven published novels of commercial women’s fiction, several of which have appeared on the bestseller’s list. Before she was a writer/mother/dogsbody she used to edit teenage fiction, and as well as her adult writing, is currently working on a fantasy series for teenagers.
What’s the best way for a writer juggle their personal and writing life? Ordinary life often gets in the way of a planned structured day. Any tips? I’d say don’t fret about it. I started writing when I had small children and have juggled it with that and other family commitments for fifteen years. As a result my day is not in the slightest bit structured. I write when I can. And I have found over time that for me, personally, trying to be too organised about it is fatal. I spend a long time getting to know the story in my head, without ever setting a word down on page. That can feel like I am frittering time away, but in the event, the story always gets written somehow. If you are at a stage in your life where you don’t have much time, try to use the time you do have wisely. If you can only manage to write for say half an hour each day, discipline yourself to get that half hour in. If your writing gets interrupted for any reason, write down notes on where you plan to go before you stop, in case you can’t get back to it again for a while. Writing is an organic process and different for everyone, but if you find a method that works for you, stick to it, and don’t worry too much about whether you write a particular word count, or have a proper working day. So long as the words get written, it doesn’t matter how you do it!
What can a writer do to overcome ‘writer’s block?’ As I have always had to fit in writing around everything else, I have never really been able to allow myself the luxury of getting stuck. However on some days things do flow more slowly than on others. If you are really struggling, put the writing down and do something else. Go for a walk or a run. Do some gardening, or make the tea. Maybe even leave it for a couple of days if you can afford to. More often than not, when you get back to your desk, an idea or two will have presented themselves to you.
What should a writer look out for when deciding if their manuscript is the best it can possibly be before releasing it to an agent/publisher/the public? First and foremost you need to present it in as professional a manner as possible. That means using a clear typeface like Courier or Times Roman, in 12pt, double spaced on one side of A4 only. You should also have thoroughly gone over your work and eradicated spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It’s no good having the best story in the world if you’ve got a punctuation howler in the first line which means an agent or editor doesn’t bother to read on.
Then, you have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Do you think it is good enough? Is your story readable? Have you breathed life into your characters? Are their motivations sound? Have you filled all the plot holes? If the answer to any of those is no, go back and rework it, and make it better.
Get sensible and honest advice from people who know what they’re talking about. (Don’t rely on friends and family, unless they are professionals they are likely to be uncritical readers!). Listen to your critics – if several people point to a similar area of your work which appears weak, there is likely to be a problem with it. Don’t take it to heart when you receive criticism, but listen and learn from it. Particularly from people who know what they are talking about. To that end, I’d advise you to join writer’s groups, go on courses, and get involved with the industry so that you are getting proper advice about your work, which will help you improve it.
How can a writer be prepared for, and deal with rejection? Every writer meets rejection at some point. Even the ones you read about with their six figure deals. And even published writers have to accept the occasional knockback from time to time. It goes with the territory.
So, bearing that in mind, you have to be tough, and accept rejection as part of the process. Don’t take it to heart (easier said than done), but listen to the reasons given for why your work is being rejected, and learn from them. What could you do to improve this particular story? What can you do to make it better next time? And remember, sometimes it isn’t that your work isn’t good, it’s just that it doesn’t necessarily meet the criteria that that particular agent or editor is looking for. So long as you are not being told your writing is rubbish, take heart, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and try again!
How should a writer deal with negative reviews about their book? In the main I’d say ignore them. Take too much heed and that way madness lies. Particularly in these days of Amazon reviews, when anyone and everyone can post what they like about your work. Every author I know has a number of nasty one star reviews on Amazon, and it’s not worth taking too much notice of them. An honest constructively critical review is worth listening too, but anything else, don’t worry too much about. If enough people like your work and are buying it, that’s the reward you need! (I’d also say on the other side, don’t get too excited by 5 star reviews either. Try to be level headed and rational at all times!)
What’s the best piece of advice you have heard in respect of writing/being an author? Don’t give up the day job? (Which is what we used to say to people when I was an editor!) But more seriously, I like Terry Pratchett’s view that writing is the best fun you can have by yourself. Because it is.
Can you share any valuable websites/magazines/blogs for authors in respect of tips, help and advice? For women writers, I’d advise you read Mslexia from time to time as it is full of useful tips.
If you write romantic fiction, look at joining the Romantic Novelist’s Association which runs a New Writer’s Scheme. But get in quick as it gets very full up! If you’re on Twitter follow the hashtag #asktheagent , which a number of agents use to offer advice to people.
And if you are short of time, try writing Flash Fiction and doing a short piece on a Friday called Friday Flash. As this is a great way to exercise your writing muscles.
Any tips in respect of getting the synopsis right? Synopses are very tricky. Don’t make them too long – no agent/editor wants to read pages and pages about your story, they want to read your story. Try and give the main thrust of it, showing you have thought out the plot and characters, and that you know where it is going. Sometimes a single page of script will suffice (not everyone is a detailed plotter), sometimes you might need more, but make sure it is readable and interesting, and that you have a hook that will draw your reader in and make them want to read more of the story.
Any tips on marketing and creating a fan base? Social media is an amazing tool that modern writers have at their disposal. But be wary how you use it. Engage with other writers, bloggers, readers etc on a daily basis, but not just to sell your work. By all means talk about the problems you might have with it, and ask advice (I recently posted on FB a question about how to dispose of some bodies of wolves for a fantasy novel I am writing, and got some hilarious responses back), but don’t whatever you do bang on about your book coming out on Kindle at every turn. That is the fastest way to put people off and lose readers. Also don’t (as has happened to me) write to your favourite authors linking to your book page expecting them to promote it for you unless you have got a reasonable relationship with them and they have shown you the sort of interest that makes you think they might share it with the rest of the world!
On the other hand, if you act like yourself, show interest in other people, and build up relationships online (otherwise be a normal human being and not a plank), you will find that your fan base will already be there and waiting when your book comes out. And you can build on it as your writing career grows.
Lastly, can you share with us about what your usual writing day is like? As I said at the beginning, I have always fitted writing in and around other commitments. So I don’t have a typical writing day as such. Now my kids are older, they take themselves to school, so I tend to sit down at my desk at around 9am. I try to fit in some exercise first – so sometimes that is later. If I am in the planning stage of the novel, I might spend time researching and looking stuff up (and yes, chatting a lot on Facebook and Twitter). If I am writing, then I take myself off to the library, or a local café, with a notebook and pen, and write until I have got at least a chapter down. Sometimes I manage two. Not usually more than that. In an ideal world I would go straight home and type the work up straight away, but of course I never do. So when I have finished the book, I then have a hideous time typing it all up in a rush. One day I will be more organised! I then usually spend a couple of weeks tweaking it, and revising until I am happy to send it to my editor – usually by the time I am on draft four! I then sit back and wait for her response and look at my office and realise it needs a good tidy. Which is a good way of keeping my nerves calm while I wait for her response.