In our new series, we will be asking the questions other writers would like to ask. How? Why? When? And what they'd do differently next time.
First up we challenge Welsh-based contemporary fiction author, Jan Ruth, to reveal all about her own unique writing journey.
How did your writing journey start, was it just a hobby to begin with for you?
I’d still prefer to call it a hobby. I’d rather be motivated by pleasurable creative exploration, than strive to be a commercial success by forcing my slightly misshapen ovals into a succession of unforgiving circles. Perhaps I should call it a serious hobby, as I am seriously committed to producing the material to the best of my ability; something which was lacking in me when I was eventually signed to a publisher.
When did you know you were ‘good’?
I wrote my second novel at work in about 70 company notebooks. I managed to acquire another typewriter (electric this time) and purchased my first copy of The Writer’s & Artists Yearbook. The novel was called Summer in October and Anne Dewe – of Andrew Mann Literary Agents – immediately took a shine to it, and I think this was the first defining moment for me; confirmation that I’d got something right.
In her words: ‘It’s got something.’
She suggested some minor rewrites, some slight structural changes and the cull of a secondary character. Dewe wore two hats at the time and as well as acting agent for Mann, she was setting up her own publishing company called Love Stories Ltd. It was a project aiming to champion those books of substance which contained a romantic element but were perhaps directed towards the more mature reader and consistently fell through the net in traditional publishing. This was 1986 and chick-lit took the biggest slice of the romance market. Sadly, the project failed to get the right financial backing, but from a personal point of view a seed had been sown…
I never did find an outlet for that book but perhaps this illustrates how random the traditional world of publishing was, and still is. I didn’t view it like this at the time though. I was still naive enough to believe that if I wrote something good, then it would be published.
There followed a long barren time for me until I started writing again in 2001 when I discovered the joy of writing on a word processor. The result was a novel called Under Offer. This was taken on by Jane Judd on the proviso I worked with an editorial company to ‘tighten it up’. The company she suggested was Cornerstones. I had no idea such a service existed but what an excellent investment. I learnt so much, my manuscript was polished to a professional standard and most importantly, I understand why and how they’d took my 90,000 words to another level. Jane Judd happily took it back on as Wild Water. Despite this book never finding a publisher either (because it was out of genre, it didn’t fall into a specific category and it was narrated from a male viewpoint blah blah…) I think this was perhaps the biggest turning point for me and one which confirmed that I knew how to write, I could create engaging characters and strong settings.
I just didn’t write commercial fiction.
More on those rejection letters here: https://janruthblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/my-rejection-letters/
|Jan's Wild Water series|
I think I wanted a readership more than the idea of being published, but then I still craved some sort of validation that I wasn’t writing drivel.
What were your first steps towards publication?
I’d had fantastic success with agents and positive encouragement from professional editors, but actual publishers remained elusive. But then the Amazon publishing platform happened, and it seemed I didn’t need them after all…
What has been your proudest writing moment to date?
Making my mum laugh at Jimmy Tarbuck’s biography which I wrote at six years of age!
Any mistakes you wish, in hindsight, you had avoided?
I’ve made so many mistakes I’ve lost count but then I’d never have learnt anything without making them in the first place. I guess my biggest mistake and one which has cost me dearly in terms of reputation, cash, and time, was signing to a small publisher in 2015. I can honestly say the experience almost destroyed me, both creatively and emotionally. Given that I’d self-published my work up until that point and discovered a quiet success with sales and small awards, I found the experience was much like going back in time. It was almost as if everything I’d been aware of as an individual author and publisher had been wiped away and I was back to being beholden to a group of people who knew next to nothing about my material, didn’t appear to know how best to market it and most concerning of all; seemed to know less than me about the nuts and bolts of the various publishing platforms out there. The books they produced for me not only contained a lot of errors, but failed to sell. I was angry and disappointed.
For a while.
More on my traditional publishing experience here: https://janruthblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/publishing-a-lot-of-smoke-and-mirrors/
I guess it’s always easy to be wise in hindsight, but if I’ve learnt anything it’s to take virtually everything with a pinch of salt and avoid the lemons. I should have trusted my gut more and stayed true to the spirit of the books, rather than be sidetracked by what was going on in the commercial world.
What top 3 tips would you offer new and up-coming authors hoping to publish?
A) Don’t self-publish until your book is ready. It’s actually slightly less important when it comes to sending out to agents or publishers because your work will (hopefully!) go through rigorous editing and proofreading stages if it is accepted. They will be looking for saleability, not correct comma placement. On the other hand, if you choose to produce your own book it pays to take your time with each stage.
B) Always seek reliable professional bodies for advice. If you are unsure where your material sits in terms of marketing or whether it conforms to a good general standard of writing in the first instance, consider contacting companies such as Cornerstones, who have a long proven track-record and work alongside agents and publishers. They know what the industry is looking for. If you intend to self-publish, their editorial advice is solid and supportive. It costs, but so do early mistakes. Better to get the basics right at the start than accept incorrect, conflicting, or even manipulative advice from an on-line forum. It goes without saying that you must never take advice from friends and family.
C) Don’t put all your eggs in one basket and sign everything away to a publisher. Times have changed, the snail-like speed of the traditional publishing world is struggling to keep up with the ebook explosion, and it has created huge areas ripe for exploitation. All authors should self-publish at least once, if only to understand the process from ground level, and to witness what can be achieved by an individual. The commercial bubble of traditional publishing may work for you, but it might not. It’s more likely to work if you can produce a lot of material in a strong commercial theme. Even so, there are no guarantees to success, however you quantify it. Writing a good book is not necessarily a pre-requisite to break in, either. What you must consider is that you may well want to break out before too long…
To learn more about Jan Ruth and her books, follow the links belows: