I’m delighted to introduce you to Lesley Cookman, a friend for many years, and the highly successful author of 19 books in her Libby Serjeant series of crime novels, amongst others. She’s fabulously prolific – just look at her Amazon author page…
My Freemagination writing students often ask how they can be more confident about their writing. So I thought I’d ask a long-established author – who is consistently high in the Amazon bestseller charts for her traditional mysteries – what she’d confess to new writers of any age, about the secrets of a prolific published author like Lesley.
Lesley and I met in 2000 at a writers’ conference in York (England), when she was thinking about her first murder mystery, Murder in Steeple Martin. Also at our table was Hazel Cushion, who was planning to set up as an independent publisher. Hazel’s publishing house, Accent Press, has grown and grown, and Lesley’s books are one of the cornerstones of Accent’s catalogue.
Lesley has just published the eighteenth book in the series, Murder by the Barrel, and just for readers of this blog, she has given us and exclusive sneak preview of the cover for book 19, Murder and the glovemaker’s son, which won’t be out for months yet! You’ll see the cover at the end of Lesley’s post. Read on!
The private life of a novelist
Several years ago, I had to have some business cards printed. I agonised over what to put – not being a pushy type, I didn’t want to call myself an “Author” or a “Novelist”, so what was I? Those terms sounded to me like showing off, and although I am now fairly established, they still do. If people ask me what I do for a living, which they don’t often because they assume I’m retired, I just say “I write books.” They can follow this up or not, and usually they do, which makes me uncomfortable. You know – “Would I have heard of you?”
So as you can see, I’m not particularly good at marketing and self promotion, although I realise it has to be done. Before I became a novelist, I wrote all sorts of other things – press releases for a variety of things and people, reports on sixth form careers fairs, articles for business magazines. I edited two magazines “Poultry Farmer Weekly” and “The Call Boy”. The first did what it says, the second was a show business magazine. I didn’t have to do any promo or marketing because it was all done for me. When I was first published as novelist there was no social media, so how word got out I have no idea. The fact that I survived the early days is a constant surprise to me.
Now, of course, publishing is completely different. Digital publishing has encouraged a plethora of self published books, and sadly, they aren’t always good. Which explains in a way why book buyers are unwilling to lay out much money – why pay that much for a book which might be terrible? So it’s very hard to make a living and there is a huge amount of competition out there, worthy and otherwise. So the marketing and promotion are increasingly important and no one can afford to rest on their laurels – not me, a veteran of 23 books, nor the debut author. And this all feeds into the insecurity of a writer’s life. Whether you’re writing your first as yet unpublished book, your second or your 24th the same questions come up: “Can I do it again?” “Will the readers like this one?” “Will this one be accepted or turned down?” Oh – and, of course, “What can I write about THIS time?”
It’s not all bad, otherwise I wouldn’t still be doing it. Well, if the bank manager didn’t keep me at it, too… I don’t think anyone can describe or quantify the pleasure of writing, whether it’s in longhand on paper or straight onto a computer screen as most of us do these days. But there’s also the desperation we feel. When talking about this on another blog, a fellow writer said “I recognise the desperation, Lesley. Comes to me in different places in each book but it always comes.” And this is a writer who has at least double the amount of books behind her that I have. And, as my host asked, is it always women? Do men feel like this?
I’m not sure. I don’t get the same feeling of desperation or insecurity from the male writers I know, whether self or traditionally published. In fact, they seem, in some cases, overly confident and sure of themselves. Not all, of course, but they definitely don’t seem to be as plagued by doubts as the females are.
Then there’s the guilt. Again, I’m not sure I would feel this if I was a) out of contract or b) self published, but the fact that there’s a deadline – however far ahead – makes me feel guilty if I take time off to go to the hairdresser, for instance. It feels frivolous. It’s exactly the same as any other form of self employment, you have to work very hard, and often long and unsociable hours. All of my children are also self employed – three as musicians and one as a writer. None of us have any safety net if we’re ill, or out of work, something which I found out over the last year since I fell and damaged my back, followed, while I was still incapacitated, by a severe chest infection. I was properly ill for several months, and have been slowly recovering recently. This, not surprisingly, rather affected my work load, and my publishers were very nice about it, but as Henry Ford said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Income was right down this year.
It all looks rather a picture of gloom, doesn’t it? Well, yes. But aspiring writers all tend to have rather a rose tinted view of us, and it’s as well to shatter that view if possible. And look at all the writers who are holding down a “normal” job as well – they work even harder. Of course, there are those who are writing as a hobby, just because they enjoy it, and if that’s the case, I’m pleased for them. Although I used to get slightly annoyed with the wannabees who wrote because they loved it and had husbands or pensions to support them.
But on the other hand, I can’t actually do anything else. The only other thing I’ve ever been any good at was acting, and that rarely comes up these days, but someone somewhere once commented that writing fiction was very similar to acting – “it could have been me” – and it is. Both actor and writer are creating something ‘other’ – a new reality for the audience or reader to enter. And certainly, drama can feed into fiction in several ways – the obvious one of dramatic situations, and more importantly, dialogue. And – funnily enough – punctuation! Think about it – when you write dialogue for the stage, apart from stage directions, (those funny things in italics next to the character’s name,) you must supply the proper punctuation to tell the actor how to say it.
And I’ve created my own world with my Libby Sarjeant series. I have another family and set of friends, and the sort of village and seaside town that I’ve always wanted to live in. And friends in real life I’ve made through the books – who seem to love my characters almost as much as I do. I can do my job anywhere as long as I’ve got something to write on or with, and occasionally I get to go to quite glamorous events. So the message is: be aware of the pitfalls and all the downsides, but persevere. The rewards are substantial – if not financially!
Thanks, Lesley! If you have questions for Lesley about her post, or the Libby Serjeant series, ask them here by leaving a comment. I just want to know how she can be so hard-working and prolific. If only I had her self-discipline…