I’m delighted to welcome Headline author, Julie Cohen, to the author interview hot seat. Until recently, Julie’s been best known for her Little Black Dress books, but her latest book, “Getting away with it”, heralds a new move into writing longer, more complex stories with wider issues, as well as romance.
Julie, can you tell me how you first got started?
I’ve always been a writer—I’ve been writing novels, plays, poems, comics and articles since I was a kid, and I was a peer writing tutor at university—but I didn’t start writing romantic novels with the goal of publication until about 2000. I was teaching secondary school and hadn’t written creatively for a few years while I concentrated on my career, but I had an old draft of a Mills & Boon novel that I picked up again, for fun, and then I decided to make my dream of being a novelist come true. I joined the RNA and some other writers’ groups; it was a very steep learning curve, but I found so much support from other writers, which made it easier. I wrote four or five novels, all of them gathering rejections, but I was getting better with every one.
Everything sort of came together for me in 2004—I finalled in the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart contest; I landed an agent (who I’d heard of via the RNA); and RNA chair Jenny Haddon took a risk on me and engaged me to be the first unpublished author to speak at the RNA conference—and the first to give a talk about writing sex. In July 2004 I got a call from Brenda Chin at Harlequin to say they’d like to buy my Golden Heart novel. Publication was delayed, but meanwhile, my agent was shopping my single title and I was writing like crazy...with the result that in 2006, I had five books out with two different publishers.
To plot or not to plot? How much of a planner are you?
I’m half and half. I usually come up with a premise for the book, and I spend some time developing the main characters and their arcs. So even though I have no clue what will actually happen after chapter three or so, I do know the emotional journey that my heroine will have to take. I usually write that down in one sentence, which sort of guides me throughout the entire novel. Then I write whatever comes to me. It’s quite often very surprising.
About halfway through, I realise I need to start figuring out how I’m going to end this thing. That’s when I get out the index cards and start plotting. I might or might not follow this.
After I’ve written my first draft, I go back and plan the novel retrospectively, which helps me with revising it into shape.
I’ve written about this process in detail on my blog, if you’re interested:
What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?
You know, I always think I might know the answer to that question, right up until the time that an editor is considering one of my novels. Then I realise, to my horror, that I have no clue.
Where is your favourite place to work?
I used to like to take my laptop to various places and work, but bad posture and bad working habits have meant that for the past year or so, I’ve had trouble with my back, neck, arms and hands. So now I have to work at my own desk with my own special keyboard and timer that tells me to take a break and stretch every 20 minutes. For a change of pace, I like taking a notebook and pen to a local café and brainstorming ideas whilst drinking coffee.
Do you write every day? What is your work schedule?
I take Sundays off, and I take a month or two off between books to refill the well. If I don’t, my marriage and my sanity would surely start to crumble. Otherwise, I write every day. My son goes to nursery at 8 am, so that’s when I start. I’m not normally a morning person so this requires some force of will (and much tea). I write until he comes back, at about lunchtime. I aim to write an average of 1500 words a day, over six days; if I don’t achieve my word count within the time that he’s in nursery, I write in the evening after he’s gone to bed. I try to keep my afternoons free to spend with my son. Of course, when I’m hitting the home stretch on a book—finishing it or doing the last bit of revisions—I forget all about schedule and work every possible waking hour.
Which authors have most influenced your work?
There are too many to count, but here are a few. Ursula LeGuin made me want to write fiction. Leslie Kelly made me want to write for Harlequin Mills & Boon. Marian Keyes made me want to write women’s fiction. Kathy Love was my writing partner from age fifteen. Kate Walker was a kind mentor for me when I was starting out. Most of the published members of the RNA have helped me along in some way, at some time or other.
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
The beginning. For me, it’s like going to a new city without a map, or being able to speak the language. I find it exciting, but terrifying, and I faff around for ages until I absolutely cannot put off starting the book any longer. Then I write about 20,000 words which are bad and which I have to immediately cut. After that, it gets easier.
How do you promote your books?
Blogging, tweeting, Facebook, an online newsletter, doing workshops and speaking engagements. I’m also a regular guest on BBC Radio Berkshire. The publisher and I send out lots of copies of my book for review. I enter contests, both in the UK and the USA. After Sue Moorcroft’s excellent session at the last RNA conference, I’ve started writing short stories that my publisher can try to place, to coincide with the launch of a book. I have a constantly-updated website and I usually have postcards and business cards printed with my latest title, in case I meet anyone who’s interested, randomly in a train or something. (Yup, I’m shameless.)
Do you have interests other than writing?
I quite like walking around at dusk and looking through people’s windows before they draw the blinds.
What advice would you give a new writer?
You don’t have to get it right the first time. The great thing about writing is that it can always be re-written—and no writing is ever wasted, because even if it’s wrong, you’ll learn something from having written it. Just write.
Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.
GETTING AWAY WITH IT is my first women’s fiction novel with Headline Review, and it’s out in paperback in March. It’s the story of Liza Haven, a rebellious stunt woman whose life goes terrifically wrong following an accident, and who goes back to the small village where she grew up, to see her perfect identical twin sister, Lee. But when she gets there, Lee has disappeared, and everyone in the village thinks that Liza is Lee.
I’ve always been fascinated with identical twins, and I was digging in my garden when I decided I wanted to write a novel where one twin takes over another’s life. But I wanted it to have more of a twist than your usual life-swap novel, which is why Lee disappears and Liza takes over her life almost reluctantly, to see what it’s like to be the twin that everyone likes for a change.
Finally Julie, can you tell us something of your work in progress?
My next novel for Headline Review is about a woman who takes a job as a historical interpreter in a stately home where they’re recreating the summer of 1814, and finds herself drawn a bit too much into her historical role. It’s got two strands to it—the present-day strand where her life is a bit of a mess, and the 1814 strand, which is more of a Regency romp. As I write, I’m waiting to hear what my editor thinks of it, and mostly chewing my fingernails (see answer to question number 3).
Thank you Julie, and I wish you every success with your latest novel.
If you want to know more about Julie and her writing, visit her website http://www.julie-cohen.com
To buy on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Getting-Away-Julie-Cohen/dp/0755350626/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1