Welcome to the four hundredth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with freelance journalist, book reviewer, blogger and novelist Emma Lee-Potter. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Emma. Please tell us something about yourself, and how you came to be a writer.
Emma: Hello Morgen. When I was little I always wanted to be a journalist. I’ve been a journalist for more than 25 years now and it’s taken me to places I never dreamed of. I’ve interviewed Richard Branson 40 thousand feet above the Atlantic on Virgin’s first flight to Miami, I’ve sat in a Bedouin tent in the Saudi desert with Prince Charles and Princess Diana and I’ve driven across the equator in a truck. I started writing novels after my children were born and was completely hooked. Now I combine a career as a freelance journalist and book reviewer with blogging and writing novels.
Morgen: Wow, what experience… and so much to inspire your fiction. Your blog (http://www.housewithnoname.blogspot.co.uk) lists you as a journalist, book reviewer and novelist so I’d like to start with your journalism. Are you commissioned by publications or do you pitch for work?
Emma: A bit of both. There are several newspapers and magazines I write for regularly and they commission me. But I also come up with my own ideas and pitch them.
Morgen: Do you have any advice for new writers when pitching their articles?
Emma: The key to pitching successfully is to get to know the publication inside out. Make sure that your idea is the sort of story they would actually run. And don’t be disheartened if they say no. Just come up with more ideas. And, of course, when you are commissioned, file on time and to the right length.
Morgen: So they know they can rely on you and hopefully take more. With your non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Morgen: You’ve interviewed authors, is there someone you’d like to interview but haven’t yet?
Emma: There are loads of authors I’d like to interview, but number one on my list would be JK Rowling. I can’t wait to read her forthcoming adult novel.
Morgen: Me too (although my reading pile is already huge). Re. your interviewing her, I guess she could always say “no”. You’ve bought a “tumbledown farmhouse” in France, the emphasis for your blog, looks like it could be an ideal writers’ retreat one day…
Emma: It’s in a very peaceful and beautiful part of France. so it would make a fantastic writers’ retreat one day. The tumbledown roof needs a bit more work first though…
Morgen: I love DIY… planes, not so much but I love driving. You’re also a book reviewer, do you choose the books you review or are you approached by publishers (or both)?
Emma: Both. I’m very lucky because publishers send me lots of books and if I like them I suggest them for review (and review them on my blog too).
Morgen: Writing friend and interviewee Helen M Hunt does the same. I’m often asked (by the authors themselves) to review books but I just don’t have the time. I don’t read enough as it is, although I plan to; I have a new lodger and another moving in next week who I’ll be taking to work at 5am daily so they go to bed c.9pm so I have to be quiet, and what’s quieter (unless they’re laugh-out-loud funny) than reading? Is there a technique for reviewing a book? Are you bound by word limits?
Emma: It’s important to make book reviews honest, informative and entertaining. As a rule of thumb I restrict my description of the storyline of a novel to a third of the review, and my view of the book to two-thirds. And obviously it’s crucial not to give the ending away. My book reviews in newspapers are between 400 and 600 words, and I tend to stick to the same word count on my blog too.
Morgen: A nice coffee break read. Do you find as a book reviewer and writer yourself that you can’t just “read” a book (that you’re not reviewing) but mentally pull it apart?
Emma: Not at all. There’s nothing better than being completely taken over by a book – and I regularly am! I don’t feel I have to pull everything apart. But then again, if I love a book I’m always keen to write about it.
Morgen: Now moving to your novels, are there any differences or similarities between writing non-fiction and fiction? Dare I ask if you prefer one over the other?
Emma: That’s a hard one, Morgen. I love the fact that my journalism is short and snappy and written to tight deadlines. But then again, I love fiction because I can let my imagination run riot and write exactly what I want to.
Morgen: That’s what I love about fiction. I write articles but (so far) only about writing although I can talk for England (despite predominantly writing flash fiction) and being given a 500-word limit is great practice… and possibly why everything’s coming out around then at the moment.
You have four novels published to-date (Taking Sides, Moving On, Hard Copy, The Rise and Shine Saturday Show), the first three are for adults and the latter is for children. Do you find it easier or more difficult to write for children? Were your children your first readers?
Emma: I came up with the idea for my children’s book because my daughter, who was 12 at the time and a voracious reader, asked me to write something for her. I loved doing it and wrote a daily instalment for her to read when she got home from school. But adult fiction is my first love. Actually, these days my daughter is a brilliant proofreader and critic and always reads my books before anyone else.
Morgen: It’s great having supportive family – my brother is a great editor (although I don’t ask him these days as he’s as he’s always so busy) and my mum will be honest, although sometimes (if a piece is too dark), too honest. You also have a new novella out called ‘Olympic Flames’, how did that come about?
Emma: I had such fun writing Olympic Flames. I wrote it after being approached by a new eBook company called Endeavour Press. They asked me if I’d like to write a novella set at the Olympic Games and I jumped at the chance.
Morgen: And perfect timing. You’re based in Oxford, England, have you ever been tempted to write an Inspector Morse-type story and / or use locations that you know?
Emma: I often write about locations I know (particularly the wilds of Lancashire, an area I love) and Oxford features in the new series of novellas I’m writing. It’s a wonderful city and I’m not surprised that Colin Dexter chose it as the background for his Morse books. Funnily enough, I live quite near him. I spotted him on the bus the other day!
Morgen: He was the main speaker at the recent Chipping Norton Literature Festival but sadly I missed him (I was volunteering in the ‘green room’ so was looking forward to signing him in but it was on the second floor so a colleague took his badge to him) I met some great authors (some I knew already and some new ones, and spotted Joanna Trollope from a distance) and had a wonderful time… not wishing my time away, but I’m already looking forward to next year. Are your books available as eBooks, and do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Emma: Olympic Flames and The Rise and Shine Saturday Show are available as eBooks and Piatkus plans to publish Hard Copy, Moving On and Taking Sides as eBooks soon. My husband’s just bought me a Kindle so I’m enjoying both.
Morgen: Aren’t they great. Most authors I’ve spoken to have enjoyed both and say the same thing as me, that they read paper books at home but eBooks when they go away. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Emma: My favourite book so far is Moving On, my second novel, which is about two sisters who take over their family’s newspaper empire. I’d love it to be made into a movie (in my dreams!) and I’d cast Vanessa Kirby and Carey Mulligan as sisters Kate and Laura.
Morgen: I’d not heard of Vanessa (thank you Google Images) but she and Carey look like they would make great fictional sisters. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Emma: I’m writing a series of four novellas for Endeavour Press. They’re set in and around Oxford, so watch this space!
Morgen: Oh I will… do come back and talk about it… in a guest blog perhaps? Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Emma: Whether it’s journalism or fiction, I write every single day. It feels as though it’s part of my DNA somehow. I don’t suffer from writer’s block, mainly because I don’t dare to miss my deadlines. Some days are harder than others, but I just make myself keep going. I’ve just downloaded an app called Pomodoro, which makes me write in 25-minute bursts. I really recommend it.
Morgen: Ooh… Google here I come. Wow. I’m so uneducated. Wikipedia says the method’s been around since the 80s. With your fiction, do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Emma: Both. When I wrote my first novel I wasn’t sure how it would end. My husband’s an engineer and he was stunned that I didn’t plan it all out in advance. So now I write a basic synopsis, but I don’t always stick to it.
Morgen: I’m the same. I loosely (4-5 pages) planned the first one but it naturally ended much earlier than I planned (so it’s only 52K) so I have only done rough notes since then. The third one I wrote for 2009 NaNoWriMo and hadn’t a clue until the day before what I was going to write about and it ended up being 117,540 words (in 28 days, and great fun to do). Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Emma: I went to a talk by William Boyd recently where he said that he spent up to two years planning his novels and working out his characters. I definitely don’t do that, but I start with a vague outline of my characters – what they look like, their names, their backgrounds, and very crucially, the way they speak. I find that if I can get characters’ dialogue right, they are much more convincing and believable.
Morgen: One of the prompts for this blog’s 5pm Fiction slot is dialogue-only and it’s great practice. Reading it out loud helps enormously. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Emma: I tend to edit as I go along. The writer MJ Hyland once advised me to keep going and only edit once the first draft is done, but I just can’t do it. I start the day by editing what I’ve done the day before, and then carry on writing. Even so, I reckon that there comes a moment where you have to stop messing about with your work and send it off.
Morgen: You do. Four or five is usually my limit. One of my Monday night writers spends a week on a short story and admits to putting sections back that she’s previously taken out. I don’t have time for that. Do you have to do much research for your non-fiction and / fiction?
Emma: I do a lot of research for my journalistic work – it’s so important to get facts right and I check and double-check all the time. As far as my fiction is concerned, it varies. Olympic Flames, my new eBook, is set in the world of showjumping so I did a lot of research. For instance, I spent a lovely day at Greenwich Park, where the 2012 Olympic equestrian events will be held, soaking up the atmosphere and researching how it will all look this summer.
Morgen: Despite working in text, we’re very visual aren’t we. I’m forever flying my hands around pretending to do whatever my characters are doing – drives my dog nuts. What point of view do you find most to your liking when writing fiction: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Emma: Definitely third person. I haven’t tried first person, let alone second!
Morgen: I wouldn’t suggest it for novels (I’ve not yet finished Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ despite loving second person and it only being a novella) but if you do have the inkling, second person short stories are fun (or least I have fun doing them for 5pm Fiction and Tuesday Tales). Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Emma: Of course I’ve had rejections. Hasn’t every writer? I grumble a bit and then get down to writing again. It’s crucial to keep going.
Morgen: Absolutely. I have had a handful of writers say they haven’t but either they’ve not written much and everything’s been accepted or they’ve not submitted. Do you enter writing competitions (or judge them)? Are there any you could recommend?
Emma: I was lucky enough to be a judge for the 2011 Costa first novel of the year award – and loved every minute of it. As far as writing competitions are concerned, magazines like Red, Stylist and Good Housekeeping often run them – and I’d definitely recommend keeping an eye out for them.
Morgen: There are a few places that list competitions (Sally Quilford’s https://writingcalendar.wordpress.com, http://www.prizemagic.co.uk/html/writing_comps.htm, http://www.firstwriter.com/competitions, http://www.jbwb.co.uk/writingcomps.htm, http://www.writersreign.co.uk/Writing-Competitions.html, http://www.kudoswritingcompetitions.com and I have a competitions calendar although I know I don’t list those magazines). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Emma: Yes, I have an agent for my books. She is a huge support – and I don’t think I would have got my first book published without her.
Morgen: It’s notoriously difficult to get an agent these days but most say they’re worth their weight. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Emma: One of the main lessons I’ve learned is that writers can’t sit back and assume the publisher will do all the marketing for them. There are loads of ways to market your work these days, especially via blogs. Every writer should have a blog – there’s no excuse not to. As well as being a brilliant way to publicise your work, it’s great fun.
Morgen: It is and I’ve enjoyed building this one so much that I’ve started doing them for others… Jane Wenham-Jones most recently. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Emma: Write every day, even if it’s only 250 words. It hones your craft and one day you’ll wake up and you’ll have written a whole novel.
Morgen: Absolutely. 300 words is a 100,000-word novel in a year. I write an average of 300 words a day for 5pm Fiction, although I’m only 14 days in (or 45 if you include Story A Day May ). If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Emma: It would have to be three people who are brilliant conversationalists and who would make me laugh. So I’d choose Paul Merton, Caitlin Moran and the late Anthony Howard. As for the cooking, I’d invite the fabulous Jamie Oliver to do it (or is that cheating?)
Morgen: I love Paul’s dry sense of humour and Caitlin always strikes me as being a party animal, I’m sure you’d have a blast. We met at the Chipping Norton Literature Festival so I know speak at live events, are you involved in anything else writing-related?
Emma: I sometimes teach journalism students. I benefited from fantastic training myself so I feel passionately about the importance of passing on what I’ve learned.
Morgen: That’s what I’ve found about the writing ‘industry’; that we’re all happy to help other writers. I compare it to learner drivers; we know how hard it is to ‘pass’. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Emma: My favourite websites are Media Guardian for everything media related and Sarah Duncan’s blog for a fantastic range of novel writing tips. And my favourite writing book is Keith Waterhouse’s classic Waterhouse on Newspaper Style. It’s full of good sense and I use more than anything else.
Morgen: Thank you so much, Emma. I really appreciate you squeezing in this interview.
I then invited Emma to include an extract of her writing and this is from Olympic Flames:
The crowd roared with delight as the chestnut stallion soared gracefully through the air. The fence was more than one and a half metres high, but the rider and horse made the jump look effortless. When the duo touched the ground on the other side, there was a swell of applause from the spectators packed into the stand. The rider, resplendent in a navy blue show jacket and skin-tight white breeches, ignored it all, set on taking the next thirteen jumps with similar ease.
Jack Stone’s jaw tensed as he watched. Stylish, brave and fast – this was a competitor he was going to have to go hell for leather to beat.
Up until now, he’d reckoned he stood a good chance of a gold medal. After all, the American showjumping team had won the last two Olympic titles. Not only that, they had left nothing to chance in their preparations for London 2012. They had been training in the US for months on end, and had only flown into London a week ago. But watching riders of this quality made him uneasy. Only for a second, though – Jack wasn’t the type to be racked by self-doubt. But even so, he felt a flicker of irritation that when it came to technique and speed, the European teams so often had the edge. They were elegant and self-assured and had dominated the international showjumping scene for as long as he could remember. He couldn’t put his finger on quite how they did it but when the chips were down they had the knack of pulling that extra special something out of the bag.
It was the first day of London 2012’s fiercely contested jumping event and Greenwich Park had never looked lovelier. The oldest of London’s Royal Parks, Greenwich was also one of the greenest, with long, tree-lined avenues and acres of lush grassland. Jack had ridden in some spectacular places in his time but this beat the lot. The jumping arena, dramatically bordered on all four sides by the flags of the competing nations, faced on to the elegant stone façade of The Queen’s House, part of the National Maritime Museum. Even with scores of sleek city skyscrapers towering in the distance and the distant hum of the Olympic traffic, it was hard to believe they were slap bang in the heart of London.
As he glanced across to the start, keen to check which rider would be up next, a huge cheer erupted from the crowd. Jack straightened up to his full 6ft 2ins and narrowed his eyes. The rider he’d just been admiring had completed a clear round in the allotted time and was dismounting from her horse. Tiny next to the massive stallion, she removed a pair of dazzling white gloves and a black riding hat to reveal a head of blonde curls caught up in a ponytail. But when she turned her head to smile at a couple of Olympic officials standing nearby, Jack gasped in disbelief. What the hell was she doing here?
I then invited Emma to include a synopsis of ‘Olympic Flames’…
Mimi Carter is the youngest member of the British showjumping team for London 2012. Fiercely competitive and a brilliant rider, she’s desperate to win an Olympic gold medal in front of her home crowd. But as injury threatens and an enigmatic old flame arrives back on the show jumping circuit, can she put her feelings to one side and realise her dream? And can she win her man and a gold medal for her country – all in the same day?
This sparkling romantic novella mixes love, horses and the Olympic Games to create a story that is moving, funny and inspiring – and is sure to keep you hooked until the very last word.
Emma Lee-Potter is a novelist and journalist. She has written three novels, Hard Copy, Moving On and Taking Sides, and is the author of House With No Name (http://housewithnoname.blogspot.co.uk), her blog about life, books, teenagers and France.
Update November 2012: I invited Emma to provide an update since our interview and she’s been really busy… two new novellas.
Downthorpe Hall is a posh boarding school in the wilds of the Oxfordshire countryside.
Fresh from working in an inner-city comprehensive, Will Hughes has just been appointed as the new head. He knows there will be a host of challenges ahead. Tricky parents, rebellious teenagers and teachers who will fight his attempts to reform the school.
He doesn’t expect a battle for his heart.
But when he meets two women – the fiercely ambitious deputy head and a brilliantly smart science teacher – Will realises that the ties at Downthorpe are not just the kind you wear around your neck.
What follows is a tangle of competing ambitions and desires that leave Will bemused – and could force him to choose between the job he has always wanted and the woman of his dreams.
Everyone dreams of a White Christmas. But nobody dreams of one quite as much as Hal Benson.
Out-of-work actor Hal has been hired as a stand-in weather presenter by a ratings-chasing TV news channel. But actually, Hal couldn’t care less whether it rains or not. To him it is just a job.
But then he meets rival weather forecaster Lizzie Foster. She’s bright, determined and very beautiful. Fascinated by meteorology, she can’t believe that Hal is completely clueless about the weather.
They become friends, but as Christmas Day approaches, their relationship turns out to be as unpredictable as the weather. And sometimes as stormy.
Whilst everyone else is unwrapping presents, Hal and Lizzie are looking to the skies for signs of a White Christmas. So will the pair overcome their meteorological differences – and find true love?
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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