Welcome to the five hundred and ninety-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with women’s commercial novelist Julie Cohen. 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, Julie. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Julie: I’m a novelist and a creative writing tutor, and I write women’s commercial fiction. I’m from the US, but I’ve lived in the UK for quite a while now. I’ve always wanted to be a published writer, but I never really knew how to become one. In 2001, I decided just to go for it and start writing a novel. I got addicted and I’ve never stopped.
Morgen: I was the same (in 2005), although I’ve worked my way up to novels via short stories. Your website http://www.julie-cohen.com/about says your first novel (aged 11) was “about a sorceress who had to defeat a devilishly good-looking evil wizard, and it was pretty much a copy of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, with added romance”, has romance always been part of your writing?
Julie: Not always, but I find myself coming back to it again and again. I love writing about relationships. Although I will say that age 11 my knowledge of romance was pretty rudimentary. As I recall, the evil wizard threatened the sorceress a bit and then he kissed her and she cast a spell on him.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. 🙂 You have had eight stand-alone novels published to-date, do you have any favourites or your books / stories or characters? If any of them were made into a film, which actors would you choose?
Julie: The current book I’m writing is always my favourite. But of my backlist, I have to say it’s a toss-up between Girl from Mars and The Summer of Living Dangerously—both of which, coincidentally, are about women escaping into fantasy worlds, although for quite different reasons and with quite different results.
I almost always cast my heroes as actors or musicians, but I rarely cast my heroines, who are usually quite clear in my head without needing a real-life stand-in. Recent heroes have been played in my head by Robert Downey Jr, Joseph Fiennes, Paul Bettany, and Mark Ruffalo. Right now I’m crushing on Ben Whishaw, who’s the hero of my book-in-progress.
Morgen: I’d be happy with any of those (especially Robert and Joseph). You’ve also written six Mills & Boon novels (http://www.julie-cohen.com/books/mills-boon-books). Mills & Boon are seen by some writers, especially when starting out, as an easy option, do you have any suggestions for writing for them?
Julie: Writing for Mills & Boon is most definitely NOT an easy option! They are such a specialised sort of novel that many people find it extremely difficult to write something that is acceptable. The books’ short word count (c.50,000) requires strict discipline in pacing, focus and structure, and their emphasis on emotion means that you absolutely cannot write these books without being a wholehearted fan of the genre. Once you’re a Mills & Boon author, the publisher expects you to write several books a year, the combined word count of which can easily exceed the length of two mainstream novels. And the deadlines come thick and fast. All of this is on top of the unthinking prejudice you encounter as a Mills & Boon fan and author from people who have never read the novels and assume they are formulaic trash.
Some tips? I think someone who wants to write for Mills & Boon should truly enjoy the genre. If you look down your nose on the genre, readers will know. They will. You should read a lot of the publisher’s output and target your story quite carefully at the line you’ve chosen. You should also spend a lot of time learning the craft of creating character quickly, of pacing, of structure, and of evoking conflict and emotion. Writing for Mills & Boon taught me valuable lessons in all of these things and it was a great start to my career.
Morgen: Some authors say they don’t read the same genre of book whilst they’re writing it but I agree, that you should certainly know your genre before writing it. That said, one of my Monday night writing group is an 80-something science-fiction novelist and I found out fairly recently that she’s never read sci-fi. Nor have I so I don’t write it, but she (Anna) said it’s just what came out. 🙂 You were previously published by Headline, but your next book, ‘Dear Thing’, is going to be published by Bantam Press (part of Transworld / Random House). Do you think the name of the publisher on the cover makes a difference?
Julie: To the reader? Not at all. I don’t think most readers even look at who published a book. Though the publisher produces the cover, the blurb, the marketing, and influences the book’s international status and its ability to get into bookshops and supermarkets, so they do make a very large difference overall.
Morgen: You have a free short story on Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/JulieCohen), which I really enjoyed, by the way – I love naughty characters. Have you ever been tempted to self-publish a longer work you’ve written that’s not yet been traditionally published?
Julie: No, but that’s only because the longer books I’ve written that haven’t been published, have not been published for a reason. They’re awful. I never want anyone to see them, ever.
Morgen: <laughs> Are all your books available as eBooks? Are you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Julie: Most of my books are available as eBooks, except for one or two of my backlist. The process is entirely handled by my publishers. I have an e-reader and I probably read about a third of the books I read on it—mostly new releases which I want to download immediately, or books that have only been published as eBooks. It’s great for instant gratification (and for taking up less shelf space). But for the most part, I prefer to use my local library and my local bookshop, both of which I think deserve my support.
Morgen: I can probably count on one hand the number of interviewees who’ve said they only prefer eBooks; most say it’s great having the choice. We met at the 2012 Chipping Norton Literature Festival (where you taught one of the most popular workshops – writing sex scenes!). How important are live events to you as an author?
Julie: I love them! I spend so much time alone in my writing room and in my head that it’s a huge treat to meet readers and authors in real life. I don’t know if they help to sell many books, but they help my sanity a lot.
Morgen: I bought your ‘One Night Stand’ (still in my to be read pile, sorry about that). You’re a member of the UK-based Romantic Novelists’ Association. How has the organisation helped you with your journey as a writer?
Julie: It’s been fantastically useful. I’ve met some amazing writers and learned a lot. The RNA has the New Writers’ Scheme for unpublished writers where you can get a full manuscript read and critiqued by an experienced writer. I’m proud to be a graduate of the New Writers’ Scheme and I now read and critique for the scheme, to pay forward what I learned.
Morgen: What a great idea. I’ve recently set up a https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/feedback page based on the same idea (though inspired by a panel I was attending at the Festival of Romance last month). Did you choose the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Julie: I’ve chosen the titles of about half my books myself (my personal favourite is Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom, though I’m also quite proud of my next book, Dear Thing). I think a title is important to the reader, but probably more to the author—I feel more connected to the titles I’ve thought up myself. Covers are extremely important—it’s the first thing a reader sees about your book—which is why I leave it up to the professionals, though I’ll admit I like some of them better than others. My cover for Dear Thing is gorgeous, and it’s such a treat when the publisher and designer really get what you were trying to do with the book.
Morgen: It often doesn’t happen, so a relief for sure. Your website’s biography also mentions that you drew a weekly cartoon for the ‘Brown Daily Herald’, have you ever been tempted to illustrate your own cover?
Julie: Dear God no. The only things I really draw well are squids. It wouldn’t be attractive.
Morgen: <laughs> In the video on http://www.julie-cohen.com/extras your research for ‘Getting Away With It’ took you to Wiltshire (and eat lots of ice cream, watch Top Gear and drool at Aston Martins), do you always have such a tough time doing research? 🙂
Julie: I love doing research! I will admit that I choose things I’m interested in for the subjects of my books so that I have an excuse to learn more about them. I’ve researched bats, comic books, fake psychics, roller coasters, and Regency dancing among other things, for various books.
Morgen: I know of some authors who have picked exotic locations so they can visit them for research, and claim expenses. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Julie: I’m working on my follow-up book to Dear Thing, which I hope will be another emotional, page-turning read, though I don’t want to say too much about it just yet!
Morgen: No problem. 🙂 Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and go with it?
Julie: Sometimes I plot, and sometimes I just go with it. Different things work for different points in the story, and for different books. With Dear Thing I had to write a full synopsis for the publisher in order to sell the story and that was quite difficult, though it did help me write the book faster.
Morgen: That’s a good idea, then you only need to make tweaks to it when you’ve written the book (note to self: write the synopsis first). Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Julie: Although these days I think I find the structural part a bit easier, I still have to do a lot of editing. I like to write quite a rough first draft and then work on improving it.
Morgen: I do the same; I write whatever’s in my head then worry about the attention to detail afterwards. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Julie: I have had a lot of rejections—mostly at the beginning of my career, before I was published, but there have been a few since then too. Mostly I turn to the wine and chocolate, and then write something else.
Morgen: 🙂 Teresa Chris is your agent (who also represents Jane Wenham-Jones). Do you think having an agent is vital to an author’s success?
Julie: No, but it’s certainly been vital to my success. My agent gives me invaluable advice and she knows the market inside out. My dream has been to write standalone novels for a major publishing house, and she has made that happen. Many authors have dreams that don’t require an agent to achieve them—for example there are many successful self-published authors or authors publishing with houses that don’t require agents—but having an agent was definitely the right path for me.
Morgen: I don’t have an agent and plan to self-publish my novels but I’d never say never; I’d love to see my books handled by a top traditional publisher. 🙂 You have your website and you’re active on Twitter (https://twitter.com/julie_cohen) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/julie.cohen.author) – do you have to do much of the marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Julie: My publisher handles the proper marketing, but I do find it important to engage actively with readers. I love doing library talks and festivals and things like that and I am quite alarmingly addicted to Twitter.
Morgen: Twitter’s great. I remember spending the day on Twitter when William married Kate (April 2011) and especially loved it when they went on the balcony with my fellow Twitteratis asking if they kissed, then William & Kate half-kissed and caused uproar, then they kissed properly. You can imagine what happened then. 🙂 You have some great tips for writers on your http://www.julie-cohen.com/extras/#for-writers page, the ‘prepare to do mighty battle with the crows of doubt’ is particularly funny. If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Julie: Write. Just write. Write what you want to and as much as you can. While you’re writing a first draft, treat yourself to unbounded confidence. You should definitely be as critical of your own writing as possible, but save that till the editing stage. Above all, write and enjoy yourself while you’re writing. This business is difficult enough; you might as well have as much fun as you can.
Morgen: Absolutely, and I do. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Julie: I teach creative writing courses for beginning and advanced novelists. My courses for 2013 are up here: http://www.julie-cohen.com/events.
Morgen: I love that you invite people to bring cakes. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Julie: Lately I seem to be baking a lot of cakes. I have also taken up running (which is probably related to the cake-making and subsequent cake-eating).
Morgen: And will give you plenty of time to plan your books. 🙂 Thank you very much, Julie.
I then invited Julie to provide a synopsis of ‘The Summer Of Living Dangerously’…
An ordinary woman. An extraordinary adventure.
Alice Woodstock has been running away.
Well, not literally. She spends most of her time glued to her desk, writing about grommets and model aeroplanes. No, Alice is avoiding the real world because there’s something—someone—in her past that she’s desperate to forget. So when she’s commissioned to write about life in stately home Eversley Hall, she jumps at the chance to escape into Regency England, even if it does mean swapping her comfy T-shirt for an itchy corset. Perhaps she’ll meet her own Mr Darcy…
But when her past resurfaces in the shape of Leo Allingham, Alice is brought down to earth with a bump. Reckless, unpredictable Leo reminds Alice of the painful price of following her heart. And the new Alice doesn’t live dangerously.
Or does she?
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