I’m in awe of this month’s author, Anna Jacobs. She writes novels, a mixture of historical sagas and modern day family/relationship stories, with the same frequency that some of us have holidays. She’s the fourth most borrowed author of adult fiction from UK libraries and next month, her 80th novel is published. I’m so pleased that out of her busy writing schedule, she took some time out to answer some questions on how she got started and what she’s learned along the way.
How long had you wanted to write for before you began?
I’d been wanting to write ‘stories’ since I was 10 years old and wanting to write proper novels since I was 20.
What stopped you from writing a novel?
Life! Finishing my first degree, starting work, falling in love, getting married, having two kids, moving round England and later emigrating to Australia. I wrote a lot of bits and pieces of stories during the truly wanting to write years after I was 20.
Instead, what I wrote and got published were French textbooks. As a teacher I found the books we were given to read with teenage boys impossible, so I wrote my own. I had nine French textbooks published before I turned seriously to writing.
What was your first published novel?
Persons of Rank – a regency romance in the style of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer whose best novels are, I believe, better than Austen’s. In a sense Heyer taught me to write because I was copying her style. After a while I developed my own style, but I’m still grateful for the things I learned from her books and her wonderful characterisation.
Is this the first novel you wrote?
No – the sixth. It’s the first novel I wrote in one fell swoop though, during long service leave, three months’ holiday given to Australians for working ten years for the government. I entered Persons of Rank into a big Australian writing competition, and came second out of over 800 entrants, winning $10,000 and publication.
How did you write it?
I had tried various ways of writing and had found by then that I can’t plan a novel. Once I start writing, the story unfolds bit by bit inside my head, like a TV serial really. I only know the background and setup scenario when I start a book.
I write organically and the characters carry me through. They know better than me what works.
I did a lot of drafts in those days. I’d read one or two how-to books, attended some talks at conferences, but mostly I practised by doing it ie writing stories. It’s how sports people train, after all. They do it until they’ve developed their skills. Thank goodness I didn’t go on a university creative writing course! I was able to develop my own style freely, and I wanted to write popular fiction not literary novels.
What was the most difficult part about writing Persons of Rank?
There wasn’t a difficult part to this sixth story which sang to me all the way through. For the first five novels though, there were indeed difficulties, as I learned my craft. Middles sagged, endings weren’t good enough and tension wasn’t gripping enough. Rewriting helped, and rewriting after some time had passed helped some more. But with Persons of Rank, it flowed smoothly from start to finish.
How did you overcome your earlier difficulties?
Practice makes perfect. They used to say when I started learning that writing half a million to a million words was necessary to become a good writer. I still believe, for most people, that’s true. I wrote, and wrote, spending every spare minute on my passion for writing. I was working full-time and raising teenage children so started getting up at four in the morning to get in a couple of hours’ writing before work. I had become very addicted to story-telling by writing novels by then.
Once you had an agent/publisher, what did you learn through the editing process?
Not a lot technically. I learned a lot more from readers writing to me about what they liked and didn’t like in my stories. I learned most from my first proper editor, which happened with my second book, which was taken up by Hodder & Stoughton.
What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?
First, read a lot, write a lot, read a lot more. You can learn so much from other writers about what works and doesn’t work when story-telling. If you don’t like reading you’re at a big disadvantage trying to become a novelist. Oh, and don’t read ancient authors like Dickens. His style wouldn’t work today.
Then, write a whole novel, polish it as much as you can then set it aside. Write another whole novel, repeat the polishing and set that aside. Then go back to your first novel and you’ll see how to improve it. Well, you will if you’ve been reading a lot as well as writing.
I know you can self-publish these days but one novel doesn’t usually teach a writer enough, so hold back till you’ve learned your craft.
Anna Jacobs is the author of 80 novels and is addicted to storytelling. She grew up in Lancashire, emigrated to Australia in the 1970s and writes stories set in both countries. She loves to return to England regularly to visit her family and soak up the history. She has two grownup daughters and a grandson, and lives with her husband near Perth and the Swan Valley, a tourist/winegrowing area. She’s addicted to reading as well as writing, so her house is crammed with thousands of books. Her website contains a lot of information, including list of books and which series each belongs to, plus first chapters to read: www.annajacobs.com
Anna’s books are available on Amazon. Links to her three latest paperbacks published last month are below.
Anna’s 80th novel, Saffron Lane, the third in the Peppercorn series, is published on 21 September 2017 and can be pre-ordered using the link below.
Next month’s interview is with author Clare Swatman. Clare’s debut novel, Before you Go, was bought at auction by Pan Macmillan in a two book deal and it has been translated into 21 languages.