EP31: Fear of Failure | Julie Cohen
In this episode you will discover…
How studying Pixar movies can improve your storytelling
How embracing failure and rejection will only make you stronger
Why Post-It notes could be your most essential tool for editing
And why your book is like an iceberg
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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Julie Cohen is the author of over twenty novels, including the Richard & Judy bestseller Dear Thing. Her books have been translated into fifteen languages and sold nearly a million copies worldwide. She has also taught creative writing workshops for The Guardian, Literature Wales, The Writers’ Workshop and Cornerstones. Liz Fenwick first told us we should get Julie on the show and we were delighted to speak to her in the run-up to the publication of her new book Together.
You’ve said that you discovered writing was a process of getting a good idea and then failing to execute it. Can you elaborate on that?
I think that writing is totally a process of failure. You do get a good idea and then you fail to execute it and then you fail to even fail to execute it, it’s just always about failing and getting it wrong. When I first started writing I had actually already succeeded at a lot of stuff; I had gone to the university I wanted to, I did my degrees, I got the first job I applied for, everything was going really well and then I decided to write… and then I failed. I got rejected, everything that I wrote was really bad. I feel very fortunate that I was rejected many times when I started out because I know now that I have to fail before I get it right.
I make the same mistakes over and over again. Every time. I have this mistake that I have been struggling with since I first started to write, which is I need to write somebody walking into a room, and then walking across the room, and then choosing the chair they’re going to sit in, and then sitting in that chair, and then how they sit in that chair, and then how they pour a glass of water. I forget to leave the stuff you don’t need out. I’ve been writing professionally for twelve years now. Still forget that.
Is that like a warming-up exercise?
I guess it is. You’re trying to inhabit the world of these characters and just get into them, and then you forget about yourself as a storyteller and somebody who’s creating something quite highly structured and mannered to make it into fiction instead of real life.
Together is your twenty-first book. You’ve been around the block a few times.
I have, and I’ve switched genres a few times, I’ve just moved to a new publisher. There’s a lot of pressure trying to do something new. You talk about failing, you get used to a certain level of failure, then the stakes are raised and then you can fail even worse and the fear gets even greater.
What scared you the most about this new book?
It is the most technically challenging book I’ve ever written, because it’s told backwards and it starts when the hero and heroine are in their seventies and eighties in 2016, and then it goes backwards through time in stages until 1962 when they meet in their twenties. Structuring the novel was very difficult and very challenging and I had to plan it more than anything I had ever planned anything else before. Every novel’s a new learning curve, and for this one it was very much about how to structure a novel absolutely impeccably, because I couldn’t hint at what was happening later, I couldn’t give secrets away, I had to make everything plausible, going backwards as well as forwards. Each section — it has sections going from 2016, to the nineties, to the seventies, to the sixties — had to have its own narrative arc and drive and conflict which was different for the others. It was an incredibly challenging novel to write.
What came first: the structural challenge, or an idea where you thought this is the only way I can tell the story?
This novel has a twist at the end, which is actually at the beginning. It’s so difficult even to talk about this book. It has a secret that happens in 1962 that, if it were at the beginning of the novel it would affect the reader’s perceptions in such a way they would read the book very differently. I wanted the reader to get to know these characters before they understood the characters’ past and to uncover it bit-by-bit. I actually got the idea about the twist several years ago, and talked about it with my editor, Harriet, and she said I don’t think you can write that yet. Why don’t you park it for a while and we’ll come back to it? I remember where I was when suddenly I realised Oh my God, I can write this book, but only if write it backwards! It happens so rarely. I’ve written a lot of books, but it’s very rare that you get a blinding explosion of insight. You can’t predict it and when it happens it’s incredible, but it doesn’t happen very often and it happened with that, so I knew I had to write it backwards. And then I thought how the heck do you do that?
When your editor said you weren’t ready to write this book, why do think that was?
I just didn’t have the idea in place yet. The way I presented it to her was not right yet, and I’d already worked with her for two books by then, so I really trusted her instincts, I think they’re spot-on, amazing, and we also think about story in a very similar way.
You meet people who think about story in the same way as you, who you can almost use shorthand with because you know what they expect at a certain point in a story.
There are instinctive writers and analytical writers and I’m an analytical writer, as you might have noticed, and she understands that analytical thing, and so when she says something like that to me I really listen to her.
How did you get into teaching writing workshops?
I was a secondary school teacher for ten years, until I left to become a full-time novelist. I really enjoy giving workshops to writers. I run my own courses, I run a consultancy, I’ve taught for the Guardian and for Penguin Random House.
You often use Pixar examples in your courses. Why is that?
The Pixar thing is great. When you can show people what a subplot looks like by looking at the two plots in Finding Nemo and deciding which one’s the plot, which one’s the subplot, how do they go together, looking at the parallels, it’s such a good example because Pixar films are stripped down to their basics.
What they also do so well is that within their story world they make the story as big as it can be. Even though these are stories about fish or toys, they are actually huge stories about human nature and seeing how they do that is incredible.
One of the things I use it the first four minutes of Wall-E to show you can have an act one of a story without using any telling at all. It’s one hundred percent showing, and there are no words either, and how you can bring a viewer or a reader into a story just instantly by doing that.
I’ve got a thing about prologues, I’m not keen on prologues. I think most of the time they should go. They’re written for the author rather than the reader, so I always show the first six minutes of Pixar’s Up.
That always destroys me…
Which is why I believe it won an Oscar. The rest of the film is good, but not as good as the first six minutes, and I was watching that the other day, and I was going… That’s my book! My book starts when the hero is eighty and then goes back and you see their whole life together.
When is the right time for an author to go on one of your courses?
I generally try to vet people and try to get people who have finished or nearly finished their first manuscript. I like to look at a novel in a whole structural way, which I think is difficult when you’re in the middle of writing a first draft. Some authors can do that, but I think most authors need to write something really messy and have a bunch of clay before they can figure out how to mould it. So those are the authors I tend to work with the most.
They come to me and say I’ve written this draft, I don’t know what to do with it, and I say I’m sorry, but you need to trash sixty percent of it and then we’ll start again. Sometimes that’s great and works incredibly well. I can a name a couple of bestselling authors who I have said that to and they’ve done that and they have then gone on to the top ten bestseller list.
The hard advice is really good to get and it’s the things you can’t see yourself. When you’re in the middle of clay you don’t see how it can ever make a shape. But somebody just walking in can say there’s the head, there’s the tail and whatever. I think authors who just walk into the course and think maybe they want to write a novel don’t have enough to work with yet. I also tend to work with authors who have maybe self-published a few books, and they want to make the leap into mainstream publishing. It’s all about pushing people to the next level.
What should a writer look for in an editor?
I’ve never hired an editor, I’ve just had editors from my publishing. I’ll tell you what my good editor looks like: we understand story structure in a very similar way, and so when I tell her things she looks at it analytically. We share a similar approach. I also think she’s strategic. She doesn’t concentrate too much on the individual words on the page, she’s much more interested in looking at the structure and the characterisation. I think if I were looking for an editor I would look for somebody who had edited a book that I had loved and really admired. Look for somebody who had that same approach.
I always like an editor who challenges me. I really don’t want to work with somebody who says this is great. I want somebody who says this is great, but… The praise sandwich is really important.
The Praise Sandwich. What’s that?
This is really good — but I think you need to work on this — but this is really great!
It’s much easier to deal with than somebody just coming in and saying oh, darling, this is a mess.
Do you relish getting notes, still?
It depends on the book, because every book is different, it depends on the editor and it depends on the situation. With the edits on this book everything to me was like, Yes! Every single thing that my editor said I thought was fantastic and she really understood the book forwards and backwards and it was really amazing. Just simple things like, I want you to take the two pages at the beginning of your novel and put them at the end instead. These very simple things that make a huge amount of difference.
I have had edits where I felt very angry, and they key is not to say anything to anybody. You have to keep that grief and anger and denial and all that stuff to yourself, and, God, not on social media, right?
Your significant life partner is fine, you can swear to them if you’re used to it, or your dog or whatever, but you cannot show any of that to your editor and you can’t show any of it to anybody else because there’s a process of dealing with it, and your first response will not be your last response. A good edit is a treat. It’s like nothing else. It’s almost like meeting somebody you have a good conversation with.
When you get your notes, what do you tackle first: the big notes or the little ones?
Big stuff first. I always deal with the big stuff, because it’s always going to affect the little stuff. My editing tool is Post-It notes.
What I like to do is, instead of actually tackling the manuscript itself, I tackle the scenes or the ideas of the manuscript in Post-It notes.
I like to have little pieces of paper that I can move around. It’s really difficult to tackle a hundred thousand words, but it’s very easy to tackle little pieces of paper. If somebody said they had a structural problem with my book, for example, I would lay out the entire structure of the book in Post-Its, story event by story event, and then move them around and shuffle them on Post-Its instead. That’s the big overall stage that I would do first. I would do that way before I even tackle the manuscript.
That’s a very screenwriter-y, Pixar, thing to do.
Yeah, I colour code it according to scenes, a character’s point of view, or, in this novel that I wrote backwards it was all colour-coded to do with time periods. I’m a great believer in them.
What was the most difficult point of the edit on your new book? Was there a scene that you kept coming back to again and again?
No, because I planned this book out so much in detail I didn’t really have that. Ironically, the hardest book to plan was the easiest book to write because I had planned it out in so much detail beforehand. I just sat down and wrote it after that. But with other books there have been problem scenes that I have to keep on coming back to and I think you have to trust your instincts with that and if you think that a scene is not working, that’s because it’s not… And if you don’t know why it’s not working, and you keep on trying to fix it, and it’s still not working, that’s because it’s not.
A lot of writers think that they can get away with stuff, but the hallmark of a good editor is that they don’t let you get away with stuff.
I do a fiction consultancy and I get manuscripts that are really good and I’ll write a report and I’ll say I wasn’t really sure about the first three chapters because they seemed to set in a different place to the rest of the book, or I wasn’t really sure about what was happening in the middle here, because it didn’t quite ring true to the character. And I would say about eighty percent of the time, maybe more, the author comes back to me and says yeah, I thought maybe I would push it through and maybe get away with it.
Any other common mistakes from authors who come to you?
I think a lot of authors begin in the wrong place. They either begin way before the story starts, or they begin after the story has started already, or they think they need something exciting in there and something exciting happens, but it has no relevance to the rest of the plot. Beginnings are really hard, and I to tend to deal with beginnings a lot in my course, because that’s what people will bring to me. I would say that’s very common… especially authors who write prologues! Not that I’m prejudiced. I’ve written a prologue or two in my time, but prologues just tent to delay the story. That’s the most common advice I give: cut those ten thousand words.
What does a prologue do? Why might we need one?
A prologue is how they get into the story. It’s writing themselves in, and I think you do need to write yourself into the story.
It takes ten thousand words before you know what the heck you’re doing, but then you have to not forget when you finish the whole book that you’ve taken those ten thousand words to write yourself in, and therefore those ten thousand words might not be the right ones because you’ve got to the ending and everything has changed.
In the beginning of a book there tends to be a lot of telling instead of showing, a lot of figuring out on the page what these characters are and what their back story was and giving it to the reader in big lumps. That’s what prologues tend to be, quite often. A good prologue can be great, but I think a prologue should generally be written last, or at least edited last after you’ve finished the whole thing. My author friends completely argue over this with me, because readers like them a lot.
Is that early exposition a common rookie mistake?
It’s not a rookie mistake, it’s a first draft mistake. I do it. I’ve just written twelve thousand words of my next book and a lot of that is just figuring out the character on the page. I was writing yesterday and my character wanted to tell me something that happened to her when she was seven years old, and I’m sure it was probably wasn’t relevant, but she wanted to tell me that. I’ve written it down, it’s on the page, it’ll get cut, or maybe it’ll get moved. Or maybe the reader doesn’t need to know that. I just needed to know that. A book is like an iceberg. The reader sees the tip, but what the author knows is huge. And that’s another thing with newer authors; I’ll ask them questions and they’ll say I don’t know. You need to know why this happened. You can’t just write it in there because it seemed like a good thing to happen at the time. There’s a lot of stuff going on underneath the surface that the reader doesn’t need to see, but that you as an author need to know.
Do you discover that while writing, or do you do a character outline beforehand?
Both. Again, it depends on the book. I have this flaky new age personality-type book called The Wisdom Of The Enneagram and it gives you a little quiz at the beginning, and you take it as your character and then they tell you which one of their nine personality types, and sub-types, and they tell you what type this person is. And it’s really useful, because it tells you the type of background this character tends to have, how they are when they are unhealthy, the conflicts they tend to have in their life. And it’s a great tool for fiction writers. I did that with this book that I’m writing now, because I have two heroines and I want to know how they are different, so I took the quiz and went through and did all that and that informs everything that they do.
But then sometimes they do stuff that doesn’t fit that, so there’s a certain point where you have to chuck all of that and then just go with what they tell you.
Do you find that characters surprise you?
They have to surprise you, I think. That’s one of the joys of being a writer, when they suddenly do something that you’re not expecting at all and yet you realise you’ve been subconsciously building for the entire time. I wrote this book once where I had to have a big climactic event at the ending, and I had no idea what it was, and I made a list of everything I could think of, from aliens landing to a cat coming in, somebody saying that they’re somebody’s long lost mother, or whatever. So I made a big long list of maybe twenty things that could happen. And usually when you do that, about number twelve is when the real solution comes in, and I thought, it has to be this, and I picked that out and then I thought Oh my God, I’ve been setting that up all the way through and I didn’t even know. I literally had the object that would make that happen come into the story in chapter three.
With an outline you might have an ending, but you should be prepared to change that ending?
If you have to. Not with this book, Together, but the book before that, Falling, the ending was supposed to be completely different that how it turned out.
Do you get blocked and if you do how do you cope with that?
That’s a really hard question, because I used to believe that writers’ block didn’t exist.
I always thought that it was really caused by The Fear, which is part of what every writer has to deal with and you just had to learn to deal with The Fear and move on.
And sometimes it’s caused by not having the right idea yet. So you have a problem, but you can’t work out how to solve it. Once you’ve solved the problem you can move on. This year I had a type of writers’ block, which was caused by nothing to do with my own stories, and everything to do with the publishing industry, and so it was really out of my control. I found it very difficult to write anything. I was writing like crazy — I think this past year I’ve easily written a hundred and fifty thousand words — but nothing publishable whatsoever. I’ve just been writing for fun, because I needed to keep my hand in, because I knew that if I stopped writing that would be the end. It’s easier if you sit down every day to get something down even if it’s rubbish, but it’s really hard once you get out of the habit of doing it to get back into the habit of doing that. It’s The Fear, in different aspects, and you need to learn how to overcome that somehow.
Is it a question of failing less and less?
I don’t know if you fail less and less. I think you fail all the time. It’s an exercise in failure, and sometimes the failure that’s your own is sometimes a bit easier to deal with.
I get to the suckage point in all of my books, where I think that I am writing just the worst steaming pile of crap that anybody has ever got to.
It’s about fifty thousand words in. And that is a horrible, horrible feeling, but I’ve been through that enough now that I know that you actually do get over that eventually. It’s hard to remember that, but I do. The fear that’s harder to overcome is the fear that’s nothing to do with you. The fear that has to do with readers, reviewers, and publishers, all those two-star reviews on Amazon, or the fact that WH Smiths isn’t going to take your book, or that you’ve written the best book of your entire career and nobody’s going to read it. The sort of fear that gets you at two or three in the morning. And that’s a harder fear to deal with than your own failure.
You have to ignore it. And the fear about your own failure you can overcome by working harder and not failing and finding the right solution and going for it.
But the fear of failing because of something out of your control is, I think, more crippling. Because you can do nothing about that. All you can do is ignore it and move on.
Those un-publishable hundred and fifty thousand words… what are you going to do with those?
I’m writing a new book now, sitting down every day and writing it properly, and I thought it was a new idea that I’d had, but when I looked at it and started describing it to my friend she said that’s the idea you had two years ago when you wrote three aborted beginnings. But it’s shifted and changed and mutated and it’s the same emotional idea, but a different plot.
I think that no writing is ever wasted. It’s stuff that’ll never get published, but you’ll learn something from it, either about ideas, or technique, or it will give you a feeling that you will then take on to do something else. I think every piece of writing is worthwhile.
Is that how you start out, by wanting the reader to feel an emotion?
Often, yes. I come up with a theme for every book. I’m very analytical. I come up with the idea, but then I also think of maybe a one word theme. The theme of Together is love. But, it’s not quite love. I can’t tell you the theme because it’s got a twist ending, but the theme in my book before, Falling, was falling, and that theme, or that emotion, informs everything that happens in the novel. I put it up on a Post-It, where I can see it every day, and that leads me to choose subplots, locations, story events, characters and even characters’ names.
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