I’ve always loved reading books but the idea of writing my own is something I’ve only recently thought about. Though I have a fair bit of writing experience, I didn’t really have any storytelling and was struggling to think of ideas.
So last year, I decided to take a free online course as a first step for how to start writing fiction. (I highly recommend it – there’s so much substance to the lessons which I wasn’t expecting from a free course!) During this time, I happened to be invited along to Stylist Live and when I looked at the events and talks on for the day, one stood out straight away: “How To Write Your First Novel – And Actually Finish It.” I knew I had to go. And it turned out to be an influential moment on my novel writing journey…
The talk was being presented by actress turned author, Janet Ellis, who I found to be such an engaging and inspiring speaker. I clung onto her every word and desperately jotted down notes.
After I left, I ordered her latest book and a couple of months later tweeted: “About to read a book by the author who inspired me to start my first novel. Thank you @missjanetellis #TheButchersHook #inspiration”
To my surprise, my tweet got the best response I could have ever asked for:
And the rest, they say, is history! After receiving such helpful feedback from Janet, I thought it’d be nice to share some of her best advice with you. She kindly agreed to spare a little time and has provided such a refreshing perspective with very genuine answers – even admitting that she’s still not over her fear of sharing new work!
Get To Know Janet Ellis
Q: What was the last thing to make you laugh out loud?
A: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip. Really accurate and funny writing, painfully honest performances and great impressions.
Q: How would your friends describe you in three words?
A: If I’m present, I’d ask them to say ‘talented, articulate and glamorous’. Behind my back, I’d hope for ‘loyal, consistent and fun.’
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
A: I don’t think you should feel guilty about any pleasure, unless it involves breaking the law!
Q: Great answer! What are you reading at the moment?
A: The Girls by Emma Cline
Q: If you could try any other job in the world, what would it be?
A: Lawyer. Or tour guide.
Q: How do you like to unwind?
A: Walking. Cooking. Eating.
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
A: Nice offer! We’ll always have Paris.
Q: What’s your biggest literary pet peeve?
A: The assumption that writing is ever easy. And no more books about gin-drinking mums, please.
Advice For New Writers
Q: Where do you get inspiration from?
A: Everything, all the time. I carry a notebook though, because I forget otherwise.
Q: What three habits do you feel are important for a writer to make?
A: Listening and looking, switching to writing mode as quickly as you can and not judging your work too harshly when you re-read it.
Q: Where is your favourite place to write?
A: I write in what used to be our playroom, a tiny, narrow room at the end of our hall.
Q: How long did it take you to write The Butcher’s Hook?
A: All in all, I guess it took about eighteen months, but that was spread out over two years.
Q: Which part of researching history for the book surprised you the most?
A: How similar in their emotions and ambitions, in thought and desire and appetite Eighteenth Century people were to us.
Q: Aside from Anne Jacob, who is your favourite Butcher’s Hook character and why?
A: I have a soft spot for the cake-eating, chaotic vicar.
Q: What do you feel makes a character more believable?
A: Making them important, even if they only have a walk-on role.
Q: Interesting, I’ve not considered that before. What do you look for when you’re analysing your own first draft?
A: Keeping the voice consistent and spotting places where I’ve started writing for an unknown reader – either an approving or disapproving one.
Q: Has your career in television helped you in your writing in any way?
A: It didn’t get me a deal (my work was first submitted under a pseudonym) but I’m sure there was interest in me suddenly appearing as a writer. In terms of the actual writing, it’s more my actress training that helped (in terms of exploring character and making dialogue work) than my TV presenting.
Q: How do you get over the fear of sharing new writing with others?
A: I’m still not over it! It’s the most terrifying thing, but understanding that every potential reader might have some useful comments and that even harsh criticism might have a germ of truth got me through.
Q: What is a piece of advice you wish you had known before you started writing?
A: Ignore advice! Seriously, you have to find your own way and one person’s routine/structure/choices probably won’t be yours. Trust your voice and your writing.
Q: And finally, how does a new writer go about trying to get their first book published?
A: There are lots of routes – I think finding an agent is a great first step, as it’s great to have someone else who believes in you. If you’re brave enough, self-publishing is one way, but you do need the recourses to promote your book as most self-publishing won’t involve PR or connecting you with readers. But keep trying – for every book that gets picked up straight away, there are hundreds of writers who could paper a room with rejection slips – and then get lucky.
Big thank you to Janet for taking the time to answer these questions and for being my first ever chapters advisor!
Do have a read of The Butcher’s Hook if you’re looking for your next book, I’ve not read anything like it! I would describe it as captivating, mysterious, and twisted… go on, I know you’re curious.
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