“If you want to write fiction, the best thing to do is lie down in a darkened room and wait for the moment to pass.”
From the audience of spell-bound audience of would-be Christies and Cartlands, Rowlings and Taylor-Bradfords roll great gales of laughter for Barnsley’s answer to Victoria Wood dabbling with Goth.
Loud, funny and extrovert, a flash of scarlet tipping her sleek black bob, successful local novelist Milly Johnson is on a roll. This is her favourite subject: how to write a book.
Though lying down in the dark and giving up is exactly what she didn’t do. Thousands of fans of her comedic romances set in South Yorkshire – from her first, the Yorkshire Pudding Club, a tale of four pregnant friends, to her most recent, White Wedding – are mighty glad of that; so is Milly.
She is one of the county’s hottest writing talents (Joanna Harris not withstanding), author of seven novels and now commands six-figure sums from her book publishers. She’s just bought herself a new house. Life is good.
Gathered in a Barnsley hotel on a Sunday afternoon, the audience of 47 listen intently. They all want to write their way into her shoes, or those of fellow Barnsley novelist Victoria Howard.
Crime-writer Victoria is next on stage to give yet more tips on creating characters and plots, developing writing techniques and tackling the hardest thing of all – how to get published.
The wannabes are predominantly female. Ages range from young women in their 20s to those on the cusp of retirement and beyond. The gentleman in the front row is 90 and has come from Leeds.
Explains Milly: “Victoria and I wanted to give a crash course we wish we could have gone to.
“We wanted to give people the chance to listen to two women who are published, earning money from it and who have learned things first-hand.
“I think it helps for novices to see someone who has made it happen.”
The two women stress the need for determination: “Everyone wants to be JK Rowling, but she had been rejected so many times she was on her last bid when she was accepted by Bloomsbury,” says Milly, who says writing has been her vocation from childhood.
She qualified as a primary school teacher but hated it, then trained as an accountant. “I hated that too, and every other job I tried to shoehorn myself into to pay the mortgage because I only ever wanted to write novels,” she says. “I write because I love it. But I’m here because I wanted it badly enough to go through years of rejection and sleepless nights. I wrote at night, while holding down the day job with two children under 18 months old in bed asleep.
“It’s been tough and a long road. But I’m on six figure deals now so I’m doing well. It’s been worth climbing the hill for.”
Milly and Victoria’s tips
Read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.
Write a little everyday. Stop procrastinating; 250 words per day, less than a double-spaced A4 sheet, will give you a 91,000-word novel at the end of a year.
Get the Writer’s Handbook which gives you guidelines on how to approach agents.
Be realistic – you need both talent and resilience. If you only have one of these, it’s not enough.
The only way to write a book is to sit and write it – there are no short cuts. So, in the words of Nike: ‘Just do it’.
Read! Learn how a writer constructs the plot, introduces characters, setting and dialogue.
Edit, edit and edit again until you’re sure your manuscript is as near perfect as it can be before you submit it.
Most of all, don’t give up.
Two books on the go - Bernadette White
Primary teacher Bernadette Whiteley isn’t just writing one book, she has two on the go.
She’s determined to finish her historical novel based on the life of a painter, and the manuscript for her children’s book.
“The hero of that one is a 10-year-old son of a coal miner. Being a teacher definitely helps with getting into my character’s mindset. And I’ve also picked up a lot of toilet humour,” grins the 43-year-old.
She has loved writing since she was nine years old and is a fan of fellow Dodworth-ite Milly Johnson.
“I’m passionate about getting a book published, though I’m quite shy about it. I haven’t even told close friends.”
Would-be novelist - Barbara Bryars
A retirement bent over a computer keyboard beckons for would-be novelist Barbara Bryars.
The 60-year-old leaves her role as a special needs co-ordinator this summer and is planning to spend her days writing.
“I haven’t started writing, let alone a book yet. I have lots of ideas, it’s a matter of deciding which one and then applying myself,” she says.
Barbara is a book-lover. She’s a member of book group at her library in Hemingfield. She would love to see her own name on the spine of a novel one day.
“I’ve always wanted to write, but I was a divorced single parent with a full-time job for years,” she says. “Now I’ve got the time.”
Friends support each other - Kate Muscroft and Ellie Wilson
Partners in crime?
Not quite. Murder mysteries are not their genre.
Ellie Wilson is three chapters into a comedy adventure and friend Kate Muscroft has a self-published children’s book to her credit and a sequel on the go.
But the two Rotherham 39-year-olds, friends since their days at Oakwood Comprehensive, support each other to follow their literary dreams. They meet up to talk through their latest writing and offer encouragement via Facebook. “It helps to have someone who understands how hard it is to keep the faith,” says Ellie, an ex-journalist and police community service team worker. “I got a knock-back from an agent recently and it’s hard not to let it get you down.”
The pair lost touch when Kate went to London to teach, but picked up their friendship on her return six years ago under unfortunate circumstances: “I broke my pelvis while giving birth to my son and couldn’t work,” she says. “But while I was out of action I wrote a fantasy children’s book.”
Ellie’s story, which she hopes will make people laugh, is based on her time as a reporter on an ex-pat paper in Bulgaria. “I’ll keep going whatever,” she says. “I can’t imagine my life if I don’t get a book out.”