ARE WRITERS BORN OR MADE?
Author interview transcripts from Greg Barron and Luke Preston
One of the blogs I enjoy reading on writing, marketing and publishing in 2013 is by Joanna Penn: The Creative Penn. I first appeared on her blog writing on Paratrooping and Publishing after self-publishing Defender in 2011.
This week, I asked on The Creative Penn whether writers are born or made. It's a conversation I had with some of the co-founding members of the Action Thriller Writers Association of Australia (soon to be thrilleredge.com) - namely Greg Barron and Luke Preston (Tony Park, the other founding member was excused as he is writing his latest tome in South Africa) - about their experiences of 'becoming' a published author. You can read my full post on The Creative Penn blog here.
Our full interviews are published side-by-side, below, to show other aspiring and published writers an honest view of three other authors who are writing their way to, hopefully, the top.
My thanks to Greg and Luke for opening up about their experiences, and I look forward to your comments on your own journey as a writer at the bottom of this post.
How did your writing aspirations and dreams begin?
Chris: I’ve always loved the escape that books provide, and the feel and smell of them. I was always predisposed to enjoying a good (or even bad) fiction book more than a text book and I remember the first book I ever bought was via the school book club; it was called The Gismo from Outer Space. Later I enjoyed classics like David Copperfield and The Count of Monte Cristo. So, for me I guess the interest began way back then, although at the time I didn’t realise it. When I reached about 14 or 15 and I found The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming in the school library, that’s when I knew for sure that I wanted to be a writer.
Greg: As a teenager I spent more time reading than anything else except for school and sleeping. It was a natural step to want to make my own books. I wrote some short pieces back then, but quickly found that writing good stories is not as easy as it looks. In my mid thirties I decided that it was now or never, and I embarked on a path to publication that would take more than a decade.
Luke: I first put pen to paper around the age of sixteen and one hasn’t left my hand since. For me, writing is not about achievement. It’s about survival. If I’m not at the typer outlining a story, putting words on the page or editing a draft, my life and mind are un-centred. The words are an addiction for which the only cure is getting the words on the page.
Was your talent evident from a young(ish) age?
Chris: I’m not sure you’d ever call it talent, but whatever it is (or was), it wasn’t at all evident back in my younger days. In all honesty, my first attempts at writing were pretty woeful. I was never what you’d call a disciplined student, school always seemed to get in the way of life for me, so when I decided that being a writer was what I wanted to be, I had this fanciful notion that it would just come naturally. It didn’t. I’ve known for a long time now that the most important things in life are only achieved with hard work, patience and commitment. That’s the way it is for me anyway.
Greg: I’m wary of the concept of talent. But … I have always been good at putting words together, and teachers, even at primary school level, often told me that I should one day do something with that skill. I don’t think it was evident that I would have the dogged persistence necessary to write a good book as I had a mind that jumped around all over the place and I wasn’t good at sustained concentration.
Luke: I grew up in the decade that invented Atari and home video, so any kid with a pen in his hand instead of a joystick is probably going to be considered talented. But what little talent I did have at that young age was greatly superseded by my love of story telling and dedication for every word I write to be better than my last.
Is there any writer you strive to emulate?
Chris: It’s no secret that I’m a mad Ian Fleming fan, followed in very close succession by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it’s been a pretty tortuous journey for me thus far in terms of my desire to emulate them. That said, success, particularly on their scale, has never been the yard stick for me. I’m drawn to the way in which they created these iconic characters (Bond/Fleming and Watson/Conan Doyle) based loosely upon themselves and their own life experiences. My aspiration has always been to put myself at the core of my principal character, while then drawing on other – much more interesting – characters and characteristics, both real and fictional, to make my protagonist a hybrid of all those things. A copy of Casino Royale, Fleming’s first novel, has permanent residence on my writing desk.
Greg: No, but I would love to write as vividly as Wilbur Smith, with the beautiful prose of F Scott Fitzgerald, and the detail of Leon Uris. In reality, I’ll fall short on all three counts.
Luke: I only strive to be the best writer I can be. If I had tried to write like anybody else it just wouldn’t have worked. A writer is an accumulation of their experiences, childhood, fears, desires and favourite colours. But I do have benchmark writers, whose books live on my desk. When I’m tired, hungover, fed up or just downright lazy, I dip into those books remind me of the calibre or work I’m up against. At the moment on my desk are copies of: Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, L.A. Confidential by James Ellory, and The Hunter by Richard Stark.
Who do you consider your mentor figures?
Chris: This will sound corny, but we had a fantastic history teacher when I was in my final two years of high school and he was this incredibly enthusiastic and engaging person who instilled in me, via his conveyance of us through world history, a desire to, above all else, experience life. He had a way of taking us along for the ride during his classes and, for me at least, my interest in the complexities, excitement, uncertainty and danger of the world was fuelled at that point. That influence couldn’t have come at a better time me. Within a year of leaving school, I’d left home and begun my own journey.
Greg: My agent, Brian Cook. He has been mentor and inspiration, and I probably would not have become a published author without him. He is my first reader and editor, friend, and adviser.
Luke: After high school I didn’t have the academic credentials to study, well, anything. Anything except for writing that is (writing courses generally take students on their writing ability and not how well or dismally they performed in specialist maths). One of my very first lecturers was playwright/screenwriter/novelist Ray Mooney. He instilled in me a discipline that if you are going to write something, finish it, don’t complain about writing and get your work out there by any means necessary. If it wasn’t for Ray Mooney, I wouldn’t be writing today.
Did you learn the craft or are you a natural?
Chris: I’m not a natural at anything! I’m one of those people who has had to work hard for everything which, by the way, isn’t a bad thing. I’ve never been interested in doing any creative writing courses though, so I’ve just had to learn the craft through trial and error. For a writer that means literally millions of taps on the keyboard for work that never ends up appearing anywhere. I probably wrote five or six versions of the manuscript that eventually became my first novel. That process, along with the inherent proof reading, editing, more proof reading and even more editing, is the only creative writing and development training that I’ve done. But it works for me.
Greg: Not only am I not a natural, but I’m a slow learner. I do recall a moment when I realised that great writing requires both clarity and imaginative embellishment in equal measure. That was about seven years after I started writing. My first drafts are clunky and terrible. Reading them over for the first time is depressing.
Luke: I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a natural writer. To me it’s like saying that somebody was born a natural plumber. Storytelling is a craft and a trade. It takes ten years and one million words to build a good writer and when you’re not good, you’re bad. I studied Professional Writing & Editing and Professional Screenwriting at RMIT and I have a Master’s Degree in Screenwriting from the Victorian Collage of the Arts and wrote a copious amount of bad words before I wrote something that was any good. The hardest part of writing is learning how to write like you.
Were you an overnight success?
Chris: No, and I’m still a long way from considering myself ‘successful’.
Greg: Now that makes me laugh. Success, at least in the way I imagine it, is still a long way off.
Luke: Writing is a journey. Along the way you have successes and failures. Sometimes deserved and sometimes not but without both, each one alone doesn’t mean anything. My journey from page one to now has been fraught with late nights, early mornings, hard work, cries & smiles, insecurities & arrogance and a lot of laughter. I’m not convinced that overnight success exists in the business of words. I’d wager that the writer who believes they were, secretly has a couple of unreadable manuscripts hidden away in their bottom drawer.
What was your vision as a writer and how does that compare to now?
Greg: I became a professional writer, in terms of habits and attitude, long before I became published. To me the dream is not about festivals and awards, it’s about writing as a job. My vision therefore, is of me at my desk, attempting to do my best every day, falling short most of the time, but persisting.
Luke: I learnt pretty early on that a writer could be whoever they wanted to be. Either that recluse sitting in a dark room pounding away at the computer or the adventurer running through the hills of Africa. The only true vision I did have of being a writer is that I knew that I needed to live life, get into fights, meet new people and challenge everything.
Chris: I guess I always envisaged being a writer as that time of my life when I would find myself sitting in front of a typewriter (computer, obviously), looking contemplatively out of a window, recalling people, places and life experiences, while wrestling with a thousand different versions of how I might present all of those things on the page in an interesting way. I suppose, to some extent, I’m there. Although, I’m not wearing a dinner jacket or drinking martinis while I’m doing it!
What do you do for inspiration?
Chris: My writing space/study/mancave is filled to the gunnels with books, photos, memorabilia from my time in the military and law enforcement, and a framed ‘From Russia With Love’ movie poster which my wife, Sarah, got me for my birthday a few years ago. For many writers this could all be a bit too loud and too disruptive, but for me it’s just nice to have those things around me as I work. I seem to absorb elements from each of them as I need to. It’s kind of soothing in a way. Of course, whenever I’m feeling jaded or lacking in the resolve to persevere, I also have pictures of Sarah and our two sons right in from of me. That usually reminds me why I’m sitting down there spending hour after hour tapping away at the keyboard.
Greg: Read good books. Love my wife and children. Walk. Fish. Travel. Live.
Luke: I write because I am angry the world isn’t a better place.
How much do you play the marketing game?
Chris: Despite the fact that many writers would prefer it to be otherwise, marketing is an absolutely necessary evil. The great thing about this precise point in time is that the writer gets much more opportunity to actively participate in the marketing process and to engage directly with his or her readers. It’s also heartening to know that you do have the means and ability to reach out well beyond the boundaries of your immediate surrounds and chat to people globally.
Growing your author platform and establishing awareness of your work in as many markets as possible is fundamental to real success. One thing I’ve picked up on so far, is that people who enjoy your work, want to know as much about you as they can because something about your writing has engaged them. Readers are incredibly loyal people and can be very supportive of writers whose work they enjoy. Marketing and reaching out to markets internationally has been a real game changer for me, albeit modestly.
Greg: Marketing yourself as a writer is difficult. Particularly now that there are so many Indie writers also clamouring for attention on Social Media. They have just as much right to market themselves as I do, but we are all trying to reach a shrinking number of dedicated readers. Many internet users have switched themselves off from hype, and your only hope is to engage with them as a human being and hope they like you enough to buy. To be honest, I hate self promotion, and wish it wasn’t necessary.
Luke: Marketing is not a dirty word. There is not much point in writing a novel/film/play/whatever and not tell anyone about it. Marketing plays a massive role in the raising awareness and exposure to pretty much everything. Books are no exception.
Here's how to find Greg and Luke on the giant interweb: