Of the many scary delights of being on the Web, my favourite is never knowing who’s going to turn up! A few weeks ago writer Harry Bingham lightened my January gloom considerably by emailing me with kind words about “Writing from the Twelfth House”. Thus began another positive Web friendship with an accomplished fellow writer. Harry kindly agreed to do a post – this interesting, at times challenging, entertaining and revealing interview is the result.
Harry Bingham has written historical fiction for HarperCollins and a couple of books on history and economics. He’s also just sold a new series of crime novels to Orion, and is the author of a bestselling guide to Getting Published. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop, which offers help and advice to first time writers.
Anne W: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you tell anyone? If so, whom, and when?
Oh gosh, I always knew I wanted to be a writer … at least, ever since I gave up my astronaut / shopkeeper / footballer ambitions. Back when I was ten, a camera crew came to my school to film a short piece about what kids were thinking of as possible careers. Most people said things like ‘policeman’ or ‘nurse’. I said ‘author’.
Anne W: How did you go about becoming a writer? What/who were your major influences?
Um, well, I became an investment banker first. Not really a conventional path that, but forgive me – I was young. Then my wife got ill, I gave up work to look after her, and wrote my first novel while sitting at her bedside. That book was The Money Makers, and is still one of the best things I’ve ever written.
Anne W: Which writers did you love best as a child? Which writers have most deeply influenced you?
I loved Sherlock Holmes and CS Forester and anything to do with Greek myth. And then all the classics: I got stuck into Victorian literature pretty early and chomped my way through it avidly. As for influences: I never really know. I think everything influences you to some extent. Even bad novels, you have to understand why they’re bad, why you don’t like them, what you want to do differently.
Anne W: What do you think of Ernest Hemingways’s dictum that all writers should have a “built-in, shockproof, crap detector”?
It’s essential. Writing’s a funny business. You need a kind of insane optimism to create a novel in the first place. You really do have to love your work and believe it’s great, otherwise you’d never get out of bed. When it comes to the editing, though, you need the opposite mindset: the crap detection one. You just have to go over your material relentlessly looking for the stuff that’s not OK. There’ll be a lot of it about!
Anne W: Where do you get most of your ideas from? Do you carry a notebook around to record them?
No, and I know writers are meant to do this. I’ve never carried a notebook or anything else. I don’t scribble ideas on napkins. I don’t carry pencils on buses. I just take the dogs for a walk and daydream. Sometimes those daydreams turn into books. I’m lucky that way.
Anne W: When should writers seek advice/help from other writers – and when should they just shut up and get on with it?
I think most writers need to do both. In the end, you write a book by just sitting at the damn keyboard and writing. On the other hand, it’s terribly rare that a writer can’t learn masses from detailed, tough, constructive feedback on his or her work. I’m a fairly practised writer after all (8 books published, 4 more commissioned) and I get a huge amount from my editor / agent. So I think you need both things: lonely hours, intensive feedback. It’s how nearly all writers operate.
Anne W: What has your developmental pattern been toward the stage you are at now? Has it been moderately straighforward or have you done lots of bizarre jobs along the way?
I’ve not had any bizarre jobs. I’ve always sold my books for decent money so, unlike many, I’ve more or less been able to support myself from writing. That is rare, however, and I’d urge anyone thinking seriously about writing as a career to give themselves a proper financial fallback plan. Like marrying someone really rich, that sort of thing.
Anne W: Have you gained formal qualifications in the art and craft of writing? Is this latter route any great advantage, do you think, in a writer’s development? Why/why not?
I’ve got an English O-Level, if that counts. But no: I don’t have any real qualification and I’m not truly a fan of university-level creative writing courses. I don’t think they’re nearly market-driven enough. I don’t think their success record is as strong as it ought to be. I don’t think they’re much good at teaching people how to write genre fiction. But I do think that people will have fun on a creative writing MA course. There are other, better alternatives, however. Our range of online creative writing courses, for example, is deliberately designed so that authors with strong market knowledge and excellent publication records teach the business of writing for publication. That’s, in my view, what nearly all students actually want.
Anne W: What inspired you to set up The Writers’ Workshop? Tell us something about it. How long has it been running, and how do you see it developing?
I set up the Writers’ Workshop as a way to earn a little extra money when I was between projects. So I built a website, offered editorial advice … and the manuscripts just started to pour in. We’ve now got a team of about 80 novel and other book editors offering tough, professional advice on novels, children’s fiction and most varieties of non-fiction. We also have a policy that whenever we come across material which is strong enough to be marketed, we’ll do all we can to place it with a literary agent. We obviously can’t help everyone through to publication, but we do have multiple success stories, including a number of people who have won literary prizes or become top 10 bestsellers. We also, as mentioned above, run courses. Oh, and we run the annual Festival of Writing. And various other things. You can get the full background by clicking on: The Writers’ Workshop: Your Path to Literary Agents.
Anne W: Biggest hope?
That my crime novels take off – I’m more excited by these than anything else I’ve ever done.
Anne W: Biggest worry?
That e-readers are going to kill the books trade.
Anne W: Thing you love the most?
Bringing a really beautiful book (or six) home from a bookshop.
Anne W: Thing you hate the most?
When good writers are turned down by cowardly publishers. I HATE that!
Anne W: Single best tip?
Cut your work by 10%. Then do the same again.
Anne W: Thanks, Harry. Great stuff! Come back and talk to us again soon!
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1200 words copyright Harry Bingham/ Anne Whitaker 2011
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