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!
THE WRITERS’ WORKSHOP
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1200 words copyright Harry Bingham/ Anne Whitaker 2011
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8 thoughts on “Guest Slot: The art of writing – and getting published! Interview with Harry Bingham”
Thanks for interviewing Harry Anne! What an insightful, light hearted conversation you must have had – but as always full of deeper information and advice.
Some real gems to take away.
And a point – I believe there is space in the market for both eBooks and real books. There is nothing like holding a book and turning pages, curled up on a couch with a hot chocolate. Just as there is no more convenient way to take a stack of books on a plane or on a long bus ride ( even to work) than an eBook reader. They have their place and if it brings more readers from a wider audience to our work – then BRING IT ON!!
Thanks, Annie, for your thoughtful comments. Yes, it was great interviewing Harry; his idea to do an e-interview, for which I sent him questions and he sent replies. But as yet we have not spoken in person.
I have my first kindle – a Xmas present from hubby – waiting in my in-tray for me to have the time to learn how to use it. In the meantime, I am curling up during my end of afternoon reading hour with a massively satisfying tome, a great read: C.J.Sansom’s latest, “Heartstone.” There will always be ‘real’ books I am sure. But as you say, the e-readers have their place.
Really interesting interview, thanks Anne and Harry. I agree that there is space for ebooks and hard copy. I absolutely adore getting a ‘real’ book in my hands but I love how writers can now take the bull by the horns and publish their own material without having to go through the traditional publishing route. I’ve bought some excellent ebooks online with material that I couldn’t find in print.
Hi Leah, thanks for dropping by – interesting that you, too, can see a place for both real and e books!
I really enjoyed this post, and I went on quite a nostalgia trip in the opening question, remembering my own short flirtations with careers such as a nun (a week tops), teacher, lawyer, etc. My observation is that creative types, including writers, are just wired a bit differently. None of the more conventional careers work in the end. I’m so happy to learn the term for those editing skills we all must develop–crap detection! (Love it.) It’s inspiring to “meet” someone who has managed to support himself writing from the get-go. We hear it often, but this interview truly highlights that a person “is” a writer, even if there are skills that he or she must often hone relentlessly.It’s not just a job but a vocation. (The first thing I want to do when I wake up is to write.) It’s a joy to simply be in the presence of someone who models being a writer in every facet so comfortably. And, Harry, I’ll definitely read those crime novels, one of my favorite genres.
many thanks for this upbeat and affirming post! Some day you must tell me the Nun Story……my most unlikely job was as a sign writer for a small garage. I got sacked after two days – hadn’t mentioned to them that I could not draw. Oh well……worth a try!
Great tips, interview! It could be useful for any writer! I would just add that every author should strive to create new creatures, characters, the classical, öld like vampires, elves, dwarfs, wizards with sharp hats, fairies, etc. are too ordinary already? That’s why I try some new in some of my books (Tale Of The Rock Pieces, The Opposite Of Magic, Kids’Funny Business, etc (weightless korks, glowing, living balls, Brown faces, fiery men, one-eyeds, night fruit, rock pieces, fish-keepers, etc…), do you think I’m right?
Best wishes to all like-minded people! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of the water dragons’hunters – my Tale Of The Rock Pieces).
Thanks for dropping by, Ivan! Glad you liked the interview.