Novel advice from two of the MJA’s finest

By November 2, 2016Books, Public

Fever pitch: Dr Carol Cooper

Most journalists dream of writing a novel. Two successful medical writers told the MJA at the Medical Society of London how they had made it happen – with a wealth of advice ranging from the difference between writing fiction and journalism to how to navigate yourself around the maze of self-publishing.

GP Dr Carol Cooper, The Sun doctor, turned to fiction after a string of childcare books and an award-winning medical textbook. One Night at the Jacaranda and Hampstead Fever (2016) are all about “Londoners looking for love and are laced with real medical knowledge”.


Who’d have thought: Christine Webber

Former Anglia TV presenter and psychotherapist Christine Webber’s debut novel Who’d have thought it? (2016) followed her title, Too young to get old: the baby boomer’s guide to living life to the full. The novel is about a middle aged GP whose husband walks out – leaving her to live life to the full in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Former MJA chair John Illman quizzed both writers before inviting questions and comments from the floor. Both agreed that journalists have a head-start in writing fiction. (Many journalists have become hugely successful novelists – for example, Gerald Seymour, Robert Harris, Paula Hawkins and Hilary Boyd.)

But Carol warned that reliance on facts, the mainstay of journalism, can turn off the novel reader, while Christine highlighted the challenge of chronology in fiction. She said: “You do need to develop skills in deciding whether you’re writing a straightforward narrative or going to flip backwards or forwards between different times, places or characters.”

John commented that unlike many self-published titles, their novels had been produced to a high professional standard. They attributed this to hiring the right kind of specialist help – such as a professional editor, proof reader, jacket designer, formatter and a sympathetic, supportive printer.

What about the costs? Christine’s included:

  • Ebook partnership: £35
  • Printing and storing 1,000 copies: £2,162.92.
  • Editing and proof reading: £480
  • Cover design: £359
  • ISBN registration with Nielsen’s: £149 for ten ISBN numbers, the smallest number available
  • Nielsen’s enhanced service: £210.
  • Typesetting and formatting: £482.40.

Total: £3878.32.

(Carol paid less. Christine knows one respected “indie author” who never spends more than £1,500 on a book. But be wary about cutting corners.)

Other top tips:

  • Make your characters likeable. How many times have you stopped reading a novel because you couldn’t care less about the people in it?
  • Read a lot of fiction. Note how seasoned authors use description, move the plot on, get their characters from one place to another, demonstrate their emotions without actually spelling out what they are and so on.
  • Read your stuff out loud and get someone you trust to read it as you write.
  • Write a great blurb.
  • Join the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). You’ll benefit from the support and experience of other indie authors, and it’ll help you avoid spending a lot of money on services you don’t need. The Society of Authors is also recommended.
  • POD (printing on demand) is expensive. Publishing an E book only to start with is acceptable and will help to assess the market.
  • Don’t check your Amazon ratings more than twice a week if you want to remain sane.

Guests included Rebecca Souster and Georgina Alridge from Clays Ltd., the printers.* They warned that inexperienced authors tend to over-estimate potential sales, seeking print runs of up to 10,000 copies. A print run of a 1,000 or even significantly less is usually more realistic – far better a second print run than a store of remaindered copies.

* Clays’ free guide to self publishing:

One final piece of advice. A website is a must for authors.

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