A love of writing, not money, is key to success
There's a book in everyone, so they say. Certainly more and more people seem to want to be the next Catherine Cookson. But how do you get into print? Kay Jordan talks to some local authors who have made it and asks their advice for budding writers
WRITING is the only thing Chaz Brenchley's ever wanted to do. "My big sister taught me to read and write when I was three and when I was about five the penny dropped and I realised that these wonderful things called books were written by people and that could be your job," says Chaz, 42, last year's winner of the Northern Writer of the Year award.
His schooldays were spent writing stories and plays and, when he was 18, he decided that if he was going to be a professional writer then this was the time to start.
"I looked around for something I could write, for which I could get paid. My heart craved to write The Great British Novel but I wasn't going to be precious about it, I just wanted to write.
"One of my teenage sister's magazines was lying around. I picked it up and thought 'I could write for this'. I sold my first story for £36 in 1977 and for the next 10 years writing for teenage and women's magazines and children's comics was my bread and butter."
Through the grapevine, he heard that a London publisher was producing a series of romantic thrillers. "They were providing a 5,000-word synopsis, which you had to turn into a 50,000-word novel;" recalls Chaz, who's from Oxford but has lived in Newcastle for the past 20 years. "I thought that sounded like an easy way of getting into books and I wrote asking if they were looking for new writers and they put me on to a literary agent I did some sample chapters, they liked them and I did a book for the series. It was called Time Again and I wrote it under the pseudonym of Carol Trent; because of the romantic element I had to use a woman's name."
Then his agent said it was time he wrote a "proper novel".
"At the time she'd just agented Red Dragon, Thomas Harris' prequel to Silence of the Lambs, in which Hannibal Lecter makes his first appearance. She said 'You can write something like this'. I read it and it was very much the kind of material I was interested in - a character-led psychological thriller.
"I spent months thinking about it. I knew the kind of book I wanted to write and the approach I wanted to take but it wasn't until I saw a poster advertising The Samaritans that I got the inspiration I needed. I thought 'No one has written a novel based around The Samaritans before: this is perfect for me'."
It took him four years to write The Samaritan and he remembers precisely the date and time when his agent rang to say she'd sold it.
"It was Wednesday, February 4 1987 at 4 o'clock. It's probably still the best day of my life, it was a phenomenal moment. For the next 24 hours I drank nothing but champagne with friends who kept dropping by with a bottle."
But the champagne lifestyle hadn't come to stay. To date he's had 18 books published including novels, short stories and a few for children. Because he's a published author a lot of people, he says, think he must be rich but that's not the case.
"The TV personality and author Frank Muir told me 25 years ago 'Only best-sellers sell' and that is even truer now than it was then. A best-seller will sell 100,000 copies in paperback. If I sell 5,000 then I'm doing well."
But is there a book in everyone?
Everybody has had experiences that can be made into an interesting book but not everyone is capable of writing it, says Chaz.
"Writing is a craft, the same way that carpentry is a craft. It can also be an art. Sometimes it's both. There are skills you can learn and the more you write, the better you'll get but you have to be obsessive. If you're not obsessive then you're not going to make it."
You've got to have an agent, adds Chaz, and you'll be expected to send a synopsis and three sample chapters of your book. But getting an agent is not a passport to fame, he warns. "My current agent gets 2,000 to 3,000 submissions a year and, of those, he'll take on five or six, two or three of which will actually be bought."
Chaz, himself, is still aiming for The Great British Novel.
"My most recent crime novel, back in 1999, was called Shelter and I think it's the best thing I've ever written but if I was ever fully satisfied, that would be the time to give up."
His final words of advice to anyone wishing to be a writer are these: "Write as much as you can and read as much as you can."
This interview was the main section of a feature article in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle for January 23rd 2001, in which Kay Jordan asked a number of successful local authors what advice they would give people with ambitions to write.