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Interview With Lorna Fergusson — Storyteller Helps Other Indie Authors Chase Away Self-Doubt: Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast

Interview with Lorna Fergusson — Storyteller Helps Other Indie Authors Chase Away Self-Doubt: Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast

My guest this week is Scottish author Lorna Fergusson, who has tried publishing the traditional way, but found that she enjoyed the control she had over her own work that comes with being an indie author. Lorna has also devoted her career to coaching other indie authors on how they can chase away self-doubt and join the indie publishing revolution. 

Every week I interview a member of ALLi to talk about their writing and what inspires them, and why they are inspiring to other authors.

A couple of highlights from our interview

On When to Write about COVID-19

Famously, you know, Wordsworth said that poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. I think a lot of this will have to bed down and compost inside us and come out in different ways down the line. And some of us may never give expression to what we’ve experienced during this crisis and others will do it very fast and others will mull over it for quite a while, and then it will come out either as an account of what happened or in some other way.

On How Much to Plan Before You Write

I think it’s really crucial to trust the process. There’s that famous image from E.L. Doctorow, where he said that writing a novel it’s like driving at night with your headlights on. You know the destination you want to get to, but it’s all dark ahead of the beam of the headlights. You can’t see beyond those. But all same, as you drive the headlights light up a sequence of sections of road and you get to your destination.

Listen to My Interview With Lorna Fergusson

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About the Host

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.comLinkedIn and Twitter.

Read the Transcript of my Interview with Lorna Fergusson

Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy, and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors.

Every week, I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them and how they are an inspiration to other authors.

My guest this week is Scottish author Lorna Fergusson, who has tried publishing the traditional way, but found that she enjoyed the control she had over her own work that comes with being an indie author.

Lorna has also devoted her career to coaching other indie authors on how they can chase away self-doubt and join the indie publishing revolution.

Lorna Fergusson: Hi, my name’s Lorna Fergusson and I’m a writer and a literary consultant. I taught English for many years before moving into teaching creative writing, specifically. I’m also a published author, both traditionally and as a self-publishing author. I was born and brought up in Scotland, starting on the Northeast coast, North of Aberdeen, which is a very gorgeous location to have had a childhood in.

And I always knew, as far back as I can remember, that I wanted to be a writer, and I was the classic sickly child with, you know, really severe asthma and mobility issues and so on. So, for me, books were an escape into other worlds, and they were also a stimulus for wanting to use words myself in the same way to transport people into different stories and different worlds.

Howard Lovy: Lorna’s region of her native Scotland comes with its own particular literary tradition.

Lorna Fergusson: There is a strong literary tradition in Scotland, but it’s interesting that our most famous poet, for instance, is Robert Burns and he hailed from Ayrshire, which is in the Southwest of Scotland. And the thing about my part of Scotland is that it has a very specific dialect called the Doric, and you grew up speaking in that dialect to such a degree that English was like your second language.

And that means that a lot of us who come from that area, we don’t actually write in the thing that’s native to us, in the language that’s needed to us, which is a shame because it’s incredibly vigorous and lively and wonderful and a great resource to draw on. In terms of other writers, of course, you know, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, and people like that, a very strong literary heritage that I’m part of, but when I studied English at school and when I did my degree, most of the writers I was studying were actually English.

Howard Lovy: Lorna moved from Scotland to England for college, where she attended Oxford and fell in love with both writing and teaching.

Lorna Fergusson: When I came to Oxford, it was because I wanted to pursue an academic life at that point. And I absolutely fell in love with Oxford when I came here because of the extraordinary beauty of the place and the heritage, and that sense that again, I was part of a very long tradition of writers and dreamers who had lived among the dreaming spires. But Oxford is a strange place because it is very gorgeous, but it is also quite smug, quite traditional. The college I went to, when I arrived, it was the first year they’d taken women for instance, and I didn’t actually know that when I applied. So, that was a bit of a culture shock to me.

And I moved into teaching from there, but always had the dream, all the time, that the main core of my ambition was to be a writer. That was the thing that gave me meaning as a person.

Howard Lovy: It was fiction that was Lorna’s real calling, the idea of being taken to faraway places, even other worlds.

Lorna Fergusson: When I was a teenager, I was hugely enthusiastic about science fiction, for instance, because again of that idea of being transported.

And the interesting thing for me as a writer since is that, when I look at what I’ve written, one of the core aspects of it is always location. It’s always about capturing that sense of what it’s like to be in a place and evoking its atmosphere.

Yes, it absolutely does become a character and it is something that for many writers has become easier in that we don’t actually have to go to places anymore. We can use Google maps and satellite and so on, but there is no replacement really in my view for actually going to a place and hopefully being there long enough to absorb it. So that when you talk about that, it comes out naturally.

For me, I’ve written about Scotland. I’ve written about France because my husband and I had a half share in a holiday home there for several years, and I got to know the area, we were in the Dordogne, so well that it just felt utterly natural to write about it.

And I’ve written about Cornwall. We go to the far West of Cornwall, to the very end of England as often as we can. And I just find that it’s a two way street because, the more you go there, the more stories are triggered for you when you’re there, and then you’re able to go into such real detail that anybody who reads it feels as if they’ve been there too.

Howard Lovy: So, Lorna was teaching literature and writing at the same time, but she discovered that she was happiest when she was teaching creative writing. In 2012, Lorna decided to give up teaching literature and focus entirely on being a writing consultant. So, she has the best of both worlds, both writing and teaching writing.

Lorna Fergusson: When I write, apart from location, I’m often triggered by history or things that have happened in real life and, I think, one of the signs of being a writer, and you probably recognize this too, is that whenever you are reading anything, whether it’s in a nonfiction book, an autobiography, a history book, whatever, you don’t just read it, you have this thing in your brain that says, oh, that would make a good story.

So, often that that’s what it is. If you read widely, you’re opening yourself to triggers, to stories and this weird magic takes place where you know what happened in reality blends with what interests you semantically or what has happened to you in your own life, because we all have things in our lives that obsess us and that we want to give expression to and they all, kind of, mix like that.

Howard Lovy: But for Lorna, not everything that’s in the news right now is ready to be fictionalized.

Lorna Fergusson: I’m interested to see around me, my friends and people I know, some of them are writing COVID diaries. They’re writing journals where they’re capturing the experience as it happens and others aren’t, and I’m not because, I don’t know, I just feel I’ve got enough of it in my daily life without trying to analyze it right now.

Famously, you know, Wordsworth said that poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. I think a lot of this will have to bed down and compost inside us and come out in different ways down the line. And some of us may never give expression to what we’ve experienced during this crisis and others will do it very fast and others will mull over it for quite a while, and then it will come out either as an account of what happened or in some other way. You know, after 911, after great crises in the past, it’s been interesting to see how some works of fiction came out fast and others took some time.

Howard Lovy: Lorna has set up a business called Fictionfire and she teaches writing for different organizations, sets up conferences and writers’ retreats.

Lorna Fergusson: And what I do is I help writers explore just what they can do craft wise, as well as help them explore their attitude to writing or, you know, what writing means to them. Because there seems to me to be two great strands to this, and one is to encourage writers to believe in themselves, and the other is to say, as with any other skill in life, you have to practice and you have to explore the different ways of doing things.

So, I do topic-based workshops, things like, how to write great dialogue or how to write an opening to a story or how to plot the structure of your story, that sort of thing.

I’ve sometimes taken thematic topics using things in literature. At the start of 2014, I did a couple of workshops on war and how people can use that in their writing, and that tied in with the centenary of the first world war, and that was very interesting.

So, it’s quite a wide variety. I also do lots and lots and lots of editing work. I would say that’s actually the thing I do most of these days. And, you know, that’s absolutely brilliant, but the more I teach and help other writers, the less I actually get done of my own writing.

Howard Lovy: It’s this push and pull between career and writing, making money or doing what you’re passionate about, that Lorna addresses in her own life and is trying to quantify in other writers. She’s taking a survey on how writers view their own work.

Lorna Fergusson: We all dream of winning the lottery or something to do the day job anyway, and then we’ll be able to write all these different things. The irony being, we don’t know if we had all the time in the world, whether we would be any more productive creatively than we are now. That sometimes, the pressure of balancing creativity with your working life helps to kind of channel things more forcefully than if you just drifted idly through seven days, a week, with nothing much going on.

And we also need the input from real life to connect with our imaginative life. So, I am fascinated by all this. I’m actually currently writing a book on mindset for writers because I am really, really interested in how we all view our work and what challenges we all meet, because there’s so much common ground. And I’ve been running a survey, we’ve had over a hundred responses to the survey to various basic questions I ask people about how they felt about writing.

And some of the answers were absolutely as you would predict, people sort of beating themselves up for perfectionism and procrastination, that side of things. But there were some answers that were unusual, or they gave more stress to things than I had expected. In the book I’m trying to address what people said. I mean, several people talked about feeling that they’d left it too late to be a writer. Given that our society is fairly ageist in many ways, writing is something we continually put off to the someday when we will have the free time to do it. And so, I want to reassure writers that it isn’t ever too late.

People apologizing about wanting to be a writer, feeling guilty about it in some way, as if it was something really selfish to be doing. Or not feeling that they were a proper writer, and that ties in, of course, with ALLi as an advocate for self-publishing and that. I’ve been traditionally published and now self-published, and I think we should have the option to pursue both.

So, when I’m teaching, I will often have people say to me, because one of the things I talk about is editing and getting your manuscript ready for publishing, and I’ll have  people saying, oh, well, self-publishing is all very interesting, but I’m going to wait to be properly published. And please, no, I think we still have a lot of ground to cover in educating people, generally that self-publishing is proper publishing if you do it to properly.

Howard Lovy: Lorna has been traditionally published and self-published. She leaves no doubt as to which way she prefers.

Lorna Fergusson: When I was published, I was published by Bloomsbury, and they were wonderful. I mean, they were really a good publisher, but all the same, you don’t have control.

And I had a great agent and then he retired and, I don’t know, I just started to get disillusioned with the whole thing and, of course, after a while your book has gone down the league table because it’s had its little window in the sun. And along came Kindle publishing, and along came the idea that there, there isn’t a time limit on your work being out there.

I got the rights back and published my novel as an eBook, first of all, just to see how it would work out and then brought it out as a paperback and discovered, I just really loved that. I loved that I was in charge of commissioning the cover and writing the blurb and making it look as nice as possible.

And I edited it a little bit again myself and put it out there, and it stays out there as long as I want it to stay out there, at the price I set. And with Royalty reports that I understand, that don’t turn up six months after the event. I just love the controls. So, you know, I’m not closed to the idea of ever traditionally publishing again, but I think it would have to be something really, really tempting to get me away from that sense of control.

And a few years back, I won the Historical Novel Society’s, short story prize, and temporarily gave the rights to my story to a traditional publisher and ended up, you know, just very frustrated by the way it was marketed and the way it looked. And I now have the rights back, and it’s in my own eBook called an Oxford Vengeance, which is just a little group of stories out there on Amazon. It’s that flexibility, it’s the speed of it, it’s the control of it that I just genuinely love. Yeah.

Howard Lovy: Lorna has been coaching writers for so long there are a few standard questions that most of them have. Here, she tries to answer them.

Lorna Fergusson: There are several standard questions that I think you’ll probably be familiar with yourself.

One is, where can I get ideas from? One is, where can I get an agent and how can I get published?

A major concern that I think I keep addressing is, how do you structure a book? Because often, people will come to the idea of writing a novel from having written short pieces and they feel really daunted at the prospect of putting something together that’s much, much longer, and they may get partway and then they’ve lost their way.

And they’re looking for a kind of recipe, the perfect plot structure that fits all sizes. I spend a lot of time talking about this and the different ways that you can choose to plan a novel and the degree to which you plan a novel, because planning in great detail for some people feels incredibly safe.

If you overplan, the risk is that the writer becomes bored with the book before they’ve written it, because they’ve thought through all the possibilities and written it down in a lovely chart, whatever, or graph, and then they don’t feel like actually writing it; it feels written.

Well, I think, for most of us, that happy phase somewhere between planning and flying by the seat of your pants is what works.

I think it’s really crucial to trust the process. There’s that famous image from E.L. Doctorow, where he said that writing a novel it’s like driving at night with your headlights on. You know the destination you want to get to, but it’s all dark ahead of the beam of the headlights. You can’t see beyond those. But all same, as you drive the headlights light up a sequence of sections of road and you get to your destination.

And I think writing like that, you can plan out your main high points and possibly your destination, but you may not actually know what that destination is. But as you drive, and as you write, things come to you. I know whenever I sit down for a writing session, new connections, new ideas evolve as I’m writing. I didn’t pre-think them. So, I think having faith in that process is absolutely central.

Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is an editor and writer with more than 30 years of experience in journalism, from newspapers to magazines specializing in business, science, and technology. He has spent the past few years guiding coverage of independent publishing, amplifying voices of the marginalized. Howard is also a book doctor who enjoys working with authors to get their work ready for publication.

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