Sunday, 18 May 2008

Author in the spotlight: Ask Orna Ross!

Orna Ross is a writer. She's no ordinary writer, though. She's the author of Lovers' Hollow (Penguin 2006) and A Dance in Time (Penguin Sept. 2008). She's also a literary agent (Font Literary Agency & Writing Centre) and creative writing coach. As such she is uniquely placed to share her insights into the craft and business of writing and publishing.

Her blog tour began last month and continues here today with an interview and question session. Visitors have all day today to ask her about her books, about writing, about literary agents and publishing. Just post your questions in the comments trail and Orna will answer them by the time Monday comes around!

Orna, welcome to the blog! I've read Lovers' Hollow and it was truly a treat for me. There was so much that I could identify with, so much that I recognized: the Catholic schools, the urge to rebel and assert, the complexities and ambiguities of relationships, the pop culture references. I identified with Jo Devereux from the start, if not experientially then certainly emotionally. And the plot kept me hooked to the very end. Congratulations on an impressive achievement! Tell us about your journey to this point.

I had been working in freelance journalism for 15 years and my 40th birthday was looming. Having always wanted to write a novel, I knew the time had come - I had to make a start. At first I thought I would be able to combine fiction writing with my journalism work, which I loved. I didn’t know then what I know now – that the writing makes deep demands of you. It is such a big thing to want, it can’t just be fitted in on the sidelines. Not the kind of fiction I write anyway. So it soon became evident that I was going to have to stop my journalism and academic writing, not to mention TV watching and other pursuits, if I wanted to make this happen.

Who is your target audience?

Orna: My target audience is women, although I know men read my books too. Women who want to read stories that reflect the complexities of their lives. Mine are not simple boy-meets-girl novels, although of course I write about love as well as murder and mystery and many other things.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I grew up in Ireland where there is great focus on history but where the stories that are told about the past – our 800 years of oppression by the English, for example – never seemed satisfactory to me. Too simplistic. Lovers Hollow grew out of my own family experience. My father’s uncle was shot in the Irish Civil War but nobody in the family ever talked about it. Our village was still divided about this conflict, with families not speaking to each other, when I was growing up, 50 years after it happened. The silence that swirled around the topic drew me to it. Wherever there is silence, there is pain and concealed truth and that draws me, like a magnet.

Orna, I'm hopping over to the comments trail now to continue the questions. See you there!


wordtryst said...

Just a little reminder:

To cater to visitors in different time zones, questions may be posted here in the comments all day Sunday and Orna will answer them on Sunday evening or the next day, as they arise.

So here goes...

Orna, I'm fascinated by your current work-in-progress which is the story of two families, one Irish, the other black, during the troubled time of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. What sparked the idea for this novel?

Mya said...

Hello Wordtryst! I have just popped over from Spiral Skies, where I saw your comment about Orna's visit. I would like to ask Orna:
Do you think the blog to book mini-phenomenom has passed? (Petite Anglaise, Wife in the North, Belle de Jour etc.) I did things the other way around - I wrote a book first, then started a blog. If I want to become a published writer, would you recommend blogging...or would my time be better spent on my fiction writing? Even though I love blogging, and I'm not sure I could actually give it up now!

Mya x

Flowerpot said...

Orna - I've written several novels which havent been published (yet!) though the last one did get as far as an agent asking to see the entire ms before he turned it down so I am improving! I did a journalism course last year which has resulted in my getting a lot more journalism work which I need financially, but obviously this takes time away from novel writing. It's quite difficult to keep the balance, and yet I need to do both. Any tips?

Anonymous said...

Being a writer of paranormal experience (albeit unpublished, as yet!), how common is this kind of fiction becoming? I have started a novel and recently received professional feedback stating the plot needs to be more original. Most of the plot however, is taken from real life experiences and turned into fiction.

Thank you,
Crystal Jigsaw

GoneBackSouth said...

I guess I'm interested in your role as an agent ... do you primarily spot writers and think about where they might fit in ... or do you have publishers as clients and actively go out looking for writers on their behalf? Well done on the book.

NoviceNovelist said...

Hello Orna, I've reached a second draft of my first novel and even though I've put it away for several months I now feel quite terrified of reading it as I worry I won't know how to fix it. It is really duanting to have this 85,000words sitting there waiting for me. I don't want to fall at this hurdle - any tips for moving onto the next step of a final edit before I submit to agents? Thank you for your time!

Anonymous said...

Hello Orna, I have two questions:

(1) Who are your favorite authors or authors who influence your work?

(2) Is it common for authors to publish under pseudonyms? I am wondering if a publisher might even recommend to an author to use a pseudonym for marketing purposes?

Thanks :)

wordtryst said...

Mya, welcome to the blog! I'm sure Orna will be happy to answer your question. I'm wondering about that phenomenon you mentioned as well.

Flowerpot, Jigsaw, Novelnovelist - thanks for joining in! I have a couple more questions of my own for Orna as well.

Gonebacksouth, welcome to the discussion!

akalol, may I have your pseudonym? Can't wait to hear what Orna says about this topic.

wordtryst said...

Orna, I've read that agents in the UK are much more accessible than US agents. For example, writers are encouraged to query by phone, whereas in the US this is major faux pas. Is this true?


Is it possible for a writer to have more than one agent? Not in the same country, maybe, and each marketing a different set of rights or differents kinds of book?

KeVin K. said...

All of my sales to date have been media tie-in write-for hire. Novellas, short fiction, and novels in Star Trek, Doctor Who, and various game universes.
As you probably know, in media tie-in the writer pitches ideas to the publisher or book packager; if the editor likes one of the ideas, she asks for a proposal (3-6k summary); editor and writer kick the proposal back and forth until the editor is happy; then the deadline and price are negotiated; the contract signed; and writing begins.

While I enjoy playing in other people's IPs, I'm trying to move into original fiction. (And as I've said in several forums, writing a novel without a contract -- and 50% advance -- in hand is a bit unnerving.) Agents are almost never interested in media tie-in writers because the work is write-for-hire; the writer retains no rights, so there are no long-term benefits to representation. Advice I've been given by writers who have established careers in both worlds is that writers who've sold only media tie-in are of no interest to agents when they want to go original. The writer -- as far as original is concerned -- is unpublished and inexperienced & therefore a bad risk. (I've also read Orson Scott Card express what he claims is a generally held opinion: that media tie-in writers are less able to produce an original novel of any merit than writers who only write original because embellishing the work of others is the crutch of the less creative.)

What is your take on this?
Do you regard a media tie-in writer as more or less marketable as an original writer?
Would your approach to a partnership with a published media tie-in writer be significantly different to an unpublished original writer?
What advice about agents and marketing would you give a writer with a work-for-hire résumé?

JJ said...

Oooh, I hope I'm just in time here.

Orna, you said 'the writing makes deep demands of you. It is such a big thing to want, it can’t just be fitted in on the sidelines.'

Can you expand a bit on your process - for example if you're writing a very difficult, emotional scene, how do you get yourself to a place where you can write that? And what kind of impact does that have on your personal life?

liz fenwick said...

Orna - how are you handling the agent and writing side of things. Do you find your work as an agent reading other people's scripts affects your writing? For example when I am in the first write phase of a novel I can not read anything in my genre for my fear that someone else's style etc might seep in.......has this sort of thng troubled you?

Orna said...

Hi Everyone,
Thanks for dropping by. I will answer the questions in order, one to a comment box.

So here goes:

Wordtryst: The idea for this novel sparked during an evening course I took in American History while living in the north of England. The story itself was shocking -- of how a black man called Abraham Franklin was hung by an Irish mob, one of numerous atrocities against the black community by the Irish during the riot. After Franklin was cut down, sixteen-year-old Patrick Butler dragged his corpse down the street by the testicles. All to cheers from the onlooking crowd of Irish men, women and children.

As powerful as this story itself was the feelings circulating in the classroom. The teacher and the, largely English, students were all uncomfortable about my presence in the room -- as if the fact that I was born in Ireland in some way associated me with the actions of those people, in that distant place and time.

The two questions: how could hatred reach such a pitch; and why do they think it has anything to do with me got me fictionally fired up!

For "Lovers' Hollow" it was: what is the shame that underlies the silence about the Irish Civil War, a conflict that was fifty years old when I was growing up and that made a mockery of all I had learned about Irish history.

For "A Dance in Time" it was, how could the poet, WB Yeats, have proposed marriage to Iseult Gonne when he had spent twenty years writing about his devotion to her mother?

Some writers are sparked by an image or a phrase -- for me, it is always a question. My novels attempt to do justice to the complexity of all good answers.

Other writers are

Orna said...

Mya: I think the blog to book phenomenon is here to stay but that publishers and agents are now being more careful about leaping on the next big thing. We have seen that just because somebody has a blog following, this does not mean their book will sell. So the same criteria are now being applied to a book by a well connected blogger as to everybody else -- a good thing, I believe.

Blogging remains a fantastic way of getting readers. And of getting regular writing done and of getting "out there".

Sometimes, at a certain stage of a book, you have to pull back and devote yourself only to that. But for the rest of the time I would say, blog away!

Orna said...

Flowerpot: Do your fiction writing first. The journalism will be done because of outer pressure. The fiction writing depends on you and internal pressure only. Doing it first thing in each day ensures that it gets done.

Congratulations on your persistence and willingness to keep improving. This is what marks out the man who hope to be published from the few who eventually are.

Orna said...

Crystal Jigsaw: The paranormal will always be of interest. I suspect what your feedback person meant was "be more dramatic". The thing that makes most first writers' offerings less than publishable is that they don't have enough going on, enough tension, to keep the reader hooked. This is vital in your genre. There should be tension on every single page of a book like this.

The best advice on how to achieve this is to be found in Donald Maas's book: "Writing The BreakThrough Book".

Good luck with it!

Orna said...

Gonebacksouth: like all agents, we do both.

Orna said...

Novicenovelist: Congratulations on having got this far. I would like to recommend two books to you. The first is called "Writing As A Way of Healing" and while the title might not sound approapriate, the author, Louise de Salvo, has written quite brilliantly on the seven stages of the writing process. You need to look at the Deepening, Editing and Completing stages (only three to go...!)

The other is "Self-editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Brown and Dave King.

With these two swords in hand, you can go bravely into the forest of your first draft! Good luck.

Orna said...

akalol: my favourite authors vary, depending on who I am reading and what I am writing -- They are very wide-ranging, from popular authors like Susan Howatch to classics like the Brontes.

Pseudonyms are common for a variety of reasons. For me, it was that my real name "Aine",(pronounced awn-ya), an Irish name, is too difficult for an international audience to pronounce and my publishers recommended something short and simple. I took my daughter's name and my son's and put them together!

Orna said...

Wordtryst: I would say no, not really. It depends on the individual agency. We try to be available to writers, by going to conferences and so on, (doing this sort of event), and in other ways but we don't welcome phone calls. They just derail us from whatever we are doing in that moment and anyway, you want to see a query written down to give it due consideration.

It is very usual for a writer with significant sales to have a network of agents in a number of territories, but this will often by managed by the home agent who is "theirs" setting up co-agenting agreements on their behalf. In some cases, writers have different agents in different territories.

Orna said...

Kevink: I'll take your questions one by one.

"media tie-in writers are less able to produce an original novel of any merit than writers who only write original because embellishing the work of others is the crutch of the less creative.
What is your take on this?"

I don't agree. All writing experience helps. You just have to realise that you are engaged on a very different project that has very different processes.

There is no such thing as less or more creative in my opinion. There are only those who access their creativity more or less. Being creative and imaginative improves with preactice, like anything else.

"Do you regard a media tie-in writer as more or less marketable as an original writer?"

It depends on the individual. No real difference, all else being equal.

"Would your approach to a partnership with a published media tie-in writer be significantly different to an unpublished original writer?"

No. Except that they would have proven that they can write consistently and bring projects to completion.

"What advice about agents and marketing would you give a writer with a work-for-hire résumé?"

The same advice as I would give any author. What agents are looking for is a book with the wow factor, one that speaks to them and they can place with a publisher.

I think some of your difficulty may arise because you would like the advantages of your work-for-hire jobs as you launch yourself into writing your own fiction. You simply don't get those guarantees.

You are drawing to writing your own fiction for very different reasons than your reasons for your other writing (publication, financial etc). It is a deeper and more demanding journey. It will ask a great deal of you.

If you decide to write original fiction, you need to forget all about publication for a long time and concentrate on other questions, deeper questions, with no guarantees at the end. That is what you are resisting, I sense, but that is what you must do if you are to produce a piece of work that makes you truly proud.

But I believe you wouldn't be drawn to it if you werent' meant to do it -- good luck.

Orna said...

Hi JJ: I have my practices that ensure I stay close to "the zone", the place where deep work comes from, and can access it quickly when I need to -- meditation and free-writing are the core of those practices.

My family and friends are well briefed. I am fair to them in that they know what I need in order to produce and they respect that but then I have to take off my writer's hat and be Mom wife or buddy again.

You are right though. It is tricky. I am 48 now and I've been writing fiction for almost ten years. It took some time to get it right but I am happy with the balance now.

Orna said...

Hi Liz, I think writers vary in their susceptibility to the style of others. It is not a problem for me but I know students and other writers who must carefully avoid contamination!

Orna said...

I'd just like to say thanks to Liane for the opportunity to answer your questions and to present "Lovers Hollow" to those of you who might be interested in reading it.

I'll check by over the coming days and answer any other questions if they arise.

Many thanks to you all and happy writing!


Stephen Parrish said...

Don't forget: anniversary tribute to Miss Snark on Pat Wood's Blog starting May 20th.

KAREN said...

I'm sorry I missed this - just started reading Lover's Hollow, coincidentally, but what a great Q&A session! I think everything I wanted to know was covered here, and I'm looking forward to getting stuck into the book :o)

wordtryst said...

Orna, thank you for guesting on the blog and so generously sharing your time, insights and expertise.

Thank you too to all who participated. This has been a wonderful, edifying session.

NoviceNovelist said...

Thanks Orna for the book recommedations - I'm off to Amazon with credit card in hand!

wordtryst said...

Novicenovelist, those books are going straight to my wish list.

KeVin K. said...

Orna -- Thanks for responding. Pretty good info and insights into the philosophy and process.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Orna and your answers were most helpful :)

Flowerpot said...

Orna - many thanks for your time and very valuable information.

ChrisH said...

Thanks for setting this up. We were snowed under with visitors (it's that time of year!)so I didn't manage to ask a question but it's interesting reading the answers.