Alan Whelan is a published writer whose travelogue African Brew Ha-Ha saw him motorcycle from Blackburn to Capetown in Africa. His journey took in many different cultures and experiences as he shared a nice brew with those met. In his other guises he works as a copywriter and ghostwriter.
As an aspiring writer I was excited when the Lancashire Writing Hub featured an article by Alan inviting other writers to form a writing group. Alan was kind enough to give me an interview and I was able to ask him about these particular groups, his interest in writing groups and what the future holds for him as a writer.
In February you had an article on Lancashire Writing Hub inviting people to come and join a new writing group in Preston. What sort of response did you get?
Fantastic. About 25 writers answered the call, 18 showed up on the briefing night at the Conti, which turned into about 20 who were keen enough to join. We split into three groups, which will meet on different nights of the week. Evidently there is a great need for these groups in Lancashire. Contrary to popular belief, writers are not a solitary bunch of hermits tied to their PCs or Macs.
What involvement will you have with the various groups once they’re established? What are your hopes for how they will develop?
I only expected to get enough people to create one group, so I don’t think I’ll have much contact with the other two groups. Having said that, it might be useful for all three to get together occasionally as a super-group to compare notes, network, and encourage each other’s writing.
There is only one goal for the groups: to get published. So my hope is that our members land a publishing deal — soon. Sometimes the difference between landing a deal and being rejected is very slim – the writing groups are there to put the final polish on work that is already very strong.
What was your previous experience of writing groups – and how have they helped your development? What do you feel are the main benefits of being part of a writing group?
I started a writing group in 2009, which I called The First Novelist’s Club, aimed at writers who expected to be published but had not yet achieved the breakthrough. We shared work fortnightly and listened to criticism from our peers. Members brought work from different genres: romance, children’s fiction, thriller, comedy and non-fiction. The crossover insights were invaluable. We were discussing my manuscript African Brew Ha-Ha when Summersdale offered me a publishing deal. I can’t say for sure that the group helped my work get published but it certainly boosted my confidence and strengthened my writing ambitions.
Writers can’t be too precious about their prose so a writing group should create an environment that supports a mutual desire to create good work and continually improve. The group should remind you that while you may not be an undiscovered James Joyce your work has value, connects with people, and brings a little more joy to the world.
Remember, other writers have struggled with the same things that daunt you – originality, ‘voice’, authenticity, point of view – and have dealt with them and made their work stronger. The group also encourages you to justify every word, which isn’t a bad way to self-edit.
What kind of group would you advise people to look for? Is it beneficial to join with those writing in a similar genre or style? What works best for you?
A group that meets in a cosy pub is useful! Quite a few people in our new groups expressed the desire to meet with writers from the same genre, which surprised me. I prefer to have a mix of genres because a fresh perspective is almost guaranteed from each contribution, which is how we all learn.
Joining a writing group is good advice for any writer – is there any other advice you would give to someone else starting out?
I agree with Stephen King’s belief that there are two ways to write better: read more and write more.
Have you any suggestions for those who are looking for a writing group now? Or for those who cannot easily get to Preston?
Ask your hard-up, undervalued and long-suffering independent bookseller if they know of any other writers in the area that you could contact. Ask to put up a flier in their window. Do the same at your library. You never know who you’ll meet.
You also wear another hat, as a copywriter and a ghostwriter. How does your approach to these projects differ from writing your own material? Do you have a preference?
Nobody gives up the day job after their first book appears on the shelves at Waterstones – unless you get a movie tie-in or it’s recommended by Richard & Judy. So until that happens, I will continue to offer ghostwriting and business writing through Inkwell. Even though there are certain constraints in ghostwriting, I find that I still use the tools of creative fiction while honing my own skills. I am in the middle of my third ghostwriting commission and I am enjoying it as much as my own work. In fact, it is my own work.
Business writing is a trickier balance between the needs of a client and their industry and my own desire to produce work of high quality. Contrary to what many corporate clients believe, copywriters can produce copy with heart, colour, warmth, conviction and personality. Sometimes they don’t know it yet.
Your travelogue African Brew Ha-Ha was published in April 2010, are there any other projects we can look forward to?
I am a contributing author to The World’s Great Adventure Motorcycle Routes published by Haynes (Feb 2012). It is doing very well, especially in the US. My next book is called The Black Stars of Ghana – A motorcycle adventure in West Africa. It’s another commercial non-fiction travel narrative, which will be published under a new imprint, Inkstand Press, and is due out in late spring.
With your published work how important was promotion, and how did you approach this? Is there anything you would do differently now?
Books don’t sell without promotion. If you’re lucky, your publisher will have a pro-active PR department like Summersdale. My book was reviewed in lots of newspapers, magazines and websites, and I scored some interesting interviews on radio and one TV slot. Non-fiction has an advantage because it creates its own niches – for abhaha they were adventure travel, Africa, motorcycles and tea. I have also given around 60 talks to groups and clubs who are interested in my travels, which spreads the word and sells books. I have done all the online promotion myself.