About Marina Oliver
Are writers born or made?
I always wanted to be a writer, and I always wrote something – stories, poetry, articles, newsletters, letters. Most writers can't help themselves! It's a compulsion. Getting published, though, is something really special, and having been so fortunate myself I now try to help aspiring writers by handing on tips which it took me years to work out. I've been published in full-length books for 40 years, with over 70 titles.
I graduated from Keele University in Politics and Economics. I've lived in the Midlands, Hampshire, central London, Buckinghamshire, Shropshire and Northamptonshire with my husband, Chris, and we now have a holiday home in Madeira. We have four grown-up children and seven grandchildren. A high proportion of them have writing ambitions! Our eldest daughter Jackie is an accountant. The next daughter Debbie, who helped me write the How To Book Starting to Write, manages magazine production with Incisive Media Ltd. She also designs the covers for my Ebooks. Cindy, the youngest daughter, worked as a district nurse before she had her three children. Our son Simon is a computer specialist.
To begin with I taught economics, and have written many articles on the subject of education. As my writing career took off I gradually moved to combine my teaching skills with what I had learned as a writer.
For a while I taught short-story writing and journalism for the London School of Journalism.
I talk to all sorts of groups – WI, Probus, Round Table, library readers' and writers' groups. I also run lots of courses, such as at the Writers' Holiday at Caerleon and sometimes at the Romantic Novelists' Association conference.
I have given talks and workshops at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and other major writing conferences, Winchester, Swanwick, and Caerleon, which is by far my favourite along with the RNA. I've helped to run three weekend courses for Arts Council England, and I set up the Romantic Novelists' Association annual conference.
'How To' Books and Articles
As well as writing novels and occasional articles for The New Writer, I've written 'how-to' books, and I now self-publish some of them.
I was an adviser to the 3rd edition of Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers 1994. If you want to find out more about your favourite authors, consult this book or look at www.FantasticFiction.co.uk. I was also asked to contribute an article on writing romantic fiction for the BBC's web page, for Valentine's day. The openings for writers on the Internet, as well as using it for research, are already enormous, and growing incredibly fast.
Judging and Reviewing
I review published novels for the Historical Novel Society.
I have judged short story competitions, been a final judge for the Harry Bowling Prize for a novel set in London.
I read and appraise dozens of scripts each year, and have had many years of experience assisting new writers by providing constructive written critiques of their work, through the Romantic Novelists' Association, the Arts Council, and commercially with an appraisal agency I helped to establish, StorytrackS, which administered several of the Harry Bowling Prizes awarded every two years for a first chapter of a novel with an urban setting and a romantic element.
All this contact with aspiring writers has helped me to study common errors, to see what is required. Both the workshops and the critiques led to my writing four non-fiction books for How To Books' Successful Writing Series.
Publishing in Print
Once I published my own magazine, DEBATE. This provided a platform for serious discussion of the sort of issues, many relating to women, which were rarely tackled those days in newspapers and magazines. I learned a lot from editing articles written by dedicated people who were not primarily writers, but had important messages to convey. It's a truism that one can see mistakes far more easily in someone else's work than in one's own! This is where an informed critique can be invaluable for less experienced writers.
While having no ambitions to become a publisher, I ventured into the realms of self-publishing when I wrote A Century of Achievement, a 290 page history of Queen Mary's High School, Walsall. The publishing and printing is easy, the marketing fiendishly difficult! But here we had a book of very local interest, with a defined market of present pupils and old girls. It would not have been viable for a big publisher, but it worked for me and the Old Girls Club which commissioned it. This book sold out within three months, and has been reprinted as a paperback edition.
I was commissioned to write a book on Castles and Corvedale to accompany a new circular walk in the area.
Epublishing and Print on Demand
To self-publish today you don't need to print a lot of books. The Print on Demand technology means you can print just one copy at a time, although this is obviously more expensive than spreading the cost over hundreds of copies.
Or you can publish directly as an Ebook and sell copies through sites such as Amazon or Smashwords. Both have guides on how to set up your book and submit it. See our Notes on Epublishing for more details of what we have learned.
I've edited educational books and newsletters. I edited novels for Transita, featuring women 'of a certain age', and for Choc Lit where gorgeous heros are the norm.
So perhaps I can help other writers. I've had years of experience tutoring and critiquing, as well as learning from my own mistakes, discovering what works and what doesn't. If you are a writer, I hope you'll find something useful here. If you are a reader, perhaps some of the information about how writers work, how some of my books were born, will interest you.
Contact with other writers
Talking with people who understand your work, your problems, and the publishing industry, is very important. Much of my time is spent with other writers. I belong to several writers' organisations, and was Chairman of the Romantic Novelists' Association 1991-93. I ran the Association's New Writers' Scheme for three years, and helped organise RNA Conferences. For three years I edited the Newsletter published six times a year. To my delight the RNA has elected me as one of their Vice-Presidents.
- When did you start to write?
- From about the age of four or five I wanted to be a writer. I was always making up stories for myself. Initially I wrote articles and short stories, then I ventured with my first novel, which I was lucky enough to have accepted by the first publisher I sent it to.
- What sort of novels do you write?
- All sorts! I could not bear to have to stick with one type. I began with historicals set during the English Civil War and Restoration, moved to Regencies, then romantic suspense, and mysteries. I also wrote twentieth century family sagas, and historicals set at other times. I have even tried what I call a futuristic political satire, Oh Baby! At first I used different pseudonyms for the different types, but now I am publishing all my back list as Ebooks I put them under my real name, apart from some Regencies through Regency Reads under the name of Sally James.
- Why the seventeenth century?
- At my grammar school we had a wonderful history teacher, but for the year when we were supposed to study the Tudors and Stuarts we had a supply teacher who was hopeless. I felt I had learned nothing from her, so later began reading around these periods.
- Do you do a lot of research?
- Yes, and often get sidetracked into reading other things. For instance, for my saga The Golden Road I was reading accounts of the Monte Carlo Rallies in the 1930s, in motoring magazines, and found the letters fascinating as people argued about the recently introduced driving tests, speed limits, and women motorists. I slotted real events into my fictional narrative. I also try to visit the locations where I set my stories, and many European and American holidays have given me backgrounds for the novels. My first saga, The Cobweb cage, was to be set in a small mining town in the English Midlands, where I was born and brought up, and I wanted a town that had not been altered much since the 1920s, so I drove around until I found Hednesford. Then I used the local information found in newspapers and directories as background.
- Do you plot much in advance?
- I start with a few main characters and a situation. I know that, for instance, in a romance the hero and heroine will get together, but I don't know how. I love finding out as the story develops! In the historicals I have to guide my story round the actual events, but often the events themselves can influence the plot. For instance, in Runaway Hill the heroine is staying in Reading when the Roundheads besiege the town, and has to escape.
- How do you write?
- I was an early user of a word processor, but I have always typed direct, as I can't always read my own handwriting! We now spend half the year in England, and winters in the Portuguese island of Madeira, where I concentrate on Regencies. I was also given the idea for Mating the Llama by seeing the llamas at a small zoo in the island. I need to have my own space, with research books to hand, and though I make extensive use of the Internet I am very cautious about using information I find there. I don't have set hours or daily targets. I usually plan to finish a book by a certain date, say three months ahead, but that is all. When in the throes of composition I can write all day. After the first draft I spend quite a lot of time editing and revising, almost as much time as doing the first draft.
- What else do you do?
- I have written non-fiction, including five 'How To' books about writing. I do talks and workshops, have edited novels for two publishers, and been a consultant for a third planning a series.
- Who are your favourite authors?
- There are too many to list all of them! I read voraciously, and some of my favourites are:- historicals, Dorothy Dunnett; mysteries, Charlotte Macleod; classics, Anthony Trollope; and thrillers, Robert Goddard. They never disappoint.
- Why did you publish as Ebooks?
- Novels, unless by top-selling authors, don't stay in bookstores or libraries for very long, and I wanted to have all my back list available, which was never going to happen with print publishers. It's also satisfying to see a novel available within days of finishing it, instead of waiting a year or more with a conventional publisher. And it's great to have royalties flowing in on a monthly instead of yearly basis!