Friday, 4 July 2014

From Textbook to Racy Romance - making the switch from non-fiction to fiction

Guest post from Dr Carol Cooper

The TV engineer arrived this morning, with piercings in his eyebrow and a new transformer under his arm. It wouldn’t take a minute to install it on the roof of our block of flats, he reckoned, and soon we’d be able to watch our favourite programmes again instead of a blank screen.

That was before he discovered he’d have to leap five feet across the gap between our roof and the block next door...

As soon as your first novel is out, everyone you meet says they want to write one too. They think it’s going to be easy, especially those who are already non-fiction authors.

I’ve got news for them, and for you too if you’re under the same illusion. There’s a five-foot gap, and it’s four floors up.

Yes, you already know how to put sentences together; how to use paragraphs and punctuation (including semi-colons). And anyone used to working with an editor won’t howl when a favourite passage goes under the knife.

But none of these is enough for producing a novel. I had to find out the hard way that penning such riveting pieces as 'Simultaneous turnover of normal and dysfunctional C1 inhibitor as a probe of in vivo activation pf C1,' and 'Contact-activable proteases' is not the best apprenticeship for authoring good fiction.

That’s despite the fact that I’ve always wanted to write novels. My first attempt came as a student when I knew next to nothing, except how to pass exams. I pretended to be clued-up about music, which enabled me to go to some great gigs and pen reviews for student rags, but it did not equip me for writing anything else.

Fast forward a few years and I was doing a lot of journalism, most of it on various aspects of medical practice and/or parenting.

One weekend I attended a novel-writing course. It was flattering to hear Ruth Rendell, the tutor, compliment me on my dialogue and a couple of sex scenes I’d written. Then came her killer question “Carol, could you handle a strong plot?”

That was Rendell’s diplomatic way of asking if I could ever come up with a decent idea for a storyline.

Plot was my five-foot gap, and it lay in the way of success. Hence my false starts in the shape of children’s books about railways in East Anglia, stowaway dogs, and missing teddy bears. Then came the story about a 14-year old girl confined to a wheelchair, followed by the novel about a female surgeon. She spent far too much time horizontal and never made it to the top. Just like the manuscript, still languishing in a drawer.

I produced many non-fiction books. Most were a fusion of my parenting journey and my professional expertise. All of them were commissioned and almost all were a success. Now I believed in myself. I had become a dab hand at writing, or at least at writing things like, “By week 15, your baby is the size of an orange, only much more interesting.”

Last year my co-authored textbook General Practice at a Glance won an award, but between you and me this wasn’t for its plotting or its sizzling sex.

Eventually my novel One Night at the Jacaranda put some of this right. The storyline came to me not at four floors up, but at 60,000 feet, on a flight to the USA and my father’s funeral. Over a much-needed gin and tonic, a few ideas arrived out of nowhere.

The notes on my paper napkin developed into a novel about a motley group of singletons all trying to find someone special.

Alas, this wasn’t the kind of thing my agent usually handled. I made some half-hearted attempts to find another agent for my fiction, and soon realised that an established career as a non-fiction author was no help at all.

Finding a publisher was going to be long and arduous. I opted for the self-published route. Like so many indie authors before me, including my own mother, I value the control self-publishing allows over such matters as content, length, cover, and timing.

With control comes trial and error. The first cover was no more than a template into which I’d shoved a sexy pair of shoes and a lipstick. Now, thanks to Jessica Bell’s design flair, I’ve got a much better cover that says far more about the story.

Does my run of non-fiction help sell my fiction? Only marginally, and that’s probably because One Night at the Jacaranda has a medical strand. My background in medical journalism helped me write press releases, but that’s about it. The reality is that people don’t reach the end of a book on twins and then search for any fiction the author may have written.

Another fact: Dorling Kindersley are unlikely to promote a novel by one of their authors alongside their parenting titles. And the sad truth is that only a few radio stations succumb to the lure of a racy novel penned by a medic who was most recently interviewed on meningitis, though it didn’t stop me trying.

If you’re a non-fiction author hoping to become a novelist, here’s my advice: get down to the ground floor and climb a long ladder.

Carol Cooper is a doctor, journalist, and author.  Her novel One Night at the Jacaranda comes after a string of non-fiction titles on health and parenting.  She works as a family doctor in London and is a journalist for The Sun, the biggest-selling newspaper in the United Kingdom. Carol is now working on another novel.


  1. Thank you to Catriona, Jill and all the other lovely people at Triskele for inviting me round to your blog. I'm looking forward to catching up with some of you in the autumn.

  2. Looking forward to meeting you too, Carol. Thanks for a great blog piece! Cheers, Liza

  3. Thanks, Liza. Look forward to getting to know you and your writing.