Winslow Eliot: Creative Beginnings Spark A Lifetime of Writing

Winslow EliotWinslow Eliot wrote her first story at the age of seven while on a freighter traveling around the world.

She published her first novel in 1983. Since then she has published nine additional novels that have  been sold in over twenty countries and translated into eleven languages.

Her latest book, Sahti and the Rider, is the first in a mystery series that features a fortune-telling sleuth.

Along with being a prolific author, she’s a writing coach, mentor, and editor for other authors. She also teaches high school English and creative writing to teenagers.

Books by Winslow Eliot

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Winslow Eliot Interview

Scroll down for a complete transcript of the interview or click the Play button below to listen to the interview now. And don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know what you thought of this interview!

Winslow Eliot Transcript

Tim Knox: Winslow Eliot is my guest today. Winslow published her first novel all the way back in 1983. Since then she’s had nine more novels published. She does fiction, non-fiction. Some of her work has been translated into 11 languages and her latest book is the first in a mystery series that features a fortune telling sleuth.

This is a great interview for anyone wanting information on how to successfully self publish. Winslow not only is a successful author. She also does coaching, mentoring, she’s also an editor who works with a lot of authors and we talk about that quite a bit in this interview.

We talk about not only her process, but some of the people that she has worked with, how they have become successful, and her advice to you if you want to replicate her process.

So let’s get started. Here’s my interview with Winslow Eliot: novelist, coach, mentor, editor, and belly dancer on today’s Interviewing Authors.

Tim Knox: Winslow, welcome to the program.

Winslow Eliot: I’m very glad to be here, Tim.

Tim Knox: Such a pleasure having you on. I’m a fan of yours. I’ve been doing a lot of research on you and I think you have a lot to say to our audience. Before we do that though, can you give us a little background?

Winslow Eliot: Well I think primarily my background is as a writer. I’ve always written. I actually wrote my first book when I was seven. We were on a freighter trip and we were traveling around the world and my mom bought me a great big book and I journal-ed in it. It was sort of how I learned how to write. I didn’t know how to write before then.

Then I published my first book in 1983. I was determined to be a published author no matter what the statistics said about that. I actually had a nice living for a while there as a romance writer. Yeah so I’ve been writing all my life pretty much – in and out, up and down and all the diversity of that journey.

Tim Knox: That’s one of the reasons I did want to interview you. You’ve had a really long, interesting journey. Now let’s back up. You started writing when you were seven when you were on a freighter?

Winslow Eliot: Yes. My parents wanted my brother and me to learn geography the right way – that’s what they called it, the right way, which was to actually visit the different countries.

Tim Knox: You’re from England?

Winslow Eliot: No I wasn’t actually from England. I was born in New York City but we moved… my parents were both writers and they were interested in mythology and history and art. We moved to Greece. We lived in Greece. I was there for about five years and so I wasn’t going to school. We were homeschooled and then we went from Greece to Japan on this freighter and then we moved to Italy for a few years and then we moved to England when I was 11.

Tim Knox: So when you were on the freighter your mom brought a pad for you to entertain yourself and that’s when you started writing.

Winslow Eliot: Yeah it was more than a pad. It was a great big book but yes. My first sentence that I ever wrote was “I am seven years old. Next week I am going to Japan.”

Tim Knox: What a great book. Are you ever going to come back and write that as a children’s book maybe?

Winslow Eliot: I could, yeah. I should look at that again.

Tim Knox: Great first line. So really you’ve always had a penchant for writing and that was the first thing you wrote. Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you thought might be good enough to actually sell?

Winslow Eliot: Oh you know what, I should go back even further. I just remembered something. Even before that book I actually got notebooks and would just fill them with scribbles. I still have some of those. I have no idea what I was doing. They’re like ancient Hieroglyphics or something but I did fill up notebooks and I remember thinking – because I loved children’s books, again even before I could read. I would just read and read them and look at them. I remember looking at my books and just thinking that they could be published.

Tim Knox: So you filled notebooks full of scribbles and pretended they were words.

Winslow Eliot: They were real books, yeah.

Tim Knox: I’m sure having such creative parents had a big influence on you, did it not?

Winslow Eliot: Probably yes, and they were both writers. I always sort of took it for granted. They were very professional. My dad was actually the art editor at Time Magazine for about 15 years. He had a very professional approach to writing. It was business. He really did the supporting of the family by doing freelance articles once he quite Time. He supported us as a freelance writer so it had to be very professional and businesslike. I’m very disciplined. I see it as a profession, as a job. I don’t play around when I’m writing. It’s all day every day.

Tim Knox: As you aged from that young girl who was on that freighter, did you continue to write? Did your stories get more involved?

Winslow Eliot: Yes, yes, yes. I was always writing, always writing stories. When I was in college I started submitting manuscripts. I’d written a mystery. Nothing was sold but I certainly tried to get them sold. I moved to New York City and went on trying to submit this mystery that I loved. I thought it was the best thing ever written. I got so many rejection letters that I plastered my bathroom with them and I felt like a real writer because I had so many rejection letters and they were all so positive. They weren’t devastating. It was the usual rejection letters that people send out.

Then at a party I met a woman who wanted to see it, an editor at Signet, which is the paperback branch of the New American Library. She loved my mystery but she had just been put in charge of a new romance line. She said, “Why don’t you write a romance for me? You could do that.” I never looked back at least for a decade or so.

Tim Knox: You make a comment there about the rejection letters. I’ve interviewed I can’t tell you how many authors for this program now and I kind of find that they’re split. Some authors were devastated by rejection but some authors thought that it was validation. They were a writer because they were actually getting rejected by agents and publishers. It sounds like you took it as motivation to keep on.

Winslow Eliot: I did. I didn’t take it personally. I was sort of careful about putting letters. One would say, “The plot was wonderful but the characters were weak,” and then the next one right next to it would be, “the characters were great but the plot didn’t hold me”. I would stare at these two letters and think, wow, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Tim Knox: Did you ever wonder if they were reading the same thing?

Winslow Eliot: I know, I know. I actually worked in publishing too. I was doing a lot of temporary work and then I got a few jobs in between things. I know how they looked at these manuscripts, especially if they didn’t come from an agent. I didn’t have an agent in the early part of my time in New York. I used to read them myself and I certainly didn’t pay a lot of attention to them. You glance at them and send them back.

Tim Knox: I think now it’s worse. You just hit a form on the internet and it sends it back to you. Do you remember – I’m sure you do – what was the title of that thriller you tried to sell?

Winslow Eliot: It was kind of a funny title. It was called I’m Not Ethel/Bittersweet and it was set in Rome. The whole thing kind of haunts me now because it reminds me so much of that Amanda Knox story. I had gone to Perugia when I was in college and her whole experience was so familiar in a very unsettling kind of way, not that I got into any kind of trouble or any of my friends did, but just the setting was a perfect setting for a murder mystery and I did enjoy writing it a lot. I had a lot of picturesque description of being in Italy.

Tim Knox: Did you ever revisit that book? Was it ever published?

Winslow Eliot: I never did, no. It was probably one of those books I had to write and then I let it go. I probably used parts in different novels that I wrote but no.

Tim Knox: What attracted you to the thriller genre?

Winslow Eliot: I don’t really like thrillers in the sense of the gore and the gruesomeness and the violence but I love plot twists. I love a good story and my experience has been that thrillers tend to have the best plots, really great stories. Like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one that is very old-fashioned now and it’s not really considered a thriller, it’s a romantic suspense, but it has this… when Hitchcock made his movie – I don’t know if you ever saw that, Alfred Hitchcock’s version of it. It was just so gripping, such a great… it wasn’t that you were on the edge of your seat scared. It was that you were just hooked. And that’s what I love.

Tim Knox: It’s a very intellectual thriller as opposed to a very graphic, violent thriller.

Winslow Eliot: Exactly. You’re hooked by the story.

Tim Knox: So you met a lady at a party who was working at a publisher, was not interested in the thriller because she was starting a romance branch and that led you into romance. What was that transition like going from suspense to romance?

Winslow Eliot: Well actually I was an avid romance reader. I loved romances. I really enjoyed writing them too. It wasn’t hard at all. I’ve always loved romance novels and I think when I was a teenager I was sort of addicted, as well as adventure and mysteries. I was definitely a glut and I think there are so many romances written that the genre is underrated, but I read a lot of really good romance books and there are some wonderful romance authors who aren’t given credit because of the genre that they’re writing in.

Tim Knox: One thing that I find interesting now is really it doesn’t matter what genre you write in – there’s romance everywhere. It’s pretty much become part of a basic plot twist, hasn’t it?

Winslow Eliot: Well I do think that for most readers if you don’t have some sort of relationship interest, it’s not interesting. It doesn’t have to be consummated, erotic romance but there has to be some sort of engagement and tension. That’s part of what makes the characters interesting and has to follow the story.

Tim Knox: How many romances did you write for this publisher? Did at any point you get an agent?

Winslow Eliot: Oh yeah, I had an agent by then. Actually I had an agent before I had met this woman. I’ve had a lot of agents actually. I rarely met an author who’s been happy with their agent. It’s so funny. Now that I’m an independent publisher, I publish myself, and I’m just so glad to be out of it. I still hear stories from writers. The relationships they have with agents and with editors and I know it’s not the agent’s fault and it’s not the publisher’s fault or the editor’s fault; it’s just the nature of the business. Unless you’re in that business yourself as an author it’s impossible to understand and to be sympathetic to the vagaries of the publishing industry. I’m so glad now that I’m an independent publisher because I have much more sympathy with all the expectations I had of these people in the past.

Tim Knox: One of the things that I noticed, and it actually made me chuckle a little bit, is when I was looking at your blog. There’s a quote there, “My agent became hugely unsuccessful at selling my work.” I just love that. I really do. What do you think changed? Was it the industry? Was it your work? Was it the agent?

Winslow Eliot: It wasn’t my work. I was never trying to be anything but commercial really. My books were readable. They weren’t necessarily genre genre. I know The Bright Face of Danger, St. Martin’s Press wasn’t sure how to market that. She ended up marketing it as fiction rather than a thriller or romantic suspense. It’s hard for them to decide but any of those genres it was definitely commercial fiction. I wasn’t trying to be avant-garde or out of the mainstream at all. I do think the industry shifted a lot and it probably crept up on us and it probably crept up on this agent, my last agent that I had.

She was still sending things out but at this point I think there’s now five major publishers in New York City. They’ve been buying each other out and nibbled up. The last book that she tried to sell I think was 2009 and she said there were 13 publishers at that point. I got 13 rejections and they were all incredibly positive. It was mostly we have something too similar to this or things like that. So it was really discouraging. I’m all for someone saying that ending just doesn’t work. Okay, I’m happy to rewrite the ending. I’m a little bit of a slut that way. I was eager to do what was required. I mean I’m exaggerating. There wasn’t anything like that. People loved my books. These editors loved these books and my agent did too. The 13th rejection I decided I’m going to go this alone. I’m going to make this my own business and I got excited about it.

Tim Knox: How difficult was that decision? You had been in the traditional publishing world for quite a while. How many books had you done traditionally?

Winslow Eliot: Well it’s various ones because there were some non-fiction as well. I contributed to some but around seven.

Tim Knox: So you had done seven books with an agent and a publisher and now you were deciding to go it alone. How hard was that decision? How much agonizing did you do?

Winslow Eliot: Yeah it was pretty agonizing. I remember the fall very vividly. I was doing a lot of editing work for other authors and I met… I don’t know if you know John Locke. He’s a thriller writer and a hugely successful self-published author. He was just getting started at that point in 2009. He’s a fascinating man because he’s basically a businessman and he was just writing for fun. He was writing these thrillers for pleasure just as a side thing.

He sent me one to edit. I guess we met on Twitter actually. We sort of struck up a friendship and I loved this book. It was so well done, The Donovan Creed Series, and I was really impressed. I thought there was no question he could be a Robert Patterson or whatever. I’ll never forget him saying, “Why would I ever want to give any of my creative work to a publisher? I just want to do this myself and market it myself and be in control of my intellectual property.” It completely changed my view. I saw this idea of writing as not just being this creative, artistic, wonderful, fun thing but actually a business that you could invest in yourself rather than wishing and hoping that it would come along by accident.

Tim Knox: That’s one thing that I hear over and over. It is kind of a control factor because really if you’re out there doing the writing, the editing, the publishing, the marketing – you are in business and you have control over everything you do.

Winslow Eliot: Yup and John Locke went on to be one of the first people to sell over a million eBooks. In fact he wrote a book, How I Sold a Million eBooks in Five Months. He had a whole business plan and he worked it out and keeps writing his thrillers. It’s just amazing to me. He’s a great role model I think for self-published authors.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about your more recent work. You’ve written nine novels now?

Winslow Eliot: Yeah.

Tim Knox: The latest is called…?

Winslow Eliot: The latest is… I just started a mystery series, which I haven’t done before. They’re shorter. The one that I just wrote was Sati and the Rider. Her real name is Satyana and she’s a fortune teller. One of my other great loves in life is divination and tarot and I do a lot of intuitive consultations for people, mentoring and coaching. When I mentor writers I tend to go into that world a lot. I thought it’d be fun to have a sleuth who was also a fortune teller, although she doesn’t use the cards to solve a mystery. She feels like she’s lost her intuitive powers so it’s a little bit of a challenge for her.

They’re very light and fun and a good read. I’m very excited. They’re based on an oracle deck called the Lenormand deck, which is not like a tarot deck. It’s used in a slightly different way but it’s called an oracle deck. I’m going to go through all 36 cards.

Tim Knox: Do 36 books?

Winslow Eliot: Yeah. The one I’m working on now is Sati and The Clover. That’s the second card. The third card is The Ship so it’ll be Sati and The Ship. The fourth card is Sati and The House. I’ll be going all the way through. The people who know the deck will know. They’ll be anticipating the next one, which I thought was cool.

Tim Knox: So we know what you’re going to be working on for the next… long time.

Winslow Eliot: Well I’m thinking I can get four out a year so that will be nine years. Maybe they’ll go faster but I’m certainly committed to nine years.

Tim Knox: After all these years you’ve come back around to mystery and suspense and you’re doing it in a series. Is there anything in particular that attracts you to doing a series?

Winslow Eliot: Well I do love them myself. Again from childhood, one of my favorite authors was Enid Blyton, who very few Americans have heard of, but she was an English author who actually was sued at one point back in the ‘70s by somebody who claimed she couldn’t have written so many books. She wrote these adventure stories and they were always so similar and yet different stories. I remember I just loved them. I devoured them. I devoured all her books.

I love them and I love Nero Wolfe, the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout, and I really wish he’d written more. I love Perry Mason mysteries. So I figure why not do something where I can just really enjoy the process, enjoy characters. I’m writing them as though I’m reading them. I have no idea what’s going to happen as I turn the page. Then I tie it all up at the end so it’s kind of a fun process in the writing itself. I’m really enjoying it.

Tim Knox: Are you one of the authors that kind of lets your characters guide you through the story?

Winslow Eliot: Yes, although I’m meticulous about plot but I tend to go back to make sure that everything is attended to afterwards in terms of the story development. I find I can’t write through story; I have to write through the characters.

Tim Knox: I was interviewing someone and she kept talking about this one particular character who was a strong female character. She kept referring to her just like she was real. She would say, “And she kept doing this and I would tell her, ‘no you can’t do that!’” It was so funny because I was like you’re talking about a character. She was like, “Oh yeah I am.” I think those books with the strong character, sometimes you do have to reel them in. you’ve written in several genres. Do you have a favorite or do you enjoy everything you write?

Winslow Eliot: I probably wouldn’t be writing in it if I didn’t enjoy it. I’ve written a couple of non-fiction books and when I was writing them there was never a moment when I wished I was doing something else. They really poured out. They were subjects that I just really, really had to express I think somehow. One that I wrote last year was called What Would You Do If There Was Nothing You Had To Do? – Practices to create the life you want. It’s sort of a 22-step program for really, really finding your soul’s purpose and going deep. It actually won three awards, three indie awards from various places. I was very gratified because I feel as though… I really think that if somebody followed these steps and goes into this process that they would come to a sense of that they’re where they need to be.

We’re so busy, Tim. People get so stressed and they’re doing things they think they have to and they don’t. They can live a life of peace and tranquility and striving doing creative things and fun things, creating relationships that they love to create. I just wish that more people could get there.

Tim Knox: That’s such a great point. I’ve heard someone say, “Everyone is so busy living their live that they never live their life.”

Winslow Eliot: And every now and again I give people that title and they’ll stare. What would you do if there was nothing you had to do? They’ll stare and say, “Do you know the answer?” and I say, “I can help you find your answer.”

Tim Knox: I love that idea. You also do mentoring and you’re not just an author. You coach and you mentor and offer advice. You’ve got a website called WriteSpa. Tell us about that.

Winslow Eliot: Yes, my WriteSpa developed also I think out of my longing to empower writers to write what they love writing and to feel good about it. I found so many sites that would encourage or be more kick-ass, how to make your character this or that or how to make sure your plot is this or that. There weren’t many sites devoted to writers that would really nourish and refresh and make them feel really positive about it.

As I say in my WriteSpa pages – I do think writing is a journey. We’re on it. If you’re a writer you’re on this journey and there’s no getting off it. It’s not as though you’re trying to get somewhere. This is your life. You need to an oasis. My WriteSpa is an oasis for writers. That’s the tagline and I see it as a place where authors can stop off and visit and, yeah, there’s writing practices but some of these writing practices are what I think writers desperately need, like doing nothing or napping or dancing or other things as well as how to use fragrance in writing or how to use the sense of taste. I try to get more sensual and more imaginative and creative.

Tim Knox: In your work with writers, are there certain things you have seen that will pretty much guarantee that a writer is going to fail? Are there certain habits or things that they do that even though they come to the oasis there, there’s just some things that they’re doing that is kind of a barrier for them to success?

Winslow Eliot: This may sound harsh but you can’t be a writer if you can’t write. I do really, really, strongly urge writers to get the skill. It’s like playing the violin without ever practicing scales or taking classes, having a really strong foundation. Only when you have that foundation can you be free to write imaginatively and creatively in my opinion. I teach at a high school and that’s my main passion about doing that. I want these kids to have the absolute feeling of confidence and technical expertise so that if they decide they want to be writers they have that under their belt. They don’t have to do it when they’re 20 or 30 or 40.

I recommend starting with the basics. I feel, yeah, if you can’t write grammatically for instance – I think that’s a real drawback. No one’s going to take you seriously even if your book is wonderful.

Tim Knox: Just because you can type does not mean you’re a writer.

Winslow Eliot: It’s a skill as well as a gift.

Tim Knox: You’ve been doing self-publishing now for a while. Through what medium are you self-publishing? Are you going through CreateSpace or Amazon?

Winslow Eliot: Well for many years I had a wonderful publishing company help me, Telemachus Press. I met Claudia.

Tim Knox: I know them. I know Claudia, yeah. She’s wonderful.

Winslow Eliot: Claudia was another person I met in 2009 on Twitter and we became really good friends. She fell in love with my… every day I post these three little sort of imaginative, poetic phrases and I’ve done this for many, many years. I call them ‘my happinesses’. She fell in love with them and we connected. She really was the beginning of my self-publishing journey because she was so sensitive to my anxiety about switching gears from traditional into self-publishing. They were wonderful.

Tim Knox: Yeah the last time I talked to Claudia she was on a boat in the middle of some ocean.

Winslow Eliot: Yeah, working hard.

Tim Knox: She emails me and goes, “Well I’m about to go out on the boat but I wanted to get this email done.” It’s always nice to have someone like that that you can build those relationships with and have them hold you accountable to things. We’ve got just a couple of minutes left. For those that are listening – our audience is primarily made up of authors who are writing that first book or maybe have written many books and are getting into self-publishing. Some of course are still looking for agents and traditional publishers. What is your advice to these authors?

Winslow Eliot: Well I think each one probably has an individual path to go on. I do think in addition to writing well, as a self-publisher one has to have a lot of confidence. I do see that really gets in the way of success if you’re not confident. If sales don’t happen for some reason in the way you expect then you’re going to take it personally. That’s just one way.

So some people I know really want that traditional route. I think in terms of business I don’t know really anyone who’s been more successful being traditionally published. I don’t think in terms of publicity or in terms of the idea that your book might get on a bookshelf at a Barnes & Noble or independent bookstore – that’s not going to make more money for you than independent publishing. So financially I see it as either way; it’s up to you. It’s up to you how you promote your books. It’s up to you how you present yourself. You’re going to be doing the book tour. Your publisher’s not. It’s such a lottery if you’re going to go that way with an agent and a major publisher.

If you want to go with a small publisher… there’s so many options now, like a cooperative for instance. There’s no advance but you share the royalties and then you’re published by a “real” publisher. That’s another way to go but you’re still on your own. You’re going to be doing the marketing and you’re going to have your own platform. I don’t know. I wouldn’t advise either way.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, if you want to really look at it as a business and throw yourself into it. Look at the selling and you’ve got to do another blog post and I want to be on Tim’s radio show and, you know, you’re into that then it’s a fabulous way to go to be an independent publisher.

Tim Knox: Right and I think the most important point you have there is you have to do the work, whether or not you’re going traditional or self-publishing. I’ve done both and I was the one that was typically out there doing the media, doing the social media, selling the books. I think that’s one place where a lot of new authors think that if they go the traditional route, the publisher’s going to do everything for them. In truth it’s going to be up to you to build that brand and sell those books, right?

Winslow Eliot: Yes, yes. I think the only way a major publisher could kind of woo me back – I’ve been thinking about this – is I do think they are better at subsidiary rights than we can do independently. I think that this is a huge market opportunity for agents or for freelance business people where they would somehow sell self-published books to translate them and to market them in other countries. That was one of my biggest successes when I was traditionally published. I was published in 20 different countries and translated into a dozen languages and that was a huge part of my income. I miss that. I think that would be really, really great but it will probably happen.

Tim Knox: Yeah I know someone like Hugh Howey, who’s really successfully self-published. I mean the guy’s just kind of a juggernaut but he actually deals with agents and publishers to sell his foreign rights. It’s kind of a hybrid mixture of both.

Winslow Eliot: That makes sense. You would get a sub-agent just to deal with that, yeah.

Tim Knox: He was a very sharp guy. He keeps everything close to the vest. Winslow Eliot, this has been wonderful. Your new book, Sati and The Rider, which is the first in a series of 36, which really just overwhelms me. Are you working on the next book already?

Winslow Eliot: Yes, it’s almost ready. I’m hoping to have it ready for publication by the end of this month, Sati and The Clover.

Tim Knox: This means you have to be on my show 36 times. I’m so sorry.

Winslow Eliot: That would be my pleasure, Tim. That would be absolutely wonderful.

Tim Knox: We’ll just do The Winslow Eliot Series here on Interviewing Authors. Winslow, tell us where your website is. Where can we find your work and connect with you?

Winslow Eliot: The best place is my website, WinslowEliot.com. From there I think you can link to pretty much everything. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Google+ and so forth. I’m always glad to hear from readers and writers. You can connect to me through my website. The contact sheet comes right to my email. I’d love to hear from you.

Tim Knox: We’ll put up links. This has been a pleasure. Let’s do it again. You’re definitely going to have the content to talk about.

Winslow Eliot: Yeah, I hope so. I’m so grateful that you contacted me and this has been wonderful. Thank you, Tim.

Tim Knox: We appreciate you being on the show. Winslow Eliot, we will talk to you soon.

Winslow Eliot: Great, my pleasure. Bye-bye.

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