20-20 Michelle Cook

Good morning everyone, please say hello and welcome from Worcester, Michelle Cook, who like myself counts Wuthering Heights among her favourite books.

What name do you write under? Michelle Cook. That’s just me—my real name.

Where are you from, live or work? I live in Worcestershire, UK with my husband and two children, aged 4 and 7. As a day job, I’m a project manager for the NHS, which I love, and which brings me into contact with a huge variety of people. Or at least it used to before Covid. I’ve always written bits and pieces, but it’s only a couple of years ago I picked it up again seriously, Tipping Point my debut novel, was a real labour of love, which kept me going through the inevitable difficulties of writing a book, of which more later!

Tell me two things that people may not know about you. I love Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books so much I named my cat Lyra Belacqua, then secretly wished I’d kept the name free for my daughter.

I’m left-handed, and have recently discovered quite a few fellow writers who are too. I wonder if this is significant…

Do you have any hobbies? Reading, of course! Since signing with Darkstroke Books, I’ve been in a whirlwind of reading as many of the other brilliant Darkstroke authors’ novels as possible. I also love walking in countryside and playing with my kids, if that counts as a hobby. In different times, I was a fan of cinema, live music and comedy, but that has been more difficult to access lately. Thank goodness for Netflix.

What is your favourite book(s) and why? I bet everyone says this, but it’s hard to choose just one. I love many, many books, from Wuthering Heights to 1984. If I was forced to pick one, it would be Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. His talent for characterisation and voice is incredible and that particular novel is so heart-breaking and haunting.

Michelle Cook

Who or what inspired you to become a writer? When I was about ten, my teacher read out a story of mine in class, and I suppose that sense of achievement and kudos must have stayed with me. It’s weird, because there were many years after that when I wrote very little, and never seriously. I lacked confidence in my work, and would not have shared it.

Our family was going through a tough time a few years ago. I took up writing again as a release from the stress, and that’s when Tipping Point was born. In retrospect, I might have chosen a more relaxing hobby… but I love it and can’t imagine not writing now.

What type of books/genre do you write? Most things I write come out on the dark side, even if I intend to write a happy story! So they tend to fit into the thriller, urban fantasy, or dystopian genre.

How would you describe your writing style? I try to achieve two things: to be immersive and to make the writing tight. I love tension between characters and situations, and a tight style helps me create that. I do like to sprinkle humour about the place to keep it from getting too grim.

What comes first for you – character, plot or setting? It depends. If you mean in the generation of ideas, for me it would probably start with a plot point or situation. Very soon after that, the characters need to come in to bring it to life. Setting is something I work on as I go, and probably continue to develop during edits.

If you mean which is the most important, I think they’re all vital, and try not to sacrifice one for any of the others.

Do you have a writing routine? Life with two young kids doesn’t lend itself to routine at times, though I try. I have one day a week with no kids or work, and that’s my “go for it” day. And then it’s a matter of late night writing sessions instead of sleep!

Do you become a ‘method’ writer? I fear I do a little… not that I live my characters’ lives, but an awful lot of head space is occupied when I’m in the thick of it. I’ve had many a car journey to work in a daze thinking about a story. I’m working from home these days, so at least it’s a bit less risky! Apart from the road safety issues, I tend to see it as a good thing. The hope is that if I am so absorbed while writing, some of that will transfer onto the page for readers.

What are you currently working on? I have been juggling two projects: a sequel to Tipping Point, and an urban fantasy. I’ve decided to go for the sequel first, being optimistic that the first book will generate some interest for it.

What has been the most fulfilling part of your writing career? So far, without a doubt, having Tipping Point published. Weeks after receiving my proof copy, I would pick it up several times a day, just to smell the pages! The thrill of seeing it in the flesh is indescribable. I am unashamedly proud of it, because anyone who’s done it I think would agree it’s hard work getting a book to that stage. I wonder if that excitement wears off after the first book. I hope not.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? I did the, Write Here in Birmingham course last year, tutored by author Helen Cross. A couple of things Helen said stayed with me. The first was a regular note she would put on students’ writing: “This passage needs to work harder.” Meaning, I think, that every sentence, every word counts. Each one has to have a reason to be there, and should add something to your story.

The other thing she told us was that the students she has seen get published have not always been the ones with the greatest natural talent, but rather the ones who were the most determined to get there. I’ve taken that to heart because to me writing, and publishing, is about tenacity and resilience as much as it is the craft. Like I said, I could have chosen a more relaxing “hobby”… but where’s the fun in that?

What piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to become a writer? Keep going. There will be many days where you don’t like what you write. Many where you want to give up. Don’t. I don’t believe any writer, however great, gets it right first time. It’s hard to do, but you have to back yourself and your work on those days. That said, occasionally everything goes right and a scene hits the spot you were aiming for, and that’s the best feeling in the world.

All that, and I’d say do an outline for your story. Because an outline will get you through those periods when you want to give up. When I wrote Tipping Point, I skipped ahead a couple of times and wrote more exciting scenes because I was getting bogged down. Then I went back to fill in the gaps with renewed enthusiasm. I couldn’t have done that without an outline.

 What have you published recently? Tipping Point was released in September. Before that, I had a clutch of flash fiction pieces published. In February, I won the Writers’ Forum competition with my short story The Truth About Cherry House. I’m really proud of that, because it was an upbeat story that a few people were kind enough to tell me made them feel good.

Do you think there’s still some snobbery between commercial and self-publishing? Massively. And, within the published world, between literary and genre fiction too, which is a pet peeve of mine. Writing a good story that keeps readers engaged is an incredible achievement, whatever category you want to put it in.

If there are self-published books which are less polished from the point of design or editing, that’s often only because they haven’t had the resources behind them. I hear agents and publishers say they want more diverse submissions. In order to achieve that, we all need to be a bit better at looking beyond easily-fixed issues to the heart of the story. The whole thing needs demystifying. I think that’s where indie publishers can play a major role, with a more flexible approach alongside industry experience.

I’m lucky because with Darkstroke Books, I feel like I have the best of both worlds. I have been fortunate to have a lot of input into the process of editing and design, but with ultimate professional backing to keep it on track. Darkstroke are incredibly collaborative, and there’s a fantastic bunch of really supportive writers who are always happy to help a newbie.

How do you market your writing? Marketing is a whole new world to me. When you’re writing unpublished, you never think so far ahead. At least, I didn’t. Just getting published felt like the finish line. Then I quickly discovered it’s not!

I use social media a lot, particularly Facebook and Twitter, alongside my website to grow an audience and engage with them. In times of Covid, live events are tricky to arrange, but I’ve made links with my local library and newspaper, hoping to build for the future. I did a joint launch on Zoom with fellow Darkstroke authors Helen Matthews (author of Façade) and Guy Mankowski (author of Dead Rock Stars), who released their excellent books around the same time.

I love a bit of variety, so as well as arranging a blog tour, I’ve found myself doing a few of these sorts of things online too—some really fun Q&As, theme discussions, and a “soundtrack to my book” feature.

Where can people find your work? You can order Tipping Point on Amazon either as an e-book or paperback: http://mybook.to/tippingpoint

Where can people find you on social media and online? I’m on a few platforms now, so the best route to go for all of them is via Linktree.

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