Author of Something to Live For and When We Were Young
You’ve heard it said that the world works in mysterious ways. I have to agree. Take, for example, a recent trip to a bargain store where I ran to buy Scotch tape. I passed by a small offering of books, a dollar each, and only one jumped off the shelf. It was a beautiful hardcover (bright orange) with a catchy title, How Not to Die Alone. I purchased it immediately based on appearance (Yes, I’m that shallow, people). After reading it, though, I couldn’t imagine why on earth such a rich, funny, full of heart story would be in a dollar store. Well, guess what? I reached out to the author, and he solved that mystery!
Richard Roper, a UK novelist, answered the request of a lowly freelancer (and wannabe author), me, and agreed to an interview! I found out why his story, has had a title change (hint: Covid!) and therefore the old copies ended up at my local bargain outlet, despite getting rave reviews on Amazon. Read on to find out!
Let me be clear: How Not to Die Alone, now called Something to Live For, absolutely 100% does NOT belong in a bargain bin! It is not reflective of the writing, or even the sales of the book! It is merely due to a title change and getting rid of the old copies. The story is heartrending and should be on every bookshelf. Read a clip of one (of many) 5-star reviews on Amazon…
“I was spitting my wine out while laughing. I loved everything about this book, the characters, the humor, the poignancy, the profound truths hidden under cynical humor (which I adore). I can honestly say I enjoyed this novel more than any I have read in a long time. And that’s quite a statement, as I usually read two novels a week. Any book that produces both tears of laughter and tears of empathy/joy must be acknowledged as special.”~Amazon Customer, Gayle
I really enjoyed this interview, and hope you will too. Roper has a lot of helpful writing advice, book recommendations (both on writing and good fiction suggestions), and shares his experience in publishing. Spoiler Alert: Getting published doesn’t make you happy! There is more work to do!
L.A. Can you introduce yourself to my subscribers? I’m sure they’d like to know where you’re from, how long you’ve been writing, and what you enjoy doing in your free time!
R.R. Hello! I’m Richard, a writer and editor from London, UK. I have been writing for about eight years now, give or take. When I’m not writing I’ll either be watching comedy or live music.
L.A. Did you have a career before writing? If so, what was it, and at what point did you transition over to writing full-time?
R.R. I’m still part-time at my job, which is still in the publishing world but on the other side of the fence. I commission non-fiction books at Hachette in the UK. The two careers obviously dovetail a fair bit (which has both an upside and downside).
L.A. How many books have you published so far? Also, how old were you when you wrote the first book?
R.R. I have published two novels so far. Something to Live For (previously published as How Not to Die Alone in the US), and When We Were Young. My first book was published in 2019, when I was 32.
L.A. Have you ever written a manuscript that didn’t translate into a finished novel?
R.R. I wrote a novel in around 2016 which didn’t get picked up by publishers, and then I wrote another one straight after that which I decided to shelve rather than send out, as I just got the feeling it wasn’t good enough. Since then, I’ve tried out one idea where I got fairly far into it and then decided to drop it.
L.A. Can you talk a little about your writing process? (Do you write at the same time each day? Where do you do your writing? How long does it take you to complete a book?)
R.R. I wrote Something to Live For in about eight months. That was a first draft in four months and then around six more drafts before I submitted it to an agent. I was very disciplined with that book, pretty much writing 1,000 words a day. I use a writing software called Scrivener. I ignore all the fancy settings apart from the one where you can put in a target date for when you want to hit a certain word count, and it tells you how much you need to write a day to get there.
I was full-time at my job then so I would write in the mornings or evenings. I find that having an hour or two to get the words done for a first draft is so much more productive than having a whole day full of distractions. Even though I write three days a week now I usually have my word count hit by around 11am, if I start at 8 or 9. I am very much of the Stephen King method of really blasting out a first draft without actually revising it. The hard work really comes with the redrafting.
L.A. Do you write with music, or do you need it quiet while you work?
R.R. I find listening to music while I work too distracting, but I have discovered that using noise cancelling headphones and listening to ocean sounds really helps me focus (although it has meant I keep accidentally writing scenes set at the beach…) I do make playlists for each book which I listen to as I’m out and about, which work as a sort of moodscape.
“I need to know who my character is on page 1, who they’ve become on the last page, and the moments along the way that get them there.”~Richard Roper
L.A. Do you outline your stories before you begin writing them?
R.R. Yes, I really need to know where the story is going before I get going. I tend to have the big major moments mapped out, though allow myself a little freedom between each one so that things can change if it feels right to head in a different direction. Basically, I need to know who my character is on page 1, who they’ve become on the last page, and the moments along the way that get them there. I am always recommending the book Into The Woods by John Yorke to writers as a gamechanger for working out how to plot. It’s a masterpiece.
L.A. Do you have a test reader(s) such as a spouse or friend that reads your work along the way? Or do you write the whole thing and then show it around? Details here would be awesome!
R.R. At first, no. I tried to be very private about my writing, because I felt that the more I told people about it the more I was writing for other people and not me. But I gave my friend (an editor in fiction) the third or fourth draft of Something to Live For and he gave me some invaluable notes. Now, I tend to show a draft to my agent (who is a superb editor in her own right), before I then give it to my editors (both my UK editor and US editor are very involved from then on).
L.A. Can you discuss your experience with publishing? (How you were first published, the process, how it felt, how long it took, etc.).
R.R. Publishing is, I’m afraid to say, a rather brutal world. I already knew that from being an editor myself, but it’s even more stark on the other side. So much of it is luck, and I’ve had my share of good and bad over these last few years. I wrote a book that was rejected across the industry, then the next book I submitted was pre-empted and sold around the world. That moment, when I found out I was going to be a published author, is one I will never forget. After that, things are hard. There are expectations. Being published doesn’t make you happy (I’m afraid!), it just provides a new set of stresses. But – this has actually really helped me remember why I started writing in the first place. You shouldn’t write because you want to be published, you should write for the fun it, and to do something you can be proud of. Any writer who sits down and gets to the end of a first draft is an absolute hero in my eyes.
L.A. I noticed you changed your book title from How Not to Die Alone to Something to Live For. Can you tell us a little about the circumstances that led you to do this?”
How Not to Die Alone was my original title for the book, which I think captures the dark but comedic world of the story. My American publisher loved it, but the British one wanted to change it. We went with Something to Live For – a song which Ella Fitzgerald (who is Andrew’s hero) would sing. Later, when the paperback was scheduled to come out, we found out in the US that Barnes & Noble were keen to make it a fiction book of the month, but with Covid and all, the title was making them nervous. We were able to suggest a switch to STLF, and they agreed. A tough call, and I wish we were able to have the same title for all editions, but there we go!
L.A. Where do you draw inspiration for your settings, characters, and plot? (Can you discuss your genre here and what it means to you?).
R.R. I take inspiration from lots of places. How Not to Die Alone came from an article I read in the paper. The new book I am writing was sparked by a conversation I overheard in a restaurant. The genre I write in is best described as ‘commercial fiction’. With that in mind, I am always thinking about a good story and an enticing hook when I come to think up a book, hopefully finding characters to match.
L.A. How do you handle negative reviews and general criticism of your writing?
R.R. I learnt a good lesson early on with this. When my first book came out some people were tagging me on Instagram saying positive things, so, excitedly, I searched the hashtag they were using and immediately found a completely eviscerating takedown of the book and my writing. So that taught me never to seek out reviews – if someone’s said something nice you’ll hear about it. When it comes to constructive criticism by my editors, I always react like the sky is falling in for about forty-eight hours, convinced I am the worst writer ever, and then I grow up and see that of course they’re completely right.
L.A. What is it like connecting with your readers and hearing how your stories have impacted their lives in a positive way?
R.R. Oh it’s the best. I have a contact from on my website and I get emails every week from people. I think my first book in particular connected with certain people in a deep way, which I can relate to myself, and to hear from them is a wonderful feeling – one that has encouraged me to reach out to authors too when I’ve enjoyed their books.
(On hammering out the first draft) “Once you’ve got to the end, you’re a sculptor with a big lump of clay, and now you can start to shape it into something beautiful.”~Richard Roper
L.A. What advice would you give to someone who has writing ability, but is stuck in fear and can’t go the distance with a full-length manuscript? (Helpful for this question: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received or read?)
R.R. The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever read relates to this question, and I’m afraid it might make you wince, but it’s the truth. Kevin Barry, the Irish novelist, said:
“The funny thing about it all is that literary talent isn’t rare. Lots of people can write good stories with good characters and great sentences. What’s rare is the stubborn, pragmatic thing that tells you ‘I’ve got to do this every single f*****g day, even when I don’t want to do it, when I’d rather pluck my eyes out and feed them to the birds.’ That discipline combined with talent is very rare. I’d be willing to bet that some of the most brilliant writers who ever lived have never been published, because they weren’t prepared to do the work.”
In short, the best thing to do is just write. Keep going even if as you’re typing you’re just finding it unbearable. The first draft is the hardest. Once you’ve got to the end, you’re a sculptor with a big lump of clay, and now you can start to shape it into something beautiful.
L.A. What are you currently working on? (Anything you want to promote from upcoming talks to a book you want to get more eyes on)
R.R. I am currently working on my third novel, which should be on the shelves in 2024.
L.A. What books/tools did you use to learn the science of story development? (This could be books, YouTube videos, courses, etc. that helped you with character development, story arc, and so forth).
R.R. An absolute gamechanger of a book for me was Into the Woods by John Yorke. Nominally it is a book about how stories work, but there is all sorts of stuff in there about character, structure – you name it. Crucially, the examples he uses are accessible too, Indiana Jones and the like, so it’s very relatable. The ‘Save the Cat’ (The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need) filmmaking approach is definitely one that helped me with structure too, and is worth checking out.
L.A. Which authors influence and inspire you?
L.A. Do you have a favorite book? If so, what is it you like so much about this story?
Thank you, Richard Roper! This was eye-opening and full of insightful information on writing, publishing, sticking to a schedule, and why book titles matter so much. It was an honor hearing straight from you what makes you tick. We can’t wait to see your future works!