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Crime author Sophie Hannah reveals how to write a bestseller

The reason you haven’t written your bestselling novel yet is not because you don’t have the time or the talent - it’s because you’re telling yourself the wrong story about your life.

That’s the advice of chart topping Cambridge novelist Sophie Hannah, who knows a thing or two about this business.

In fact, she has launched a life coaching course for aspiring authors based on the philosophies she has learned over the course of her career, which she says can remove the obstacles writers put in their own way on the route to success.

Dream Author is the name of the course and it’s the result of years of learning from her own mistakes, undergoing psychotherapy, absorbing advice from self help books and finally training to become a life coach. And she credits her own writing success to a certain mindset that she says anyone can learn.

“I used to think that in order to feel successful and happy as a writer you had to first have the successful result. But then I realised what enabled me to keep going and submitting work and improving my work, even in the face of rejections or setbacks, what made me carry on was that I just firmly believed I was going to be a successful writer. It wasn’t in doubt,” says Sophie.

Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (34755737)
Sophie Hannah Christmas grudges. Picture: Keith Heppell. (34755737)

“It was just a done deal in my mind. Because of that I was willing to carry on trying and trying and never give up.”

And unlike many other writers who gave up on their dreams after having a manuscript rejected or finding they couldn’t fit writing into their life she found belief in a certain philosophy gave her the strength to carry on.

Way before her current literary success, Sophie knew she saw difficult situations differently from other people.

She says; “When I lived in Yorkshire, back in 2004, I had a friend who had grown to hate her husband and she was at the point of leaving him because he wasn’t doing any jobs around the house when he got in from work. Her argument was ‘I go to work, then I come home and I do the house work and I look after the kids and all I want him to do is tidy the garage and weed the patio. He keeps saying he is going to do it but he doesn’t. And he is a selfish lazy git and I want to leave him.’

“I thought, this is really interesting because when there is any unpleasant job to do in our house my first thought is neither of us is going to want to do this, let's subcontract it out and get someone else to do it. As a result I get to skip all the suffering I would undoubtedly cause myself if I decided my husband should clean a garage or weed a patio.

“I think if neither of us wants to do it, it's fine to subcontract it out. I said to my friend in 2004 you could literally save your marriage and love your husband again if you could just decide that it’s fine if he doesn't want to weed the patio and clean out the garage.

Sohpie Hannah books (34755920)
Sohpie Hannah books (34755920)

“I remember her looking at me. We were just about to walk into a sauna in our health club. She said ‘What do you mean by decide?’

“And I said I’m serious. If all you have to do to have your happy marriage back is decide who cares if the garage is a mess and there’s weeds on the patio? Why not just decide that? Anyway, she didn’t get it and they got divorced.”

But a couple of years later when Sophie read the self help book, The Power of Now, by Eckart Tolle, it partially echoed her beliefs that people could decide how they reacted to situations and that it was the stories they told themselves about a situation rather than the facts that were causing them suffering.

“He gave the example of of a woman who has booked an anniversary dinner at a restaurant and her husband doesnt turn up. And he say you are going to suffer in that situation if you will tell yourself he doesn't care about your relationship, and that y don’t mean anything to him.

“He said our interpretation of what has happened creates the suffering. Instead we could just stick to the facts - a woman arrived at a restaurant and a man didn’t arrive at the same restaurant. If that’s all we thought we wouldn’t suffer.”

After absorbing this, Sophie started to notice a change in how she felt about her writing career. “I noticed the way in which I was thinking about my writing was causing me much less suffering than it was at the beginning and I started to look into why that was.

“And I realised if I’d had the same thoughts and beliefs I had now as when I started out then I would not have suffered half as much when i got a rejection letter for example, that i would not have made the rejection letter anything I needed to get upset about.

“I believed it enough to keep trying. If I had believed it completely I wouldn't have suffered at all. I would think, ‘OK so this isn’t the occasion on which I will succeed, but so what - there will be another one’.”

Sophie was happy with her career but as an avid reader of self help books and having undergone psychotherapy, she was interested to find out more when her friend introduced her to the work of an American life coach, Brooke Castillo.

“I saw immediately she had taken Eckhart tolle idee about facts versus stories and she had added to it her own philosophy and by adding to it she made it something I could totally get behind.

Toller had left it as if you just looked at the facts they are not upsetting, which I had rejected. I said come on we'll always have stories. Brooke Castillo said yes it's true that facts alone cannot upset us and it's the stories that create suffering, she took it further saying we will always believe stories about the circumstances in our lives but we can believe stories that are both plausible to us and beneficial to us. And if we choose what to believe on purpose, as long as it is plausible and we can believe it then we can minimise suffering. That was like a lightbulb going on.

To go back to the restaurant analogy, no one is capable of thinking a woman was in a restaurant a man was in a restaurant that's not going to work for any normal person. But I could imagine thinking in that scenario my husband absolutely adores me; he values our marriage more than anything else. But he’s just a very absentminded person who forgets stuff all the time and it doesn’t mean he doesnt care about me.

When I saw that I realised she had sorted out the problem of the theory.

I joined her coaching programme and was coached by people working under her. I then trained to be a coach with her programme because I just thought this is the key to everything.

I learnt that everything we do in life, everything, is in order to feel a particular feeling or avoid feeling a particular feeling. That’s it. That is our motive for everything. So once we start to examine what feeling we are seeking, what feeling we are trying to avoid, then just understanding the current model we are operating on can make all the difference.”

While studying for the lifecoaching course - at the same time as writing her bestselling thrillers and Agatha Christie continuation novels - Sophie noticed that what she was learning relfelected the advice she had given to other writers, and even to the unhappy friend in Yorkshire.

She says; “ I had so many friends who were regular top ten best sellers who walked around feeling like total failures because it's not your chart position that determines whether you feel like a success, it's your thoughts and your beliefs. So all of that comes together.

I thought i would love to run a coaching programme for writers and I thought it's really necessary because there is so much out there for writers in terms of course but there is nothing of this sort.”

She created the course, called Dream Author, and explains it isn’t like other novel writing courses. ““It’s a coaching programme, not a writing course,” says Sophie. “So it's about how to control your thoughts to prevent a lack of confidence from stopping you working and taking the right steps towards becoming a successful author.

“I can teach you how to write a great crime novel or hooky synopsis - and we do that within the programme - but what is more important is to put you in a position so that whatever obstacle you encounter for the rest of your writing life, whether it is being dropped by a publisher or finding your writing isn’t earning you any money or you can’t get an agent, whatever the crisis is once you have been through the dream author programme you will know exactly how to think, feel and act in order to maximise future success and happiness.”

So far the course, which launched last year, has already had some early success stories including one author who has managed to bag a six figure publishing deal and a poet who was almost about to give up on his dream of having his woprk published suddenly discovering his book will be a lead title with a publisher next year.

Sophie said: “One woman came to one of my workshops and contacted me afterwards because she hadn’t had the confidence to ask a question at the event. “She told me a tale of woe of how nothing had worked out with her writing and she felt self-conscious. She had a book she was working on but wasn't confident about it so I worked with her using all the Dream Author concepts to develop her confidence.”

She told Sophie she was only going to send the book oit to small, not very well known agents.

Sophie says: “I asked her what if you were to send it to a really famous agent that you would love to be on the list of? Lo, and behold her top choice of agent wanted to represent the books, as well as quite a few others.

“She wrote to me saying I will probably choose the less famous, smaller one because I would be a bit intimidated if I had the top, starry one. I was like, well you could choose that or you could choose the one that makes you feel intimidated and work on the feelings of intimidation so you can arrive at a point where you no longer feel intimidated and have the dream agent who you thought was out of your league.

“Even when it came to a publisher auction she initially wanted to go with the smallest publisher because she said she would feel safe and reassuring. Whereas the one that offered the big money felt very commercial and business like.

I said, well, you can do that if you want to but what if you could get your feelings of safety and reassurance from somewhere else, like your actual friends and family, or you can generate themself with your own thoughts. And what if you thought that for a publisher to be commercial and businesslike is fine because they are going to be my publisher and not my husband.

“When she went away to think about it she realised she was thinking in a limiting way. Now her book is going to be a lead title and she has a massive six figure deal.”

How to get the Dream Author mindset

Problem: You don’t have enough time to write.

Sophie says: “For people who say they don’t have enough time to write I would say that is just a thought and if you believe it is a fact then you just won't even try to write because you have believed the story that you don't have enough time.

“Instead you could think, right I have 24 hours in a day and I get to choose how I spend that time. At the moment I'm choosing to spend 9 to 5 Monday to Friday doing my day job because I like having money to live on. So that leaves me with X number of hours when I'm not doing that to choose how many of those extra hours I want to spend on my writing. And, whatever that amount of time is, I can decide it’s the perfect amount of time to write. So if someone said I can only spare half an hour a day on my writing I would say the key here is instead of believing this is a highly sub optimal situation, why not instead believe half an hour a day is the perfect amount of time? You can write a page a day in that half hour and end up with a 365 page manuscript by the end of the year. Don’t tell yourself you are in a problematic situation because that could discourage you from writing.”

Problem: Dealing with writer’s block

“Writer's block is a very ‘catch all’ term. Lots of things are described as writer's block and have certain things in common. The feature in common is writing is not getting done, but that might be the only thing one person's writer's block has in common with others.

Instead of calling it writer's block, let's be more specific. I’d ask what you have written and when? What do you think about this and how does the thought make you feel? Once you drill down into it you find one person's writer's block is different from another.

I heard from two writers, one who was not writing because they had this guilty voice in their head that said they didn’t deserve the treat of doing the writing they loved until they have done all the chores. Every time she was about to sit down to write she thought, ‘I don't deserve this treat yet, it’s selfish, I need to do more chores’.

“So I looked at the belief system of feeling she didn’t deserve a treat yet, which is always linked to feelings of unworthiness and having to prove your worth by overcoming a series of obstacles. It is very often learned early in life and then you just keep believing it. You don’t realise you can reprogramme your brain to be more useful to you.

“That’s a totally different problem from the other Dream Author who was suffering from writer's block. Doing the writing presented and opportunity for her to fail, which made her writing a treat at all.

“With regards to someone who finds the writing to be a big scary monster, I would if you come face to face with the monster it’s not so scary any more, just like in lots of horror films. If writing is so scary that you put it off, would you be willing to do it for half an hour first thing tomorrow? Then you only have to be scared once and straight away. Then you might find writing is less scary than you imagined. What if you told yourself you were going to do the scary thing just for ten minutes? Perhaps that would break the block.”

The online course with Sophie lasts a year and costs £600. Visit https://dreamauthorcoaching.com/

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