How to Write Like Jilly Cooper and Still Sleep at Night
Jilly Cooper’s raunchy upper-class blockbusting novels are loved by millions of people all over the world. She’s received rave reviews and earned a vast fortune. She’s been awarded an OBE for Services to Literature, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Gloucestershire.
Yet I doubt if even Jilly’s best friend would describe her novels as ‘works of great literature’.
It doesn’t matter, though. That’s not what Jilly Cooper does.
What she does do – very well – is give us an inside view of another life. Like the scene where Dorothy opens the door in The Wizard of Oz, opening a Jilly Cooper novel is like stepping from our grey little lives into an exciting and colourful world where everyone is stunningly gorgeous, vastly rich, supremely talented and rampantly unfaithful. And bloody rude.
We may not want to be the next Jilly Cooper, but we can still learn a lot from her success.
She learned her trade well
Jilly Cooper started as a journalist, then worked behind the scenes in publishing, then wrote non-fiction books and then moved to romance novels. She learned what makes a book suitable for publication, how a novel is constructed, how to create interesting plots and describe characters so that they leap from the page. It’s not a coincidence that what she writes is what we want to read.
She built her reputation as a writer
Jilly’s first books were published, but they were far from being runaway hits. But she kept producing work, experimented and tried to improve. And in the process, she established her personal voice.
She also networked and publicised her work wherever possible in order to become better known. She actively courted success – she wasn’t just lucky.
She found a successful formula
When Jilly did well, she analysed her work and decided what made one character more popular than another, why some plots were better and so on. She was flexible and ready to change her novels to create something people would enjoy reading, instead of saying, ‘I only write what I want to write, and if people don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it.’ She wanted them to buy it!
So, did Jilly Cooper have to sell out to achieve success? No.
Eventually, she developed a formula for her books which combined what she wanted to write with what people wanted to read – and she stuck to it. Her books are similar in the sense that when you pick up ‘a Jilly Cooper’ off the shelf, you know what you’re going to get.
Certain characters – the lovable Cinderella-type, the selfish but super-talented young woman who needs to learn a lesson, the cruel but sexy and talented upper-class man, the handsome, moody outsider – recur, but in different guises. And there are usually horses and/or dogs in there somewhere – but that’s because Jilly loves them.
And, most of the time, the good end happily; the bad, unhappily. As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘That is what fiction means.’ Because we like it that way – it makes up for reality!
She researched thoroughly and wrote about a world she knows well
We can’t all write about lords and their talented but bitchy mistresses, or dogs and horses and the sort of people who’d pay £6,000 for a dress, just to try to copy Jilly’s style. If you’re a policeman in Glasgow, a student in London or a housewife in the Mid-West, you’d soon find that wealth and fame wouldn’t follow – because it would be obvious you didn’t know what you were talking about!
Similarly, when Jilly includes lower-middle class characters, occasionally she gets it wrong and gives them working-class tastes or has them using words we’d never use. Our writing always sounds more authentic when we stick to people and places we really know.
She created a series
Once she’d found the best characters to write about, she produced The Rutshire Chronicles, a series of novels featuring Rupert Campbell-Black and some other characters overlapping from one book to another. But although the story of those characters moves on through their lives like a saga, it’s not always a main part of the plot and they’re not always main characters.
Each book is set against a different background, such as showjumping, television, classical music and fine art. This combines variety with familiarity – and it works. Her readers buy every book, knowing in advance they’re going to love it.
And she kept on writing!
How many of us have a half-finished novel in the back of a drawer somewhere? Jilly finished her first book, edited it and sent it to a publisher. And then she wrote another one… and another one…
So if we follow her example rather than her style, we can write like Jilly Cooper without sacrificing our personal voices or integrity to achieve popularity – and still sleep at night.
Although, for that kind of success, I’ll write anything you like!
Emily Lock is a freelance writer and blogger about the ups and downs of trying to evolve towards a better life.
Her Emily the Dodo blog is updated every week, with ideas to inspire you to make those changes, quizzes to help you decide what you want and planners so you can figure out how you’re going to get it, along with life hacks to make it easier. Come and join Emily on the journey to a happy life.