Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed creativity coach Helen Jane Campbell about her career, what inspires her, and the creative process that went into writing her new book, Founders, Freelancers And Rebels.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Hi, I’m Helen Jane Campbell, I’m a coach for creative people and prior to qualifying as coach I spent almost two decades in the PR industry. I live in the book town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales and in my spare time I’m co-founding the first ever Hay Pride with my friend Graham.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Oh, forever. Little Women was my favourite book growing up, with its author heroine Jo. Writing’s been a passion for me since I was tiny. I used to write epic airmail letters on thin blue paper to my great-aunt in California, as a little kid in the eighties. My aunt would send back thick envelopes full of of photos and long letters, including pictures of hummingbirds in her garden and elephants on safari in Kenya. Writing (and reading) was a way of adventuring into other worlds for me and being the author of a book always felt like the ultimate way to do that.
I won a national writing competition when I was about 12, which got me onto national TV, so that was another adventure. I was a school magazine editor as a kid too. Writing has always got me to some super fun places.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I’ve always written. Even when I think I’m not doing it – so for example, last Sunday I sat in the bath and wrote a poem, which felt like a totally natural thing to do but then I thought about it and realised that maybe other people don’t write poetry in the bath… I mean it was VERY BAD poetry, but the point is I can’t really remember not writing, it’s always been there. And some of it’s fairly bad and a bit self-indulgent (which is ok!) and some of it’s got me to really great places. The habit has never left me.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
The total turnaround time was a couple of years but in reality, I wrote most of it in the May of 2020, in lockdown. Because finally I had no excuse not to. And I’d been wrestling with it for a while, but then I wrote more than 1,000 words a day for that month and that was a huge chunk of the book, which really spurred me on.
What made you want to write Founders, Freelancers And Rebels?
I’d got into a nice habit of writing a blog post every Sunday night and posting it on LinkedIn. I’d written about 30 or 35 of these — about things such as how to win clients (for example) — and a publisher contacted me with the idea of making the blog posts into a book. I found that external support really valuable as it felt like the tap on the shoulder I needed. I didn’t reply straight away and had to be a chased a few times… I think I thought it wasn’t ‘real’ at first— but it was… and that endorsement from a publisher, who happened to be based in the US too (like my great aunt who I wrote to as a child was), that gave me the boost to spring into real action.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Founders, Freelancers And Rebels?
First off, I had this idea that the whole book had to come out of my head, and this belief led me to writing an initial draft that I really hated and which wasn’t very broad in its thinking. So that was a huge challenge for me. And secondly, I found the process super lonely. I’m around 85% extroverted, according to a reputable personality test I did recently, which means I get my energy from others.
Writing a book felt to me like I was sitting down a well by myself a lot of the time. Anyway, I came to a point where I’d written 35,000 words but I hated my draft book… I was lucky enough to be in Alicante at the time and (at length) I had a big cry and trashed the words and stayed up all night and listened to Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I also spoke to some friends and relatives about it that evening too.
Anyway, I had the realisation that I loved connecting with others, sharing their stories, learning from them, and once I noticed that I didn’t have to write the entire thing from scratch out of my head, but could include interviews and different experts, the whole task became fun and enjoyable. It was as if I’d been punishing myself before. Plus, then covid happened and so I got to have these lovely long Zoom chats with people who might have been too busy normally. It was really nourishing and I made friends with a lot of the people I spoke to, in the UK and overseas.
What was your research process for Founders, Freelancers And Rebels?
Having worked for myself for a decade, coached so many founders and also run a popular forum for thousands of creative freelancers, I had a really strong instinct for the key themes affecting founders and creative freelancers (which became the themes of my book). I structured Founders, Freelancers & Rebels into these themes and sense-checked it with my network.
I reached out to people I respect and trust for recommendations and inspiration and also interviewed many of those I admire who run their own creative businesses. I did more interviews than made the final edit, and I also tapped into research and stats from well-respected industry bodies too. I read a whole lot of relevant books, listened to a tonne of podcasts and had some beta-readers and a writing coach on my side.
Through the process I also employed a VA to help me fact-check and edit and I worked with academics and other industry experts to peer-review my work too. There was quite a squad involved.
How did you plan the structure of Founders, Freelancers And Rebels?
I sat on the floor of my brother Pete’s living room with paper and Sharpies for a day, with the first draft, and really drilled into what it was it was I wanted to say to my reader. We totally dis-membered the draft and re-arranged the structure entirely. Pete works in Instructional Design. He’s in the tech industry and is an expert in training people how to use quite complicated technology, explaining it in a way that is easy to digest. He used those skills with me and we distilled it into simple language. Which is why the chapter headings are really clear and uncomplicated.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Founders, Freelancers And Rebels need?
Yes, the editing included peer-reviews, proof-reading and fact-checking. I learned a lot and I think I’d invest in even more editing support and feedback next time around. I think I can now probably accept a bit more robust feedback than perhaps I could at the time. I was going through some pretty intense life stuff at the time and I think my resilience has improved since… I definitely fell victim to thinking of my book as my ‘baby’ which really isn’t a great perspective as it can hold us back from being objective.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
I run two accountability clubs for authors and I think that having that accountability is key. So many of us write in our ‘spare’ time rather than as part of our day-job — even those of us who work for ourselves — writing time can feel like a ‘nice to have’ rather than essential. Having accountability can help us remember to prioritise our writing and create a regular healthy habit. That habit is where it begins: sitting down with the laptop or notebook on a regular basis. Everything else flows from there.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have a half-formed idea about the power of silence, spaces, pauses… there’s a lyric in a song my friend Johanna Warren wrote about ‘the space between the spaces’ and I’ve been thinking about that for more than a year. Obviously covid has enforced some pauses upon us, and also as a coach, I hold space for people. In my PR work I used to train people to slow down and leave space and pauses in their radio and TV interviews… so there’s something there but I’ve not yet researched it extensively. It might just end up as another poem written in the bath rather than tens of thousands of words.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am, yes. Yes, it was. I’ve had some really positive feedback and it’s opened some new doors for me.
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You can buy Founders, Freelancers & Rebels: How to Thrive as an Independent Creative, (published by Business Expert Press), here:
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