Publish and be damned (sure you’re done)

Today JK Rowling admitted that, in retrospect, Hermione should’ve ended up with Harry Potter rather than Ron Weasley. Yesterday, author Khaled Hosseini said on Radio 4’s Book Club that he hadn’t re-read The Kite Runner since he wrote it because he’d only chastise himself for all the changes he should have made. Interesting, I thought. Just when is an author satisfied with their work and the decisions they make? And to what extent should authors be trying to please their audience?

I’m at the final stages of completing my novel Blown-Away Man. My editor has undoubtedly helped me shape it into a better novel. But, with a week or so to go before I press the publish button, should I give it to more people to read to offer me their opinion on it? Do I really want to start seasoning it to other people’s tastes at this stage in the process? Does Damien Hirst round up his family and mates and say, “What d’you think of my shark in a tank then? Does it work? Any suggestions for improvement?” (Maybe he does, I have no idea. But I’d be very surprised if he gave a shit what anyone else thought.)

Aside from my editor, my husband has already provided lots of feedback. And, a year ago, a few close friends and family members gave me their thoughts on the first three chapters. Some of their opinions about a few details were similar, but at the same time, everyone had something different to say. For a while my mind felt foggy with other people’s opinions. It actually wasn’t helpful. I started to doubt my protagonist. I started to doubt the whole story. It took me a while to frogmarch all those voices out of my head and get back on track to believing wholeheartedly in my original idea.

Each time I write a book I learn different things from the experience. This time I’ve learned that it’s not always helpful to show your work to lots of other people and ask for their feedback. My husband’s and editor’s thoughts are invaluable – whether I agree with them or not – but beyond that, if I start listening to too many opinions and doubting my original ideas, I might as well let the story be crowdsourced. (Which, who knows, could be a fun exercise.)

Should Hermione have ended up with Harry? Should Amir and Hassan’s story have turned out differently? That’s what book clubs and reviews are for – the joy of airing and debating what you loved or didn’t love about someone else’s book. If it’s your book though, there comes a time when you have to put your ear plugs in, finish the story and turn over a new chapter…

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Why I decided to self-publish, as told to The Guardian

Below is a link to my interview on The Guardian website. As part of their self-publishing showcase, I talk about my own self-publishing experience so far, from 10 years of slushpiles, literary agents and rejections to going it alone and finally, albeit slowly, getting somewhere. It was cathartic to say the least! I recommend all the other features in the series too.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/27/self-publishing-showcase-tasha-harrison

Blow Your Own Trumpet Week? Yes please!

Earlier this week the BBC reported on a girls’ school in London that had introduced two novel ideas. Failure Week (discussing how to cope with setbacks) and Blow Your Own Trumpet Week (discussing experiences of success and failure), were introduced by the headmistress to help the pupils learn that A) they can’t be successful at everything, and B) to recognise when they have been successful at something and feel good about it.

The article caught my attention because of the words ‘blow your own trumpet’. I’d been discussing this very matter with someone a few days previously – namely how uncomfortable it feels for writers to blow their own trumpets – especially for self-published authors who have to market their own books. There’s been much talk among the online writing community about how much self-promotion is too much, but if we don’t shout out about our successes now and again (such as mentioning glowing reviews from readers etc) then who will?

In an ideal world, we’d all have agents and publishers with shed-loads of cash who’d be blowing our trumpets for us while we get on with our job: writing. But times have changed, marketing budgets have shrunk, and social media is how writers try to attract readers to their books.

Do I love reading a positive review from a reader? Of course! Do I like pasting the link into a tweet and broadcasting on Twitter that someone liked my book? GOD NO! It makes me cringe to my core. It goes against everything I’ve ever been taught. In a word, to someone of a self-deprecating nature like myself, it feels like bragging. And who likes a braggart?

I feel so much more comfortable humorously putting myself down, probably because if I take the piss out of myself, it means I’ve beaten you to it, thereby stealing your thunder and your potential ability to hurt my feelings. An odd psychology maybe, but I’d imagine that’s how many people operate. The only time I ever brag with unabashed enjoyment is to wind up my husband, eg: “I’m gonna thrash you at table tennis, loser! Fifty quid says I beat you 10-nil.” That feels comfortable, but only because my husband knows I’m joking. (Although he also knows I speak the truth – I’m the undisputed table tennis champ of our household, let there be no doubt about that.)

But anyway, I’m digressing. I think Blow Your Own Trumpet Week is a great idea to help people recognise their successes. Sometimes all I can see is the mammoth journey ahead of me – the things I haven’t yet achieved but desperately want to. I rarely look back at what I actually have achieved and take a moment to feel good about it. So today, in honour of my achievements, humble though they may be when compared with JK Rowling, I shall blow my trumpet. Or maybe I’ll just ding a triangle. With extra gusto, of course.

 

Fair game

photo LBF

I first went to the London Book Fair in 2001, clutching my first ever manuscript and determined to hand it to someone in person. I gave it to someone on the Macmillan stand, who passed it on to an editor, who then called an agent I’d had some interest from, who then called me with a lot more interest. I was so excited I was doing cartwheels, but little did I know it was just the beginning of a very long journey, two more very keen agents, several manuscripts and approximately zero publishing deals.

Fast forward to 2013 with three self-published novels on Amazon (and one on the way) and I decide to visit to the London Book Fair again. Not as an author though – oh no, I was far too scared to do that, fearing that maybe a lot of people had tried that approach over the years (handing their MS to a startled publisher on a stand) and that possibly if I had the word ‘Author’ emblazoned across my ID badge, I might send publishers fleeing for the hills screaming, ‘Run! Run! An author got in!’

So, instead I put ‘Copywriter’ on my badge, as that’s what my day job is. And when I asked myself why I was actually going and what I intended to get out of it, I couldn’t really answer my own question. Curiosity, I suppose. I thought maybe I could talk to someone, find out if there’s any chance in hell of ever getting traditionally published or should I just stick with self-publishing as, well, it’s been going fairly well on the whole.

A few weeks before the fair, I was having a closer look at the LBF website and discovered there was going to be an Authorlounge there, with talks and workshops specifically for – wait for it – authors! Holy cow!

So off I went to London Book Fair 2013, where I spent most of the day in the Authorlounge, listening with keen interest to the various different speakers (forgive the poor quality photo above). It was good to hear publishers acknowledge the rise and legitimacy of self-publishing and the fact that they had to deal with it in a less ostrich-like fashion than they did with the emergence of Amazon and e-books. It was also good to hear (from a self-publishing point-of-view) that traditional publishers are investing less in their authors’ marketing budgets and that these authors are having to do a lot of their own marketing, just like self-published authors.

From the very nice people I met and chatted to, I was able to build up more of a picture of the industry and the way it’s going. I sincerely hope traditional publishing never disappears, and that paperbacks and independent bookstores will always be around. But from where I’m standing, self-publishing once again seems like a pretty good place to be. And if I decide to visit LBF14 next year, it will be with the word ‘Author’ proudly printed on my badge.

Planning on visiting the London Book Fair next year? Here are my top tips:

1. Ladies, if you’re going to wear heels, you’re braver than I am. At least pack a pair of pumps for when your feet can’t take it any longer. It’s a BIG place.

2. If you’re taking a lot of stuff with you (ie books) or you hope to come back with a lot of books, you’d be well-advised to take one of those overnight-bag-on-wheels-thingies. Don’t worry, you won’t look like a plonker (unlike people wearing heels collapsing under the weight of their stuffed-to-the-brim trendy bags.)

3. There are plenty of cafés in the exhibition hall. However, don’t confuse the real cafés with some of the private stands that just look like cafés. (Looking for somewhere to sit down, I got drawn to one that had bowls of chocolates on the tables and was politely asked to bugger off.)

4. The Authorlounge hosted by Authoright was packed out, with latecomers having to stand outside in the gangway to hear the talks. So if there’s a talk you don’t want to miss, get there early to bag a seat.

5. There’s a cloakroom there, so you don’t have to lug a heavy coat around with you everywhere. It was pretty warm inside – probably thanks to all those authors overheating with excitement at finally being allowed to join the party. Or maybe that was just me.

An interview with author Kerry Wilkinson

Crime writer Kerry Wilkinson is one of the UK’s first self-publishing success stories of the ebook era. He uploaded his first novel Locked In to Amazon in 2011 and, without any traditional advertising, went on to sell over 300,000 copies within a year. The first in a series about Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniel, the novel’s phenomenal success led to a six-book deal with Pan Macmillan earlier this year.

With the fourth book in the Jessica Daniel series, Think Of The Children, to be released early next year, AND the first in a YA fantasy series called The Silver Blackthorn Trilogy to follow later in the year, I talk to the highly productive Kerry about writing, self-publishing and what the future holds.

First I want to ask you about your writing. The Silver Blackthorn Trilogy – was this something you’d been brewing in your head while writing the Jessica Daniel series?
Not really. I went on holiday and came back with most of it plotted long-hand. I work all the time, so actually doing “nothing” for two weeks allowed it all to form in my mind. I started writing the day I got back and didn’t stop until it was all done.

Is Silver Blackthorn’s world something you created recently – or did its creation begin way back when you were a kid reading sci-fi and fantasy novels?
It happened mainly when I was plotting it all out but I read sci-fi and young adult books while growing up. The world-creation is both a blessing and a curse. With Jessica, it is grounded in the real world, so you have to think your way logically around any plot points. With sci-fi, you can make up anything you want – so it’s balancing that with creating a cohesive and plausible world. That and making sure the story is still about the characters and not the concept. I also deliberately tried something new, so Silver is all first-person. It makes the books very different, not just in content but style too.

Going back to your crime series, in Locked In we meet a young, hungry, feisty Jessica Daniel. With the fourth book in the series soon to come out, has she changed much?

At the beginning of book one, she’s still finding her feet in a newish job, living with her best friend and wondering exactly what she wants to do with her life. By book four, she has changed through everything experienced through the first three. She’s more mature and a little calmer dealing with things but also has a greater awareness of what she’s capable of. Her personal life is ever-changing too and I try to balance the books in examining that as well as her work life.

Jessica Daniel’s been a consistent presence in your life for a while now. Do you ever feel like she’s leaning over your shoulder telling you what to write?
Not really, I can go away and do other things and come back to her. In terms of where her life is headed, I am quite a long way ahead.

I read somewhere that you plot your novels out in full before you start writing. When you start writing, however, do you find that sometimes things start going in a different direction to the one you planned?
Sometimes what I think is going to be a small plot point branches off and can become entire chapters, other times something I assumed would be big ends up being a paragraph. I tend to let the story tell itself. It’s easier to cut after it’s been written than write entirely new sections potentially months later.

You used to work as a journalist, thereby earning a living writing. But was writing fiction always your end goal?
I still work as a journalist! I never had any aspirations to be an author or to write fiction. It just sort of happened.

What made you decide to upload Locked In to Amazon, rather than submit it to agents and publishers? Or did you plan to submit to publishers eventually?
I uploaded it on a whim but I wasn’t too fussed about it. I only wrote for myself, to show that I could – or for something to do, depending on which way you want to look at it. My main goal was achieved by getting that far. I had a look into the agent/publisher thing and figured that I left school over a decade ago and barely did my homework then. My days of double-spacing and stamped address envelopes went out then. Essentially, I couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t want it that badly. As it was, I had over two-dozen agents come to me anyway, including the representatives of some very famous people.

What do you think helped Locked In to take off? Did you blog and use social media sites to spread the word? Did pricing play a significant role?
Social media is ridiculously overrated as a marketing tool. I like it because readers find me and let me know what they think of the books, and ask when the next one is out, etc – but that all comes after they’ve read my stuff. It’s a direct way of communicating with them. But I’m still not entirely sure how or why an endless stream of “buy my book” spam is meant to endear yourself to anyone. My books took off because of reasons as old as publishing itself: people read it, liked it, and told others. Word of mouth is the greatest marketing tool you’ll ever have. This endless stream of self-publishing conferences and workshops are, for the most part, run by snake oil salesmen selling you a dream that doesn’t exist. They’re certainly not run by successful self-publishers and, as far as I know, no successful self-publishers have ever emerged from these things. It really annoys me that these people use my name as an example in their marketing, which happens a lot.

I concentrated on getting a lot of little technical things as right as I could with my actual ebooks and the listings – but I figured it out for myself. Indeed, the thing most successful self-publishers share is that they found their own way to make things happen – either by coming up with their own marketing plan, concentrating on aspects relating to the format, or other things. Anything you could ever be told in any of these workshops is something that thousands of other people are already doing. Plus, they forget the number one thing: Write something people might want to read.

Pricing is also overstated as a reason for success. Locked In was a pound – but so are tens of thousands of other books. There are a bunch of 20p books from traditional publishers out there too. It was important in giving people a reason to buy – among others – but actually tens of thousands of readers returned, paying more to buy the Jessica Daniel sequels because they were invested in the character.

Some people think the key is selling everything as cheaply as you can but the actual goal is give something a sense of worth. For self-publishers who actually want a publishing deal (I never courted one), selling yourself for 99p is probably the worst thing you can do. It depends what your end goal is.

You now have a six-book deal with Pan Macmillan. Aside from that being a fantastic achievement, I’d imagine that going from being an indie to handing over the reins to a big publisher might also be a bit scary?
Yes and no. I’m still running the listings and will be for another month or so yet. The odd dynamic is that, to a degree, I know as much about e-publishing as they do. What that means is that I’ve shared all sorts of knowledge with them, which I would hope and expect them to use at least when it comes to my own listings. The main reason to go with a big publisher is that they can get you into places you can’t get yourself. Print books still outsell ebooks. I had nothing to lose by taking their offer.

Now that you have an agent and an editor, are they the first to see your work? Or do you have a muse or muses you run it by first?
I still work in the exact way I did when I started writing – everything gets finished before I hand it over to anyone. I know why I would want to read or watch something and hang everything I do on that in regards to pacing and characterisation. I wouldn’t want anyone’s input before I’m finished. After that, I’m happy to listen.

Have you read many books by other self-published authors?
I haven’t read any… but then I don’t get time to read that much anyway.

And finally, what does the future hold for Jessica Daniel? Has she been snapped up for a TV dramatisation yet?
It’s in the same state as any of these things: agents looking to push things. I don’t worry about it.

Thanks for joining me Kerry, and best of luck with the launch of The Silver Blackthorn Trilogy and the continuing Jessica Daniel series. Visit Kerry’s website to find out more about his books and other news.

An interview with author Mel Sherratt

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This week I talk to gritty crime writer Mel Sherratt, who stormed up the Kindle charts with her debut novel Taunting The Dead. Now she’s just released her second book, Somewhere To Hide, which is promising to be just as successful, and she’s got a third novel on the way.

What inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve always been interested in writing – from as far back as writing short stories in exercise books at school. I just love words – writing and reading. And I’ve always wanted to write a book. To see my name on the cover, see what people have to say about it – that’s always special and a great motivator.

Have you always wanted to write about crime specifically?

Strangely enough, I think my writing was influenced by my reading and I’ve come full circle. My early attempts of writing a book were more crime thriller (even though I was into reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz) – actually I still love my first idea which was a kind of paranormal, psychological thriller…I may write it one day now I’ve learned how to do it! I then started to read the greats such as Marian Keyes, Adele Parks and Lisa Jewell and my writing attempts were then lighter but with a working class edge. And then my writing just went darker. I decided to study more crime thrillers and wrote Somewhere To Hide. And then I took it one stage further and wrote Taunting The Dead, predominantly a police procedural.

When I read Taunting the Dead, I found myself both attracted to and revolted by the villainous Terry Ryder. Where did you get the inspiration for his character from?

Thanks so much for reading it. Terry Ryder is actually based on a local business man that I have never met, nor would think he would be anything like him in real life! My only aim was to create a good-looking charmer who is a ruthless and dangerous man underneath. I wanted readers to like him one minute and loathe him the next. And of course there are lots of screen bad boys that I could use as inspiration too.

DS Allie Shenton’s marriage certainly got put to the test in Taunting the Dead. I got the impression she’s capable of sabotaging a good thing…

Wow, that’s a great impression to get, thanks. Yes, Allie is a passionate soul. I always intended her to be a likeable person, at home and at work. I wanted her to be warm yet vulnerable and strong at the same time. I also wanted a character that was content within a loving relationship but may or not be tempted when the situation arose. And I think it depended on your views around infidelity if you really liked her or not…

What are you writing next? Will we see more of Allie Shenton?

I’m just about to start finishing off the second novel in The Estate series, Behind A Closed Door, which is out in October. The main character in this one is Josie Mellor. She’s a housing officer so it’s about some of the cases she deals with on the estate, as well as some of her work life around domestic violence starting to mirror her home life.

DS Allie Shenton is a tricky one. There are so many people asking me to write the next one but for me, I think the success of Taunting The Dead was partly because the book was set around a ‘did she, didn’t she’ question. There is a lot of sexual tension and obviously there can’t be that in the next book. I’m worried that it then might become too ‘ordinary.’  Scary stuff, although at this moment in time, I do intend to bring out another Allie Shenton book. When? Hmm…

When you write, do you plan the whole story carefully before you start writing, or do you let the story evolve as you write?

I do a bit of both. I start with the characters and their stories and this usually gives me a rough beginning, middle and end. Then I interlink the sub plots and create about twenty chapters consisting of bullet points. Those twenty chapters turn into about forty as I draft the story out. But I do let the characters dictate – which sounds bizarre as I am the writer – but if a character goes off plot, I know it’s for a reason and as I always write a quick ‘dirty’ first draft, I can figure out what I need to happen as a result of those changes later in the second draft.

Do you have a muse or someone you frequently go to for honest feedback on your writing?

I have five people. I have my best friend from my home town who isn’t a writer, I have three writer friends and also my mum. I have to say they are all extremely honest, to the point of being brutal but that’s what I need to hear. Fresh eyes always make something better in my opinion.

When do you know you’ve finished writing your book?

Once I’ve finished with it, and my five readers have come back to me with their thoughts, I do one more draft and then I’m done writing wise.  I send the book off to a copy editor and she checks through it for me. Because I’ve self-published them, I then read the script three times before uploading it so I can spot/change any tiny amendments, even plot-wise if I still feel the need. Once it’s uploaded, then I can say it’s finished.

As a writer, you’re bound to have had your fair share of rejections from publishers. How have you learned to overcome that?

Rejection has been a biggie for me. I took the last one really hard last year after four months of hoping and going a step further and a step further, but as a writer you need to learn to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and carry on. Also, in the case of Somewhere To Hide, not writing something that fitted into a genre mould has meant it’s been harder for me. But I do believe in what I write and thankfully readers have enjoyed it.

What other obstacles have you had to overcome in your writing career?

I suppose it would have to be trying to overcome self-doubt – although it still gets to me every now and then. I mean, really, I sold how many books!

What would your top tip be to all aspiring novelists out there?

Always keep honing your craft, playing with words, read others to learn from and, above all, love what you do. Trust your gut reaction. And if you’re after a book deal, never give up!