Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Ask yourself this


I was reading The Guardian recently and wondering why the Review section doesn't have a column for aspiring writers. Actually, that's a bit of a fib. I know why because I proposed such a piece and they politely declined, saying they prefer to commission in-house or to work with people they already have a relationship with.

However, my point still stands. Where - blogs aside - are the advice columns from aspiring writers? The ones who don't say 'this is what worked for me and here's the proof', but do say 'this never worked for me at all' or even 'this seems to be working for me although you won't find my books on the shelves yet'?

Despite the well-worn advice to be original, I suspect most writers are looking for a route into publication that has been at least tiptoed through by somebody else. And yet, ironically, each of us is nothing like anybody else. Which is why I thought I'd use this post to do the kind of interview I'd like to see in a writing magazine.

These are the rules:
a) No links.
b) No plugs.
c) Ask yourself and answer the questions you think other people (especially other writers) might want to know about you.
d) Be honest.

Here we go then...

1. What sort of writer are you?
I ask myself that everyday. My standard response is that I write fiction, non-fiction and comedy. But the truth is that I don't know what sort of writer I am. I write for fun / personal fulfilment, I write for cash and I wrote for ambition. Strangely - or luckily - for me, these competing masters rarely conflict. It's as if the respective muses have organised a timetable. So, short answer: I haven't figured that one out yet.

2. Will you ever self-publish a novel again?
Previously, I'd have said no, as it was a labour of love and relied on some expert help from friends. However, lately I've been thinking about why I started writing in the first place and that was for two reasons: to work through the story myself and to have my work read. It's only time, money and my expectations of what conventional publication will do for my work that keep me rooting for the traditional model. Plus I'd love to do a book signing.

3. You're working on your fifth novel - does it get easier?
Yes, because I think you recognise the process and you learn to trust yourself and the muse more. The story evolves and sometimes it goes places you hadn't envisaged. That can be scary and frustrating, but I think it's preferable to having a contrived tale that only meets your requirements. I can't speak for other writers but I definitely do not write only for myself. 

4. What does success look like to you?
Five novels, five ISBNs and a five-figure sum. Also, the experience of collaboration on projects that take me into unfamiliar territory - plays, TV and more radio. I'm both fascinated and envious by the way some writers and performers end up in interesting places because they move in circles where those opportunities are possible. They get to extend their boundaries and develop more of their potential. Writing, as we know, is a solitary business much of the time, so having the right people around you can create unexpected adventures.

5. If money wasn't an issue, would you still write fiction, non-fiction and comedy?
Yes, with changes. I'd pick the freelance work carefully, I'd concentrate on the novels and I'd develop my own comedy projects (and complete others I started way back). I'd also love to do more gratis work to give other people a leg up.

6. How many book rejections have you had overall?
In excess of 100, spread across three novels and four humour books. And yes, that has stung a little over the course of the years. On the plus side, I saved on a roll or two of wallpaper in the downstairs loo. (And loo roll too.)

7. Social media - Holy Grail or crock of crap?
Holy crap. I think my mindset has changed around social media and for me it's more a means of connecting with writers and readers than a PR or sales portal. Apart from blogging and tweeting, I wouldn't miss the rest.

8. What advice would you give to your younger writer self?
Be courageous. Take chances. And, most importantly, live fully so that your writing has maturity and depth. Also, while I have his ear, learn quickly and move on. Don't get stuck in fixed ideas about writing, people or even yourself. Make life an adventure sooner and stop waiting for something interesting to happen. (Although, frankly, that did result in an interesting book.)

9. Any regrets as a writer?
Well, apart from whatever you can pick from the bones of my previous answers, there's the toll it takes on the other areas of your life.

Plus, I'd heard of golf widows before, but I didn't know about writing widows.
Writing is part of living, and not the other way around.

Genuinely, I regret not being able to help other writers more and vice versa. I think we either gravitate to other writers at our level or those are just the people we encounter. Sometimes it can seem like a wonderfully supportive club of fellow creatives; sometimes it feels like a buzzy competitive space; and some days it just feels like we're rats trapped in a bucket, trying to bite the hands of passing agents and editors as they waft overhead, out of reach.

Mostly I regret not getting more of an education - and by that I don't just mean qualifications. I'm talking about a greater awareness of culture and having greater creative aspirations and ambitions from a younger age. Fundamentally, I think, it's a class thing.

10.  Do you actually enjoy being a writer because it doesn't always sound like it?
Absolutely. I enjoy all of it in a way - even the despondency of rejection, the agonies of editing (and then re-editing) and the confrontational challenge of the blank page. We are fortunate to live in a place and a time when we can express our ideas so freely and quickly, and reach some kind of audience within minutes. We take that for granted, but it's a privilege many others don’t have.


Okay, I'm done. So, I have two gauntlets to cast down for you:

Firstly, to my fellow Strictly Writers, to interview themselves in a similar fashion.

Secondly, to our readers. I'll answer any writing-related question about my writing practice, my experience of the world of publishing (mostly from the outside!), or about the wonderful world of freelancing.

Don't be shy now.

9 comments:

Vivien Ayinotu said...

I love the write-up. Pls what would you tell a poor writer like me who gets the 'block' and wants to jump to a different chapter?

Derek Thompson said...

Hi Vivien. In my experience, when I get writer's block with a piece of fiction it's because I don't feel fully in touch with what I'm writing about. So it could be that I don;t know the character well enough to tell what he or she would do next, or he situation I'm writing about isn't grounded in reality sufficiently for me.

One solution might be to do more research (even if you're writing fantasy fiction there will be rules to your world) or create more facts myself. Alternatively, you could approach the scene or situation from a different angle. Maybe it needs someone else's perspective in the book, or it could even be that a scene isn't working because it doesn't flow as a consequence of the last scene and you're trying to apply too rigid a structure to the book. Sometimes the characters want a different story than the one we want to write.

Jumping to a later chapter only works, I think, if your book is very carefully plotted in advance. Otherwise you risk having to write a bridging piece purely to take you from Point A (where you stopped) to Point c (where you jumped to and carried on writing). Those bridging pieces can feel contrived to a reader.

Finally, if the piece you want to jump to is early in the book, perhaps that's where you ought to be starting and everything before it could be told in a different way (flashbacks are a controversial topic, but they can be done well)?

Hope that helps and thanks for your question.
Derek

Samantha Tonge said...

We've had about the same amount of rejections then, Derek - and are both still standing!

What's the single most important thing for you about writing? For me, i have to admit, it has been getting published, because that encompasses getting official validation, getting an audience - and getting paid.
Yet i know writers who certainly don't feel the same and eg for them the most important thing is the satisfaction of writing a great piece of prose..

Sam

Derek Thompson said...

Hiya Sam, I think I'm in the same camp as you. Sometimes writing something is like working through a set of problems, or bringing order to chaos. I only know I've done that successfully if someone else can read it and make sense of it, or feel the things I felt when writing it. Any satisfaction I get from writing something is tempered with the foreknowledge of edits to come, along with all the other ideas edging forward for my writing time!

Vivien Ayinotu said...

Thanks Derek that was helpful.

Kirsty said...

What does success look like? I'm finding that it's a bit of a shape-shifter, but in my dreams it looks like a traditional book deal and a tidy advance that allows me to write full time more or less. In reality, it's starting to look more like any kind of sales at all, some reader appreciation, and s temporary reprieve from the breadline! But even now, when I really FEEL successful is when I've done some work on the WIP. That says something I think. Great post Derek.

Kirsty said...

What I wanted to ask you, Derek, is how you are using social media to promote your self published novel, and what results have you seen?

Derek Thompson said...

Hi Kirsty and thanks for commenting. All writers, I think, walk that line between fantasy and reality, shifting our expectations to match our perspective. I won't quote you the figures, but most authors earn a small annual income from writing and rely on a second 'real world' job to support their artistic endeavours - none of which should deter us. Some victories may seem small, but they are still victories and the choice is always to write or not to write. Choosing the former is what makes us writers.

Derek Thompson said...

Ah, social media...

Okay, for my self-published fantasy, Covenant, I used my own blog - www.alongthewritelines.blogspot.com - to talk about the process of writing the book, the central themes and any publishing adventures. The plan was to build up interest before I got to the actual launch. However, I also use the blog for other types of writing (including freelancing), so the blog itself isn't really geared up to serving a singular purpose.

I decided not to go with a website because I wanted to put Covenant (my book) OUT THERE, and also because I didn't have a strong enough following as a writer. i.e. Why would they come to my site.

Sue Louineau, a successful self-pubbed author and friend, recommended a giveaway strategy, and another friend and author, Villayat Sunkmanitu, recommends Facebook. Here's a combination of both options, along with my experience, in a nutshell:
1. Build up followers on Twitter.
2. Publish book and make it available on Amazon.
3. Reduce price or giveaway for a two-day period.
4. During this time, set up several tweets (I used Tweetdeck for that) and try different tweets - questions, humour, quotes, etc. Also try different hashtags (and research them beforehand).
5. Check out book review sites for your genre and arrange reviews.
6. As you'll have probably become part of ay least one writing community, arrange a blog tour where other people will interview you about your book in a blog post. Vary the focus of the posts - don't just make it eight generic questions.
7. I'm not a huge fan of Facebook. but other people wear by it (or at it). You can set up a book 'page' off your main FB account.
8. You can also try Networked blogs. It's easier to search for it than have me try to explain here!
9. Goodreads, Pinterest and Google+ may also be worth investigating.

And now the caveats:
a) Only commit time you can spare.
b) Engage with the community first because your success is dependent upon the support and efforts of others. No one likes a taker.
c) Experiment. If something doesn't work, do something else.
d) Even if you don't get sales from freebies, you may get reviews and they can be more valuable in the long run.

My novel is niche fantasy and I gave away 300 copies. Shortly afterwards I sold three dozen across ebook and paperback, and I make almost £3 per book. Price and genre are factors.

What you're looking for, in self promotion, is an angle. Why should people be talking about your book and you? Good luck!