Monday, 5 October 2020

Michael La Ronn Interview – SF, Fantasy and Freedom!

Michael La Ronn is a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels. He also teaches a course on the art of writing and is an enthusiastic podcaster and YouTuber. Here he tells me how he manages to do all that while holding down a full-time job!

You are an incredibly prolific writer. How many books have you published now?

By the time this post goes live, I'll be at 54 published books. 

You’ve written all those books while you are also holding down a full-time job. In addition to that you also do regular podcasts and teach courses. I’m wondering how you make time for all that? Are you a super disciplined writer? 

I am hyper-disciplined, to the point where I have cut pretty much everything out of my personal life that isn't writing. I rarely watch television or play video games anymore. Writing gets my full attention when I'm not at work or in law school classes. 

I became a writer after a near-death experience in 2012 and I realized that life is too short not to follow your passion. After that, it was pretty easy to make time for my writing.

Do you set yourself specific word counts to achieve daily? 

I don't set word counts on a daily basis except for when I'm writing. There are so many areas of my writing life that need my attention and my resources are so stretched that I don't always get to write every day. However, I know that most years I'll publish between 5-7 books rain or shine. I've had some years when I've done more than that. Because I'm so dedicated, the words always take care of themselves at the end of the year. 

What’s the thing you enjoy most about writing?

The freedom. I can write whatever I want, whenever I want, in whatever style I want, and get paid for it. It's energizing. 

And what’s the thing you dislike most about writing?

I dislike the fear and the self-doubt. It feels like one day I'll wake up and never have to worry about them again, but instead, it's a recurring, lifelong battle that every writer has to fight in their own way. When you understand that, it gets easier.

You’ve written both fantasy and science fiction books but I believe you have now committed to writing in the specific genre of ‘urban fantasy’. Why did you decide to do that? Was it because you found you enjoyed this genre more than the others, because you identified this genre as a profitable market or for some other reason?

I have written in a lot of genres, but I always find myself coming back to urban fantasy. I decided to dedicate my fiction to the genre after having so much fun writing my Magic Trackers series, which is about a dream mage. I love cities mashed with supernatural creatures and magic. 

Ironically, choosing the urban fantasy genre had nothing to do with profit as that series doesn't sell well. But I'm passionate about the stories I can tell in the urban fantasy genre and I know that the money will follow. 

I see you teach courses on Teachable (a platform for hosting and selling online courses). What are the main pros and cons of Teachable? Have you tried any other platforms (e.g. Udemy)?

The pros of Teachable are that it's easy to use, it pays monthly, and the user interface is good. The con of Teachable is the community aspect—it’s not desirable to build a community there around your courses, though they're working on that. I have looked into Udemy and other types of sites, but I prefer complete control over my pricing and content. 

What do you do to promote your courses?

I don't do anything to promote my courses other than feature them prominently on my website and mention them periodically on my YouTube channel and podcasts. My courses are typically quite in-depth and the opposite of what most are doing in the space right now, so I don't worry about promoting them too much. Usually the most driven writers in my audience buy them, and that's enough for me. 

I know you do a lot of research to make sure your books are optimised to target the correct readership. What would you say is the single most important thing an author can do to make sure that a book really leaps out at a potential reader who is browsing on Amazon?

The book cover is by far the most important thing an author can get right. Making sure you have a cover that matches other self-published books in your immediate subgenre can't be understated. It's a lesson that took me a long time to learn. 

How did you find your cover designers? And how do you go about commissioning a cover? Do you tell the designer exactly what you want or do you let the cover artist make those decisions?

I find my designers by looking at other books in the subgenre I want to write. I give the designer general ideas, but most importantly I give them a link to a Pinterest board with book covers that have a similar look to what I'm going for. 

I'm a believer in picking the right designer. If you pick the right person and give them good enough instructions, everything else follows, including a good design.

When promoting books, a self-published author is faced with a huge number of potentially expensive options: Facebook ads, Bookbub deals, Amazon ads – not to mention paying for covers, editors, web hosting, podcasts and so on. Let’s assume I’m a new writer with a total budget of $1000. How should I spend that?

If I were starting out today with a $1000 budget, here's how I'd spend my money:

  • Website Hosting with Bluehost: $150
  • Cover Design: $300
  • Copyeditor (only): $300 (assuming a 50K novel)
  • Scrivener (writing software): $50
  • Amazon Ads: $200

That'll get you going. You can create a respectable website with a free WordPress theme, produce your first book, and have a decent Amazon Ads budget for your first book. Start there, and then keep evolving. 

Do you think podcasting is something that all authors should think of doing? Recording regular podcasts must take up a lot of time. Do they gain you many readers?

Podcasting is not for everyone, nor should every writer consider it. It’s best for “verbal” people—ideally, people who excel at communication. If that’s not you, then don’t do it. If you want to improve your communication skills and are willing to do the work, then definitely do it. 

I have three podcasts at the moment:

The Writer’s Journey, which is an audio blog of me talking about my struggles and successes as a writer every week. It’s a behind the scenes look at a working writer’s life. I turn on the mic and talk about what’s on my mind. 

Writing Tip of the Day, which is a podcast for writers that offers a crisp writing tip in 5 minutes or less.

AskALLi Member Q&A, a podcast with The Alliance of Independent Authors (a nonprofit for self-published writers), where we answer the most common self-publishing questions.

I’ve never seen my podcasts as “reader magnets” though my listens have increased month after month for the past two years. 

Instead, I view my podcasts as a strategy to engage with my audience. It gives them something to consume to get to know me on a deeper level. If you like my books, you’ll like my podcasts. I’ve been fortunate that my podcasts happen to drive sales for me, but that was never the main goal.

Which podcast service do you use? Is it worth paying a company to host podcasts or are free services such as anchor.fm good enough?

I use Libsyn. They’re affordable and I’ve never had a problem with them. 

I like Anchor.FM (I was even a guest on their podcast a few years ago), but I prefer complete control over my content. Anchor.FM comes with some limitations. Freedom is worth paying for.

Finally, for a reader who doesn’t usually read science fiction or fantasy, can you recommend one of your SF books and one fantasy book.

Science fiction readers will love my Android X series, about an android special agent in the year 2300 who hunts down rogue androids with his human engineer. It’s a fast-paced thriller in the future. 

Fantasy readers will love my Last Dragon Lord series, about a blood-thirsty dragon lord who seeks revenge against the conspiracy that overthrew him. It’s a dark revenge tale that is very unpredictable. 

And what about other authors – can you pick one great science fiction book and one great fantasy book?

I’ll default to my favorites. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for science fiction and American Gods by Neil Gaiman for fantasy. You can’t go wrong with either of those. 



Michael La Ronn
is the author of over 40 science fiction & fantasy books including the Android X series, Modern Necromancy series, and the Galaxy Mavericks series. He writes from the great plains of Iowa and has perfected the art of balancing writing with a full-time job and family, writing 5-7 books per year. 

www.michaellaronn.com

www.authorlevelup.com

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Sarah Woodbury Interview – Mystery and Romance in Medieval Wales

Maybe you think that novels set in Mediaeval Wales must be a minority interest? Sarah Woodbury would prove you wrong. With sales over a million books, she is a self-published phenomenon. Here she tells me how an American woman became so fascinated by ancient Wales – and how she turned that passion into a thriving publishing business…

Your books are set in mediaeval Wales. Given that you live in America, what even made you think of writing about Wales?

My family had always had the tradition that we had Welsh ancestry, but until I started researching it myself, I couldn’t have told you how I was Welsh. The name Woodbury is very traditionally Saxon, derived from the Saxon god ‘Woden’ and mean’s ‘Woden’s Fort’, but further research showed that one of my ancestors, William Woodbury, joined the church in Salem, Massachusetts in 1638 self-identifying as a Welshman. 

As it turns out, in addition to that tantalizing bit of information, I am also descended from a host of Morgans, Thomases, Kemries, Johns, Rhuns etc.  The line I’ve researched most successfully descends from Llywelyn ap Ifor born around 1300. Many generations later, Anna and Robert Morgan, sister and brother, married into my family line, again in Massachusetts in the 17th century. Through that family, I am descended from Gruffydd ap Cynan, the great 12th century King of Gwynedd and his grandson, the Lord Rhys, ruler of Deheubarth until his death in 1197.

All of this I discovered once I started researching my ancestry, initially as a homeschooling research project with my daughter in the late 1990s. Ten years earlier, I had attended University of Cambridge in England. During one holiday, I was able to visit Wales for the first time. I have particular memories of going to Conwy Castle and walking along the battlements, astounded to think that seven hundred years earlier men and women had lived and died within its walls. To say I fell in love with Wales at that point would not be an understatement. From Cambridge, I continued in academia, ultimately getting a Ph.D. in anthropology. Though my research wasn’t initially directed at Wales, because my focus was on ethnicity and nationalism, it was easy to pivot to Welsh history and culture once I started writing novels.

You must have to do a lot of research. How do you go about that? 

Because I have a Ph.D., I have an extensive background in research, and once I developed an interest in Wales, I read everything I could get my hands on, both fiction and nonfiction, about it. The internet has been a boon to access to obscure documents and books, and Google Earth can be a lifesaver if I can’t quite remember the dimensions of a place or a particular road or castle. We have also traveled to Wales for a research trip almost every year since 2012, though sadly it’s been over a year since we’ve been there due to the current pandemic.

Your Welsh pronunciation is remarkably good – even the difficult “Ll” and “Rh”. Have you learnt to speak Welsh? If so, how did you do that?

It’s really great to hear you say that! I have been learning Welsh since the fall of 2013, mostly through a website called ‘Say Something in Welsh’ but also during our trips there. Truly, I remain an abject beginner, but I try!

You make a lot of very interesting YouTube videos about the history of mediaeval Britain. Can you give me some idea of your video-making process?

My husband is the video taker and producer, and over the last eight years he has compiled an extraordinary amount of video. The idea of creating a series came from wanting to share all that research with my readers, above and beyond what can be culled from my novels themselves. I also wanted to give people the opportunity to delve a little more into British history, to understand the context of the books and why I love Wales and writing novels set in the medieval period. Procedurally, generally I write the script, we shoot me talking about the place, and then my husband shapes the footage around what I’m saying.

Do you know how most of your readers discover you? Is it by browsing Amazon, through your YouTube videos or some other way?

I don’t know for certain, but I think there are three primary ways: word of mouth from friends/family who’ve read my books, Facebook, and Bookbub featured deals. I would like to think that some people have found my books through the videos, but I don’t know how much that is true, and it isn’t their primary purpose.

Do you have a specific target audience in mind when you are writing? If so, how important is it to stick within the traditions of a certain ‘genre’?

When I first started writing, I had no notion of genre at all. The After Cilmeri series, in particular, crosses multiple genres. Honestly, I’m glad now I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I started out, because I think that’s part of its appeal. That said, there’s something to the idea of giving readers what they expect, which is why we have genres in the first place. 

As to writing to a target audience, for my own work, I think it’s dangerous or can be the death of creativity to think too much about who’s going to read a book and if what you’re writing is what they expect. Clearly, there’s a balance here that every author has to navigate.

For a new reader, which of your books would you recommend reading first?

It depends! I have five series set in medieval Wales, so lots to choose from. Do you like mysteries? Start with The Good Knight or Crouchback. Time travel? Read Daughter of Time (the prequel) or Footsteps in Time (book 1) from the After Cilmeri series. Many of my books are appropriate for teens, and if they like historical fantasy, maybe they’d like The Last Pendragon Saga first. Or lovers of King Arthur should begin with Cold My Heart.

I’m not helping at all, am I? 

Can you recommend any books by other authors (either fact or fiction) that give an insight into mediaeval Wales?

The go-to books for me are first by Edith Pargeter (The Brothers Gwynedd) and writing as Ellis Peters, The Brother Cadfael series. Second, I would read Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy which includes Here be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning.

You obviously put in a lot of effort to keep in touch with your readers – not just the YouTube videos but also an active blog and a newsletter. If you only had time to do one of those activities which would it be? I’m interested to know which of those you think really helps most to attract new readers and build a solid fan base.

Only one? The newsletter is really important because it’s a definitive way to reach all the people who’ve read my books and asked to be notified when I have a new release. But Facebook is hugely important to me for community and to get to know readers personally, and for them to get to know me. I also can’t imagine functioning without a personal web page. And Youtube has become a big part of my non-novel content, and a way to engage readers.

If I was talking to a new author, I would say that at a bare minimum they need a personal website and newsletter, and then a Facebook author page as part of their outreach to readers.

Do you do anything else to promote or advertise your books?

I pay for ads at Facebook, Amazon, and Bookbub, plus various other small sites. It is an important aspect of my business plan. 

How well does Bookbub work for you? 

Very, very well. The first book in four of my series is free, and the Bookbub promotions for those free books bring in a significant percentage of my newest readers.

Your books have very striking covers. Can you explain the process you go through when getting covers designed?

How kind of you to say! Especially since I design them myself.

I started out the first year of indie publishing designing my covers myself, with ‘design’ hardly coming into it. I sold 30,000 books that year anyway, but that was because readers were desperate for content for their e-devices and overlooked how bad my covers really were. For several years, Flip City Media designed my covers, and thankfully when she stopped that part of her business, she gave me all my Photoshop files so I could learn on my own—which initially was just copying what she had done. But imitation is the purest form of flattery, right?

Since then, I have learned a lot and informed by the process of writing the book. At some point, usually about 1/3 of the way into the first draft, I start itching to create the cover, and start casting around for ideas. Some covers come quickly, and some have gone through a dozen permutations. I have also changed all my covers at least once, and some three or four times until I settle upon what I have now.

You also do audio books. Is that difficult (or expensive) to do?  How do you pick a narrator? And do the sales fully justify the costs?

My sales fully justify the costs, but I sell a great many audiobooks. I first started out in 2014 with a royalty share through ACX with my first narrator. I then switched to paying outright for them, which is a much better way to do it and has allowed me to convert to non-exclusive contracts with Amazon for three of my series, so my audiobooks are now available at all retailers as well as in libraries. My husband found my new narrator, who is Welsh, online, and I feel super lucky to have him narrating my books. 

Can you tell me why you decided to self-publish?

That is a very long story, but I decided to take the plunge in January 2011 because I had an agent who was unable to sell my books to a publisher. In fact, my books have, quite literally, been rejected by every publisher in New York!

What benefit is an agent to an independently published author? 

At this juncture for me, none. I no longer say on my website that I have an agent, though if I ever wanted to submit a book to him, he would look at it.

In your writing and publishing career to date, what has been your biggest mistake? 

Not viewing publishing as a business from the start in 2011 when I published my books myself. Earlier, I said it was good in a way that I didn’t understand genre when I first started writing, but that was five years earlier. Once I started publishing, I needed to understand better what readers expected in terms of covers and blurbs/summaries, and I spent years trying to get them right. Fortunately, they are something an indie author can change at will.

More recently, it was a huge mistake to enroll two of my series in Kindle Unlimited in the spring of 2019. It really damaged my sales worldwide.

If you had to start all over again, what would you do differently?

You can always wish you’d done things differently, but I am who I am and where I am today because of what I have done over the last fourteen years. So I can’t regret that.

What has been your greatest success?

Deciding to self-publish in the first place. In fact, I routinely say that having my books rejected by every publisher in New York was the best thing that ever happened to me.


With over a million books sold to date, Sarah Woodbury is the author of more than forty novels, all set in medieval Wales. Although an anthropologist by training, and then a full-time homeschooling mom for twenty years, she began writing fiction when the stories in her head overflowed and demanded that she let them out. 

While her ancestry is Welsh, she only visited Wales for the first time at university. She has been in love with the country, language, and people ever since. She even convinced her husband to give all four of their children Welsh names. 

Monday, 13 July 2020

Iain Rob Wright interview – Apocalyptic Fun!

If you enjoy apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction or just like to be scared by a good book, you will almost certainly be familiar with the name Iain Rob Wright. With dozens of best-selling books on Amazon, Iain has gained a loyal fan-base of readers eagerly awaiting his next chilling story. Here Iain tells me how he began writing and what is his secret of success…

How did you become a published novelist? Did you decide right away that you would go it alone? Or did you go the traditional route of papering your room with rejection slips?

I knew that traditional publishing would be a long slog filled with disappointment and resentment, so when I learned about KDP, that’s the route I went. I didn’t want someone else’s permission to be a writer and I also wanted things to be immediate.

Mankind is about to become extinct. The world’s best scientists are baffled when bizarre, immovable black stones appear across the globe. Society spirals into panic when the stones begin to ‘wake up’.

Has traditional publishing had its day now? I mean, is there any good reason why a writer should go through agents and get deals with publishers?

No. Traditional Publishing isn’t going anywhere, and they will continue to make their money from celebrity cookbooks, autobiographies, and massive IPs such as Harry Potter and Jack Reacher. Mainstream fiction is no longer theirs to control, however, and that’s a great thing for many reasons.

What has been the toughest challenge (apart from the writing itself!) in becoming successful author?

Staying power. Sales are in a constant state of decline, and it’s only willpower and ingenuity that lifts them. There are certainly good times in terms of sales, but the low points can take a lot out of you, and it always seems like a disaster when you’re there.

Why do you think apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) fiction is so popular?

Because it’s terrifying, and people like to be scared in a controlled environment such as reading.

Has COVID-19 changed that? I mean, don’t people want complete escapism when we are in the middle of a pandemic?

I don’t think the virus has changed what people enjoy reading, although it has given some people more time to read. If you liked apocalyptic fiction before COVID, then I’m guessing you'll still like it now. It’s make-believe, fun, and a great way to face fear head on, which is always healthy.


Grieving alcoholic Harry Jobson expected to end his night facedown in vomit like most nights down the pub. But when the body of a mangled teenager crashes through the pub’s front window, Harry is forced to sober up and be the man he used to be.

How did you go about publicising and marketing your first novel, ‘The Final Winter’?

I didn’t. I published it in 2011 with a homemade cover and that was enough. Things were a lot easier back then.

And how has your approach to publicising and marketing changed now?

I have spent over £150,000 on Facebook marketing now and my career has greatly benefited from that spending power. I was forced to learn online marketing in order to get people to find my books and buy them. I would prefer to focus on writing, but unfortunately the business is very competitive, and it takes many other skills to be successful.

What do you do when you can’t think what to write?

I can always write, and a little bit of thinking is all I need to get myself unstuck. Writer’s block usually comes from not having planned out your book well enough beforehand.

Cheryl is about to learn that the people she works with are keeping a secret. One they are willing to kill for. 

I read in one interview you did that Bookbub was (at that time) your number one sales promoter. I’ve just had a look at Bookbub’s charges. It looks incredibly expensive. Do you still use Bookbub much? Does it justify the cost?

Yes, I still use Bookbub. It isn’t as profitable as it once was, but I have never lost money on any of the two dozen deals I have had with them. For a writer starting out, it provides even more value as it provides a massive amount of new readers.

In your interview with Joanna Penn last year you said that Facebook advertising began as a disaster for you but ended up incredibly profitable. What did you change?

Honestly, I don’t know. It just worked the second time, and it’s never worked as well since. I remember targeting people with Kindles and that made a difference. I also chose to target other books than I did on my first attempt.

What about Amazon advertising? Some authors say it’s vital. Others don’t bother with it? What’s been your experience?

I have tried and tried, but it just doesn’t seem to do much for me. I still rely on Facebook ads.

Have you been able to figure out how most readers ‘discover’ you for the first time?

Facebook ads mostly, followed by personal recommendations between friends and families.

You give away a lot of your books? Why?

Because I can. I have over thirty now, so giving away books is a great way to entice people to buy the ones they don’t have. Also, it’s nice to give in such cut-throat times.

How important do you think a good cover is? And what do you think makes a good cover?

It’s vital. Vital. Look at traditional bestsellers and copy them. People look for designs they recognise and feel comfortable with, not fancy paintings or artwork. Each genre has certain conventions, and you ignore them at your peril.

Martin Gable is a boy becoming a man, but nothing can prepare him for the evil that has entered his home.

Have you ever changed a cover and, if so, did that have any impact on sales of the book?

Many times, and yes. My first covers were comic book style digital paintings – and awesome – but they were all wrong. My covers now are more in line with traditional publishing and sales have increased.

When someone is browsing for a book on Amazon, you somehow have to convince them that your book is one they’d want to read. What do you think is the most important way to grab a potential reader’s attention – the book title, cover, blurb or something else?

Book Cover > Book Title > Product Page/Blurb > Sample Chapter/Preview = Sale.
If at any point readers are not convinced by any of these items, you don’t get the sale. Therefore, all are important.

If you were starting out all over again in your writing career, what would you do differently?

I would start a mailing list from day 1. It’s never too early to start gathering your readers into a place where you can influence


One of Horror's most respected authors, Iain Rob Wright is the writer of more than twenty books, many of them bestsellers.

Iain’s web site is : www.iainrobwright.com where you can get five of his books free!

 

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

London Noir – Greg Keen’s Soho Success Story

As soon as I saw the covers of Greg Keen’s novels I could see that here was a kindred spirit. They are dark and neon-lit so I knew I had to interview Greg for Dark Neon. Here Greg tells me not only about his writing but also about the benefits of working with his publisher, Thomas & Mercer – who happen to be a branch of Amazon!

What makes you want to write?

I think it’s basically a compulsive urge otherwise it would be difficult to face the amount of rejection tyro novelists almost inevitably face, including me. Where the compulsion comes from, I’ve no idea.

How much of your Soho novels is based on your own experiences and how much is pure invention?

The places are mostly disguised venues I’ve visited at some point. Very few are entirely invented.  

What’s your approach to research? I’m assuming you have never actually been a private detective or socialised with gangsters. So how did you find out what that world is like?

Right on both counts! I worked for a publishing company based in Soho for ten years and became obsessed with the place. There are a number of books about the area, many about criminals and criminal activity. Much research came from these.

Do you outline your novels before you start writing or do you just ‘go with the flow’?

I’m very much a plotter and usually write a lengthy document outlining the story. This always changes as I write - one character often pushes to the front  - although having the safety net of a plot gives me the confidence to improvise. 

On Amazon, I see that your novels are ranked in ‘Humourous Dark Comedy’,  ‘Noir Crime’, ‘Private Investigator Mysteries’, ‘Mystery’ and ‘Suspense’. Is it useful for an author to be categorised in specific genres? In fact, is it useful for an author deliberately to target a novel at a specific genre?

I’d say yes. It’s important to think about the genre requirements. That doesn’t mean they should stifle originality, just be aware that readers (and publishers) will expect certain ingredients to be in the mix. 

On your web site you say that you train and coach sales people, account managers and others. Can you explain (briefly) what that means?  Who are the people you teach and what, of practical benefit, do they learn?

I help media organisations and ad agencies pitch their services using narrative techniques. This allows them to show how they differ from their competitors in an engaging and memorable way. In addition to this, I also coach writers.

Your novels are published by Thomas & Mercer which is, I believe, a branch of Amazon. Did they approach you or did you approach them?

They were on my agent’s radar and she approached them along with conventional publishers.

What are the benefits of publishing with Thomas & Mercer compared with self-publishing?

Thomas & Mercer are great people to work with in general and I can’t imagine having a better developmental editor. By far and away the stand-out advantage is when it comes to marketing though. 

Based on your professional profile, I assume that you are super-good at marketing in a way that most writers aren’t? If so, what’s your top tip to help us do more effective marketing?

Actually, I don’t have a marketing background so am probably not the best person to ask. Also, as Thomas & Mercer is a division of Amazon, that means its marketing clout is considerable, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Do you do any advertising (for example, Amazon or Facebook) for your novels? If so, what, if anything, have you found works well?

Not really. Again having Amazon as your publisher is a huge advantage in this area.

Did you succeed in getting your first novel published right away or did you spend a few years starving in a garret papered with rejection slips?

Very much the latter. Soho Dead – the first book in the trilogy – was the fourth full length novel I completed. The first draft was rejected by several agents and entirely re-written twice. Winning the CWA Debut Dagger was a huge advantage in getting the book read by prospective agents.

What advice would you give to someone who is writing a novel for this first time?

Get your first draft down as quickly as possible. Many writers don’t finish as they are trying to write and edit at the same time. It's amazing how much your second draft can improve, but you do need to get to the end.

What are you writing now?

A book about a crime novelist and a serial killer. It isn’t specifically based in Soho, although a couple of characters find their way there.


Greg Keen is the author the Soho Series of urban noir crime novels. He lives in and writes about London.

Greg provides coaching services for writers at www.novelbuilder.co.uk 

Friday, 12 June 2020

Tony McHale Interview – The Art and Craft Of Writing, from TV to Novels

For the inside information on the art, craft and business of writing, you won’t do better than talking to Tony McHale. His writing credits are jaw-dropping. Having written scripts for many of the best known TV series – ranging from The Bill to EastEnders – he is also an actor and, most recently, a novelist. Tony is passionate about writing and (luckily for us!) he is very free with advice for other writers. Here I talk to Tony about everything from the ‘rules’ of good writing (and how to break them!) to the pros and cons of self-publishing…

Tony McHale has written for many hugely popular TV dramas. Check his bio on IMDB https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0570370/ and Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_McHale.

Ever since the 1970s, you’ve written an amazing number of scripts for theatre, radio and TV. Why did it take you so long to write a novel?

When I was an actor I started writing and directing stage plays, not as a means of making money, but because I loved that creativity.  Then, whilst driving home one night, I heard a rather horrific problem on an early days radio call-in show.  I found I couldn’t get it out of my mind so I wrote a radio play about it, which the BBC bought. 

From there I progressed onto TV and gradually the writing took over from the acting. I realised I much preferred writing and directing to acting, and if I had a choice between writing and directing, I’d choose writing. Nothing happens without a script – nobody works.  Through the whole of the 80s I was working flat out on TV dramas and didn’t have the time to even think about writing a novel. Then suddenly I thought, as a serious professional writer, I should write a novel.  At the end of the 80s I took time out from TV writing and started a novel only to have the process interrupted by a family drama, and somehow by the time the drama was over, I was back writing and directing TV projects.
Cut to 2016 and I made a conscious decision, because of the way the long running series were being run, the creativity having gone from them and format writing was the thing, that I needed to step back from them, which gave me the opportunity to write my first novel – BECK LE STREET. Now I’m on my third.

In terms of the writing process, what are the main differences between writing scripts and writing a novel?

A script for me is a shorthand version of a novel.  The same preparation goes into both, getting the plotting right, creating the characters – a script is just a more succinct way of telling the story.  Also, generally with a script, you’ll be working to a time frame. TV shows are, by the nature of scheduling, quite tight, not many of us want to sit through a five-hour screenplay. A novel is as long as it is. The character explorations are more thorough and descriptions of locations and atmospheres fuller. 

Having said that, I believe everything you put down in a novel, should be in your head when writing a script.  You should know your characters as if you’d written that prose description and equally location descriptions should be as detailed in your head, if not so much on the paper.  Novels allow you to explore avenues, you wouldn’t include in a screen play – at times it almost feels self-indulgent, but there again your reader needs to be able to ‘see’ every aspect, so they expect that amount of detail.  They don’t read a script, they just see it. Other than that, for me the story process is the same.  And as far as I’m concerned – story is god. Nail the story whether it’s a script or a novel. With a script you tell the story in a tighter, a more economical manner - it’s a great discipline. A novel you’re allowed to include all those bits you had to cut out of a script.

Tony’s series of lessons on the art and craft of writing is available now on YouTube.

You recorded some brilliant videos recently to advise and encourage would-be writers to get writing (You can watch the videos HERE). Do you think anyone can learn to write fiction or drama? Or do people in fact underestimate the effort and the skill needed?

I’d never tell anyone they couldn’t write fiction or drama; I think that’s something you have to learn for yourself, whether you’ve actually got what it takes.  But what I would say is that there are people who believe there is some sort of formula for writing drama.  I became aware of this many years ago when every producer and script editor at the BBC were being sent off to attend the Robert McKee Workshops. Robert McKee has toured the world telling people how to write using his particular formula. I’ve always doubted any formula is the solution to successful scriptwriting.  So I never say if you do ‘a’ then add ‘b’ minus ‘f’ it equals a script – because I don’t think it’s that simple.  I just like to offer up possible ways of working that hopefully make the process easier and more enjoyable.  What I call ‘by-passing the blank page syndrome.’ 

I champion ‘creativity.’ I want a writer, any writer, every writer, to be inspired to write. I don’t see how we can be creative if we’re all writing in the same way to the same formula.  Writing is about individualism, having your own voice, making the drama live - and I don’t see how that can happen adhering to some preordained structure.  There are lots of script writing gurus instructing people how to write and for me they cause more damage than good. Writers have to find themselves, find their own method, practice, practice, practice (in other words – write, write, write) and then there’s a chance they could create something special.

Watch the first episode of Tony’s ‘Write Time’ guides for writers.

Quite a few well-known writers have written books and essays about the art and craft of writing? Are there any that you can recommend (or, indeed, any that you would warn against)?

I’ll be honest the only one I ever really read was Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, I’ve skimmed lots of others and also attended The Robert McKee Workshop, I had to find out what all the fuss was about and the meaning of certain terminology that was being spouted by every editor throughout the land.  They all say very much the same, just using different jargon. And as I’ve explained I think it gives would-be writers the wrong impression, as if writing were like doing a maths puzzle – but a ‘first reversal’ and a great ‘mid-point’ does not guarantee a good script.  

The book I recommend everyone to read is William Goldman’s … Adventures in the Screen Trade.  Goldman wrote such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man and many, many more, he certainly didn’t use an A, B  and C of how to write a script. It’s an insight into the world of a professional writer and helps you the understand that it doesn’t matter how good you are, or what you’ve achieved, we all get treated the same.  

Some writers set out rules of good writing or good style. I’ve heard you say a few times that “there are no rules”. Can you think of any so-called “rules” of writing that you’ve broken – and explain why?

There’s this myth about writing that there are rules and patterns you have to follow.  One of the simplest is the rule about act structure.  It has to be a three-act structure, or a five act structure, I’ve even heard talk of a seven act structure. It’s often said that the three-act structure came from way back and is talked about in Aristotle’s Poetics.  In fact Aristotle was commenting on Greek tragedies, by observing that they all had a beginning, a middle and an end. There was no great theory with regards to three acts, it was just common sense.  I never consciously write in an act structure.  If I’m writing a stage play, then I know it’s going to be two acts. After an hour or so people need a loo break, a glass of wine, stretch their legs – whatever.  So I know I need to build to that act drop. But of course, in a half hour episode on the BBC there are no breaks, so I just write a story that fits the time slot.  Instinct tells you when the pace or direction of the story needs to change, not the number of pages you’ve written.  The same for an hour-long BBC drama.  If I’m writing for ITV, you’re suddenly into two acts for 30 minutes, whether you like it or not. The hour-long slot used to work for the theorists because it was three acts – then they added another commercial break, so it’s now four acts. How does that fit in with the rule?  

Basically, the story has to work – bottom line. If it helps to write with the idea of some act structure, then use it, I would say just don’t get hung up on it.  My belief is most things developed out of necessity.  An act in Elizabethan times was the length of time it took a candle to burn down and later in the 20th century when theatre going habits changed, gradually playwrights moved away from three acts to two, people no longer wanted to spend three and a half hours in a theatre.  For me all the so called rules are just common sense, instinct and/or necessity.

Most of your career has been devoted to writing scripts which must mean you’ve written a huge amount of dialogue. Not all novelists are good at dialogue. Have you got any tips to help them improve?

I think writing good dialogue is about hearing it.  Hear the voices of the characters in your head. To get that authenticity you need to constantly listen to people, their speech patterns, their phrases, their accents and their tones.  Once you’ve written the dialogue, especially if you’re starting out, read it out loud, then read it with someone and then if you can get some people to act it out, so much the better. You can constantly tweak as you move through each phase. I always end up reading out my dialogue, even if it’s to myself, because you should be able to feel when it jars.

What’s a typical writing day for you? Do you have a set routine? Do you set yourself a target – for example, to write a certain number of words each day?

I try and write every day, but I don’t have a set routine. This comes from when I was really flat out with TV scripts and I was constantly up against deadlines. So sometimes it would mean working way into the night, sometimes it meant getting up at three in the morning, sometimes it meant working round the clock. When I was starting out, I was an actor which meant I was either acting or fitting carpets, or loading lorries or whatever to make a buck, I had to write when I could. So I’ve never had a routine. What I do have though is an unfortunate habit of always believing I will get things written quicker than actually happens. It’s a sort of optimism, which I’ve never lost.  I do set myself targets, I need to get so much done before such and such a time – that can be words or it can be scenes.  It’s hit and miss whether I make it or not.

What do you do when you sit at your desk and you just can’t think what to write?

Taking on board there are no rules … I tend to plan quite thoroughly.  I don’t just set off blindly.  Things change on route, but I always know the direction I’m going. This means I rarely get writer’s block – if ever.  I might get to something that I need to sort out, clarify how something will work, but for me that’s just part of the process. I’m normally working on more than one thing at once, so if something needs serious thinking time, I just move onto another project. 

Many famous dramatists got their big break writing one-off plays for TV. But the days of ‘Armchair Theatre’ or ‘The Wednesday Play’ are long gone. How would someone go about getting their first chance at writing for TV these days?

I seriously lament the passing of ‘Armchair Theatre’ and the ‘Wednesday Play.’ I wrote a blog recently which was prompted by a re-viewing of Nell Dunn’s ‘Up The Junction.’  A lot of those writers had worked in theatre or written other things – Up The Junction was originally a set of short stories by Nell Dunn. And that part of it still remains good today. Writer’s write.  So the main thing is to write something. Get yourself a number of scripts that you’re pleased with and start to shop them round.  Look out for producers of programmes you feel you’re in tune with and send them a script.  You might get lucky and someone will read it.  Remember apart from the BBC and ITV, there are numerous independent companies who need material.  Then of course the BBC’s writer’s room (check out their website) there’s also BBC’s Writers’ Academy (again check out their website).  I’m not a great believer in the latter, but there’s no doubt it’s a route into the business.  The main thing is perseverance.  Don’t expect to write a script and immediately get a commission, it rarely, if ever, happens. I was writing stage plays before I moved into TV, radio plays are a great calling card and also a lot of fun to write.  Don’t get disheartened just keeping on knocking on doors.

What has been the most satisfying thing you’ve ever written?

I’ve written lots of things I’ve been proud of, things like ‘Silent Witness – The World Cruise’ and ‘Holby City’s Elliot’s It’s A Wonderful Life’ ( A Christmas special), but I think probably the most satisfying was a eight part thriller serial I did back in the 1990s called ‘Resort To Murder.’  The end result was somewhat disappointing (long story), but the writing of it was great.  There’d been nothing like it at the time, and I don’t think there’s been anything like it since.  More recently I’ve obtained the rights for Adam Adamant, the 60s cult TV series about an Edwardian gent who is cryogenically frozen and comes back to life in the 1960s. I always wanted to do a film version, which I’ve now finished. My Adam Adamant is a Victorian gent who comes back in the 21st Century. Just loved writing it and we have a reading of it in the next couple of weeks – of course on Zoom.

 And are there any things that you wish you hadn’t written?

Not really – the disappointment can often come with the final production, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wish I hadn’t written it.

For anyone who wants to write books, the publishing process has been revolutionised over the past few years. Some writers (including some I’ve interviewed on this blog) have had huge success self-publishing their books direct to paperback or Kindle via Amazon. Is there really any point any longer in trying to get deals with traditional publishers via literary agents?

I still think there’s great value going the traditional route, the problem being it can be such a laborious route. You hear story after story about how really successful novels were rejected by numerous publishers, and whoever you are, that becomes tedious, because a lot of the time you’re clearly in the hands of people who are not confident about what they’re doing.  The Beatles were rejected by Decca in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes – Who? … I hear anybody under 65 saying. But they were still getting their material out there, playing in clubs etc. If you’ve done the work it’s good to get it read or heard, but The Beatles needed the Parlophone platform to hit the stratosphere.

Your novel ‘Beck le Street’ is only available for Kindle. Why no paperback?

As it’s my first novel and I had no idea what the reaction would be, I decided just to get it out there as an e-book and see how it went down. I’ve had some great reviews and now have to decide where to go next.  

I believe your novel is published by Troubador which is an independent publisher that assists self-published authors. What advantage do they give you over doing it all yourself by publishing direct to Amazon?

I suppose the best thing they gave me was the know-how.  I looked into doing it without help, but I considered I would benefit more involving someone who knew what they were doing.

Did you consider publishing your novel with a ‘traditional’ publisher? If not, why not?

I very much did consider publishing it with a traditional publisher, and still am considering it. I just got bored of waiting.  My agent was sending it out and we were getting a great response.  One publisher contacted my agent halfway through and actually said they were totally hooked, and he couldn’t put it down. But then the timing wasn’t right or something.  There it was, sitting in my computer, I’d done the hard work and yet nobody had the means to actually read it. So I thought it was better out there, than just gathering the metaphorical dust in my computer.

Having watched a number of the videos you’ve recorded giving advice to writers, I can’t help thinking you should write a book on that subject. Any chance of that?

I wouldn’t mind writing a book on my take on writing, but I think I would need it commissioning. It’s such a specific market, needing a specific publisher, if not it would be difficult to get it out there.  The other problem would be, that my idea and approach to writing flies in the face of all the other people out there making money out of selling courses, methods and books.  I touch on a lot of my theories and thoughts about writing in my blogs. There’s ‘Blueprints are for Civil Servants’, ‘The Story is God’  ‘F****** Enjoy It’‘Never Recycle’ are a few of the blogs that deal with those thoughts and ideas.  So the short answer is – ‘Yes, would love write a book on writing’ … if somebody wants me to.


TONY McHALE
Tony McHale was born in Bradford and started his professional career as an actor, before moving onto writing and directing, for the stage and TV.  He has written literally hundreds of hours of popular drama including Silent Witness, The Bill, Trial and Retribution, Dalziel and Pascoe, Waking The Dead, plus numerous others, as well as being one of the original writers on EastEnders and co-creating Holby City for which he was Executive Producer, Series Consultant and Lead Writer. He has worked all over the world creating TV dramas and recently completed his first novel - BECK LE STREET.

Website: www.tonymchale.com       
Twitter:  @TonyMchale11
Visit my website for regular blogs which are a bit about writing, a bit about my career and a bit about life.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Nicola May interview: Chick-lit With a Kick!

If you are stuck in self isolation and feel the need to escape to a better world, Nicola May’s top-selling Cockleberry Bay books, set a quaint Devon village, could be just the thing! Here Nicola tells me about her books, her life as a writer, and why romcom appeals to men as well as women…
Your books are sometimes described as ‘rom-com’ or ‘chick lit’. What do you think about categorising novels in genres in that way? Good or bad? 

I think it’s a good thing.  If there weren’t categories on Amazon, there are so many books to search through, it would be kind of daunting and not easy to find the sort of read you preferred.  And my books are romantic comedies and fall under chick-lit. Although I like to call my books chick-lit with a kick, as I am not frightened to deal with issues like bereavement, infidelity, infertility and domestic abuse. So many people out there are stuffy about the genre I write. The fact that I was no 1 on Amazon for 6 weeks last January and I am again as I type, with the same book proves that this is very readable and sought-after genre.
 
Your books are very British in style and setting. Does that risk limiting their appeal to an international audience?

I did think it might, but in the past year I have signed translation deals with Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Russia, Estonia, Czechia and am also talking to Croatia so that proved me wrong! This makes me think the setting holds no weight, it is the content which is full of love, life, conflict and community that is what is making the Cockleberry Bay series so popular.
 
What’s a typical writing day for you? Do you have a set routine? Do you set yourself a target – to write a certain number of words each day?

Once I am in the throes of a new book, I literally just write. I wake up, have breakfast and then write until I am too tired to write any more. Usually a chunk of 6 hours is my limit, but if I am in the flow after that, I just carry on. I am happy if I write 2000 words a day as a minimum.


The biography on your web site contains words that strike terror into the heart of every budding author – “unable to find a publisher…” Can you tell me what attempts you made to publish the ‘traditional’ way? 

Yes, back in 2003 I wrote to nineteen agents, got eighteen ‘No’s but then did sign with one. They sent my book to many publishers over two years but to no avail. We parted ways. I then self published to moderate success. I then did sign a 7-book deal with a publisher, but I wasn’t happy with the results, so decided to go it alone again.

I am lucky that I have a marketing background, which has no doubt helped progress my books to such giddy heights. I also am maverick and quite ballsy. I once chased the book buyer of W H Smith at the London Book Fair and then placed my book in his hand, which subsequently got stocked at W H Smith travel.
I do think that having a publisher suits many people well as they don’t have the marketing skills necessary to get their books out there. It is a constant job to promote your books to readers. It’s not a case of ‘oh its on the shelf, everyone will buy it now’, which I do think a lot of people fall foul to. You know it’s there, but nobody else does unless you tell them. My success is due to a lot of hard work and persistence; even when my books weren’t doing that well. It wasn’t until my ninth book that I could give up the day job.
 
You said you signed to a publisher. Why didn’t you stick with them?

I wasn’t happy with the financial reward. My contract was a 75/25 split for eBooks and 90/10 split for paperbacks in the publisher’s favour. I also felt constricted in what marketing I could do myself. This was in 2015. I decided to self publish again in 2018.
 
What was the biggest problem you had when you began self-publishing?

It was hard to make money out of paperbacks. By the time you have paid for a book to be printed in a relatively small run, paid a distributor – Waterstones only buy through a distributor who take around 45% of book value – and then post it, I was drawing even or even running at a loss.
 
What would you do differently if you were starting all over again?

I have learnt so much and met so many people through every success and failure that I wouldn’t do anything differently. The journey has made me the author and businesswoman I am today.
However, my advice when starting out as a self-published author is just go for eBooks first. It is so much easier to convert a word document into a MOBI for Kindle with a simple cover design. Very few overheads and little hassle.  And if you do decide to go for paperbacks, create them through the Amazon KDP platform. They are printed for you and posted out, so you avoid the whole distribution process.

Also just solely sell your eBooks through Amazon KDP, you can then make use of all their tutorials, promotions etc. It really is a no-brainer.


You have an astonishing number of reviews on Amazon (3,684, and rising, for ‘The Corner Shop in Cockleberry Bay’!).  That’s more reviews than some Stephen King books get! How do you do it?

It is a good book. And, I think probably volume of sales. I have now sold around 187,000 copies Also, it has been on Prime Reading, so another huge audience there. I also put a friendly interview request in the back of my books. And it is the kind of read that I hope evokes true emotion so maybe people feel driven to review it.
 
Do you ever read the reviews that people write on Amazon? If so, are there any that you particularly remember?

Yes, I read lots of them, good and bad.  One of them told me that I should go back to school and learn English. I think it’s the ones where readers who tell me that they hadn’t picked up a book for years and are now back in to reading because of my writing, that are the most heartening.

You said that you  a background in marketing. What did you do to market your books?

That’s a big question. But I usually do a pre-order build up campaign on social media. I then arrange a blog tour, around the book. This time for The Gift of Cockleberry Bay I have a 50 strong tour, where reviews and excerpts will be shared for a 2-week period from publication day. I then do blog posts, like this and usually would get out to festivals etc; maybe talk on the radio; but of course, this won’t be happening for a while. So, I will just continue to put up Facebook boosted posts and regularly post on Twitter.


What do you think is the biggest marketing mistake that authors make?

Not doing enough of it. You must be persistent. It’s no good just throwing one tweet or FB post up a week and hoping it will stick. I also see so many authors forget to include a link to their book on posts. People are lazy, so you need to make it easy for them. Every time you get a good review, throw it out there. Make use of occasions, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day etc., to promote.
 
Do you use Amazon or Facebook advertising? If so, how effective are they?

I boost posts on Facebook, which link to Instagram. I have no measure if they are successful, but they are not expensive, and you create a brand-new audience to keep ‘touching’ with your messages. I’m not very good at working out how to use the Amazon advertising, but I have used in the past. I need to go on a course!  Once you do get into a chart, even top 100, shout about it. People are very likely to download something that is charting.
 
At the moment, the world is a pretty depressing place. If you could recommend one of your books to cheer us up, which would it be?

It would have to be the Cockleberry Bay Trilogy. They are full of heart and soul and life lessons. Plus, the sense of community, which we are all beginning to experience, at the moment, features heavily in them. The characters are real, the emotions are true. I don’t sugar coat anything.  I love the fact that many men are reading them too. I guess they have romcom covers, but there is more kick, than chick-lit in them, hence the universal and worldwide appeal.
 
And a book by another author?

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale. Love his books! Love his flawed characters! His writing has taught me a lot.
  

Nicola May is a rom-com superstar. She is the author of eleven romantic comedies, all of which have appeared in the Kindle bestseller charts. The Corner Shop in Cockleberry Bay is currently the best-selling Kindle book in the UK, across all genres and she was the number one indie author on Amazon last year. She lives near Ascot racecourse with her black-and-white rescue cat, Stanley.






website: www.nicolamay.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/nicolamay1
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/author_nicola/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NicolaMayAuthor

The Gift of Cockleberry Bay, the third in Nicola's much acclaimed Cockleberry Bay Series is out now: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gift-Cockleberry-Bay-Third-loved-ebook/dp/B081S7JWRS/

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Mark Gillespie interview: The Joy of Dystopia!

Mark Gillespie is the author of numerous dystopian novels. In these dark days, that might sound depressing. In fact, this is an incredibly popular genre. Here Mark tells me how he started out by writing about The Beatles but only found real success when he switched to writing about life after the apocalypse.


You’ve written a great many dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. To anyone whose never read them, it might sound as if they would be incredibly depressing. In fact, these are very popular genres. Can you explain the attraction?

Ah yes, the old doom and gloom fiction. And yet they are popular (although with COVID-19 on the loose we’ll see how long that lasts!). I think there are several reasons for the popularity of these genres. They’re fascinating forms of speculative fiction that allow us – within the safety of a fictional framework – to pull the rug out from under humanity’s feet and see what happens. It’s a misanthropy thing perhaps. It’s like shaking the snow globe and seeing a very different picture of reality emerge once the snow settles. As long as it’s entertaining first and foremost and not preachy we can, through these dark speculative scenarios, deliver both warnings about the direction we might be going in and at the same time, deliver some kind of hope that rebels against it. This hope we filter through the hero.

On your website you say that when you started writing, you “self-published a little without knowing what I was doing”. You’ve obviously learnt how to do it since then. What did you used to do wrong? And what have you done to make improvements?

Back then I just threw things out there and did nothing afterwards. I was only half-invested in the outcome as I had other things going on in life. These early releases were experiments, okayish short stories with crappy covers sourced from sites like Fiverr. I didn’t know anything about the real business of being an indie, such as high quality blurbs, pro cover requirements, keyword categories or any of the other intricacies that help books gain visibility. And back then if you’d suggested paid advertising I would have pulled a face and said ‘what?’

How many books have you written now?

I think I’ve written about 17 since December 2015. I can do about five in a good year (short novels) and I use box sets too because having multiple entry points for new readers to discover your work is a good thing. It’s a great thing actually because people love box sets don’t they?


Do you set yourself a target to write so many words every day, or so many books in a specific time?

I don’t have word targets anymore. They don’t seem to work for me so it’s usually a set number of hours per writing session. I go in and give it my all.

Do you have a target word count for each book?

I don’t have a target word count but for some reason I tend to end up in the 50-60k short novel range almost every single time. That might be because I prefer to read shorter novels myself.

Do people who read eBooks have different expectations of the size of a book than people who read paperbacks?

Regarding expectations of size, I think there’s less awareness overall with an ebook because you’re reading on a Kindle, a phone or whatever device and it’s less obvious how much there’s left to go in the book. With ebooks there’s more variety available too – you’re more likely to encounter novellas, novelettes and short stories in ebook form because there’s a certain expectation when submitting to trade publishers that your book has to be 80k or something like that. With indies, who thrive in the ebook arena, you can do whatever you want.

What software do you use when writing, designing or publishing your books?

I still use Word for writing although my writer friends are constantly encouraging me to use Scrivener. One day I’ll get around to it. I format my print and ebooks using Vellum. Vellum is fantastic and it actually makes formatting a pleasure. That’s something I thought I’d never say because historically speaking, formatting an ebook was a giant pain in the arse. But Vellum’s so easy to use, easy to add links to etc. I used to outsource formatting and that was a problem when it came to updating backmatter and adding new links.

Indie authors are bombarded with advice from ‘experts’ on covers, titles, blurbs and so on.  In terms of helping a book to attract potential readers, what would be your advice?

Bruce Lee said: ‘Absorb what is useful, discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.’ We can adopt and apply that to writing advice. The fundamentals are everything – a great book, a great cover, great blurbs and after that you’re on a rollercoaster ride of testing and experimenting. You’ll fail and hopefully you’ll succeed too. The mailing list is a great tool that’s going nowhere. Build that. Paid ads can help but they’re no guarantee and they can be a hell of a lot of hard work and often it’ll feel like you’re throwing money away. Blogging? That almost feels old school now but I’m sure it works for some. However, many authors with successful blogs will tell you that lots of hits still won’t move the needle in terms of sales.

Unfortunately there’s no shortcut to finding long-term readers. It’s a lot of hard work and you need to be willing to play the long game. Be there five years down the line when everyone else in your genre is flagging or they’ve given up. Your mindset is crucial. Shut out the negative voices whether that’s your inner voice or the doubting voice of others. Forget that. Write, finish and while you’re promoting that one, you’re writing the next book. Rinse and repeat. Be aware of the opportunities to market and find out what works for you. To condense all of the above, keep going!

You provide free books when people sign up to your newsletter. That sounds like you are giving away work that you could be selling! Presumably, there is more to your generosity than meets the eye. How important to your success are your email list and book giveaways?

My email list is my biggest asset. I’m working on growing it all the time and not just adding names but adding the right names. People who engage. So I check the list and make sure people who aren’t engaging long term are out. Bear in mind, after you reach a certain number of subscribers on the likes of Mailchimp you’ll have to start paying. I’m happy to give free books in order to land a potential reader for life. I get the hesitation though. It’s easier to swallow if you’ve got a decent volume of work behind you.

In order to get people to sign up to your newsletter, they have to know it exists. Where do most people find out about it?

There are clickable links in my books at the front and back. I also regularly take part in Bookfunnel and Prolific Works giveaways, which bring in a large number of new subscribers. These two outlets provide great opportunities to get your work into the hand of new readers, both free books for newsletter signups and also in terms of getting sales too. You have to pay monthly fees but it’s worth it to build that newsletter.

Your blog has a great article on Facebook advertising. You wrote that a few years ago, however. Is Facebook advertising still important to you?

My brother wrote that article. He’s a digital marketing expert who’s given me excellent advice in the past and helped me with the website, especially the technical aspects of WordPress. I use Amazon ads more nowadays to be honest. I would like to commit more to Facebook ads and get that going but again often it’s just a matter of not enough time in the day. There are also Bookbub paid ads, which I’ve been dabbling with. Not with a great deal of success. As of now, Amazon ads are working best for me.

Why do you think Amazon ads work better?

I’ve had more success with Amazon ads but I’m sure it’s because I’ve spent more time working on them. Other factors might apply too in terms of which platform is more successful, such as genre. Ads are bloody hard work no matter what the platform. They can be frustrating but there’s no doubt they can work. Just don’t expect it to be easy and don’t expect to become a millionaire. Again, it’s the long game.

What else do you do to promote your books?

I write more books. I’m fairly active on my Facebook page and I cross promote with other authors when I can, as in newsletter swaps. Every little helps. Be available and stay active.


What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in writing or marketing your books to date?

I’m not sure, to be honest. There are obviously mistakes here and there but it’s all just a learning process. I feel like I’ve learned on the job. At the beginning I was writing alternate histories that very few people wanted to read. I had to – if I wanted to make this gig my living – become more aware of what I enjoyed writing and what others wanted to read. I cannot write purely to market but I will consider aligning my interests with things that other people are interested in picking up and reading. That led me to the genres I’m working in now.

And what has been your biggest success?

Being able to do something I love all day every day. That was always the dream.

If you were starting your writing career all over again today, what would you do differently?

Knowing what I know I’d be a little less self-indulgent. I was writing incredibly niche stuff – alternate histories about the Beatles in late 2015/early 2016. I had fun with it but it wasn’t the right thing in terms of starting my career. I’d be a little clearer about what I wanted to write and more conscious about what people wanted to read.

Finally, what can you tell us about your “small menagerie of four-legged rescue creatures”?

The menagerie consists of one dog and four rescue cats! There was a gecko in there too at one point but she’s gone now. I’m an animal person and so is my wife (she’s an ECC vet). They’re glorious distractions and I love them but when I’m writing/editing they can drive me crazy! But I recommend all writers acquire a menagerie of their own. And please remember to adopt!



Mark Gillespie is a former musician from Glasgow, Scotland who lives in Australia with his wife ├Źde and their family of rescue creatures. He writes post-apocalyptic, horror and dystopian fiction. Also known as ‘current affairs’.

Website: https://markgillespieauthor.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/markgillespieswritingstuff/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarkG_Author

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Marshall Thornton Interview: Gay-themed Mysteries

If you enjoy detective stories with a good dose of '80s nostalgia, Marshall Thornton's Boystown series of thirteen books may appeal to you. The series has an extra twist since the main character, Nick Nowak, is gay. In this interview, I asked Marshall Thornton about writing Boystown and other novels, and whether writing gay-themed novels provides any special problems for an author. 


Was Boystown your first fiction book? What inspired you to begin writing the Boystown series? 

Yes and no. When Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries was first published I’d already written drafts of The Perils of Praline and My Favorite Uncle. What happened was… I ran across a call for Christmas-themed gay erotica which, at the time, was a very unusual idea for me so I had to give it a try. I wrote The Christmas Visit for Torquere Press and enjoyed doing that. Then I wrote the first Nick Nowak story and sent it in to them. At the time, they had a glut of short stories and suggested I put three of them together in a book and that’s how the series was born.

Since a traditional publishing company used to publish your books why did you decided, later on,  to publish them yourself?

I have worked with four different small publishers. Two have since gone out of business. The decision to go indie was mainly financial. I lost a survival job and was able to get my rights back. I needed to turn my royalties into a more sustainable income and I have managed to do that.

Have you any regrets about being an indie publisher? Surely it must be easier and less time-consuming to let the publisher take control of all the book-design, marketing and so on? What do you think are the pros and cons of indie versus trad publishing?

Occasionally, you still run across prejudices against indie authors but here’s the deal: All writers are self-published. Even when you publish with a top-tier publisher you never work for them. They simply provide services to you and then take a portion of your royalties—often most of your royalties—in exchange. It’s a big mistake, in my opinion, to forget that they actually work for you and not vice versa. It’s also a mistake, a dangerous one, to believe that publishers are “gatekeepers.” They’re not. Publishers are for-profit-corporations. They make decisions based on what they think will make money, the quality of the book rarely factors into this.

As to whether it’s easier to let a publisher take control… I’ve seen writers fall prey to that fallacy. Once again, publishers are there for the money so if you’re making money for them they lavish attention on you. If you’re not making money for them they forget your name. So, if your book doesn’t make money right out of the gate (and very often they don’t) then you’re screwed because they’re not going to revert the rights to you and they’re not going to spend any money marketing you and they’re not taking your next book. It’s a tough business. For many writers it’s one book and out.
If I wasn’t an indie I probably wouldn’t have a career.

How do you go about writing? Do you have a fixed routine?

I try to work every day. Even on days when I don’t work it’s always there in the background. Sometimes not writing is writing.

I know you do a lot of research to help you recreate the period in which your books are set. Can you explain how you go about research? Is there anything you are particularly proud of getting right (or wrong)?

Well, I lived in Chicago in the eighties and Silverlake in the nineties, so for my series I work a lot from memory. I research, or confirm my memories, on the fly. I’ll stop and double check. (My super hero name is The Mad Googler.) I also skim through a lot of old newspapers.

The Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries both deal a lot with AIDS and HIV. Much of the AIDS literature from the nineties was focused on New York and the Ivy League educated gay men who had access to publishers. In many ways, they were at the epicenter of the crisis and their stories are important for that reason. I’m proud that I’ve been able to add a different view. My books are more focused on people who are not at the epicenter and whose lives have largely not been written about. They’re more the everyman of the AIDS experience, I suppose. I felt their stories needed to be told.


Your books have a fair amount of sex in them. Does that cause any special problems when distributing them on Amazon?

Many of my books have sex in them, though I’ve been moving away from that. I do have trouble advertising the Boystown Mysteries on Amazon. That’s mainly due to the covers. I have chosen artful nudes for the books to indicate that there is sex, that has prevented me from some advertising opportunities.

Really? Why?

Most platforms restrict the amount of nudity you can have on a cover. Even when it’s relatively minor and tasteful.

Once upon a time, gay-themed books would have been regarded as very much a minority interest. Didn't you ever worry that you would be limiting your potential readership by having gay characters?

I’m not sure I agree with the “once upon a time” portion of this question. I would say gay-themed books still have a great deal of trouble with mainstream publishers. Or rather, gay-themed books from gay authors. The big publishers seem quite content to publish straight writers writing about gay characters. For example, The Long Call by Ann Cleves, Instinct by James Patterson, Love, Simon by Becky Albertalli, Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston and the list goes on and on. You simply don’t see major publishers picking up gay writers like this and it’s truly a shame. This isn’t just speculation on my part. I recently tried to get an agent and was turned down, repeatedly—even with three Lambdas. I think that says quite a lot about the publishing industry’s relationship with gay men.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. I actually love my life right now. I support myself as a writer so I’m thrilled that we now live in a world that will give an indie author a chance. Sure, it would be nice to make the kind of money straight writers are making from gay-themed books. But that’s the way of the world.

In fact, are your readers all gay men or do your books have broader appeal?

As to my readers, I’ve always been on the fringes of m/m romance. Of the four publishers I’ve worked with three have focused on that genre. In case you’re not familiar, m/m romance is a genre largely written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women. Though I’m not a romance writer, I do get a lot of my readers from this group. And, I’ve also been discovered by a lot of gay men, often around my own age.

Code Name: Liberty is a romantic suspense novel featuring a sexy CIA agent!
On your site, you have some interesting articles recommending writers of gay fiction. Some authors on that list didn't surprise me (such as Joseph Hansen who wrote the first Dave Brandstetter mysteries way back in the early '70s). The author that really did surprise me was Joe Orton. On the face of it, Orton's writing is far different from yours. Can you explain why you think Orton is so significant? What can a playwright teach a novelist?

Ah, Joe Orton. I have the better part of a theater degree (in addition to my English degree) and was a theater person in Chicago and L.A. for seven or eight years. I’ve always loved Orton, his plays are deliciously sexy and subversive and dark. I love that kind of farcical writing and do it occasionally, most notably in The Perils of Praline and Praline Goes to Washington. When I was in film school at UCLA I would alternate comedies with suspense scripts. I’ve begun putting these elements together with the Pinx Mysteries and my new series which I’ll mention later.

I think for many writers, the biggest challenge is finding that first small 'core' of fans. How did you go about finding your first readers?

This is where small publishers do help—provided they have a fan base of their own. They expose you to their fans and you gradually add to that base. Typically, you add readers with every exposure. I am still surprised though when people write a review an mention that I’m a new writer they’ve just discovered. I’ve been doing this for eleven years and feel like I’ve exposed myself—er, I mean—let people know I’m out there a lot.

Do you advertise (Amazon, Facebook, elsewhere)? If so, have you any tips on how to make advertising succeed without wasting money?

Let’s see. I do Amazon advertising on and off. It’s hard to tell what the return-on-investment is. They tell you how many books were purchased after click-throughs but it’s never really enough to justify the expense. That said, it’s hard to quantify how many books eventually get purchased or how many Kindle Unlimited reads happen based on repeat exposure. As for Facebook, I advertised there years ago when it was easy to boost, now I know nothing about it.

What else do you do to promote or market your books?

This summer I’ve booked six or seven pride events and I’ll be going all over Michigan and hand-selling. I’ve never done that kind of thing to this extent so we’ll see how it goes. Again, it’s not a direct return-on-investment but the exposure is good.

What's the secret of getting reviews on Amazon?

Time. I’ve always struggled to get reviews. My books with a lot of reviews have been available for a long time.

If you were just beginning your writing career today, what would you do differently?

Oh God. Everything. Nothing. Hmmmm. Well, it’s a different market than it was ten years ago. I think working with small publishers was valuable so I’d probably do that again… I think the one thing I’d do differently would be to let go of my survival job sooner. Once I began devoting all my attention to writing things really picked up. So, that’s the big thing I’d do differently.
After thirteen novels, you've finally stopped writing the Boystown series. Can you tell me a bit about what you are writing at the moment. And what we can expect from you in future?

My next book is The Less Than Spectacular Times of Henry Milch due out April 28th. It begins a new series set in rural northern Michigan, which is where I now live. I plan to continue the Pinx Video books and will probably add a third series next year.


Marshall Thornton writes two popular mystery series, the  Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries. He has won the Lambda Award for Gay Mystery three times. His romantic comedy, Femme was also a 2016 Lambda finalist for Best Gay Romance. Other books include My Favorite UncleThe Ghost Slept Over and Masc, the sequel to Femme. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America.

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