‘What is hope and how do we make more of it?’ The Undercover Soundtrack, Dwight Okita

It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by the Red Blog to hear more.

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Reaching readers if you write in multiple genres – could crowdfunding be the answer? An interview

What do you write? Not so long ago, most authors had to choose a genre and stick to it. But many of us are far more versatile. Our minds and our hearts don’t stand still. Book by book, we push boundaries or leap into genres where we hadn’t previously felt at home. As life reinvents us, we move on in our work.

No-one worried about that in the Renaissance, but it rarely went down well in traditional publishing, perhaps for sound commercial reasons. But now authors have more tools to reach audiences by our own efforts. We can take charge of our careers and our creative destinies. Will this breed of polyphonic, genre-agile author finally have their day?

I do hope so.

This path isn’t always easy, and that’s what I want to explore today.

You might recognise my interviewee – Victoria Dougherty, who recently hosted me on her blog and has also been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack.

We’ve both got eclectic portfolios. I’ve done non-fiction with my Nail Your Novel books and literary fiction that sometimes nudges into futurism. Victoria writes Cold War historical thrillers and personal essays. We’ve both written memoir after a fashion – she has Cold; I have Not Quite Lost. And Victoria has a radical new departure into young adult historical romance, Breath (coming summer 2018). What’s more, she’s having her first stab at crowdfunding – another brave new world.

We’ll come back to the crowdfunding in a bit. My first question was this: how have you ended up with such a varied oeuvre?

Victoria Honestly, I think I’m just bored easily. And I’m usually writing more than one story at a time, too. I find it keeps the creative juices flowing and also adds texture to my work.

Roz How do you manage them all?

Victoria Currently, I’m switching between Breath edits, storyboarding a new Cold War thriller, and writing essays on everything from family squabbles to creating compelling male characters.

Roz So much for versatility. What’s consistent in your work?

Victoria History, spirituality, family lore, dark humour. All of those tend to find their way into my work in one way or another.

Roz I have recurring themes too. I am curious about forces that lie beneath the surface; unusual ways we can be haunted and how we seek soulmates. At heart I’m an unashamed romantic. Places with lively pasts are often a trigger for me – crumbled mansions, houses scheduled for demolition, seaside towns closed for the winter.

Victoria I’m so with you on this, and I, too, get haunted by places. I wrote The Bone Church after visiting an ossuary near Prague with my then infant son. There were bones piled up all over the place. It occurred to me how there were so many different manners of death in that small chamber. People who had died of childbirth, a sword to the ribs, plague, a broken heart. The whole experience made me ache – but in a good way.

The ossuary at Kutna Hora, Prague. Pic by David Staedtler

Roz Your latest project is for a new audience – YA fantasy. What steered you in this direction?

Victoria I never thought I’d write in this genre. Especially a romance, which is a genre I haven’t read very much of. But several years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Modern Love column in their Sunday edition. It was about my youngest daughter being born with a catastrophic illness and how that brought my mother and me closer together. It was also about the curious, counter-intuitive blessings that come with tragic events. Things like wisdom, deeper friendships and getting to know people so far out of my own little universe. Hospitals are tremendously equalising that way.

I could not have imagined the response I got from that essay. People began writing to me, telling me about their stories – their love stories specifically. I have a blog, Cold, where I write personal essays, so it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for people to tell me about their lives, but this was different.

Told you you’d seen this before

Without meaning to, I started training my writer’s eye on love. I noticed that every time I wrote an essay about love – especially the romantic kind – there was a swell of interest. Then I started writing little love stories for my own amusement – sometimes no more than a paragraph long. One of those, about a girl born at the dawn of civilisation, became the basis for Breath.

Roz And Breath is more than just prose, isn’t it? There’s artwork too.

Victoria I’m a very visual person. I love old photographs especially, and as I was writing Breath, I dreamed up a pre-Sumerian civilisation and imagined myself on an archaeological dig, excavating my characters’ lives. That’s when I started thinking of adding a visual component to this novel – original artwork from the world I’d dreamed up and old, brown-tinted photographs from some of the great archaeological digs, like the ones taken in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. And I loved the idea of writing about past, present, and perhaps even future archaeologists, as they uncovered my fictional universe and helped my characters solve the mysteries of their existence.

Roz So the visuals will be published in the book? Or will they be a separate special edition?

Victoria Both. I think prose and images go together like a face and a voice and can really enhance a story – especially if it’s a planned epic, where a whole world is being created. This isn’t to spoon-feed a certain aesthetic to a reader, never that, but to enhance their experience with elements of beauty and mystery that go beyond the written word. Take their imaginations even further.

Roz Let’s talk about crowdfunding Breath. How did that happen?

Victoria I’m one of 10 authors selected by Instafreebie – a company that connects readers and authors – to pilot a program that teaches authors how to use crowdfunding not only to fund projects but to energise and expand their fan base.

Roz To me, crowdfunding has one rather offputting aspect – having to push for contributions. But obviously you’ve found a balance that suits you. Tell me how you do it – and how other authors might be persuaded to embrace it!

Victoria This is without a doubt the hardest thing to get over. I’ve come to look at it this way: crowdfunding is a bit like venture capital for artists. No-one blinks when any other business raises money, but somehow artists are expected to self-finance, often work for free and even give their work away without any compensation. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking and in fact find it untenable.

Roz I’m totally with you there. I’ve blogged about it at length elsewhere. We can’t give the impression that books can be produced out of fresh air or just for love, like a hobby. Even priests and doctors get paid. All the other people who work for us need to be paid. Creating books is not free. And writing them isn’t either.

Victoria For most artists, entrepreneurship is the only way we can continue to do what we do. We need to move beyond our own reticence and value what we offer. Joy, meaning, reflection, empathy, and entertainment are worthy and important elements in our lives. They should never be taken for granted.

You mentioned doctors, so I’ve got a good analogy for you: I remember my doctor, who was from Sri Lanka and used to run a medical clinic for the poor there, telling me how once they started charging patients, the entire dynamic of the clinic changed. They were serving the poor, so they only charged a pittance, and were barely able to buy coffee with what they took in, but both the function and the spirit of the clinic changed remarkably. Not only did the patients become more vigilant about their health, they trusted the doctors more and were far more likely to listen to their advice and change unhealthy behaviours. The overall health of the clinic population improved as a result.

The same is true with us artists and the people who consume our work, I think. It’s a pretty basic human response – to invest in something that means something to you rather than just be a passive observer.

Roz I want to do some tyre-kicking here because what you say is so important. A lot of crowdfunding campaigns don’t meet their targets. How do we get people to care enough? Especially as readers could buy a book that’s already finished and have it immediately. What makes them want to pledge money and wait for the product? How are you tackling these challenges?

Victoria Not only has this crowdfunding process forced me well beyond my comfort zone, it has illuminated how to deepen my relationships with present and future readers so that they feel connected and my characters begin to feel like a real part of their lives. Like family.

Roz How are you doing that? Can you give examples? You’ve mentioned to me that it’s already been a formative and amazing experience. Tell me how! And what feedback have you had from supporters to show that it’s working?

Victoria For me, it’s about creating value and making the experience as interactive as possible. Writers spend a lot of time alone and most of us are interior people, but we’re not necessarily introverts. We love being able to talk to readers and feel honoured when they share their stories with us. In fact, I truly consider readers like friends. We confide in each other, support each other, and are there during times of loneliness and self-doubt. The rewards I’m offering in my Breath campaign reflect that. It’s not only a matter of offering advance copies, which are great, but deleted scenes from the novel, personal emails, an exclusive short story and even story-consulting.

Roz Are there any common mistakes that authors make with crowdfunding and community building?

Victoria The first mistake is that they won’t try it. I can tell you without reservation that even if my campaign isn’t a funding success, what I will have learned and experienced in this process has been worth it. As for campaign mistakes – there are a lot of them, and I would have made them all if I hadn’t gotten such excellent advice from Instafreebie.

Videos are crucial. People want to know who they’re dealing with. It builds trust and makes your page more interesting. Really thinking through rewards you offer, so that when people get involved, they feel like they got something substantial in return for their support. Always, always focus on the reader. That’s probably the most important part.

Roz You mentioned that Instafreebie is helping with tactics, especially in terms of using the campaign to establish a long-term fanbase. How does that work? Can you tell us a few surprising things they’ve taught you? What is the basis of their expertise?

Victoria First, they will be featuring our books in their newsletter and then sharing our campaigns with those who expressed interested in our genres. They’re doing their best to create a virtuous circle for us. Most importantly, they’ve taken us through – step by step – the way to build a successful campaign page. That doesn’t mean the campaigns themselves will all be successes – even veteran campaigners have unsuccessful campaigns under their belts – but it helps us minimise mistakes, certainly.

Roz I want to return to where we started – the author who doesn’t fit into tidy boxes. There supposedly are two ways to market books – by category and by author. The latter is the slow road, because we have to seek commitment on a deeper and more individual level.

But whatever we write, I think community will become more significant for all of us. And everything you’ve been saying here chimes with this prediction by Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors.

More and more authors will embrace the craft and trade of publishing and business as well as that of writing, and develop sustainable author businesses that allow them to make a living from their writing. At the heart of this will be working out their offering to readers and how to build a  community around that offering.’

I love this emphasis on community. Although writing is apparently a solitary activity, we have phenomenal resources for harnessing the positive energy that readers give us if they like our work.

I think readers enjoy keeping in touch and – like you say – feeling involved. I’ve particularly noticed it after publishing Not Quite Lost. People feel they know me. It opens a conversation and they want it to continue. And that’s lovely. It’s not cynical, about selling.

Some authors are setting up private Facebook groups – though I feel that’s risky because Facebook likes to move the goalposts if they think they can monetise. I’ve started using my newsletter much more. In that past, I didn’t know what to do with it.

I used to send newsletters only when I had a book or a course to launch. A year could go by before I had a piece of news, and all the while I was losing touch with people who hoped I was working on another book. So I decided I’d try writing more regularly, about the in-between times while a book is taking shape. Sometimes it’s about making progress; sometimes it’s about life and going round in circles. Like a blog but more personal. Some people unsubscribed because that wasn’t what they were expecting, or they’d forgotten why they were ever interested, but most have stayed with me. (Winning smile: if you want to try it out, it’s here.)

What I’ve described here is slow, of course. It has to grow organically. And here’s where I guess crowdfunding creates an occasion, a way to invite people in because it’s the start of something. It not only kick-starts a book, it can kick-start your community.

Have you got any final thoughts on this?

Victoria You said it so well. We’re in this for the long game and it’s not cynical. It’s actually very special and deeply gratifying.

You can tweet Victoria on @vicdougherty, find her blog here, here books here, and her Kickstarter campaign here. 

Thanks for the ossuary pic Davis Staedtler on Flickr

What am I up to behind the scenes? My latest newsletter

And this blog begins 2018 on two lovely best-of lists. Both The Write Life and Feedspot nominated it as a Top 100 site for writers and self-publishers. If any of you were instrumental in this, xxxxxxxx

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The culture of a close marriage and weird little trips – guest spot at Victoria Dougherty’s COLD

I ran into Victoria Dougherty a while ago in a Facebook group and recognised a kindred spirit. Not just because she writes fiction, personal essays and memoir, but because of the way she is inspired by family, place and relationships. (Take a look at this piece, Growing Old(er) Together, and tell me you don’t want to know her too.) She took a shine to Not Quite Lost and invited me to her blog, Cold, for a chat about the culture of a long marriage, the delight of exploring places that no-one else would bother with, the micro-cultures of quiet English towns and whether I should get out more. She raided my photo album too, as you can see. Do come over.

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Achieve your publishing goals for 2018 – win a year’s mentoring and development from Triskele Books

competition for writers - win a year's mentoring from manuscript to publicationHave you got a manuscript that might be ready by July 2018? You might be interested in this competition from the writing/publishing collective Triskele Books. And I’m honoured to announce that I’m the judge in the final!

If you’ve been around this blog a bit, you’ll know that Triskele is a publishing house owned and run by authors. The members provide all the support and editorial finessing that occur in a publishing house (many other posts about them here).

Anyone can enter, whether it’s your first book or whether you’ve published many times before. Triskele are looking for a standout manuscript they can help along and the winner can tailor their input to their needs – whether it’s polishing or developmental work or help with the nitty-gritty of publishing. Last year’s winner, Sophie Wellstood, was so excited after working with Triskele’s feedback that she pitched to a literary agent – and had representation in three days. The only proviso is that the manuscript must be unpublished. Other rules? You’ll find them here.

Triskele’s team will sift through the entries and choose six finalists … and then it’s my job to pick the final winner! I’m sure there will be adventures and insights to report, so stay tuned. If you want to tweet it there’s a hashtag #thebigfive. And perhaps you’d like to have a go.

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A childhood home: read an excerpt from Not Quite Lost – in The Woolf

Those walls and rooms, the fields under that bright spread of sky, contained me in my earliest years. A family house is one of your guardians. As a quiet, imaginative child, I had spent as much time alone with it, on my inward paths, as I had with its people. I had a relationship with it in its own right.’

This is from the opening piece in Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, just published in the winter edition of The Woolf. The piece is an obituary for the Arts & Crafts house in Alderley Edge, Cheshire that was my family home and was demolished in February. The Woolf has made a special feature including my photos, so if you’re already familiar with the piece you can see the wood-panelled hall, the distant view of Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the house with its original windows and its ‘bus-garage’ makeover that I was so snooty about. And a rare sighting of the giant stone ball that caused a madcap afternoon long, long ago. Do come over.

Prefer to go straight to the book? Find it here.

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Southerners going north, the most romantic ruin and the town you can’t leave – interview at Chris Hill’s blog

Chris Hill is a name you might recognise here. A while ago he appeared on The Undercover Soundtrack with his prizewinning novel about young men taking lessons in love, The Pick-Up Artist. Today he’s picked up a copy of Not Quite Lost and asked a few questions.

Chris is originally from the north of England, and enjoys teasing southerners who never venture to those wuthering regions. Especially if, tsk tsk, they have the temerity to write a travel book. (In that case, he got a surprise – I’m from the north.) Chris also knows that travel isn’t all about postcard-perfect places and is not afraid to wield the term ‘crappy’. Expect a blunt conversation with a dash of Laurie Lee and The Prisoner. Come over if you dare.

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‘Music is the conduit through which we can discover ourselves’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcia Butler

My guest this week has written a memoir of life as an international concert oboist, juxtaposed with a parallel narrative of a precarious and troubled personal life. I first came across her on The Literary Hub, where she wrote about how she left the very worst experience of all out of that book. It was so haunting that I contacted her and asked if there was any way she could write a piece for this series. She has, and the result is a trip through music that has helped her remember, or dredge up the times she preferred to forget, and moments when music helped her make life choices because of the clarity and discipline of playing. Stop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Marcia Butler.

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Worldbuilding for SF and other fiction, reimagined for roleplayers. And pony books. Podcast at Fictoplasm

How do you create a world for a science fiction novel or a slipstream element for a more contemporary story? I’ve done both with my two fiction outings, My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three. So Ralph Lovegrove invited me to guest on Fictoplasm, his podcast for roleplayers.

You probably know I’m fond of stories that flirt with the edges of SF and fable, and we discussed quite a few, some of which are in this thumbnail above. And Ralph has made detailed show notes with the titles and a time stamp so you can jump to exactly the bits that interest you.

Ralph’s podcast likes to explore unconventional inspirations for roleplayers, so I offered him a challenge. Could I convince him that the pony story, beloved of horse-mad kids (and grown-up kids) was worth a look? He was more than game – and it gave me a grand excuse to revisit some old, old friends. Do I get away with it? There’s only one way to know. Trot over for a look.

 

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Indie publishing the 2017 way – video chat with sci-fi author Nick Cook

When I was first hanging around Twitter, I came across Nick Cook, who was taking his first steps building a presence as a science-fiction author. I watched over the years as his hard work paid off – he found representation and then a book deal with Three Hares Press (which, by coincidence, was founded by an editor I used to work with).

After three books (one for each hare) Nick will publish his next series independently, and asked me onto his video blog to chat about this new and unknown territory.

After years of waving hello on line, spaceships passing in the night, our worlds collide properly for the first time.

We had so much to natter about that we split the video in two. Part 1 is how I came to self-publish, the rewards and freedoms.

Part 2 is the challenges, developing a fanbase for your work even if you make surprising detours (ahem), ghostwriting and the phenomenon of the celebrity author, how indie and traditional publishing co-exist and how they’ll move forwards, and my all-time favourite film. No, I couldn’t choose just one film, I chose three. (One for each hare.)

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The pleasure of slow journeys and why we love to read – guest post at Isabel Costello’s Literary Sofa

Why is reading such a pleasure? With all the other things we could do to entertain ourselves, why does a good book still grip our imaginations and our hearts? What does it offer that nothing else can beat?

Today I’m puzzling this out on the Literary Sofa, which is the blog of Isabel Costello. Her name might sound familiar because she was a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack. Today she’s invited me to her cosily-named online home. Bring tea and cushions.

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