Archive for category How to write a book

Handling real-life disasters sensitively in fiction – an interview

Novelists are sculptors of real-life, but some have to be particularly sensitive to their raw materials. Especially when that material is events that have made headlines in the news – natural disasters, wars, or terrorist incidents.

That’s what I want to explore today. You might recognise my interviewee – Jane Davis, who has hosted me on her Book Club series and was one of my co-conspirators in the Women Writing Women box set. In her eighth novel, Smash All The Windows, she tackles the aftermath of a fictional disaster, for which she drew on the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989.

In this interview we talk about

  • Why the story’s time period was an important choice
  • Why she created a fictional situation instead of writing about an actual event
  • How she created an authentic experience
  • Sensitivity issues

Roz Your novel was sparked by the second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster. What was it that grabbed your attention?

Jane It was the press’s treatment of the families. They thrust microphones at family members as they emerged from the courtroom and put it to them that, now the original ruling had been overturned, they could finally get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?

[For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame, and victims became scapegoats. It would be 27 years before the record was set straight.]

Roz But you didn’t end up writing about Hillsborough. You created your own fictional incident. Why was that?

Jane You have to treat recent history with respect, especially in cases where the survivors and relatives and partners of the victims are still alive. Twenty-seven years after the disaster, the pain on their faces was still so raw. My gut feeling was that I didn’t want to add to that. And what could I add to the material that’s already been produced? Jimmy McGovern’s powerful 1996 TV dramatisation formed part of the protest before the original verdict was overturned. McGovern based his script almost entirely on court transcripts and eye-witness reports. And he had blessing of the families. You have to ask yourself, would a fictional account be welcomed? Would it be disrespectful to add a fictional character to the storyline? And what right do I have to tell this story?

Actually, have you tackled recent history in your own writing?

Roz I use a recent disaster in Ever Rest. In 2014 there was an avalanche that killed 28 people and caused lasting ripples through the climbing community. It’s actually not the focus of my story; it happens on the periphery. Even so, I was careful to research every detail. I read the eyewitness accounts, watched real-time footage and interviews. Much of the information I gathered wasn’t needed for the book, but it allowed me to write with confidence and respect.

Avalanche in the Himalayas – pic by Chagai at English Wikipedia

Jane And that’s why researching your subject matter and timeline is so important. Even if you only touch on it briefly, it would be a crime not to be aware of it.

Roz In my ghostwriting days I went much further. I created earthquakes and mass floods, and it’s a huge undertaking. The amount of factual research is enormous. First there’s the event itself, the special responses of bodies like the police, ambulance and fire brigade; then all the other surprising possibilities that make a gripping story well beyond the obvious. I’ve seen you remark on Facebook that this book darn near killed you and I can well believe it. Tell me about creating your disaster in logistical and practical terms. What did you draw on?

Jane Research – obviously – but also personal experience. The previous year, travelling by Tube to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. I was totally unprepared for how fast the escalator was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.

In terms of research, as I’m sure you’re aware, creating a fictional disaster doubles your workload. Firstly I researched Hillsborough and unpicked the elements that led to the tragedy. Facilities which dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Someone in management who was new to the job. Elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way.’) Risk assessments that failed to consider that several things might go wrong at the same time and how multiple casualties might be dealt with. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones, and then as lies were spread.

Then, having chosen my setting, I set about researching how an accident might happen in an Underground Station, and the difficulties that the emergency services would encounter, which meant looking at accident investigations from Kings Cross and London terrorist attacks. I documented everything I could about the vulnerabilities of the system and weak spots, and that meant tracking down reports on transport policy, overcrowding, the impact on health, recommendations that have not been implemented… the list goes on.

Roz So you created a story about a disaster on an escalator in a London Tube station? What then?

Jane After that, I plotted my timeline. It took over a decade of legal wranglings before the Hillsborough families even managed to get their hands on paperwork to help them build their case, but I didn’t want the timeframe to be as long as 27 years. Somehow, to suggest my fictional characters suffered as much as the Hillsborough families seemed disrespectful. But to reflect the issues that existed at the time of Hillsborough, the story had to happen before the explosion of the internet, when voices weren’t heard as they would be today and photographs wouldn’t be posted on Twitter.

Roz The expanding internet. A boon for research; a bane for plotting. How many storytellers have wound their timelines back for that very reason? But I digress. You then created a character to personify the fight…

Jane Yes. When most injustices are overturned, there’s usually an individual who worked away tirelessly to construct a case. With Hillsborough, it was Phil Scraton, a professor of criminology. With the disaster in my book, it was Eric, a law student. He’s the outsider, someone who arrives at a point when the families have all but given up. His conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight in them.

Roz You also have to grapple with a lot of human stories – and in a sensitive way. You create characters who experience the worst because that makes the most drama, but you must handle everything with respect and not appear to exploit it. Can you talk about that?

Jane The question of whether it’s possible to exploit a fictional character is such an interesting one! But yes, the human drama is what’s going to grip the reader, so characterisation is crucial. You have to translate the emotional fallout with delicacy and honesty, allowing your characters to retain their dignity. I wanted to show the terror and the horror of the disaster, without making anything gratuitous. So how do you go about that? I write in close third person from multiple viewpoints and I think this lends itself to a very personal relationship with my characters. I also do a little of what I call ‘method writing’. If I need to write a tired and emotional scene, I try to write the first draft when I’m tired and emotional. If my character has had a drink or two, you get the picture…

Roz That’s not unlike the ‘musical method writing’ used by many of the guests on my Undercover Soundtrack series. We’re all searching for the truth in these emotional scenes. What about the scenes of the actual disaster?

Jane My choice of setting was deliberate. I suffer from claustrophobia and anxiety and so travelling in rush hour on a Tube train is something I have to do, but I struggle with. I hope that I’ve managed to translate my feelings of claustrophobia onto the page. As for the disaster itself, I show the various characters travelling towards it, and so we see the build-up from different angles, but I tend to cut away from the disaster itself quite suddenly. If you create the right atmosphere and rack up the tension, the reader is perfectly capable of imagining what happened next.

In the book, I have my character Maggie ask my character Jules, who is a sculptor, if the work they are planning to make for his art exhibition is going to be too shocking, and he says, ‘It is going to be just shocking enough. You cannot make art and then apologise for it.’ So I suppose my question to you would be where would you draw the line? What would be too shocking?

Roz A good question. Sometimes understatement is beautifully devastating. Graham Greene described a shooting as ‘a thud like a gloved hand striking a door’. I think you have to do what is true to your style.

On the subject of shock, it’s now not unusual for authors to have a sensitivity edit, done by a person with more direct experience of the issue or that kind of event. Did you have a reader who performed this for you? Maybe more than one because you’ll have several human issues like post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, marital difficulties… The human fallout of such an event is endless. How did you get to the stage where you felt confident you’d appreciated the situation fully and been fair?

Jane I hadn’t heard the term ‘sensitivity edit’ until a few weeks ago, when I shared an interview on Twitter from a sensitivity editor, so no, I haven’t sought out that kind of professional help. But you’re so right. Many lives are blighted by an incident on this scale. I chose to focus on five key characters and the people they lost.

Aberfan cemetery – pic by Stephen McKay

Hillsborough had already given me long-term view, but while I was writing the book, the 50-year anniversary of Aberfan took place. Aberfan was a Welsh mining village where a slag heap collapsed on the village school. Because the world’s media descended on this small community, there’s a wealth of photographic evidence – it’s almost obscene. And if we measure the long-term impact of large-scale disaster in terms of medical records, we see it all here. Alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, a rate of minor ailments that far exceeds the norm, mental health issues, suicide, premature death. I actually wonder if I have gone far enough, but then you return to that question of exploitation.

I also use a team of about 35 beta readers who come from wide circles. They always surprise me but, unbeknown to me, one of my team had survived the Hatfield rail crash. That discovery led to a valuable exchange about survivor guilt and flashbacks. Particularly pertinent were the what ifs? ‘If I’d asked him to get me a coffee, he wouldn’t be here.’

Another beta reader had suffered a fall down the escalators at Euston Station two years ago and is still walking with a stick (in fact, I’m gathering a file of escalator incidents – falls seem extremely common). She found my descriptions of the fall terrifying because, of course, she superimposed her own experience over what she read on the page.

Roz Add me to your list of escalator casualties. I have a triangular hole in my shin from a mishap at Knightsbridge Tube.

Jane Another one! And I’m hearing about them all the time.

But another beta reader thought that the way I depicted a pregnant woman was too generic. She exercised right up to the birth of her first child – she had climbed a mountain two weeks beforehand and had been jogging a couple of days before the birth. Of course, pregnancy is something I have no experience of, so her input was extremely helpful.

My choice of Dan Holloway as a structural editor also served me well. He asked probing questions like, ‘Is that really the first thing you want your readers to know about this character’?

Wearing your editor hat, I assume authenticity is something you comment on?

Roz I do! I’ve developed a nose for authenticity, or rather, its opposite. Sometimes I can comment from my own knowledge – for years I’ve done editing shifts on medical magazines, so I have a wide experience of mental and physical health issues, and also of the professionals who treat them. Also, ghostwriting gave me other surprising life-skills because I had to write convincingly about things I hadn’t ever done. That’s made me an obsessive checker. When I’m editing a manuscript, even if I don’t know the subject, I can usually tell if it has been researched thoroughly. Of course, it’s harder to know if a writer has made a wrong assumption, so there’s no substitute for befriending an actual expert.

What other obstacles did you encounter?

Jane The main problem was that time refused to stand still. While I was writing my book, disasters kept on happening. News broadcasts and front pages of newspapers were dominated by terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017, the London Bridge attack happened. Would it be insensitive to continue to write about an incident that took place within a real life disaster? Part of me said yes. On the other hand, I saw the aftermath. The cars parked diagonally across city streets, the bouquets of red roses propped up against the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries. I had to make conscious decisions about whether I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.

Roz That’s a perennial problem – the book that keeps growing in scope. Life keeps adding possibilities. You have to decide when you’ve got enough. Which seems a good place to end!

You can tweet Jane @janedavisauthor , find her website and blog here https://jane-davis.co.uk , find her books here      , connect with her on Facebook here. Smash all the Windows Universal Link is here.

And if that snippet about Ever Rest piqued your interest, you can find out more in my newsletter, including adventures like this:

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The secret life of the book ghostwriter – podcast at The Bestseller Experiment

What’s it like writing books that other people put their names on? How do you get this kind of work? What makes a good ghostwriter?

I recently recorded this interview at The Bestseller Experiment, and I’m hugely flattered because their guest hotseat has held some pretty famous bottoms.  Bryan Cranston has sat there. Richard Morgan who writes Altered Carbon has sat there. Tad Williams and Michelle Paver have sat there (and Michelle and I share a liking for Everest so I made sure I listened to that one). Anyway, it’s my turn. You can find the others if you dig around their vaults.

And if my interview has made you seriously consider ghostwriting, don’t forget to check out my course.

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3 creative writing exercises to help you read like an author – at Reedsy

Want to learn some ninja plotting skills? Try these exercises at Reedsy.

Reedsy is principally known as a marketplace for authors and publishers, but it also offers a range of useful lists, from review sites to writing tips. It’s just compiled a set of 100 creative writing exercises from its favourite bloggers (thanks, guys!).

I was invited to contribute three short exercises and I’ve chosen subjects that help you read with a writer’s mindset. They are:

1 Foreshadowing plot twists so they are surprising and fair (the clue hunt)

2  How to keep the reader gripped (the page-turner)

3 Using your material with economy and elegance (the observant writer)

And psst … there are plenty more insider plotting tips in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3

 

 

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Writing a book for easy money – a myth examined

There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.

Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.

Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.

Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way.  Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?

Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.

Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said,  ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.

Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.

In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.

(Psst… if you’re curious to know more, sign up for my newsletter.)

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6 unusual tips for writing characters who’ll keep readers riveted – guest post at Ingram Spark

How do we create fictional people who feel just as real as our closest friends? How do we build layers of complexity that will bewitch a reader and keep them hooked for several hundred pages? Ingram Spark noticed I had a book about characters (here) invited me to their blog to write my six strongest tips on the subject. The first tip will cheer anybody who’s had feedback that said ‘I don’t believe your protagonist would do that …’ Do come over.

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3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process

How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?

Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.

Outline first, obvs

Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.

Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.

Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.

Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?

This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.

Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.

Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.

After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.

I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.

By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.

Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.

And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.

Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.

So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process

  • A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
  • Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
  • When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.

Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.

Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.

Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.

Want to know more about Ever Rest’s progress? Get updates in my newsletter.

 

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Biggest challenge as an indie author and how to stay creative – interview at ALLi

How do I stay creative, motivated and productive when there are so many non-writing demands on an author’s life?

Today I’m answering these questions at the website of the Alliance of Independent Authors. What was the best decision I ever made? (Thankfully they didn’t ask about my worst…) Do drop in.

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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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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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