I’m especially excited to publish this interview with author James Oswald who talks in detail about his life as a writer and his approach to writing books while running a 350 acre farm in his spare time. You should also check out James’ book Dreamwalker which is receiving amazing reviews on Amazonand has it’s print release date set for 14th August 2014!
Describe your writing life as if it were a three course meal
The starter was short, but sweet. I began by writing comic scripts, sending them on spec to 2000 AD magazine, which I’d been reading since it first came out. They bought one of my scripts after less than a year of trying, and I thought my career was made. Sadly, although I tried to get more stories published over the next couple of years, 2000 AD was in a low point in its history, and not buying anything much from new writers.
The main course was a big old leathery steak, needing endless chewing and not really very tasty at all. I wrote short stories, nine novels, more comic scripts, and failed to get a single thing published for thirteen years. I came close a couple of times, but always fell at the final hurdle. I briefly had what could only be described as a Vanity Agent, who pretended to try and sell my first novel before presenting me with a ‘publishing’ deal that was the biggest rip-off I have ever seen. The contract from an unlisted publisher went on for pages, but in summary it worked out that if I paid them a couple of thousand pounds, they would produce ‘more than’ five copies (i.e 6) of my novel in a ‘suitable binding’ (i.e. a ring binder). They would have had exclusive worldwide rights in perpetuity, retaining upwards of 75% of any subsidiary rights they sold on my behalf. It really was the most dreadful contract I have ever seen – suffice to say I didn’t sign it! I parted company with that agent fairly sharpish too.
Dessert would have to be the most amazing confection of fruit and meringue and creme brûlée and chocolate in the shape of the last two and a half years. Self publishing my first two Tony McLean books, seeing sales and free downloads top 350,000 in eight months, getting a proper agent, a six figure publishing deal, making the bestseller lists, all this has made the bitter wilderness years worth the effort. And they were worth the effort, because that’s when I honed my writing until it was good enough for people to want to read and read more.
What’s in your ‘must have’ writers bag, every time you sit down to write a story?
The only thing I have to have when I sit down to write (and forget all too often!) is a clear idea of what I want the particular scene I’m writing to achieve. That and a notepad to scribble in as I go along. I currently write using Scrivener, but I’ve used Word in the past and even the old word processor program on my BBC Model B microcomputer (I know, showing my age!). These are just the tools that allow me to get the words down. It’s the words that are important.
What do you hate seeing on book covers?
Overused stock photographs. There was a spate of covers a couple of years back that all featured the same photograph of a house in the woods, its windows looking ominous as they reflected the light. It was a striking image, but after the third outing it got a bit tired.
For someone who writes fantasy, I’m not a big fan of most fantasy covers (my own excepted, of course!) It’s getting better, but for a while it was almost always some musclebound oaf with a sword, or a scantily clad woman with a sword, or sometimes both.
It’s always disappointing when the cover artist either hasn’t read the novel or been briefed. I have a copy of the US edition of Colin Greenland’s excellent SF novel Take Back Plenty which shows a very badly painted rendition of the main character in the cockpit of her spaceship. Unfortunately no one has told the artist that Tabitha Jute is black.
Have you ever designed your own book cover? What were the pros/cons? Would you do it again?
I designed covers for an early version of my three fantasy books, Dreamwalker (print version released August 14th 2014), The Rose Cord and The Golden Cage. My intention was to produce very limited quantities of the books, using Lulu, to give to friends and family. They were never for sale. I had a good idea of what I wanted, but lacked both the artistic and photoshop skills really to pull it off. The results look very amateur, which was fine for that purpose, but would almost certainly have deterred readers from picking up the books had they been for sale. I wouldn’t dream of doing my own covers for a book I intended to sell.
What is your writing schedule, if you have one? If not, why not?
In theory, I write in the evenings from about eight until midnight, having already put in a day’s work on the farm. In practice, there are days when the farm work is done by mid-morning and I can spend the rest of my time writing, maybe getting the evening off for a bit of reading. And there are days when the farming goes on all night (lambing time, for example), or when I’m just too tired to write.
Having a contract with Penguin means deadlines and the need to bring a certain level of professionalism to what is, after all, a job. I am under contract to produce two novels a year and to that end I aim to get 2000 words written every day, but quite often fall short of that.
If I had a single piece of advice to give to writers it would be…
Don’t give up. It took me twenty years to become an overnight success. You have to write because you love making stuff up, because you love words and stories. Of course, everyone’s dream is to be published and successful, but that cannot be the sole reason for doing it.
When publishing your book, how important is it to have a well-designed book cover, compared to the other components like a clear blurb, a well written story, established reader base or good marketing tactics?
The first three are all part of the same thing, which is a professional-looking package. The best cover in the world won’t make up for dreadful writing in between. A cracking good story can be ruined by poor formatting and too many typos. An awkward blurb can put people off what is otherwise a fine read. All these elements have to work in harmony.
An established reader base is obviously helpful, especially if they are good at writing reviews and spreading the word about your books. From my experience of marketing tactics, however, unless you’re in the position to spend tens or hundreds of thousands on poster campaigns and national newspaper advertising, nothing much really works other than writing more books. It’s a well-established principle in the publishing business that the best way to boost sales of an author is for that author to bring out another book.
Have you ever had a really great experience with a professional, in the self-publishing industry (such as an editor, designer or formatter)? What happened? What made it so good for you?
I was introduced (electronically – we’ve never met IRL) to the book cover designer J T Lindroos by a friend who had used him to design his own ebook covers. Juha is a brilliant designer, who charged a pittance and worked through many iterations of design until we hit upon the right feel for my first novel, Natural Causes. I had less of a clear brief for the second one, The Book of Souls, but what he came up with on his own was sensational. He jokingly said he’d like to be paid more if the books did sensationally well, and I took great delight in sending him a substantial bonus when they did.
Are you a pantser, or an outliner? Why?
Very much a pantser (although I prefer the autocorrect ‘panther’). I’ll work out in my head or on my whiteboard what a scene or a story arc is meant to achieve, but no more detailed planning than that. I tend to write the first draft very quickly and organically, with lots of notes of things to go back and change. The shaping comes in the rewrites.
I did once try to plot a novel from start to finish. Like Natural Causes it was based on a short story, so I knew how it ended and the broad arc it would travel. I spent about a month planning each scene in meticulous detail before sitting down to write the thing. By the time I got to the end of the first chapter, I’d introduced an entirely new character who turned out to be pivotal to the novel. Shoehorning her into the existing plan and shuffling scenes around to make it all work meant the writing took twice as long as usual, and the finished result isn’t that good.
If you couldn’t get paid for writing in money, what would be your alternate choice of payment (keep it clean, eh?)?
Like my main character, Tony McLean, I have a penchant for fine single malt whisky, so I guess being paid in drams would work. My publisher and agent both seem to have taken this on board, judging by the occasional (and very welcome) bottles that arrive in the post. Fortunately my publisher also pays in money!
What is the one thing that distracts you most when writing?
<strike> being asked to fill in questionnaires </strike>Twitter.
Do you think that a cover should have specific elements of the book, like characters and places, or is it better to be simple and symbolic to give just an impression of the book and the genre?
It very much depends on the genre and the territory in which it’s being sold. Different things work in different places and for different kinds of stories. The covers of my crime fiction books tend to be photographic, usually showing a vista of Edinburgh or somewhere obviously Scottish, with heavy dark clouds overhead. The images only very loosely refer to anything in the books.
For my fantasy series, on the other hand, the covers are hand drawn, with motifs that closely reflect what goes on in the books. A photographic cover just wouldn’t work for fantasy.
What’s your worst writing habit you just can’t seem to shake?
I know perfectly well the difference between its and it’s, their, there and they’re but when I’m typing fast I often get them wrong. A standard practice now with my final draft is to run a search and replace on all of those words, just to double check!
Are you a one-manuscript-at-a-time author, or do you have several on the go at once?
I write just the one manuscript at a time, but I may well be editing several others and possibly doing the publicity rounds for yet more. I did a library event a few months back where I launched into a description of a scene as an example to a point I was trying to make about the book just out, only to realise halfway through that the scene in question was in the book I was currently writing.
I have enough ideas for different genres and characters to write many books at the same time, but I think my head would explode after a while. There also isn’t the time, what with a farm to run.
What is something you see self-published authors doing time and again, that you think doesn’t work?
Trying to sell their new book on social media. Twitter, Facebook and the like are great for interacting with your readers, but actual mentions of your book should be few and far between. If you must sell anything, sell yourself, not your book
Should you respond to reviews of your book, good or bad?
If it’s a great review and you ever meet the reviewer, by all means say thank you. If they post a link on social media, RT it and thank them there if you want to. If someone reviews your book on their blog, link to it and send your readers their way. But always do it without comment.
If it’s a bad review, however much you disagree with it, no good can come of you arguing your case. Best to leave it behind you and move on.
James Oswald is the author of the Inspector McLean series of detective mysteries. The first two of these, Natural Causes and The Book of Souls were both short-listed for the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger Award. Set in an Edinburgh not so different to the one we all know, Detective Inspector Tony McLean is the unlucky policeman who can see beneath the surface of ordinary criminal life to the dark, menacing evil that lurks beneath.
Book four in the series, Dead Men’s Bones, published by Penguin, is just out and available from all good bookstores.
James has also written a classic fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro. Inspired by the language and folklore of Wales, it follows the adventures of a young dragon, Sir Benfro, in a land where his kind have been hunted near to extinction by men. The first three books in the series are currently available as ebooks, and will be appearing in a Penguin paperback edition soon. The final two books in the series will be out next year.
In his spare time, James runs a 350 acre farm in North East Fife in Scotland, where he raises pedigree Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep.