David lends us his insight on a variety of things after nearly 30 years in the writing game.
David is a writer based in Greater Manchester. The author of 4 novels, the latest of which is entitled Voices, scheduled for multi-media publication by Big Bad Media in the late autumn of 2010. David admits that he has such a sad life that he rarely takes time off. He even takes a netbook on holiday so he can work. But at those times when he’s not writing, he enjoys reading, photography and winding up family and friends on Facebook. He’s recently become hooked on audio recording and has just completed the audio book of Voices.
Hey David, welcome to Authors In The Zone. You've been writing for nearly 30 years now. That's some innings on any writing crease. What made you take it up?
I’ve always had a hyperactive imagination and a low threshold of boredom. I hate TV, and I always need to be “doing something.” I’d written short stories since I was a teenager, but in the early 80s, past my 30th birthday, I started to look at the future. I was a trucker at the time, and I didn’t have a future. So I began to take the writing more seriously.
You've published a number of novels? Tell us a little about that?
As I learned the craft, so I got better at it, then I struck paydirt in 1991 when Club 199 accepted two submissions. They went bust before they could get the titles out, but it spurred me on. In 2002 I struck gold again when I had two novels accepted in a space of months. They were social farces but shortly after publication, that publisher went under too. I got the feeling that I was the kiss of death to publishing.
By now I was blogging and selling occasional pieces to small press magazines. Then I joined Writelink and through their peer review system, I cleaned up an idea I’d had about a team of ghosthunters. In 2007, Virtual Tales, an American e- and POD publisher took The Haunting of Melmerby Manor, a Spookies mystery. I also got hooked into self-publishing and a year later, I put out Twaddle from DW, a book of sledgehammer humour blog posts and I followed that up with DW’s Guide To Holidays. Both are basically grumpy old man humour.
Despite a number of rejections, I persevered with Voices, and my old mate Greg McQueen wanted it for his new venture, Big Bad Media. We signed contracts on that about 2 months ago. Greg’s a media wizard. Everything from print to e-books, iPhone apps, audio and video. It’s the perfect outlet for sci-fi/horror novels like Voices because we can exploit all possible avenues with it.
Who, if anyone, helped you along the way?
Writers News was the first “help” I found. I subscribed from issue 1. It’s packed with advice for newbies and seasoned pros, as well as highlighting outlets for all kinds of written work.
I think the Internet was the biggest source of help. It’s no coincidence that my writing began to take off just after the millennium, because that’s the time when the Internet began to boom, too. I joined a number of writing communities, and in amongst the dross and ill-informed twaddle, I found gems of wisdom that help me polish and streamline my work.
I’ve been a round most of the communities like YWO, Authonomy, ABC Tales, but the only one I’ve ever stuck with is Writelink. It’s a gentle community which encourages the writer and there’s none of the envy or spite you find on other communities. The best advice I got on there was from two ladies who have since become firm friends. Lorraine Mace and Maureen Vincent-Northam. They produced the Writers ABC Checklist and really know the game.
Tell us a little more about Voices?
It’s the tale of a college lecturer who survives a terrorist bomb attack only to find himself haunted by voices in his head and phantom determined to take control of him. In an effort to be rid of them, he uncovers a terrible secret experiment of the Cold War.
I’ll say no more than that, because, obviously, I don’t want to give too much away.
The catalyst of the tale came to me over Christmas 2008. I lost my hearing after turning 50. I’m not totally deaf, but very hard of hearing. When that happens, your brain tricks you into thinking everything is normal and it produces sounds right at the limit of audibility. It’s like you can hear next door’s TV. You can’t distinguish a single word, but it’s there.
Over Christmas 2008, I was off work with a broken ankle. I tied the hearing and ankle troubles together and asked “what if?” What if the voices weren’t a trick of my mind, but real? I wrote the first draft of 130,000 words in January 2009.
Tell us a little about your writing process?
I don’t plan. I get an idea and I think about it. When I know where it starts and where it ends, I hit the word processor. I type at about 35 wpm, and when I get going, 1,000 words an hour is no problem. I just keep on typing until I’ve exhausted either myself or the ideas.
I describe myself as an insomniac workaholic. I suffer from arthritis, I had a recent heart wobble, and I smoke too much, which means I don’t enjoy the best of health. As a consequence, when I’m not at work (I also hold down a full time job) I have little to distract me, so I write and write and write.
I can usually knock out a first draft in a month. I then put the piece to one side and work on something else.
A couple of months later, I dig it out again and start to go through it. The first draft of Voices was written in a month. The finished product took 18 months.
And when I’m revising, I am ruthless. I may find 200 words of dream prose, but if it doesn’t belong, then I cut it out.
Then eventually, I say, “enough.” And I stop. From there, it goes to a publisher.
You decided a long time ago that you were going to work with Independent publishers? What, if anything, made you come to that decision?
The difficulty of breaking into the system is the short answer. A lot of factors have to come together to hit it with the big publishers. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right product. If any of those factors is missing, you won’t get in the door, no matter how good your writing.
Here’s an example. In 1995 I produced a 5-hour TV script based on an unpublished novel. I managed to interest an independent producer and director. We worked on it for a year and took it to one of the big UK broadcasters. We got as far as the script/sub commissioning editor and persuaded him. Sell? I was on such good form that day, I could have sold him fivers at a tenner each. He came on board and took it to his commissioning department. They rejected it. Too expensive. We were in the right place with the right product, but the timing was off.
It’s the same in publishing, at least with the mainstream. To add to the misery, most large houses won’t talk to authors. They talk to agents, and have you tried getting an agent? With a few exceptions, they don’t want to know you unless you already have a contract.
So you look to the indies. Technology, the ability to print on demand, and spread the word via the web gives them greater freedom of action. They still put money into it, but where a mainstream house may need to invest anything from £10-30,000, an indie can crop that to as little as a few hundred.
They also work much faster than a large house. The general consensus is that from acceptance to publishing is from 18-months to 2 years. An indie can cut that to a few months.
It’s true that indies don’t pay advance, but so what? Large houses will pay an advance, but anyone who is dreaming of megabucks needs to wake up. The ballpark figure is about £5,000 and that comes in three stages, and your agent will want his 15% of it. By the time you’re published you’ve picked up £3,500 over a timespan of maybe two years. I can earn more than in two months as a trucker. By publishing through an independent, if you market aggressively, you’ll certainly make more in royalties.
But going through an independent or doesn’t mean the work has to be inferior. Look around at some of the small houses and see the work they’re turning out. Virtual Tales is a fine example. I don’t say my title, but some of the books they have on site are superb.
How do you see publishing evolving over time?
Technology is the way forward. It may take a few years yet, but the e-book will become the norm.
The big houses pretend to bury their heads in the sand, but they’ve seen the writing on the wall. Power is coming to the author, not the publisher. If the big corporations try to screw the royalties down to 25% on e-books, authors have the option to go it alone and hang onto 80%.
If we look at my answer to the last question, then it prompts another question. Why should I leave my cherished novel with a publisher who will mess it about for two years, when I can have it out there in a matter of weeks or months, keeping my readers happy and making me a pound or two?
Technology, the web, offers openings for non-niche writing. I’m under no illusions about my work. It ain’t literature, it’s not mega. I turn out workmanlike novels with well rounded plots and characters, but they’re DIFFERENT.
I write sci-fi horror, but I don’t clutter the pages with vampires and werewolves, or laser swords and galactic knights seeking to overthrow the evil emperor. I put ordinary people into extraordinary situations and let them react.
The only way I can get that out there to a reading public is through the indies and the web. The big houses don’t want to know, and I figure that the reading public will vote with its feet. There will always be the Stephenie Meyers, Dan Browns and JKR’s who sell mega-volumes. They’re a rarity now, they’ll be even rarer in the future. The real gems, those works that are different, will be found on the web and not in the catalogues of mainstream publishers.
What advice would you have for new writers, in terms of their writing and promoting their work?
This is a tough one because it’s a multi-faceted question with many answers.
Ask yourself a question: do you believe in your writing?
If you English (or whatever your native language) is poor, it doesn’t matter. You can get training in language. If your structure and plotting is not up to the mark, it doesn’t matter. The members of many web communities like Writelink, will help with that. But if you don’t believe in your writing, you characters or your plots, neither will the readers.
Work at your work. Polish, revise, revise and polish. Eliminate every extraneous word until you can’t take it any further. I offer a manuscript advisory service. It’s not something I would advise a newbie to take on because it’s expensive. You can get the same advice (in smaller doses and more generalised) on web communities.
Don’t be afraid of putting your work out for critique, and when you get reviews, try to balance them. If 8 out of 10 reviewers point to a particular problem, then it’s sure to be legitimate. If only one or two highlight it, then it may be just their opinion.
Next, be persistent. Most “overnight successes” happen after years of overnight rejections. Some editor turns down your masterpiece. Why? He won’t tell you but for all you know he might have broke up with his girlfriend the night before he read your piece, and turned up for work in a bad mood. So don’t take the rejection personally, but put the piece out to another publisher or agent.
When you finally publish, then network like hell. Get the word out on Facebook, twitter, Myspace, put it to review sites like Authors on Show. Give away free copies. When Virtual Tales published The Haunting of Melmerby Manor, I bought 50 copies. I sold some, but for the most part, I gave them away to my local press and other, web-based reviewers. I also put up copies as prizes in a writing competition and I gave some away to charity functions as raffle prizes.
Blog frequently. I have three blogs (one of them remains unused for the time being. I’m waiting for the publication of Voices.) My posts tend to be varied, but often concentrated on the writing process. I do not put up posts that are blatant adverts, but I mention my novels and publishers frequently in them. It all helps get the message across.
When you have sufficient experience, don’t be stingy with it. Pass it on to newbies. That way you develop friendships. Many of my friends on Writelink are unpublished, but I offer advice where I can. It helps cement a relationship and that’s vital when it comes to networking.
Above all, enjoy the creative process. I lavish a lot of time on writing, but I don’t do it for my readers. I do it because I enjoy it.
You described yourself as a 'workaholic insomniac.' I've been accused of the same on occasion, so this one is for me in particular. How do you fight those symptoms and relax. Help...
Music mainly. I don’t watch TV unless there’s live football on. I have a range of DVDs, mainly older movies, which provide a distraction, and I like to read: Stephen King, James Herbert, Tom Sharpe and Keith Waterhouse.
But in the main, when I’m up to here with it all, I shut everything down and slip the headphones on. I have wide tastes to suit all moods, but if I need to wind down, it’s Beethoven (the 6th symphony) Bach (particularly the Brandenburgs and the preludes) and I’m a big love of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, performed by Julian Bream. A masterly piece of music.
If you had one wish for your writing moving forward, what would it be?
You do ask some awkward questions. I suppose that I’ve gained some recognition as a writer of sci-fi and psychohorror, I’d like to be recognised for my flatcap humour. It’s nothing strikingly original, but it is cynical and the feedback from readers indicates that it hits the spot. I’m quite outspoken and politically incorrect in real life, but when you add an ignoramus-type punchline to it, the effect can be hilarious (I think).
If I may I’ll post an example. It’s from an unfinished book (print and audio when I get round to it) entitled Flatcap’s Guide to Marriage.
“Overnight, you’ll become an expert on the mechanical iniquities of cars, intruder alarms, cookers, microwave ovens, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, TV’s, radios, dishwashers, central heating boilers, steam irons, curling tongs, lavatories and drains. The moment you are married you will simultaneously become a tree surgeon, gardener, concreter, bricklayer, plumber, carpenter, painter and decorator, roofer, TV aerial rigger, carpet fitter, floor and wall tiler and an accountant.
As if all that’s not enough, you will be expected to understand the ramifications of a 0.05% decrease in GDP, a 1.2% increase in incidence of irritable bowel syndrome amongst junior executives, and the fine print in obesity discrimination legislation which is due in from Brussels. At the same time you’ll be expected to come up with an analysis of the last three months’ winning lottery numbers so you can come up with a system to make a profit on it. And that profit will go in her purse, not your pocket.
And what’s do you get in return? A packet of sandwiches and flask of tea every day, and a spot of the other once a fortnight as long as it doesn’t clash with Dancing on Ice.”
Hmm. I've avoided marriage thus far. Perhaps it will remain that way after that. Where do you get this sense of humour?
I think it’s a counterpoint to this disastrous world we live. I switch on the news and I see the devastation in Pakistan and Haiti and the developed world making the right gestures before going back to their wars, and I think, “How bloody awful.” I’m one man, I can’t do much. I can drop a few quid in the collection box to ease my guilt but no more. So I think to myself, “you have to laugh,” and I sink into my wealth of one-liners and repartee.
For example, a friend of mine, a wonderful poet called Sarah James put up a post on Facebook just the other day. “I’m having a fencing lesson.” Right away the obvious occurred to me and I responded, “It’s sinking the posts in concrete that’s the hard part, Sarah.”
It’s fun. I rib my friends, daughter, sons and my granddaughters constantly on Facebook and for a few brief moments, that chuckling takes away the horrors of this godawful world. If you check it out, me and my old mate Trevor Belshaw, whom you interviewed a few days ago, ran a huge thread of archaic one-liners on his Facebook page. They’re all played out gags from the 60s and 70s but it’s fun and the inherent one-upmanship, trying to put one over on each other distracts us from the gloom and doom of the real world.
Trevor: I met the wife in Australia.
I said, “How the hell did you get here?”
David: The wife went into Dorothy Perkins and asked for something to make her look slimmer. They suggested having her photograph taken alongside the Royal Albert Hall.
It’s daft and in many ways, childish, but children don’t know about the terror of the adult world and I think that by indulging in that kind of humour we can forget it for a little while, too.
Anything that makes this life a little more bearable at times is most welcome in my world. Sometimes I think without a little laughter at the absurdity of it all at times we'd never survive.
David, thanks very much for your experience, knowledge and dare I say, your philosophical wit.
The best of luck with everything.