Today I am very happy to be interviewing Steven Neil, an English author who writes historical fiction with a twist of intrigue and mystery.
LWOTW: Welcome, Steven! Tell us, when did you write your first story?
I wrote my first story when I was seventeen. I thought I would study English Literature at university and become an author. In fact I studied Economics instead and didn’t write another story for thirty-five years. When I retired I studied English Literature at the Open University and my writing began again.
LWOTW: We’re very glad that you got back to it! What do you think of dreams, imagination, and planning?
Dreams and imagination are the creative spark for any writer but it is planning and the ability to implement a plan that takes a writer through to publication. I always thought I could only write short stories, but if you can write one 2000 word short story, you can probably write ten 2000 word short stories. Once you understand that, it is only a question of having the persistence to write, say, thirty-five linked 2000 word short stories and you have written a novel! That is the way I did it.
LWOTW: That’s an interesting way to go about it. Thanks for that. What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
Writing and publishing my first historical fiction novel The Merest Lossin December 2017. In doing so, I achieved something I never thought I could do. It took three years of research, during which time I completed a Masters in Creative Writing.
The Merest Loss is a story of love and political intrigue, set against the backdrop of the English hunting shires and the streets of Victorian London and post-revolutionary Paris.
LWOTW: It sounds wonderful. Another one for the TBR pile. What are you most busy with at the moment?
In some ways writing a novel is the easy part! It doesn’t feel like it at the time but once you embark on the process of trying to market your book, you realise how difficult it is to achieve recognition in a very crowded marketplace. However good your novel is, and however many 5* reviews you garner, you need to work at it to make sales. I’m currently busy creating my social media profile, developing my network of independent booksellers and building a programme of speaking engagements. Books don’t sell themselves on their own when you are a first-time author!
LWOTW: With luck your background in Economics will help! If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Never give up. If there is a book in you, it has to come out.
And the Last Word of The Week: What’s your favourite colour?
Here is Steven’s independent author network profile, containing twitter and facebook links and buy links:
This week we are being totally charmed by the gorgeous Felicity Banks, the Australian author who channels the Antipodean Queen (how cool is that?) among other things. Felicity is also published by the impressive Odyssey Books.
Last Word of the Week: Welcome, Felicity. Can you tell us when you wrote your first story?
Felicity: I can remember attempting my first novel when I was seven or so, during an idle afternoon at my grandparents’ house. It was about a family of cats, and the big drama was that Pamela (the mother) had gained weight. What unimaginable horror!
Then the amazing twist was that she wasn’t overweight after all. She was having kittens. There is no greater possible end to a story than brand new kittens.
LWOTW: A happy outcome indeed. What do you think of dreams, imagination, and planning?
It seems I was born to plan out my stories before I write them, given that I was outlining novels at age seven. Sometimes I write out pages and pages of character notes, maps, and so on. Most of the time I have about an A4 handwritten page of notes when I start writing a novel and if I’m having trouble with a scene I might write out another page of notes just for that scene. Sometimes things change dramatically partway through the story, and I’m fine with that. Once I had a weird dream and then woke up and started writing a novel that afternoon.
Imagining things is easy; real life is hard.
LWOTW: We’re with you there. What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
It took me a long, long time to get published—fifteen years after finishing my first novel. At around the same time as my first novel was published, I discovered the world of interactive fiction (like “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, but usually digital), and nowadays my writing is actually in demand. That is absolutely amazing, and I love it.
I really enjoy going to conferences and fairs, especially meeting people who’ve read my books and come back for more.
LWOTW: That must be very affirming. What are you most busy with at the moment?
Trying to actually do the writing I’m meant to be doing! Which is precisely why I’m here, doing other things.
LWOTW: Well, we’re glad you took the time out to talk with us. If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Don’t! The average full-time writer in Australia earns only $12,000 per year.
But if you’re the type of person who thrives on being told not to do something, then the long years of rejection will be perfect for you. Or you can just write for fun (and if you get paid, great). That’s what I do.
And the Last Word of The Week: What’s your favourite colour?
Thanks for speaking with us!
You can find out more about Felicity’s steampunk fantasy books here.
Felicity’s interactive writing can be found under the name Felicity Banks at the site here – but beware, it’s addictive!
Felicity’s latest book is a middle grade novel called The Monster Apprentice and features monsters AND pirates. You can find Felicity’s various pirate tales (some for children, some not) here.
Scandinavian bookstores to be exact, some of which are worth the investment of several hours. Although all these shops have sections where English books are stacked and shelved in their dozens, I found myself drawn to the local language books. Here I confirmed that, for better or worse for us authors, potential readers DO judge a book by its cover.
The conventions of genre in imagery help us to distinguish crime from fantasy from romance from historical fiction from military memoirs from poetry, and so on. Classics with new, interesting covers (like those in the header image) live on the strength of their titles and authors. Newer fiction must usually play by the rules, although that doesn’t necessarily mean playing in the same well-worn rut.
For example, I like this new fantasy cover for the prolific (and wonderful) Brandon Sanderson‘s The Final Empire (first published 2006). This cover clearly references the genre but presents a more up to date, fresh, arty take on it. You could think that its first imprint was at least ten years later.
In a watercoloured, simplified way, all the genre markers appear. Fantasy city: check. Mysterious being: check. Spooky question to set up the fantasy premise: check. Weird misty atmosphere: check. Potential to adapt for the later books in the series: check. And is there a suspicion of snow on those towers … Jon Snow? GOT readers say: ‘my kind of book’, as do Harry Potter and LOTR folk. Probably, as do fantasy readers in general.
And here’s a novel clearly set in or around the time of the First World War. Clearly. It also features the poppy on the spine, so you know the genre even when it’s facing the wall.
It’s Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants in Norwegian. Even if we hadn’t noticed the guns and the sepia-tinted photo, that poppy gives it away. Are those soldier-photos and poppies clichéd? I guess yes, but they also act as immediate identifiers for readers who are eager to read something similar to books they have already enjoyed.
Now what about family sagas and romance? Evidently (from my observations), a reader wants to see a woman on the cover, most often with her back to us, contemplating her situation. Her attitude and costume communicate the historical period covered in the novel:
Many crime stories also feature women, usually with their backs turned to us, walking into danger. Women? Of course, I should say ‘girls’ for that genre 🙂
My own WWI novel will be published later this year, and I am agonising over what might make a good cover – to poppy, or not to poppy? – being the main question. Do I need a rising sun to mark it as Australian? And a woman in historical costume to signify that it is a family-based romance as well as a war story? My brains are on the rack.
If you have any brilliant ideas for what I could suggest to my publisher, please leave me a comment below!
Today I had the pleasure of speaking to some creative writing students at Victoria University, in the western suburns of my hometown Melbourne.
Being trapped in the spotlight in a room full of other writers felt a bit daunting, so instead of just reading from my book and then expecting discussion, I structured my given hour around reading, writing, questioning and visualising fiction.
In this post, I’ll look at the questions I prepared and the answers we discussed. These are the five questions I am most often asked since The Pale was published:
Where do you get your ideas?
What made you want to write about this?
How did you go from a short story to an 80,000 word novel?
How did you find a publisher?
How do you sell books?
My ideas come from the real world and from dreams. (I find my dream stories have had better success in finding publication – but that topic is for another post!) In the case of The Pale, in 2014 I had a dream that I was locked inside a wire compound and that there was a crying baby on the ground outside the gate. Nobody would let me go out to pick up the baby, and eventually it was left to my old German Shepherd dog, 15-y-o Dinny, who arrived suddenly at the baby’s side and rescued it.
The morning after the dream, I wrote the first draft of Man/Machine/Dog, which was published in Overland 215, Winter 2014.
What made me want to write about this dream was the refugee crisis, in particular Australia’s response, which I continue to find deeply distressing. (More information at the Refugee Council of Australia.)
From short story to novel took me almost a year and I did this mostly by writing backstory for all the characters. I created a writing exercise around this for the students which I will outline in a later post.
Finding a publisher was a pitted path. After the story was published, a start-up sci-fi publisher asked about the novel (which I had not written!). The first draft, which I sent to them, was seriously under-done and rightly rejected. Many revisions later, after learning more about the industry by attending workshops at Writers Victoria, I searched for a publisher willing to accept unsolicited submissions electronically (who wants to pay postage on a novel-sized project?). I sent a much re-worked version to Odyssey Books and was thrilled to be accepted for publication. I have some tips for organising and surviving your submissions – but that too is for a later post.
Selling books is quite hard. There is so much excellent competition out there, and marketing is not a core skill for me. It took me quite some time to grow a writerly skin which allowed me to submit my writing (poor shivering creature!) to publishers, and I am aiming now to grow a marketing persona. There are a number of associated activities that authors can undertake to help sell their books, and I will outline some of these in a later post. I can’t do everything, but I can always do something to help my book get into the hands of readers.
Speaking of which (shameless plug alert), if you’re in the market for a gripping read in dystopian sci-fi, you can buy The Palehere, or at the usual places, like Booktopia or Amazon.
I received my feedback from the 2017 Book Pipeline competition, in which the judges consider an extract of your novel (or your graphic novel/script/non-fiction book/book proposal) for its potential to be made into a film or TV series. For a fee, of course, but that is the usual course when you decide to put your work in front of judges for any purpose. You can see the shortlisted works here, and the finalists will be announced in a couple of weeks. My book The Pale is not shortlisted, but the exercise wasn’t a complete washout.
Book Pipeline’s extra incentive to pay an entry fee is that even if your work is not shortlisted (and therefore can’t win), you still get a paragraph of feedback.
So here is what they say: kind of yeah, no, yeah, but no.
That’s alright as I can cherry-pick the good bits (like our politicians do with ‘facts’), such as “there’s some cool world-building here”, and “classical in its approach”, and “familiar” elements “similar to Mad Max: Fury Road” (for the cyber-punk-ish bits) “and The Hunger Games” (for the competing factions aspects). I thought when I submitted that the biggest problem might be rendering the canini – my GM dogs with thumbs, enormous brains, and advanced language skills – onto film, but they didn’t get a mention.
Dystopian spaces are “incredibly saturated”, which I guess means that these folk watch the news :-). The Pale is considered just a little too classical, and too familiar, for movie purposes, but actually I think maybe that’s not a bad thing for books. Generally if readers like a book, they want to read another one that’s similar.
Anyway, it’s been an interesting and instructive process, and I now feel that I can legitimately compare The Pale to the Mad Max franchise (of which, guiltily I admit, I have never seen any), and to The Hunger Games trilogy (well, I have read the first book, but haven’t seen the movies). And “cool world-building” may well be a quote I can use for marketing.
Now, what can I pitch for the 2018 round, starting March 15th?
I’m looking for a book title that’s searchable and succinct, catchy and attractive.
I realise that I didn’t do enough research when naming the first novel in my story sequence. While I checked that there were no other books called ‘The Pale’, I didn’t perform an Amazon, Goodreads, Booktopia, etc., search. Now I find that searching for The Pale brings up every book that has ‘pale’ in the title: The Pale Horseman, The Pale Rider, and so on.
So I’m being a bit more cautious about naming Pale #2.
Its current working title is ‘Broad Plain Darkening’. I like it, and a search brings up no books, but a line in a long, long poem about Napoleon – The Napolead: In Twelve Books, by Thomas Hedges Genin, published in 1833. The line (above) looks very appropriate for my purpose.
Any other ideas for a title gratefully considered!
I have just heard that my wonderful fellow authors from the Odyssey stable (garret? mansion?) had a great success at the Ferny Creek Market yesterday. With a mystical theme, they still managed to sell all five copies of The Pale that I sent to the table. Wow, just, WOW!
I guess sci-fi with talking dogs was just within the net of interest for Faery and Angel followers. They too love their dogs I guess.
Meanwhile, I was engaged in an interesting conversation with my mum. She says such fascinating things these days. Indeed, I have plans for a new book, all about the amazing ideas that come to the surface of her reality, which is often in an alternarive universe from where I am living.
Yesterday she introduced me to a new resident at her care home. Although she never addresses me by name, she does introduce me as ‘This is my daughter Clare’, so she definitely knows who I am! Anyway, she then proceeded to tell me the history of the new man at the afternoon tea table.
‘They found Jack in the street, you know, and he wanted to buy the place so they let him in. He lives here now but he works at the local newsagent on Mondays. He’s going to bring me a copy of The Age because I still haven’t seen the article they wrote about my cooking.’
See, it’s absolute gold, isn’t it? Such a rich world. She can cram in more nuggets of intrigue in one go than I can smash into a chapter.
Hmm, I wonder where I get my love of telling stories?