Saturday, 30 March 2013

Guest Post: Reflections on a new career by Elizabeth Jasper

A fine mess I got myself into – or was it?

I used to work full time.  My life was crammed so full of responsibilities, demands, and the effort of getting everything done to everyone else’s satisfaction that I hardly had time to think, never mind make decisions for myself. From the moment that alarm went off,  I had to get up in time to walk the dog, to get the kids ready for school and then get ready myself and drive a considerable distance to work, where I held down a responsible job. Each weekday evening, the routine was reversed util I fell into bed, usually after half a bottle of wine, and immediately fell into a deep sleep until that damned alarm went off again. Year after year after year, just like everyone else.

Then things changed. My husband, whom we hardly saw as he had a seriously demanding job as a lawyer in Central London, was offered early retirement.  After a couple of years, our lovely family dog died, our kids had grown up and moved away and we made the decision to move to Spain to live.

Once settled in our new home, I made my first big decision to follow my dream and to try to write a novel.  For years, story ideas had teemed around in my head.  Now it was time to see if I had the determination to make my dream come true.  Like most new writers, I hadn’t a clue what that entailed. I knew I could tell a story but hadn’t the first idea how to write it down in such a fashion that it became something readers could pick up and get stuck into.

That’s when I realised I had to start thinking for myself, not only about the story I was  telling but how I was going to tell it.  Should it be first or third person? How would I describe the characters? How could they develop as people during the course of the story? Could I work two completely different threads about two completely different characters into one story so it had a satisfactory ending. So many choices to make.

It took around three years to finish that first book. Of course, I dreamed about my book being a huge success, about an agent taking me on and getting a big publisher to snap it up, along with my next two or three offerings.  I already had two more books mapped out in my head. I sat back and waited.

That was a few years back. It didn’t happen. I’d made decisions out of ignorance that meant I wasn’t writing for the current market.  Or even for a future market. I had been writing for myself. I was a good writer who had written a great book; some well-known agents said so and a publisher kept it for almost nine months - after the re-write I did along the lines they suggested - before I gave up hoping to hear from them ever again. I even won an award with my first book. None of that made the slightest bit of difference. I’d chosen to write across genres – a big no-no in the publishing world.  Not only had I written across genres, I was unknown. I had never done anything spectacular enough during my life to become ‘noticed’. I hated the cult of ‘celebrity’ with a passion I previously reserved for people who were cruel to children or animals and never, ever wanted to be famous.  The thought of publicising myself filled me with horror (and still does).

My next big decision was to Do It Myself.  Yes, with the dawn of e-publishing through Amazon and Smashwords, anyone could become a writer and sell their books through the internet. I’d finished my first book and was well into books two and three. Encouraged by stories of unknown authors making it big with e-books, I decided to learn all about it and, while finishing my two new books, kept a watching brief.

After the initial frenzy of e-publishing by anyone who had, or even only thought they had a book to publish, the horror stories began to emerge.  In the Amazon Customer Forum, readers who had tried e-books by authors who were doing it for themselves started to complain. Although a few e-books by this new breed of independent authors, by now becoming known as Indies, were as good as those conventionally published, the vast majority most certainly were not.  Poor storytelling, crappy writing, a complete lack of editing skills and bad formatting put so many of these readers off it looked as if all Indie writers would be forever shunned by the people who used the Forum.  Not only that, some Forum users became so vindictive, so absolutely convinced that Indie writers were all rubbish, a groundswell of public opinion began to form denigrating any writer who decided to go it alone.

Amazon introduced Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select, where, if a writer placed their book in the scheme, for an exclusive three month period,  s/he was able (encouraged) to offer their books for free for a few days each month during that period in order, said Amazon, to raise authors’ profiles and encourage sales of e-books. Just about every writer took advantage of this profile enhancing opportunity and the market became glutted with free books, some good, but the majority mediocre or plain bad.  More grist to the mill of those Forum readers, who still complained vociferously about the poor quality of e-books, even while they were stuffing their Kindles with said freebies.

 My new mantra became ‘edit, edit, and edit a few more times’ to eliminate even the tiniest error so readers, especially Amazon Customer Forum readers, would find nothing to complain about in my books.  How could I do that for myself? Conventional publishers had professional editors to take care of details like that, didn’t they?  In a way I was fortunate because during a long career working in prestigious UK universities,  I had typed up and proof-read books for one of my bosses, an eminent archaeologist, so had a fair idea of what to look for in a ‘raw’ manuscript.  In fact, while there was plenty of room for improvement, my editing skills were not too bad compared to many other writers in the same position. 

Having got my head around editing, I learned that was not enough.  I needed to be able to format my books for e-readers.  Another steep learning curve.  Then there was my website to maintain.  I set it up myself – a tedious and time consuming process that didn’t excite me at all – and had to find time for that, as well as starting a blog, reading and reviewing for a couple of Indie websites and writing more books.  

This early retirement lark was no such thing.  My days were filled with reading and writing and if I wasn’t actually doing something directly connected with what had become a second career, my mind constantly whirled with new ideas for stories, with plans to promote my own work so I might, one day, break into the big time, with the problems of creating covers for my books that would catch the eye of a potential reader, and more. 

My decision to Do It Myself led to a myriad of new skills to learn, new problems to overcome and new ideas for books I must find time to write.  It all looks rather daunting on paper but I have a huge pile of silver linings to comfort me while I continue with my self-imposed tasks.  First, along the way I joined a couple of writing websites, YouWriteOn and Authonomy, where I met like-minded writers willing to share their experiences, expertise and views. Many have become valued friends who support one another with beta reading, editing, covers, reviews and promoting.  As someone who lives just about as far away as you could  get from an actual writing group, my virtual writing friends have become a comfort and a joy.

Next, through my network of writer friends and colleagues, I have discovered some of the most wonderful books written by Indie writers that are far superior to the vast majority churned out by  the ‘usual suspects’ seen week after month after year in The Sunday Times Bestseller Lists. You can find some of the very best Indie books on the Awesome Indies website, where I am proud to say two of my books were accepted for inclusion, and the B.R.A.G.Medallion website, where more Indie books of a very high standard are accepted.

Now, I write books I want to write, usually across genres,  and from the reviews I’ve received so far on Amazon and elsewhere, other people are enjoying reading them almost as much as I did in creating them.

Since taking that big decision a few years back, I have written and published four e-books without the benefit of an agent or a publisher. My covers have been produced for me by the very talented Jane Dixon Smith of JD Smith, Design.  I’m half way through two more books and have another couple in outline.  All of my published books will be available in paperback by the end of this year, along with those two currently in progress.

I have now sold enough books to convince myself that when my passport comes up for renewal in a couple of years’ time, instead of putting ‘retired’ under ‘occupation’, I can put ‘writer’.  For me, that’s something very special indeed. 

Currently available as e-books:

Lying in Wait

A Bed of Knives

Meggie Blackthorn

The Golden Cuckoo

Find out more about me and my books at http://www.elizabethjasper.com

9 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

Interesting post on your journey to publication. I checked out the Awesome Indies site and their list of reviewers, but the only two names I recognized weren't taking submissions.

Dan Holloway said...

Wonderful to see you - it's been a real pleasure following you on your journey since my very earliest days at this writing lark.

Stephanie Zia said...

Thanks for a great tale of your steady rise to success. Love the cross-genre busting!

madwippitt said...

Great post! (And your comment about being busy reminds me of my Dad saying the same thing about having even less free time after retirement than before!)

Lee said...

Some very handsome covers, especially for The Golden Cuckoo.

Reb MacRath said...

Long live genre-bending novels. Thanks for sharing your journey. Terrific post.

John A. A. Logan said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Nice surprise to see a post from you on here!
Yes...editing...self-editing...I remember Bernard Mac Laverty saying once that, for him, writing was mainly about the "striking out" of words, not the writing of them.
The sifting and refining, and development, over time, until the story percolates down into something it can't become any other way.
I always think of Bulgakov working on The Master and Margarita's various drafts for 8 years...the book growing and shrinking..growing...shrinking again...then setting fire to it (!)...then rewriting it again from memory...and continuing to edit and revise and refine that rewritten version.
In his case, even after completion, it was 27 years after his death before the book was published.
Luckily, we live in a time (now) where there is another option and a way to get our books out to the readers.
And yes, this can include original, genre-crossing work which otherwise (and until very recently) would be lost, never read.
A good time to be working on ebooks, I think!
All best,
John

Pam Howes said...

Liz I've only just seen your guest post. Really enjoyed reading it. nice to have shared some of the journey, via YWO, with you. And your books are brill. Can't wait for the next. Pam. xxx

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