Thursday, 2 December 2010

Allan Russell and 'Publish or Perish'

I’ve been following Allan Russell’s blog ‘Publish or Perish’ from the beginning, fascinated by his marathon journey from manuscript to publication and all the angst in between. His account of that journey is a classic for many authors today, caught up in the dramatic changes happening within the mainstream publishing industry; changes that mean really good authors, who should be being taken on and nurtured into future Dan Browns and Catherine Cooksons, are being rejected unless they turn up on the doorstep with a surefire winner first time round. Catherine Cookson had written ten books, none of which had made it into paperback, before she wrote the one that took off. What would Random House have done if some short-sighted editor had rejected the previous ten?

Allan’s book ‘Veiled in Shadows’ was published in November and I read it with much more enthusiasm that I’d anticipated. I’d had a notion it was about WWII and I’m not a fan of Boys’ Own adventures. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It wasn’t like that at all – a compelling bit of story-telling, from a natural story-teller. So I asked Al to tell me some more about himself. These are the answers.

1. When did you begin writing and what started you off?


The first thing I can remember writing was a sequel to the Hobbit. I was probably about seven and hadn’t heard of LOTR at that stage. Writing has always been an escape for me, a flight from the day-to-day into another world

2. Did you read a lot as a child? What sort of books did you like then?
I have always been an avid reader. My Mum instilled that in me from the beginning. I loved reading anyway, but when my little brother wasn’t reading well enough to suit Mum she banished our TV. Reading became the main form of entertainment in our household from that point. A little later we moved up the bush to a place without power so reading remained our primary entertainment. In fact not only did we read ourselves but most nights we took turns to read aloud. So many of the classics and books like LOTR were shared family experiences.
My absolute favourite authors as a child were AA Milne, Rosemary Sutcliffe and John Wyndham. Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth is the first “chapter book” I can remember reading so naturally I still have a soft spot for it.

3. What kind of books do you like now?
A bit of everything really. For the last few years I have mostly read history of some form, much of it quite specialised and technical. The main focus of this has been military and social history of the 20th century as research for Veiled in Shadows and the books that are following on from it. I read some biography (mostly with a military bent in recent years). I also love non-fiction natural sciences, archaeology and history generally. As for fiction a wide selection, recently Ian McEwen, Jodi Picoult, Geraldine Brooks, Ian Harris. I have to say I also have a taste for trashy thrillers but I often cringe at the standard of writing.

4. Did you ever think of writing as a career?
I have always dreamt of writing as my day job, but I am pretty realistic about how unlikely that is. I am aware of how few authors ‘make it’. Also my father has had half a dozen natural history books published and has essentially never made a cent.

5. Did you carry on writing, or did you let it slide? And if so, what made you take it up again?
Writing has been an intermittent feature in my life. In fact even Veiled was a stop start affair. My first draft was written back in the early 90s. I put a copy away on a floppy disk and didn’t look at it again for years.
Then a couple of years ago I had a bit of spare time (and if I am honest a need for escaping my daily routine at the time). To cut a long story short I thought I would like to ‘write a book’.
Then of course I remembered that I had in fact already ‘written one’ and hunted down that lost floppy. I was quite excited at the prospect of looking at it again, but I was bitterly disappointed. It was awful! The writing was really poor (embarrassingly so), the characters were cardboard 2D cut-outs, in short it was almost fit for nothing. But, I liked the central story. I thought the themes could be developed into something meaningful and the characters could grow into credible beings. I began re-drafting from there. Most of Veiled has been redrafted three times since then with a few sections probably changing eight or ten times.

6. Had you written other things before Veiled in Shadows?
I tried my hand at novels a couple of times in my teens but gave up in disgust at my own ineptness. Other than that the only things I have completed were an academic thesis and numerous pieces for work (reports, policies, press releases and the like). Oddly I think the effort I put into my thesis was the most formative in terms of my writing. Academic writing is so unlike fiction, yet writing thousands of words (even in a very constrained way) still lets you experiment with language.

7. How did you get the idea for the book?
That is a hard question to answer, where do such ideas come from? I have had a fascination with history and a horror of war all my life. I guess I have also been fascinated by the capacity of individuals to be both gentle and inhuman.
My central character Katharina was where I started, I had a vision of her running through the forest and coming across a young hunter. I am not sure why but at that moment it came to me that she should be half German and he SS. In my experience when I have the start of an idea the rough plot outline simply cascades into my consciousness. A mysterious muse, or the subconscious mind who knows. When I am in that state it simply flows. I have to come back later and see what is worth keeping and what needs to be trimmed. Then comes the work of fleshing it out.

8. What were the most difficult aspects of writing it?
The first draft was easy, but I wasn’t really thinking about my writing in those days!
My first draft was in the form of an omniscient narrator. Later I really struggled with the voice. I began the re-write in first person from Katharina’s point of view. But there is a significant plot problem with that given what happens in the prologue. Then I thought of writing from Ebi’s perspective. But he couldn’t possibly ‘know’ much of the story. I went back to a detached narrator but really wasn’t happy with it. Then in a Eureka moment I realised I could weave the story around Ebi and Katharina by using multiple points of view. A real bonus of this was that it really drove me to develop far more depth for many of the minor characters.

9. Were there ever times when you felt like giving up? What kept you going?
Never during the writing, editing and redrafting phases. All of that is a pleasure.
No I take that back - I hate copy editing, my hippie childhood gave me an opportunity to skip boring classes like learning times tables and basic grammar. I still have only a hazy idea of where to put a comma.
Where I struggled was once it came to submitting to agents. I am rather a novice at self promotion and every rejection felt painfully personal.

10. What influenced your decision to self-publish rather than wait for a mainstream publisher to recognise your work?
I guess there were a few factors. Not insignificant was the pain of rejections, I know they shouldn’t be taken as personal, but…
Also, there was the fact that with the publishing industry the way it is at the moment I wasn’t likely to get a decent advance and the support out there for first time authors seems pretty dismal anyway. Finally, there really is a sense that this is mine. Apart from minimal editorial advice and a couple of copy edits everything in the book is mine. The story, formatting, cover, the whole works. That gives me a real sense of pride.

11. What has been the most tricky part of the self-publishing process?
As I said above, I am atrocious at basic grammar. The very routine editing and checking is a real struggle. Apart from that most of it has been surprisingly easy. Many of the stages were quite time consuming, especially because I had to fit it all in around being a husband, a dad and working full time.
The other issue was I had to make all the decisions with very little feedback or support. I guess I had to rely on my own judgement which can be scary, even for an arrogant bugger like me!

12. Would you do it again?
Absolutely. I guess if someone waltzed up and offered me a huge advance for the follow-up books in the series I might be tempted. But otherwise, when I get to them I suspect I will not be submitting them to the traditional agent/publisher meat grinder. Of course the pessimist in me wonders if something might happen to sour the experience.

13. How do you think the blogosphere has helped? - encouragement? publicity? validation?
I can’t over emphasise how important the blogosphere has been so far. In terms of things like asking for feedback on my cover and various blurbs it has been very useful and affirming. Also I have people who want to read and review my book because they know me, that is a jump start in what is a very challenging field.
I’ve always been a loner in terms of my writing largely because most of the communities I have lived in have been very small. I live in a large city now, but a community that comes into my study is wonderful. And what I really like about this community is its diversity, people from every possible background, with different world views and from all over the planet coming together in an essentially supportive way.
I am a publicity novice, it is very much make it up as I go along. The blogosphere is a huge opportunity for promotion, at the same time I don’t want this experience to simply become a marketing opportunity. I enjoy participating in this community too much to want to make it feel a chore.

14. What's the best time of day for you to write and how do you fit it into your busy life?
I am a morning person by inclination. I am usually at my best when I manage to wake up before the household is stirring on a weekend.
The sad fact is that at the moment my writing is languishing. What little time I have had has been taken up with getting Veiled in Shadows ready for publication. However, now I am commuting by train so as soon as I can organise myself a new laptop I am planning to claim nearly two hours a day back for writing. I have been using computers since the early 1980s and I can’t conceive of any other way of writing.

15. You obviously love history. Who is your favourite character? Your most villainous villain?
To say I love history is an understatement. Yet, I always go blank when asked this kind of question. I’ll answer by being a little flippant to start with. My favourite fictional character is Winnie-the-Pooh, I think the wisdom of the bear of very little brain is very profound. My most villainous villain would be O’Brien from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. His capacity to be almost intimate with Winston Smith while destroying him is chilling.
As to figures from history. For favourite characters there are too many to pick just one; Samuel Pepys, Themistocles of Athens, Hypatia of Alexandria, Einstein, Charles Darwin, The Black Prince and Wellington to name but a few.
I guess my most Villainous Villain of history would be Albert Speer, he serves as a stark reminder of how absolutely power corrupts. He is a warning of how debased someone who starts out as decent can become. Yet at the same time as Gita Sereny said in her study of him, in the end he tried to find his morality again.

Many thanks Al - now time to get back to the next one!

What did I think of the book?  You'll have to read my book blog to find out!

4 comments:

  1. Thank you so much Kathleen.
    I have really enjoyed the chance to be interviewed, and to say I am chuffed at being called a 'natural story-teller' is an understatement!
    Especially when the praise comes from such a wonderful writer as yourself.
    Thank you again,
    Al

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  2. Thank you (both) for a very enjoyable interview. I was particularly interested in Al's comments on self-publishing. I've read 'Veiled in Shadows' and found it to be a real page-turner.

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  3. Thank you Kathleen for such a fab interview! I am so intrigued by what influences writers have and how they cope with the writing process. I always thought I was pretty good with the grammar but have had a few tussles with critique partners with regards to commas! LOL!! I'm most intrigued now to read the rest of Allan's book - especially as I'm not that keen on omnipresent POVs - I'd much rather stick to one POV. I am on his chapter 3 (he has uploaded a few chapters on his blog) and I thought that I was reading the book from Ebert's POV but now it's about to change!!!! So exciting times ahead for me! GOOD LUCK ALLAN RUSSELL with your debut novel!!!!

    Take care
    x

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  4. Great interview - very revealing and honest. Al's sheer enthusiasn, his wideranging reading and principled views reveal themselves here and in the novel itself which I've already had the pleasure of reading. I think the multiple pionts of view worked very well - giving what was a long, complicated novel a boost of energy as we lock into a new point of view. Really works, I think.

    Having just published my memoir The Romancer in a private edition I identify with all Al says here as well at being in charge of every aspect of the book production - daunting but very exciting. And now for me the hard bit is promotion and publicity. As Al says, the blogosphere is imprtant in this.
    Congratulations again Al on a very good book and a very brave venture in circumventing the agent/publisher meatgrinder which is polluting the field for talented new writers out there.
    Finally I would urge Al to get on and write the next one (those train journeys will be a help...)
    Thanks Kathy for spreading the word about Al, his sunny approach to life and his serious approach to writing.
    wx

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