Lesley Hayes is my first guest in this series of interviews, and she and I are going to thrash out the problem I evoked in my introduction earlier in the month. Actually we’re going to do it in two rounds, with an intermission so you can make yourselves a cup of tea, because we have been rather long-winded.
I invited authors whose writing doesn’t fit into a particular category to stand up and explain themselves, because sometimes getting noticed feels like bashing your head against a brick wall—you don’t make any impression, but you give yourself a lot of pain.
I started writing what I thought my adolescent children would like to read, given the complaints they voiced about what was on offer. Fair enough, you say. However, I live in France, i.e. surrounded by French people who speak and read in French. My children go to French schools; their friends are French. I sit in my corner scribbling away (in English) at what I want to write with not much hope that anybody in my immediate neighbourhood is ever going to read it.
What I write is my personal take on the world—its problems and some of the solutions to them. The people who have read what I write praise it, but very few of them found the book for themselves. If I hadn’t shoved it in front of them they would never have picked it up.
The characters I write about are nothing like either Harry Potter or Catniss Thingy. They are like the people I know. I hate sword-wielding heroines, princes of the blood, and the gang with a collection of super powers that between them make Star Wars look like a game of tiddley winks. When you write in the fantasy genre that’s a problem. No sparkle, no hot romantic interest, no exiled princes or half-dressed women warriors and you’re on a sticky wicket. And I don’t think I’m alone.
If the titles tickle your fancy they’re available here and here
J: Lesley, what made you decide to write, what do you write about?
L: Thanks for the opportunity to share my own experience with you, Jane. I describe on my website (www.lesleyhayes.co.uk) my early predilection for writing. I don’t think it was then so much a decision as an instinct. From an incredibly young age I was already writing stories. I was an only child, and I think it may have been a form of escape into an alternative world. I also loved words, the sound of them, the rhythm of language, and the secret magic of the metaphor. I wrote poetry as well as stories, and every so often throughout the years a poem has come, fully formed, intruding into ordinary consciousness like a dream, expressing a truth demanding to be told. The stories I write are always primarily about relationships – my greatest fascination since childhood. Family dynamics were the breeding ground for my nuanced observations.
Much of the action in my novels takes place in the mind and the interactions of the characters. I want to know them and discover their motivations, and I have to write the novel in order to find out. Long before I trained to become a psychotherapist I was already a psychologist and a deep thinking philosopher. I didn’t need books to teach me these subjects. It came naturally to me. I was blessed or cursed with an inquiring mind. It’s what has continued to intrigue and drive me, throughout my career as a therapist and now that I have returned to writing fiction.
J: Has your writing style/genre thrown up any problems?
L: The issue of genre and whether or not square pegs can fit into round holes, I don’t see so much as a problem as a phenomenon of our times. Back in the day, when I was being published by actual publishers and had an actual agent, there was always a certain amount of categorisation, but it seems to me that this has become more fixed in today’s market, and especially in the world of self-publishing. The very idea of self-publishing was anathema to ‘serious writers’ when I was writing fiction twenty years ago. I think there is still a degree of sneering that goes on, and darkly muttered indictments referring to ‘vanity publishing.’
This casts something of a pall over serious writers who have chosen to self-publish because they see this is the way the trend is going, now that increasing numbers of publishers have their backs to the wall.
J: There is certainly a lot to wade through if a reader is trawling the Amazon categories. In one way it makes sense to have signposts to guide readers, in another it doesn’t allow for the books that don’t fit. I mean, what is General Fiction supposed to mean? It certainly doesn’t conjure up the idea of a book that breaks the mould. More likely the book that will bore you to death.
L: My novels have always fought against being categorised, much as I have in the rest of my life. Who wants to be put in a box that defines them before they are truly known? My stories aren’t romances, although I do write about love. They aren’t erotic fiction although I don’t shy away from describing scenes of sexual intimacy when the storyline requires it. They couldn’t be described as historical, fantasy, vampire, zombie or thriller fiction – although since someone who read The Drowned Phoenician Sailor said it was a kind of psychological thriller, I loosely accepted that label. So that leaves me in the vast uncharted and frequently unexplored waters of ‘General Fiction’. I write literary novels that have a good story, strong characterisation, a fully worked out plot and a point to make. However, I haven’t been on Big Brother or had my own cookery programme or otherwise developed a fan base, so entering the world of mainstream publishing is these days no easy task.
J: How did you set about getting published? Was it the usual round of agents and publishers?
L: After completing The Drowned Phoenician Sailor I tried for a year to find an agent to represent me. I approached every agent out there who purported to have interest in my kind of fiction. My previous agent had retired, much as I now had from psychotherapy practice, and to begin with I still believed that you needed an agent to knock on publishers’ doors. The ones who replied to my submissions were enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but all said they were only able to take on one or two new authors a year, and sadly (they always said sadly) this wasn’t going to be me. “But keep trying to find someone to represent you,” they all said. “I’m sure you will.” They didn’t add wryly: “And good luck with that…” although I suspect they probably thought it. All this time my son kept saying: “You don’t need an agent, you don’t need a publisher. Look at the way the world is now. In a few years everyone will have a kindle. It’s the PC revolution all over again. People are even reading books on their iPhones. Find out how to publish through Amazon.” So eventually I took the plunge.
On that cliff-hanger we will take a break. INTERMISSION
Or if you’d rather
J: Self publishing is the obvious way round the problem of the gatekeepers, but it does mean the entire burden of both publishing and promotion is on the author.
L: Without an agent and a publisher you must rapidly learn all the skills of an additional career in advertising. Self-promotion doesn’t come easily for a writer – not for this writer, anyway. Basically, what I really want to be doing is writing, not all this social networking and casting my bread upon the waters – the oceanic waters I might add – of twitter and facebook. I’ve met some great people – albeit in passing, mostly – on both, but I don’t know that all this tweeting and retweeting and shouting out: “Look at me, over here!” in the crowded twitter marketplace is actually having any effect, except that the people following me are probably bored to the brim with the constant repetition.
J: As you say, the line between promotion and harassment is a very fine one. But if you don’t push yourself forward who is going to notice you? Just waiting politely at the back might be very British but it won’t sell your books. The sheer volume of fiction available is staggering, and much of it is annoyingly awful.
L: I guess the biggest shock for me, having originally embarked on self-publishing as a kind of experiment, has been to discover there the magnitude of badly edited, badly written, misspelt, ungrammatical and carelessly plotted books claiming to be best-sellers. Anyone can publish a book on kindle and take on the mantle of ‘author’. But I don’t see them as competition. The world is plenty big enough for books that suit all kinds of audiences, and for me that’s just a sad reflection of how low the bar is set for a lot of readers. The difficulty seems to be that with all of that jostling for space beside other genuinely well written books as well as the dross, becoming visible is an incredible challenge. There is no filter separating the good from the bad. Fortunately Amazon have had the foresight to offer a “Look inside” feature, so that you can check out within the first few paragraphs, or sentences in some cases, whether the self-proclaimed author lives up to that title. My confidence has been restored in coming across a few books that have impressed me enough to put on my own kindle. Usually they also defy categorisation, or sit uneasily between several genres.
J: But the idle Amazon browsers have to find you before they even get to the stage of ‘looking inside’. The first stumbling block to recognition must be deciding how you’re going to categorise your book, before you even decide which reviewers might be interested. Because reviews are all-important in helping to get your book on the map.
L: Real reviews, of course. Do you want to sell your soul for the dubious prize of buying in a load of fake ‘reviews’ by people who haven’t actually read the book? Some people do, and the more reviews you have, the higher up the Amazon visibility charts you will rise.
My first novel has accrued 8 genuine reviews, the last time I counted – my first short story collection has 4. Since I know they are authentic, I feel good about them, yet I’m so far out of the Amazon best-seller list that I might as well be a minor planet circling a distant star in a galaxy far far away. I am not even a blip on the radar – in spite of all my dedicated marketing in the twittersphere.
J: But that hasn’t stopped you writing.
L: As a writer, I would write anyway. All the years that I wasn’t writing fiction but listening to other people’s real and often harrowing stories, I wrote extensively in my journal. It was something I simply had to do, the same way I need to regularly discharge all the usual bodily functions. I won’t go into details. But it would be dishonest to say I only write for myself. I want to share my novels and short stories. I want them to have value for other people as well as for me. I want to give pleasure through them and know that I’ve succeeded. I’m not in it for the money or the fame (I would run a mile from that) but for the quiet satisfaction of knowing that other people recognised my talent for what it is and were moved, touched, inspired and entertained by it.
I’m sure many of us can empathise with that final message. Thank you Lesley for such an entertaining chat. I know it has given me food for thought.
Go to Lesley’s blog (lesleysky.wordpress.com) to read more about her writing, and her books can all be found on Amazon
13 thoughts on “Author hot seat: That was nice. What was it?”
Great interview – and I’m wondering, Jane, what would happen if you brought out French language versions of your books for local book shops etc?
They would probably take copies as I’m local. But first get your translation. I don’t have the means to pay a translator so I’d have to try and convince a French publisher to take on a book by an unknown author written in English that they would translate at their expense. Can’t see it happening somehow. I’ll certainly ask around though.
Thanks to Lesley for the great insights. Jane, I respect your writing immensely, and to also discover Lesley here today is wonderful. Lesley, I am still working on the paper that discusses the influence of guilt in Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet. I will let you know what comes of it.
Thank you, Laine. When you finish/publish your paper don’t forget to let us know.
Thank you, Laine. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you when you’ve finished your paper. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview! It’s a small world 🙂
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Thank you, owllady. Will be interested in any responses.
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Thank you again!
Wonderful interview. I very much enjoyed reading this. Lesley, I have to agree with you on many, many points you made. Self-promotion doesn’t come easy for me either. I can’t shove my book under people’s noses, nor can I claim to be a bestseller just because I’ve landed in the top 100 in an obscure Amazon category for a day. It’s tough when you have a book that isn’t easy to categorize, but I’m so glad authors now have an opportunity to self-publish these books. Yes, there are some badly produced books on the market, but there are some real gems too. Good luck to you and your books!
Great to read your response, Tricia, and it’s heartening to know you agree with much of what I’ve said. The self-publishing market is a wonderful opportunity for everyone who wants to shine their light out there in the world, and there’s a place for us all. We are all gems in our own way. I wish you luck, and success, too.
Very interesting interview! I have recently connected with Lesley myself on Twitter too 🙂
It’s good to know that this kind of exercise helps get the word out. Thanks, Ali.