Dreda Say Mitchell is one of my favourite authors and I am honoured to know her as a friend too. Her new book SPARE ROOM has been released this week and is already flying up the Kindle charts. Although it is published by Bloodhound Books, Dreda self-publishes too. Like me, she is a hybrid author. I asked her if she would write a piece of her choice and then answer a few questions on writing. Over to you Dreda:
Dennis Potter once said that he ploughed the same furrow in his writing because every time he wrote a TV project, he never felt afterwards that he’d ploughed it quite straight. For some writers this works because they want to nail their themes, formats and subjects. Others get itchy feet and when they’ve tried one thing in one way, they want to try something else in another. I’m definitely in this latter category. There are many different things I want to write and many different ways in which I want to do it. It was this factor more than any other that persuaded me to take control of my own career and move on to self-publishing.
A word about the term self-publishing – I don’t like it. It sounds like I’m using a printing press in my bedroom rather than accessing the dynamic, digital world to make sure my books reach the widest possible audience.
My first book, ‘Running Hot’ was published in 2004 by Maia, an indie press. After that, I was published by Hodder up until last year. With both Maia and Hodder, I worked with some brilliant people, learned lots of new things and had lots of resources available. It also meant I was able to build up a readership with their help.
On the other hand, traditional publishing companies have their own rhythms and rules. Set up on your own and you take charge of all that for yourself. In July this year, I published my first self-published book with Amazon, ‘Blood Secrets’. It’s been a fantastic experience, helped massively by loyal readers, especially on Facebook and the support of other self-published authors. At the same time as publishing ‘Blood Secrets’, I’ve been working on other novels in other crime subgenres without having to worry about any of those dreaded deadlines or slots.
Another plus is that this method doesn’t preclude working with others. When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d left Hodder, I was approached by digital publisher, ‘Bloodhound Books’ to write some books for them while also still producing my own books. This is the much vaunted ‘hybrid model’ we hear so much about. Of course, this model isn’t peculiar to publishing of course. For every web developer working in an office, there’s another working off their kitchen table. We can expect to see a lot of this very modern phenomenon in the future, in all professions.
At the same time, I’ve also tweaked another element to my writing career. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of assistance with my writing from my partner Tony. He likes to claim that all the best lines and twists are down to him – as if! Being self-published and working with a digital publisher means that we can now be upfront about being a writing partnership. Now I’ve got someone else to blame when things go wrong.
Self-publishing isn’t for everyone and like everything else in life, it will work for some and not for others. What I can say is that it means I retain the rights to my books, can make royalties worth 70%, can make additional money via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited programme and have control over my books so that I can use them strategically, such as dropping the price, making some free, to drive traffic to newer books. If you’re prepared to grow your social media audience, especially on Facebook, work hard, produce more than one book a year you will find the world of digital publishing just might be for you.
I treat writing like working in an office and allot myself set hours to do it in. I don’t bunk off, phone in sick or go shopping online while I’m at my desk. While some might not approve of treating writing fiction as ‘work’, I do. You get a lot more done that way.
What is your first draft process?
Me and Tony talk about themes and characters, especially our lead protagonist. Then we try to produce an outline. This involves us working together and apart. Then we share out the work and write separately. At the end of each week we swap what we’ve done and make changes. Then I have to ‘Dreda up’ his work, ensuring it sounds like Dreda. As we’re a partnership there’s a lot of ‘intense’ discussion.
Is writing your only profession?
As well as writing, I do some broadcasting, journalism, along with prison and educational work, (I was a teacher, including a deputy head teacher in a past life). It’s not always possible for some writers but I think getting away from your writing really helps an author. It can be a lonely profession and it’s good to do other things that involve other people too.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you have been given?
There are two. Graham Greene said it’s a good idea to finish your writing for the day mid-sentence and mid-paragraph; then you can pick up again straightaway next day. The other was John Mortimer who said his only rule in writing was never to bore yourself.
If you were starting right now, what would be the one piece of advice you wish you had known beforehand?
There was a vogue word in writing a few years ago, which was ‘architecture’. In other words, along with characterisation, description, style and the other elements, does a writer know how to construct a story that will engage a reader from beginning to end? That’s not necessarily the same as ‘plot’ but it is fundamental to the craft and you need to know the importance of that from the off.
Dreda Say Mitchell is an award-winning novelist, broadcaster, campaigner, journalist and motivational speaker. She is the author of eleven novels, with her debut awarded The CWA’s John Creasey Dagger in 2005, the first time a Black British author has been given this honour. Dreda was named one of Britain’s 50 Remarkable Women by Lady Geek in association with Nokia. She has been a World Book Night author and contributed to the multi-award winning ‘Books To Die For’. She is a frequent guest on television, including Front Row Late, BBC News Channel, The Review Show, Newsnight, Daybreak, Victoria Derbyshire andCanada’sSun News Live. She has presented Radio 4’s Open Book and been a guest on many other radio shows, including The Stephen Nolan Show, Front Row, Saturday Review and Woman’s Hour. She was the 2011 chair of the Harrogate Crime Fiction Festival, Europe’s biggest crime festival. Her commitment and passion for raising the life chances of working-class children in education and her work in prisons and young offenders settings has been called inspirational and life-changing. She continues to live in the East End of London where she grew up.
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