The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
We were delighted to have Debbie Young to speak to Cheltenham Writers’ Circle recently, on the topic of Self-Publishing. It was a lively and informative meeting and Debbie has kindly agreed to be my guest on this blog to share her talkk with a wider audience.
Debbie is many things; a prolific author, currently working on a seven book series, the Sophie Sayers Mysteries, a frequent speaker at festivals and writing groups, founder of the Hawkesbury Festival, organiser for the Alliance of Independent Authors and much more. But let Debbie talk about herself.
Edward: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Debbie: I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I was a child, and still have old exercise books of stories I wrote when I was still in infants’ school. I remember being taken around the classes to read my stories to other children – my first taste of fame! I have always written for pleasure as a hobby, and had some short stories published in magazines in my twenties, but then my demanding day-jobs took over, and it wasn’t until I hit a significant birthday and decided to go part-time, to allow time to pursue my writing more seriously, that I began to think of myself as a proper writer!
Edward: What did you do before you became a full-time writer? How did it contribute to your writing?
Writing was always my main skill, and English my favourite subject at school, so it made sense to pursue a career first in journalism, and then in public relations, news reports, magazine articles and features, brochures, newsletters, website copy, and so on. Having worked for several PR agencies, I then went in-house and worked for 13 years at a private school, managing their marketing, before working part-time for a children’s reading charity, now called Read for Good.
Writing for magazines and PR clients was excellent training for writing to length and to a deadline about any subject required. I never believed that a writer had to have inspiration or a muse to be successful – I had it drummed into me that it was just a question of sitting down and working hard at it! It also provided excellent editing experience, both of self-editing and editing other people’s copy. Being ruthless about other people’s words made it easier to be ruthless about my own.
Most of these pieces were very short – under a couple of thousand words – which made me good at honing down copy to a tight word count. I naturally gravitated towards the short story at first, but once I’d built up my confidence and got some great reviews from my three collections of short stories, I finally got down to what I’d always meant to do when I grew up: to write novels.
The experience of working for the children’s reading charity was probably the final validation that I needed to start dedicating my working hours to writing: it reminded me of the importance of books and reading, and their power to changes lives. Although my books may seem upbeat and lighthearted, each of them is underpinned by serious messages, and I hope that they will subliminally at least change people’s lives by making them more tolerant and less judgmental of others, and kinder to each other.
Edward: Tell me about some of the things you have written. What is your current project?
Debbie: I’ve written three themed collections of short stories:
Quick Change includes 20 flash fiction pieces, arranged in order of age of the protagonist, about transformational moments in people’s lives
Marry in Haste – 15 short stories, in three groups of five, on dating, engagement and marriage
Stocking Fillers – 12 fun short stories to take the stress out of preparing for Christmas
In a planned series of seven Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels, I’ve published the first four:
Best Murder in Show
Trick or Murder?
Murder in the Manger
Murder by the Book
I’m currently writing book 5, Springtime for Murder, and hope to finish book 6, Murder Your Darlings, and book 7, School’s Out for Murder, by the end of the year. This is very ambitious, but I want to get the series finished to that I can move on to a new, unrelated series – though I also have some ideas for spin-offs from the Sophie series, including a bonus eighth novel!
I’ve also written some self-help books for authors (published by ALLi – more of which in a moment) and two collections of the columns I write for two local magazines.
Edward: What made you decide to self-publish?
Debbie: One of the reasons it took me so long to get round to taking my writing seriously was the slow, cumbersome nature of traditional publishing. The thought of sending a manuscript off to an agent or publisher, knowing it was very unlikely to be accepted, and that a reply might take months, put me right off, especially when I was busy with demanding day jobs and raising my daughter.
Conversely, when I first heard about the new wave of self-publishing, in which the author can publish his own books easily and to a high standard via Amazon and Ingram Spark, I was so impressed by how empowering this was, that I couldn’t resist trying it for myself. Finding the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), the global nonprofit organisation for independent authors, fast tracked me to competence and confidence as a self-publishing author, and I haven’t looked back. Even if a traditional publishing company offered me a contract now, I’d most likely say no, as I would not want to relinquish the control that I have, nor to become a tiny cog in their vast machine.
Edward: Can you describe your writing day?
Debbie: I work full-time at home and am lucky to have my own study overlooking the garden of my Victorian Cotswold cottage in a small village in Gloucestershire. I work all day, every day, starting when I’ve seen my teenage daughter off to school. Ideally I write fiction from 8am until 11am, stopping halfway through for breakfast, then downing tools at 11am for morning coffee with my husband. I try not to schedule meetings before 11am so as not to interrupt my writing time.
The latter part of the morning and early afternoon are spent on the work I do for ALLi – I run their Author Advice Center, which means I commission daily blog posts, which I have to subedit, and occasionally write from scratch, and share them on social media. I do a few other bits and pieces for ALLi too.
Then I work on other aspects of my writing life: marketing the books, writing guest posts for bookbloggers and other authors, and managing a huge volume of correspondence from readers and other authors seeking advice.
I try not to work in the evenings, but do sometimes do a bit of late-night editing, rejigging what I’ve written that morning and planning what to write next day.
In the evenings I’m far more likely to be reading than watching television. I read widely and voraciously.
Edward: You convene two local groups of ALLi. Can you tell me about ALLi and how it can help self-published authors?
Debbie: I run two writers’ groups, one in Cheltenham (at the Anthology bookshop, 10.30am every third Thursday in the month) and the other in Bristol (6pm, first Wednesday every month), at which we talk about all aspects of writing and self-publishing, and we share best practice advice as well as moral support and encouragement. These aren’t technically ALLi groups, because ALLi is an online organisation, but they became so popular that I had to find a way of limiting attendance to manageable proportions, so I now say “ALLi members only”, although anyone may come along to one meeting on a trial basis. I know that if someone is a member of ALLi, they are serious about writing and self-publishing, and we’ll have a lot of common ground already, so that works well.
ALLi is a nonprofit organisation founded by bestselling novelist, poet, and creative thinking teacher Orna Ross five years ago to provide a global resource for independently-minded authors to share best practice and advice. It has thousands of members around the globe and offers a huge amount of online information (nearly 2,000 blog posts in the archive), significant discounts from partner members for services such as design, formatting, and printing, and a twice-yearly free online conference. One of the biggest benefits is the private Facebook forum, where you can ask any question about any aspect of self-publishing, any time of day or night, and get a flurry of helpful answers. You can find out more about the benefits of joining at http://www.allianceindependentauthors.org.
Edward: You have a lot of other activities including the Hawkesbury Festival. How did that come about?
Debbie: Four years ago, I decided I wanted to set up a small, affordable litfest in my village to spread the love of books and reading. I knew plenty of local authors, most of them indies, who would be happy to take part in discussion panels and to give readings. I also knew that plenty of people in my local community would be interested in attending. What started out as an evening in a couple of rooms in The Fox Inn has now grown to a multi-venue action-packed day with several simultaneous strands of events – talks, workshops, readings, children’s entertainment, and a bookshop cafe – running for a whole day. This year for the first time we also included an associated art exhibition and an outreach programme to the residential care home in the village, sending poets in to read to its residents. I am enormously proud of what between us we have managed to achieve – and to be able to offer it free for everyone to attend, so it’s very inclusive and democratic. More and more small festivals are popping up like this around the country – in fact, I’m going to be the keynote speaker at a new start-up in Derby this weekend, which has been set up on the Hawkesbury model.
Edward: When you spoke to Cheltenham Writers’ Circle you told us about Beta Readers. Could you say something here for those of us who were not at the meeting?
Debbie: Beta readers are like test-pilots for books, and help you make your book the best it can be, at no cost to the author. You submit your manuscript for their appraisal, and you may like to provide a list of questions you’d like them to answer, e.g. “does the plot hang together?”, “Is this character too evil?”, “Did you guess whodunnit?”, or whatever, and they give you their response. Beta readers should not be friends and relations, who might just tell you what they think you want to hear (“It’s wonderful!”) Other authors can be great beta readers, and many authors like to do this because it helps them be more objective about their own work too – and of course they can ask you to return the favour by beta-reading for them! The best place to find beta readers is via ALLi, if you’re a member – that’s one of the functions that our Facebook forum provides. Members of my writers’ groups also beta read for each other. You can read a lot more about how beta reading works by going to ALLi’s blog at www.selfpublishingadvice.org and putting “beta reader” into the search box – there are several blog pots about it.
Edward: Could you give us some links to tell us more about your work?
Debbie: The best place to start is my author website: www.authordebbieyoung.com. There you will find all current information about my books and events, links to my social media accounts, and a contact form for any messages. Enquiries are always welcome!
You can order all of my books online via Amazon here, or if you quote their ISBN numbers to your local bookshop, they should be able to order them for you. The ISBNs are listed on my website on each book’s page, and also on Amazon. I am a strong advocate for local bookshops, so do use them if you can – that’s one reason I’ve included a bookshop in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, and made Sophie’s love interest a bookseller!
Author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery Series