Welcome to the very first The Write Track interview in a new and, hopefully, long-lived series. It’s an attempt to shine the light on the everyday, unsung success stories of self-published authors (and also formatters, designers, editors and more) – how they do it, why they do it and exactly what they’ve done.
I’ve got a few other aims in mind: in my short but busy self-publishing career I’ve been constantly struck by the generosity of other authors who, out of kindness (and, let’s be honest, perhaps also with a soupcon of the procrastination on social media that we all fall prey to when we should be writing the next book) share their knowledge and lessons learned on blogs, forums and Facebook groups. These interviews should also pull some of those ideas and ‘best practice’ together.
I’m also anticipating it being interesting for fans and readers of the featured authors to see a different side of the books they read, and to get an insight into the writer’s life. If you’d like to be featured, please feel to drop me a line. Anyway, introducing my first interviewee, Simon Fairfax.
A chartered surveyor by day, an author by night, Simon Fairfax writes thrillers that inhabit the same world he does – heeding the often misquoted or misunderstood advice from Mark Twain: write what you know. He puts his genre as crime thriller adventure stories, but has plans for a 15th century spy series set before Agincourt. 2017 was a banner year for Simon, publishing two books in his ‘Deal’ series of novels featuring Rupert Brett. We caught up shortly after the publication of the second, A Deal Too Far.
Harry Scott: How long have you been writing, and when did you first discover a passion to write?
Simon Fairfax: I started writing my first book, No Deals Done, in 2006 when we returned from living in Italy and enjoyed the process immensely. I finished it in 2009 and when I was made redundant in the property crash I sent it to one literary agent. It was rejected. I realised then that I enjoyed writing but had not the urge to continue. I then started my second book in 2015, this helped with my first which I severely edited and re-wrote the last third after positive criticism and sending off for more rejections by literary agents.
HS: How would you describe your writing style and your genre?
SF: As to style, I would quote my hero, Ian Fleming, whose work I return to whenever I am in difficulties, he famously said: “I write my books for red-blooded heterosexuals travelling in railway carriages.” Whilst I would not limit the mode of travel or audience, the general feeling remains the same. They are quite English or British thrillers; with heroes and villains and that move around the globe. They are also set against a world which I know: commercial property. As to genre, they are crime/thriller/adventure stories with an espionage twist. There is, like Fleming, violence, twists, sex and hopefully interesting believable characters. One kind critic wrote that I am ‘doing for commercial property what Grisham and Suits did for the law’. I would love that to be the case.
HS: Exactly how do you write? Do you have a system, a place, a certain time of day?
SF: I write when I feel the urge, sometimes five pages of Word doc a day, sometimes only a page (which is about 500 words to a page). It depends on how much research is needed at each point as problems present themselves. I make no proper notes – it all is in my head. Each story has a lynch point or pivot which dictates the way it goes. Each story is set in a slightly different period, starting with the first in 1983-89, the next 1990-91 and the third 1995-96. So real events happening at that time are woven into the plot. I bash away in my study, start in the morning and sometimes go back out in the evening if everything is flowing (a glass of red wine certainly helps!) and continue until I am tired. I always have a notebook by my bed and will sometimes wake with a thought in my head which I have to jot down or I will lose it. It could be a snippet of conversation or an integral bit of plotting.
HS: Have you ever been traditionally published? Did you try?
SF: As a surveyor we are trained to write reports and letters or rather were in my day. We had to persuade clients to buy property. An old boss once said, forget all the technical crap, we are purely wordsmiths. I now know what he meant. I edited a magazine once between books, which helped and with my wife’s encouragement showed me that I enjoyed it and could do it. I did attend a critique group at a writers’ society, and learned some interesting things, but after a while it became frustrating, and I had gleaned enough.
HS: What was the key thing that made you want to self-publish?
SF: Frustration with literary agents and the ‘System’. I knew I was never going to get published by them and to see some of the rubbish that is produced ‘traditionally’, it beggars belief.
HS: What’s the best thing about self-publishing?
SF: Knowing that it will reach the outside world and that you will not be at the behest of someone else.
HS: And what is the worst?
SF: The element of chance and lack of cash instantly, compared to the outlay of self publishing.
HS: Is there anything you think self-publishers can learn from the world of traditional publishing?
SF: Possibly how to promote, but as with all things institutionalised, it all comes down to money. If I had a marketing budget of X thousand pounds it would be easy and I could compete with the traditional world.
HS: And vice versa?
SF: To be more open minded and not so intellectually snobbish. As I said, you see some of the rubbish that is traditionally published, or the other side of the coin, deeply intense literary fiction that the man on the Clapham omnibus is not going to read.
HS: Having self-published, what would it take to entice you into the world of traditional publishing?
SF: A large advance and ‘So tell me what can you actually do for me?’ approach.
HS: What do you think the biggest misconceptions are about self-publishing and self-published authors?
SF: That we are all awful, unprofessional, full of mistakes, bad covers and lack formal structure. To use a surveying analogy, it is as though husband has patted ‘wifey’ on the head and said, “…there you go and open a nice little dress shop, it will keep you entertained.”
HS: Apart from the writing, how much do you do yourself? Marketing, design, formatting, editing?
SF: I get everything into the best shape I can, printing everything off and going through it with a fine-tooth comb. Then I send it off to my developmental editor – Natasha Orme – and proof reader. Then get it proof read again when it comes back by someone else – you still find little mistakes! As to design, I do most myself particularly with front cover input and had difficulty with this last time. The next cover will be very tricky and I will get it all done by an independent professional firm this time.
HS: What’s your book process – in terms of the above: editing, formatting, cover design etc?
SF: Write it; print off and edit myself; send to developmental editor; sort out rear back page teaser, get images for front cover (I use photos – not trendy I know) and have a specific distinct cover throughout of a split screen reflecting parts of the story. Then, as I say, get it back and have it proof read again after I have made the amendments and fought with my developmental editor!
HS: How important are reviews to you, and how do you go about getting them?
SF: Very. I am a member of various groups which helps. I approach book clubs to buy them and review if I can. Goodreads and BooksGo Social etc. Go to book fairs. Family, works associates and close friends are the least helpful, it tends to be along the lines of: head pat, to ‘what makes you think you can write all of a sudden?’
HS: How do you deal with negative reactions to your work?
SF: Take it on the chin. Not everyone is going to like your work and, as I found at the critique group, it is no good someone who is frightfully intellectual critiquing my books, nor someone who is into short stories and analysing very word, as happens in A-level English Lit classes: ‘Now why do we think Shakespeare put a comma here, not a full stop? Do we think this had some deep philosophical connotation with the political aspirations of the day… yawn yawn.’ Well, you get the picture. Self belief without arrogance is very important and being able to discern the idiot from the point well made.
“Take negative reactions on the chin. Not everyone is going to like your work.”
HS: What is your attitude to book competitions – have you ever entered any?
SF: No, I would have thought too subjective. Everyone is looking for something deep and frightfully clever to say rather than: is it a good story and were you entertained? These two questions I always ask as that is what I am setting out to do. Let others head for the Booker/Orange etc. prize.
HS: If you could impart one piece of advice to someone starting out in self-publishing today, what would it be?
SF: Whoever you go with, speak to others first who have used the service you intend to go for. And understand the pitfalls, of which there are a number, so you don’t get caught out paying for things you don’t need or pay twice with a service which was not fully explained to you properly in the first place.
HS: What’s the best piece of advice about writing that you’ve ever received?
SF: One of the baddies must always die at the end!
“Best writing advice? One of the baddies must always die at the end!”
HS: And, finally, could you please suggest another self-published author you admire and we should read?
SF: Craig Zerf.
Many thanks to Simon for generously giving me his time. His third novel, A Deal with the Devil, will be (hopefully) available in three or four months time. You can find out more about Simon at his personal website www.simonfairfax.com, Facebook page and grab his books at Amazon.