Crime writer Keith Dixon isn’t the type of author to just bang out novels and stories without due care and attention. He’s studied the genres he works in with the gimlet eye of a steely detective, and applies what he’s learned with precision and flair. His award-winning books show what is achievable when you apply a truly professional approach to self-publishing. Read on…
Harry Scott: Please introduce yourself, what you write and what you’ve written.
Keith Dixon: I’m Keith Dixon and over the last ten years or so I’ve written seven novels in a noir Private Eye series, with a hero called Sam Dyke, and the first two in a new crime series featuring an ex-policeman called Paul Storey. Two of the Sam Dyke novels have taken first place in their category in the CLUE awards run by Chanticleer Reviews. I’ve also written a novel about a young actress called, enterprisingly, Actress, which has also done very well with awards. For a while I wrote a blog called Crime Writing Confidential that focused on how crime writers worked to achieve their effects, and I’ve published two collections of these posts.
HS: How long have you been writing, and when did you first discover a passion to write?
KD: I began writing when I was thirteen, sending rather hopeful but evidently juvenile scripts to TV shows, but then started to take it seriously when I quit law school to write. I wrote seven novels in two years (what else was I going to do?) and found an agent, but he was only able to place one short story for me before, unfortunately, he died. Of course I continued writing but there came a time when I had to earn a living and apart from a spell when I completed a Creative Arts degree, including creative writing, I more or less gave up long-form writing for about thirty years. I did, however, win a play writing competition in 1989 with a play about Isaac Newton. I couldn’t keep the cast list down to less than 12 characters, however, so it never went to a full production because it was too expensive to mount.
HS: How would you describe your writing – your style and your genre?
KD: In my late 20s I started reading a lot of American crime fiction because my boss at the time came back from holidays in the States with a suitcase full of crime novels that weren’t published in the UK, and handed them on to me. I’d read a lot of American fiction and taught it for a while, but up until then I hadn’t really dived into the crime genre. It rather turned my head and I started to devour it, discovering great writers like Ross Macdonald and Charles Willeford before moving on to the moderns like James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais. And, of course, the Great Elmore Leonard.
So when I started writing seriously again, in about 2001, I decided that I should ‘write what I knew’ – which was crime fiction. Because I’d decided to write in the classic PI style, I started writing my Sam Dyke books in the first person, just shifting occasionally into someone else’s consciousness when necessary. This is something I’d seen Burke do successfully, as did T. Jefferson Parker, another excellent crime writer. In my last two Storey novels I’ve moved into the third person, with most of the focus being with Storey but again, moving into someone else’s head for variety and interest and to show events from someone else’s perspective.
HS: Exactly how do you write? Do you have a system, a place, a certain time of day?
KD: These days I have a pretty solid system. I was very taken by the reading I did on novel structure – the notion that the reader has certain expectations of narrative and character development – and that an author should spend at least part of their energy working on that structure if the book is to take the reader along. So nowadays I spend a long time planning – I start with a couple of loose ideas that I mind-map to elaborate situations, characters, plot developments. Then I organise these into a sequence and start to work on the structure – where are the surprises going to be, where will the reversals happen, what will be the low point and so on.
“The reader has certain expectations of narrative and character development and an author should spend part of their energy working on that structure”
Something said by a friend of mine a few years ago struck me: she was part of a reading group and complained that a particular book ‘didn’t have enough surprises’. Now she’s an elderly lady pushing 80, and she doesn’t read crime novels… yet the notion of ‘surprises’ was evidently something that was central to her enjoyment of a book. So I try to build those surprises in where I can. Of course, in a crime novel they’re rather expected!
As far as practicalities are concerned, I use Scrivener these days. I work on my mind-map using Scapple, Scrivener’s sister program, then import it into Scrivener and start the process of organising the sequence of events. Then I use one pane in Scrivener to write the outline for each chapter in very close detail. When that’s complete I can start writing the book. Even then, the plan doesn’t have to be definitive. It’s there to give me comfort and succour at the beginning of each working day, but as the work progresses I often find that I have to shift things around or add explanatory or necessary scenes.
I set myself a target initially of 1000 words a day, but when the book starts going that gets increased to 2000 words. Once I’ve started writing I compile each day’s work and export it to my Kindle, where I highlight errors or things I want to change, then the next day the first thing I do is make those changes. That helps get me back into the swing.
HS: Have you ever been traditionally published?
KD: I had one short-story published via the aforementioned agent and I’ve had tickles of interest over the years from other agents and publishers, but no one quite willing to make the commitment. By the time I’d finished the first Sam Dyke book in 2008, Lulu had come on to the scene, so after a couple of aborted attempts to try to interest agents, I thought I’d try self-publishing instead. I’ve never since thought of going back to try to interest a commercial publisher. If nothing else, I’m too impatient to wait!
HS: What was the key thing that made you want to self-publish?
KD: In the end it was the years of printing out and posting dozens of copies of novels and stories, having to wait six weeks or more, and then getting form rejections. When Lulu arrived, with its offer of free print on demand, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss out on. If nothing else, I thought, I’d have a decent copy of the book to send to agents in future… which, of course, is the last thing they want!
I’ve never been particularly ‘precious’ about my work, so the idea of having control over my ‘masterpiece’ wasn’t really an issue, it was more the thought of seeing my books in print that was the draw, and doing it without having to jump through several hoops.
HS: What’s the best thing about self-publishing?
KD: Having your own timetable to work to – so that, for example, I can publish three novels in a year if I want to, without being on a publisher’s schedule. Plus, earning more per book than a traditionally-published author does. Of course, they’re likely to get an advance and lots of marketing support, too.
“I can publish three novels in a year if I want to, without being on a publisher’s schedule”
HS: And what is the worst?
KD: Being responsible for ALL the marketing of ALL your books. Handling one book isn’t too onerous, but when you’re trying to keep a stable of books alive it can take a lot of energy and focus to do it effectively.
HS: Is there anything you think self-publishers can learn from the world of traditional publishing?
KD: Realising that it’s a business and not a hobby. Plus, readers have expectations of how books should look and feel, so please don’t experiment with sans serif type in print books, with pages of italics to boot. For me, the idea is to be indistinguishable from a commercially published author, so I adhere to very conventional standards when it comes to layout and typography.
“For me, the idea is to be indistinguishable from a commercially published author”
HS: And vice versa?
KD: Ebook pricing. Their prices for new books are often equivalent to print books. I won’t buy an ebook for £13 and I wouldn’t expect my readers to. Having said that, if commercial publishers lowered their prices we indies might face stiffer competition!
HS: What would it take to entice you into the world of traditional publishing?
KD: It would have to be a big advance, I’m afraid. As it stands I can correct my books if I find a mistake, or reissue them with new covers, or offer them at different prices to stimulate sales. I daresay if I were traditionally published none of that would be available to me, so I’d need a large financial inducement to give those features up!
HS: What do you think the biggest misconceptions are about self-publishing and self-published authors?
KD: If they think about it at all, I’m sure most readers’ immediate response to the prospect of a self-published book would be that it’s likely to be amateur in the writing and presentation, with lots of typos and an inadequate storyline. Those who know anything about publishing might think a self-published book is just the same as one published through vanity publishing – where a writer pays a printer to run off 500 or 1000 copies of the book, which the writer then tries to sell from the back of his car.
As a result, I’m sure self-published authors are mostly seen as failures who haven’t been able to get ‘proper’ contracts. These days, of course, that’s absolutely not the case. Many commercially-published authors have bought back their back catalogues and are republishing them, as well as using Print on Demand and online distributors like Amazon’s KDP, Kobo and iBooks to sell their books. The proofreaders and designers used by commercial publishers who have been forced to go freelance because of commercial pressures are being used by authors and independent presses, so the quality of the books is usually indistinguishable from traditionally-published works.
HS: What do you think the key changes have been during your time in self-publishing?
KD: I think the range of services and publishing outlets has increased phenomenally. When I began, only Lulu was really available for print on demand services, and they distributed through their own website and, for a fee, through Amazon and a couple of other places. You could pay them quite a bit of money for design or editorial services but there wasn’t really an external market such as there is now.
Also, the community of writers has evolved. Facebook of course has dozens if not hundreds of groups devoted to books and writing, and there are other communities like ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, who offer support and advice for those just starting out. The learning curve is still steep, but there is a lot more information available now.
“The learning curve is still steep, but there is a lot more information for self-publishers available now”
On Lulu we had a forum for writers, which was great, but it was like a small club into which someone would occasionally dash breathlessly, saying, ‘Did you know if you do this, you can … [fill in the blank].’ This meant that learning was spread in a very egalitarian way because everyone was finding things out at the same pace. But now you can find an expert in every branch of self-publishing, from making flawless PDF files to writing great blurb copy. And often there’s even a YouTube video to help!
HS: Apart from the writing, how much do you do yourself? Marketing, design, formatting, editing?
KD: Well, I’m afraid to say I’m old-school. I do everything, largely because in my time in the commercial world I’ve worked as a proof-reader, editor and advertising copywriter, and I also worked for a number of years with designers in advertising, so I picked up how to use Photoshop and InDesign and I learned a few basic rules of typography and design. I also run everything through a filter of other people to get their perspectives, but I’m responsible for the final output.
HS: What’s your book process – in terms of the above: editing, formatting, cover design etc?
KD: When I’m writing I’m constantly re-writing. At the end of every day I compile the day’s work in Scrivener and send it to my Kindle, to be read in a different format to that in which I wrote it. This usually pulls up any obvious typos or errors. The next morning I put those edits into the copy and start the next day’s work, and so on. Half way through the book I’ll read it from beginning to end to see what needs tweaking in terms of plot or characterisation, but I work to a very strict outline, scene by scene, so generally I don’t have to shift things around because the outline has been thoroughly worked through.
Occasionally I’ll switch the order of scenes to build tension or to ease the flow, but the plan I’ve made is pretty comprehensive and has been slaved over for weeks, so I don’t have to change much. After the book is completed I read it through again with a virtual editor’s pen, looking to tighten the prose, sharpen the dialogue and cut out extraneous verbiage. Then I let a few trusted people read it and give comments.
Close to starting the book I’ll also work on the cover – I like to have something that ‘brands’ the book for me and makes it real. It also gives me an opportunity to live with it for a while to see if it maintains interest over a couple of months. If not, I have plenty of time to change it again before sending it out or posting it on Facebook for comments.
Scrivener does almost all the formatting for me, producing both Kindle .mobi files and epub files, but when I’ve finished I also export it in Word format so I can do a bit more creative formatting for print – drop caps and so forth. Latterly I’ve taken to uploading this Word doc to KDP and to Draft2Digital (which distributes to iBooks, Nook and Kobo, amongst others) in order to keep the fancier formatting in the ebook version, though occasionally this doesn’t work out and I revert to using the .mobi or epub files created by Scrivener.
HS: How important are reviews to you, and how do you go about getting them?
KD: Of course it’s nice to get good reviews but I view them more as ‘social proof’ that some readers might need before investing their money. It’s certainly become harder to earn reviews, but for the last couple of my books I’ve used my mailing list. You can’t offer a free book directly in return for a review, but you can send out a free book and ask for a review if they’d care to give one, which is the route I’ve taken. With the first of the Paul Storey books this didn’t work particularly well but for the second, One Punch, I had twenty reviews very quickly and more have continued to come through.
HS: How do you deal with negative reactions to your work?
KD: It’s hard not to be upset – as I’m sure any writer will tell you – but I’m fortunate enough to have had enough good reviews, and to have won a couple of awards, so that now I can just shrug them off and tell myself the book wasn’t for them. In fact, you don’t have to have been published for very long to realize just how personal reviews and opinions can be.
There was a time when I responded politely (apologising if someone didn’t like a book, for example, and hoping they’d like one of the others), but I don’t respond now. I’ve seen some quite successful self-published writers respond in a challenging way – ‘Well all those 5-star reviews can’t be wrong, can they?’ – and that doesn’t sit well with me and looks a bit petulant and insecure.
“As a writer, take a successful book in your genre and examine it really carefully”
HS: What is your attitude to book competitions – have you ever entered any?
KD: Yes, I’ve entered three and won twice (in my category) and placed second in the other. The nice thing about them is that you usually get a review with a bit more clout than usual, and that the results usually come through so much later that you’ve forgotten you even entered! I’ve never entered one of those where you depend on readers’ votes to win, and then have to ask all your Goodreads or Facebook mates to vote for you. I think I’d be too embarrassed, though I don’t mind doing it for others.
HS: If you could impart one piece of advice to someone starting out in self-publishing today, what would it be?
KD: Join the Alliance of Independent Authors first. As a writer, I’d say take a successful book in your genre and examine it really carefully – how does the writer construct sentences? What point of view does she or he take? What’s the level of language used – formal or informal? Keeping you at a distance or inviting you in? How does she or he do that?
In other words, look at the technicalities of the prose itself. Also, see how the writer constructs their characters: what does the protagonist do that invites admiration? Why does the reader like or dislike him or her? I think this kind of close reading is invaluable to help you improve and attain a more professional quality in your work.
HS: What’s the best piece of advice about writing that you’ve ever received.
KD: Elmore Leonard’s dictum about only using ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. Leonard added, which is usually forgotten, that if you use any other formulation it’s just the writer editorialising, jamming her or himself into the story. If you use ‘declared’ or ‘argued’, for example, you’re telling the reader something else, something that only you as the writer can know. Using a simple ‘said’ pushes the dialogue forward, not the writer, and quickly vanishes so that the reader can concentrate on the character and personality of the people doing the talking, not this third interloper who keeps trying to advise you on what to make of these characters.
Many thanks to Keith for his time, answers and insight into not just self-publishing, but also the writer’s life. Some great advice about writing craft and technique too.
Keith is currently hard at work on the third Paul Storey book and aims to publish it early in 2018. You can keep up with how he’s doing and discover his back catalogue at http://keithdixonnovels.com/ and delve into his blog here. Pick up his books via his Amazon author page. and follow him on Facebook too. Last but not least, you can interact with him on Twitter @keithyd6. Phew!