“You may get a bad review. Take it professionally, please.” So advises today’s featured author Emma Woodock who discusses the road to publication for her debut novel, Darklands.
Name: Emma Woodcock
Name of book: Darklands
Book genre: Young adult fantasy
Date published: August 2011 (eBook), April 2012 (paperback)
Publisher: Feed a Read
What is your day job? Web designer
What is your book about? Fifteen-year-old Sophie is not the most popular girl at school. She’s not thin enough, she’s not pretty enough, and she’s way too interested in math and physics to be even remotely cool. So when she finds herself mysteriously transported into another world where it never rains, the sun always shines, the people all think she’s fantastic and their impossibly handsome King dotes on her, she can barely believe her luck. But Sophie begins to realize that all is not as well as it seems in the Darklands. Why are all the visiting delegations so angry with the king? What is the mysterious millenniversary everyone keeps talking about? And quite what is Sophie’s role in it all? As the seemingly idyllic Darklands reveals its grim secrets, the fate of both worlds relies on Sophie escaping the despotic king and finding her way back home—preferably without turning the universe inside out.
Why did you want to write this book? The initial idea was that I wanted to write about something sinister occurring in an incongruously beautiful, serene setting. My first point of reference was the 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. There is something very powerful and unsettling about that story, particularly how it remains unresolved. I echoed that in the prologue to Darklands, in which a school girl disappears while playing in the woods on a bright, sunny day. You don’t find out anything more about her until right near the end of the book.
Did you conduct any kind of research in order to write this book (visit certain locales, etc.)? Very little research was needed for Darklands, as it takes place in a small town very like the town I grew up in, and in a fantasy world, where I could make up the rules. On the other hand, my next novel Kikimora takes place in sixteenth century Hungary and is largely concerned with mining. I’m in the middle of the second draft, and I still find myself regularly having to do extra research. It’s been really hard work, and perhaps the hardest part is knowing when to ignore the reality and just go with what makes it a good story. Too much harsh realism just doesn’t sit well in this sort of story.
What motivates you to write? I love telling stories. I love magical worlds and alternate ways of looking at the universe. I love speculation—what if the world was like that instead of like this? What if…? Writing is the best job in the world. Well, I say job. It’s more voluntary work at the moment…
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? It’s a wonderful feeling when the story starts to write itself. When all the various strands suddenly come together and you realize it works!
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? Oh, goodness, there are so many! Some of them are frustrating challenges, and some of them are chewy and satisfying. One thing I hadn’t anticipated is how hard it is to objectively judge things like plot twists and revelations. You necessarily become so intimately familiar with every aspect of the story as you’re writing it that it’s hard to see it with the eyes of a reader. When I handed over my first draft to beta readers, my biggest fear was that they’d see the major twist coming several miles away. On the other hand, at a late stage of editing I realized that I’d been so cautious and subtle about another twist that I’d never actually made it apparent what had happened! I’ve been really gratified by how readers have reacted to the twists and turns in the story. I love it when a book pulls the rug out from under you, but you can see that the clues were there all along. Diana Wynne Jones was an absolute master at that. She’s the standard I aspire to.
How long did it take you to write this book? Almost three years, while working part time. I know I’m very slow, but I rewrite and rewrite until things are exactly right. Also, a mild bout of cancer got in the way a bit.
Did you experience writer’s block? Whenever my story slumps into a quagmire and I can’t see the way out, I pack a rucksack and go for a long walk. I try not to consciously tackle the story problem, but after a couple of hours, my brain will start turning up new ideas and solutions. If there isn’t time for an all day walk, I go to bed. Some days dreaming/actual dreaming is also really refreshing, and makes my brain spark new ideas.
How has life changed for you since the publication of your book? I am really chuffed by the positive responses I’ve had to Darklands. I’ve been banging on about writing books my whole life. I expect everyone was getting pretty sick of me talking about it. I feel vindicated that I finally managed to actually do it, and that people like it. But to counter that, it’s incredibly frustrating that I’m still struggling to get anyone’s attention, outside of my immediate acquaintances. I’m now starting to get beyond my friends to their friends, but that’s taken a year. I had no idea how slow and how difficult promotion would be—or how utterly saturated the YA fantasy market is. Some days I feel like I’m just shouting into the void.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about writing a book? That all you have to do is write a book. I’m sure that’s not the case even for conventionally published authors. It certainly isn’t the case for self-publishers. There is so much else to do—initially, just the practical publishing tasks of cover design, proof reading, etc. But after that comes the marketing and promotion. That is the biggest and most difficult job of all.
Tell me about the self-publishing process. Was it easier or more difficult than you thought it would be? Publishing an ebook with Amazon was really easy. I had no formatting issues, and it all just worked. When I wanted to publish with Smashwords as well I had far more issues—with text sizes all going randomly awry. But the technical aspects of self-publishing are really not the hard part. The hardest part is promotion and marketing. That kind of thing is a long way from my comfort zone—12 years ago when I went back to university to do my Masters in Computing it was with the goal of learning to write code so that I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody any more! You also have no idea until you enter the self-publishing world quite how many people are doing the same thing you are doing. It’s kind of overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel insignificant. But I also think it’s a really useful and valuable step to take as an aspiring author.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I was going to say I don’t feel qualified to give any advice on that. I am supremely bad at it. But actually I do have a couple of bits of advice: There are a lot of people out there who want to take your money. Be very wary of them. The first thing I did the day I published Darklands as an eBook was buy £20 of Facebook ads. That was a mistake. Nobody but people I knew bought it. There were no reviews on Amazon or anywhere else at that point. It was a complete waste of money. There are all kinds of paid promotions and paid reviews you can spend your money on, but I would say approach them cautiously, if at all. Some of them might genuinely be useful, but do the free stuff first. Test the waters and get a feel for how things work before you start spewing cash all over the place. Try to interest bloggers in reviewing your book. It can be hard work, but you will get an impartial opinion, and that is vital. No one is interested in the review your mum wrote.
You may get a bad review. Take it professionally, please. I hear about far too many indie author meltdowns. It’s embarrassing, and it tars us all with the same brush. Remember that every book you can think of has had a bad review from someone at some time. Also remember that people are entitled to their opinions. Maybe even see if you can spin a positive from it? “My first one star review!” A bit of self deprecating humor could really help here.
Tell us about Kikimora. I’m currently in the middle of a big, messy rewrite of my second novel, Kikimora. I thought it was going to be an easy write—a a bit of a rest after the mammoth undertaking of Darklands. It’s only half as long, the plot is much simpler and more straightforward (though it still has a few twists!), and the basic idea was practically handed to me on a plate. But I keep falling foul of research gaffes and having to rethink whole chunks of plot. I know in the end it will be a much stronger and more satisfying story, but at the moment it’s got more holes in it than a lace doily.
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I have no idea. I’ve done plenty of preparation…That’s as far as I’ve gotten!