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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

From Legal Briefs to Storytelling, Author interview with Leigh Cunningham

Your background is in the legal and corporate fields, what made you decide to try your hand at writing fiction?
At school, English was always my best subject, and I’ve always been a bit of a storyteller. I can recall at school relaying the events of my weekend to friends, and these were always highly anticipated. On one occasion, I began the weekend recap with a small group of friends and this circle grew and grew, and as it did, my story grew also. However at the end, one girl asked rhetorically, “For real?” and I had to then admit it wasn’t all true. I can still hear the groans of disappointment as the crowd dispersed, and I learned from this that one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

How do you make the break from writing legal briefs or corporate notes to fiction?
Good question. I very much enjoyed the writing elements of my professional career whether it was writing policies, briefings, procedures or content for a website. It was all about words and sentence construction and making it as clear as possible with the fewest words to ensure attention is maintained to the end. I guess, since that was my first discipline, there is an absence of adjectives and superlatives in my fiction, and I do have a ‘matter-of-fact’ writing style, or so I’m told.

What drew you to writing your three book children’s series?
I never had an intention to write children’s fiction. Dark, tragic, literary fiction tended to be my first love then chick-lit which is the complete opposite, perhaps for balance. However, my husband and I were on a sailing holiday and awake in the middle of the night looking up at the stars. He told me about a dream he had had about a glass table at the bottom of a river, and I thought it would make a great story, but a children’s story with fantasy elements. 

By the next morning I had written an outline, created a few characters and before I had even made a conscious decision to go down this path, a first draft was done. The story is left up-in-the air at the end of the first book, The Glass Table, but concludes in the sequel, Shards. At the end of Shards though, there is a suggestion that the children might not be completely free from the witch’s spell.

How many publishers did you send your novels to before choosing your current publisher?
I’m an independent author; I’ve published all four of my titles under my own imprint, Vivante Publishing.
The first book I wrote was Rain (literary fiction), which I started in 2005. In 2007, I started sending out numerous queries to agents in the USA and UK, mostly by mail as they generally did not receive email queries at that time. It was very time-consuming, and expensive, having to courier the first three chapters or manuscripts around the globe. 

A well-known agent in the UK requested a three-month exclusive with such enthusiasm that I stopped querying altogether. Several months later, she advised that due to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), she didn’t think she would be able to sell it, but to revert to her in a year or so. I decided then that I would self-publish because I didn’t want to waste more time on the query process, and since children’s books were still doing well during the GFC, I released The Glass Table and Shards. These stories aren’t ‘personal’ to me like Rain is, so I figured it would be a great way to learn all about the self-publishing process.

Did you hire an editor before you sent out your manuscript or did you just self-edit?
I paid a considerable sum to an editor for Rain, and I thought she had done a pretty good job. In the meantime however, I continued to learn everything I could about the writing process, rules, techniques etc., and in doing so, came to realize her editing was lacking in many ways, for example, when I read the manuscript again having grasped Point-Of-View (POV) for myself, I discovered POV errors everywhere starting on the first page. I realized then that a writer cannot rely on someone else to pick up on their lack of knowledge or understanding of writing rules – you need to know it for yourself.

I had Rain edited by two more editors at other times in its life cycle, plus a manuscript evaluation. Through each of these stages, I learned more about the editing process and writing. I spent a lot of time looking at the changes the editor or evaluator made, checked the theory behind it and the validity of those changes, and made notes to ensure I would not make those mistakes again. 

I didn’t use an editor for my last title, Being Anti-Social.

Will you be writing other children’s stories or are you making a transition to adult novels with your latest book, Being Anti-Social?
I do tend to write whatever germinates and which story compels me. The three different genres I’ve written in so far: children’s, literary, and chic-lit/humor all reflect aspects of my personality. For example, there has been a lot of death in my family and I’ve learned a lot from it, so the dark, literary fiction will probably always be there albeit I find it very draining to write. This is why I followed Rain with Being Anti-Social, which was much easier and more enjoyable to write. I’m looking forward to getting back into The Glass Table series so I expect that will be next. I enjoy calling upon the child in me to write for children.

What has frustrated you the most in the publishing process? 
I found the querying process extremely frustrating, which is why I was happy to abandon it. As an independent author, there are few frustrations. The lack time to do everything I want to do to promote my books and write is probably paramount.

What have you found the most rewarding – outside of seeing your book in print? 
When lovely readers write to me, or post something on my Facebook wall, or post a review to say they enjoyed my books. These people, whether they realize it or not, make a difference. In life generally, people love to complain so when someone takes a moment to write with positive feedback, it is very much appreciated. 

Likewise, I look for opportunities to write to authors, businesses, bloggers, anyone, with something genuinely positive to say, and I never write reviews for books I didn’t enjoy – I have a minimum 3-star policy. I appreciate the time the author devoted to it in any event.

What surprised you the most about the publishing process? 
Independent publishing is incredibly easy and it can also be inexpensive, even free if you design your own cover (which I don’t recommend), and do your own interior design and eBook formatting. Whether you’re publishing an eBook or a print version, there are guides and templates available to help you. 

And as you upload your title through various sources whether it is CreateSpace, KDP, Pubit!, Smashwords, Lightning Source etc, you will see it appear in endless online stores around the globe. The distribution channels available to independent authors today are extraordinary and it’s all done for you. Just five years ago, this was a major negative for self-publishing – that’s no longer the case.

With your work, how do you find time to promote your books?
It’s very difficult. There’s so much you can do to promote your books, but it all takes time. I maintain an excel spreadsheet, “Marketing/PR”, with various strategies listed, and as I discover new services, I add these to the sheet. I then allocate each strategy into months, and within each month I prioritize. Then on a daily basis, I select three strategies to implement. My biggest problem is that I usually underestimate how much time each will take, so on weekends I try to play catch-up on what was not done during the week. I keep reminding myself though, that weekends are precious time with my husband, so if a task is carried over until the next week, so be it, but this is good advice I often don’t follow. J

I understand you are the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Authors (AiA). What have you learned from this organization in either helping you with your writing or marketing? 
A lot of the strategies in my Marketing/PR spreadsheet mentioned above come from articles posted in the forums at the AiA. There is always something new and exciting you can do to promote your books, and I enjoy reading about other people’s experiences and recommendations. 

The AiA also recently released a compilation eBook, which features 80+ articles from experts in marketing plus some lessons learned from authors. It has a diverse mixture of articles and professionals and I’ve picked up a few new tips from it. As an independent author, you’re also a small businessperson, so you need to be always thinking about the business side of writing. For me, that’s a side I naturally enjoy, but it’s not a natural fit for most writers.

Similarly, there is a great forum: Technical Aspects of Writing, Rules & Tips that has a lot of valuable information to help improve your writing.

I see you won a “Mom’s Choice Award,” are a winner in the Literary Fiction category, 2011 Indie Excellence Awards and a Silver medalist, 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) for Regional Fiction. Tell me what winning these awards means to you?
It means a great deal, and I encourage all authors to enter award programs. An award is validation that you’re doing OK as a writer, and that’s important because most writers I know are filled with self-disbelief. We never think we’re good enough, and never will be, and there are plenty of people out there ready to tell you that as well. So whenever you are in doubt, you can look at your awards and believe you are doing something right.

PS... Being Anti-Social has just been named a Finalist at the 2012 Readers Favorite awards in two categories: Chick-lit and Humor (winners announced September 2012)

What is the best advice you could give other aspiring authors from your experience?
Firstly, to those still in pursuit of a traditional publishing contract, stop at some stage and really ask yourself why, and if all you come up with is an outdated notion of self-publishing, then re-evaluate. The process is subjective and it’s endless; you can devote years of your life to it, and end up nowhere. 

For independent authors, there is a natural tendency when you release a book to try and do everything possible to promote it. Don’t – you’ll drive yourself to distraction. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon, so pace yourself, and accept that it all takes time, effort and commitment. Build the momentum with a twelve-month plan.

Also, for independent authors, if you’ve joined KDP Select (Kindle exclusive program), you’ll have an opportunity to offer your book for free for five days every three months. I advise against this as many authors see a direct correlation between free days and 1-star reviews. People who download a book for free often do not take the time to read the product description or search inside, and as a result, they download books they are never going to enjoy, and reciprocate with a 1-star review. 

For all authors, understand, appreciate and expect that not everyone will love your work, and some people will even take great delight in trying to chop you down to smaller version of yourself. Don’t let them under your skin or into your thoughts. Absorb genuine criticism, improve your writing and get on with it for as long as you enjoy it.

Great insights! I hope you found some good nuggets for help in your own writing. 

If you'd like to learn more about Leigh and her writing, click on her website
For more on  theAssociation of Independent Authors  click here 

Being Anti-Social - link to a sample read   

Want to learn more on self-publishing?  Here's an AiA compilation eBook

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much, Chris, for your interesting, thoughtful and probing questions. I very much enjoyed 'talking' with you!

    My best wishes for the ongoing success of your blog.