About the Author:
Jo Chumas was born in England in the 1960s. She has always loved writing. As a child, her diary was her constant companion, and writing in it was one of her favourite things to do. She grew up in Belgium and went to school there. On leaving university she decided to travel and after a spell of horrible jobs (waitressing, shop assistant, office clerk, cafe sandwich maker – all done to fund travel), she begged a newspaper editor to give her a job as a journalist. She worked on staff for a few years, went freelance to raise her two boys, then worked as a staff journalist again for a while before moving into public relations, as a freelance public relations account director specialising in international clients.
Jo has written five novels, has run a small press – 8.d – which produced four titles, and made a scarily rags-riches-rags living as a staff and freelance journalist and commercial writer/PR exec between the years 1990 and 2012. Her love affair with novel writing won out in the end. She now writes full-time. In May 2013 she won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) in her category (Thriller/Suspense) for her novel The Hidden, a spy thriller. It was published by Thomas & Mercer in the US on October 22nd 2013. She is currently writing another spy thriller called The Strange Girl. She loves travelling and meeting people from other cultures. She has lived in Australia and the Middle East but now lives in Europe.
Hi Melissa, thanks very much for inviting me to join you here. I feel honoured to be part of your blog.
MF: You have experience in journalism and freelance commercial writing. Did you find the transition from writing non-fiction articles to fiction novels difficult?
JC: That’s a very good question and not one I think I have been asked before. The short answer is no, it wasn’t difficult. It was a very easy transition because I found joy, inspiration and happiness in writing from a very early age, and I view non-fiction writing (articles) and novel writing as different branches of the same tree. There was no transition as such. I wrote stories, novellas, plays and diaries from age six/seven and have never stopped. The writing of articles was a way of earning a living as a journalist; the joy is the same. While the technique you use to write them is different, both forms have at their heart the same motivation; to understand a subject or a person and unpeel the layers of experiences/facts that make that person or situation important and of interest at that moment.
MF: You self-published your first novel, After Rafaela, on Amazon Kindle in November 2012 and quickly followed with The Hidden in December 2012. Why did you choose to self-publish? Do you have any advice for writers who may be considering the same route?
JC: I know my publishing story is not unique and I get great comfort from that. Many, many authors have been through what I went through, that’s why Kindle Direct Publishing is such a knock-out tool, empowering authors – more about that in a minute. In 2012 I had been writing novels for many, many years and I had pitched my novels (five of them) over the years to hundreds of agents and publishers with no real success. The message nearly always came back the same – ‘we love your writing but there is no market for a novel of this nature; we think you have something special but we would like you to change this and that to make it more commercial because we only specialize in mass market novels.’
There were agents who courted me, seducing me with promises that if I edited my novel this way or that way they would sign me. After many years of this, it started feeling like abuse and I got more and more depressed by the whole industry. I was courted by one literary agency and submitted various versions of one novel but it was never good enough for them, never the way they wanted it to be. They kept asking me to change my work to fit in with what they thought they could sell. Ultimately I was writing for them, and this was not right. The knock-backs felt like physical hits to the face. I felt bruised and I wanted to leave it all behind – never the writing of stories, but the publishing industry. I had run my own small press in the 1990s, publishing erotic writing, long before it was fashionable. I adored this experience, remember the creative bliss of designing the concept, laying out the pages by hand, working with a designer on the covers, printing them and then selling them.
As I said I played the ‘game’ with the industry for many, many years, then in November 2012 I decided I had had enough. I knew I couldn’t follow the traditional path anymore. I knew I could write – I had been published as a journalist and commercial writer for decades all over the world; I knew I had stories to tell; I knew I wanted to sell my novels and that people might read them if they were published.
It was in a moment of real darkness in my life that the words ‘Kindle Direct Publishing’ appeared before me. It sounds like some sort of ‘Eureka’ moment – it felt like that. Serious writers live for their art (as I do) so this is what that moment felt like – some sort of awakening. I knew at that moment that I simply had to publish my novels onto KDP and move in the self-publishing direction.
Kindle Direct Publishing gave me an audience and gave me hope. I know this is true for so many writers. And it’s a glorious irony that the moment I decided to pursue the self-publishing pathway, the advert for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 (ABNA) flashed up on my screen through CreateSpace. I wasn’t going to enter – didn’t think I stood a chance – but a friend kept pushing me to. In the end I entered with no expectations. I thought of it as my last salute to the world of traditional publishing before I became a seriously committed self-published author.
As I said it was a beautiful irony because in Thomas & Mercer – my publishers – I have met the most wonderful, beautiful team of people – traditional publishing professionals – who have shown me just how wrong I was about traditional publishing. But then I think T & M and Amazon Publishing are pretty special, pretty amazing and not like other publishing houses. I feel very lucky to be with them.
On self-publishing my advice to fiction authors – as you might imagine from what I have just said – is to embrace the medium one thousand per cent, however I will add that before you self-publish you have to want to be a writer above all else. You have to work hard to get your novel to the best possible standard and to never take self-publishing lightly.
Writing novels is one of the hardest, most beautiful things you’ll ever do and you owe it to your readers to be the absolute best you can be. So before you consider self-publishing take writing classes, write articles for blogs and newspapers, write every single day, live for it, ask friends to read your work, hire an editor and be prepared for the long, hard road ahead.
Writing is not a part-time gig. You will work your job, of course, but in your mind you should live for writing and it should consume you. If it doesn’t you need to ask yourself whether it really is the path you should be taking.
There is no easy route to success. I cannot emphasis this enough. And before you even get to the point where you are considering self-publishing you should have written a solid piece of fiction, have rewritten it and rewritten it. A short, full-length novel is around 50,000 words. Obviously novellas are shorter. It takes time to plan and plot a novel. There is a lot of preparation work to do before you even start writing, and once you have finished your novel you will almost certainly need to rewrite it. Aim to become a perfectionist.
Writing novels is not for everyone. It’s a skill as important, and as deserving as time spent perfecting it as, say, engineering or medicine and should be treated with as much respect. Novels can and do change lives and literature does – in my opinion – hold the answers to many of life’s dilemmas.
MF: The Hidden won Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 in the Thriller/Suspense category. Tell us about that experience.
JC: I went into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 without any expectations. As I said I thought I’d submit The Hidden as a sort of last goodbye to the publishing industry. I submitted my entry early and then forgot about it and then really didn’t give it much thought until the first stage when CreateSpace tell you whether your pitch has made it through.
An email came through and I clicked on the link and saw my name and the name of my novel there among hundreds of other people. I felt this immense gratitude, as though my novel idea had received validation from the industry. That sustained me but I didn’t think I’d go any further. The competition attracts a 10,000 entry limit so I knew I was alongside many other hopefuls.
With each category – quarter-finalists, semi-finalists and then right up to the finalists’ stage it all got a lot tougher. The higher up you go in the stakes the more powerful the feeling of possible rejection is. As I went higher I remained philosophical and grateful for the experience. The night I found out I had won in my category was the start of this dream experience. It had always been my dream to be validated with a publishing contract and I had for years wondered if that day would ever come. The desire to move into self-publishing replaced that dream last year, because I never thought I’d break through the industry walls, but then it happened and I am so delighted.
I’m a fairly ‘feet on the ground’ kind of person though, so I do like to remind myself very regularly that the most important thing now is to continue with my next novel The Strange Girl and to remember that books don’t get written by dreaming about writing them. It’s time to get back to work. Luckily I love my work. I feel amazingly privileged and grateful for the opportunities the ABNA has given me.
MF: Since winning the ABNA, you’ve been picked up by Thomas & Mercer and received praise from Publishers Weekly. Is it safe to say your life has been a whirlwind this year? Has the success changed your writing routine?
JC: This year has been like a dream, totally, unbelievably amazing on so many levels. It still feels like a dream to me and I still feel as though I am going to wake up and find that none of it actually happened. It’s hard to express just how great it’s been. I will list my top three favourite moments from this past year: firstly, meeting the Thomas & Mercer and Amazon Publishing team twice in the space of three months (they flew me to Seattle twice), and being treated so warmly by them. They loved my novel The Hidden and that was the tops. I hadn’t experienced this before – a publishing company loving my novel, believing in me as a writer and proving it at every stage by investing their time and money in me. To be celebrated and looked after by the Thomas & Mercer team was/is the stuff of dreams, and they treat all their authors this way. Amazon Publishing loves its authors and we are constantly reminded of this. This love is like nothing I have ever experienced before on my writing journey.
Secondly the Publishers Weekly review at the semi-finalist stage of the competition was also the stuff of dreams. Seeing the review was a shock. I hadn’t realized that this was part of the deal of entering this free competition. I wrote The Hidden from the heart and I never imagined when I was writing it that this chain of events would happen. I tend to get totally absorbed in my story when I am writing it and I never think about who is going to read it, never think about audiences. I focus on crafting an intriguing, page turning story that will entertain. I write the story to tell the story and I live in the story as I am writing it. The Publishers Weekly review was real evidence that a stranger had read my novel and it made the whole ABNA experience seem real.
Thirdly holding my physical novel in my hand. It was so beautifully designed by the T & M team. I wrote the story but they produced the book and I am so proud of it. A year ago it was a novel on a pen drive and there were around 30 versions of it. Then it went to KDP and I loved that part. Now it’s a paperback, a CD and downloadable audio book, and a Kindle ebook and it’s available all over the world. Stuff of dreams.
Has it changed my writing routine? No, not really. I do a lot of research before I start putting down chapters and while this year has been a total whirlwind I have been able to do quite a lot of research for my next novel The Strange Girl. I write my novels by first filling notebooks with notes and ideas written in pencil. In any time of stress (be it good or bad stress) I find sanctuary in creating my stories, so diving into research, note-taking and preliminary drafts is where I feel most relaxed. I have been able to do that this year.
MF: You’ve said that even if you hadn’t won ABNA, you would have continued to write and self-publish your novels digitally. How does marketing a traditionally published book compare to one that is self-published?
JC: Thomas & Mercer takes care of all the marketing of The Hidden. I don’t do anything, apart from talking about things on social media. I like talking about writing, so I am always posting things on social media that might inspire or help other authors. Obviously having a professionally savvy marketing team behind you to sell your novel makes the world of difference. It’s a huge relief actually because I want to spend my time writing my next novel, so to have that worry taken away from me is something I am so grateful for.
On marketing self-published novels, I had literally just published my novels to KDP when I went in for the ABNA so I didn’t think too much about marketing my novels at that stage and I haven’t really thought about it much at all this year. I know some very clever authors out there are marketing their own self-published novels and doing extremely well, and I celebrate them. There is so much information online on how to market your self-published novels but I think authors need to be careful though and use common sense in absolutely everything to do with their online lives.
My self-published novel After Rafaela is doing quite nicely now because I think people are curious about my other work, but I haven’t really done any marketing for that title other than a bit on social media. Self-published authors have to become entrepreneurs. They have to know how to push their titles. It takes guts and determination. Some people have it, others don’t. It’s part of the self-published author pathway. Whatever you decide to do you have to embrace it totally.
MF: You are also a published poet. Do you still write poetry and if so how does it fit into your writing life?
JC: I don’t write poetry seriously now. I might compose poems as part of the novel writing process, ideas that relate to characters and settings or plot twists but really from my first attempt at writing a novel many years ago I was pretty much hooked on that form. I do love poetry though and particularly love war poetry from the First World War.
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
JC: Toughest criticism? You use the word ‘toughest’ and by that I take you to mean ‘professional’ criticism. I take notice of professional criticism and learn from it. By professional I presume we’re talking criticism given by an editor or serious, professional reviewer and it’s this; that my writing was too bogged down with description and needed to be seriously pruned back, and that I was at the point of losing the reader! I listened very carefully to that criticism and loved the person who gave it to me even more, for her honesty!
Best compliment? Again I will use only an example from a ‘professional’ in the industry; that I am a master storyteller and know how to create intriguing and wonderful plots, characters and settings. Wow. That was wonderful.
MF: Aside from polished and engaging writing, what three things do you think every new writer must do in order to succeed in this highly competitive and ever-changing industry?
JC: Great question:
First: be brutal with yourself. Ask yourself, what makes you a writer? You must live and breathe books and writing to call yourself a writer, and even then you can’t call yourself a writer until you’ve locked yourself in a room for many hours/days and written a piece of work which you would not be afraid to show a friend or family member. And you must want to repeat the experience again and again and again. If you don’t want to show anyone your work you’re simply not ready to enter the writing world. (But be kind to yourself, it does take time to feel comfortable with the idea of others reading your writing and you might be on the verge of being able to do this, so my advice is to go for it, be brave, let others read your work).
Second: get used to being poor! If you’re addicted to shopping, consumption and living the high life, chances are – if you’re trying to be a writer – you’re in the wrong career. Writing novels, short stories, plays, poems, whatever is your forte is not about making lots of money. Of course successful writers make money but they have usually been doing it for years! To succeed as a writer you have to be driven by this insane passion to tell a story, and you have to practice your craft every single day. Writing your novel will take you on a personal journey that will fulfil you in positive ways you will find hard to believe. You will be repaid many, many times over as you write by a sense of euphoria in your own power of creation. This, and this alone, will sustain you. You should never think about the money. Of course money is important but just as a doctor has to study for many years at medical school, a writer needs to do her or his apprenticeship – which may or may not last years.
Third: I’ve said this in another interview but it’s so important, in my opinion, that I want to repeat it; you must leave your ego behind. Ego destroys creativity. You must get inside the hearts and minds of your characters and flesh them out so they become human and real. This means that your vanity, your ego and your own sense of self (and we all have this) must be nowhere to be seen on the pages. Your story – while you have thought it up – is not about you. It exists in itself as a creation that will reach out to your readers and make them question their own lives, in good and bad ways. To sum up, never think ‘I am a writer and I am writing this brilliant story and everyone is going to love it.’ That’s ego. Step inside your characters and live their hurt, their fears, their vulnerabilities, their passion. Your readers, if your novel is good, will want your story. They don’t want you. That’s the way it should be.
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
JC: This is a fascinating and wonderful question, almost impossible to answer because there are so many books that I love but I’ll try and answer this question. I also have to apologise to the lovely readers of your blog who no doubt are almost entirely American but I am going to list a British author and one of his works. I have been thinking about this and I am a bit surprised by my answer actually. I love all literature and read hungrily, but talking about jumping into a book makes me think of childhood, so I am going to say I’d jump into Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (it’s a pure coincidence that there’s an Amazon in the title of this book by the way!). I am not sure if Ransome’s series of novels had much of an audience in the US, as his novels are quintessentially English novels, written about a beautiful part of England called the Lake District and set in the 1920s and 1930s. I’d love to hear from readers on this if I am wrong! I adored the Swallows and Amazons series as a child and read all of them. I always wanted to be Nancy Blackett, one of the Amazon pirates who plotted to take over the Swallows camp.
Ransome’s series was written about two groups of school kids on their school holidays in England’s Lake District as I said. They have the most amazing adventures. They are all young (nine to 13 years old) and they are left to roam the hills and lakes of this incredible area, sailing on the lake in their little yachts without any adult supervision. They live this wonderfully free life during their school holidays and Ransome’s stories transport you back to your own childhood and a simpler life of fun and mischief. Nancy Blackett and her sister Peggy were clever, fearless and inventive. I wanted to be like Nancy when I was young. She was a tomboy, brave and creative. Written during a time when little girls had to be little girls, and little boys had to be little boys Swallows and Amazons was about children who didn’t adhere to society’s stereotypes. They were too busy having fun and living imaginary worlds of pirates and explorers to care about the darkening political and economic situation of the world around them in the run-up to the Second World War.