I was asked ten questions by the author JS Clerk on writing, agents, perspective, voice, the Bestseller Experiment podcast, and all that good stuff. And here are my answers…
You can see more of JS Clerk’s interviews here.
- Did you always want to be an author? What were your favourite books from your childhood?
I always wanted to make things up. Play-acting. I think that’s what a lot of creativity is. Make believe. We didn’t have many books in the home, but we went every week to the library. The Star Wars novelisation was a gateway drug to science fiction. And then it was Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, and then Douglas Adams, and then Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin.
I was probably also the only kid who regularly checked out books on what to do in a nuclear war. It was the early 80s and it was disturbing.
2) Do you have an agent? What was your route into the publishing industry?
I have had many agents. I currently have two: Ed Wilson for books, Matt Dench for scripts. My road into the industry was a temporary Christmas job at Waterstones in Dorking. That was when Tim Waterstone ran the company and insisted that everyone who worked there had a degree. I didn’t. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.
3) Do you write full time? If so, what was your ‘life’ before turning to writing?
I do write full time, very lucky to be able to do that.
I worked in bookselling publishing for over twenty five years, as a bookseller at Waterstones, then a sales rep for a couple of publishers, and then looking after Amazon for Orion.
4) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to read?
Not sure I have one, so long as the voice feels honest and true and suits the story. I’m not someone who gets their knickers in a twist if I see something in first person, present tense, or second person. “You open the door, you see a dragon.” Just tell me your story in your voice. That’s the most important thing.
5) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to write?
I like writing in a fairly close third person. I love the present tense dynamism of screenplays, too, which is two very different ways of telling a story. I did write a children’s book, still unpublished, in third person, and then completely rewrote it all in first person, which was fun. Still hasn’t been published, though.
6) How do you judge a book? Is it by the cover, or the authors writing style?
That’s two things there, really. I mean, the cover is what draws you in and makes you want to pick the thing up, and I am a sucker for a great cover, which is why I’m blessed with the covers I’ve got from the wonderful Harry Goldhawk.
The author’s writing style will ultimately be what you judge a story by, I guess. I mean, I don’t like to get too judgey, as long as it’s written truthfully and you don’t bore the reader. I think it’s healthy for an author to live in fear of boring the reader.
7) For the unpublished author, do you have any advice on querying agents for publication? How does an author know when their manuscript is ready?
Agents ask two questions: Do I love it? Can I sell it? And if you can answer both those, you’re fine. Finding the right agent is like dating. Only the odds are more stacked against you.
Just persist and remind yourself of how many times people have been rejected before finding success. Persistence is so important in this business and I really, really, really mean that. In my case we’re talking decades of persistence. You really have to want this. As for querying, keep it short, sweet and honest and be patient. Especially now. Agents are still playing catch up after lockdown and there’s no magic combination of words that will get you repped in a covering letter.
It’s all about your writing. And when is it ready? It’s ready when you feel you could give it to anyone to read. Your worst enemy. Truthfully, that day may never come. So don’t go chasing perfection because it doesn’t exist. Get it as good as you can possibly make it. I know my stuff is ready when I go word blind. I can’t tell good from bad anymore. Then I send it to beta readers and get some feedback and perspective.
8) How did the concept for the Bestseller Experiment come about? How did you develop the concept?
The Bestseller Experiment came about… I’d written a movie called Robot Overlords and did the tie-in novelisation as well, and a guy I knew… We didn’t go to the same school, but we went to schools in the same area, had lots of mutual friends… a guy called Mark Desvaux got in touch. And he said, this is amazing, you’ve written a book, you’ve written a film. He said he’d always tried to write a novel, but he never got beyond 20,000 words. And we got talking.
One thing led to another. We both both have very similar interests, both like podcasts. So we challenged ourselves to co-write write a novel and get it self-published and top some Amazon charts within 12 months. But the important thing was that we asked our listeners to beat us to it. We said to people, if you’ve got a half-written book in a drawer or you’ve got something that’s been sitting in your trunk for years… Get it out, dust it off, polish it. Listen to the guests that we have on the podcast.
And we’ve had people like Sarah Pinborough, Joe Hill, Joanne Harris, major best selling authors, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin giving fantastic, fantastic writing advice… And beat us to it. And the great thing is loads of them did. I can show you. I’ll show you now. Hang on. See the shelf here. These are all the people that have listened to the podcast and, because of some advice they heard on the podcast, they got published. And that’s the best thing we… that ever could have come … Just the fact that all these people have managed to get their books out there because of something they heard on the podcast is… It’s just amazing to me.
And it’s why we keep going. We’re nearly five years old now. Five years old in October of 2021.
8) On the podcast, how do you plan your interview approaches?
For interviews, I usually have five or so bullet points, which is good for 20 minutes, we have a really good idea of what our listeners want. So they like writing habits, writing tips, that sort of thing. I try not to get too hung up on sticking to the list. It’s important to listen. Your guest will take you to places you never imagined if you let them.
10) I find that specific pieces of music help me to engage with my characters. Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you enjoy?
I used to listen to music a lot, I used to have specific playlists. I’m too old now. I need silence. I wrote Back to Reality with Disney Pixar scores and the score to La La Land. The End of Magic I wrote mostly with Jeremy Soule’s score for Skyrim, which was handy. Robot Overlords, I wrote largely to Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack. And when I hear those now, they make me think of those books, which is a lovely thing. But yeah, at my age I need the sound of silence.