For aspiring writers out there it can sometimes seem an uphill struggle trying to get your work published. Here at The Looking Glass we thrive on providing you an opportunity for creative outlet – our annual selection of creative writing is professionally published as a physical book by and for students at the university of York. (If you would like to be a part of the next volume of The Looking Glass, you can find out more information on our Get Involved page. But what is it like working as a writer beyond the confines of university?
We spoke to David Stewart-David, a freelance writer who has just written and published his first novel, Jewel Thief Retired, as well as dozens of commissioned non-fiction articles and three textbooks. David is “technically” retired, although alongside his writing he has also recently completed an MA at the University of York (into passenger waiting at railway stations and airports) and is an assessor of York Award applications. We asked him about his experiences of writing and publishing…
Firstly, thank you for agreeing to be featured on our blog. Could you tell us a little about your first novel, Jewel Thief Retired, and the inspiration behind it?
The book started with an event at an airport carousel (at Schipol) when I saw a woman lift a distinctive red case from the carousel and walk off with it. A few minutes later, looking very embarrassed, she returned and quietly replaced the case on the carousel, before taking a similar case, examining it to check her name, and walking off briskly, leaving the first case to be collected by an elegant African American lady who had not noticed the incident. This gave me the germ of a plot.
This is your first novel, but have you written and published non-fiction work previously. What made you decide to try your hand at fiction?
A member of my family was ill and consequently I was unable to access the archives I need for non-fiction information. I wanted a house-based activity which would be long-running, so I started writing a story about a woman tempted to steal jewels.
How do you write – a strict regime a little bit everyday or all at once when inspiration strikes?
Neither. I wrote when I had an hour or two of uninterrupted time. The book had no plan, but it did have three leading characters, and I simply let them behave naturally – one reason why the book is too long.
You have described your method of publishing as a “half way house to self-publishing”. Can you tell us a little more about the process of how you published your work?
I finished the first draft of the book and sent it to two published writers of fiction I knew, and one librarian friend who is fairly ruthless. I took note of their encouragement and criticisms. I would then have done a radical re-write, and looked for an agent, but I suddenly found myself cash–rich (because of payment for a non- fiction series) but time poor. Rather than put the manuscript in a drawer to be looked at one fine day, I looked for variations on self-publishing. I found that Grosvenor House Publishers in Guildford do a package of publishing and marketing for £800. I figured that if I sold 500 copies of the book I would break even. Since many of my non-fiction articles are for a magazine with a circulation of 40,000, 500 did not seem outrageous for a book available as an e book or a paperback available via Amazon. I don’t know how many have been sold so far.
Would you ever consider publishing future novels via the more “traditional” publishing house route?
Yes, and I have some regrets about using the easy route for this book, except that I do have a published novel and the paperback format is very handsome. I’m busy writing a sequel now, featuring the same main characters plus a dead body on a front door-step.
What kind of marketing and sales methods have you used to get your novel into the public eye? To what extent do you think successful authors have to be business savvy as well as good writers in today’s times of social media and the internet?
The truth is I’ve done nothing to market the book except use Amazon as a sales channel. What I planned to do was set up a competition amongst a group of business or marketing students with a prize for the best marketing plan – to be implemented by the winning student. The reason why I haven’t is that I’ve been overwhelmed with commissions to write about aspects of The Great War, so I’ve been too busy writing to order to market my own fiction. Also I can now see some of the book’s defects, as well as some characters and passages which please me greatly. I have inhibitions about marketing a book to which I’d give 6/10, even though I’ve read plenty of others which seem inferior. Do any York students fancy being my agent?
What has been the most difficult part of the novel-writing process and publishing process?
Finding the time to research details (such as the training of joiners), then proof read, edit, revise, cull and polish. I’m 73 and retired, but I have lots of other things to do. On the other hand writing dialogue, inventing characters and describing events all come easily to me.
Finally what would your top piece of advice to aspiring authors be?
A writer is a person who writes and is paid for writing. My first paid writing was as an undergraduate at Hull, when I wrote pieces for the Hull Daily Mail and the Yorkshire Post. They invited me to write for them because I was editor of Torchlight, the student union newspaper. (Not in those days a sabbatical post). Since then, writing for money has provided jam whilst lecturing was, until 2001, my bread and butter. I’m not a wonderfully talented writer like David Lodge (past-Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, best known-for his novels satirising academic life) but being paid for imagination is very gratifying. If you want to live by writing, then write non-fiction or be prepared to starve.
If you would like to get your hands on Jewel Thief Retired, you can do so here.