I’d have to find my old notebooks to tell for sure, but I think I was about 10 when I started writing short stories. I never really stopped. I’ve wanted to be many things since then—a theoretical physicist, an archaeologist, a programmer, a lazy layabout—but it always comes back to writing stories.
I read whatever I could get my hands on, and most of the names are now obscure to all but the most devoted fans: Robert Sheckley, Harry Harrison, Gordon Dickson. I didn’t try to write a proper novel until I was much older, and the transition from short to long form took me ages.
Where do you get your story ideas?
For the past few years, almost all of my ideas come from travelling, and researching local history. I love turning history into embellished fiction; discovering real stories of real places is a humbling experience for a fiction writer. I firmly believe that no matter how intriguing fake story one can think of, real life will always trump it. All you need then is to sprinkle the hearty, sometimes heavy, historical fare with fantastic spices, to make it more palatable to the public.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
I can’t really remember getting much advice from anyone, other than on purely technical matters from my first editor—which helped me get to grips with writing in English (not my first language). I’m a loner type, and tend to be self-reliant—a bit too self-reliant, at times.
One thing I do hear a lot, and try to take to heart, is that, in the end, characters and relationships are more important to readers than plot.
Do you believe in Writer’s Block?
Yes, but only after a break. It always grips me either between the books, or if for some reason I had to stop writing for more than a few days. I’m like an old engine with a poor battery: I take a long time to start up. It’s a real pain, and I have not yet figured out a good way to fix it. Nanowrimo helps, but that’s only once (or twice, if you do Summer Camp) a year, so not very reliable.
What’s your favourite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?
That’s a hard one for me—I don’t like to pick favourites. It’s much easier to say what I don’t read—I was never interested in crime stories or spy thrillers; I suppose, broadly speaking, sci-fi and fantasy are definitely the genres I will pick to read first, as long as they are witty and well-crafted. Although lately I have been mostly reading non-fiction, like historical books and biographies, usually having to do with the research for what I’m currently writing.
No guilty pleasures—I don’t believe in the idea. It’s either a pleasure, or not, no point self-flagellating oneself over one’s tastes.
What made you decide to self-publish?
I finished my first novel and started searching for agents around about the time when the self-publishing boom was taking off. I began doing the research into both publishing avenues, and the more I read, the more the balance of positives and negatives was beginning to look very one-sided. I did not even wait for the rejection letters to come in from the first batch of agents, before I was fully convinced there’s no other way.
Almost everything is better when you’re an indie: speed of publishing, control of the process, control of your rights, promotional opportunities, and of course, let’s not forget, the money.
Are there any self-publishing tricks of the trade you’d like to share? What rules of craft or promotion do you live by?
Write, edit, publish. Repeat. There are no tricks, just hard work. Don’t skimp (either money or time) on the “package”—cover, editing, formatting: this is what helps your book to stand out more than anything. Learn from your mistakes. Fifteen drafts should be good enough for everyone.
What would you have changed about how your writing career progressed?
I would have started writing novels earlier. For a few very long years, I thought focusing on a “career” and proper job was what adult life was supposed to be about. And I feel now that was a massive waste of time. Kids, if you have a talent, and are passionate about it, stick to your guns and persevere. We’ll all be better off from it. The world has more than enough lawyers, managers and investment bankers—but it will never have enough artists.
You can also find James:
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