#278 – Plotting a Cozy Mystery with Alexis Hall

Bestselling author Alexis Hall joins us on the podcast this week to discuss his Kobo Original, Murder Most Actual, and what it was like writing his first cozy mystery. Alexis talks to us about his career as a hybrid author, the inspirations behind Murder Most Actual, and how he tries to normalize queer relationships in his writing.   Learn more about this episode!

Bestselling author Alexis Hall joins us on the podcast this week to discuss his Kobo Original, Murder Most Actual, and what it was like writing his first cozy mystery. Alexis talks to us about his career as a hybrid author, the inspirations behind Murder Most Actual, and how he tries to normalize queer relationships in his writing.  

  • Alexis talks to us about his Kobo Original, Murder Most Actual, how he walked the line between several genres in his novel, and how he utilized the tropes of cozy mysteries while writing 
  • He tells us what his writing process was like, how he plotted the puzzle and “solve-along” aspect of the cozy mystery, and when in the writing process he knew who the murderer would be 
  • Alexis discusses the inspirations behind Murder Most Actual, including Cluedo and true crime podcasts, and he tells us how he used his chapter naming conventions to lead readers astray 
  • He tells us about his writing career and chats about the differences between working with small indie presses, large trad publishers, and different digital publishers 
  • Alexis explains how he’s been able to continue to write content that is important to him, how the market has shifted in his favour, and how writing across multiple genres has benefited him throughout his career 
  • He gives his best advice for authors who are looking to pitch original work, including the “one but” rule, and he explains why knowing exactly what you want to get out of a pitch is so important 

Alexis’ website 
Follow Alexis on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram 
Murder Most Actual 
Boyfriend Material
Kate Kane series 
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter
War and human Civilization 
Kith and Kin 
Laura Kinsale 

Alexis Hall is a genrequeer writer of kissing books. He lives in south east England with his extensive collection of hats.

Episode Transcript

Transcript provided by Speechpad

Rachel: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the Kobo Writing Life podcast, where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life.

Tara: I’m Tara, the director of Kobo Writing Life for English language.

Rachel: On today’s episode, we sat down and chatted with Alexis Hall, a genrequeer writer of kissing books.

Tara: Yeah, we talked to him about his latest book, which is a Kobo original that you can get exclusively on Kobo, and it is a cozy mystery called “Murder Most Actual.” It has all of your cozy mystery tropes that you would want, but includes just, like, the fun and witticism that you’d imagine coming from Alexis Hall.

Rachel: And we chatted to Alexis about plotting his book, how he approached creating the puzzle, kind of solve-along aspect of a cozy mystery, and we also talked about the representation in his books. He exclusively writes LGBTQ characters, and we talked about the lead characters in “Murder Most Actual,” who are a lesbian couple whose marriage is a little bit rocky. So we talked about that and what that means for representation, and we had a great chat with him.

Tara: Yeah, and he even tells us who he would play in Clue or Cluedo.

Rachel: Clue is correct.

Tara: Really delighted to have Alexis Hall with us today to chat on the Kobo Writing Life podcast. Alexis, thank you so much for joining.

Alexis: No problem at all. Lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.

Tara: So we’re here sort of to talk about “Murder Most Actual,” but also to just chat to you in general about, like, your writing journey and things like that. If any of the readers aren’t familiar, or listeners, “Murder Most Actual” is a Kobo original that is just the coziest mystery that I described it, it feels as satisfying as an Agatha Christie mystery, but as witty and engaging as “Knives Out,” and also just visually fulfilling as, like, watching a movie is how it felt while I was reading it. And Alexis, you’re really well-known for writing queer romances, and was this your first cozy? I know there’s a couple other, like, Sherlock-inspired stories that you’ve had.

Alexis: Yeah, it’s, so it’s my first cozy. It’s arguably, like, my thing with a sort of mystery-ish vibe. It depends how you cut it. So I do queer genre fiction, I think is what I tend to say, so I’ve also got, to plug my other work, the Kate Kane series, which is sort of on the paranormal romancey slash kind of mystical detective end. So those, they usually have a mystery angle, but also a mystical angle, so it’s one of those mysteries where the solution is it was a wizard.

Then there’s “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter,” which is the very specifically Sherlockian one, which is basically “A Scandal in Bohemia” but set in a very high weirdness magic world. And again, like a mystery, but the client is from Carcosa, and again, the solution is it was a wizard. Well, it’s not actually it was a wizard, but it’s a mystery where there is a…you need to understand the metaphysics of the fantasy world for it to work.

So I think, unless I’ve forgotten something, “Murder Most Actual” is my first cozy mystery, and I think my first mystery where part of the solution doesn’t involve magic.

Tara: Nice. That’s interesting. I like the idea of you not remembering because of the sheer volume of work that you have, also.

Alexis: Well, I think it’s been about 10 years. Like, it’s been a while now.

Tara: Yeah. Did writing a cozy mystery, was it easier because there are so many sort of tropes that you have to play with? You know, there’s sort of points that you hit? Or does that make it more difficult to write in a genre because there is that reader expectation of, like, I pick up a cozy and I know exactly what this is?

Alexis: I think it’s a little from column A, a little from column B. I think, so partly with, like, tropes are always difficult because you have what…my perception is people often disagree about what tropes are. Like, a lot of the cozy mystery itself is quite a complex genre. Like, is the cozy mystery Agatha Christie? Is the cozy mystery Dorothy L. Sayers? Is the cozy mystery kind of modern police procedural? Is the cozy mystery “Castle”? Because actually, that is a lot of low…there’s a lot of stuff with murders in that’s not from the ’20s where blatantly there’s no stakes in when are you going to catch the bad guy, which is part of it.

So I think there is a line to walk with it, I think, between making…because it’s got comedy elements, as well. It’s kind of a romantic-y mystery comedy thing. The only thing it’s not got is the magic, weirdly, comedy thing. And I think the line I was really cautious to walk was the line between nodding gently at tropes and just played out parody. So there are some very obvious just straight parodies in there, like there’s a character who is very clearly Marlowe. There’s a character in there who is slightly less clearly Peter Wimsey. There’s multiple characters, all of whom are clearly the protagonists from Cluedo. Like, it’s…so yeah, there are a lot of beats it hits.

On the other hand, because the mystery genres in general, in some ways, cozy mystery even more so, although it’s very trope-driven, it’s also very puzzle-driven, and that actually makes doing the puzzle bit actually a lot harder, I think, than the other kind, than the other styles of mystery I’ve looked at. Because the other types of mystery I think I’ve done have been [inaudible 00:05:02] paranormal elements. I’m so sorry. I can speak normally, I promise. And that covers a multitude of sins.

But also, so the Kate Kane series is very specifically, has a slightly noir-y edge, and the thing about noir detectives is often you’re not supposed to be able to play along at home. Like, you’re watching a competent person doing their job, but you’re not really supposed to be able to figure it out before, you know, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe do. And also, often the point is that crime is opaque. Like, very famously, like, “The Thin Man” ends with the detective in that just kind of going like, “This is what I think. I was wrong about this. I was wrong about this. I don’t know, just murder, murder’s weird.”

Similarly, “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” — I need to give my books shorter, less complicaed titles — is very strongly inspired by Holmes, and again, Holmes is not [inaudible 00:05:55] because you can argue that all detective stuff comes from, okay, if you’re being a complete dickhead about it, it comes from “Hamlet.” That’s nonsense, but people sometimes claim that. Or it comes from “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where, spoilers for a 200-year-old book. Two hundred? Yeah, 200 years old ish. It turns out it’s a monkey. Or it comes from Holmes.

And so you have this odd thing where all the genres have Holmesian roots, and Holmes has that very kind of complex clues thing that the cozy has, and the sometimes slightly spurious thing that the cozy has, although sometimes the spuriousness in Holmes is more because it’s written in the 19th century. But one of the things about Holmes is, like, a lot of the time it doesn’t have a play along at home factor even though, like, there’s a lot of didacticness about kind of Holmes’s method being something anybody can learn as long as you’re a proper Victorian [inaudible 00:06:47].

Actually, what happens in Holmes is there is a baffling mystery, and then Holmes walks in and says, “Aha, it’s this because of these six things I noticed but didn’t mention that apparently lead us to this conclusion, even though they don’t at all lead to that conclusion.” And then Watson says, “My God, Holmes, you’re right! How do you do it?” And then Holmes says, “Authorial bias.”

And so there needed to be less…and I think you can play along at home to an extent with all of my other mystery type things, because today playing along at home is part of the fun, but because they’re in genres where it’s less expected, I’ve not had to pay as much attention to it like, you know, “Affair of the Mysterious Letter,” you have to have played along at home to the point of having worked out some quite specific things about the metaphysics of the setting, whereas I think “Murder Most Actual” genuinely plays fair by cozy mystery rules, I hope.

Sorry, that was a really long…I hope that answered your question.

Tara: No, I think it does for sure play by the quote-unquote “rules,” you know?

Rachel: And I just kind of want to ask, building on the play at home aspect and the puzzle nature of a cozy mystery, I imagine writing this was not an easy task, especially when it comes to plotting out your red herrings, your false leads, etc. What was the writing and plotting process like for this book?

Alexis: Basically twice. When I started, I wasn’t certain whether this was going to be a marriage in peril romance with mystery elements or a mystery with marriage in peril romance elements, so I kind of hedged my bets and then sent it off to my lovely editor Rebecca, and we had a conversation and decided it was best to take it in the mystery direction, so she’s a big mystery fan and had some very strong ideas there like include some elements like this. Maybe focus more on this bit. Maybe do more of that.

So the first draft was a lot less play along at home-able, and then I did quite a long second draft where I added about 30,000 extra words, and that’s the point where I sat down and put in all of the…I took some words out, as well, which is why it’s not nearly as long. And that’s where I sat down and put in all of, you know, very specific red herrings, very specific kind of, aha, and this hint, and there may be a thing here, but it’s really not a thing. It’s really a thing.

Tara: I enjoyed the Cluedo aspect. I know you’ve already mentioned Cluedo, or Clue to Canadians. But the chapter titles, I just loved that nod to everything. For example, there’s Liza in the boathouse with a camera, and that each chapter has a start of that, because it just brought the humor to the start of each new chapter. And we just wanted to ask if you were worried about spoiling the story by doing that.

Alexis: I wasn’t worried about spoiling the story. What I’m always worried about when I do a gimmick like that, and again, in the Kate Kane series, very similar. Every book is called something something. Every chapter’s called something something. And what I did worry about was making a rod for my own back, which was every chapter has to start with person in the place with the thing, and it did get a bit difficult and some of them are a bit tenuous, but I think I didn’t worry too much about spoilers, firstly, because I’m not the kind of person who cares about spoilers even to an extent in…obviously mysteries are different because there is the puzzle aspect. There is the play along at home aspect. But even in a mystery, I’m not too bothered about spoilers that aren’t the whodunit spoiler.

I think, and actually, you can use it for misdirection. There’s a chapter title which is X in the Y with a Z where the X is dead at that point. So I think most of the time I avoided spoilers.

Rachel: I was going to ask about that chapter title because that was an excellent misdirection for somebody who was, like, kept going back to the table of contents because the chapter titles were so good, and I was like, wait a minute, I think I solved it. I did not at all.

At what point in the writing process did you know what your ending was going to be and how the murder was going to play out?

Alexis: Oh, that’s difficult to talk about without having too much in the way of spoilers, but that was almost the beginning of it, in that what I wanted to do with the book was to kind of…a lot of my books are love letters of various kinds, partly because I’m a romance writer, and I always wanted this to be kind of a love letter to the crime genre as a whole, and the big thing in the crime genre right now is kind of true crime, and hence the whole true crime podcaster has to solve real murder thing.

And what I really wanted was for it to end, was to kind of end with the, kind of the tropes and the constructs of the cozy mystery format kind of falling down and it going to more of a true crime place. Like, I think one of the things I even say in the book is that every long-form true crime podcast ends with the…a lot of them end with the narrator in the true crime podcaster voice saying, “When I first started this journey eight months ago, I thought I’d have answers, but now I only have more questions.”

And that’s kind of what I wanted to…so I wanted to have elements of that and elements of the bit like in “The Thin Man” where the detective does the rundown and actually the detective’s wrong about some stuff. So it’s very, I wanted it to be very much that the solution is actually crime doesn’t work this way. There aren’t…oh, because there is a single criminal mastermind. A bit of a spoiler. But, like, but there aren’t these elaborate, “We’re all being picked off one at a time,” kind of your 10 green bottles situations, as they call it in the thing.

Because, like, one of the things I got confused about was to what extent I should acknowledge the existence and the settings of the works that the book clearly references and which, if those things existed in the setting, the characters in the book should clearly acknowledge that those things exist, absolutely, which is why it’s not referred to as a “And Then There Were None” situation, even though…because then you’re like, “But then they know ‘And Then There Were None’ exists,” basically.

Tara: I really liked the true crime podcast aspect because I listen to those podcasts, and I wanted to ask, are you a murderino, somebody that does listen to true crime podcasts, as well, or was it just the popularity of the genre that inspired you?

Alexis: [crosstalk 00:12:26] [inaudible 00:12:30] So I, like everyone, this goes back a long way. I kind of…I’m sorry, [inaudible 00:12:35] which is a phrase that I borrowed from a gaming podcast meaning to consume continuously without breaks. So I kind of poopsocked on the first series of “Serial” when that dropped, and then, like a lot of people that are into true crime, I kind of had that, “Ooh, are there ethical questions to be asked about taking real murders that happened comparatively recently, [inaudible 00:12:59] version of them and turn that into entertainment?” So then I kind of stepped back from that for a while and watched the occasional kind of documentary on Netflix in the background. And then obviously I got back into it when I was doing the actual work on “Murder Most Actual,” because I had to come…sorry, actual work on “Murder Most Actual,” where I am…certainly needed to catch up with where the genre was now.

Like, one of the things I’m most impressed with about…is it Sarah Kanig or Sarah Konig or Koenig? I don’t know how it’s pronounced. Koenig?

Tara: Koenig, I think.

Alexis: One of the things I’m most impressed about Sarah Koenig actually is that she did kind of, after the first two series of “Serial” and after people kept coming up to her and saying, “So what does this tell us about the criminal justice system?” kind of saying, “Well, not a lot, because it’s a really unusual case,” and then do a series that was just literally about an ordinary courthouse and about quite boring cases coming up in front of quite dysfunctional legal systems, which is actually a really, it’s a really interesting series, but it doesn’t have the compelling quality of this, like, one long, “Oh my God, there’s a twist every episode!” thing.

Tara: I liked the fact that, so it’s, like, Liza is the character who’s the podcaster, and her wife is not a fan of the genre. Well, kind of is a fan of the genre because of her, but not necessarily somebody that would probably willingly listen to true crime. But I did like how it mixed together by, like, it made the cozy mysteries kind of, it made you pause at one point because you’re just like, “Oh yes, people are dying,” but at the same time always questioning just sort of, like, should you be recording this or, like, trying to capture this throughout? I thought it was balanced really well.

Alexis: I’m glad. [inaudible 00:14:30] because a lot of what I want to…because a lot of what I write is a response to my overall passion for genre shit, I often do have to kind of walk that line between acknowledging the more difficult aspects of stuff like, yeah, true crime has ethical concerns a lot of people have and making it clear that it comes from a place of affection, that I’m not just trying to crap all over it, which I’m hoping came across.

Yeah, like, [inaudible 00:14:58] short form podcasters, I think it’s a lot easier to…there’s far fewer questions when you do short form podcasting where it’s just, “This week I’m going to talk about Elizabeth Bathory,” and you’re like, yeah, okay, she’s been dead for 500 years. There’s not a lot that can go wrong with that. Rather than, like, because there are some…I don’t want to be too gendered about it, but I find particularly with male true crime podcasters and male true crime writers, there’s a lot more of, like, kind of, “I’m going to go and dig into this existing murder case and decide I’ve solved it,” which does give me slightly more pause.

Rachel: I wanted to touch a bit on your main characters in the book, the main couple especially, Hannah and Liza, who are a lesbian couple going through a bit of a rocky patch, and it kind of gives us a couple of things you don’t see a lot in fiction, which is a story about a queer couple that isn’t about their queerness, and also a not perfect queer relationship. And I was just wondering why this was important to you and what your thought process was about including the lesbian couple as the lead without it being about them.

Alexis: Part of it is the joy of basically only writing LGBTQIA+ fiction is that there comes a point where it can’t just all be about the queerness of the couple being the central conflict, because then you’d be writing, I’d have written the same book I think about 20 times by now. And particularly when I write genre fiction with queer protagonists, which is literally what I do, it’s almost always first and foremost genre fiction, secondarily with queer protagonists, and it’s important to me that it is reflective of experiences with which at least some queer people will identify. That’s as far as I go in claiming, like, representation [inaudible 00:16:34] is, like, reflective of experiences with which some people may identify, but that also it’s not just about being an X.

So I write romances about queer couples, I write cozy mysteries about queer people, and yeah, it’s not about that. It’s about A, a marriage in peril, sort of, less so in the final draft. But mostly, it’s about, I don’t think really being a lesbian changes your experience of being trapped in a hotel with people who are being murdered one by one that much, I think is a big part of it.

Oh, and the other thing you asked about was the [inaudible 00:17:08] relationship. I think that’s actually genuinely quite a complex one, because I do often have to sit back, because I write entirely queer fiction, I do sometimes have to take a step back and say to myself, okay, are we in a place as a culture where you can do this with a queer couple and it doesn’t have problematic implications? But first of all, I write a lot of LGBTQ+ fiction. If I never wrote flawed relationships again, all my books would be dull.

What was the secondly? Oh, and the second thing is I think it’s a big advantage to it being a cozy mystery in this regard, and I think there’s a big advantage to marriage in peril being a romance trope in that regard, in that I think even if you were worried about having a, what might feel like a quote-unquote “negative” depiction of a lesbian relationship, I think to romance readers, it’s a marriage and they’re having problems and they work through it. It’s very normalized. And one of the things, one of the reasons, you asked why this way of writing is important to me, and basically it’s just that, really. It’s normalizing. I think normalization’s important.

And if you’re not a romance reader, then I think because the central thing is the mystery, I think the fact that it happens to be about a lesbian couple who also happen to have relationship difficulties at the start and work through them, I think it’s very hard to extrapolate from that into generalizations about what lesbians are like.

Rachel: No, I agree, and I think that not every relationship is perfect across the sexuality spectrum, so having a lesbian relationship in trouble is completely normal. Just ask 90% of my friends. But I, and I also think the fact that, like, Hannah and Liza are lesbians, but it’s not a huge part of their story, but it is acknowledged. Like, you do have other characters in the book kind of giving them a side-eye or making a comment. So I think it both encapsulates what it’s like to exist as a queer person in the world, but isn’t a story about that, if that makes sense.

Alexis: No, that’s the line I try to walk, and again, it’s…because you don’t want to completely erase kind of, yeah, the realities of living as an LGBTQ+ person, but you also don’t, particularly because it’s a cozy mystery, there’s an extent to which you kind of want it to exist as much as possible in fantasy space. Like, no one has a go at Poirot for being a short Belgian man because he’s fricking Poirot.

So yeah, so that’s about where I wanted to walk. I mean, there’s a couple of little acknowledgments of the fact that these are all, that all the other guests are kind of staid, upper-class British people and are therefore a bit bothered, but mostly it’s just, you’re in a hotel. People are getting murdered. Brackets, also you happen to be gay, close brackets.

Tara: I liked the other characters, like, learning throughout the book, but then also, like, pointing out that they were learning to Hannah and Liza. You’re just like, oh yeah, no, no, like, we don’t need to applaud you. You know, I thought that was very, very kind of accurate or true to how things are.

Alexis: Yeah, there’s a trope I call [inaudible 00:19:55]. I’m glad you like it.

Tara: So I listened to this as an audiobook, and I really liked how the narrator interpreted the different characters’ accents, whether they were real or fake, and I was just sort of curious, is this something that, did you add extra notes into how this would be kind of picked up for the narrator, or was that purely from the description? So, like, you know, like, Ruby’s the femme fatale, but she has this, like, American Southern accent at some point, and then Bella, who’s the, you know, the fake French accent. Just wondering what notes you give, or is it purely from the story.

Alexis: So as a general thing, we do always get, or nearly always, barring one slightly [inaudible 00:20:31] experience I once had, but you do nearly always get asked for audio notes when there’s an audio production put together. The…whoever was handling the audio at this end — I don’t know how things are done here with Kobo — was very efficient, and I got some little spreadsheet with each character, and then it was actually really nice. They asked for, like, what their background is, where they’re from, any other notes. So that is from notes, yes. Because a lot of the characters are actually doing fake accents, it does…

Tara: I loved it.

Alexis: Yeah, it does in the notes on occasion have things like kind of, “This man is probably English but pretending to be French.” “This woman is deliberately concealing her background and trying to sound like she’s not from anywhere in particular.” And so on.

Tara: Loved it. I thought it was a really, like, it just really added to the audio book experience. I don’t know if you listened to the audio book, Rachel, either, but you should if you didn’t.

Rachel: I’ll add the audio book to my library as soon as we’re off. I want to listen to it.

Tara: Yeah, she did a great job. But so, to step away from “Murder Most Actual,” could you talk to us about how you kind of started in writing and, like, you know, did you always write throughout your life? I know you’ve kind of mentioned before that it was maybe only in the past 10 years that you’ve been writing romance? Like, how did this become a thing that you’re doing?

Alexis: Ooh, it’s…so basically, about a decade ago, self-publishing started getting really big, and one of the things I’ve always had difficulty with with writing in general is that I often feel like it’s quite mystified, like, there’s quite a lot of, like, there’s a lot of prestige in actually being a writer that I have real issues with. But around the time self-publishing started getting big, like, I think that helped me to think of this as just, like, something I could probably just have a go at.

And around the time, there were quite a lot of, like, boutique presses popping up and there were quite a lot of open calls, and in particular, there was a small press that did an open call for, actually, did an open call for lesbian stories and steampunk stories, so I submitted two things to them, one of which was the thing that wound up being “Prosperity,” which is a steampunk western set in a flying city above the northeast of England with sky krakens and flying pirates, and then there’s a series of follow-up stories about all kinds of other weird things. It was originally almost entirely written in 17th century thieves’ cant, which was completely impenetrable, so then the current version is still quite a lot written in 17th century thieves’ cant and is slightly more penetrable.

And the other open call was for the [inaudible 00:23:02] that became what’s now the Kate Kane series, which I will get back to the moment that my docket clears off a bit. And then after the publisher picked those up, I also started work on a contemporary story which wound up being “Glitterland,” and that I think wound up being published first, because the market realities of the time were that a contemp story about two cis guys was more marketable than a paranormal thing about a disaster lesbian or a weird thing set in the sky with a non-binary [inaudible 00:23:40].

And then it kind of worked from there. I hooked up with my agent fairly early on and we’ve had a very productive relationship ever since, and then I first kind of bounced around doing kind of whatever for whoever, doing some sort of indie press work, some traditional press work. “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” was my first, like, full-on trade paperback thing, and then shortly after that came “Boyfriend Material” through Sourcebooks, which is, I think, by far the most popular thing I’ve written to date, and then that got me on some people’s radar and I got a whole lot of offers, none of which I felt I could say no to, which is why I’ve written about four books this year, which was a bit stressful, one of which was “Murder Most Actual,” which is how I got here.

Tara: Nice. So have you ever full on independently published yourself, or has it always been through, like, a smaller press or something like that?

Alexis: Yes and no is the answer. So quite a large chunk of my back catalog, the boutique press I originally published them through, for slightly complex historical reasons, I wound up getting my rights back from them, and so those were self-published, but obviously it had already been edited, but I had to do all the layout and formatting and blah stuff myself, which I hated doing, which is why I don’t self-publish very much.

The one, the only thing I’ve ever self-published myself from…completely from scratch was the fourth book in the Kate Kane series, and that’s because the…so the first two books came out with my original publisher, but again, because of market realities, a slightly weird paranormal series about a disaster lesbian solving mysteries involving vampires wasn’t really where they wanted to put their time and energy, so when I got that back, I then sold the two books in the back list and third book to a different digital publisher, but then they wouldn’t pick up the next series.

The book ended on a massive downer cliffhanger because, like, you know, a well-liked recurring character got quasi-permanently turned into a statue and virtually everyone that the heroine cared about was dead. So I from scratch self-published book four in the series, which is now available. You can buy it on the usual places you buy books. And I will at some point from scratch self-publish book five in the series, but because I got a bunch of offers this year, the stuff that…this is dull commercial reality, but the stuff that, you know, my publishers are actually paying me money to do in advance is taking priority over something that I would have to both write and edit and format and do all the [inaudible 00:26:16] available for no money until people started buying the book.

So that’s my history of self-publishing. It’s, I can do it, but I’m not a fan.

Rachel: What would you say the biggest differences have been working with a small indie press versus a more traditional, larger publisher?

Alexis: Oh, God, it varies hugely, and it’s not just about small versus large. Like, different publishing houses are different, and then obviously, [inaudible 00:26:41] genres. So the press I first worked with very specifically focused on queer fiction, which was nice in theory, but in practice, it meant that there was quite a strong — partly because of market reality at the time, but partly because it was kind of their interest — a strong push towards stories about gay cis men. [inaudible 00:27:00] gay cis men. [inaudible 00:27:02] I’ve written some books about gay cis men that I am very proud of and that I am glad exist.

But they didn’t have the same resources as a large publisher, and, you know, like, in a smaller environment, it’s, like, it’s not quite like small town versus big city, but there’s an element of small town versus big city. Like, in a smaller environment, there’s more room for sort of disagreements to create tension that they wouldn’t necessarily have created.

With the bigger publishers, it could be you’re a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. That means they’ve got more resources, but you don’t necessarily get as much of them. You can be quite overlooked. Again, it depends on who you’re working with.

I am obviously, I also had a, I’ve got something out in January through Montlake which is an Amazon original, and working with Amazon is exactly what you’d expect working with Amazon to be like. You know, that’s a corporation that doesn’t let its employees take bathroom breaks. So they’re very, very, very efficient, which I appreciate, really appreciate it, but there is that kind of, wow, this is a corporate machine thing. Not that there’s wrong with corporate machines. And then working with Kobo [inaudible 00:28:08].

And I think it’s the first time I’ve actually had a…I’ve actually worked with sort of…so it’s the first…it’s not the first thing I’ve done with a digital publisher, obviously, because I’ve worked with Amazon, as well, but it’s the first thing I’ve done where they’ve brought in a freelance editor of my choice, which was nice. It meant I got to work with Rebecca again, who I worked with on “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter.”

So that was a positive but slightly odd experience, because obviously it meant I was talking to Kobo on the one hand and talking to Rebecca on the other hand, so there was kind of, there was a lot of bouncing back and forward and things. And I think it worked really nicely. It was just a very different way of doing business.

I think it’s all about…I think with everything in…I think, like with everything in everything, there…saying there are advantages and disadvantages is really trite and information absent. It’s basically, the advantages and disadvantages are about where you think they would be. Go with a small press, it’s kind of like working with your family. They’ve got a lot of time for you, but boy can your family get on your wick.

You go for a big corporation, then you’ve got a lot of cultural inertia, but they’ve got a lot of resources. If you go with a smaller [inaudible 00:29:17] like Kobo, they’re very on top of the [inaudible 00:29:21] because that’s what they do, but you [inaudible 00:29:23]. You go with Amazon, you get a slightly scary insight into what Amazon…it was a really positive experience, I should say, working with them, but it was very Amazon.

Tara: It sounds like you’re balancing a lot of different projects all the time, but you’re still writing what you want to write. Like, how much of a say are you getting in when you are writing these things for different presses and stuff? Is it still you leading the story that you want to write?

Alexis: Mostly. I mean, as always, it’s…like, I am nowhere near big enough that I can just turn around and say, you know, “I want to do this, and you are not allowed to ask me questions.” It’s difficult because my place in the marketplace has changed, and the marketplace has also changed. I think one thing that’s really interesting that’s happened over the last 10 years is that people who were, like, teenagers in 2010 reading YA, which has always been a bit more diverse, have grown up and are wondering where all the books they like have gone, which means there’s now a lot more room in the market to, for example, you know, write a cozy mystery about two lesbians that isn’t just about being a lesbian and in which they’re allowed to have a slightly flawed relationship.

So it’s partly the market has shifted to the point where the kinds of books I’m interested in writing are marketable. It’s partly that I’m very eclectic anyway, so it’s very rare that there are conditions in which there is nothing that someone wants me to write that I don’t want to write, I think is…so actually, a good example might be, so working with Kobo, I have a [inaudible 00:30:54] to work with you, and then I sent about four or five pitches, and “Murder Most Actual” wound up being the one going forward, but they were all things that I’d be genuinely happy to work on and they were all things I genuinely wanted to do that were a bit, like, there were some really bonkers ones.

There was an espionage fantasy with a weapon that erases things from history. There was Christmas ghost story romance set in a village under a curse where it’s literally always Christmas. There was true crime podcast…

Tara: It’s Rachel’s dream village, forever Christmas.

Alexis: It was going to be spooky. There was, and then there was true crime podcaster and her wife get trapped in murder hotel. I think there was one more, and I’ve forgotten what it was. I think it was a Shakespeare retelling around…I think it might’ve been a queer Shakespeare retelling with a corporate theme, but I can’t remember anything else about it. But that’s how I often do work. So I will, I throw things at walls and see what sticks, which means I have a lot of sticky walls, but it works for me.

Rachel: Do you have any advice for authors who are trying to pitch a book just to, like, summarize their idea into something that might stick to a wall?

Alexis: Get an agent is…advice is very difficult particularly because when I…you know how they say the easiest way to make a small fortune is start with a large fortune. Well, one of the things that’s difficult is that any advice…I can give you great advice for getting into the exact kind of writing I got into at the exact time I started. So my first advice would be build a time machine, go back to 2010, and start in the circumstances I started in.

If you’re really starting out — and again, this has changed a bit — if you’re really starting out, you’re just trying to get in front of people and you’re trying to get the kind of story you want told in front of who are expecting it to be commercial. There is something I refer to as the one but rule, which is, again, this was particularly, I think this mattered more back in the day, which is, like, but particularly because I was writing LGBTQ+ fiction.

I keep saying LGBTQ+ and LGBTQIA+ because I want to be inclusive, but I also don’t want to pretend I’m representing people I’ve never written about, you know? I’ve never written a book with an intersex protagonist. Back when I started writing LGBTQ+ fiction, like, you could basically pitch it, “It’s like this, but gay!” And what you couldn’t really do is, “It’s like this, but gay and also set on Mars.” And that is slowly changing based…you just, I don’t think…publishing is a business, and businesses are about money, and money is about capitalism, and capitalism is amoral. I don’t think capitalism has become less amoral in the last 20 years, but I think the market as…the market has started putting its buts in different places, which I am aware sounds hilarious to Americans.

So 10 years ago kind of was, “It’s Anita Blake, but she’s a lesbian.” Or if you prefer, “It’s the Dresden Files, but she’s a gay woman.” It’s slightly better with the Anita Blake comparison precisely because you can’t do, “It’s the Dresden Files but she’s a woman and she’s a gay.” That’s two buts. You’re not allowed two buts.

Obviously as there’s more and more things out there, that becomes a lot easier because you can, so for example, if I wanted to do a gay royal romance 10 years ago, I’d have to say, “It’s a royals romance, but they’re gay.” Whereas now if I wanted to do a gay royals romance, I could say, “It’s ‘Red, White, and Royal Blue,’ but also it’s set on Mars.” Probably not it’s set on Mars. That would be too far. But yeah, “It’s ‘Red, White, and Royal Blue,’ but also one of them’s on the ace spectrum.” But also, you know, one of them’s got social anxiety. If you are concerned about commercial viability, which, if you are trying to get into commercial publishing, maybe that’s the rule for [inaudible 00:34:38] is just try and have one but.

The other piece of advice I’d have more generally is decide what you want…so the question you asked was basically how do you summarize and how do you pitch, but part of…there’s kind of a zeroth step there, which is…I mean zeroth as in before the first [inaudible 00:34:53]. The zeroth step that you should decide what you want to get out of the pitch. Like, decide do you want to write the story you want to write and fuck everybody else, and if they don’t buy it, that’s their problem, then yeah, write what you want to write, pitch it how you want to pitch it, and if it doesn’t work out, self-publish. And loads of people have done well doing that. On the other hand, be aware that self-publishing means doing all the layout stuff yourself.

If you want to write a New York Times best-seller, then maybe look at what’s currently being a New York Times best-seller and you write the literary equivalent of Oscar bait, which I don’t really know what that is because that’s not something I chase. Like, weirdly, I can identify it on TV a lot better. Like, you can tell when a TV show is going for an Emmy. You’re like, “Oh, they’ve done this episode where none of the characters speak. That’s because they want an Emmy.” And do that.

If you want to get into the vaguely traddy end I’m in, that’s where the one but rule comes in. Really getting an agent helps. Like, if you want to…obviously it doesn’t help anyone self-publish for obvious reasons, but if you want to go commercial, getting an agent helps. But there’s this horrible chicken/egg thing, or this horrible small fortune/large fortune thing where getting an agent’s really helpful for getting published. Getting published is really helpful for getting an agent. The way around I did it was small press, agent, more traditional publishing. That is not the only way to do it. That’s not necessarily the right way to do it.

That’s the way that it just kind of happened for me. It just kind of…sorry, I don’t mean that in a, like, kind of, “Oh, I’m so blessed by fate, hashtag blessed.” I just mean, like, I didn’t go into this with a great deal of planning. There was a certain amount of, “Uh, apparently this is where I am now.” So that was the route I took, small press, agent, trad publishing. But if you want to get the agent first, go get an agent first. If you want to [inaudible 00:36:28] entirely, [inaudible 00:36:30] entirely. Like, there are loads of routes and loads of options. It depends on what you want.

Oh, the other thing, of course, I would say is that if you are an aspiring writer, do bear in mind that you get really comfortable with not knowing if you’ll have an income next year. Like, yeah, don’t go into writing for financial security or stability or to become rich. Like, that’s not sensible. That’s, if you want to do that, just become a professional gambler. It’s more reliable.

Tara: So what is next? You’ve mentioned a bunch of projects there, but I’m mostly curious about, is this the last of Hannah and Liza? I know it’s, like, a standalone and, like, maybe you won’t revisit, but I’m just hoping I’m hoping you’ll say no.

Alexis: [crosstalk 00:37:01] I think…I’ve got no…I don’t have any concrete plans going forward. It’s a bit difficult because of the I don’t know what I’m to do because the whole premise is that it’s someone who doesn’t normally solve murders put in a situation where she’s having to solve murders. I never say no to things. One of the things I do always say when people ask me the “are you doing a sequel” question is it’s not really in my control. Like, if Kobo rang me up tomorrow and said, “We’ll give you some money to do a sequel,” I’d do a sequel because I like money. Although I wouldn’t be out in 2022 or 2023 because I have a lot of stuff coming up, so…

Tara: All right, so basically, if I want that, I have to throw money at it. I got it.

Alexis: Basically, yeah.

Tara: No worries. And also, can you see your books on the screen? Not necessarily the big screen.

Alexis: I never…again, it’s a never say never thing. My agent has a person who does film rights and I have had things that people have expressed interest in. I’ve had things that people have kind of made fairly small kind of, “Yeah, we’ll take this and we’ll do something with it,” kind of offers on. I would be…it’s one of those things where, again, the part of me that is deeply mercenary and is aware this is a business is very aware that, yeah, being on the…being in film is great because the reach of broadcast media and filmic media is so staggeringly vast relative to the reach of print media. That’s just the reality of it. It’s worth it for the publicity alone.

I say worth the publicity alone. Obviously it’s not worth the publicity alone. If you want my books, you’re going to have to pay money for them. But it’s just, you’re suddenly in a whole different ballpark.

The flip side of that is these things constantly happen and people constantly get interested and nothing ever gets made, because there are millions of books and slightly less millions of TV shows. But yeah, it’s something I’m completely open to.

Rachel: One question I want to ask, which is a little bit of a left turn, is in your Twitter bio, you describe yourself as a genrequeer writer of kissing books, and I just really want to know what genrequeer means to you.

Alexis: So it’s partly just a play on genderqueer, but it’s just that I write, basically it’s I write queer literature across the fictional genres. I often…I hate saying that I write things that are hard to categorize because, again, I think it makes me sound like a wanker. Some of my things are a little bit genre mashup-y. So, for example, “Murder Most Actual” is a comedy cozy mystery marriage in peril romance. “Affair of the Mysterious Letter” is a comedy Sherlock Holmes weird fantasy with horror elements. Like, I also write just straight contemps to pay the bills, and also because I love those books and those stories and they’re important to me. But I write a lot of things that are very specifically a bit genre weird. And even my contemps often, particularly the ones I wrote close to the beginning of my career when I was less able to just put together a, “This is this trope, this trope, and this trope. Give me an offer,” kind of pitch, are often quite to the left of what the genre was necessarily doing, even [inaudible 00:40:09] very straight contemporary romance and have no, you know, aliens or Lovecraftian gods in them.

Tara: So what you’re saying is your publishers have a really fun time choosing the buyback codes and categories for your books.

Alexis: Oh, God, yeah, no, it’s completely [inaudible 00:40:23]. I leave that very much at their end.

Tara: Nice. I would like to know, what are you reading right now?

Alexis: Ooh, a whole bunch of things because I read quite voraciously. One of the things I’m reading right now actually is an 800-page history of warfare called “War in Human Civilization” by a guy called Ari Gat. So the history of war happens to be the thing that’s kind of currently on the book reader app on my tablet, just because I have a really [inaudible 00:40:58] interest in history, and it got recommended [inaudible 00:41:01].

Tara: Some light holiday reading there for you. My very important question for you is what character do you use when you are playing Clue/Cluedo?

Alexis: Oh gosh. I do like Miss Scarlett, I’ve got to admit. Also I think she goes first, which is nice. The reason that there is a vicar in the book is that one of the characters in Cluedo, in UK Cluedo, is Reverend Green, who is a vicar. In the American version, he’s not, he’s just Mr. Green, and I think he’s an ex-gangster, which is why he’s got the background he’s got in the book, spoiler, because it was felt that Americans would have a problem with the idea of a vicar committing crimes.

And I, but I will say genuinely, particularly as a kid, I had a weird superstitious thing where I never played a game of Cluedo where Reverend Green was the murderer, and I did get slightly odd about it. It did eventually happen once, but I think that game actually got canceled because, like, something happened in the middle of that game. So I, like, yeah, for years thought there was something odd about Reverend Green. But I am very much a Miss Scarlett player, I think, at heart.

Tara: She’s my default, too, usually, I think, as well. And one more book-related question. I wanted to ask, what romance book has inspired you the most, whether it’s with your writing or just inspired in general?

Alexis: Ooh gosh, that’s incredibly hard, because obviously I do read…

Tara: Five romance books.

Alexis: Even harder. Then anyone who doesn’t make the list kind of feels incredibly insulted. I’ve always liked the work of Laura Kinsale. Like, I’ve found the way she…like, I’ve found how the way she writes, in particular, in her historical work, is like nothing I’ve ever quite read before. The way she inhabits her character is something I’ve…I don’t want to say striven to emulate because I don’t like emulating people, but it’s something that’s meant a lot to me.

If it’s cheating to mention a book I edited, then [inaudible 00:42:59] really, really inspired me in a lot of ways. It’s a fantastic kind of family saga about a lot of weird, complicated things involving kind of found family and finding yourself and kind of intersections within extended family units, and also cults, about being a survivor of a cult, amongst other things, and it genuinely is one of the things I feel kind of proudest to have worked on in a lot of ways. I mean, obviously very proud of my own work, as well, but it’s easier to be proud of other people’s stuff, I find, at least if you’re British, because being proud of your own things is, you know, is shameful and was beaten out of me as a child.

I don’t actually mean that because my parents [crosstalk 43:42]. Just cultural.

Tara: No, that’s great. We’ll include the links to anything there, so anyone who’s listening can check them out. Those’ll be in the show notes.

Rachel: And just before we wrap up and let you go, where can listeners find you online?

Alexis: Oh, fabulous. I’ve done a little review recently about that in my stupid Twitter handle. So the easiest way to find me online is just to frickin’ Google for Alexis Hall author. That’s a lot easier because my website is quicunquevult.com, which comes from the first two words of the Athanasian Creed, for reasons I won’t go into, and that is — let me make sure I get this right — Q-U-I-C-U-N-Q-U-E-V-U-L-T dot com. I’m on Twitter @quicunquevult. I’m quicunquevult on Instagram. I’m technically on Facebook but it basically just mirrors my bit of Instgram. That’s just a legacy thing. I don’t think I’ve forgotten any of the other social medias, but I lose track of so many of them these days. Again, I’m very much, like, I’m very much a ’90s kid. Like, as far as the, like, there’s a tiny part of me that is surprised that I have a LiveJournal.

Rachel: Oh, I like that. I like that you’re still blogging. I was reading your blog before we started chatting.

Alexis: Yeah, no, self-consciously retro in a lot of ways, also, like, I’m just, I’m not a succinct person, so Twitter is not a good medium for me in a lot of ways. So yeah, give me somewhere I can write a 10,000 word essay.

Tara: Thanks. Well, thanks so much for coming and talking to us. This has been really great, and hopefully we can see you back again on Kobo with you other books, but with Hannah and Liza in particular, you know?

Alexis: That would be lovely.

Rachel: Thank you for listening to the Kobo Writing Life podast. If you’re interested in picking up Alexis’ books, we will include links in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for even more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure to follow us on all the socials. We are Kobo Writing Life on Facebook and Twitter and kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

This episode was produced by Rachel Warden and Tara Cremin. Editing is provided by Kelly Robottom, our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker, and huge thanks to Alexis Hall for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

Joni: Hi, writers. It’s Joni here I’m just popping on to let you know that due to the Christmas vacation, we will not have an episode next week, but we will be back on January 4th with a brand new episode. Hope everyone has great holidays and we’ll see you in the new year.