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Friday, 3 September 2010

An Interview with Miranda Dickinson

Short Cut to Success?

An Interview with Miranda Dickinson

Authonomy gets talked about a lot by the online writing community. Some love it, others loathe it, and still more are slightly confused by it. I'll admit right away that I have not used the site so I am not in a position to judge, but I admit to being curious about what, exactly, Authonomy can offer to aspiring authors.

So, what exactly is Authonomy? The brainchild of HarperCollins, Authonomy is a site where unpublished and self published authors can post between 10,000 words of and their full length manuscript for people to read online. Each member creates their own personal page on the site that holds their manuscript as well as some information about themselves. People who read the manuscript can leave comments and publicly recommend it to other members of the community. These are used to rank the books on site, the top five of which are then read and critiqued by Harpercollins editors. The hope is that the editors will like the project so much the author will be offered a book deal. Another aspect of Authonomy is the idea that editors from other publishing houses and literary agents also have access to the works on the site, meaning that new authors can potentially be picked up by other industry professionals.

When Authonomy was first launched, there was many a cry of "the end of all literary agents is nigh!" or, "use authonomy to beat the slush pile!". On the other side of the internet, people started shouting back, "it's a popularity contest, the writing doesn't come into it!" or even "it's nothing better than do-it-yourself slush!". The more I looked into doing a post on Authonomy, the more bemused I became. Although I don't for a moment believe that it has done away with literary agents or traditional methods of submission (at the time of writing, Harpercollins romance imprint Avon still accept unsolicited queries by email from unagented writers, while their scifi imprint, Angry Robot, only takes proposals from either agented writers or people "personally known to us". Neither mention Authonomy in their submission guidelines), the fact remains that there are at least three writers who have achieved publication through Authonomy.

I tracked down Miranda Dickinson through twitter. Miranda, a bestselling author, was discovered on Authonomy in 2008 by Harpercollins imprint, Avon. After a brief tweet-based conversation explaining what information I was after, Miranda has kindly agreed to tell us about her experiences of authonomy, tell us a bit about what she is up to now, as well as share her advice about how to get the most out of this site.

Have you always enjoyed writing? What made you turn to writing novels?

I started writing stories when I was little and it's always been there in my life, but I didn't realise that I was a writer until about eight years ago when I started to write a story which grew and grew. It was only when I realised I'd written 60,000 words that it occurred to me that I was writing a novel! I really enjoyed being able to expand on a story idea (having mainly written short stories previously) and I found that writing novel-length stories gave me more scope to investigate my characters' lives.

Why did you post on Authonomy?

It was a bit of whim, to be honest! I was just beginning to take my writing seriously and was trying to get together a portfolio of writing in case anyone wanted to offer me a job as a writer (I'm a copywriter by trade and was looking for another job at the time). I'd written pieces for citizen journalism sites, set up my own blog and website and joined a writers' forum - and it was on this forum that I first heard about Authonomy being launched. I went to have a look at the site and liked what I saw, although it took me a couple of weeks to gather enough courage to post something I'd written there.

I never thought that my novel would do much on the site - I just wanted to know if other writers thought I could write! It was the first time that I had shared my novel with any other writers, and I wanted to get some feedback that might help me to improve it. At the same time, I had been working on a comedy-thriller novel which I had written during NaNoWriMo in 2007 (the National Novel Writing Month, where you write 50,000 words during the 30 days of November). I was concerned initially that it might be possible for people to steal your work from Authonomy, so I decided to upload something that I'd written just for fun (and so wouldn't be as devastating to me if someone stole it). So that's how Coffee At Kowalski's (which eventually became Fairytale of New York) came to be posted on the site.

Can you talk us through what happened, from posting on Authonomy to being published?

I joined the site in September 2008 and posted my novel a couple of weeks later. Within a few days I received really positive comments and helpful suggestions from other writers on the site. I also got involved in discussions in the Forum, where I met several writers who have become firm friends. Some of them started to recommend my book to others and it began to move up the charts. When it made the top 100, I was over the moon (never thinking that even that was possible). I think the highest my book ever was in the Authonomy rankings was around the mid to high 70s - nowhere near the top five hallowed titles that were selected from the Editor's Desk every month. About six weeks or so after posting my novel, I received an email from an editor at Avon (HarperCollins), saying that she'd read the first couple of chapters of my novel and was interested in reading the full manuscript. I thought it was a scam! It was only when I Googled her name that I realised she was who she said she was.

The only problem was that my novel was incomplete - so I spent three days and nights writing 20,000 words to complete it. By this point, I had been made redundant from my job and was on garden leave, so the timing was very fortuitous! I sent it off and never really thought I would hear anything else. Two weeks later, I received an email from the Publishing Director at Avon, asking me to call her. I did so and was amazed when she offered me a three-book deal!

I signed with Avon in January 2009 and my first novel, now titled Fairytale of New York was published in November 2009. It was an incredibly steep learning curve to move from writing for fun (and when I felt like it) to editing and polishing a novel for publication. Initially, I was very unhappy that my title was changed, but looking back I can see that it works with the way the book was marketed. It was by no means an easy process, but I feel that it taught me so much - and my writing is better for it.

You are the main example held up when people talk about Authonomy as a way to "beat the slush". In light of your own experiences, do you think that the view of Authonomy as some sort of short cut to publication is an accurate one?

I'm not sure that the view of Authonomy as a 'short-cut to publication' is accurate - it's certainly not what the team behind Authonomy would say it is. What Authonomy is, however, is a brilliant place to showcase the wealth of amazing writing out there. It gives unpublished authors the chance to show their writing - and compared to the slush pile, the site also gives editors and agents (not just from HarperCollins) the chance to search new writing more specifically, working on the tags that each Authonomy author chooses for their own work.

There's no doubt that without Authonomy, it would be very unlikely that I would be a published author today. I'd always intended to submit my work to agents at some point - but I always talked myself out of it. Because of this - and because of the fact that the book which was discovered was one I never thought anyone else would be bothered about - I do feel somewhat of an 'accidental novelist': I still feel shell-shocked that I'm now writing for a living and I feel like the luckiest person alive.

Would you recommend Authonomy to unpublished writers? What would you say are the strengths and disadvantages of the site?

I would absolutely, unreservedly recommend Authonomy to unpublished writers, simply because it worked for me. I think the strengths of the site lie in its community - so getting involved is key. When you see how many novels are posted on the site, it makes you realise how important self-promotion is (something a lot of writers, including myself, struggle with initially). You learn that unless you jump up and down and make a noise about your novel, nobody will know you're there. In that respect, the publishing world is very similar: if I hadn't spent time networking with other book bloggers, writers and readers on sites like Twitter and Facebook, I'm convinced that my book wouldn't have sold as well as it did. Authonomy taught me about the importance of that. It's also a brilliant place to receive honest, constructive criticism from other writers - which has proved vital experience for going though the sometimes soul-destroying editing process in the run-up to publication!

There is a culture of 'you back my book, I'll back yours' on Authonomy, which tends to come and go - but I made it a policy that I would never back a book I hadn't read and enjoyed on the site and that I would also never demand that someone read my book if I'd commented on theirs. I think here is where the site can sometimes fall down and I've heard nightmare stories of writers spending hours on end relentlessly backing other people's work in order to see their book rise up the rankings. I don't think this is necessary - and writers shouldn't feel obliged to do this. Yes, there is a certain amount of competition on the site, but that should be a fun element, not something that takes over your entire life. What happened to me is testament to the fact that it's not just books at the top of the rankings which get noticed. There can also sometimes be the odd 'doomsayer' on the site, who will get people stressing - but the vast majority of Authonomites are fab, positive, talented writers and they tend to be the ones who stick around.

I think as long as you are realistic about what you want the site to do for you then Authonomy is a brilliant place for unpublished writers. I just looked at it as another place to showcase my writing and didn't really worry about where I was in the rankings. If you do the same, you'll get a lot out of the site, too.

Is there anything about the publishing world you know now that you wish someone had told you at the start?

One of the biggest things I've learned is that the old adage that you have to find an agent first just simply isn't true. Of course, it can have its benefits, but in most 'How To Get Published' books (oddly enough, written by agents...) this comes across as gospel truth. I still don't have an agent and it's working fine for me, although obviously in the future this might change. It's also not true that you have to take the first agent or publisher who expresses an interest your work. Since being published, I've been told by lots of people in the industry that you should interview them, not the other way around. Agents all seem to do different things: some writers use them as editors to work on their novel before presenting it to publishers; some agents are more involved with selling the international rights and film rights of your book; whilst other agents act as publicity and marketing people, or simply deal with the legal side of deals. It's all about what you want from an agent and that should be why you take them on.

The other thing I wish I'd know before is how much time you get to work on your novel once it's been accepted for publication. I edited my first novel so much beforehand, but the first thing I was asked to do was to write almost 40,000 extra words! There are at least three editing stages where you can hone your story, and the suggestions you receive from the editorial team and your editor are almost always completely down to you in terms of what you accept and discard. There's a lot more freedom in the process than I ever realised before.

What is your proudest moment to date?

There have been so many! Walking into my favourite bookshop in Birmingham and seeing my book on the shelves was probably the best one, because for years I'd driven my boyfriend mad by saying 'one day my book will be in here' every time we walked in! Being nominated for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award was a tremendous honour and although I never thought I'd win, it was such a great feeling to know that my peers had recognised my work like that. Also, becoming a Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller was pretty cool - completely crazy, of course, but thrilling. But what gives me the most pride is when I receive emails from people who have read my book and loved it. That's all I ever want to do: write stories that entertain people.

What is your ultimate goal in the writing world?

To keep writing books that surprise people. I'm very fortunate to now be able to write six books in total for Avon, so I want each one to be better than the one before. I'd like to write some different genre novels, too, at some stage in the future - I've two comedy novels waiting in the wings (more in the ilk of Jasper Fforde and Sir Terry Pratchett) that I would dearly love to see published one day. Most of all, I don't ever want to think I've got writing sussed. I want to continue to challenge myself and grow as a writer - and hopefully have some readers come along for the ride!

You're a very creative person! Does your experience writing music influence your novels, and vice versa?

Yes, I think it does. My third novel is actually based around a wedding band (not unlike the one I sing with now) and will bring together all my gig stories and experiences of singing with various bands over the years. I think that if you are creative, then you can utilise several different avenues for your creativity. I've always been involved in music in one way or another and have been writing songs seriously since I was 19. I just love the buzz you get from creating something out of nothing - whether that's a song, a story or a film. I think songwriting is great for influencing story writing because you have to get across your theme/emotions/story in relatively few words. You also have to delve deeper into your feelings to be able to express them through music. I like songwriting, singing and performing music because by and large I get to do them with other people, whereas my novel writing is an almost wholly solo pursuit. That suits both sides of my character: the gregarious side and the more introspective.

Tell us about your new book!

Welcome to My World is the story of Harri Langton, a local travel agent who knows countless facts about the world but has never actually been abroad. She's relatively happy with her boyfriend, Rob, who loves camping in the UK and keeps hinting that he might propose to her (although they've been together for seven years and still no sign of a ring...) She meets Alex, who has returned from travelling the world for ten years to open a coffee shop in Harri's home town of Stone Yardley, and instantly they become firm friends. Alex shares his stories of the world with Harri and Harri, in return, advises him on his nightmare love life. Then Alex's mum, Viv, persuades Harri to nominate him for a 'Free to a Good Home' feature in a women's glossy magazine - and all hell breaks loose!

For most of the book, Harri is locked in the middle cubicle of the ladies' loos at Stone Yardley Village Hall, reflecting on the events leading to what has become officially The Worst Night of Her Life, after an almighty kick-off at a party there... I liked the idea of my main character being stuck in the loo for most of the book! In the last chapter, we'll walk out of the loos with Harri, to see what life holds in store for her now...

What are you working on right now?

I've been writing some 'Book Extras' for Welcome to My World, which will be appearing on my website soon. I liked the idea of doing extra bits for my book, like the extras you get with a DVD film - so there will be deleted scenes, short stories following some of the incidental characters, a 'behind-the-scenes' feature where you'll get to see the places (and maybe even some of the people!) who have inspired those in the book, soundtrack playlists and much more. That's been fun, because it's allowed me to have some fun with my characters.

I've also started work on my third novel (due out in November 2011), called Started With a Kiss. It's going to be a Love Actually-style story set in Birmingham, with Christmas scenes, weddings and lots and lots of music. I'm having a lot of fun with it so far and it's nice to meet a whole new cast of characters.

How important do you think self promotion (specifically through social networking) is for unpublished writers seeking publication? Are writers lagging behind musicians on this front? Are we doing enough?

It's vitally important - as I said earlier, unless you make a noise about your book, nobody else will know it's there. Musicians found this early on with sites like MySpace and now Twitter and Facebook have become the main places to promote your work. I think writers are becoming more and more savvy with this now - following the example of people like Neil Gaiman, who has really used Twitter to the best of its capabilities. It's a brilliant way of putting you directly in touch with your readers - but you also have to acknowledge the responsibility that this brings. I always respond to messages from people on Twitter, Facebook and emails through my website. You need to help other writers out, too, and I have to say that I have been really impressed by the writing community on Twitter for doing this. There's a real camaraderie on there and it's a great way to give something back when other writers help you.

And finally, if you had to sum up a key piece of advice for aspiring writers in one sentence, what would it be?

Keep writing, keep creating and never, ever stop believing!

Many thanks to Miranda for sharing her advice and experiences about Authonomy. Miranda's website is over here, she has a facebook page, she blogs over here, has a short story blog hereand she also tweets as @wurdsmyth. If you'd like to check out her music, then have a nose over at this site. You can grab yourself a copy of Fairy Tale of New York over here, and Welcome To My World can be pre-ordered here.

I find myself inclined to agree with Miranda's assessment of Authonomy; if you are looking for a place to get feedback on your work and meet like minded writers, then the site may well be the place for you. Who knows, you might even secure representation or publication down this route just like Miranda did, which would be a lovely bonus. Yes, Authonomy is a potential route to publication but at the end of the day, only three writers have been picked up out of around 24,000 members. This is not a back door entrance to publication, but with the right attitude and expectations it could be a valuable tool for aspiring authors.


Queenie said...

Until I read this interview, I was in the 'slightly confused by it' category. The clarification you both provide is very useful indeed, and now I'm off to have a look at the actual site. Thanks once again for an enormously helpful interview. (Miranda, sorry, I'm not a romance reader - but I love Fforde and Pratchett, so I look forward to your comedy novels.)

Prem Rao said...

Many thanks to Gemma and Miranda for an informative interview. Adding a link to the Authonomy site would have been useful for people like me who want to explore the idea.

Kath said...

Great interview, Gemma and Miranda, and it's good to know more about how authonomy worked for you - especially that it isn't all about making it into the crucial top 5!

Queenie - give Miranda's book Fairytale of New York a chance. I felt the same way as you, but read it and it completely won me over.

Dan Holloway said...

Like Kath, Miranda's was the first book I'd ever really read in the genre - and I love it. Wonderful interview. I'm coming up to 2 years on Authonomy this month and I still love the place.

womagwriter said...

Very interesting interview - thank you both for giving your time. I have never really looked at Authonomy, though I did once dabble with YouWriteOn which I think is a similar set-up.

Congratulations Miranda on your huge success - long may it last! I was intrigued that a book you thought had no legs was the one you put on site and was picked up. Just shows, writers are sometimes poor judges of their own work!

Anonymous said...

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