This is the first of a series of guess author interviews that will feature on the blog and my website. For anyone interested in being interviewed, don’t hesitate to get in contact. For the time being, my only condition for candidates is that you write, for whatever reason, published or not. Tell us about your WIP, your new release, or even just about your process. I look forward to hearing from you!
Q: Our first guest is Jess Sturman-Coombs, author of the YA romantic thriller series Poker Face. Thanks for taking the time, Jess.
A: Hi Harry! It’s a real pleasure to be here, and as your first guest too! Thanks so much for having me.
Q: So, for those readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with you, tell us a little about yourself and your work.
A: Well, I live in Northamptonshire (a place famous for making shoes – lucky us!) and I have two children, one husband and a basket full of washing. I also work at a Children’s Centre and, in my recently even more limited time, I write books. I tend to write crossover fiction (books that appeal to both adults and younger adults) and I like topics and material that I can really get my teeth stuck into. Love, for example, makes the world go round (or not) and it is a subject that is very important to me, so all of my work tends to have an element of this about it. Love and/or acceptance by someone we love is something I think we’ve probably all had dealings with and it’s something I like to explore in its many forms and consequences. As a result my work is far from light and can be quite dark and twisted sometimes, but that’s great for my characters and it gives them lots of scope to develop and feel like real people. Basically I love to write! And talk! I love to talk too!
Q: Your debut novel, Poker Face, was self-published in November 2011. Give us a run-down of its ins and outs.
A: Well, Poker Face is a story about a teenage girl growing up in hard times with no mother and only an alcoholic father to care for her. He’s cruel and life in general has been pretty tough but Ruby Palmer is tough too, on the outside at least. Inside Ruby is vulnerable, caring and desperate to belong. She wants a future and a family that loves her and, in a strange and quite dangerous kind of way, she manages to get herself just that when she walks into a law firm and talks herself into a job – one they never even knew they were offering!
It’s a dark and risky story with lots of twists, turns and danger. It is also a romance and, most of all, it’s a story about belonging.
Q: Was this your first attempt at writing seriously?
A: If ‘seriously’ means publishing then, yes. This was the first book I ever thought good enough to take matters into my own hands. I’d half heartedly submitted novels I’d written to agents and I did so with Poker Face for a time, but the rejection of Poker Face was harder than any other. It was a story I desperately wanted to share and if I couldn’t do that through an agent then I needed to do it through some other channel.
I’ve written lots of books and my hope is that one day I will find the time to get them to the point where I can seriously take them to agents and, if that doesn’t prove successful, publish them myself. These things take so much time!
Q: What prompted your decision to go down the self-publishing route?
A: After rejection upon rejection from agents I decided I was going to publish as an e-book. I’d heard all about how straightforward it was to do and that some people had become overnight sensations. I have to say I was already mentally spending the money! I had no intention of self publishing in print format.
Then, one day, I was at a Halloween party with my children and some friends. They had read and loved Poker Face and said I should have a launch party for the e-book. Conversations progressed (they were drinking, I wasn’t) until they decided that I really should be publishing it myself and have the copies at the launch party for people to have signed and take away with them. They had already ordered their copies on the back of a pumpkin placemat. We decided it was going to be a party to celebrate the coming of a new book and things just went from there. So, basically, I blame my friends! Ha ha.
Q: I know that you’ve managed to get your book stocked in paperback in major stores around the UK, chiefly because I’ve seen them on the shelf myself! How did you go about getting the stores to stock the book?
A: Well, here’s the cheeky bit, you can apply to Waterstones (see their website on independent publishing, it’s quite helpful) for them to approve your work. You need a middleman/woman first (namely Gardners) who, if Waterstones approve, will take the orders for your book, source the copies from you and then send them to Waterstones. This is great but Gardners want about 60% of the RRP so they can share it with Waterstones and (this is the best bit) you still have to pay for the postage, packing and print and store the books yourself. This doesn’t apply if you sell absolutely loads of them in which case they would hold them at their warehouse. Now, I’ve looked into it and it’s in no way impossible, and I understand everyone’s running a business here, but as the person who put months into my work I would at least like them to pay for my stamps…or bubble wrap!
So, instead, I emailed around asking to do a signing and some branches said yes, which was jolly nice of them. Actually I was lucky with the very first store because a friend of mine told a woman she worked with about the book and she subsequently read it, loved it…and just happened to be married to the manager at a branch of Waterstones! What are the chances? He told her to get a message to me that he would be happy to host a signing from his store and I guess that got me on the system and helped when it came to emailing other stores. That being said I have emailed many, many stores and mostly you hear nothing. Every now and then you get lucky. It would probably be better to ring but I’m a bit of a hermit and a massive scaredy cat so email is a much safer option for me 😀
Q: I bought Poker Face for my sister last year as a birthday present, and she loved it. In fact I saw it not a few days ago still on her bookshelf, sandwiched right between The Faults in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. How do you get into the mind-set required to write YA fiction? Do you have a process?
A: And thank you soooooooooo much, I can’t tell you how good that is to hear and all because you bought a copy. Thank you, Harry, and thank you to your sister too for putting me on her shelf and not on the floor to stop her bedroom door from slamming shut.
To be honest I just wrote and didn’t really think about a particular target age. I think because the lead character is a teenage girl this has resulted in many teenagers connecting with her, which is fab, but I’ve actually had feedback from more adults loving the book than young adults. I can never tell whether adults are just more inclined to seek you out and tell you what they thought. Adults seem to like Ruby Palmer because she’s feisty, vulnerable and inadvertently funny. She’s both hard work and hysterical and some people seem to love that. I definitely love writing that!
Q: What about your writing process in general? Are you a plotter and planner, or do you free write?
A: I’m terrible at plotting and planning, I’m much better at writing whatever comes to mind whenever that happens to be. This has meant I’ve often written the ending to my stories before I’ve even written the beginning. I will write conversations between people that haven’t been created yet, just because I like the content and the tone, and I’ve also been known to lose 30,000 words by not saving my work properly. I certainly didn’t plan that!
Q:Any quirks to get you into the mood? Special hat, or a specific song on repeat? Can you write just anywhere, or do you have a safe haven to retreat to?
A: I prefer to be alone because otherwise people ask you unreasonable questions like, “When’s dinner mum?” I’ve tried writing in cafes, but mostly because I’ve seen it on films and it looks good, but I get distracted, the charge runs out, I forget my memory stick and after two coffees I need to go home because I’ve got the shakes! Otherwise I’m not fussy, as long as I have a laptop and a decent surface I’m good to go.
Q: You’ve kept on writing, and have released other works in the meantime. Where do you see yourself going with regard to your future writing?
A: 2014 has seen my writing taking a bit of a gap year. I can confirm that it didn’t go anywhere sunny or destitute and it certainly didn’t run a summer camp in America, it just took some time out. The problem with writing is that on the one hand (as you will know Harry) you absolutely love what you do and on the other you have to work relentlessly to make it all happen. Big sales at a signing one day only mean you put more pressure on yourself to expect equal success the next day, and the next, and the next and the…and it’s just not possible – not for me anyway! I spent so much time chasing stockists and trying to learn all the ways I could develop my work through different formats, understand the need for platforms (only ever having been confronted with the rail or shoe variety) marketing, research, advertising, social media etc that I began to feel both overwhelmed and underwhelmed.
If I wasn’t on Twitter saying thank you and promoting others I felt like I was failing and shamefully inconsiderate and if I wasn’t writing I felt like I was no longer a writer. At the same time as hitting this brick wall I had people eagerly awaiting the third instalment and it’s a story that is very emotive. For this reason I’m scared to release it because I hate the thought of upsetting anyone. As you can see, I think a lot, maybe even too much. It has its downsides. Instead I went back to work and put the writing away (I’m not even sure where my memory stick is right now!) but I intend to pick it all back up slowly and surely and have the next book out this year.
Q: You’ve also released the sequel to Poker Face, called The Puppet Master. How did it feel to publish again, and how did it differ from your debut release?
A: I felt very much like I did after having my second child to be honest. I kept saying, “If I’ve done this before then how come I can’t remember what I did the first time round!” In some respects it was easier but I think I felt the pressure more because I made some mistakes the first time that I didn’t want to make the second time and I wanted to move the story along and develop it without losing any of what people had loved in Poker Face. It was pretty cool to see both books side by side and I can’t wait to see book three and four up on the shelf too! Soooooooo excited!
Q: Do you have any advice for writers looking to go into self-publishing, or just starting out on their first YA project?
A: My advice would be to always remember what you love most and don’t forget to do that as often as possible. You can get caught up in the social media side of things (which can be hilarious and a great place for support) but it can also be a place where confidence can be dented and some people (much thanks here for the block button) can be quite scary or rude. When you get great feedback keep it where you can see it regularly, put it up on the wall and whenever things are tough or you get a knock back take the time to enjoy it. Remind yourself that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and you can’t please everyone. I should take my own advice! It’s exciting and amazing and such an achievement so, mostly, enjoy it.
As far as content and layout, make sure you do your research because a badly formatted book won’t go down very well and, if you can, have it edited properly. I couldn’t afford to do this with Poker Face and I bitterly regretted it. People loved the story and actually nobody commented on any errors but I knew it wasn’t perfect and I couldn’t feel as confident about it as I’d have liked to. It can be incredibly expensive when your work is over 80,000 words but there are other (more creative) ways to get it marked, take it to your old English teacher! They’ll love it and it’s nearly summer break! Ha ha!
Q: Thanks again for taking the time to talk to us, Jess. It’s been great chatting. Do you have any last words for our readers?
A: Ahhh thank you so much for having me. I love chatting, I perhaps love chatting a bit too much. Feel free to cut my interview down to less than five pages! Thank you for wanting to know more about my work and the process behind it and I hope I’ve answered your questions fully enough (not quite the same as waffling!). As a last word for readers:-
As writers: Take everything you read around publishing and self publishing with a pinch of salt. You’re in the world of sales and marketing and suddenly everyone’s a massive hit. It’s great to see other indie publishers doing well but don’t ever feel like you’re not doing as well as everyone else…because they are probably feeling the same way as you! If you are doing what you love and you are doing it as well as you are able then you are already successful.
As a reader: Thank you on behalf of myself and Harry for reading posts such as these because they help to share individual experiences and tips. I have learnt some really valuable snippets of information from other independent authors and the indie community are a pretty awesome, friendly and supportive bunch. Come steal some of my Twitter friends, they rock! Also, as a reader, remember to feedback on the books you read because, although I’m not sure if JK Rowling finds the time to check her Amazon reviews, I sure as heck know that independent authors do. You never know, yours might just be the kick up the butt that author needs to get the next instalment published!
Thanks again 🙂
Jess’s novel, Poker Face, can be bought on Amazon.co.uk or Smashwords for the UK, and via Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble internationally.
You can find out more on her website: http://jesssturman.wix.com/jess-sturman-coombs/
She also tweets under @JessSturman.