His ribald extraterrestrial Regency period mashup began life as an online web serial and has had an interesting gestation to say the least. (Jon is also an accomplished and prolific short story writer whose work has appeared in Litro and on Radio 4, and his collection Dot (.), Dash (-) will be well worth checking out when it’s published next year.) As part of a marathon September tour of the blogosphere to promote Mrs Darcy, he agreed to stop by, rest his tattered rucksack against a milepost and answer a few questions about life, the universe and publishing.
Explain the genesis of Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens for the uninitiated.
Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens came about as a result of a slightly drunken conversation with a fellow writer back in 2007, in the course of which the idea of a Regency novel with added aliens somehow emerged. The title “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” arrived very soon afterwards. I followed this by dithering for ages before actually writing the thing, by which time Regency novels with added zombies had become de rigeur, which confused things somewhat.
What were the attractions of writing an online serial? Were there any drawbacks?
The main attraction from the writing point of view was that I had an audience, so I wasn’t just scribbling away into a vacuum. There’s no better spur to keep on writing than the feeling that there’s someone out there who wants to read what you’re producing. A side-effect of this was that I had a schedule to keep to, and I’m the sort of person who needs a deadline. Even if I sometimes ended up writing an episode at midnight the day before it was due to go out. The only drawback, I guess, was that I had to spend a fair bit of time running around promoting it in order to secure that audience. But that was quite fun sometimes.
Did the serial format affect the way you wrote?
I’d actually written it that way to start with! I’ve never written a novel before, so the only way I could think of doing it was to write it in a series of short scenes – essentially a series of linked flashes. So it adapted seamlessly to being serialised.
You’re a great advocate of using Twitter and blogging to promote your writing. Is it essential for writers to embrace these new technologies? How can they use them effectively?
It’s funny. When blogging started, I thought “there’s no way you’ll catch me doing that”, but I’ve been blogging regularly now for the last three and a bit years, with a readership that seems to be growing fairly steadily (although they could all be viagrabots, I guess). And I was definitely never going to get involved with Twitter, oh no. The two things are very different. My blog is pretty much all about me, because it’s my blog, after all, but Twitter’s a more complex beast. If you think you’re just going to join up and start promoting your work, forget it. You need to develop your Twitter persona first of all – crack a few jokes, respond to other people, make people feel they know you – so that when you do have some exciting news to tell everyone, they react as if they would to a friend telling them rather than some creepy stranger. I have no idea if I have the balance right, by the way – I did feel I was overdoing it a bit on Mrs Darcy’s publication day, but I reckoned that people would probably indulge me. Don’t think anyone unfollowed me, anyway. What was the question? Essential? No, you can be a writer without them, but your publisher or potential publisher will expect you to help them out with the marketing, and if you can show them that you’re prepared to do this, then it’s going to count in your favour when you submit your manuscript.
It’s interesting that the end product of your multimedia approach to writing is a good old printed book. What has your own experience taught you about the future of publishing? Are rumours of the death of the book exaggerated?
My intention was always to get a good old printed book in the shops. It was interesting that when I told my friends who weren’t writers that I was having a book come out, they asked me two questions in order to establish my credibility in their eyes: is it an e-book or a proper book, and are you self-publishing? I should hasten to add that there are plenty of excellent e-books out there – particularly in niche markets such as romance and sci-fi – but I do prefer atoms to bits. My brain needs to map the content onto something physical. I have the same problem with MP3s in fact: I haven’t a clue what music I’ve got stored on my computer but I know exactly what CDs there are on my shelves. However, I realise I’m swimming against the tide with that one and I’m probably doing the same with e-books. As far as self-publishing is concerned, I probably would have ended up doing just that if I hadn’t found anyone willing to take Mrs Darcy on. I wouldn’t have just left the serial sitting there on the web, because no-one would have bothered reading it like that. However, whilst there are many excellent self-published books – mainly by established authors who know what they’re doing – I would prefer to read a book that had been sanctioned by someone who knew what they were doing (although I do appreciate that there are many people in the publishing industry who haven’t a clue what they’re doing). It’s bit like buying a fridge from John Lewis rather than some dodgy geezer down the pub.
Who inspires you most at the moment, in writing and publishing?
Apart from Salt / Proxima, who are obviously the best publishers on the planet, I’m impressed by anyone who goes the extra mile to make their books look special. I’m thinking here of people like Roast Books, who did that wonderful packaging job on AC Tillyer’s A to Z of Possible Worlds (matched only by what Picador did with Stuart Evers’ 10 Stories About Smoking). As far as writers who inspire me, there are so many. The single best thing I’ve read this year is a short story by David Rose called “Flora” in the Salt Best British Short Stories 2011 anthology and I’ve just finished his fascinating “anti-novel”, Vault. I’m also looking forward to reading Vanessa Gebbie’s debut novel because I think her short stories are excellent. Tom Vowler’s a man to watch as well.
Is there a danger that writers are being asked to spend too much time promoting themselves and not enough time actually writing – which as we all know takes a lot of time and effort. How do you strike the balance?
Tricky. I guess I’m used to the idea of marketing myself, as I work for myself in real life. But the demands of that real-life job, writing and self-promotion are difficult to reconcile, along with the small matter of making sure you remember what your loved ones are called.
What’s next in the pipeline?
Next up is my short story collection, which Salt are publishing next year. In the meantime, I have another unrelated novel that I’m working on and I would love to do another Mrs Darcy book if there’s demand for one.
Thanks for stopping by. Good luck with the rest of the tour.
Many thanks for inviting me in – hope that wasn’t too long-winded!