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A Day in the Life: Meet author Debbie Young

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Debbie Young to A Day in the Life, a series in which I put questions to authors about their writing lives.

Debbie is perhaps best known for her role within the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). She is Commissioning Editor of their self-publishing advice blog, and the co-author, with Dan Holloway, of their guidebook, Opening  Up To Indie Authors. She recently launched ALLi’s latest campaign, #Authors4Bookstores, which we’ll be hearing a lot more about during the coming months.

She is also the author of the highly acclaimed book promotion guide, Sell Your Books!: A Book Promotion Handbook for the Self-Published or Indie Author (I keep my copy close at hand) and a family memoir, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes: One Family’s Story of Life After Diagnosis, raising funds and awareness for the leading research charity JDRF.

However, her first love lies with writing fiction, and in the last year she has published two entertaining collections of short stories, Quick Change: Tiny Tales of Transformation and Stocking Fillers: Twelve Short Stories for Christmas, described by one reviewer as “very subtle, very English, very clever”. Quick Change was an Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller’s Indie Picks feature in May 2015.

An avid supporter of other indie authors, she recently established a book blog to house her huge back-catalogue of book reviews, which she’s gradually transferring to this new home. She also offers book promotion consultancy services to indie authors, via her unique and affordable “book promotion prescription” service, which works on the “teach a man to fish and you feed him for life” principle.

She’s in demand to as a public speaker at writers’ events and literature festivals, for which she travels far and wide. As if that isn’t enough to keep her out of mischief, she’s just founded a new free literature festival in her home village of Hawkesbury Upton, showcasing more than 20 indie authors and sharing the love of books and reading throughout the community. All of these loose ends are tied up at her author blog. This interview will focus on her work as an author.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m in the middle of drafting my third collection of short stories, called Marry in Haste, which will comprise a dozen tales about marriage and courtship. Like my other collections, it will be humorous, light-hearted and uplifting, but with some more serious undercurrents and gently moral messages. By that, I don’t mean moral in the sense of being prudish or prescriptive. Rather, I aim to make readers try to understand other people’s motivations, and to be more understanding and less judgmental of those who are different from themselves.

When I’ve finished this collection, my next fiction project will be to edit and refine the novel I wrote during last year’s NaNoWriMo, a comic cosy mystery about a writers’ retreat.

However, I can’t leave short stories alone – I’ve got several ideas files on the go for future collections on different themes.

Debbie Young and peter Snell and IAF 2015

Debbie pictured with bookseller, Peter Snell, at Indie Author Fair 2015

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I have the classic writer’s habit of people watching! Although I’m outgoing socially and can be a bit of a chatterbox, I am also a keen observer wherever I go, mentally noting down interesting characters and situations, storing them up for future development. In a queue at a supermarket or on a bus, for example, I’ll see someone who interests me and start wondering what their back story is, and before you know it, I’ve manoeuvred a fictitious version of them into a short story.

What is your writing routine?

I aspire to have one, but am very bad at actually following it. I have so many other activities vying for my attention, that too many days go by without my writing a single word of fiction. The trouble is, I love everything bookish that comes my way, from reading and reviewing to running the Hawkesbury Upton LitFest, and I’m also very bad at saying no when another author asks me for help.

In theory at least, my routine will be to start writing fiction as soon as I’ve packed my daughter off to school in the morning, around 8am, and not stop till 11am, by which time the creative part of my brain is grinding to a halt. After a bracing cup of coffee, I’ll do my ALLi work, and then my consultancy tasks, and various admin. I stop at 2pm to have lunch with my husband and listen to The Archers on the radio (I love BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Gloucestershire), and briefly when my daughter comes home from school, to salve my conscience for ignoring her till tea-time. I’ll often still be working into the evenings – my favourite time for editing – but we try to stop and all sit down together to watch a film or a comedy programme before bedtime.

Some writers need silence, others like the buzz of a coffee shop, the rumble of a train or their favourite music. Which type are you?

At home, I write in silence, but give me a notebook and pen, and I can write anywhere if I have to. For me, writing is a bit like going into a trance – I quickly tune out of anything around me. I also completely lose track of time – it’s like going into a time warp, once the words are flowing. At home I usually write via my keyboard, but when out and about, I favour a spiral-bound, hardback A4 notebook and a freely flowing biro.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

First of all, just write. Get on with it, don’t procrastinate, and follow your dream. Don’t wait for the muse, or for a brilliant plot idea or character to form in your head. Just get into the habit of writing something, whether it’s an old-fashioned diary or a blog. Producing new copy every day is a good way to lose your self-consciousness and anxiety about writing. If you’re stuck, choose a prompt. One of my favourites is to turn on the radio or to pick a newspaper article at random, and riff on whatever takes your fancy. Once you get into it, it’s terrific fun. I once started writing about something I’d misheard on the radio (a news item about Turkey that I thought was about a turkey Christmas dinner), and that evolved into a fun short story that Mumsnet put behind a door of its Advent Calendar that year!

Secondly, murder your darlings. Learn how to self-edit, and train yourself to be ruthless. Try not to be defensive when your editors suggest changes to your work, but treat their suggestions as opportunities to improve your writing. On the other hand, if you’re really unhappy with any suggestions, stick to your guns – just remember the buck stops with you in the long run.

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Debbie as “valedictorian” at her American-style high school (Frankfurt International School)

As a self-published author, how do you divide your time between writing and marketing?

I don’t consciously allocate time to marketing, but consider that everything I do that raises my profile within the world of books – whether speaking publicly about self-publishing, or organising my litfest, or blogging for ALLi – will have some marketing benefit. Which is ironic really, considering that I advise others on marketing, and that my career background is largely in PR and marketing. But my primary aim at the moment is to write more books and publish them. I’ll worry more about marketing them directly once I’ve got more fiction out there to market.

Which do you market as a brand – yourself or your published works?

I feel as if they’re inseparable, in some respects. Because I’m out and about putting myself in the public eye a lot, it wouldn’t make sense to try to market my books as a separate entity, and I also hope that my different activities cross-fertilise. I also believe that these days readers expect to know a lot about the authors of books they enjoy, not least because of the ease of access to information via the internet. Unless an author has something to hide, or is painfully shy, I think it makes sense for authors to sell themselves as well as their books. That’s a theme I highlight in Sell Your Books! Far too many new authors are horrified at the thought of putting themselves forward, but they almost always have interesting aspects of their personality that will add interest and marketability to their books. They just need a bit of prompting sometimes to share it.

You clearly love writing short stories, and we’re constantly being told that readers have decreasing attention spans. Does this mean that “shorts” are receiving a surge in popularity?

In theory, there ought to be a huge increase in demand for short stories, because they lend themselves well to being read on the move, on small handheld devices – not just on ereaders but on smartphones and tablets. But I still hear so many people saying “Oh, I don’t like short stories”, with varying degrees of apology, which I think is a real shame, because often, once they try them, they discover they are great fun. I’ve had reviews that start “I don’t usually read short stories, but….” or “I didn’t really know what to expect, but…” and then go on to say how much they enjoyed them!

Unfortunately, I think there is a long way to go before many people actively seek out shorts rather than novels. But I’ll keep writing them anyway, because I love the challenge of writing to small word counts, not least because I’ve spent a large part of my career writing short pieces of non-fiction, in journalism and in PR consultancy, and short-form writing is my natural comfort zone.

In the interests of earning a bit more money, though, my future plans include a series of novels!

When is a short story too long?

Good question! With a short story, every word has to carry its weight and add to the story. And it shouldn’t go on a moment longer than required for the denouement. Many new writers are scared to cut out too many words, feeling as they’re undoing good work, but learning – and being brave enough – to cut out superfluous words is a really valuable skill. A good method is to set yourself the challenge of reducing a piece you’ve written by 10%, then 20%, then 30%. Modern word processors make it very easy to keep track of your word count, and it’s surprising how much you can pare down text when you need to – and how much sharper it is as a result.

Do you stick to the rule that there must be a twist at the end?

I wouldn’t so much say a twist, as a development of some kind. The key character(s) must have changed in some way, and been challenged. Any twist must flow naturally from the characters and the situation, otherwise it becomes tiresome and predictable. One usually doesn’t want the reader to guess the twist, but sometimes it doesn’t matter, provided that revealing the twist is a fun and enjoyable journey. I’d liken it to hearing a great comedian tell a shaggy dog story, when you know what the punchline will be, and the anticipation of hearing him or her say it is part of the pleasure.

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Debbie pictured with Orna Ross, founder of ALLi, and Katie Fforde at the inaugural Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival

Photo courtesy of Clint Randall, www.pixelphotography.co.uk

Do any of your books have dedications, and if so, to whom?

Quick Change is dedicated to my two high school English teachers, Mr Campbell and Mr Ross, who were enormously influential. They taught me grammar in a very structured way (I still have my class copy of Strunk and White) and were ruthless in their essay marking, but they managed to do this without killing the love of literature. Sadly Mr Campbell, who became a lifelong friend and mentor, died before my first book was published, but I was able to track down Mr Ross online and thank him for all he taught me.

Stocking Fillers, my Christmas collection, is dedicated to a former colleague, Eileen, who died much too young and very swiftly of inoperable cancer. Before she knew she was ill, she gave me the Christmas angel from her tree for my daughter, as she thought she’d make better use of it. The final story in the collection is partly inspired by her kindness (though the character in the story is much older). I was very glad to be able to pay tribute to her in this way – all part of the wonderful power of the fiction writer!

 

Want to find out more?

For information about the ALLi, visit the blog.

You can read more about Debbie on her website or on her book blog.

If you are looking for book promotion advice, click here. 

 

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