It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m delighted to invite indie author Pip Mulgrue to my blog. Pip lives and writes in Brighton. Her first book, Gren Peppard and the Lost Boy, was published via Kindle Direct Publishing in April 2011. Her second book, Gren Peppard and the Queen of Hearts was published via Lulu and KPD in August 2013.
Jane: Pip, please tell us a little about how you came to be a writer.
Pip: I started writing with fanfic. It was and is such an easy way into the world of writing, and through it, I learned an awful lot. I started out with a million ideas, but no capability of putting them down on the page in any sort of compelling fashion. I had only a passing relationship with grammar. Through the fanfic, I connected with people who would comment on the things I had written, some of whom could iron out my many failings, and some who encouraged me to note my strengths and to fight my weaknesses. The dialogue between me and my readers was so immediate, and it sucked me right in. Before I knew it, I was writing almost to order.
The joy of fanfic, for me, was that it gave me the basic building blocks to play with while I learned how to write. Think of children using lego before they grow to use bricks and cement. I was given characters, and, due to the nature of my fandom, I was given the basic plots too. I just had to find a way of putting them together. It started off so poorly. A lot of my early stuff was utterly dire, or, at best, naïve. But I kept going, and I learned how it all worked, and it was marvellous. Then, over time, I started adding my own characters into the mix, and then my own plots. And before I knew it, all these people and places who had always lived entirely in my own head had a place to be. Suddenly I was capable of getting them out onto the page.
Jane: What genre do you generally write in and have you ever experimented with other genres?
Pip: The first book I wrote, which remains unpublished, was Young Adult. The work I’ve published so far has been vaguely connected to crime. One of the reasons I self-publish is that I struggle to place my books in a genre. I find myself staring at the list, thinking, ‘Is it crime? Is it humour? Is it basic, general character-based fiction?’
These days I’m more comfortable with the crime genre, even though my books lack some of the elements you’d expect from crime.
Jane: I also struggle to define my work, so I was very interested to see how Roz Morris has turned this into a selling point. Her book Memories of a Future Life is described as ‘strange and stubborn’ – and this attracts me to it all the more. But genre aside, were there any other factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?
Pip: If I’m honest, I lack both the stamina and the patience to find an agent. I tried, but gave up after about three months. The thing is; I had this book that I wanted people to read now, and finding an agent can take years and years.
Eventually I put it onto Kindle, and gave my friends the URL. I didn’t expect (and haven’t received) widespread notice. But I always thought that if my friends read and liked my book, then that would be enough for me.
Jane: As a self-published author, how do you divide your time between writing and marketing?
Pip: I am dreadful at marketing. I mean, really, really bad. I can’t do it at all, and find the whole experience unpleasant and uncomfortable. Ergo, almost all my time is spent writing, which I love and makes me very happy.
I don’t market myself as a brand, but do market Gren (my main character) as a brand. Insofar as I market anything, that is. In my mind, the books are her, and if the reader likes Gren, they’ll like the books. If not, they won’t.
Jane: I feel that I should mention here that Gren Peppard is a twenty-year old tarot card reader, who works out of the her Grandfather’s shop in the Brighton Lanes, which seems an appropriate point to ask how your environment influences your writing?
Pip: Brighton is where my books are set. I like driving past some of the locations, and occasionally driving past and thinking ‘that’s not how I described it at all…’ It’s easier for me to have the locations very clear in my mind.
As for writing environment within the house, well, I’m fighting for space with a husband and two children in a fairly small house. I’ll write wherever I’ll fit, usually perched on the edge of sofa, blocking out as much noise as I’m able to.
Jane: One of the key publishing stories of 2013 was the revelation that The Cuckoo’s Calling had been penned by J K Rowling. You have such a wonderful name for an author that I almost don’t want to know the answer, but do you write under a pseudonym? And, if so, do you think they make a difference to an author’s profile?
Pip: Pip is not my real name. I’m pretty sure there’s research on the use of pseudonym, but I haven’t read it.
I do remember being really happy to find that Neal Stephenson was a pseudonym. There’s something very pleasing about a favourite author starting all over again. I like to think that I have another name up my sleeve just in case the whole thing goes belly up.
Jane: is your writing plot-driven or character driven?
Pip: It’s very character driven, which is where I’ve come unstuck with agents. Crime is expected to be plot driven, and my plots are slow. I’m working on it though.
Jane: Do you have a method for creating your characters’ names and what do you think makes them believable?
Pip: I really love naming characters. Some characters, Gren, for example, suddenly evolved and developed when I pinned down her name. I had a list of others that weren’t quite right, and then I hit Gren and she unfolded right onto the page.
Unfortunately, a girl called Grendel isn’t quite believable. You have to just roll with it though.
Jane: Do you think literary agents are vital to an author’s success?
Pip: No, but I’m not going to lie; I would feel much more comfortable with an agent. My constant, pressing fear is that my books simply aren’t very good. I really would like the encouragement, and to know that if an agent thought my book was good enough to represent, it couldn’t be that bad.
Jane: Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?
Pip: My first book is dedicated to my mother, and the second to my husband, because they both encouraged and taught me a huge amount.
Jane: Who designed your book covers? If you used a cover designer, what brief did you give them?
Pip: I designed them. Or at least, I designed the first, and used Kindle’s templates for the second. This is another reason I fret and worry and desperately want an agent; I have no budget for writing. I simply cannot afford to have a designer, or any external expenses at all.
Jane: Which professional services won’t you skimp on? (editor/ professional proofreader? designer for your book interior.)
Pip: Again, I’ve skimped on all of these things, but through necessity. If I had a budget at all, I’d very much like to be able to afford an editor. I write, then I fret, and I’d value like the feedback.
The books were all read by friends who gave me comments, and they were proofread by friends. I have some excellent friends in this respect.
There is something that’s quite nice in knowing that every single element of the book was produced by me. I took the cover shot, I chose the font, and every single word that’s in that book has been selected by me. But I think I’d prefer to have that safety net of someone else’s input. Like I say; I can’t market. I’m not a photographer. I’m not a designer. I write from the heart, but don’t know whether I’m getting it right. Part of me feels that I’m letting Gren down badly because I can’t afford to have any professional input at all. I basically feel like the most unprofessional writer on the market.
Jane: What was your first recognition as an author?
Pip: The Guardian’s list of self-published books was the first time I saw my name in print. It took my breath away.
Jane: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Pip: Oh yes, many. Many, many. Usually they’re generic, so I put them on the pile and send my work to someone else (until I get bored of trying and just put my book out there for myself). The most recent I had, was from an agent who gave me a personal rejection, along with a couple of pointers. It wasn’t exactly an essay, but it was enough for me to be able to plough it back into my work. As a result of that one, I’m rewriting the whole of the first book, with a new structure and a new plot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the version I’ve published, but with the comments she gave me, I’ve been able to make it better. I want to make the plot more engaging and more immediate, and to raise the drama level in the first half of the book. I was aware from the onset that the balance was off, but wasn’t sure how to address that. Three years on, and I’m a different writer, and what’s coming out of me is a better book.
Jane: And the joy of self-publishing, of course, is that this is all within your control. What is your ‘writing routine’ – if such a thing exists?
Pip: When the children are in bed, the headphones go on, and I rudely ignore my husband and just write.
My process is quite set now. The first draft comes out very fast; it’s literally the hammering down of words onto the page, occasionally stopping to add some bits to the plot outline, or to make a note of a conversation I don’t want to forget, but it’s mostly straight out, type until my fingers bleed, work. I aim to get all the plot and key conversations down in that draft, and aim for between 60,000 and 75,000 words. It’s very, very fast, and I have time for almost nothing else as I feel I can’t rest until all the plot is down.
When that’s done, I have a few weeks’ break, and come in for the second edit. This is colouring in the lines, and giving the work depth and flavour. It’s much slower; second edit will usually take three or four times longer than the first draft. It’s interesting, but laborious, as each sentence gets scrutinised, and I go back to my crib notes to check that there was nothing that I intended to say that I missed.
Then it goes in a drawer (or into a folder) for a month. That’s usually the time that I get people to read it and feedback.
Then draft three happens. I’ll read through again, pick up anything I’ve missed, tweak it a bit, respond to readers’ comments. Then I’ll send it away for proofreading, then have it printed via Lulu, then proofread it again.
I have to balance my writing with actual paid work. There are days when I’ll be sitting in extremely dull meetings just wishing I could go and write, and it itches just under the surface of my skin. I have limited time at home too, and regularly feel guilty when my husband hasn’t had a conversation with me for days on end while he waits patiently for me to finish the chapter.
Jane: Do you work to a set word-count?
Pip: I aim to have at least 100,000 words, but I’m not dead set on it if the words aren’t there. I know my books are pretty short, but they only sell for a pound, so I’m comfortable with that. I equate it to a couple of hours of entertainment, and a pound is relatively cheap for that.
Jane: Pricing is a really difficult issue. I compare the cost of my e-books to the price of a medium cup of coffee, which makes them really excellent value. It also makes me wonder if I’m selling myself short!
Do you use any writing software such as Scrivener, ByWord or Mars Edit?
Pip: I’m Microsoft Word only. I’ve thought of using others, but my process is set without it. Maybe if my books were longer, I’d branch out a bit.
Jane: Some authors have one particular person in mind when they write. Do you have a muse – or perhaps an imaginary ideal reader?
Pip: I used to have a number of people in mind for my writing. Like I say, I had a whole dialogue with readers via fanfic writing, and I was aware of what they liked and what didn’t work so well. It wasn’t a specific person, but a fairly large group.
The other good thing in that respect is that I learned quite quickly that you can’t please everyone all the time, and though there will be times where someone recoils, there will be other times when they shout for joy.
These days, I’m much more confident, and I’m able to write what I think works for the characters, and what works for me.
Jane: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
I have a couple of friends; Katy and Meg, who got my first book first. For the second, I put a call out for friends who might be interested in seeing an early draft. I’m very lucky that people stepped in.
I hasten to add, this is not because of a fall out with Katy or Meg; it was simply that I wanted to share the load around!
Jane: Do you write your first draft on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Pip: I used to write everything in longhand, particularly when I was starting out, and needed the time to order my thoughts. Nowadays I found it easier to go straight to computer.
Jane: Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop, etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Pip: I have music playing on my headphones. I’m really terrible with allowing my mood to reflect in my writing; if I’m feeling down, I’ll write pages and pages of dirge, for example. With music playing, it helps me to focus on the tone I want, while shutting out all the distracting noise of people talking at me. The first, fast and furious draft will usually be written with just one album or playlist playing over and over again, which is another good reason for it happening quickly! I’m able to shake it up a bit for subsequent drafts, but while I’m pinning the tone down, I’ll stick to a very limited selection.
The first book was written to The Best of Kirsty McColl. The new draft of that one is written to The Golden Mile by My Life Story.
Jane: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Pip: I tend to write in the third person. I’ve tried with first, but find I get confused with tenses. I am writing something, very slowly, and in the background of the Gren books, which is first person. It’s the first time that I’ve been able to enjoy that voice. Whether it will ever be published, I don’t know.
Jane: The Owl Service by Alan Garner, Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay were among my favourite books when I was growing up. What were yours?
Jane: Are there any books that you would describe as ‘life-changing’?
Pip: Not books, no, but without the BBC show Sherlock, I would not have started writing. It simply would not have happened.
Jane The publishing industry recognised in 2003 that reading as a pastime was in steady decline and that for some, book buying and reading had ‘little relevance to their lives’. How do you respond to that?
Pip: People will always read. Even if it’s only two people in the whole world, that’s two readers who might like a new book.
Jane: With mainstream authors such as Margaret Atwood championing Wattpad (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/06/margaret-atwood-wattpad-online-writing?newsfeed=true) one of the key trends of 2013 has been a return to the serialisation of books. Have you experimented yet?
Pip: I haven’t tried this format (I’m very behind the times), but I serialised quite a lot of my fanfic, publishing daily. The problem I have with serialisation, and this is specific to me, is that I’m not patient enough for it. I have learned by making several errors that I must complete a story before I start publishing. Nonetheless, I will still start publishing because I’m foolishly impatient, and then I’ll get all tied up with unfulfilled plot points.
Jane: What is your favourite bookshop and why?
Pip: I like The Big Green Bookshop, despite never having entered its doors. They are remarkably friendly, even to distant people, and are constantly engaged with readers and writers. In fact, writing it here, I think that that’s why I love them; they don’t have ‘customers’, they have ‘readers and writers’.
Jane: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Pip: I am, but I don’t use them well. I have a tumblr presence, I publish on Fanfiction.net and Archive Of Our Own. I keep a blog, but I’m not terribly good about updating, and it’s not really about my writing. Then there’s Twitter (@littlepippin76) and Facebook (Pip Mulgrue).
Jane: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Pip: Keep going. Listen to everything that is said about your writing, even if it really hurts, and even if your reaction is ‘but that’s just wrong!’ Listen anyway, learn from it, and don’t give up. Remember, even the person who’s given nothing but criticism has still given you something.
Pip has kindly given me permission to publish an exerp of her writing, so enjoy!
The door slowly reopened to reveal quite the most terrifying person Sam had ever encountered. She stepped onto the shop floor, savagely wiping eyeliner from her face with long, hard fingers. She was small and slight to the point of bony, but Sam had the distinct impression she had a skeleton of steel wrapped in sinew and muscle and possibly barbed wire. She had thick, brown hair that looked as though it would consume a hairbrush if one were ever put to it (though this didn’t appear to be a regular occurrence). Her clothing added to her slightly unhinged look; heavy silver earrings that disfigured her earlobes and countless, flowing layers of ancient lace over a worn, dark velvet skirt that brushed along the dusty floorboards. Two dirty, bare feet poked out of the bottom as she walked.
She dropped her hands from her face, leaving dark circles of smudged make-up, and she glared at Sam with eyes the colour of the sea in the midst of a storm.
Sam closed his mouth with a snap. The apparition’s gaze travelled lazily up his body, and he had the foolish desire to cover himself.
‘Er, are you Madame Sylvia?’ he stammered, desperate for the possibility that this thing wouldn’t be living here with him.
Her eyebrow jerked and there was a subtle shift to amusement in her eyes. ‘I’m your cousin Gren. We met last summer at that ridiculous wedding. You can calm down if you want; I don’t bite.’
With the exception of the author photograph, all photographs in this blog are from Jane’s personal collection.