I’m delighted to welcome Roz Morris back to my blog. Roz has published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than 4 million copies – but nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. She is now proudly self publishing as herself with two acclaimed literary novels My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three. She has also been a writing coach, editor and mentor for more than 20 years with award-winning authors among her clients. She has a book series for writers, Nail Your Novel (and a blog), and teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London. She has a show on Surrey Hills Radio, So You Want To Be A Writer which is broadcast from Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead – where I was first introduced to Roz by bookseller Peter Snell. And she’s also one of the seven authors behind the Outside the Box: Women Writing Women box set.
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Q: Roz, you mentor other writers so can I begin by asking who first gave you encouragement to write?
I don’t know when writing first got into me, but I became aware at quite a young age that I was supposedly disposed to it. School teachers commented that I was good with words. They also said, less appreciatively, that I had an overactive imagination. Essays usually turned into fictions. Penpals were treated to long and glorious texts, which they may not have enjoyed quite as much as I did.
My grandfather died and left a skinny portable typewriter with no letter T. From ha day my bedroom resounded to furious hunder. By backspacing I overlaid an l on an r, and then I was rattling away – though my oeuvre at the time was science fiction, because I was at a girls’ school and sci-fi annoyed everybody. I probably liked that more than the sci-fi itself.
In particular, it annoyed the A level English literature teacher, who we all quailed before. While other teachers just taught, she evangelised, and made you believe literature was life itself, the single most important invention on the whole of planet Earth.
Q: Where is home and how does your environment influence your writing?
Home is London, with my husband Dave who is also a writer. We have bookshelves in every room – indeed our walls hardly need any other decoration. I like being surrounded by the spines of books. Look at a shelf and it’s like gazing into the night sky – a scatter of worlds.
Our entire house is organised like a rather haphazard library. The dining room is anthologies, fantasy, history and interesting places. The TV snug is young adult, screenplays and graphic novels. Dave’s study is mythology and folklore. We have arguments about whether someone has put a book in the wrong place, and Dave, who was librarian when he was at school, has threatened to implement Dewey. My study is the department of fiction.
I write at a salvaged dining table, which takes up most of the room. Dave’s mother found it outside a neighbour’s house, being thrown away. The varnish had aged to a rancid yellow so I sanded and painted it to tone with the study walls, which are violet. As a dining table is the heart of family life, I get great satisfaction to consider the stories it may have witnessed before it came to me. Most of the time, though, I can’t even see it through the snowdrifts of notes.
I’m very easily distracted by noise, especially music. If I can hear music or a beat – even at mouse volume – it commands me to listen. So I use this to create writing soundtracks for instant concentration and to help me daydream about my book. This was probably why music was a natural environment to explore in My Memories of a Future Life, which is about a concert pianist.
I have a blog series where I interview writers who also do this.
Roz recording her radio show at Barton’s Bookshop, Leatherhead
Q: Can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
My first published novels were ghostwritten for other authors, and I never knew when they were being released. Once I’d finished the manuscript and dealt with the editor’s notes, my contact with the book ended. But one day I saw a book of mine being advertised at my local Tube station. I didn’t know a massive campaign was planned, and there it was, on a full-length billboard. The text I made on my hard drive had turned into this – a book that got featured on posters, with a well-known author’s name. I had a ‘wow’ moment then got on a train with my secret.
Q: Have you ever seen a member of the public reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Dave and I have recently been house-hunting – and have seen a fair few of my ghosted books on people’s shelves! But the best moment was when somebody in a bookshop recognised me from the photo on My Memories of a Future Life. (Fortunately she’d liked it.) Another standout incident was when a fan of Future Life came to a signing and presented me with a book about other lives. He doesn’t know it, but he’s inspired another novel, so I’m doubly obliged.
Q: What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?
The initial reason was I couldn’t get published – even though I had agents who believed in my work. Publishers would tell me my novels were good, then they’d want me to change them drastically to fit the market. But I’d grown up with a love for unconventional writers like Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood, and I realised I found such compromise deeply offensive. This probably sounds egotistical or precious, but I believed that good work began with an attitude of truth and integrity. At the same time, though, the publishers’ feedback dented my confidence, because I knew I’d walked some narrow lines and taken creative risks. Dave used to have to reassure me that I wasn’t mad.
I’d already self-published a writing book, Nail Your Novel, so I knew the ropes. Also, I’ve run editorial departments so I knew how to make a book. But I was nervous when I put out My Memories of a Future Life. I had no idea how readers would take it. What if those publishers were right? Not only that, I felt peeled – another first, as my ghostwritten books were never personal in the slightest. Although Future Life isn’t about me, I feel I’ve played the character, and at a very vulnerable time of her life. Looking back on the final weeks of editing, it feels as if I lived the experience. I put the book out and hoped. To my great relief, it worked. Indeed, I got letters, long, personal responses from complete strangers. I’m incredibly grateful to them because I wasn’t sure if I’d done the right thing.
So I began self-publishing as writer with nowhere else to go. Now it’s a positive choice, a way for me to build a body of work and keep creative control. It’s not easy, but I reckon that a writer’s life is a long game anyway.
When I look back on the advice publishers gave me – with Future Life and with the novel that followed, Lifeform Three – it makes me cross. If I had been about ten years less experienced, or forty-something years less stubborn, I might have followed it in the hope that someone would publish me. I’d have ruined two books – which for me is one of the most serious matters I can imagine. (I know; perhaps I should get different priorities.) But before we get too shrill, we have to remember that publishing has business priorities, especially with debut authors. Writers are far more inventive than traditional publishing can accommodate, and readers have a much wider appetite for variety and originality than publishing’s economics will allow. Now, with indie publishing, we can keep the artform alive and reach new readers. I’ll take any amount of guidance on what isn’t working, but I won’t cheat a book to fit a market fashion. The writers I admire don’t do that.
Q: What are some of the things you prefer about self-publishing over publishing traditionally?
Control. My background in publishing houses means I know how to make good decisions about a book’s production. Also, self-publishing gives me instant access to up-to-date sales figures, so I can tell if my publicity efforts are working. But the most important reason for me is this. When I self-publish I can keep the book alive. In traditional publishing, if your title doesn’t take off, it’s all but abandoned and the publisher tries to keep the rights so you can’t issue a new edition or put it on upcoming electronic platforms. Obviously they have business reasons, but I put years into a book and I find that unacceptable.
Sadly there are corners of the industry where indies are treated rather discourteously. Professional bodies and award schemes often bar us as a matter of policy, and won’t even read our work or look at our experience before they make a judgment. That’s got to change. In other industries it has. Nobody would bar Joss Whedon’s film of Much Ado About Nothing from a festival or award line-up because he funded it himself and shot it in his own house.
But in other quarters self-publishing is warmly embraced. I’ve spoken at events and conferences where it’s an exciting buzz, an opportunity. I spoke about self-publishing at a course run by The Oldie recently, and a distinguished literary agent was sitting beside me, eagerly taking notes. And nobody disputes that I’m fit to teach writing at all levels, even though the only evidence I can present is my own self-published work. The Guardian, for instance, looked at my experience and asked me to teach advanced self-editing.
Q: You’re the first self published author to teach writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Do you think self publishing is gaining more legitimacy in the industry? Or are self published writers claiming more legitimacy without asking the industry’s permission?
This question of ‘legitimacy’ is interesting. There are several angles to consider.
First, readers. There is a public perception that if your book is ‘good enough’, it will get a publishing deal, but equally, I don’t think that affects attitudes to indie authors. Readers don’t care where a book comes from. If they like the look of it, they’ll buy.
Then there are agents and publishers. Although the vast majority of manuscripts won’t be publishable, there has always been a talented minority that are brilliant but don’t fit the marketing zeitgeist. Agents have always had accomplished authors they can’t sell. Publishers have manuscripts they adore but don’t dare present to the editorial board. These industry insiders have always known that quality books do not find a publisher, but they’re often wary of admitting it.
But there’s more to self-publishing – and publishing – than a good manuscript. It has to be handled properly – developmental edits, copy edits, proofing and finally formatting. The manuscript is raw material, you need the tough love of a good editorial department. This may be where industry figures are suspicious of self-published books. But smart indies are now showing that we can make good publishing decisions. We understand what must be done, we’re sourcing it ourselves, we’re taking the criticism to make our books good and we’re putting in the work to get it right.
I think the industry is still uncomfortable about the financial aspect of self-publishing. Self-publishing has opened a lot of authors’ eyes and made them examine what they get for signing away a large chunk of royalties and control. I think publishing houses are nervous of dealing with an enlightened author corps, but that will pass as we all find new ways of working and more equitable deals. Many authors are deciding to self-publish because they will earn more from their hard work.
Q: My Memories of a Future Life is the book that is featured in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
I was always fascinated by tales of regression to past lives. I thought, what if instead of going to the past, someone went to a future life? Who would do that? Why? What would they find?
Another longtime interest was the world of the classical musician. Musical scores are exacting and dictatorial – you play a note for perhaps a sixth of a second and not only that, there are instructions for how to feel – expressivo, amoroso. It’s as if you don’t play a piece of classical music; you channel the spirit of the composer.
I became fascinated by a character who routinely opened her entire soul to the most emotional communications of classical composers. And I thought, what if she couldn’t do it any more? And then, what if I threw her together with someone who could trap the part of her that responded so completely to music?
Q: It’s interesting that all of the authors involved in the box set are members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, but we all seem to have met each other outside ALLi.
I met Kathleen through a collective blog called Authors Electric. I met Joni because she wrote a fantastic devour-it-in-one-go memoir called First You Write – although she said in a recent interview that she met me because of my first novel, so I guess we were discovering each other at about the same time. Then I started a blog series about using music in the creative process – and pounced on writers who looked interesting. Jess, Joni, Kathleen, Carol and Orna have all guested. Jess wowed everyone when she wrote about how she’d composed and recorded a soundtrack to her own novel. Orna won lifelong fans by including the BBC Shipping Forecast as one of her inspirations. I discovered you when The Guardian featured us both as self-published writers of note.
I love the supportive spirit in the world of self-publishing. Authors are so helpful. It’s all new and we’re all learning how to do it well by sharing our journeys.
Q: It’s always a juggling act, but how do you divide your time between writing and marketing?
I always worry I don’t write enough – so I reassure myself by keeping a timesheet of hours spent on my books. All the same, I’ve got more ideas queuing up in my head – both for fiction and for non-fiction – than I have time to properly execute. I have to confess I don’t do much formal marketing. I don’t buy advertising because I don’t have the budget and I haven’t a clue what works anyway. There’s only so much we can get expert at. My entire marketing plan, such as it is, is to enjoy connecting with people who share similar values and interests – on Twitter, Facebook and through my blogs (Nail Your Novel and on my series The Undercover Soundtrack). It’s long term, it’s about relationships and being genuine – and I enjoy it all.
Q: Having been a ghostwriter for so long, I imagine you don’t use a pseudonym?
No, I’ve had enough of being hidden! Seriously, I wondered whether to use a pseudonym for my books on writing as they’re not necessarily the same audience as my fiction. In traditional publishing I might have been advised to use two names – and probably for my two novels too. My Memories of a Future Life is contemporary literary fiction, while Lifeform Three is literary science fiction. But as indies we don’t have to fit those patterns. Indeed, all authors are taking more charge of their platforms and connecting directly with readers, so I think we’ll see more writers producing a diversity of works under the one name. Hopefully they’ll be applauded for their versatility and artistic development. Unless you write books with wildly different audiences, or one of your brands might damage the other, there seems less need for pseudonyms.
Personal reasons are a different matter, though. I’m guessing that some of the people I know well on line might be hiding from employers, family, friends…
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Q: Who designed your covers? And if you did them yourself how did you choose what to go with?
I’ve designed them all myself. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to, but I’ve worked with designers for about twenty years, so I understand the basics. The Nail Your Novel books were straightforward, but my fiction was more of a challenge. I made a rough design for Future Life and a designer friend said it was fine, so I kept it. With Lifeform Three, I intended to use a designer from scratch but he came up with something totally misleading – which was my fault as much as his. I was so close to the book I didn’t know how to brief him. Knowing what to emphasise about your own book is an art in itself! I was saved at the eleventh hour when a friend who had read the novel warned me I was about to make a ghastly mistake. Thank God he spoke out and thank God I listened to him. He then gave me a fantastic brief about the mood the book should evoke, so I made the cover myself from his notes. However skilled we are, we all need a crew of wise friends who will stop us taking wrong turns or shooting ourselves in the foot. And I’ve also learned that a cover design is only as good as your brief.
Q: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
I use whatever suits the book. My Memories of a Future Life needed to be first person as it was a very intimate journey. Lifeform Three was also intimate, but I wanted a humorous distance, like a fable, so I used close third, with a warm, storyteller voice. The novel I’m currently working on, Ever Rest centres around a phenomenon and I want to show the experience of a number of characters, so I’m hopping around a lot of close thirds. That’s very exciting as I can choose the person whose experience at that time is the most gripping or tense. I keep falling in love with different characters.
Q: As a writer I imagine you have a lifelong relationship with books. As a child, were you a big fan of reading under the covers with a torch?
Yes. I’d do just about anything to avoid going to sleep. My brain craves tasks. That’s why writing novels suits me. I thrive on the slow-burn of constant work, careful plotting, refining and seeking significance and resonance. It’s what my mind is suited to do.
Q The publishing industry announced 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?
There are certainly more ways for us to amuse ourselves. More gadgets, more content. More ways to banish the boredom of a Tube journey. There are more ways for us to use entertainment as background – especially music and TV, but also film, which used to be sit-forward. But there’s a funny thing about reading. You can’t do it as background. It is an active occupation. So even if there are fewer people reading, the ones who are are probably paying more attention to it than the people who are consuming other forms of entertainment. They’re valuing it more. I don’t know how many jobs it will save, but I think it’s nice.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
In winter 1995 I acquired a horse, which had been an ambition since I was a kid. He was enormous, black and alarmingly excited to be alive – especially with the frost nipping his clipped skin. I was laughably incompetent on his back, especially when trying to stop him. While sceptical (and wise) folk waited for me to give up and sell him, I was determined to persevere. Did I mention I was stubborn? Nearly twenty years on, I still have him. He became Lifeform Three.
Aside from that, I exercise five times a week, with which I have a love-hate relationship. I tell myself it’s because I have a gluttonous appetite and don’t want to get fat. But I have to admit I enjoy running through the woods with headphones, listening to a podcast or the soundtrack to my latest novel. I like jazz dance classes too, but my plies and pirouettes are comical. After so many years of riding, my legs bend into the shape of the outside of a horse.
My party trick? I can always be persuaded to play the ‘One Song To The Tune Of Another’ parlour game from Radio 4’s ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. For some reason, I love it. I think it suits my two-channel brain.
Here’s where you can find out more about Roz:
On her main website
And here’s a teaser from My Memories of a Future Life
So, another month of resting. What if it isn’t? What if it’s two, or three? What if this pain never goes away? What if I am another incurable?
What good am I if I can’t play? It’s what makes me feel like me. It’s my – it’s not my gift. I wasn’t born gifted. It’s how I’ve cheated with the unsatisfactory clay I’m made from.
When I started at Chet’s, there was a particular moment that made me feel at home there. Someone told a fellow pianist they thought her trippy runs and airy arpeggios were a gift. Nobody gave it to me, she snarled, I worked bloody hard for it.
I haven’t seen her for a good eight years. I wonder what she’s doing now. Please tell me that all these people who vanished from my radar did it because music carried them to a new place, like Karli. It didn’t abandon them.
A creaking sound.
I sit up, alert. Is it Jerry?
I hold my breath, listening for his footfall on the stairs. I’ll join him; this night is too bleak to endure alone. I’ll take the duvet down and we’ll burrow into the sofa, top to tail, red socks and all. It will be like old times, before he talked to the message boards instead of me. We shouldn’t have let that slip.
But the only sound is a far-off train, scouring through the wet night air. Jerry must still be asleep.
What did he say in King’s Road? He was going to take Tim with him to the hypnotist tonight. I wasn’t his first choice of companion; I was second.
Or who knows, maybe I wasn’t even that far up the list. I can’t think of anybody for whom I’d be first choice of friend.
When love went wrong, when Karli was taken away, I turned to that intimate communion with ivory, iron, ebony and wire.
Take the piano out of my life and what is left?
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