Friday, August 7, 2015

INDIE AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: KAIA LEIGH





Q. Kaia...what made you become a writer?

A. From a young age, I was a writer - I didn't decide to be one, I was just driven to write.  I started in primary school and never stopped. When I was a kid, back in the early days of personal computing, we had a Sinclair QL that I used to hijack to write, much to my brother's disgust.  He thought playing games and programming was a lot more interesting, and I loved those too, but writing was another thing altogether.  It was utterly addictive.  I think I won the high school creative writing competition four or five years running and I had the odd poem or short story published to a newsletter or an online ezine and that fueled me. Just those tiny tastes of success. I'd sit in class writing my "novels" in notebooks, creating illustrations.  My teachers weren't impressed; I think they'd be quite surprised by where I am today, given my lack of attention in class. 

My first "novel" was just...comical.  It was called The Demons of Red Rose Black and was about a bunch of young musicians who form a rock band called the Auckland Secret Society (ASS for short), who are discovered by Queen guitarist Brian May and taken across to England to fight demons. Yeah, I'm shaking my head too. That's why I failed 5th form chemistry.

As I got older, I wrote a lot of short stories and poetry, got into screenwriting and wrote a few screenplays, even worked on some teleplays for a couple of series concepts.  I wrote constantly.  If I wasn't working or writing, I was composing music. When I'm creating, I don't sleep much and my 20s were spent rather sleep-deprived.  I wrote my first full-length, non note-book novel, The Blue Rose at the age of twenty.  It was a 114,000 word novel that may one day see publication, and it was my first real solid work of fiction.  I followed that with an even longer book, the sequel to my first novel, and that one is a 250,000 behemoth that was written in three months. 

I wrote five complete novels over a seven year period, with Just Drink (first draft: 85,000 words) being completed over a 16 day holiday period. So I knew I could produce the work.  Problem was, the work I produced wasn't well written.  The ideas were there, the dedication to producing the work was definitely there, but I had a lot to learn about style, and my writing was plagued by cliche. I knew I had to get better, so I applied for and was granted a mentorship through the New Zealand Society of Authors. [I worked with Phyllis Johnston], who was fantastically helpful, and we worked together on Just Drink, looking at how to get that polished enough to put in front of a publisher. Life interrupted, as it often does, in the middle of that process and writing got shelved as other things took precedence. 

Then about a year ago, I decided that with self-publishing now becoming a popular way of getting your work out there, it couldn't hurt to see if all the work I'd put into my craft might pay off.  Twelve months of hard labor later, I finally have a book out there, which feels great.


Q. What is your typical writing day like?

A. I don't have writing "days" per se. I work a very intense full-time job and then I write at night.  When I was editing Just Drink, that meant finishing work at five or six or seven at night, then writing until 2:00 every morning.  Weekends were the only times I got a really clear run at it.  I worked fourteen hour days for about 12 months and probably put in over two-thousand hours in total polishing Just Drink from its early iteration to its final form.  The first draft was written in sixteen days back in 2000, so it's been a very long journey for this book.  In terms of technology and pop culture references, it required a lot of updating. I also wanted to make sure I wasn't repeating anything that'd since been done to death in the intervening fifteen years.  Now that's a challenge! 

Q. Do you outline?  If so, how extensive are your outlines?

A. I don't outline unless I feel I have to.  Generally, I just write and follow the story.  As the characters develop, my one-line hook (generally the only outline I start with) will be shaped into a full novel by the character development.  If I feel I'm going to get lost or the plot's getting complex, or there are likely to be timeline issues, then I'll do more work around the outline.  For Just Drink, because it'd been re-written so many times over fifteen years, I ended up creating a thirty page distillation of information I could refer to.  It included:
            * Timelines (Using Aeon Timeline) to track when events happened, how old characters were at critical points in time and to ensure historical events lined up properly with the narrative.
            * Backgrounds on all the characters: where they come from, who they are, their quirks, their behaviors, their motivation.
            * Events and dynamics planning: I don't really plan these, but I'm always conscious of the rise and fall of emotion and the pacing of events.  I'd like to plot out a graph of highs and lows as a kind of heart-beat diagram; I think that'd be an interesting experiment.  Something to do in the future.  As with a best-selling song, I'm sure there's an optimal pulse for a book that involves a lot of action, to stop readers getting fatigued. 
            * A map of where everything was taking place, mostly to plot out the distances and travel times between places (time is very important in this book, so the timelines were crucial to continuity).
            * Separate work around character motivation for the bad guys.  Rather than just serve the story, I wanted to have a believable (within the context of the fictitious premise) motivation for the individuals that act against the main cast.  The over-arching motivations of their organizations are easier to understand than why an individual would commit evil acts, so I spent some time making sure I at least understood why they would do what they do.

With all my characters, I like to draw people who fall on different parts of the spectrum of morality, and explore how that's driven by their individual circumstances and belief systems.  Even when we think we're doing the right thing, sometimes we find ourselves hurting others, which is something this book explores in depth.  What appears in the book is only a light touch on the character's back stories, but those will develop as the series goes on. But all of this was done post-writing.  My preference is to let the characters develop naturally, then go back and tweak them if needed.  Without the long gaps between first draft and release, I don't think I'm going to need to do a thirty-page background again. That said, it was fun and enlightening and has given me a really strong feel for the characters as I move them into the next book.

Q. How many revisions do you typically do on a novel?

A. Because all my novels were written some ten to fifteen years ago, to date there have been too many.  At least three full re-writes.  I don't mean just light edits, I mean pretty much re-writing every word.  Just Drink began as a first-person literary novel then evolved into third-person, with far more emphasis on action and character than on the language itself.  It was the right thing to do, but it did mean several complete overhauls.

I want to streamline my process so that I don't have to spend a year editing till 2 a.m.  I'd like to see a novel written within 6 months (balanced around my day job), with beta readers' feedback, followed by a full revision, followed by minor editing tweaks, followed by publication.  I'd like to see that happen over 6-8 months at most.  In order to facilitate that, I move every piece of writing I do to a Kobo e-reader and read back over the material each night after I finish writing.  This means I pick up the small errors, the places where the dialogue's weak or inconsistent, and it also gives me a feel for whether or not the pacing is right.  I've found that this re-reading is the most valuable part of the process, as I pick up things on my e-reader that I just don't see in Word.

Q. What is your best tip for editing a manuscript?

A. I'm not sure that anyone should take advice from the way I edit, but a few things I've learned are:
            * It may be lyrically beautiful, but it might still need to be cut.  Put it in a file called "cut scenes" and use it elsewhere if you really love it. But if it slows things down, remove it.
            * Listen to what your beta readers tell you. If they don't understand what's going on, or they don't understand a character's motivation, you need to make it clearer. 
            * Don't edit at 2 a.m....you'll miss too much detail. 
            * Read back your work on an e-reader. If it bores you, or you find yourself skimming parts, those are warning signs. I have to enjoy every part of my book before I'll release it. 
            * You have to publish some time.  And chances are your manuscript will still contain tiny errors that no matter how many times you read your work, you and your beta readers won't pick up.  I think you just have to go ahead and publish, or you'll never do it.  After publishing, I still read back my book from time to time, just opening it at a random page, which I find helps me "see" mistakes more easily.
            *There is some GREAT software out there for helping you edit.  I trialled a programmed called Style Writer, which I loved.  It's a bit pricey currently with the NZ dollar conversion rate, but it highlights important things such as over-writing, sentence length, jargon...all the things that you need to be conscious of.  Not every suggestion it makes needs to be actioned, but it's a great tool for gaining awareness of what you're doing, and ensuring that you're doing things for the right reasons.

Q. Which writing habits and/or tricks of the trade have made you a better writer?

A. Cutting things out of my writing; generally floral prose (a weakness of mine).  I want to give my readers a fully immersive experience, but there's a time and a place.  Sometimes a handful of words will evoke everything I want to communicate, rather than writing a full paragraph describing how things smell, sound and feel. I am very aware I'm still on a journey to becoming the best writer I can be. Some time between finishing a book and reading it back is valuable if you can deal with taking a break. I try and detach from my work when I'm reading it, to see if it's really worth reading; if it's not, if it's not enjoyable, I don't want to put it out there, no matter how much effort I've put into it.

Q. Do you ever suffer through writer's block?  If so, how do you fight it?

A. Yes, absolutely.  Sometimes because I'm exhausted, other times it's a warning that where I'm going isn't compelling enough. When I get writer's block I do one of three things: 1) I start working on another project (I'm usually working on at least two or three concurrently); 2) I re-read it until I had a good feeling of where it should go next -- which might mean re-reading the same 5000 words for six days in a row; or 3) I'll actually sit down and do a rough outline of events and just start writing my way through those.  If they're wrong, if they're not fun, I can scrap them later and start again. But after a few false starts, the right path will usually open up and I can move forward.

There are books that I've written that have halted halfway through because that next step just isn't coming to me.  Sometimes getting a novel moving again is like trying to push a car by yourself; other times, an entire first draft just flows.  I find the more emotionally connected I am to something, the more easily it flows.  Also, when I do a lot of research, that helps.  And I do a lot of research.  I do my best to make the information in my books as accurate as possible, especially where technology is involved. 

Where a book exists in a vacuum, where events are entirely fictitious, that's when I find it harder to keep things moving; or when I'm looking for the next clear step between event A and event B and I'm trying to avoid things that have been done before.  That's hard.  In the age of the Internet, it's very clear that having an original idea is an extreme rarity. With so many minds collectively being influenced by similar things, I would almost say it's just not possible. So I do my best to craft my ideas in an original way, avoid clich├ęs where I can, and try and write something that's enjoyable, even if it's not entirely original. 

Q. What drew you to write your preferred genre(s)?

A.  When X-Files and Buffy wound up (two of my favorite shows of all time), I couldn't get my fix from watching TV, so I started to write the stories I want to read.  Back when I wrote most of my novels, there wasn't the wealth of material [available] that there is now.  Subjects that fascinate me are technology and hacking, the influence media has on society (and our perception of reality), relationships and bonds formed outside of blood ties, and the duality of human veneer versus our primal selves.

In those early days, I loved vampires as an analogy for addiction. Just Drink very much approaches vamparism as an unwanted biological burden (which I think it would be, for most moral creatures), along with exploring the seductive side of having power over others. And I was fascinated by werewolves; the idea of having a second, more powerful self, more closely connected with instinct and to the earth. Often alien life would come up in the mix.  I have a fascination with the universe and subjective perception.  I think the world is an utterly fascinating place and I'm often frustrated that I don't have enough lifetimes to learn and explore all the subjects that interest me. 

Q. Do you utilize beta readers.

A. Yes, absolutely, they're critical to the process.  I do sometimes feel cruel asking friends and family to be engaged in beta reading, because when you read a book, you really want to lose yourself in the story, not be looking for holes or spelling mistakes or continuity problems.  So anyone in my immediate circle who's willing to do that for me is a very precious resource.  I wouldn't feel comfortable releasing something that only I'd read.

Q. In your most recently published novel, what's one scene you really enjoyed writing - and why?

A. I love the fights -- not the physical fights, but the sniping and the slanging matches -- and the reason I enjoy those is that my characters reveal most about themselves when they drop the veneer and show who they really are and what their true motivations are.  Striking a nerve and getting a truly unguarded response reveals a part of one character to another that helps to build their interactions and their relationships with one another.  It also helps them learn about themselves.  I like to write characters who lose control.

Q. What makes the main character(s) of your most recent novel so special?

A. I've always said this book is about family.  The family you choose.  I chose this book to publish first because of the character dynamics.  You have a young girl, Shaiyan, who's released from a psychiatric hospital at seventeen into a world she hasn't experienced since childhood, which as you can imagine is something of a shock. She's "rescued" by a guy, Dylan, who's a bit older, far more world-weary, who's desperate to be with someone who understands him.  Because she's the only person in the world who shares his particular burden, he believes he can find some kind of peace with her. Unfortunately, for various reasons, she can't stand beside him in his loneliness.  This isolation, and his very skewed black and white morality, makes him an interesting guy to write.  He's a hero who can't do anything right, who feels he can make good on his past actions by making this girl's life easier than his has been, at great cost to himself.

Then you have the girl, Shaiyan, who has all this untapped potential, who's never had the chance to find out who she is.  If she's too closely protected, that potential can't grow; only through Dylan stepping back and letting her take risks can she develop into a mature woman and that's terrifying for him, because he's so terrified of losing her.

All the characters are doing the best with their own personal resources, throwing the dice to decide what they should do and coming up with different numbers.  And at the heart of it are the big questions: Who should our loyalties be to? [Should our loyalties be to] ourselves, our friends, our family, or the world at large?  What's really important?

Q. What is your best advice for author self-promotion?

A.  Self promotion, to me, is the hard part.  I would say, read everything you can; there are a huge number of resources out there for self-publishers in terms of building up a presence and getting noticed.  I'm still in the infancy of that journey, so perhaps I'll have better tips later on!

Q. How do you deal with negative reviews?

A.  It's not something I've had to face yet as I've only just published, but as a perfectionist, I know I'm going to have to deal with it [eventually].  I'm very critical of my own creations and I do expect there will be negative reviews at some point, because nothing is perfect; and while I love this book and I think it's enjoyable and relevant, I also know it won't appeal to everyone.  I've been told by other author friends that they've had negative reviews from people who freely admit they haven't even read the book.  I think you need to ignore that kind of negativity.  The Internet is a playground for some fairly unpleasant people and there will always be someone who wants to tear you down.  Likewise, I imagine there may be some useful advice in negative feedback.  But if you want to keep writing, you just have to keep doing it; keep going, get better, take on board constructive feedback and hope you can find the audience that will love your work...because someone will.  It's a big world out there. 

Q. What is your favorite aspect of being an indie author?

A. Writing without worrying about financial return.  I have no interest in writing a book that plays to the "in" thing, or where all the creative decisions are made to appeal to a certain audience.  While one day being popular enough to write as a career would be brilliant, I want to be proud of what I've produced and I want to like it myself.  It's too easy to write to a formula.  I want to break away from that. [I want to respect] the rules of storytelling, ensuring I craft something that works, but without cynical pandering to trying to be popular by writing about a certain thing.  If I write it, it's because I love reading it myself.

Q. What is your least favorite aspect of being an indie author?

A.  Finding my audience.  It's just so damn hard when you don't have the publishing house machine behind you.  The challenges of self-publishing and the meager returns aren't much fun.  I think there's a perception out there that if you self-publish, you get all the cash on your book sales and it's really easy to sell your work.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I worked out that if I sold 100 copies of my novel on Kobo over a 12 month period (and as any self-published author knows, gaining that momentum is tricky), at the current market rate for first-time published authors, I'd earn a return of [5 cents] per hour of time invested.  I joke that kids in sneaker factories get paid more.

Given how much work goes into creating a work of fiction, this makes it very hard to really dedicate yourself to your craft.  The bills have to be paid somehow -- at least until that movie deal comes through. There's also a general (and probably well-founded) suspicion towards self-published authors, because anyone can put up anything they've written and sell it, regardless of quality.  If you work through a publisher, potential readers have more confidence that your book at least reaches a certain standard. Those of us who care about reaching that standard might invest thousands of dollars in professional editors, cover design and software, meaning just to recoup our costs, we'd have to sell many thousands of books.  And while I love my craft, and would do it regardless, I do believe artists should make some kind of profit.  Otherwise, it's very hard for them to dedicate themselves to what they do and get better at it, which is how you get high quality content.

Getting found is another challenge; a true writer wants to write, not spend their lives marketing themselves, but it's an essential part of self-publishing.  We might all dream of being the next hot author who has their book made into a  movie or a TV series (or, my personal dream, an anime series), and being able to charge $24.95 for an e-book, but the reality is, no matter how good our work is, we have to get people reading our work before it can become a success. 

Q. What is your current writing project?

A. I'm working on three novels right now.  One is the follow up to Just Drink, another is a werewolf/vampire novel with the working title "First Blood" and the other is a high concept sci-fi novel about a guy fleeing a multi-planetary extinction event.  I move between the three as inspiration takes me on one project.  I very rarely stall on all three!

Q. What are three of your favorite novels?

A.  1). Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, which is a brilliant look at morality. If you've only seen the movie, do read the book; 2). Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith. [It's] a book I've re-read dozens of times. [It] has some fantastic imagery in it that has stuck with me throughout my life, as well as a great sense of humor3). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  by Douglas Adams. [He's] such a fantastic writer with such a sense of humorI also own every one of Terry Prachett's books, and I'm a huge Neil Gaiman and Robert Rankin fan. 

Q. If you could have lunch with any novelist, living or dead, who would it be?  What would you talk to them about?

A.  I think probably Douglas Adams. I grew up with the Hitchhiker's Guide series and I think my writing was infected with that dry sense of humor at a young age.  I would have liked to have talked to him about his passion for technology and his ideas for how he saw the future of humanity playing out. 

Q. What is your best piece of advice for budding authors?

A.  Write.  Don't just talk about writing.  One thing that really frustrates me is the number of people I meet who tell me they have a great idea for a novel.  This phrase "I'm an ideas guy; I have some great ideas, I just need someone to do the actual writing."  We all have ideas. It's only through hard work and perseverance that you can turn ideas into a novel.  I think all novelists could confidently say they're "ideas" people, but your idea is this glossy, beautiful thing right up until you write it all down, subject it to continuity checks, do the research and then craft the words [and] ideas into a story that compels people to read it. Writing is hard.  It's the greatest, most enjoyable work I can think of, but it's still work.  I respect people who, no matter what the final product is, put in the hours, do the research and produce a result. 

Q. What is your favorite inspirational quote?

A.  It changes from year to year, but right now, a quote from Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken. 

"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

I didn't take the road less traveled by; I studied performing arts for three years and then decided in my twenties that my creative endeavors would never pay my way, no matter how good I was.  No matter how hard you work, making a career in the arts is tough.

Financial freedom is great, don't get me wrong.  But I don't recommend a life of working 45-50 hours a week and then trying to create around that.  Balance is tricky, especially when you have a partner -- something I currently don't have time for.

Don't let the pursuit of money strip your passions from your life.  Don't let fear stop you from pursuing the things you love.  Above all, don't let anything stop you from becoming the person you want to be. Life is far shorter than you think.


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No witches, warlocks or vampires...
just a sexy tale about trying to live the Hollywood dream...



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