It seems like only yesterday that author Matt Johnson exploded onto the scene with his debut novel, Wicked Game, quickly establishing himself as one to watch in the thriller genre and wowing readers with his action-packed writing. With the second in the Robert Finlay series out now, Deadly Game, I'm delighted to welcome Matt to the blog today.
That all changed when my career came to abrupt end following my diagnosis many years ago with PTSD. I struggled during my therapy until, one day, my counsellor decided to ask me to write about my career, my experiences and symptoms. I found the process cathartic and when that counsellor suggested I might consider writing a book, a seed was planted. Some years later, I took notes from that time and started to weave them into a work of fiction. Wicked Game was born, a novel that saw me enter the world of self-publishing and as a result come to the attention of a literary agent who secured my deal with Orenda Books. Since then, it’s been something of a roller coaster ride with the book topping the Kobo chart, peaking at #5 in the Amazon UK charts for all books and becoming their highest-rated debut book for 2016.
You first published Wicked Game as an indie author before signing up with Orenda Books – what major differences have there been between going solo and having the support of a publisher?
A major factor sacrificed when signing is control. You lose having the final say, on all manner of things from jacket design through to font choice. That said, I have learned a very important lesson during my first year as a member of the Orenda stable, and that is about teamwork. It’s very easy for an author to think of a book as theirs and theirs alone. You dream up the idea, create it, mould it and plough your soul into it. To then hand it over to others is, for a novice, a tremendous leap of faith. But, thanks to an incredibly patient and talented editing team I have learned how to develop my writing to a point where it is ready to meet the exacting standards of the professional world. Wicked Game was re-planned, re-written, polished up and made ready with a lot of help and guidance. The story I wrote, although well received in its self-published form was put in the hands of professionals who improved it considerably. The jacket design came as a complete surprise to me and was way beyond my imagination – again, as a result of a team member, the talented and creative designer.
Since publication, I’ve had the opportunity to attend literary events, festivals and signings, and to meet the people who have read and enjoyed my work. I’ve met others, potential readers, who have listened to me and then gone on to buy the book. All this has been tremendously exciting and would not have occurred had I remained a self-published author.
And so, I have no regrets in handing over control. I’m now a member of a team which gives me access to a group of skilful professionals who, come publication day, are all as excited to see the book do well as I am. I’m just relieved that their faith in me has been rewarded.
Without wishing to dwell on it, your experience during a twenty-five year career with the Army and Metropolitan Police took its toll on you and has been documented elsewhere. How does writing and your other hobbies help you manage your PTSD?
My hobbies – motorcycling, scuba diving, bee-keeping, hill walking, etc – are all of the kind that involve distraction and relaxation. I live in the countryside, and for good reason, I find cities very uncomfortable. I’ve learned to avoid PTSD ‘triggers’, to control the condition rather than letting it control me. Writing also helped a great deal, and at a time when I particularly needed it. It’s a form of treatment that is becoming more popular now that others like me have seen similar positive results.
That said, I’ve always been of the resigned attitude that PTSD was something I had to manage as it couldn’t really be cured. I’ve recently learned otherwise. Last month, I did a talk to the National Centre for Mental Health where I met a clinician who is the lead on PTSD for Veterans Wales. I’ve now signed up to begin a course of treatment that might prove to be a key to a cure for me. I remain hopeful.
Finally, where can we find out more about you and your books?
First things first, I owe a great deal to Orenda Books.
Their website is www.Orendabooks.co.uk where you will find many new and exciting new authors to read.
My website is www.mattjohnsonauthor.com I maintain a blog, publish details of events and now have a newsletter you can sign up for.
I also have a new YouTube channel where you can see a trailer for Deadly Game. It’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f2HghKgXTE
Matt, thanks for being such a great guest on the blog, and all the best with the new novel, Deadly Game!
Rachel, welcome! Let's get stuck straight into the questions: how do you approach writing a new book? Do you begin with a general idea and just get stuck in, or do you plan and outline before you start?
I’m a planner. I like to have an idea of the phases of a book before I start – where are my characters in their life? And what has driven them to behave the way they do? I pay huge attention to filling in details of my characters before I start, because although I know broadly who does what, I don’t necessarily know the detail of how it will be represented in the story. I have some key scenes in my head, and once the characters begin to take shape, they take over the story.
I was riveted by the different layers of this story, and as usual it's because you've got an eclectic mix of characters, underpinned as always by Tom Douglas. How do you keep track of characters and timeline while you're writing?
For each character I have a comprehensive description with photos, and lots of detail about their eye colour, how tall they are, when they were born, what is their background etc. For the story timeline (and Tom’s longer term timeline) I use a spreadsheet. Where actions are time sensitive, it’s so important to know what day of the week it is (are the kids at school, or at home?), and what time of year it is (when does it get dark?). These details matter so much for me.
How much research do you carry out with regard to location, and how do you do this given you're living quite a way from Manchester these days?
I have a secret weapon – my sister! She still lives in Manchester and she’s retired so when I have researched locations online (because a lot of the places I use are in areas I would never have visited) I send her the information and off she goes with a camera and her husband for support. She has done everything from photograph Pomona Island for Kill Me Again (where she famously asked some workmen where would be a good place to bury a body), to going along to Central Library to discover how and where you can find the photo archives. I ask her to tell me what it feels like, smells like, sounds like as well. But wherever possible, I go myself. For my next book – which won’t be in Manchester – I am going to have to go on a little trip!
Do you think there's a shift in publishing industry perceptions about indie publishing? What barriers still remain for self-published authors going into 2017?
I think most publishers now accept that there are some good indie authors. Most traditionally published writers also accept that, for some of us, remaining indie is a choice and isn’t driven by a lack of a publishing deal.
There are still a few barriers – but I can understand why. While some independently published books are every bit as professionally written and edited as traditionally published books, a lot aren’t. So if you’re the organizer of a writing prize or a festival it might be difficult to open the door to independent authors because you may feel less confident about the quality. If you say ‘yes’ to some, how do you decide where to draw the line?
It will change. Writers will be chosen on merit, possibly as determined by the popularity of their books (in the case of festivals). But being indie means you have to take the good with the bad, I’m afraid
What three tips would you give to someone contemplating indie publishing, apart from having a great cover and having their book professionally edited?
The most important thing is to be prepared to work hard if you want your book to be noticed. At time of writing, The Sixth Window is available for pre-order, although I haven’t been publicizing that fact yet. However, when checking out the pre-release list on Amazon in the UK, there are 17,000 books at pre-order stage!
Once you’ve accepted that the odds against you are high and that you’re going to have to work your socks off, think about every possible way of making your book cover visible. AWARENESS is the very first key to selling a book. You want people to recognize it when they see it and think ‘I’ve seen that book somewhere – I’ll just have a closer look.’
The third tip is to take critical feedback well, and learn from it. Send your book out to early readers before publication – and not just to people you like. Send it to some who you know will enjoy finding something not to like, and then listen to them. You don’t want everybody to say it’s wonderful! And when you get criticism after launch, absorb every word. Decide if it’s just a personal choice issue or whether the reviewer has something sensible to say. Listen and learn from everybody who reads your books
What do you have planned for the remainder of 2017?
I am planning on writing two books this year, but whether that will happen or not I don’t know. It may take me 18 months, but I definitely want to up my game from one book a year. Having said that, I work long hours and most of the time I work seven days a week – so it’s not lack of effort that reduces my output. My books are complex and so they do take a lot of working out and writing. But also, as an independent author there’s a lot of stuff that I have to do for myself – such as marketing. But still – I’m going to give it my best shot
Whilst travelling in Europe last year, the cover for James Swallow's first book in his Rubicon series, Nomad caught my eye and I was soon devouring the book in between sight-seeing.
It's an action-packed thriller with a fantastic cast of characters, and the next in the series, Exile will be out later this year. I'm therefore delighted to welcome author, James Swallow to the blog to have a chat about his writing, and find out what's next for Rubicon protagonist, Marc Dane.
New York Times bestselling author and BAFTA nominee, a former journalist and an award-winning writer of over forty books, along with numerous scripts for videogames, radio and television – the list on your bio is impressive! Can you tell us a bit about how your writing career began?
As for the germ of the idea that became Nomad, it formed out of a few different things. I’ve always liked these kind of stories and at the basic level, part of me just wanted to write one for the challenge of it. I missed the high-octane thrillers that I’d enjoyed in my youth, and I saw a lot of commentary talking about the genre as if it was something that was past its time. I certainly didn’t agree with that. But if I had to point to one single element, it was a desire to invent an action hero for the digital age who felt real and relatable, a guy who has to work hard for every victory he gets.
Those opening scenes with Marc Dane being thrust out of his comfort zone as a techie behind the scenes to fully-fledged agent on the run really snag the reader from the outset. He’s different to a lot of other thriller protagonists in that he’s not all brawn and guns – was this a conscious decision on your part, or was that how the character came to you?
It was absolutely core to the creation of Marc Dane. I’ve been living with the idea of him since around 2008, when I first started gathering material for Nomad, and he’s definitely a reaction to all the fiercely-competent, super-accomplished, never-miss types that populate a lot of action thrillers. Those heroes never seem like they are in danger of failing. I wanted more of the everyman type, a guy who uses his skills and his intelligence more than being a crack shot or fast with his fists.
And Marc also grew out of a realization I had that almost every action protagonist I was seeing were infallible guys with no tech-literacy! The heroes - the trigger-pullers, the door-kickers – were very separate from the backseat guy in the van working at a laptop, and I wondered what would happen if the latter was forced into doing the job of the former. I like the idea that Marc is just out of his depth, but that he can still win through.
And what’s next for you as an author?
I’m currently working on a couple of projects under non-disclosure agreements that I can’t talk about right now, and I’m also developing the plotline for the third novel in the Rubicon series.
James, thanks for being such a fantastic guest - it's been great chatting with you!
It's been a difficult few weeks for me, having to keep this under wraps but I'm chuffed to bits to share with you today the new cover for Detective Kay Hunter's next investigation, Will To Live.
Here's the blurb:
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