Ben Lovejoy, author of several Technothrillers and a Rom-Com was interviewed by Shaun Griffiths. Writing for Ben started at an early age. His first paid piece appeared in a local free paper at the tender age of ten. The writing bug bit and he then started a school magazine four years later. He embarked on a career as a computer journalist and went on to work for the best selling computer magazine, “Personal Computer World”. After writing many non-fiction computer books, he decided to try his hand at fiction.
Q: You’ve written across many genres; Action /Crime, Romantic Comedy. Where does the inspiration for such a diverse writing catalog come from?
A: I’d like to pretend that this is about my writing talents being so great they couldn’t be constrained within a single genre, but it was pretty much the opposite …
Dated, a rom-com written from a male perspective, was actually my first novel. Like so many first novels, it was semi-autobiographical. Actually, it’s worse than that: about the first quarter of the original version was autobiographical without any ‘semi’ involved. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when I ran out of real stories from my life: no-one ever told me that novelists had to make stuff up!
Also in common with many first novels, the first draft was really, really bad. Calling it terrible would be giving it more credit than it deserved. Fortunately I belonged to a critique group not afraid to tell me just how awful it was, so I wrote a second draft that was, well, no longer terrible, but still a long way from good. I only reached this conclusion when it was rejected by every agent on the planet. I was fortunate that a couple of them took the time to provide personal feedback. The executive summary was that the writing itself was decent but there wasn’t enough story and the protagonist wasn’t very likeable. Always a slightly worrying thing to hear when it’s semi-autobiographical …
One of the agents told me I needed to read Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting – and boy was he right! I realised then what those early drafts of Dated had been lacking. I decided it would need a complete rewrite, so set it aside and decided to teach myself how to create a real story. I asked myself which of the various genres I read had the most twists and turns, and the obvious answer was technothrillers, so I decided to write one. Which became two.
It was seven years later before I rescued Dated from the dusty corner of a hard drive and did the necessary rewrites and edits, using what I’d learned from the technothrillers.
Q: Have you a favorite genre, or one you haven’t yet tried but would like to?
A: As a reader, I have incredibly diverse tastes. Everything from Chicklit to hard Science Fiction. Despite a good half of the books on my shelves being SF, I’d never written any, so I decided that was next on the list. I’ve so far written a 13,500 word story that I think of as a long short story but I’m told is technically a novelette, a category I hadn’t even realised existed. I’m currently writing two novellas that follow directly on from that, and will publish when all three are ready.
Q: Your latest book was nominated for the Kindle Scout program, what for you personally are the advantages of the program and are there any disadvantages that should be weighed up?
A: Well, it was just a campaign. I was fortunate enough to see it stay continuously in ‘Hot & Trending’ right from day one, but that didn’t guarantee a selection.
I see Kindle Scout as the ‘third way’ in publishing. Many, many years ago, I used to write non-fiction computer books, all traditionally published. The two great things about trad publishing in the old days was first that you had a guaranteed minimum income in the form of the advance, and second that you didn’t have to do anything but the writing. Everything else was the publisher’s problem. These days, though, both benefits have been greatly diluted. Advances are lower now in real terms than they were back in the 1980s, and publishers expect authors to play a very active role in the marketing.
Self-publishing gives you all the work – or at least all the bills involved in paying others to do the parts you can’t or don’t want to do – with all the rewards. Unless you can get a five-figure advance, I think that is the better option for most authors these days. But as I’ve learned, you need to be really active on the marketing front: author website, mailing list, promos, social media and so on. Technothrillers and SF have a substantial overlapping readership, so what’s good marketing for one will probably work for the other; rom-com, not so much!
So for me the main appeal of Kindle Scout was that I could effectively delegate the marketing of Dated to Amazon while I focused on marketing the technothrillers and SF. In principle, you’re sacrificing a chunk of royalties – the difference between 70% and 50% – in return for some marketing clout which ought to work out financially.
Q: Are you a full-time writer? If so, where is your most productive place for writing? Is it in a personal office or the hubbub of a cafe etc? Do you write by music, do you need silence, do you write in the mornings or when the inspiration takes you?
A: I’m a full-time writer, though it’s the non-fiction that pays the bills. I write about technology – a mix of editorial copy for 9to5Mac and copywriting for IT clients.
I have a home office, which is a great writing environment when I can keep the cats off the keyboard, but it’s good to have a change of scene for the fiction writing, so I do a lot of that in coffee shops. I love music too much to be able to write to it; I’m very much a single-tasker. In coffee shops, I write with headphones on and a Mac app called NoisyTyper. Yeah, I’m old enough to have started writing on a typewriter. At first, it was just a bit of fun, but now it really helps put me in the zone for writing fiction.
I am most definitely not a morning person! I do most of my fiction writing in the evening.
Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser and have you tried other methods?
A: I used to have a very simple answer to that question! Having tried both methods, I became Mr Planner. For both technothrillers, I literally planned them scene-by-scene. My notes were around 10% of the final wordcounts. But for the SF novellas, because they are shorter, I’m trying a kind of hybrid approach, working from a relatively brief set of bullet-points. Ask me in a few months’ time how well that works …
Q: Do you track your word count, set yourself goals in daily / weekly targets?
A: I do. I do all my writing in Scrivener, and use the auto-calculated wordcount targets based on a self-imposed deadline and how many days a week I’m writing.
Q: What tools are most productive for you – Scrivener, Word / Google Docs – and what are the advantages of your preferred tools?
A: I’m a massive Scrivener fan. I wouldn’t even contemplate writing a novel in anything else. If I talked you through all the reasons I love it, we’d be here for hours, but the highlights are that it allows me to keep absolutely everything in a single file – the manuscript, notes, offline webpages, photos, PDFs, notes, you name it; that it’s a great planning tool, allowing me to shuffle scenes or chapters around at will; and that I retain that flexibility as I write. But there are scores of other benefits. For example, when switching between multiple viewpoints, I can position the last time we were with Sarah Green on one half of the screen while I write her next scene on the other half. Then there are all the little things. I could procrastinate for ten minutes trying to name a walk-on character like a security guard; now I just hit Scrivener’s name generator and carry on.
Q: When first publishing your books, do you use Launch Teams, and online parties? Which promotional sites have been successful for you?
A: For 11/9, I launched on Kickstarter. That worked really well, finding me an audience before publication and generating a decent chunk of upfront cash for promos. In the back of that, I included the opening of The Billion Dollar Heist, which saw a decent sell-through. But really, I was a complete amateur when it came to book marketing. I wish I’d known then ten percent of the things I know now. For example, I was really, really late to the newsletter party.
In terms of promo sites, I’ve been turned down numerous times by BookBub as I think you pretty much need 100 reviews and I have nearer 20 on each book. Again, knowing what I know now, I would have sought out more advance readers. Booksends, Ereader News Today, Robin Reads and Fussy Librarian have been most successful, along with a couple of Fiverr services: BKKnight and Natalipetrenko. I also found Rafflecopter in conjunction with Giveawaypromote that was great for my Kindle Scout campaign.
Q: What, for you, is the most difficult aspect of self-publishing and the most rewarding?
A: Most difficult is definitely the marketing. I’m not a natural salesman. Really, I just want to write – and if traditional publishing still worked the way it did for my first books, I’d do that. But it doesn’t, so …
One big lesson has been the Amazon ‘cliff’ – that unless you’ve made really big sales in the first 30 days, your book essentially drops out of sight. A strategy that has been successful for a lot of writers is to write really quickly, so that you have a new book out every month or so. I’ll never be able to do that, but one reason for my switch from really long technothrillers with extremely intricate plots is that they take me two years to plan and write. I’m hopeful that SF novellas that are more of a lighter fun read with less complex plots is that I can at least get those down to 2-3 months each, and maybe have some hope of getting faster if I can keep writing with the same characters in the same world.
Q: For new authors starting out on their path, what advice would you give? Are there books they should read or courses they should take? What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
A: Definitely read Story. Although ostensibly aimed at screenplay writers, it’s every bit as applicable to novelists. It’s an examination of the question, ‘What makes a story a story?’ by someone who has a very good handle on the answer, having read so many scripts for the studios. That was definitely the best advice I’ve ever been given.
But find your own way too. Every writer has their own pet theories about what works and what matters, and most of them are contradictory. Some fantastic writers are scene-by-scene planners; some brilliant writers don’t even know the ending when they start writing. Some swear writing every day is key, others find they are far more productive writing for solid chunks of time once or twice a week. Some love sprints, others find them counterproductive. Try things out and find what works for you.
I still don’t think you can beat the oldest advice in the book: write what you love to read. That way you’re at least guaranteed one happy reader!