Colin Garrow was interviewed by Kathryn Bax for One Stop Fiction. Writing has been a passion of his since an early age and to date he has written five children’s novels, two collections of short stories, three stage plays, a non-fiction book about the craft of writing, and recently finished the second book in his spoof Sherlock Holmes series. He was a co-founder and Artistic Director of WAC Theatre: The Writers and Actors Collaboration Theatre Company in Aberdeen. He is currently working on his sixth children’s novel, as well as two thrillers for adults.
We thank him for taking the time and we hope you enjoy learning more about this prolific writer, play producer and occasional songwriter who lives in a cottage in North-East Scotland.
Q: Who is the real Colin Garrow?
A: That’s an interesting question and one I’ve considered a lot over the years. As a kid, I was incredibly shy and could hardly bring myself to talk to anyone, let alone stand up in front of an audience. Nevertheless, in my mid-thirties, I got interested in theatre and ended up doing a degree course in Drama. The necessity of getting up and performing on stage meant I had to find a way of doing what I had to do without scaring myself to death. It was incredibly daunting at first, and became aware I displayed different personas depending on what I was doing – leading workshops, performing on stage or at outdoor festivals, I was always able to appear confident and more daring than in my normal, everyday life. This has occasionally proved troublesome in my personal relationships, when Colin the unreserved performer doesn’t quite correlate with Colin the quiet guy in the corner.
In one form or another, I’ve been creating stories all my life, but writing has always been easier and more fulfilling than performing and it’s a less demanding way of saying what I want to say than standing up in front of an audience.
Q: You have written so much over the years from poetry and songs to novels and plays. Where do you channel most of your creativity now and what has been the driving force behind that decision?
A: After producing 20 new plays with WACtheatre, I became a little disenchanted with theatre and decided to look at a couple of novels I’d played around with years before. One of them, The Devil’s Porridge Gang, I’d started as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), when I managed to churn out 10,000 words in a few weeks. However, I didn’t do anything with it for about eight years and only picked it up again in the summer of 2013. I finished the book in three months and immediately wanted to write something else, so I dusted off a couple of pages I’d written in 1998 for a novel-writing competition. That became The Architect’s Apprentice, a time-slip tale about a boy searching for his father in 17th century London.
Finishing a book is a fantastic feeling, though afterwards I often wonder how I did it, how I stayed motivated, but I think it’s that each one grabs my attention and excites me enough to get through the writing process. I don’t want to say it’s much easier to write a novel than it is to write a stage play, but that’s kind of how I feel at the moment, and though I do occasionally struggle with the day-to-day routine of writing, the fact that I do it every day does seem to make it easier.
Q: You studied drama at the University of Northumbria, going on to become a playwright and a producer. You have said that you can only be a good playwright if you are an actor first. Would you like to elaborate on that?
A: I’m sure there are plenty folk who’d disagree with me on this one, but I think to write a good play you have to understand something of the mechanics of acting. At university, we studied Brecht and Stanislavski (stylised vs naturalistic performances) and at first I struggled to understand the differences. It was only through working with other actors and creating and performing scenes in both styles, that I was able to see what those differences were. From that point on, my writing improved because I had a better idea of how I wanted my own work performed.
Of course, it’s also about knowing what works on stage and what doesn’t, and new playwrights often think they can simply write down what someone says and hey! you’ve got a script. The problem is, you have to be able to tell a story in a way that engages the audience and that only works if the language is interesting and the relationship between the characters and the actors is right. A great script can be ruined by bad actors, but a poor script is rarely improved by good actors.
Q: If you could play any literary character, would it be Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whom you admire so much, or would it be someone else, and why?
A: I do think Holmes is a fascinating character, but Doctor Watson is actually more interesting because he’s the one who has to deal with the great detective’s quirky eccentricities. The relationship between the two is fascinating and they both contribute to the solving of each case, though Watson has often been portrayed on screen as being a bit of a fool. For years I thought Nigel Bruce was a bad actor until I realised he was simply playing the part as ACD had written it. After all, Conan Doyle himself referred to Watson as Holmes’ “rather stupid friend.” In recent years, writers and actors have allowed Watson to develop, making the partnership more equal. For that reason, I’d always choose to play the good doctor rather than the eminent detective.
Q: Besides your playwriting, you have also written a number of books both for children and for adults. How would you describe the types of books you write, seeing as you use well-known literary figures in your stories?
A: My short stories tend to be set in the present and fairly realistic, whereas up to now, my novels have been historical, with (in the case of The Maps of Time series) a bit of sci-fi thrown in. Nevertheless, my current projects include two adult thrillers and these both have contemporary settings, purely because I wanted to do something different.
In my children’s books, I sometimes include real life figures – in the second book of The Christie McKinnon Adventures, for example, Arthur Conan Doyle puts in an appearance, but he’s only there to offer advice to my heroine, rather than take part in the adventure. I think this was influenced by The Three Investigators series of books I read as a kid, where Alfred Hitchcock appears at the beginning of each story.
In The Watson Letters, my steampunk, spoof Sherlock Holmes series, the intrepid duo meet up with famous writers (Dickens, RL Stevenson, Conan Doyle), as well as several literary characters, including Madame Arcati, Bill Sikes, Richard Hannay, Flora Poste, Dracula and of course, Moriarty. As the main aim of the series is to entertain, I’m not trying to impart anything new or clever about these characters, just trying to make people laugh.
Q: You live in a remote Scottish hamlet close to the eastern coast of Scotland. As a writer, was it the remoteness that appealed to you or was it something else? What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in such a place?
A: I wasn’t particularly looking for something remote when I moved here, but I do feel it helps to be away from the city. Though I’m on a main road, it’s a quiet location and as I write in the kitchen (at the back of the house), I don’t have too many distractions. If I had a busy social life, living here might be a disadvantage, but as money’s tight just now, my social life is mostly in my head anyway!
Q: You recently released a non-fiction book, Writing: Ideas and Inspirations written specifically for authors. What was the reason for writing this book and how will it help those who purchase it?
A: It started as a series of articles I wrote on Hub Pages. I hadn’t intended it to end up as a book but after writing ten of them, it seemed a logical next step to put them all together. The motivation behind the original articles was to explain ways of coming up with ideas, since this seems to be an area many new writers have difficulty with. Having facilitated a couple of writing courses, I’ve seen how people can take a suggestion and develop it into something amazing, but coming up with that initial idea can be quite challenging. I hope the book will help writers generate the sort of ideas that can turn into novels and stories.
Q: You started sending off your manuscripts many years ago and received a slew of rejection slips – a situation common to many aspiring authors. Finally, you decided to take the plunge and self-publish. What has that meant to you and what difficulties have you encountered after going down this route?
A: I think rejection is good for writers early on in their careers – if writing a best-selling novel was easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s also useful to have a bit of constructive criticism as it can help put things in perspective, though some of the early responses to my poems and stories were a bit harsh and didn’t do much for my confidence. Of course that was in the days when the only way to get published was through magazines and publishing houses. Now, if no-one wants to publish your work, it’s not the end of the line. Having the ability to write a novel and then make it available to the rest of the world, has meant I can write what I want to write, when I want to write it. It also allows me to have complete control over the whole process and since I also produce my own covers, I don’t have to explain to anyone else what I want them to look like.
The disadvantages are that it’s not easy to get the word out about your work. For many years, I only read books by well-known authors and never wrote reviews. The only time I’d try a book by someone I hadn’t heard of, was if a friend recommended it to me. Persuading readers to even look at something new by an unknown author is always going to be difficult.
Q: Scribd is supposedly an untapped market for many authors, and surprisingly lucrative for some. You have a presence on Scribd. Could you explain the process of listing your books there, and why you are on this platform? Could you list your books on Scribd if you were in the Kindle Select program?
A: My books appeared on Scribd via a slightly indirect route. When I first started thinking about publishing as an indie author, I didn’t want to leap straight into Amazon, so I looked around to see what else was on offer. I liked the setup on Smashwords and the fact they have a wide distribution network including Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo, as well as Scribd and several others, so it wasn’t a conscious decision to specifically go with Scribd. Once you upload books to Smashwords (which costs nothing), you can have them listed on up to sixteen platforms.
What I like about Smashwords is that I can list free books as well as paid ones, set up pre-orders (up to twelve months in advance) and create coupon codes for giveaways etc. I also really appreciated Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s free videos and books on formatting and publishing. These helped a lot at the start when I was floundering around in the indie fishpond.
The only downside is that if you’re on Smashwords, you can’t be on Kindle Select. I signed up with Amazon a few months after starting with Smashwords, but stayed clear of KDP Select (there is an option to distribute to Amazon from Smashwords, but you have to sell a certain number of books before they’ll consider it). To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of putting all my literary eggs in one basket, so for the moment, I’m happy with that.
Q: What has been your most successful novel to date and what do you attribute that to?
A: The Watson Letters Volume 2: Not the 39 Steps has had the most sales and I think that’s probably because it’s based on The Watson Letters blog, which has been going for a few years. Though the blog doesn’t get millions of visitors, the number of subscribers has steadily grown, particularly over the last year, and I think that extra bit of exposure has helped keep the books in the public eye, relatively speaking. Also, both books are short, so are quick reads, which I think can sometimes make the difference when readers are looking for something that won’t take them weeks to plough through.
Q: You are very active on various social media platforms. Is this an outlet for your sociable side or is it a marketing necessity? What advice do you have for people who see social media as something that takes them away from their writing?
A: It’s kind of both. I find Twitter especially addictive and sometimes have to force myself to leave it alone. These days I tend to schedule most of my tweets (via Hootsuite) and that takes me about ten minutes in the mornings. I can then keep an eye on things during the day and retweet etc. as necessary. My main bugbear is that there’s always so many things I want to read and look at and simply not enough time to do it all. It’s the same with blogs – I occasionally change these around and subscribe to a few new ones, but I’m usually following 20-30 blogs at any one time and rarely have time to give them the attention they deserve.
The only advice I’d give is this: I know a couple of people who don’t do anything on social media and they don’t sell any books, so you kind of have to bite the bullet. Also, wherever possible, include an image, otherwise it’s just words, and they’re all too easy to skim over, whereas images can persuade people to stop for a moment and read, which is what we all want.
Q: As we conclude this interview, what is your best writing advice or marketing tip that you would give to fellow writers?
A: I firmly believe you should write what you want to write, not what you think will sell. And you should write every day.