Keith Dixon is a prolific writer of crime thrillers, most notably the P.I. Sam Dyke 8 book series. His writing has been compared to that of Lee Child. Keith’s latest novel “Storey” is due for release in the coming weeks.
Keith took some time out to answer a few questions on his background and writing style. In this interview, he offers some great advice on the craft of writing and promoting one’s work for those of us starting out on the writer’s journey.
Q: You have such a wide experience of writing and publishing. What would you say are the biggest pitfalls that a new, first-time author seems to fall into?
A: As well as being a writer I spent about two years working as an editor for an online writing service, and also for a small Australian publisher, proofreading and copy-editing submissions and putting in my two cents where I saw fit. As a result, I read a diverse range of books by new writers and I think what struck me most was the lack of understanding of how prose worked. That sounds like a bit of a generalisation, but what I mean is that many of the newbie writers were naïve in their sentence structure, their dialogue and their use of description. They would often over-write descriptions of action while at the same time leave no room for subtlety in the way characters interacted. Dialogue would be littered with descriptions of people nodding, looking away, widening their eyes but the dialogue itself would be undramatic and flat. There was also, often, a tendency to the didactic, to want to explain to the reader instead of letting her draw her own conclusions from the actions of the characters. It was obvious that most of these new writers had an idea of what ‘writing’ was but either hadn’t been doing it long enough to develop or hadn’t read enough—or deeply enough—to understand how to create the effects they wanted.
So my advice would be for readers new to the craft to really study the books they like—look at what description does, why it’s there; to see how little of a good novel is actually the author telling you something; to understand how the author puts you inside the head of her or his characters—what are the tricks, the techniques that are used? I thought about this so much I eventually started writing my own blog about what I saw other crime writers doing. It was interesting to me to examine in-depth their techniques and I’ve learned a lot from doing that.
Q: How would you advise new authors to get their work in front of readers?
A: I wouldn’t say I’m exactly the right person to answer this! I’ve been self-publishing since about 2008 so I’ve tried all the usual outlets—social media, website, blog, newsletter, begging on the street … I guess these days for me it seems that ebooks are the way forward. As such, I would always recommend having Kindle and epub versions of your books available and published through Amazon and other distributors, such as Draft2Digital or Smashwords. I also make paperbacks available too, though I sell practically none. It used to be, about three or four years ago, that you could spend a little money and advertise through Pixel of Ink and Kindle Nation Daily and ENT and do well on downloads as a result. That’s harder now and Bookbub seems to be the market leader, though it’s horrendously expensive for my genre of crime/thriller.
One thing I have found to work is to enter competitions. Usually you have to pay a fee, which is fair enough as it pays for the prize, and usually you’ll get a review out of it—assuming you win or place, of course. And the good thing is you’ll get a badge or something to use on your book cover or website.
The other kids on the block are Facebook advertising and Twitter. I tried the first using Mark Dawson’s system, and while it worked for building my email list, I couldn’t sell a book through the adverts. I’ll probably have another go when I have the time. As for Twitter, I don’t know … I’ve spent a lot of time and effort increasing my followership but I have no idea whether it’s sold any books. I have a friend who’s pretty senior in one of the big 5 publishers in the social media arena and he says they’re all concentrating on Twitter and Instagram now, so maybe I should carry on.
Q: You are an active member on Social Media groups, what would you say are the main benefits of being a part of associations and groups such as ALLi / FB writers groups?
A: I would say the Alliance of Independent Authors is definitely a good thing—it’s a very active organisation that’s involved at a high level in the world of publishing, while at the same time having a great (private) Facebook group where you can get advice on all kinds of stuff, from copyright law to good cover designers to where the best local independent bookshop is. There’s a fee but it’s worth it to feel like you’re part of an international body of independent writers and service providers.
Apart from ALLi I’m a member of many book promo sites, which I never visit until I have something to push … and also a couple like the One Stop Fiction Authors Resource Group and Tom Winton Helping Authors. I go to these for the same reason you might go to a club of some kind—to be with kindred souls who understand what you’re up to and can offer support or advice. I’m always amazed how supportive writers are of each other and I wish I could be more active. That’s the problem with being an indie, isn’t it? Your working life is spent writing, editing, researching online … it’s then hard to go to a site and be a full participant when what you want is just to veg out!
Q: About your writing, which authors / or their works do you feel have had the greatest influence on you?
A: Initially, it was the great American authors—Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, dos Passos. Latterly it’s been the great American crime authors—Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, Elmore Leonard. While I admire Chandler and Hammett their styles are inimitable and are based on their personality, whereas I’ve learned a lot about pacing and the use of dialogue from those first three, together with others such as James Lee Burke and Patricia Highsmith. I should also add in Graham Greene for his use of metaphor and simile, which can often be startling and true at the same time.
Q: Which work would you recommend new authors/self-publishing authors to read?
A: Hard to choose from the extensive list of books I’ve cribbed from … I think Sol Stein’s books on Solutions for Writers and Solutions for Editors are excellent and get down to the nitty-gritty in a way that few others do. I also liked Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. More recently I’ve begun to realise the importance of structure in writing novels, so a straightforward book like Amy Deardon’s The Story Template is handy to help you both understand how structure works and also to put one together.
Q: There have been many discussion on the pros and cons of writing a novel by the Outlining / Pantsing / Snowflake methods. Which method works for you, have you tried other methods or do you always stick to the same one?
A: When I came back to writing about fifteen years ago (I’d written a lot in my teens and early twenties) I had a plan, which was this: have an idea for the beginning, for the middle and the end. Then write ‘away’ from the beginning to the middle and ‘away’ from the middle towards the end. Then stop. The trouble was, it was taking me ages to get anywhere. My first book in the Sam Dyke series took 7 years, the second 4. Then I began to read more and discovered that structure wasn’t just about having these three elements in place, but understanding the development of your story and your characters, as well as knowing what readers expected from their reading experience.
Since then I’ve been a confirmed plotter, using mind-mapping to elaborate on the very first ideas and come up with some incidents and characters, then using a kind of template to work on developing the story to include those elements that readers look for … the protagonist’s normal world, his or her inducement into a new world, meeting new characters, discovering what he or she wants and who is going to help, learning who the antagonist is and what he or she wants … etc. Thinking about these elements beforehand means I spend far less time staring into space wondering what happens next because I’ve already worked out the next step.
Funnily enough, I’ve found this a bit harder to do with my current work in progress. It’s not part of my existing series so I’ve had to work a bit harder at establishing the location and the main characters, and I found that after the initial thinking and planning I wanted to start right in. So I wrote three chapters quite quickly before realising I needed to do more planning. So I’ve now planned out 90% of the book but I’m comfortable that I’ll be able to work on the remaining 10% when I need to. I couldn’t go back to being a complete Pantser again—it’s too hard! I need the security of knowing when I sit down in front of the computer that the hard work has been done and I can concentrate on making the scene work.
Q: Do you have multiple novels in progress at any one time or do you work on one till it’s finished?
A: No, my small brain only permits me to work on one thing at a time. Because I write very linearly I couldn’t hop about from one book to another. I can’t even jump from one scene to another in a current book unless it’s in sequence.
What are your preferred work tools (eg Scrivener / Word / Google docs)? How much of the process do you involve yourself with (eg formatting, cover input) and how much do you outsource?
I used to use Word exclusively, then tried out a couple of writing programs like Writers Café and WriteItNow, which I used for a number of years. But then I bit the bullet and bought Scrivener and haven’t looked back. For me, it’s the best tool to help you organise all your research in one place, and then output your book in whatever format you like.
Because I worked in an advertising office for a while, and then in a consultancy with a design office, I made myself familiar with tools like Photoshop and with some basic design principles. So I tend to create my own covers and do my own layout. I also worked online for Lulu, the print-on-demand publisher, as a Help Desk person, so I’m aware of most of the issues around producing pdfs for print and so on. Plus, I’m mean and don’t want to pay anyone else to do stuff I can do—and quite like doing, too!
Q: What is your latest work in progress, where does your inspiration come from?
A: I’m currently about 12000 words into a book ‘torn from the headlines’, as they say. There was an amazing story in The Guardian newspaper a couple of years ago—about a con-woman who wove a fantastical story to extort thousands of pounds from her ‘fiance’ and his family. I don’t really want to say any more about it, but I thought the premise was too good to let go of, so I’ve abandoned my usual hero, Sam Dyke, in order to see where this story can take me. I’m also experimenting with a slightly different style. It’s in the third person, unlike the Sam Dyke books (with one exception), but I’m trying for a style that leads to a closer identification with the characters so that you move into their consciousness very easily and understand their mindset and thinking. It’s something I admire a lot in Elmore Leonard’s novels, so I’m using him as a model for how I construct the writing. It’s an interesting, if daunting, task!