Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is NJ Simmonds, writer of YA fantasy, romance, and historical stuff that she totally makes up. A tiresome feminist killjoy, she's really bad at sitting still or keeping quiet. Her first book, The Path Keeper, releases today!
Are you a Planner or Pantser?
I’m a Planner Plus – because I’m also a dreamer. I spend months and months thinking about my stories before putting fingers to keyboard, imagining them like a movie in my head. It’s not until I’ve ironed out every little detail and plot-hole that I plan it chapter by chapter, and then write. It means that I don’t have that dreaded messy first draft so many people battle through, filling in gaps and spotting plot issues.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
A lot less time now that I’m on a deadline for books two and three. My first book, The Path Keeper, took three years, but back then it was a hobby and I re-wrote it dozens of times. Book two took about nine months to final draft and the last in the series will have taken me about five months. Less I hope. I’m nearly at the end of the first draft. I did take just three months to write a YA contemporary once, but so far no publisher wants it – so maybe I should have taken more time with that one haha.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?
I’m a multi, multi, multi tasker. I am currently planning the launch of book 1, editing book 2, writing book 3, planning my next series, subbing my standalone novel, I have five half-baked book ideas in note form – oh, and a job and two kids! This may explain my tense shoulders and insomnia.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
No. Mainly because I was doing it for cathartic reasons. I had absolutely no expectations of anyone reading it or of taking it all the way to publishing. My two children were under three years of age when I started, and I was very exhausted, unhappy and unfulfilled. I started writing as a way to express myself and to escape, it became my savior.
How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?
None. But that’s because I knew nothing about the publishing industry or agents and someone I knew, who was a small-time agent, snapped up my first novel and offered to rep it. I was very nonchalant about it all and said ‘OK, let’s see if you get anyone interested in it, if not I’ll self-publish’. I had zero expectations. After a year of rejections, she folded her business anyway, so I was left unagented. At that point I should have started from scratch and got another agent – but instead one of the publishers showed interest, so I continued solo.
I always wonder whether, had I subbed to top agents from the start, whether my journey would have been different or if I would have trunked the first book after a few No’s.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
Oh lots, but in my mind they are just little buds that have been put on ice. When the time is right, I’ll tend to them properly and watch them bloom. Most are only 5-10k words in - nothing major, just a few chapters. The only reason I stopped was because I had publisher deadlines with the series so had to focus on that, or because other ideas came along that were more exciting.
My unfinished books are all YA contemporary. I plan to focus on fantasy for a bit longer so may revisit them at a later stage.
How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?
I’ve had a complicated route to publication, as The Path Keeper was first published by a small UK publisher who dropped YA after a few months – so I had to find the series a new home after being out just four months.
When the first edition hit the shops back in 2017, the entire experience was overwhelmingly surreal. I was in a London Waterstones, my book all over the shop, and a queue of people waiting to have it signed. I couldn’t believe it was my life – especially when it was beside other YA greats such as The Hate U Give and Caraval!
How much input do you have on cover art?
The first time around, with my first publisher, it was quite a lot. I filled in a form, hated their first attempt, and they basically did what I asked and I loved it. Now that I’m with a new publisher, and the book is hitting the USA and the rest of the world, I’m very very nervous. My background is in branding and marketing, so covers are so important to me – in fact a lot of the negotiations before I signed with my new publishers was about positioning, to ensure that they saw the future of the series the same way I did. They’ve been amazing, listening to my ideas, research and suggestions…so we’ll see. I’ll be seeing the cover soon. It should be beautiful, it has to be, we are definitely on the same page.
What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?
I’ve learned so much the hard way. Having been signed by an agent in 2015, then losing her, then signed to a publisher in 2016, published 2017, then leaving that publisher and not getting a new one for nine months (unagented) has been a really steep learning curve.
Even though my series is finally getting the attention it deserved first time around, I have definitely been subjected to all the highs and lows. My biggest lesson has been that authors are expected to do a huge amount of self-promotion, and you earn very very little to begin with. I wasn’t prepared for either. I was also shocked by the fact that it’s not that easy to get into a bookshop, so don’t think just because you’re signed that your book will be in the Barnes & Noble store window. It probably won’t be.
How much of your own marketing do you?
A huge amount. Marketing is my day job, so I have a website, a blog (although it’s not as active as I’d like it to be), Twitter, Instagram, a Facebook page and a number of groups. I’m regularly guest appearing on book club groups and other people’s blogs too, plus when the first edition of The Path Keeper came out I managed all my own PR so organized TV, radio, press and events myself across four countries.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
As I mentioned before, I knew nothing about writing and wasn’t even on Twitter when I began the book. Had I set out to be a published writer from the onset, and what I tell people, is start building your platform NOW. Start a Twitter account and blog and document your journey. People buy people. I can’t tell you how many books I have bought because I like the person on Twitter, and they finally got published. So do it pre-agent – you’d be surprised how many agents are on there watching too.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
100%. But then I lecture on corporate storytelling and self-branding as part of my job – so I’d be crazy to say otherwise.
What social media ISN’T is a sales platform. It’s there to build your brand, connect and interact. It is not successful when all you do is sell yourself on there. No one likes that. Is there a correlation between sales and followers? No. But it IS great brand exposure/PR and it will encourage people to take you seriously, and remember you/give you a chance when they’re in a book shop.