Welcome to my Authors 40+ Series – sharing the stories of amazing authors who published their first book over the age of 40. The series features talented, experienced and inspirational writers who share their (often non-conventional!) writing and publishing journeys honestly and articulately. Next to feature, is Michael Knaggs!
1) What is the title and synopsis/premise of your first book and how old were you when you published it?
My first book’s title is Catalyst, and it is part one of a crime trilogy, series title Hotel St Kilda.
The main theme of Catalyst addresses a new approach to dealing with serial perpetrators of street violence. A national demand for justice reform is triggered by the execution of three brothers, leaders of a brutal gang on a tough East London estate – the ‘catalytic’ event of the book title. Their deaths liberate the estate in a news story which headlines in the national press and is exploited by the book’s central character, Tom Brown, a Member of Parliament whose constituency includes the estate in question. The story follows his crusade to implement a New Justice Regime which includes lifetime banishment for worst offenders. George Holland, a local campaigner, adds his voice to Tom’s crusade and embarks on a nationwide lecture tour to raise awareness and support for the changes.
A parallel thread of the story follows the hunt for the mysterious killer, led by Detective Chief Inspector David Gerrard and Detective Sergeant Jo Cotterell. When the person is finally tracked down and arrested, the street gang – free of the threat of further retribution – descends on the quiet village where George lives, armed and ready to kill.
Meanwhile, Tom’s party leader, Andrew Donald, is pursuing his own agenda …
The book also explores the family tensions raised by Tom’s uncompromising proposals, which alienate his wife, Maggie, and add to the conflict with his teenage daughter, Katey. As such, Catalyst is as much a family drama as a crime/political thriller.
I was sixty-nine when the first book was published after which the second, Heaven’s Door, and third, Lost Souls, followed within the next three years.
2) Tell me about writing the book e.g. where did the idea come from / how long did it take / what did you learn along the way?
The opening scene of the first book, Catalyst, is based on a short story I wrote when I was at Hull Grammar school in 1958! The event described is a chase – three bad guys after one good guy – and only when they trap him do they realise that they are the ones being targeted and lured to their death. It’s a scene most people love to read about – evil getting its just desserts – and the whole eleven-hundred page saga – the full trilogy – builds from this point. The story grew in my mind over a period of many years from the time I made up my mind to write it. This was probably as many as twenty years and as I approached retirement – and the opportunity – it crystallised into the finished article. The books contain many of my own views on law and justice, spoken through the characters.
It took me seven years to complete the manuscript for the first book and a further year to publish it, at which point I had the full saga all but complete.
What I learnt along the way was a lot about self-motivation. When you are working for a living, self-motivation is not an issue – you are a cog in a machine or a link in a chain and you have no choice about working whether you enjoy it or not. When you are doing something for personal satisfaction, it doesn’t really matter to anyone but yourself. If it gets too difficult, you can stop and nobody really cares. That’s when you learn a lot about yourself. I made it to the end, but there were times along the way when I was close to wishing I had never started!
3) Tell me about your publishing journey step by step – what happened once the book was finished?
Although I nurtured the dream when I first set out that someone would find my work so brilliant and original that I would get it traditionally published, I soon realised how difficult – in fact, how unlikely – that would be. The crime fiction genre is saturated with authors, books and manuscripts waiting to become books. Publishers do not accept manuscripts directly from writers, only from literary agents, all of whom are career literary agents, looking for career writers. I was sixty-eight years old when I submitted my first manuscript. I got some very positive feedback from the agents about the quality of the writing but they didn’t think that was enough for them to persuade a publisher to take it on. I got the same message from other agents. It was not a surprise – or too much of a disappointment – because by then I understood the publishing side a lot more and it helped knowing I was part of a large majority of new authors. The agent’s/publisher’s decision to ‘adopt’ an author is more about risk than quality, albeit with a quality threshold, of course.
So the obvious route was self-publishing which offers a multitude of service providers and is a potential minefield. There are so many horror stories about how new writers have been taken in by promises of riches by unscrupulous publishers who have told them their work is brilliant and their often exorbitant up-front costs will be quickly offset by sales. My choice of Matador – the self-publishing arm of Troubador – was based on independent reviews in writers’ journals and the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book. I have been entirely satisfied with their services and have built a good relationship with them over a five-year association. They were very upfront and honest about my prospects beforehand and made no promises except of their total support which has been excellent. They offer a menu of options ranging from just printing to full marketing support and all points in between.
4) Who or what has helped you the most in becoming a published author?
Without doubt the single biggest influence and greatest assistance came via the editorial critiques carried out by Gary Smailes of Bubblecow. His detailed feedback highlighted some key issues with style and continuity. Examples of this were over-use of back-story, a lack of person and location description, a surfeit of adverbs, and a tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ the reader what was going on. He emphasised the need to allow – in fact, require – the reader to think for themselves in order to become involved with the plot and the characters, rather than have everything explained to them down to the last detail. This, he felt, was particularly important with books of this genre which rely on mystery and surprise to succeed and satisfy.
The editorial critique I received for this first novel raised my game by several notches. It put me in control of my writing. I was working to a protocol – a set of rules – which gave a structure to everything I did from then on. It was undoubtedly a big step up for me as a writer.
It is worth mentioning that, in addition to the contracted editorial work, Mr Smailes was always happy to make time to discuss any general queries I had relating to my books.
My wife, Carol, is an artist and she produced the artwork for the book covers. Her specialities are pastoral watercolours and pet portraits so the subject matter is a little bit outside her comfort zone! Carol initially created the image for Catalyst primarily as a mock-up for them to start from, but they liked it so much they used it exactly as submitted. People certainly like the covers, and I think the publisher has enhanced the effect with the grainy lettering of the titles.
5) What are the main obstacles you faced / overcame when writing and publishing your book(s)?
Writing in retirement is different to writing as a career. I was writing to fulfil a lifelong ambition – it was more of an ego-trip than anything, the objective being to see my name, book title and cover design on a book just to prove I could do it. It has since gone further than that, but when I started, because I was not writing for a living, I did not feel the same pressure to succeed or worry about the time frame for completion.
I had the full story in my head from the start – from the beginning of the first book to the end of the third. So the biggest challenge came when I realised my story would not fit in to a single book – it is unlikely anyone is going to pick up a 1,100-page novel by an unknown author! So the choice was simple: change the story or be prepared to write more than one volume. It was an easy choice because the full story was important to me, so I had to round the first part into a stand-alone book, creating an ending whilst clearly indicating there was more to come.
By that time I had most of the story completed, so, after publishing Catalyst, volumes two and three of the trilogy followed more quickly after their own rounding processes.
In so far as publishing was concerned, I have dealt with that in detail in 3 above. The decision to self-publish, rather than to submit my work to more literary agents in the hope of getting accepted, was as much to do with timing as anything. I was sixty-eight with a further two books to follow and was keen to move forward. Along with the fact – see above – that it was highly unlikely I’d get accepted, anyway, I chose the self-publishing option very soon after completion of the first manuscript.
Having set off down that route, there were choices to be made about how far I went with the marketing package. Whilst my initial motivation had been to see a book with my name on it, having got so far – and being very pleased with the result and the comments of both the editor and agents – I decided to take it as far as I could within realistic cost parameters. I feel that subsequent sales have justified that decision.
6) How do you promote/advertise your book(s)?
As with most self-published authors, once you have been through the initial mail-out to the trade and to bookshops and journals, which is essentially part of the publishing process, you are pretty much on your own unless you pay expensive media costs through a PA. Given the outlay to get this far, including the initial marketing support, the extra costs are a big risk given the likely low impact.
I mainly promote my work through personal book signing events at Waterstones and WHSmith, both of whom – and particularly the latter – are very willing to let me loose for the day to talk to customers in their stores. I advertise the events in advance through Facebook and Twitter and have established good contacts with local newspapers who are happy to advertise each event and also include articles about me from time to time.
I also do talks to various groups – book clubs, library groups, local U3A organisations, and, on one occasion, two groups of sixth form college students – which have been well received and help to ‘spread the word’.
7) How did you celebrate the incredible achievement of your first book being published?
I guess the answer to that is that I didn’t celebrate it! By the time it came out I was well on my way to completing the second book and, similarly, was working on the third when the second came out.
What I can say is that the achievement of such a long-term ambition made me extremely proud of myself. The first delivery of copies of Catalyst to me arrived on 7th December 2013, one month ahead of the official date of release, so I guess it must have added a new level to the usual Christmas celebrations!
8) What advice would you give to other authors about to begin their publishing journey?
My first piece of advice would be not to wait until you’re sixty-one before you set out on the journey! The hardest part – by a long way, and not surprisingly – is the writing. And what I found very soon was that authors do not sit around waiting for inspiration. It is important to put time aside and just write, even if you are not sure what you’re writing is exactly what you want to say. It is easier to amend an existing document than to address a blank page, so just get stuff down and be prepared to make changes to it afterwards, even to the extent of deleting it all and starting over. You’ve not wasted your time – you’ve eliminated one approach, which means you’ve narrowed the field. And always, get a professional critique of your work and a proof read before publishing.
Also, be realistic when you set your success criteria. If you aim to produce something which will sell one million-plus copies, you will almost certainly fail. A very small number of books are in that league, even the ones which are traditionally – as opposed to self–published. Check out the statistics on average book sales. You may be surprised and disappointed at what constitutes the average or median sales during a book’s lifetime, but at least it will help you set realistic goals.
Self publishing offers the opportunity for anyone to see their work in print, but beware the ‘cowboy’ publishers who are eager to collect your fees but lose interest once your book is in print. You should take time to research the market, particularly checking out reviews of the various providers.
9) Where is/are your book(s) currently available to read and where can people find you online?
My books are available from Waterstones, through Amazon and the usual on-line outlets. WHSmith do not list my books nationally but the stores where I have done book signings keep a stock for further sales. By going to my website – www.michaelknaggs.co.uk – you can get copies direct from the publisher or signed copies from me personally. In addition the books are all in eBook format. The website also has more information about me and the individual books.
10) Are you working on anything new we can look forward to in 2019?
I am working on a fourth book which is a sequel to the trilogy. This is mainly due to the number of people who, after reading the final instalment of the saga have told me I should carry on writing. So, I’m pleased to say, my next publication will be born of requests from readers. It’s a good feeling. The target date for publication is December 2019.
Thank you for taking part in my Authors 40+ Series Michael! If you are an author who published their first fiction or nonfiction book over the age of 40 and would like to be featured in this blog series just like Devorah, Paul, Joanne, Paul, D.P., Reyna, Michael and Christina, please get in touch!