Monday, 3 January 2011

Wild West eMonday - Making Waves: Chris Scott Wilson

Born as far away from the Wild West as possible, Chris Scott Wilson’s background is in historical fiction and he brings his eye for history to his westerns. He is the author of more than ten books and spends as much time as possible on his boat going up and down the Yorkshire Coast with his wife Susan.

Chris published his first western with the Black Horse Imprint and was an early adopter of eBooks. The Archive caught up with the busy author for a question answer session.

Find Chris's website HERE

TA: What started you writing in the first place? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

CSW: I was originally a musician, I started off playing guitar then switched to drums, but nowadays still play the guitar badly. I used to write songs when I was in bands and when I stopped performing at the age of about 25 I still needed a creative outlet. I started to write short stories, not realising they are a specialised art form. I'd read a lot of books but knew nothing about the actual craft, then I heard about a writers' group in Middlesbrough. I'd started a full-length book about - guess what - being in a rock 'n' roll band, but someone at the writers' group read a short western story I'd written for fun, remarking there was a good market for westerns. I hadn't ever considered that, but on reflection, it occurred to me what a challenge that would be, to try and develop a full length story and for it to be authentic enough that people didn't realise it was written by an Englishman. I didn't know then J.T. Edson & George Gilman (the Edge books) were British. We didn't have the internet then to research everything. 
    What I did was cover all the ground I had in the short story, fleshing it out, then took it further and it became The Quantro Story. I enjoyed writing it immensely, and by the time I had finished, I had been made aware I needed an agent. In those days The Writers & Artists Yearbook was the creatives' bible. Being somewhat contrary, I figured most writers would start at the beginning of the agents' listings, so instead, I started at the end and worked forward. By the time I'd got back to the Vs I'd got one.
    I signed the contract for The Quantro Story on the day Elvis Presley died. To be honest, I thought Hale accepting it was a fluke. So I wrote another, Double Mountain Crossing, which they accepted too, but that's a whole other story.

TA: As well as westerns you’ve written historical fiction. Do you approach you westerns and more mainstream historical work in the same way?

CSS: There's a Yorkshire saying - If a job's worth doing, then it's worth doing well. Everything I write, I try to make it the best I can. They say a successful story suspends the disbelief of the reader. Before starting I always think I haven't got enough information. There might be something I don't know on the next page. In the next book. On the next website. Wherever or whatever I'm writing about, I do as much research as I can, hope as much sinks in by osmosis as possible, and constantly refer to the rest as I'm going along. The idea is to garnish the story with enough information to appear authoritative, but without putting in so much it becomes stodgy. Research is very interesting, although distracting sometimes. It throws up ideas and can change the whole direction of where you were originally heading.

TA: The days of all kinds of genre fiction appearing in bookshops are long gone but in many ways with the eBook revolution we have a return to this situation. Do you see eBooks as important to the survival of the genre writer?

CSS: From a writer's point of view, eBooks are brilliant. I could write you a bullet point list on why. But let's confine this to westerns. You write a western. Who're you going to approach? The paperback publishers aren't interested, and let's face it, that's where you want to be. They see westerns like the music companies see the blues, a niche market. They have to chase big bucks in order to survive. Even as far back as 1980 none were interested. Which leaves what? Basically library editions which are short print runs. Hale has been doing this a long time and know what they're doing, but as a western writer looking for a publisher that's just about the only choice you've got. 
    But that was then - this is now. Now you've got eBooks. With little investment, your book can now be sold from a virtual storefront. It can be put up on an American site and someone in the UK or Italy or South Africa can buy it from there too, and have it within seconds. No shipping costs and their credit card will do the currency conversion to bill them etc. 
    On the Black Horse message board a point was made about the number of Youtube viewings old TV western series' clips get. I checked. It's true. This proves plenty of people like westerns. The big challenge now is finding an effective way of connecting with those thousands and thousands of western fans out there and marketing eBooks directly to them. Amazon currently have the Kindle on heavy rotation advertising on TV. If they persist, the eBook reader will become as accepted as an iPod. Carry your library with you. Read from it anywhere. And from the writers' point of view:  Once you're on eBook, you will never be out of print again. Always available. To the discerning purchaser, of course.

TA: And yet many writers seem afraid of eBooks and are reluctant to embrace the new technology. I suppose if there is a downside to the eBook revolution it is that it will make self publishing so easy that it will be hard for quality to stand out in a crowded market. What can writers do to ensure their work stands out in the digital market?

CSS: The problems of standing out from the crowd are no different in eBook than when you had a regular publisher who promoted (or didn't promote) your books. They were bound by a budget, whether you liked it or not. And they probably knew what would get results, and what wouldn't, because they'd tried it all before, so they didn't waste money pursuing expensive dead ends. You might think your book is going to stop the world, but they know it's not. If you disagreed with what they did, you could always buy a full-page ad in the Times to promote your work. You'd never get the money back, of course, but wouldn't you learn a lesson?
        I was once stumped when my agent couldn't shift an MS I'd written.  There seemed no point in writing another book along the same lines it if there were no takers for the first. I asked him what I should write. He laughed. "If I knew that," he said, "we'd all be millionaires."
The punchline. That is the crux. I don't have the answer to your question. And I don't think there is a magic answer. I'm not being secretive, or awkward. But I will tell you the publishers don't know either. Why do you think they're asking the writers to do their own promo nowadays? I've even seen publishers asking for a marketing plan before they even consider looking at the MS. You would think, wouldn't you, that promotion & selling & marketing were specialised fields? Which should be kept in-house. Why should a publisher expect an author to have those skills? Turn it around. Would you expect a marketing man to have adequate authoring skills to write a decent book? (I mean one that wasn't about marketing). I don't think it's wrong to ask the author if they have any ideas, as most writers have experience in other fields, but I think it's wrong to drop the whole yoke of marketing on the author's shoulders. The bottom line is it's all so new, nobody knows what they're doing. It's all trial and error. If you find out how to market eBooks effectively, please let me know.

TA: Other than the above points do you see a downside to eBooks?

CSS: I remember a screenwriter remarking once a screenwriter's fame is written on the wind, i.e., there is nothing tanglible, only that line of credit up there on the movie screen. Personally, because my western series is being reissued in eBook, this means I already have "real" books on my shelves, if I want concrete proof they exist! When you start writing, it's only when you hold the finished book, actually printed and bound, in your hot little hands that you believe you're a "real writer". Ask me again how I feel about it when I have an original project published in eBook. Of course, if we had both eBook and POD, that would be having our cake and eating it!!

TA: Personally I read more books on my eReader than physical books these days. What eReader do you use?

CSS: I have a Kindle on order from Amazon which is probably stuck in a snowdrift somewhere as I write. It's my Christmas present to myself. At the moment I've downloaded the Kindle reader so I can read eBooks on my VDU.  I've just read some interesting figures from a Forum discussion, and I quote:
"A Forrester survey of e-book readers found that 35 percent read e-books on a laptop computer, 32 percent on Amazon's Kindle, 15 percent on Apple's iPhone, 12 percent on a Sony e-reader and 10 percent on a netbook computer."
I don't know who Forrester is, but one wonders at the maths of this. Seems
to add up to more than 100% to me!!

TA: Five years down the road how much of the market will eBooks have?

CSS: Probably most of it. I think when readers grow used to seeing, handling and reading in a different way, very much the same as iPods and music, where CDs have become perceived as clunky music carriers, so will paper books. If they still want to maintain a high street retail environment, the publishing industry /booksellers need to step up development of in-store POD machines so if a customer wants an actual HB/PB book they can have one. There'll be a price of course, but book prices are inflated artificially anyway, so you'd probably have to pay what you're paying now, unless some enterprising soul manages to convince you that POD is a quality product and is worth more. And don't think they won't try.

TA: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

CSS: I could tell you it's all going to be great. That would be a waste of time. It's also a lie. I'm going to tell you the truth. Why? Because most other people won't. Except maybe an agent or a publisher. Not your friends. Not your family. They are going to be supportive (unless you've got particularly vicious friends!) That is their function; to be your support group. Bear that in mind when you flex those fingers and sit down at the keyboard. I'll tell what a very well known writer told me. Great writers do not sping from the ground fully formed. Write, write, write some more, then when you think you've written enough, write some more. When you think it's good, it probably isn't. When your friends and family tell you it's good, it probably isn't. When you believe you've stretched yourself, you'll think it's good. It probably won't be. Even when that agent or a publisher tells you it's not very good, they'll be tactful about it. "Our lists are full" or "Not for us, but we wish you the best of luck elsewhere." There's a reason. Later on, if you ever get rich and famous, that agent might just want to work for you and that publisher may just need you to keep him solvent, and it is well known writers have memories like elephants and can be very vindictive toward those who have slighted them in the past... So, you need to be hard on yourself. Criticise everything you write. Only the ten commandments were carved in stone. Everything else can be improved. (And Hollywood probably improved the Ten Commandments). Read as much as you can. Try and analyse it. What did the writer do that made it work? How did he/she say that in only a few words? How did they give you a clear image? Why did you start reading the next chapter instead of going up to bed? What was their technique? You need to fathom these things out yourself. It will make you a better writer. I could tell you these things, but it took me a long time to work them out myself, and I'm still working on it, and besides, remember, knowledge is power...

TA: So what is your own writing routine?

CSS: I tend to write from about 11.00pm to 1.00am. I keep what a friend of mine calls musicians' hours. I'm not a morning person. Also, there tend to be less demands on my time late in the evening. The phone doesn't ring, etc. If I'm writing non-fiction, putting material together, at a push I can start and stop, but if I'm writing fiction and I'm in the flow I hate interruptions. An opening door, a foot on the stair, and that idea that is going to come to fruition three sentences ahead of where I'm writing evaporates. After all these years I've found after about two hours of creating fiction I'm exhausted. Maybe 1500 words. The following day I re-read it, correct it, rewrite the clumsy bits, clarify the cloudy bits, and that has generally got me back into the current again to start swimming. There are various kick-start techniques, but here isn't the place go into them.

TA: Tell us a little about your non western books.

CSS: One year I wrote two westerns for Hale, but needed to find another genre because paperback publishers wouldn't look at westerns. Being realistic, I knew where my writing strengths lay just as clearly as my weaknesses. Westerns are historical fiction to me, so I decided I should pick another period, in Europe, maybe Napoleonic. Gives plenty of options. French Revolution, armies (I'd been to Waterloo battlefield and left impressed by the little general's achievements), His Britannic Majesty's Navy (Nelson et al) and in the UK... the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (iron & steel, railways, Empire building etc), and smuggling...
    There was a famous smuggler in this area and I went to the library to research (no internet then). I was skimming local history books, and noticed schoolchildren given projects kept asking the librarian for material on our town. There was very little. So I started gathering it. Everything I could find, then checking and stitching it together, one source leading to another, many of them primary. It is extremely interesting, all society and developments therein are interlocking which build up a fabric. One thing affects another. Booms, recessions etc. Even more interesting is information which leads in other directions. I came across an account of the local militia being turned out at Whitby in 1779 because John Paul Jones' ship had been sighted sailing down the east coast. I knew nothing about Jones - I thought he was Led Zeppelin's bass player - but on investigation found the subject of my first non-western historical book which became Scarborough Fair about Jones becoming America's first naval hero. That's how it works sometimes. It was the last thing on my mind.

TA: Finally future projects?

CSS: One should always have a future project up one's sleeve. Or three or four, and yes, I have. An unpublished western which is probably the best western I ever wrote. And a few other currently unpublished MSs. I've always tried to vary my output. It keeps me interested. Just because I write westerns doesn't have to mean I only write westerns, does it?

The Tainted Archive thanks Chris for his time and if anyone fancies trying one of his eBooks we can promise a great read. Find a list of Chris's eBooks HERE


David Cranmer said...

Thank you both for this interview.

Unknown said...

Lots of sound observations here. The Whitby, Yorkshire, maritime and historical-fiction links put me in mind of Bill Spence who wrote a swag of westerns for Hale before progressing to greater prominence as "Jessica Blair".

Mike Eastwood said...

I have known Chris for approx. three years now. We met through our boating passion. I have read his book 'Scarborough Fair' and was immediately captured by the way he writes. I am currently reading 'Double Mountain' and finding the same with this book. I need a book that captures me in the first few pages and these do it.
The interview was very interesting, I have often wondered what makes a writer tick and this answers a lot of my questions.