Daniel Grant Newton is a kind, funny, inquisitive, and creative man and he has an impressive story. Not only did he recently quit his job to travel around the world but he also fulfilled his life-long ambition to write (and self publish) a novel. But it gets better than that. He published his first novel, The Last King of Shambhala in March 2012 and it has since been shortlisted as a semifinalist in the Kindle Book Reviews Best Indie Books of 2012. Now that's pretty impressive.
Knowing Daniel personally I knew that my readers would not only benefit from his insight into writing, but also gain insight into how he actually managed to achieve one of his life's ambitions and also the attitude and passion he funnels into his writing and his life in general. I hope his words can inspire others just as they did for me.
Writing a book is a long-term task and requires countless hours of dedicated effort. What made you want to go through this to write a book?
Thanks for inviting me to talk on your blog, Zac. To answer your question, I have always loved writing fiction from a very early age, and have started and stopped trying to write a novel ever since I was very young. It was never that I sat down and thought ‘I’d like to write a novel’, more that I got ideas and felt compelled to write – and dreamt that one of those ideas would become a novel and would be read by the world. I was no small time dreamer.
However, after years of having written the beginnings and middles of many novels, I made the definite decision to finish a book, and created different habits and strategies that would keep me on task. The real secret was that once I found a storyline and characters compelling enough for my ‘multi-focused’ brain, there was not much ‘motivation’ needed as the story pulled me back to working on it in any spare moment. Hopefully this will have the same effect on my readers.
What were the reactions of your friends/family when you told them you were writing and self-publishing a book?
My wife was always very supportive, and that was important for me. She was my biggest fan, just loving my story ideas from when we first met. As for the rest of my family, they knew I had always been writing, and were also supportive. But perhaps, knowing the magnitude of the task, they may have questioned whether I would finish it, I don’t know. I tended not to tell friends, and it was difficult to tell family, but usually once I did they were very supportive. Perhaps only other writers – jaded ones – were naysayers.
The thing that really raised eyebrows was when I decided to self-publish rather than go the traditional route. Almost everyone (bar my wife) thought that was the best way to not sell a book. I am starting to make independent publishing believers out of them now however.
Your story is a journey across multiple worlds and periods of time with many different characters. Where did you draw inspiration from for your novel?
I think when you are being creative you draw inspiration from all over the place. For me, I have a keen interest in different world mythologies, folklore, spirituality and religions, cults, lucid dreaming, astral travelling, psychic phenomena and cold reading, comedy, psychology, alternative histories and conspiracies, and even music… and so there were many ideas drawn from those subjects (or inspired by them) and interweaved into the multiple story arcs. I am also a fan of stories that are a little different (for example, the ‘Journey to the West’ TV adaption ‘Monkey Magic’, ‘Sanctuary’ and the British comedy the Mighty Boosh), or incorporate mythology (like ‘Stargate’, ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Thief of Bagdad’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’), and so my stories incorporate mythology and are a little different, I think.
I guess you tend to write what you like to read or watch.
What methods/tools did you use to ensure you kept writing, and kept progressing towards your goal, even through tough times (e.g. writers block, lack of motivation)?
There were many different strategies I used to keep motivation, but for me, I never got writer’s block. I think if you do however, perhaps just take the time to sit and daydream about your characters or story, read through your notes or what you have written, or take a little quiet break and come back to it. This will usually get the juices flowing again.
As for motivation, a quick way to get in the zone is to do the above, or watch something inspirational on YouTube. For example, if you are writing an action sequence, watch one from a movie on YouTube. It’s not to copy it, but to get you in the right head space. Another key thing I have learnt is to ensure your writing catches up
with your ideas. If you are no longer excited about what you are writing, or the ideas are no longer fresh and energising, inspiration will be difficult. You’ll be tempted to skip ahead to the next part, and it could eventually kill the motivation completely and you’ll be onto your next book. That said, sometimes you need to let the story simmer in your mind, and come back to it later.
You can use this time to research which is another great way to keep motivation. (I wrote about things I loved to research which made research fun and easy to do for a long time, and fun to incorporate in the story.)
I know that you were working full time whilst you were writing the book. How did you balance yourself between work and your writing?
Working full-time, with an active family and friend network, makes writing very hard. You need to fit it in around your schedule, and being productive and doing your best is nigh impossible, because you are – or at least I was – always tired.
As a result, I decided to have a solid schedule where no matter what, I’d sit in front of the computer and write. I tried early mornings and late nights, and both were difficult to get the energy required, and to be inspired because I put pressure on myself to get stuff done. Actually, the pressure to do an acceptable amount of words in a short time was the worst – very stifling. And if I didn’t get enough done each day I’d actually feel depressed.
The trick in the end for me was deciding to go down to working four days a week, and dedicate one full day to writing. In that time, my productivity each week increased phenomenally, and my happiness levels greatly increased. I had no pressure to write at odd hours, but interestingly, the times I decided to sit down at these times produced more than when I had simple set the time aside during the working week. I put a lot of that down to the lifting of pressure.
Describe how you felt in the moment when you finished the book, the moment you realised you had just achieved one of your biggest goals?
So very excited. I practically danced about the house like I was on drugs. But at the same time, a little sad that the journey had come to an end – I suspect I’ll feel this much more when the series is all over and I kill all the characters off … just kidding!
But I think there’s a funny thing about goals, even big ones, once you have accomplished them, it doesn’t take long before your focus turns to the next goal. For me, once it was done, like a madman, I turned my focus to my next book and began adding to the extensive ideas for the second book I had made during writing the first book.
This time I thought, it took me ‘x’ years to do my first book, but now that I know what I know, and know how to do it, I’m going to write my next book in a much shorter period of time.
What lessons have you learned about writing a book?
There are a lot of lessons I have learnt, and it could take another whole book to impart them all, but here’s a selection.
1) Write notes whenever you get ideas. Do NOT ever miss writing down a good idea that you cannot see fitting because it might become useful in the future. In addition to that, it is important to note that often great ideas come when you are occupied with other things like work or in the shower, but you’ll probably forget them if you don’t write them down at the next possible moment. From all my notes, I could have actually written countless variations for my book, all very different from each other. I chose the ideas I preferred.
2) Get to know your characters and fall in love with them. Talk to them in your head as if they are real people. The more you like them, the more the reader will.
3) Free your creativity. If any part of what you are writing is boring for you, it will probably be for your readers. I’d scrap that part and look for a better way to write it, or a better situation.
4) Start chapters with something that will draw you in, like intrigue or action or the anticipation of action. And finish every chapter with a cliff-hanger of some type.
5) Set your goals and a plan to achieve it. As a reader of Zac’s blog, you no doubt are aware that this is the only way to achieve anything worth achieving… well, almost anything.
What lessons have you learned about self publishing?
I am at the beginning of self-publishing, so I am very much still learning. There are a couple of points I can pass on.
Firstly, I never really considered publishing. For me and my artist brain, someone else owning the rights to my book, and doing what they want with it, turned me off. Or at least until I had proven the book and had a bit more control.
I have heard horror stories about the surprisingly low amount of sales many published books sell, and how after a few months with minimal promoting, if your book isn’t being sold magically (or with your unaided marketing sweat and tears paying off), it is no longer printed and you cannot print it until their contract runs out (in five to ten years). And from what I have heard, if you aren’t an established author or a celebrity (yet), YOU will be the one promoting your own book. So why bother? Especially since independent publishing is closing the gap traditional publishing once had.
A new traditionally published writer gets about 20c for a $15 hard copy book or so (I’ve heard, you might want to do your own research there), and perhaps less for an online copy. That is just not fair. Yes, they are taking on the risk, paying for services like printing and editing and graphic designers, and are running a business. But, bottom line, you wrote the book – and that intellectual property should have a much higher value.
If you self-publish online, you will get on average about $3 per $6 book sold – it varies depending on location and store (e.g. iBooks and Amazon). If you had a traditional book deal that gave you 30c per online book sold (and they’d no doubt make it harder to sell with a much higher price), you’d need to sell ten times more.
That mightn’t sound much, but if the self-published author sells ten books, the published author needs to sell one hundred books to get the same amount. If the self-published author sells one hundred books, the published author will need to sell one thousand to make the same amount. And so on.
I have not gone down the Print-on-Demand route yet, but from my initial research you can get about $5 or so for a hard copy book selling at $15 on Amazon (there are other companies too). That includes printing, packaging and mailing out – and has no risk as you are only charged when a book is bought. And they can produce as little as one book, so there are no storage fees.
On a side note, I once went to a writer and publishing house seminar, and the publishing houses cried poor about their dying industry. All the authors and inspiring authors in the room sympathised with them and talked down about the changing industry – and the end of the world.
But for me, this proved I was right about my thinking and decision to go independent. One – the changes benefit the writer and the readers. The readers benefit because publishing houses will only print stories that have a ‘proven market’, meaning the books you are buying sound like books you’ve already read. Independently published books can be just as good as published, but can take you on all sorts of journeys, not just a ‘revamped Twilight’.
And two – if the industry changes, you have to change with it – not complain. Some publishing houses have taken writers for granted before, but with the Internet and advances in technology, we writers can do it ourselves. It will take work, but do not be fooled, being a new published writer will take just as much promotion unfortunately. If publishing houses want to keep up, they need to improve their services.
So anyway, what was the question? … :)
Just kidding, but as you can see, when you ask me about self-publishing, there is a LOT to consider for a new author. The big thing to consider is you need to look into ways to promote your book, do them, and think outside the box.
Once you have reached a certain mass of readers in the right niche, providing your book is good, you can then focus on writing and your relationships with them. Why? Because your readers are your best marketers. They’ll spread the word for you.
How are the book sale figures in relation to your expectations?
At the moment, I am still starting out in promotion, so it is too early to judge. The great news is I am understanding who my target market is better, and are planning around how to put this book in front of those who’ll enjoy reading it.
Not everyone will be your ideal reader, but I’ve had great feedback from those in my target market, and I have already apparently inspired a few to begin their own novels – which is the biggest compliment you can get I think.
What will you do different next time?
Write more novellas (shorter novels) that are serialised. The more material you have out there, the more ‘touch points’ you have for new readers to find your work.
In my research of the industry, readers like reading shorter stories online as well as books of traditional length, especially if these shorter novels are 99c or free. By showcasing your imagination and style in these shorter books, even for free, helps develop your emerging fan base.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished a novella called Don’t Shoot the Messenger, which is about a team of soldiers who travel back in time to change the world by assassinating a key but unlikely historical figure. There are some – controversial, let’s say – twists in the plot that make this quite a fun story, but I’m keeping them under wraps at this point in time. Don’t Shoot the Messenger will be available in the coming month.
The other books I am working on are the sequel to The Last King of Shambhala (Akashic Records Series) called Mysteries of the Black Sun, a prequel novella to the same series called Tsinto and Atlantis, the other side of the Frosted Mirror, and a teenage sci-fi series yet to be named. After those are complete, I have a backlog of ideas that will make up more novellas, and then the final book in the Akashic Records Series.
So yes, very busy, but it is what makes me thrive!
What advice do you have for any budding first-time novelists (like me)?
I could write a book about tips, but here are three pieces of advice to get started.
1) Enjoy the entire process, if your story at any point seems like a task, rethink it, and take it in a little bit of a different direction. Not only will it be hard to write something uninspiring, your audience will no doubt find it uninspiring too!
2) Don’t procrastinate planning too much, just jump in there with the main thrust and shape it as you go. Too many people I talk to who want to write a book use ‘planning’ as an excuse to not start, fearing they won’t produce something any good. You will fix and enhance all your work in the rewriting and editing, but that can only be done once you have something to rewrite or edit.
3) Learn all you can about character development and plot creation, but don’t let it get in the way of your writing. I love learning about the best ways to tell my stories. I took subjects at university on creative writing, and I obsessively paw through books and the Internet for tips, and learning about your craft does make it better.
But creativity is a natural process, and you don’t need to comply with any tip or suggestion if it makes sense not to. (Perhaps the only general rule that applies to almost every good story is that there is a beginning, a conflict and a resolution, and at least one of your main characters will have changed as a result of that process.)
As a caveat on the above, don’t let anyone intimidate you and your work. Because there is this idea that being a novelist is highly competitive, it tends to breed desperate writers who are quick to put you down and make themselves sound amazing. If you haven’t done a writing course and haven’t read Dickens, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t got amazing stories to tell. And if you have, it doesn’t automatically mean you do.
So don’t take on board the words of a naysayer, and don’t be a naysayer yourself (it does more harm to you and your subconscious psyche that it does to theirs!).