Welcome to the eightieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with drama / theatre and short story author Gary Dooley. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Gary. I know some of this already as we go to the same writing group but please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Gary: Falls at the first hurdle.
Morgen: Oh dear.
Gary: I always dread being asked this question because I find it difficult to put my background into a simple narrative.
Morgen: Sorry about that.
Gary: On my CV I try to sell the idea of having ‘diverse experience’ – actually this is a euphemism for ‘largely random employment’. In a nutshell, I was born and raised in Staffordshire. I trained as a psychologist then moved into biotechnology research. I spent most of my research career in Australia and the USA before moving back to the UK about ten years ago. My academic research paid most of the bills, but I always lead a bit of a double life moonlighting in the theatre as an actor, director and lately as a playwright. It’s only relatively recently that I decided to take the aspects of the ‘day job’ that I most enjoyed – the teaching and the writing – and marry them with my passion for the theatre. I still do some consulting and teaching but spend most of my time nowadays writing about, and for, theatre. I set up my own small publishing umbrella – iPSO FACTO publications – to produce all my work.
Morgen: And I’ve seen one; it’s very attractive. Why did you opt to go down the self-publishing route?
Gary: I’ve always loved books and I was fascinated with the whole process of book production, not just the writing. I wanted to get involved with the design, the typesetting, the marketing – all of it. My experience of having some of my academic work published was that, as an author, you rarely have any control or even input into these aspects.
Morgen: That’s why I’ve decided to go direct editor / eBook route. My brother will probably tell you that I’m a bit of a control freak.
Gary: Also, I didn’t want to put all my energies into courting publishers as many new authors seem to do.
Morgen: And usually… I was going to say “failing” but I don’t like that word so I’ll say “being unsuccessful”, although I’m not sure if that sounds much better. Sorry, you were saying…
Gary: So I started to look at self-publishing and discovered that it offered an interesting alternative to conventional publishing. Gone are the days when self-publishing was synonymous with vanity publishing, it is now a thriving industry. If you decide to go it alone like I did, it’s hard work and can be very frustrating but ultimately it can be rewarding as well. Things are definitely changing in the publishing world and now there are options for writers other than selling your soul to get a contract with one of the big publishers.
Morgen: Indeed – and they know it. Are you involved in all aspects of producing your books?
I do the typesetting, book design, marketing and all the graphic design work. The only part of the process that I outsource is proofreading, I don’t think you can ever proofread your own work.
Morgen: I agree, which is where my editor comes in very handy. We email most of the time and meet up every now and then although we tend to natter about other things then. I’d like to pick your brains about the graphic design side… anyway, back to the interview.
Gary: The printing is done by Lightning Source, a print-on-demand company. Unlike some other similar companies, they are not a publisher, they just produce the books to your specifications as a publisher. Sales have been handled mostly through online retailers like amazon. So far this model has worked well for me.
Morgen: And it’s what I plan to do, although probably just eBooks rather than print versions for now. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Gary: Drama – plays and non-fiction works about theatre and theatre history. I’m trying to move more into creative writing – I hate that phrase because I consider all writing to be creative – certainly more plays and I’d love to have a go at short stories sometime.
Morgen: Yay, do. They’re great. I started with short stories then went on to novels (which I’m either trimming to be novellas or cherry picking for anthologies) but have come full circle… back to my first love. What have you had published to-date?
Gary: My first publications under iPSO FACTO have been a couple of books for drama students to encourage engagement with classical theatre texts – ‘Monologue 1M’ for boys and ‘Monologue 1F’ for girls – available through all good bookstores and online retailers. Shameless plug.
Morgen: That’s OK – you’re here so people can get to you know you but also your writing.
Gary: I’ve written a number of plays but haven’t published any of them yet. They range from very short works (I think my shortest had only eight words of dialogue) to full length dramas and comedies.
Morgen: Eight words? Two words over an Ernest Hemingway story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Gary: I have to say that this is the part of the whole process that I enjoy the least, it’s also the part at which I’m frankly lousy. I’m trying to get better at it, but promoting my own work always makes me feel very self conscious. I wish I was one of those people who can stand up and say ‘look, I’ve done this and it’s really good’…
Morgen: I’ve found that it’s the worst thing you can do. If you want to get de-followed on Twitter then spend most of your time touting. Those that do also get shouted down on the LinkedIn forums I belong to (and probably elsewhere).
Gary: …but when I talk about my work, I tend to start by apologising for its shortcomings rather than praising its virtues. However, it absolutely has to be done, so I’m making a positive effort at the moment to get out there, tell people about my work, get it covered in the media and advertised online etc. I’ll do it because I have to but I don’t think I’ll ever truly enjoy marketing.
Morgen: I’m no sales person either but have to be realistic that I will have to start letting people know that I have eBooks out there when they’re ready but I will endeavour to stick to the 90% chat / useful info etc. vs 10% ‘pick me’. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Gary: In the past I’ve tended to avoid competitions because I find it difficult to think of any artistic endeavour as a competitive activity. However, I think that the publicity and exposure that comes along with winning some of these competitions can be very valuable, often much more valuable to the writer than any monetary prizes on offer. In the drama field, many of the competitions now offer production or readings as the main prizes and this can be a fantastic opportunity for the aspiring playwright. Remember that most authors only want to see their work in print, the ultimate goal for the playwright is to see their work on stage. With that in mind, I have started to enter some of my plays into competitions for the first time this year – I’ll let you know if it leads to anything.
Morgen: Yay! Please do. Always love an opportunity to say “yay”. Competitions successes (wins or shortlists) do enhance a CV as it’s a confirmation by those in the industry that you’re doing something write. I was told off by an agent recently for having too much on my cover letter… but then I’m involved in so many things that I didn’t think it would do any harm but I guess I just need to summarise rather than divulge. I’d not considered that they’re more interested in the writing than me. Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Gary: Nope – but some years ago I started to include my middle initial to distinguish myself from another ‘Gary Dooley’ in the theatre business. Nowadays I can never quite decide whether to include it or not.
Morgen: Many American actors go for middle initials so it could be seen as very cosmopolitan. As you’re both in the same business it may help. It’s funny as it’s not a particularly common name (not that I’ve heard anyway). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Gary: No, I can see the advantages for some people, but it wouldn’t fit with the way I work at the moment, it’s really horses for courses.
Morgen: There really is mixed feelings over them at the moment but I dare say that if an agent approached them they’d not say “no”. So, being self-published, are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Gary: I made all my recent publications available as eBooks as well as conventional books. eBooks are relatively easy to set up and it wasn’t much more work to make them available in that format. Of course, the big advantage of eBooks from an author’s point of view is that production costs are pretty much zero once the book is set up, so there is a much higher profit margin on each sale.
Morgen: Another tick in the eBook’s favour.
Gary: To date, only a small percentage of my sales have been eBooks;
Morgen: That’s really interesting.
Gary: I’m sure that this is partially due to the way that I am (under) marketing them.
Morgen: Ah, OK. I may need to pull my sales head on firmer than I thought then.
Gary: Some people love eBooks and I think it makes sense to offer your work in whatever format the consumer prefers; personally … and here’s a confession … I’ve never read an eBook, I much prefer a real live book.
Morgen: Many people do. I’m still a paperback reader although I have an eReader so that comes with me when I go away (very rarely so I’ve only had to charge it twice!). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Gary: I’m working on a teacher’s volume to accompany the two monologue books and I’m exploring the possibilities of some books aimed at getting very young children to engage with Shakespeare. With my dramatist’s hat on, I’m in the middle of a play about the ‘Golden Age’ detective writers, a murder mystery featuring Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton etc. I’m enjoying the challenge of using ‘real people’ as characters and I’ve developed a whole new respect for authors who can plot a good murder mystery – it’s tough!
Morgen: Tell me about it. I’ve not really dabbled in crime but having been told (by an agent at Winchester) that I should I’m seriously considering it. I’m not unintelligent but I think you do have to be very clever to write crime… and accurate. Errors will always be picked up on. You do seem very focussed, do you manage to write every day?
Gary: I try to write something every day, even if it’s only a sentence or two.
Morgen: That makes me feel better as I don’t often write other than my fortnightly writing workshop group (and projects like http://nanowrimo.org and http://storyaday.org) but I’m constantly scribbling – every dog-walking jacket has a notepad in it). What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Gary: There are good days and bad days. A good day is a day when I write more than I delete. My advice would be that if you have one of those days when you just can’t seem to get a word down on paper, don’t be a martyr to it – go and do something else, something fun, live a little – who knows, you may just end up doing something that will inspire you to write about it.
Morgen: Absolutely. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Gary: With my plays, I do like to start out with a plot and a basic set of characters in mind but when it really works they take on a life of their own and often take the piece in unexpected directions. I like a framework, but I think that there’s a danger that over-plotting can end up limiting the possibilities.
Morgen: I agree. I’d be surprised if any author’s work has stuck exactly to their plot outline. I plotted my first novel and it vaguely followed but went in so many directions that it didn’t get as far as I had planned and by the time I’d written the first draft (53,000 words for http://nanowrimo.org November 2008) that it was right not to as it would have changed the story, and the main character, too much. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Gary: I’m always editing and tweaking, for me re-writing is probably as important as writing. The real art is in knowing when to let go and admit to yourself that a work is finished. I liken it to an artist painting a picture, when do you know that a certain brush stroke should be the last one?
Morgen: But they probably want to keep going too. I tend to do three or four edits and call it a day. I have a relatively low boredom threshold (can’t remember the last time I was bored actually, always too busy) which is probably why I tend to read anthologies rather than novels (unless it’s a gripping novel!). What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Gary: I’m not sure I have anything as formal as a creative process but I do find that ideas take a long time to gestate. Sometimes the seed of an idea will be around for months, or even years, before it blossoms into a writing project.
Morgen: Wow. See aforementioned reference to low boredom threshold. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Gary: Nowadays a computer most of the time, though I still use old fashioned notebooks for ideas. I’ve just re-discovered the joys of writing with an ink pen and I’m convinced that it improves my thinking as well as my writing – well, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
Morgen: And I think you should. I can’t write with a pencil… well, obviously I can, but I don’t like to. For some writers it’s their weapon of choice but for me I think it’s the fear of it being rubbed out too easily. What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Gary: None. I love music but find it impossible to have anything on in the background when I’m writing.
Morgen: I’m surprised by how many people have said that. I can’t have words while I’m creating words but I like classical, generally. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Gary: This isn’t really an issue for a playwright, it’s first person all the way. A more pertinent issue for the playwright is exposition, whereas the prose author can tell you in the third person whatever they choose about a character or situation, the playwright must find a way of revealing everything through the way characters speak – it’s a real challenge.
Morgen: It is. I’ve dabbled (a one-act five-minute play and the first 100 pages of a script for NaNoWriMo’s sister organisation http://scriptfrenzy.org in April 2010). Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Gary: Coincidentally, I’ve just finished a play – a reworking of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ set in a care home – the first one for which I have ever written a prologue and epilogue.
Morgen: Oh wow. That sounds fun. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Gary: A drawer full.
Morgen: Oh dear. Having said that, mine’s a file full. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Gary: Favourite: the creative freedom – that sounds pompous, but it translates roughly as the opportunity to have a cup of tea whenever I feel like it. Least Favourite: the need to market myself – self promotion sends a shiver down my spine.
Morgen: Yep. Snap. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Gary: That I can actually do it and that some people actually seem to like reading it.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Gary: I’m not sure I’d be presumptuous enough to offer advice, I’m still on a steep learning curve myself. If I’ve learned anything it’s that you have to keep moving forwards, take the knockbacks, learn what you can from them and move on.
Morgen: Absolutely. I’d say that five years down the line. What do you like to read?
Gary: Anything and everything.
Morgen: Short and simple. I know the answer to the first part but I’ll ask anyway… in which country are you based, Gary, and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Gary: I’m currently based in the UK but I don’t think that geographical location makes much difference these days. The majority of my book sales have come from the USA and Australia.
Morgen: A lot of my interviewees have said that (the ‘little difference’ bit). Are you on any forums or networking sites?
Gary: Forums and networking sites? You’re talking to someone who hasn’t even figured out how to use a mobile phone. You think I’m joking?
Morgen: You’re one step ahead of my mum, she doesn’t have one. And I don’t know mine all that well (but then I’ve only had it three weeks – it’s a BlackBerry by the way and I love it – so that’s a good excuse). Do take a look at LinkedIn. I joined it thinking it was very businessy but if you join one of the writing-related groups you can start and/or take part in any writing-related (and sometimes off at a tangent) discussion. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Gary: I don’t have a personal website or blog, though I probably should have.
Morgen: I’d go for the blog; they’re free but also I find them easier to update than my website (but then my website software is pretty rubbish).
Morgen: Cool. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Gary: There are so many opportunities out there for writers – the future is limited only by your imagination – who said that? Seriously, I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a writer. I would suggest to any writer that they look at the possibilities – new media, self pubishing etc – there are a lot of ways of getting your work out there and finding an audience as well as the ‘traditional’ publishing route.
Morgen: My imagination is only limited by time. To get your own back, is there a question you’d like to ask me?
Gary: Never try to get your own back on an interviewer – it will always backfire. Always tell them they are the most insightful interviewer ever, it’s the best way of ensuring that your words don’t get mangled in the edit. You are the most insightful interviewer ever.
Morgen: Ah thanks, Gary (could you be ever so slightly biased?) – see you on Thursday.
Dr Gary Dooley has a PhD from Cambridge University and has achieved widespread recognition as an author, teacher and social scientist. He has lived and worked in the UK, Australia and the USA. In addition to his academic work, he has always maintained an active involvement in the theatre and has worked with many theatre companies around the world. As a director, his productions of classic plays, including King Lear, Othello, Measure for Measure and The Servant of Two Masters, have been widely acclaimed. He currently lives in Northampton (UK) and devotes much of his time to writing for and about theatre.
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