Complementing my interviews, today’s Author Spotlight, the three hundred and sixty-ninth, is of novelist Jane Davis. If you would like to take part in an author spotlight, take a look at author-spotlights.
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions, but when Jane achieved what he had set out to do, although the money was nice, she discovered that it was not what she had wanted after all. Seeking a creative outlet, she turned to writing fiction, but cites the disciplines learnt in the business world as what helps her finish a 120,000-word novel.
Her first, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Four self-published novels followed: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things, A Funeral for an Owl and An Unchoreographed Life. Of her writing, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Jane’s favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’
Jane describes her journey in self-publishing…
I am often asked why I chose self-publishing.
My first novel (hidden away under lock and key) earned me the praise, “Jane, you are a writer”, but not a publishing contract. My second novel had been sitting in my overworked agent’s ‘in’ tray for several months when I attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference in June 2008. It was there that I learned about the Daily Mail First Novel Award. With the closing date for entries only two days away, I had nothing to lose. My incentive for entering wasn’t the thought of winning. It was the promise that all entries would be read.
I left my job of twenty-three years the following September, jaded from having had to make many of my colleagues redundant. Every time I turned on the television there was talk of financial doom and gloom. Then came the call from Transworld announcing that I had won.
It was surreal. Because I was on my own, there was no one to ask, “Hey, did that just happen?” I phoned back just to be sure.
The following weeks were heady. The Bookseller included me in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Joanna Harris, an author I admire enormously, described me as a ‘promising new writer.’ I was going to be The Next Big Thing.
Except that I wasn’t.
In a year when fiction sales plummeted, Half-truths and White Lies, sold reasonably well. Then, in 2009, came my reality check. Transworld exercised their right to ‘first refusal’ of my follow-up novel. The reason? It wasn’t ‘women’s fiction’. I hadn’t appreciated (and no one had thought to explain) the implications of being published under their Black Swan imprint. I had been pigeon-holed – and my new work didn’t fit. It may sound ridiculous to say this, but I hadn’t written either book with a particular gender bias. I didn’t – and still don’t – understand why they might assume women would want to read one book and not the other. In the light of the current campaigning against gender stereotyping in children’s fiction, to argue in favour of gender stereotyping for adult fiction seems outdated and, to be honest, more than a little insulting. My then literary agent’s reaction was, “Well, Jane. You wrote the book you wanted to write,” and I was still none the wiser.
Parting company with my agent, I sought new representation. Rejection letters flattered. My writing was not for them, but with my credentials, I would be snapped up. For a while, I believed them.
Over the next four years, I produced two further novels. Had I been under contract, I would have been chasing deadlines. Instead, with the luxury of time, I added layers to plots, depth to characters and a real sense of time and place. As Hugh Howey said at the London Book Fair, authors should enjoy their anonymity.
It was through submitting work to literary agents, I became aware that my fiction was difficult to categorise. The reason the majority gave for rejecting it was because they weren’t sure how to sell it to a publisher. As I added more manuscripts to my back catalogue, I ventured into yet more sub-categories of fiction. I have written books I want to write, about subjects that fascinate me; those that I am passionate about – the pioneers of photography; the divisive nature of religion; events and changes I have borne witness to. Many will advise you to identify your market before you start to write, but bear in mind that you may be caught out. A book written for market without passion is going to lack integrity.
Literary fiction is a label that I continue to feel uncomfortable with. As someone who left school at the age of sixteen with an R.E. ‘O’ Level and a swimming certificate (I exaggerate), it seems arrogant to claim such a grand title, which asks readers to compare my writing with the classics or with Booker Prize winners. It can also be off-putting. Some readers – readers I think my books will appeal to – associate the term with something inaccessible and difficult, something that will have them constantly reaching for the dictionary, and my writing is anything but that. The term ‘Lit-lite’ was in vogue a couple of years ago and it tended to be applied to book-club fodder, which is really more my thing.
By 2012, I was touting three novels around the market. Believe me, this is not a position you want to be in. I began to feel like the lady character in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys who attends the same writing conference year after year with a slightly different edit of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons.
In November 2012, I decided I owed it to myself to investigate something I had been resisting. I attended the Writers’ & Artists’ Self Publishing in a Digital Age conference. It was a revelation! There, established authors who had been dropped by their publishers were rubbing shoulders with first-time writers who had released their e-book priced at 99p and had sold 100,000 copies within a year. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out?
Deciding I was in, I released I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things on Christmas Day, using Amazon KPD. (I have since experimented with Smashwords and Kobo.) The decisions of how to present the work – the designs of covers and the interiors – were all mine. As were the mistakes. (Neil Gaiman refers to Gaiman’s Law. If there’s one typo, it will be on the page your new book falls open to the first time that you pick it up.) Learning by trial and error, I ironed them out. The following summer, I released paperbacks, using Createspace’s Print on Demand service. The second time around, I was aware that I needed more help. As well as a structural edit, I bartered for services, using a copy editor in return for a testimonial. I also expanded on my army of volunteer beta readers and proofreaders. Although my advice would is never to be afraid of asking for help, my volunteers came to me. In November that same year, I released A Funeral for an Owl.
For my latest release, An Unchoreographed Life, I have used even more external services. The manuscript has actually undergone three separate copy edits from people who wanted to be involved in the project. (I both barter and pay for external services.) Readers who discover me tend to devour everything I have written, so I really felt I owed it to them to get it right.
An Unchoreographed Life is the phrase with which Margot Fonteyne described her tumultuous off-stage existence. It seemed an ideal choice for my story of a ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother.
One of the huge joys of self-publishing is choosing how to present your work. Given that my work is difficult to categorise, I was conscious that I needed a strong brand image. The brief I gave my graphic designer Andrew Candy was that the books should look like a set you’d want to collect. I was thinking of my own bookshelves: the novels of John Irving; Frank Herbert’s Dune series; the classic Penguin paperbacks. If it were possible, I wanted that certain something that would make people say, ‘Oh, another Jane Davis’. I wasn’t starting from scratch, and so I simply borrowed elements from the cover of Half-truths and White Lies and used them as building blocks: the font and the strong photographic image, repeated on the spine.
As I learned to trust Andrew’s instincts, my briefs have grown more complex. I am absolutely clear in my approach about what I don’t want. My novel, These Fragile Things, tackles near-death experience and religious visions. I didn’t want to exclude readers who would normally avoid Christian fiction, because that is only one element of the book. I chose a butterfly with a broken wing, which not only fits the title and represents transformation, but also hints at vulnerability.
For the cover of A Funeral for an Owl, perhaps the most literal of all my book covers, I provided him with five separate images and precise instructions about where each should go, but the end result was still a surprise. For An Unchoreographed Life, I was absolutely clear that I wanted to avoid an image that hinted at erotica. Told partly from the perspective of a six-year-old, my novel has more in common with Henry James’s What Maisie Knew rather than Belle de Jour. I described a scene from the book, where my main character Alison comes face to face with a deer. I asked if it would be possible to combine the image of a ballerina with a deer. The image we arrived at suits the book perfectly: a woman who wears a mask and hasn’t been able to let go of her past.
Whilst my fiction may be difficult to categorise, the common theme running through my novels is the influence that missing persons have in our lives. (The death of a friend contributed to my decision to start to write.) In my experience, that influence can actually be greater than that of those who are present. In Half-truths and White Lies it was parents who weren’t around to answer questions. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl which considers teenage runaways. And in An Unchoreographed Life Belinda grows up without knowing her father. Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it does force both writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration and not the answer that is important. The idea that there is a single truth is flawed. I have a sister who is less than a year older than me our memories of the same events differ substantially. There are many different versions of the truth and many layers of memory.
You can find more about Jane and her writing via…
- Website: www.jane-davis.co.uk
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jane.davis.54966
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/janerossdale
- Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards
And to purchase her books…
- I Stopped Time: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stopped-Time-Historical-Novel-ebook/dp/B00ARWFPTW
- These Fragile Things: http://www.amazon.co.uk/These-Fragile-Things-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B00ASBIPKS
- A Funeral for an Owl: http://www.amazon.co.uk/A-Funeral-Owl-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B00GF4TBRI
- An Unchoreographed Life: http://www.amazon.co.uk/An-Unchoreographed-Life-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B00JV14ZJQ
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