Interview with Ellen Seltz, Author of MR. MOTTLEY GETS HIS MAN PART I

EllenSeltzHeadshot

 

Today I have the first part of my interview with my friend Ellen Seltz, author of the cozy vintage mystery MR. MOTTLEY GETS HIS MAN. In this section of the interview, Ellen talks about her decision to go Indie, and her process in bringing her novella to life.

What made you decide to go Indie instead of following the traditional publishing route?

There were a lot of reasons. First, I have my own experience as an actress and theater producer. Legacy publishing, like film, TV and Broadway, is an industry based on very high capital investment, with a lot of gatekeepers between the talent and the audience, in order to mitigate risk. It’s a strong system, and it’s worked well for many years. It works very well to filter out unprepared and unprofessional work. However, it also sets extremely high barriers to entry, where new talents have to prove themselves over and over again before someone will take a chance on them.

I did that already. I did that for nearly fifteen years as a performer, and it was like banging against a brick wall – a brick wall that tells you you’re pretty, pukes in your shoes, sneaks out before breakfast and never calls you again. (Okay, it was like banging against a frat boy…or so I hear. Not that I would know…never mind.)  

 Then I had an opportunity to produce a couple of shows for a small theater company in New York, and all of a sudden, there was no brick wall. It was like that moment in The Matrix where the bald child is bending spoons: “Realize the truth about the Spoon…There is no Spoon.”

We had a low budget, low overhead, and we carried all the risk ourselves. As a result, we didn’t have to please anyone except the audience. They showed up and liked what we did. They liked it so much, they handed us money. It took the entertainment industry down to an elemental level – like busking on a street corner. The whole risk-averse giant industrial business model was just irrelevant.

That’s what indie publishing does. I no longer see the need to please six layers of people between me and the audience, if I can reach them directly. A writer, and readers – No Spoon.

Second, I did a lot of research on the economics and business practices of indie publishing vs. legacy publishing. I was persuaded that for an unknown genre fiction author, it makes more economic and artistic sense to write, finish, publish, and write some more, than to pursue a traditional contract. Whimsical vintage mysteries are a niche market. Nobody’s going to offer me a six-figure advance (LOL!). When I looked at two to five years of pursuing a contract, plus a year or more of lead time on finishing and release in the traditional system, plus having to earn out whatever small advance I got, and do all my own marketing as well? 70% royalties on Amazon looked like a much better deal to me. If I were writing literary fiction, or chick-lit, or a sweeping historical epic, I might think differently.

Third (and I’ll cut it off at three), there’s the flexibility. Technically, Mister Mottley Gets His Man is a novella (less than 50,000 words), which would make it even harder to shop around to traditional publishers. By going indie, I have a lot more freedom to fit the form to the story, instead of growing or shrinking the story into a standardized format.

Flexibility also means genre-blending. MMGHM is intended to sound and feel like something that could have been written in the late twenties or early thirties (with a little Bionic Boost of je ne sais quoi). Sometimes people see the term Cozy, and think about knitting and cats, and it certainly doesn’t fit there. It’s not Hard-Boiled, either. It’s got a lot of comedy, but – you know – blood and death and stuff, too. A friend described it as “PG Wodehouse does Hercule Poirot.” I think it’s like the egg on the cover – Soft Boiled and a bit cracked.

That’s enough to be going on with. I could try to talk the industry into taking a chance on me, or I can take a chance on myself. Door No. 2, please.

 

Final Cover small- MMGHM

Buy Link to Amazon Mr. Mottley Gets His Man

How did you go about hiring your editor and your cover artist?

Like a porcupine makes love – very carefully! Prior experience in artistic collaboration helped me out here. Knowing how to receive feedback and apply it constructively is a learned skill-set. Knowing how to assess a collaborator and find a fit, how to maintain professional distance from your work while staying passionate about it…it takes practice. For some writers, this is a great reason to stay in a traditional track, because your professional team comes with the package. You don’t get to skip having a team by going indie – you just have to be the HR department on top of everything else.

 One concern I had, which is a big hurdle in indie publishing, was cash-flowing the cost of professional fees. I had to do a combination of strategies to make a good editor affordable. First, it’s a short book. Editors charge by the word or the page. That mattered. Second, it’s a pretty straightforward plot, but the structure is tight. I had worked the story over enough times that you couldn’t move or delete any plot point without the whole thing coming apart. Also, it’s a pastry-crust story; it just wouldn’t bear heavy reworking for character development or world building. That allowed me to get away with a detailed line-edit instead of a deeper developmental edit. Finally, I just had to start planning ahead of time and save up for the edit like you’d save up for a new set of tires on your car. You know you’re going to need it, don’t let it take you by surprise.

 For my editor, I knew I needed a native speaker of British English, because I wanted the voice to pass, if at all possible. I also wanted someone who understood the subtle distinctions of genre among Cozy vs. Classic vs. Hard-Boiled vs. Contemporary; who would instinctively get what I was trying to do. I read a lot of reviews, including some great recommendation lists on The Creative Penn and Goodreads discussion forums. I visited the websites of the editors on my short-list, until I found a few whose own writing voice and philosophy resonated with me. Those on the even-shorter-list, I contacted for a sample edit. Some offered a certain number of pages or word count for free, others charged a nominal fee (Something like $25 for the first 10 pages). This let me know not only the quality of their work, but how businesslike, organized, timely and responsive they were, and how well we communicated personally. I chose James Scott-Marryatt, www.jsmedit.com, and I couldn’t be happier with our fit and his work. He understood my tone and style immediately, was very patient with my newbie flailing about, and I can’t think of a single comment he gave me that did not wind up incorporated in the final manuscript in one way or another – all for the better, by leaps and bounds. On the second book, I hope to bring him in even earlier in the process and have him do a deeper level of developmental editing – it’s a more complex story and I could use his feedback.

 My cover artist, Russell Taylor at kabukihaus.com, is an old friend I did theater with in New York. I was familiar with his design work and his artistic standards, and I knew we could understand one another, even over e-mail, and collaborate successfully. I couldn’t be more pleased with the results, and how he picked up the symbolism of the soft-boiled egg and made it work on multiple levels.

What advice do you have for currently unpublished writers who are thinking of going Indie?

 I feel silly spouting any sort of advice on Christy’s blog, because she is so far ahead of me on the writing journey. I look up to her greatly as a mentor, especially on discipline and professionalism. She has a very rare gift – a highly creative mind that is also orderly and focused. My creative mind is a great big floppy sloppy Labrador. I spent my acting years teaching it to fetch and stay off the furniture, but this fiction thing is a whole new agility course.

 However, feeling silly never stopped me from doing anything before, so here goes:

 First of all, Don’t Write Crap. Or rather, write all the crap you need to, but throw it away and only publish the good stuff. There is a stereotype out there that writers choose the indie approach out of laziness and contempt for their readers, because they can’t bear to submit their precious words and their precious ego to a rigorous discipline. The reason for the stereotype is that those people actually exist. Don’t be that guy. Learn your craft, respect your medium, and respect your readers. If you go indie, there is no “official” person who is going to designate you a professional writer. You are taking that mantle on yourself. Earn it.

 Being an unpublished novelist may or may not correlate with being an inexperienced writer, or creative professional. If you have already developed your artistic sense and professional distance, great – go on and start learning the specifics of the form and the business side. If you don’t yet have a reliable sense of what professionalism is, or more importantly, how to tell whether you have written crap or not, then put publishing on hold till you get your crapometer calibrated. Put your stuff  in front of strangers (Strangers! Not your friends!) and see how they react. This is one of the benefits of the query/rejection/polish/resubmit process of legacy publishing, it forces you to see and relate to your work differently.

You could also find a writing group, or a fanfiction forum, or you can join an improv theater class (a great way to shake writer’s block, by the way), or put your paintings in an art show, or go play the guitar in your underwear in Times Square, but you’ve gotta put something you made, out there in public and learn what works on people. Your idea can sound completely marvelous in your head, or on your computer screen, but if nobody else responds to it, it’s not working. I wouldn’t recommend blogging for this, unless you already have a blog with a strong and interactive following. Some writer blogs are just an electronic version of the desk drawer – nobody will see it anyway. You can’t calibrate your crapometer without seeing/hearing those real-life reactions.

 After all, this is how industry professionals become industry professionals, and it’s a large part of what is called “artistic instinct” or “taste”. It’s experience of what is good and what just isn’t. If you are going to be your own publisher, you won’t have the safety net of professional tastemakers to screen you. You have to screen yourself.

 Some of the bloggers I really enjoy, like Dean Wesley Smith, advocate a radically fast and free approach to indie publishing, eschewing rewrites in favor of proofreading the first draft, submitting it, and moving on to write something else. I would point out, though, that he and his ilk are long-term professionals with 1) a well-developed story sense and finely-honed crapometer; and 2) disciplined enough to throw a lot of first drafts away.

 If your manuscript is in that middle ground – you’re confident it’s not crap, but you know it’s not ready to live on its own and hold down a job, I recommend the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (aka Edit Yourself Into Print) by Renni Browne and Dave King. Working through this book is no substitute for hiring a professional editor, but it will help you get your work ready for the editor, and teach you a lot about writing craft, to boot.

 Second, Be Willing to be Ignorant. Do your research, not just on the points of your story, but on the big and small aspects of the business you’ll be getting into. Approach every situation as a learner, and you will find every encounter rewarding. I especially recommend the blogs of Kristine Katherine Rusch; J.A. Konrath; Dean Wesley Smith; Joanna Penn; Kristen Lamb; and Hugh Howey.

 Third, Don’t Fear the Audience. This is a huge difference I’ve noticed in the transition between acting and writing. So many writers I talk to are terrified of having their work read, whereas actors love to get in front of people and feel that electric connection. I understand the fear of critique and rejection, it’s very painful. When you are self-publishing, there are no auditions for a panel of judges, only performances for people who came here to have a good time. They want to love you! Love them back and do your very best for them.

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