Fiona Leonard has a gypsy soul that has carried her across twenty countries on four continents. She has worked as a diplomat, foreign and trade policy consultant, freelance writer, theatre producer, blogger, home schooler and author, and sometimes several of these at once. She lives in Ghana, West Africa, for now.
In 2005 Fiona began writing a book. Over the next five years she picked it up and put it down again until finally, in 2010, she signed up for National Novel Writing Month with the express purpose of finishing it.
She submitted her manuscript to ‘traditional publishers’ and after failing to secure an offer she decided to self publish her novel, In July 2011 The Chicken Thief hit the shelves.
Fiona spent the next eighteen months promoting her book, and at the same time continued promoting it to mainstream publishers. Her determination paid off – at the end of 2012 she received an offer from Penguin South Africa and this month they have released The Chicken Thief.
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
I think every author in the early days underestimates how much editing is needed. I suspect this is partly because we’re so worried we’ll be terrible, that we desperately hope the early drafts are good enough. Truth is, they’re not, and that’s ok. I’ve lost count of how many times The Chicken Thief was edited. To put it in context, after working on it for four years, in the last six months before self publishing I had it professionally edited and at least four other people read drafts and all gave detailed notes. Then I probably read and edited it an extra three times. The best thing about having gone through that process though is that I don’t take edits personally any more. I can be objective and just enjoy seeing the book evolve.
2. What research do you do for your book?
I read a lot of books – novels and non-fiction – when I’m coming up with the basic idea for a novel, but I try not to read similar works when I’m actually plotting or writing because I’d hate to feel like I was absorbing other people’s work into my own. I read a lot of news articles though throughout. I also seem to spend a lot of time researching details – like what a ring might look like or what music would have been relevant for a particular period. Then again, that may also be a form of procrastination…
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
When I’m actually at the writing stage of a novel (as opposed to plotting or editing) I aim for between one to two thousand words, six days a week. In addition I also try to write a blog three times a week.
4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?
I like to work from a relatively detailed plot. I know the overarching story, what needs to happen by when and I have a pretty good idea of what will happen in each chapter. I usually know how the chapter will finish in some detail. I start at chapter one and work sequentially through.
That said, I often have times when my characters go off and do something unpredictable and my plan goes out the window, then I storm around for a while cursing my characters while my family try to calmly point out that the characters don’t really exist anywhere other than in my head!
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
I really, really, really don’t like discovering plot holes. I usually have one central story line running through and then I layer additional plot threads over the top. At some point, however, I will usually realise that the story is a bit thin in places, or there’s a gaping inconsistency that needs to be fixed or else the whole thing will fall apart.
Fixing things like that usually means going back to my plotting notebooks and asking myself questions – why is the character acting in a particular way? What are their motivations? What else could be behind it all? If that doesn’t work then I go and read totally unrelated novels, and I watch movies, and I exercise and stare into space with the story churning in my head and usually something pops up. I tend to get a flash of one of my characters saying something as if they’re in a movie, and then it all seems to fall into place (until the next time).
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I think there tends to be two sorts of block – one is caused by specific issues with the book and those I work through as I’ve outlined above. The other is usually a case of being tired, or just lacking motivation, and the best solution for that is just to keep showing up, day after day. The more consistently you write the easier it gets. You can always go back and edit later, but you can’t edit an empty page.
7. You self-published The Chicken Thief initially – how did you market your book?
I relied on two main approaches. Firstly I pushed it out into the world with the help of existing contacts, particularly through Facebook. I had incredible support from friends and family who read the book and then shared it with their friends. People took it to their book clubs and gave it as Christmas gifts. I was constantly amazed by how generous people were.
The second approach revolved around cold calling. I emailed reviewers on Amazon, I emailed book review blogs. I offered to write guest blogs and articles. And I kept at it. Cold calling is not something I really enjoy so I found that hard. But you have to persist.
The other thing I should mention is that I put a lot of effort into making the book as good as I possibly could. The cover was professionally done, and the text was professionally edited. It’s hard enough to sell a self published book in the first place without giving people something that’s poor quality. It doesn’t help you, and it brings down the reputation of self publishing in general.
8. When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?
I think you want to give the publisher as much information as you can to demonstrate that your book will be commercially viable. You’re basically answering one question – Will it sell?
Having self published already I was able to show that even with my puny efforts I was able to shift three times the average for self published works. I included excerpts from good reviews and an indication of my demographics. I was also able to demonstrate that in addition to the book I was pitching, I had a sequel nearly finished and a third in the pipeline, hopefully making me a good long term prospect.
9. Do you think it’s important for authors to be visible on social media – if so, why?
Can you sell books without a social media presence? Yes. Could it help your sales? All the research suggests yes. Are there a million articles telling you how to maximize social media? Definitely (look them up, a lot are excellent).
Beyond the commercial aspects, personally, I like social media because it brings a human connection to what can often be a very solitary activity. A book is something that is written to be shared. Being able to connect with the people who read your book, anywhere in the world, is an incredible gift.
10. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
Never under estimate the power of showing up. Whether it’s writing or pitching, persistence is one of the greatest tools in an author’s toolkit.
Follow Fiona on Twitter @FionaJLeonard and visit her blog at www.fionaleonard.net.
Like The Chicken Thief’s Facebook page HERE
Published by Penguin Books - ISBN: 9780143538554