Today’s featured debut author is Tom Harris, who managed, in a single interview, to reference two of my favorite films (The Usual Suspects, Misery) and probably my all-time favorite board game (Clue). Although I don’t agree with Tom’s feelings on setting daily word counts (I am, after all, all about the #1kaday), I do agree with pretty much everything else he says. And because I did not do the formatting for ‘Baby Grand,’ I will try his Chopin trick the next time I have to fold laundry. :)

Name: Tom Harris

Name of book: The Amber Room

Book genre: Young Adult

Date published: April 9, 2012

Publisher: Kindle Direct Publishing/Smashwords

What is your day job? Recently made redundant, but lining up interviews for a part time job to sit alongside my writing – any tips? As a writer you have to be realistic and keep a job even if it’s part time. Without financial security, we’d all go bonkers! Lots of arguing, lots of fretting and certainly not enough writing and I’d be eating cheap fish fingers again, which I swore I’d never do.

What is your book about? It’s about a 14-year-old kleptomaniac, North, who gets a chance to use his compulsion to steal to save his sister, India, when she ends up in a coma. With the help of Dr. Tan and a fairy, Rosie Boots, North travels through a portal inside an amber room in a hospital into dark fairy tale worlds to steal amber treasures that can heal India. Yet all is not as it seems in the twisted reality of the Amber Room.

Why did you want to write this book? The characters made me do it! Writing North as a kleptomaniac triggered everything. I suddenly had a main character who was real and didn’t fit into the normal world and would easily be lured into escaping it with the right motivation. Once North was real, he kept nagging away at me, and then Rosie Boots, a feisty fairy who North is smitten with, arrived with her qualification from I.F.E.A – Intensive Fairy Educating Arenas, for those who are curious. She was followed quickly by Doctor Tan, who was originally a character for a short story about Cluedo – which had to be postponed when he was arrested for an incident with some rope and a candlestick – and that was that. I simply couldn’t ignore them.

What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? Not being able to talk to your family and friends about your day at work without boring them about semi-colons and voice. I don’t mind the loneliness of it, but self-doubt is a proper little scallywag. It takes years of commitment to hone your craft. It’s taken me fifteen years to find my niche and feel confident enough to put my work out there. I’m also very aware of how much I’ve yet to learn about it all. A very hard thing to do is know when to draw the line under a piece of work, as you’re always learning and improving. I asked myself one question: Is this the best I can do right now? It was, and so I thought it was time to put the story out there.

Did you conduct any kind of research in order to write this book (visit certain locales, etc.)? I read a lot of coma novels and obviously Charles Perrault’s fabulous fairy tales, which inspired the concept. The scenes in the fairy tale worlds try to stay true to Perrault’s published folklore, but my characters fail to stick to his script. Honestly, there’s no controlling them sometimes! I also researched people who suffered from kleptomania. We’ve all at least thought about stealing sweets when we were young, but kleptomania is so different – it’s an illness, a compulsion, where the item has no real value to the thief. It’s heartbreaking, to be honest. I’m not going to pretend I wrote the book for all the kleptomaniacs out there, I’m not on a crusade or anything, but I hope that it might help at least one person to realise they’re not alone in the world. Isn’t that the beauty of books after all?

What motivates you to write? Love of writing, the process, the craft and the ideas that circle around my brain and need a place to land before I explode. I have nightmares about the last scene of The Usual Suspects, the unveiling of Kaiser Sosie – “and just like that…he was gone.” If I stopped writing, I truly believe that could happen to me!

Did you experience writer’s block? I think writer’s block and self-doubt are strongly linked. Here are things I do to keep that at bay:

  • I don’t set ridiculous targets of X amount of words a day anymore. Every day that you move your WIP or project on should be a cause for celebration, even if it’s 100 words.
  • I always plan what I’m going to do in advance and so rarely sit down and get stuck about what to write. I’ve found discipline too and now resist the allure of that blank first page until I’ve planned it all and spent time on forming characters and a chapter timeline.
  • I share my work with anybody now. I wish I’d shared stuff sooner, because I would have learnt more. The quicker you start letting people in, the quicker your writing will improve – trust me on that one.
  • I surround myself with positive people. If people don’t show an interest, don’t force them, there are plenty of willing listeners out there, so go and find a writing group and bloggers who will listen and understand and help you make sense of the writer’s world.
  • And that old chestnut of keep writing. The more you write, the less likely it is that you’ll have writers block in my opinion.

How long did it take you to write this book? About a year. It took about four to five months for the first draft and edit. Then I left the manuscript aside for a month, got members of my writing group to read what I’d done, and then I wrote lots of short stories and worked on new concepts for other novels. I returned to the manuscript with notes and a fresh perspective. A break of a month and allowing your work to be critiqued can suddenly reveal lots of things that you are simply too close to see as its creator.

Tell me about the self-publishing process. Was it easier or more difficult than you thought it would be? It is certainly more involved than I thought and not all about just deciding to put your stuff out there. I have learned a lot from other self-published writers and bloggers about marketing, press releases, blog tours and book reviews, and most of this is going on now. Just because the book is out there doesn’t mean I’m finished with it. You also have to format your own book to self-publish it – no one warned me about formatting – but once I got into it using the Smashwords Style Guide that was okay. Funnily enough, a friend on Twitter recommended Chopin, so I listened to that whilst I did the formatting, which really helped me stay focused and relaxed. The uncertainty of when to upload the end product and setting a publishing date was weird, because of there being so many unknown variables. I downloaded “calibre,” an e-management tool, so I could see what the book looked like on my Kindle from Smashwords, and I’d recommend that or a similar app, as it takes away some of the dread. Amazon was fine, because I’d done all the formatting for Smashwords… Like everything in life, when you go and confront the unknown it doesn’t seem half as terrifying and you get a real sense of achievement in the end.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about writing a book? Although I love Stephen King’s books, and the film, Misery, is one of my favourites (James Caan and Kathy Bates were amazing!), it’s that scene where Caan is typing the new Misery novel and laying down page after page – like writers do that once and it’s perfect… You’d be amazed how many people think that’s how it’s done. Now before anyone starts shouting, I haven’t been threatened by a pig-owning hobbler to hit a deadline before, so maybe I would get it perfect under those circumstances, but you get the gist. I’d love to see a proper writing montage in a film, where a writer goes nuts, cries, gives up, comes back, gets feedback, does countless boring edits in a dark room, sends the stuff out and gets a rejection letter. Repeat this for ten sequels and then he decides to self-publish and sells two copies to his parents, but who’s going to write that movie, right? For the record, I love Stephen King and pigs.

What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? Honestly, every minute of it. I don’t have to wrack my brains for ideas – that’s quite a natural thing for me – but controlling the ideas and making sure I don’t go off on a tangent is the key. So the most enjoyable thing for me was finishing my chapter timeline and character analysis, because I could then understand what sort of book I was going to write, and that got me excited, because it seemed to make sense. I do confess that seeing the front cover for the first time made me a little bit excited. Can I put a smiley face on here, or is that unprofessional?

What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I’ve used Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to link to my website. Business cards featuring the book cover look really effective, and I just throw those over my shoulder like I’m handing out candy as I skip down my road to fetch the morning paper. I’ve been to a couple of networking events, and I’m planning to send some documents across to some book review sites as well as a press release document to free sites following the guidelines in the AP Stylebook guide. My preferred way of getting recognised is by being myself, through writing groups, blogs, talking to friends of friends, etc. What you see is what you get. I’m me! Of course, I’ve had to push the promotion stuff in between, but I really hope I don’t come across as a robot when I send out links to free sample chapters and my short stories. I hope that people understand that I’m just putting my work out there. If people like it, then great. If it’s not their cup of tea, then fine, but at least I can say I tried my best to let people know that the book existed in the first place.

Do you plan on writing another book? I’m well under way with another YA story called “Jackie Jones” about a 15-year-old working class kid living outside of London who gets a mysterious invitation to a country house to compete for the chance to win a substantial cash prize. Then when he turns up, he discovers that the other competitors not only share his desire for the money but they also share his name. After that, I’ll be writing the sequel to The Amber Room called “The Amber Antidote,” which is mapped out in terms of its chapter timeline. Also for next year I have a concept called Hywel, which is about a 15-year-old boy at a fat camp in the UK who stalks girls, until his hobby draws him into a world of demons and wolves. He has 29 days to prevent the object of his affections from turning into something unworldly forever, but could she ever fall in love with her ex-stalker?

My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I’ve worked really hard at developing my writing over the last two years, and although I have been writing since the mid-90s, I am now finding that doors are beginning to open for me – not wide open, you understand, but more ajar really with me leaving my foot in them. I live by the ethos that hard working people get on in this world. I can only control my workload and hone my craft. I have a great passion for writing, and I’m still willing to learn. If I continue to do these things I would hope if the opportunity presents itself that all this preparation will pay off. What was the question again? Oh, yes, I agree with that totally.