by Pamme Boutselis
The author of three published books, “The Collection of Heng Souk,” “Madness of the Turtle” and “The Seventeen Commandments of Jimmy September,” S.R. Wilsher also writes short stories and has two children’s books underway. He recently connected with The Penmen Review to discuss his writing.
Have you always written?
Books were such a fundamental part of my world from the moment I learnt to read that writing became an eventual logical step. I started writing for fun when I was eleven, although it never occurred to me that writing was a job for any but a chosen few. I didn’t actually finish anything until I was in my early twenties, and still have two completed novels in a bottom drawer. Yet I didn’t really think I might be able to write until I read a particular book; it would be unfair to name it, but it was a thriller rushed out to fit in with a world event. I felt it was so poorly constructed, so lazily written that I sat down to see if I could do better.
I thought I could, but I was wrong. What I came up with was awful but, by then, I‘d started and all of a sudden I realized that the thing I wanted least to be was a failed writer. So I kept going, believing that if I never stopped then I hadn’t failed – would always be a potential writer. It’s what keeps me going still.
What¹s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I think about an idea for a long time first to see if it takes root. If I keep coming back to it then I’ll jot down thoughts that form into something resembling an outline and will either work on that, or start writing to see if the actual idea is something that really appeals to me. If I intend living with something that will take more than a year and end up at 90,000+ words then it has to take a hold.
An idea can be a scene/moment from real life or drama, a song lyric or some other writing. That will prompt a spider of thoughts and I then see what story can be spun. I think of it like a puzzle that I have to make sense of.
“The Collection of Heng Souk” came from a conversation with my mother. I don’t remember my father well as he died when I was young, and was away at sea for long periods with the Navy anyway. But my mother told me that he was once shot at taking a gunboat upriver during the Korean War. She didn’t know any more, but the story grew from that. I saw a previously unseen picture of my late father for the first time recently and the idea for another novel filled my head almost instantly.
I don’t work to a daily word count as I wouldn’t want to keep checking to see where I was on any schedule. My aim in any session is only ever to make progress, even if that involves deleting scenes. But I do give myself a monthly or quarterly target so that I don’t subside into inactivity.
I tend not to read much when I’m writing, but if I do read something I feel is weak then it encourages me to write. If I read a great book, then it encourages me to edit.
When I’ve finished, I always let it stew, and I do that more than once. I probably spend as much time editing as I do writing, believing there is nothing that can’t be improved. All of my stories have been rewritten multiple times and after each rewrite I put the story away and work on something else for a few months. When I return to the original story, I see it in a different light and either recognize solutions I couldn’t before, or issues I was denying previously.
From initial idea to completion can take years. Madness of the Turtle was rewritten umpteen times and I first had the idea for the story over ten years ago. From typing the first word to the last could be done in a few months, but I wouldn’t want to do it that quickly, I would always want to put it away and come back to it later, to see it differently.
What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Time, every day is just about finding time. Like most writers who don’t earn anything from writing, I have a day job – and my career path has always suffered by my preoccupation with writing. There has only been twice when work didn’t get in the way. When the children were small I took a six month break so my wife could go back to work and I could spend time with them. But we went to the beach so often that I still didn’t get much writing done. The second was when I needed a kidney transplant so was away from work for a long time, and didn’t hurry back. That was a very productive period.
Before my operation I used to work long hours in Sales – well semi-long, 55 hours plus a week – and finding time was difficult. I used to write at my desk, or in my car and late at night. Now I’m in a different industry and do my hours across 4 days, although I still write at my desk and at night.
What has the road to publication been like for you?
In my mind I remain unpublished. My ambition was only ever to see a printed version of my book being read somewhere; the final piece of solving the puzzle that writing is to me. As my book is only available as an e-book, I recognise that may never happen.
I was twenty-five the first time I submitted something to an agent. And, surprisingly, I had interest. It didn’t develop, but I think it gave me a false sense of how easy it was going to be. It took me a long time to learn the lesson that it isn’t. Because I come from an era where ‘vanity publishing’ was death to an aspiring writer, it took me a long time to come to self-publishing, and I only did so when an agent told me I needed a higher profile before a publisher would be interested. Conversely, I knew that if I did go down that route I was likely turning my back on traditional publishing and reducing the chances of ever seeing a hard copy. Which, in the end, seemed a reasonable trade-off.
How do you market your work?
This has proved more challenging than the writing. Without the validation that comes from a publisher taking a writer on, then the self-published are reduced to telling everyone how good their book is, and I have the constant ‘self-praise is no praise’ voice of my grandmother always ringing in my ear.
Marketing is just as hard for me now as it was when I worked in Sales and had a large advertising budget. Wherever you spend your money, you always regret it, and you’re always searching for that mythical spot where all your customers congregate.
Good reviews seemed to be the key, so I started by writing to book blog sites and slowly building reviews. Once I had enough I could get on the smaller advertising sites and some sales began to happen, together with some spontaneous reviews. Feedback then led to some changes; to the content and the cover. But it took me a year to get onto Bookbub, where I got a glimpse of the numbers of potential readers there were out there. I was staggered by the number of downloads in one day and it has been a timely boost.
Because all of my books are different, and are unlikely to benefit from crossover interest; each one has to be tackled individually. Marketing from this point forward is still a massive problem that I don’t have the solution to yet.
What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?
If I had known how difficult it is to get a book noticed, I wouldn’t have released three in quick succession. It means I haven’t been able to devote the time to marketing the others.
Working alone also means I’ve had to learn some things the hard way. Heng Souk was written in UK English, so I had criticism for the spelling from the US market. For many, it cut to the authenticity of the journal sections as the character is American, so I changed that to US English. However, because I’m English I kept the rest in its original format and I still get criticism for that. As 95% of the sales are in the US that may have been a mistake. I can only hope that most will accept spellings like colour and grey, and all the other subtle differences.
Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I started writing not because I wanted to emulate those I admired; Hemingway, Maclean, Chandler, Le Carré, and multiple others, but because I thought I might be able to match those that I thought were much more ordinary. Yet the ideal would always be to aspire to the sparing, insightful or lyrical styles of those writer’s mentioned in the next answer.
If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
I read “Of Mice and Men” when I was very young and it impacted on me philosophically, with the idea that death might be the better option for someone. It affected me profoundly, and it prompted within Heng Souk his ambivalence towards death. And literarily it taught me that – contrary to all the advice out there – the ending of a story is more important than the beginning, as that’s where the emotional memory is created. Otherwise, without a great ending, it’s gone, forgotten and might as well not have been bothered with. Although I do realise I’ve just set myself up for a fall.
The second is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. As grim and empty of hope as it is, I find the writing beautiful and it contains my favourite line: “If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” I have no religious agenda – it’s a theme in my stories because I’m interested in it as a motivation, and with the contract people make with faith – but the line has a significant place in the story and carries multiple meanings. It speaks of the lost hope for mankind, of the disappearance of civilization, and of the deep love of father for son.
“The Cruel Sea” by Nicholas Montserrat, is one of the few books that I’ve read in one sitting. The quality of the writing, the tension, its portrayal of the demands of war, and the world it depicts just held me enthralled and stayed with me long after. However, I did read it when I was young and I’m unwilling to revisit again in case it’s not how I remember.
Learn more about S.R. Wilsher at www.srwilsher.com.