Kenton is an Australian writer currently based in New York. After 8 years working for an educational publisher in Sydney, he decided to ‘jump the fence’ and is about to self-publish his first novel – a Middle-Grade adventure fantasy set in 1914 Europe, Roger Spoffin and the Ark of Sinsamene.
I asked him about his knack for gamifying and making his projects into a sport, about the Roger Spoffin storyworld, and about his New York writing adventures.
Congratulations on the release of the first in the Roger Spoffin series this month. Where did the idea for writing the books come from?
Thank you. It’s very exciting. These books have had a long genesis. Around ten years ago I had my own business, a restaurant back in Sydney and after working all day I needed something to unwind. I’ve always done a lot of music but my two instruments are the saxophone and my voice. We were living in an apartment at the time so those two outlets weren’t going to work in the middle of the night. So, I began writing.
Specifically, I was very much drawn to writing a fantasy set in an historical time and place. I’m a big fan of history and the period around the First World War holds a particular interest. So, the book is historically accurate and a number of contemporaneous characters appear in it. Setting the story in the early 20th century also allowed for a certain suspension of belief. There was the so-called tyranny of distance that made verifying things difficult in and of itself, but there were also still places largely unexplored by Europeans (much less London schoolboys). One of Roger’s friends declares there’s a beetle from Borneo that flies upside down while humming the Blue Danube. ‘They’re finding creatures like those every day,’ he says. And who’s to argue? So, perhaps, somewhere there really are bigger creatures. Dragons and more. So, there’s all the fantasy stuff too – scary fantasy stuff – coming out of Sinsamene’s Ark.
Tell us about your professional background; have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a songwriter, in fact. And I worked very hard at that for a number of years. Songwriting is a tremendous discipline for learning about rhythm, natural cadence, alliteration and many other things that happen when you start putting words together. It is the tightest writing there is, in my opinion, and it’s given me an extremely critical eye (or ear) for both lyrics and prose. I read my writing aloud – multiple times – to hear the rhythm of each line and I work it over and over to get the rhythm right and the assonance too – the internal sounds.
I also worked for a number of years with an educational publisher where I ran the marketing for all the curricula. I had to write all the advertising copy, which is also tight writing. You can spend days on a single sentence in advertising, and weeks deciding on a cover. So, these skills have me asking myself continually, ‘How can you put that better? How can that line flow better?’
It strikes me you have a knack for gamifying or making your projects into a sport … for yourself as much as anyone else! For example, you’ve been writing the second Roger book in some interesting places … tell us about these New York writing adventures.
There are some places that are dripping in literary history. New York is one of those. A friend mentioned the Round Table in the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street where a motley crew of writers and poets and actors gathered at a particular table in the restaurant for ten years (1919-1929). Harpo Marx and Dorothy Parker were two.
What’s more, many of the hotels here have been home to writers of all calibre and quite a few have plaques revealing what was written by whom and when. Arthur C. Clarke, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Iggy Pop, you name it.
So, I’m continuing that tradition in my own way. I head out with my iPad and my notes and sit in a hotel lobby or café for a number of hours and write. I only write the story itself. All the character studies and plotting and mapping out of the various themes and sub-themes is done at home. So, it’s a reward too after all that work. And it’s surprisingly productive. Though occasionally certain things happen that interrupt the muse. Once, in the W hotel at Union Square, approximately 70 girls came into the lobby dressed as Andie MacDowell’s character in her latest sitcom. They were part of a promotional campaign. I couldn’t concentrate. There were so many of them they squeezed up next to me on both sides and they were all taking photos of each other and having a great time. Then, they proceeded to finish off my breakfast. I’d jokingly offered them some (it was red velvet pancakes, absolutely fantastic) never thinking they’d actually partake. Then I watched as my pancakes were passed around the room and gobbled up. It took me a good half an hour after they’d all left to get back to concentrating on my 14-year old (very chaste) schoolboy story.
Successfully engaging younger readers online is notoriously hard for the average kids’ writer (compared to the world of adult fiction, where pitches at online engagement via social media are par for the course) … yet, thanks to the website and graphics and visuals that you built and created yourself, the world of Roger is visually rich and inviting. Which makes me curious … Did you consciously have an ‘augmented storyworld’ style marketing game plan for Roger or did it evolve organically?
I’ve always enjoyed looking at maps and illustrations in this genre. I think it’s a natural complement. What’s more, the technical aspect of things – vehicles, buildings etc. – the ‘how things work’ is appealing too. I love the DK books that show this. So, I wanted to create a very vivid world, or should I say ‘show’ a very vivid world, for much of what’s in the stories is not my invention. Right from the start I was sketching things (scenes, characters, locations) to help bring the story alive and I was collecting hundreds upon hundreds of images to help me see each scene before I wrote it. For example, some of Gustav Dore’s illustrations were influential in was going on in the sky above the Ark during the final battle. Giovanni Piranesi’s sketches influenced how the dragon dungeons appeared. The whole Orientalism movement affects all my Near Eastern visuals (which you’ll see more of as the series progresses).
I did a film major at Sydney University and I was well trained in examining and critiquing visually. As a result, I don’t begin writing a scene until I can see every element of it: where each character is standing, what they can see, the colours, the mood, everything. All of this is just to say that while the story itself is the more important thing, the world in which it occurs is vibrant and realized, so it makes sense to put all those visuals in front of the readers.
Do you have a particular method for acquiring and incorporating feedback from your target readers?
With the early drafts, I had a list of 21 questions that I’d sit down with the reader and trawl through. Asking the right questions is difficult. And answering them too. If a story isn’t working, it can be very hard for someone to elucidate what’s missing. A Commissioning Editor at a major publishing house would be able to tell you in a heartbeat. But how often have you heard (or read on Goodreads) ‘It just didn’t grab me’? I found the process invaluable because I began to see the story and the characters through others’ eyes. Which is good, always good, even when it’s bad. By that, I mean if a reader doesn’t understand something or misconstrues something, suddenly, as the author, you realize things are not as you intended. You wrote ABC but the reader saw XYZ. Or ABC and XYZ. Or ZZZ, or any number of things.
I’m a firm believer in the trial readership idea …
I say jokingly that this isn’t a democracy. In the end, one can’t keep sending a book out for feedback and treating all opinions as equal. Nevertheless, I’m a firm believer in the trial readership idea. Frankly, I wish more authors utilized it. I’ve read enough material that seemed rushed to market for me to want to tear my hair out (which shows you how frustrated I get, as I have no hair!).
The other thing to realize with this, is you cannot please everyone. Which is also a part of the ‘this isn’t a democracy’ idea. As the author, you have to live with that. I’m currently reading ‘War and Peace’ and I’m repeatedly astounded by the quality of writing in it. And yet, on Goodreads there are those who’ll give it a single star. One can’t help wondering if they read the same book.
A practical question: Many writers and people who are self-employed struggle with maintaining a healthy lifestyle while building their career which – coupled with the advent of social media and the need for self promotion – often ends up being very screen-based for long periods of time. Tell us a bit about your daily habits or routines.
Yes, you can’t get away from the screen easily. I’ve got three kids. My wife drops two at school, I drop the third and I pick them all up and sort out what they do until dinner – sport, homework, play-dates, that kind of stuff. So that focuses the mind. I know I have certain hours to work. Part of the idea of writing in hotels is this job is very isolating. And as you’re on your own, if you’re not disciplined, you can end up wasting time on the internet or whatever and no one is there to pull you back on task. Fortunately, I’m pretty good with discipline, if anything, I need to slow down a bit.
The marketing and self-promotion is a very different skill set to writing. I’m fortunate in that I used to do that for a living but it’s a little odd doing it about oneself. Nevertheless, it has to be done, as the books won’t sell themselves, so with as much charm as I can muster, I’m currently working all my contacts (which is marketing speak for talking to my friends) and letting them know when and where and how they can buy the book.
I also make sure I exercise and if that doesn’t happen, I’m simply less productive and more irritable. A pet project I have is I’m in the middle of a quest to swim 1000 metres in 1000 pools around the world. Currently, I’m at number 357 and I’ll need to swim two new pools per month to reach the goal when I’m 74, or thereabouts. So, this gets me out and all over New York going to places I’d not get to otherwise. I blog about it too, it’s a different kind of writing, at 1000pools.com
And when can we expect to read Roger Spoffin book two?
I expect Draft 1 to be done by Christmas. I’m including the first three chapters of it in the back of Book 1, so I’ve redrafted and redrafted it and it’s good to go. I’ll probably do three passes before sending it out to my trial readers. Then rework and rework and I expect it will be ready in May of 2015. I’ve got a lot of artwork to produce too, so we’ll see how that all comes together.
If you have middle grade readers and you’d like to buy a copy of Roger Spoffin, December 12 is the day to do it! You’ll see why when you check out Roger Spoffin’s website: www.rogerspoffin.com
Kenton’s pools project: www.1000pools.com