Today I’m delighted to welcome Helen Jones to the blog.
Helen was born in the UK, then spent many years living in Canada and Australia before returning to England several years ago.
She has worked as a freelance writer for the past ten years, runs her own blog and has contributed guest posts to others, including the Bloomsbury Writers & Artists site.
When she’s not exploring fantasy worlds she likes to walk, paint and study karate. She lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and daughter and spends her days writing, thinking, cleaning and counting cats on the way to school.
Here Helen talks about her published books, her writing process and being an indie author.
A Thousand Rooms is a quirky and poignant exploration of life and death. Please tell us about the inspiration behind this book. Did you have fun writing it?
Thank you. The book, or at least the incident it starts with, was inspired by a real event. When I lived in Sydney I used to walk to work and, one morning, came around a curve in the road to see a woman lying on the pavement covered by a blanket, two police officers crouched next to her. The bus that had hit her was pulled up to the kerb a little further along. The area wasn’t yet cordoned off and, as I walked past, I saw one of the dead woman’s arms sticking out from under the blanket. She was wearing a silver charm bracelet and I remember thinking that she’d got up that morning and chosen that bracelet along with everything else she was wearing, not imagining she’d be dead before lunchtime.
I kept walking – there was nothing I could do to help and I needed to get to work. I made it through the day but that evening, when my now-husband and I were driving somewhere, I made him stop the car, opened the door and threw up. Even now, the memory of that day is pretty powerful. It became the seed for A Thousand Rooms, as I considered the idea of sudden, unexpected death and how things might work out on the other side. The story is also a tribute to the many years I spent living in Australia, as well as an exploration of my own research into the journey of the spirit.
I wrote the majority of the book in 2014, during my first attempt at NaNoWriMo – whether it was fun or not I’ve yet to decide! I did manage to meet the 50,000 word target, then couldn’t bear to look at the manuscript for several months. The idea had come to me in its entirety from start to finish, but the pace of NaNo was such that I eventually ended up writing sentences as placeholders for most of the final scenes. When I went back to the manuscript, I was pleased to see the story still held up, even though it felt a little rushed in places. I spent another six months or so streamlining the plot and writing those final scenes, before sending it out to beta readers.
You’ve also written The Ambeth Chronicles. Please tell us a little about this series. Is your new book intended for a different audience?
The Ambeth Chronicles is a young adult fantasy series about a teenage girl who gets pushed between two trees at her local park and disappears. She finds herself in Ambeth, a world of beauty and mystery, where the inhabitants have been expecting her. There’s a prophecy, missing items that need to be found, puzzles of parentage, a battle between Light and Dark, plus a few twists and turns in terms of how the protagonist is connected to Ambeth, all while she tries to juggle her life there with her life in the real world.
The books explore the ideas of choice, consequence and balance – that without darkness in the world, we cannot appreciate light. There are three books out currently with six planned in total plus, possibly, a volume of related short stories.
A Thousand Rooms is aimed at a more mature audience, simply because of some of the language and content – however, I think it would be appropriate for the top end of YA and beyond.
What does your writing process look like? How do you get from blank page to finished manuscript?
I am a definite Pantser! I would love to be one of those organised writers who have grids and plans and know where the story is going at any given moment. However, I tried that once and, within a chapter, my characters let me know in no uncertain terms that wasn’t going to work for them, and that they would, in fact, rather do something else than what I had planned for them.
So I’ve learned to let stories unfold organically.
When I started The Ambeth Chronicles, I knew how the first two books would end, the names of three of the main characters, and the initial event that started the story rolling. Everything else grew from there as the story progressed. Interestingly, I’m finding that things I’ve written in the first three books are feeding perfectly into plot twists in the final three books, even though I didn’t specifically plan it that way. Which then makes me consider where ideas come from…
At the moment, my desk is covered with bits of paper scribbled with notes relating to different stories, plus many many Post-it notes decorating my computer and whiteboard. That being said, I do try and record every story idea I have. Even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs, I type it up and save it to a folder to refer to later. I also always carry a notebook and pen, as I never know when an idea will strike. Once I start writing a first draft, I don’t tend to write the scenes in order – I ‘see’ different events and write them as they come to me, then go back over the structure and figure out where I need to fill gaps or connect story lines. I usually tend to over-write, so have several folders of deleted scenes – I’ve learned that I need to be ruthless to maintain the pace of the story.
Once I’ve finished a story and run through several drafts of edits, I send it out to my lovely beta readers. It can be a nerve-wracking thing to do, but the feedback I’ve had has helped me to tighten and hone my stories – it is so worth doing, as is working with a professional editor. I realise that this can be expensive, and I do have to budget for it, but it is worth every single penny, especially when you find someone who really ‘gets’ the stories, like Lucy who works with me on Ambeth, and Esther, who edited A Thousand Rooms. I wouldn’t have the books I do now without their input.
How do you find being an indie author? Would you recommend this path to others?
Being an independent author has its positives and negatives, but overall I’ve found it to be a positive experience. I enjoy the complete creative control I have over my work as an indie. While I do work with a professional editor and cover designer, the end product is entirely up to me – which changes I make to the text, what colour the cover is, how the book is laid out. My inner control freak really likes this aspect of being an indie, to be honest! I also like the royalty percentages, which are very generous, and the wonderfully supportive community of readers and authors I’ve found online. The main downside, I think, is the amount of promotion you have to do (although this is now not much different than when working with a publisher), and the fact that you have to shoulder all the associated costs.
Overall, I would certainly recommend being an independent author to others – however, with a word of advice. Treat your books as a business, finish them to the highest standard possible, and be prepared for lots and lots and lots of networking and social media work. It’s not an easy path but, when compared to not being published at all, it’s a very rewarding one.
What are your future writing plans?
I currently have two manuscripts on the go. The first is the fourth instalment in my Ambeth series – it’s already written, so I’m just going over the structure and timing before sending it out to beta readers. The second is a stand-alone vampire novel – I never would have thought I’d write a vampire novel, but this lovely character came to me and I couldn’t let her go without telling her story. It’s around two-thirds written, but a long way from being finished. I do have a few other ideas simmering as well, but at the moment they’re just pages of notes in a file.
I’ve also started challenging myself to enter at least one short story competition per month, so it will be interesting to see how that goes – if nothing else, at least I’ll get a nice collection of short stories out of it!
In terms of freelance writing, I do have a big project on the horizon, working with a client to produce several books. However, at the moment I’m free to focus on my own work which is a bit of a luxury – it’s one I can’t sustain for too long, as I have editing to pay for, but I’m enjoying it for now.
I’d like to say thank you very much for having me over to visit – I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you.
Thank you, Helen. That was great!
Find Helen online
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