#LoveOzYA Q&A with Helen Scheuerer about LAIR OF BONES
Helen Scheuerer is the author of the bestselling YA fantasy trilogy, The Oremere Chronicles: Heart of Mist (2017), Reign of Mist (2018) and War of Mist (2019), as well as the prequel short story collection, Dawn of Mist (2020).
She chatted to #LoveOzYA’s A.B Endacott about her latest release, LAIR OF BONES. You can read their chat below, or check out clips via the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel!
I’d like to start with a question about the conception of LAIR OF BONES. I read in the acknowledgments that you were in a bar in New Zealand, and the first chapter basically came to you. Can you talk a little bit more about the nexus of that idea?
Yeah, sure. So I’d come to Queenstown initially on holiday just a couple of months after my second book, Reign of Mist, came out from the Oremere Chronicles. I don’t think I’d had a proper holiday for maybe two years, and so I just sort of thought I needed to refill that creative well, for want of a less wanky term. So I came (to Queenstown) and I spent an afternoon walking around the gardens that look out right onto Lake Wakatipu, sort of wandering around with my notepad.
(Later) I was sat at this bar, and I had a couple of wines. I had such a beautiful day, like out and about in the mountains. And yeah, I wrote the first line of the prologue sitting at that bar. And I think I was at that bar for maybe five hours, and I outlined the first couple of books, just in dot points. It snowballed from there.
It’s funny, that’s never happened to me before where I’ve written a line and that pretty much verbatim has made it into, not only just into the manuscripts, but has stayed the first line of the book.
Wow, that’s really cool. And actually it’s a nice segue into my next question, which is: what’s your writing process?
I’ve learned a lot since the Oremere Chronicles. So the approach I had to that series was that I did NaNoWriMo for the first book, and had a vague, vague idea for how I wanted the reader to feel at the end of the series. But that’s very different to knowing what happens in book one, two, three, and how it all ties together. And I found with the Oremere Chronicles, I definitely experienced a lot of frustration in that. I had written myself into a lot of corners.
I was very much determined that CURSE OF THE CYREN QUEEN would be a step up from the Oremere Chronicles. One of the ways that I thought I could do that is by much more thorough outlining and planning so that I didn’t run into these sorts of hurdles, mid-series or after publication.
I’ve really found that outlining has helped me write much faster.
I think also, as an indie author, like you have to be a planner in a lot of ways. You have to manage your time and you have to manage your resources, and you have to manage your product. So I’m really interested in your journey as an indie author, and the path of it.
I initially had quite a traditional experience: I did a creative writing degree, I did a Masters of publishing, both of which didn’t touch independent publishing at all. It was completely focused on the traditional space, and very much the classics and literary fiction, with barely any discussion of genre or commercial fiction or anything like that.
I originally had a publishing contract with a traditional publisher, and long story short, I had the realisation that I needed to really be writing what I loved reading. And this sort of male-dominated literary fiction wasn’t that. So I think in order to escape the drudgery that I was finding in this particular experience, I did NaNoWriMo and wrote part of this. Somewhere along the way, I had it in my head, I’m going to indie publish this. Once I’d committed to doing that, I wasn’t looking back at all.
I enjoy the business side, I enjoy the production side, there’s something really magical about being able to put together your own book from start to finish and have the creative control and have the, you know, control over the production schedule. Once I’d made (the decision to self-publish), I invested in quite an expensive course. I think that was an important step for me, in order to realise that I’m taking this really seriously. This is a career move, this isn’t a whim. This is something that can be a foundation for the next, you know, two, three decades of my life, hopefully. So yeah, that’s sort of how it all kicked off.
What are your big takeaways from the indie process? What advice would you give to someone who was looking to move into that sphere?
I guess the first thing I would say is, take the time, and if you have it, the money to educate yourself on the industry, on the production process, and really examining what sort of books you want to put out. There’s so much to be learned from the people who came before you. I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make hen when they’re thinking about indie authors is that it’s this like super fast, super quick, sort of hard and fast thing that you can just do and get your book out. But if you do it right, it’s nothing about self at all. It’s not a solo effort. I have a production team, just like HarperCollins has one. It’s smaller, but all the same people are there, like the beta readers, the copy editors, the proofreaders, the cover designers. I’ve got a map maker: all these different people who are part of this team.
The course that I mentioned before is called Self Publishing 101 by Mark Dawson. And like, I’m not gonna lie, it’s an expensive course, but that was an investment in myself and an investment in my career. And I’ve made that back. Easy. I made that back within the first week of publishing that book.
So the main takeaway is to educate yourself. Don’t go in blind. Don’t go in and assume it’s going to be this easy path.
Yeah, 100%. And I think if I were to tag anything onto that: with marketing, what you put in is what you get out.
I think that’s an interesting point, between potentially indie and traditional, when you were talking about traditional marketing. Two things: I think, unless you’re a lead title with a publisher, your marketing budget, your marketing efforts going into your book, I don’t think they’re going to be anything special. You get this six week window to have your book do well. And if it doesn’t do well, it just sort of like, falls off the edge of a cliff.
Whereas if you’re indie, and what I think has helped me do well, is that you have the control to target people specifically who just review books like yours. So you know, you can find a comp title. So for the Oremere Chronicles, for example, one of the comp titles for me has always been Throne of Glass. So what I might do is google Throne of Glass reviews, and have a look at who’s reviewing that book, who loved it. Don’t even bother with the people who don’t like it.
You find the people who are giving it four or five stars, check their review policy. And then they might be people that you approached, rather than just putting it out there or throwing it out into the void and potentially not reaching the right people and getting bad reviews for a book. That’s actually good. But you just targeted the wrong people, or not getting any reviews at all, which is also, you know, doesn’t help any book.
I primarily go through Instagram, for reviewers. I send them one message and then if they say no, I leave them alone. But you’ve got like, do you have like the serial killer list in Excel, of like, ‘this person messaged on this date: yes, no, send follow up?’
Yeah, that pretty much sums my entire outreach process every year.
I think it’s an interesting thing. With the indie publishing, yes, you’re alone. But you’re also so much less alone, because you’ve got a team that you can reach out to, and that they are there for you. And, you know, even if you bring on board, like a publicity person, or if you bring on board a marketing person, they’re not even like their loyalty isn’t divided between other books that they have to sell as well. And I mean, I’m not saying that publicists in traditional publishing companies are like well, I’m going to push this book over that book, but their time is also limited, and their resources are limited. And their capacity to kind of have the mental hold on all of the different books that they’ve got to market, it’s limited. So they have the superior resources and reach. But that’s not necessarily the most important thing.
Something that I’ve said to quite a few new indie authors is no one is going to work harder for your book than you are. So why would you be giving away like 90% of the royalties to someone else, when you know, you go indie, you can get like up to 70%.
You can also pivot a lot more easily. As an indie like, if a particular strategy isn’t working, you can change it and you can move on to the next thing. You can see what someone else is doing and have a crack and see if that works for you.