We chat to Graham Downs
We to chat to South African author, Graham Downs. Read about his self-publishing journey, his first novel and his amazing Goodreads game (which I'm definitely going to do myself!)...
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Or did life step in and change your plans?
I've always enjoyed making up stories, but I don't think there was ever a time in school where I formalised that into "I want to be a writer." In fact, all through Primary and High School, all I ever wanted to do for a career was be a computer programmer. Which I now am, and I'm loving every minute of it. I'm so lucky to be doing what I've always wanted to do - I know that not many people can say that. I did, however, play a lot of table-top roleplaying games, especially in High School. I played Dungeons and Dragons, AmeriCHAOS 1994, GURPS, and... I can't remember the title; something to do with werewolves. More often than not, I ended up being the Game Master in our group. If you're not familiar, he's the guy (or, she's the girl, if you prefer - plenty of girls play roleplaying games) who makes up the story for the rest of the group, and tells them the results of their actions. It just always seemed natural for me, to take on that role. One of the genres that I loved to read in High School was gamebooks, and my favourites were the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever. I actually wrote a gamebook on our family's old 286 computer at one point. It was about a private eye, and it was terrible. I don't remember much about it, except for this one scene where the protagonist was following a trail of stompies (yes, I actually used that word) down the street in search of a suspect. Thankfully, this was long before the days of the Internet and backups, so that book has been lost, never to see the light of day.
Take us through your first novel, how the idea came and how it eventually came out into the world.
Having read voraciously throughout school, there were was about a decade or so afterward that I lost the habit. I got a job which took up most of my waking hours, and it was getting less and less convenient to pick up a book and read. Besides, when I did read, it was mostly for work - technical non-fiction, whitepapers, that sort of thing. That all changed in 2011, when my boss bought me my first iPad, and I discovered e-books. E-books changed my life. Suddenly, I could read wherever I was, whenever I had a spare moment. I could read during the day on breaks, on my cellphone, and in the evenings, I could flick on my iPad and pick up exactly where I left off. Slowly but surely, I rediscovered reading, and soon I was devouring everything I could get my hands on again. And then I started thinking, "Hey, I can do this. I could write something that people might want to read!" Still, it wasn't very serious. I hadn't heard of self-publishing at that point, and I wasn't about to go looking for an agent and a publisher. That was about all I knew of publishing back then. Find an agent, find a publisher. Get published. Who's got time for that? Besides, even then I instinctively knew that it was a stupid way to go about it. I was a developer, a do-it-yourselfer. It was the 21st Century. Who in their right mind would want someone else deciding whether their work was worth publishing? I knew there must be a better way, but I put it on the backburner. And then one of my Twitter friends, Ryan Peter, changed everything by self-publishing his fantasy novel, When Twins War, on Smashwords. I bought it, and I was in awe. "You mean, you can just... do it? Like, all by yourself?" "Yip, pretty much" was his reply (I'm paraphrasing). I began researching everything I could about self-publishing. I'd had this idea for a fantasy story swimming around in my head for some time, but it wasn't until then that I put the proverbial pen to paper. I wrote it from start to ready-for-publishing in about four months or so. Then I got hold of a cover designer - one of my ex-teachers from High School came to mind. She had been my English teacher, but she also used to run the Art department. I tracked her down and met with her, and we fleshed out the concept. Things were moving fast, and before I knew it, on 23 December 2012, A Petition to Magic went live on Smashwords. I published it on Amazon a week or so later, and that's been more-or-less the norm for each book thereafter - first Smashwords, into global distribution, then Kobo (separately, so I can take advantage of Kobo-specific deals and run promos there), then Google Play, then finally Amazon.
You've gone the self-publishing route - do you have some advice for others wanting to go this way?
I never seriously considered any other route, but I will say that I've learnt a lot about self-publishing. It's a lot of work, and takes commitment. And it's getting harder as time goes on and the market becomes more saturated. I'd say, first and foremost, you have to produce a stellar product. That product's not just the story, it's the editing, the title, the cover, the blurb... the whole package. Then, I'd say that you have to realise that what you've just produced is just that: a product. Don't get too attached to it. It's not some ethereal thing up on a pedestal. It's no different from a DVD, a board game, a set of tools that someone buys to do their woodwork with... and it's competing for people's attention with all those other things too. Also realise, despite all that, writing is a labour of love. Don't expect to publish your first, or fourth, or sixth, book and quit your job. Some of the best known authors in history had day jobs for many years. Some, until the day they died. Having said that, most of those authors were traditionally published, so I think that if it's your goal to write full-time, and you've got a good head for business and can detach yourself from the product you're producing, self-publishing gives you the best chance to achieving that goal. Just, think carefully about your reason for writing. Me, I never really expected to quit my job and write full-time. I now see that as a possibility, but I'm not really sure how I feel about it. As previously stated, I love my job, but I'd love to have more time to write. Maybe one day I could reduce my hours at my day job. It's not an "all or nothing" thing. Oh, and don't ever let other people pressure you or make you feel bad because you haven't achieved their idea of success. This is your journey, so enjoy it.
Take me through your top three books of all time?
Top three? Hmm... Well, first off, I'd have to say The Sneeches by Dr Seuss. I read a lot of Dr Seuss in the '80s, but that one (along with Green Eggs and Ham) are the two that stuck with me the most. I think both those books really speak to our situation in South Africa, then and now, and I think everyone in this country should read them - but definitely the Sneeches. Secondly (okay, maybe I cheated a bit above, by giving you two), Stephen King's IT. I watched the movie years before I read the book, and I was amazed by the sheer depth of the book. I think it was my first real introduction into the writing of Stephen King, and I've been a massive fan ever since. Finally, I'd have to say Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Similarly, I watched The Legend of the Seeker TV series some time before I read the book, and I loved it. The book is much deeper again, but also much more vivid, violent, psychological. Those three (four) books altered the way I perceive the world, which is the whole point of good fiction, in my opinion. Also, those three books are from wildly different genres, which I think speaks to how I write. I read everything I can get my hands on, because I get bored if I stick with one genre for too long. So too, with my writing: I've published six books in four different genres, and my current work in progress has nothing to do with any of them.
What are your currently reading?
Right at this moment, I'm reading a mob-thriller called Paradise Burns by J.P. Sumner. After that, I've been asked to read and review two books - one is a religious thriller, and the other a non-fiction book about writing. By the time you read this, who knows? I have an interesting system for figuring out what to read next: I have just over 700 books on my Goodreads to-read shelf, and when I finish book, I hit up random.org and generate a number from 1 to 700. I find the book in my to-read shelf at that number, read the synopsis and decide if I still want to read it. If not, it gets deleted from my shelf and I pick another number. If so, I buy it and read it. And of course, the books on that shelf run the gamut of genres, from fantasy to horror to romance to children's books. I'll read absolutely anything.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I'm working on a story about a guardian angel and the adventures he goes on as he figures out his new role in life. It doesn't have a proper title yet. As to when you can expect it, I don't know - one of the beauties about self-publishing is that things will be ready when they're ready. It's my longest, most ambitious project yet, though, so it's taking me a lot longer than normal. All of my existing stories have been short, with the longest being just over 13 000 words. For this one, I'm hoping to hit 40 000. Also, as I alluded to above, it has nothing to do with any of my previous works, so I'm finding myself having to come to terms with the expectations of an entirely new genre.
When you're not writing, what are you doing?
My wife and I watch a lot of TV. We love cooking shows and gameshows. Right now, we're binging our way through Iron Chef America and The Wall. Other than that, I spend quite a bit of time honing my software development skills, and have a couple of personal coding projects on the go.
Ever write in coffee shops?
I haven't, no. It's quite tough for me to write anywhere else, because I'm not very independent. I suffer from a hereditary eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. In a nutshell, I have no peripheral vision and am completely night-blind, and one of the biggest consequences of that is the fact that I can't drive. During the week, I wait for about an hour after work for my wife to fetch me That's when I do most of my writing. Speaking of my wife, I'd be remiss if I didn't give her a mention in this interview. Honestly, words cannot express how grateful I am to have such a wonderful woman in my life. We leave before sunrise in the morning to get me to work on time, so she can drive an extra 30 minutes to be at her own job before eight. And in the evenings, we do it all over again in reverse. I honestly could not do this without her. Love you, babes!
Lastly, what is the best way for people to get hold of your books?
My books are available everywhere, in electronic and print form. Search or ask for me at your favourite store, and if they don't stock my books, badger them until they do. Failing that, all the links are on my website. Hit me up at www.grahamdowns.co.za, then pop me an e-mail and say Hi.