I'm a big fan of dystopian fiction. George Orwell's 1984 is one of my favorite books of all time, much like many readers. So, I wanted to talk to a dystopian fiction author who understands the conventions of their genre to learn more about their writing process and what it takes to write a book like this.
I recently caught up with Aaron Gransby, who is a former journalist. A bit like me. However, he's a lot more experienced in the area. He's currently a magazine publisher, and he's written a new dystopian thriller.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Aaron: Don't give yourself a hard and fast deadline. Even though, like you, I kind of thrive on deadlines. But I think just that it happened, really. But if you want to keep writing, just keep writing. You'll get there eventually.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Would you like to write some dystopian fiction? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today channel. I'm a big fan of dystopian fiction. George Orwell's 1984 is one of my favorite books of all time, much like many readers. So, I wanted to talk to a dystopian fiction author who understands the conventions of their genre to learn more about their writing process, and also what it takes to write a book like this. I recently caught up with Aaron Gransby, who is a former journalist. A bit like me, I guess. Although he's a lot more experienced in the area. He's currently a magazine publisher, and he's written a new dystopian thriller.
In this week's interview, he explains why he decided to write in this type of genre, what the conventions are, and how he approached writing his book. He also has some fantastic takeaways about how to use deadlines. As you can imagine, a newspaper editor is pretty knowledgeable about the ways to manage and not manage your deadlines. So, I was particularly intrigued to hear it from Aaron, as I was somebody who used to struggle a lot with my deadlines back when I worked as a journalist. Now, my other takeaway from talking to Aaron is, even though he was confident in editing his own work — thanks to his professional experience — he still took the time to go out and send early drafts of his work to friends, to family members, to former colleagues, and basically to eagle-eyed readers who would explain to him if they saw something that was confusing or something that needed clarifying, or perhaps even a few typos and other mistakes to pick up. In other words, he didn't just rely on his own judgment before getting the book out into the world. That's the key takeaway for any author. You need to get some help with your book, whether it's a good editor, a good proofreader, or beta readers who are going to provide you with some helpful feedback.
I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Aaron. It was a fun one. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store. Because your reviews do help more writers find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And if you really want to help, please consider sharing this show with another writer or a friend. You can share on Overcast, Stitcher, or Spotify, or wherever you're listening. Perhaps leaving a review is the best thing to do to help the show. Now let's go over to this week's interview.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Aaron.
Aaron: Thanks, Bryan. Lovely to be with you.
Bryan: It's great to talk to you today. You are a former journalist. Maybe you've had a bit more experience in the field than I had, or more luck. But how did your writing journey begin?
Aaron: Well, it began at a young age, really. I was a newspaper reporter when I started at 18. I moved up the ranks fairly swiftly. I was in local newspapers around the London area. I went on to become a newspaper editor for about a decade, running regional newspapers in and around London, before starting a magazine, which was almost 20 years ago now remarkably. So, I was writing all the time or editing other people's writing, but I hadn't really gone back to do any creative writing since school.
But then, probably about 10 years ago, I just started having some ideas about stories that I would like to write and stories that actually I would like to read. I started, after a while, to just make some notes on these, in between doing a full-time job and running a business. They eventually became crystallized into a set of ideas that I thought, yeah, I think they're going to be good enough to actually sit down in a book. So, I started very much like that.
Bryan: Are you still working as a magazine publisher?
Aaron: I am. Absolutely. I'm desperately hoping, of course, like any author, that in the future, I might not have to do that and I might earn some money from my writings. But for the moment, it's still a day job that's necessary but one that I enjoy.
Bryan: It can be hard with the first book. I wrote my first book on the side. I had a job as a copywriter for the British software company, Sage. Perhaps you know them.
Aaron: Yes, indeed.
Bryan: Did you write your book in the mornings before work or in the evenings afterwards?
Aaron: Definitely, the evening to me, Bryan. I'm not a morning person. The idea of getting up at five o'clock to write definitely would not appeal. For me, it was very much the evenings. I would tend to get home probably about seven, in general. I would then sort of sit down and just force myself really to get started, say, within an hour or so after getting home. The good thing about it was, once I got started, it then just took over. I found myself working far too late because I just got the ideas. I got the muse. I got started, and I couldn't really stop it. So, to me, that tended to work well. But it is never easy to be doing that on top of a day job because you come home, you're tired. You think, well, I'd rather just relax or chill out. But I think if you've got the ideas for the book and you really want to write it, it finds a way of coming out. For me, that was working late into the evenings and also any spare time I had at weekends.
Bryan: I found it quite hard to write in the evenings, because I was just mentally exhausted from looking at the computer screen all day. Plus, I had small kids at the time, so I defaulted to writing in the mornings. Did you outline your book Outside in advance, or did you have an idea in your head about what it was about already?
Aaron: I had an idea in my head of what it was about. But the thing with Outside was, I actually started by writing short stories which were on a similar dystopian theme. I'd written about three or four of those stories when one that I was writing became Outside effectively. There was a scene I was writing. I just thought, actually, I think this would go into this sort of bigger, overarching story that I had in mind for Outside. That actually took over. So, I ended up starting writing and finishing the novel before I went back to the short stories. So, it was the other way around. It's not how I'd intended, but the story just took over. So, that was really how that began.
I didn't really outline the whole thing. I started off, and I had these scenes and these characters and these ideas. I just started writing it, and it took on a life of its own. It did change a lot as time went on. I think certainly the one thing I've learned from writing that first one is it really would have helped if I had actually set the whole story out in advance. That definitely would have helped. When it comes to the follow-up, I've already done that. So, I'm quite pleased. Because I think that will make life an awful lot easier.
But with the first one, as I say, it just took on a life of its own. I just started writing and carried on writing. The chapters moved around a little bit, which might sound a bit odd. But it's sort of how it happened. By the time the final — what I had originally intended to be the final version — was done, it was certainly a little bit different from the way I'd imagined it. But the themes were there. The initial themes that I'd had in mind, they were all still there in the book.
Bryan: You said there's a follow-on to Outside. So, is this in addition to the collection of short stories that you're publishing soon?
Aaron: Yes, absolutely. The short stories are almost ready to go. I'm anticipating that they will come out in April. The title of that collection is Destination. That's because each of the stories deals with a possible destination that we may be going as a society in the near future. Then the follow-up to Outside will be after that, either later this year or possibly early next year.
Bryan: Oh, great. So, could you give listeners the premise or the pitch for your book, for Outside?
Aaron: Yeah, certainly, Bryan. Absolutely. As you rightly said, it's a dystopian thriller. It's set in the near future that I think we would probably all recognize. It concentrates on the relationship between London and the suburbs in the shires, but also the relationship between the haves and the have nots. At its heart is a story of a man who suffers a miscarriage of justice who's determined to find out why that happened, and to put it right. I think it can be read on the surface as hopefully an enjoyable thriller with an eye on the future, realistic settings and good, interesting characters. But for those who want to look for them, it also asks more profound questions about the nature of our society now, and also where it could be heading if we're not careful.
Bryan: I'm guessing you're a big fan of George Orwell.
Aaron: I certainly have read George Orwell. Yes, absolutely. I think things like 1984, et cetera, obviously, are an influence. Also, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which I think I read many years ago, and certainly J.G. Ballard. I mean, Ballard was possessed of an extraordinary imagination, which the scope of his writing over a long period of time was remarkable. So, I would definitely say that he would have been an influence on my writing as well.
Bryan: I haven't read him. I'll have to add him to my list.
Bryan: Have you watched Black Mirror, the dystopian TV show on Netflix?
Aaron: I haven't, and I should have done. A few people have recommended that I should, so I think that's definitely got to go on my viewing list.
Bryan: Yeah, that one was quite a little bit similar to the themes that you addressed in your book.
Aaron: Yeah, a few people have said that they definitely saw the thing, a similarity there, to say the least.
Bryan: If somebody is listening and they're thinking what does a good dystopian thriller need to include, or what should the tone of it be, what would you say the tone or characteristics of dystopian thrillers is?
Aaron: I would say — I mean, this is a slightly difficult one. Because if you Google dystopia, a lot of the time, people will come up with things that make it sound as though a dystopian society is very, very dark and very, very difficult. I can see that, certainly, if you read 1984 by George Orwell, then you can imagine that. For me, I've got a slightly lighter version of a dystopia, if you like, in my writing. It's a vision of where we could go if we're not careful. It's taking certain elements of today's society and taking them perhaps to the extreme. But it's not necessarily the case that everything is absolutely awful.
With my book, the democratic system of government has failed. So, we have an unelected government which runs the city as the centerpiece of the country. The reason for the change of government is the successive democratic government's failure to get a long-term grip on the issues that face us — everything from the NHS, education, public services in general, and the climate crisis. The thinking behind it is that they're never able to get hold of those properly, because all they can ever do is focus on short-term goals in order to get elected. So, there's been a change of system in my book. The country is run on much more business-like lines by an unelected government called the board. It stems down hard on criticism and criminality. But conversely, it does provide spectacularly good services for those who live within the city. The city, as a result of its focus on relentless success, makes the money that pays for the rest of the country. But the difference is that the rest of the nation is very much second-class compared with the city.
The idea of this particular dystopia is you have one place, the city — which is obviously based on London — where citizens live amazing lives, but they have to work incredibly hard for four days of the week. Then they play even harder for the other three. Their reward, if you want to call it that, is to have pretty much everything they could ever ask for in terms of a good time and materialism. The outside, which obviously is where the title of the book comes from, is basically today's suburbs and shires, which has been left behind both technologically and financially. But the outsiders who live here are poorer financially but perhaps richer as human beings. A lot of the action for that area where the Outside is based on real places, around where I live in Saint Albans, in Hertfordshire, in Watford, in London Borough such as Harrow, where, again, I used to live and work. So, I know them quite well.
Bryan: When I read about the writing process of fantasy authors and science fiction authors, they described world-building whereby they write about their rules and law in politics and mythology of where their book is set. But that actual writing doesn't go into the book directly. It's more to help them actually come up with the plot and the characters. Is that something that you spend most of the time on, or did the terms that you used there naturally emerged as you wrote the book?
Aaron: They really did naturally emerge, Bryan, to be honest with you. It was really, as I was writing, these small ideas, individual ideas came into my head. I started then to sort of extrapolate on those and thinking it through logically. The world-building side of things very much followed from the initial thoughts and the first bits of writing. So, I certainly did find myself embellishing those and adding to those as I went through. It's helped in terms of planning the follow-up as well, to really think that through and think, okay, so if this happens, if the society is like this and the government is like this, then what are the echoes of that that are going to come through into the next book, so that you can make sure that things follow through properly, and you don't end up with mistakes?
Bryan: In terms of your actual writing process, Aaron, did you have a specific app that you used or a tool? Did you just default to Microsoft Word, or did you run it longhand?
Aaron: I defaulted to Microsoft Word; I must admit. That was straightforward for me. When I'd been working on the plus idea for the second book, I have written that longhand, I must admit. I think perhaps just a little bit old-fashioned on that front, but it's quite nice. I do find if you're actually sitting there and writing it out properly, it does seriously make you think about where you want to go with it. You're putting your ideas into the plot line. But in terms of the actual writing, the manuscript itself, yes, straight into Word. Nice and easy.
Bryan: Yeah, Neil Gaiman writes a lot of his stories and already drafts longhand with an expensive fountain pen at the back of his house.
Aaron: That's really good, yeah. I think an expensive fountain pen is excellent. It's a lovely thing. It certainly makes you think about the quality of your work and the quality of your writing. Funnily enough, one of the short stories for Destination — the collection that's going to be coming out in the spring — I did actually start that. I started writing it longhand initially just to write the idea out. It just that particular story just completely flowed. Within an hour, I'd written three and a half 1000 words for the short story, all longhand, all in an A4 notepad. The final version is barely different from it. That was remarkable, but it was unusual.
Bryan: You must have had to put your hand in a bucket of ice after writing 30,000 words.
Aaron: I know. I must admit. Writer's cramp definitely did come into it.
Bryan: Yeah, even typing that much will give me RSI.
Aaron: Yes, absolutely.
Bryan: When you've written your draft, does a newspaper or a former newspaper editor edit their own work?
Aaron: Yes, I did. But I have to say, to be honest, the editing process for me was actually straightforward. Because, obviously, I'll have a slight advantage here, Bryan. It is what I've done for many, many years. So, the editing side of things, I found relatively easy. Editing my own work wasn't that difficult. I didn't become too attached to certain scenes. In fact, a few scenes, a few chapters that I've written, that at the time I thought were reasonably good, actually came out of the final book completely. So, they didn't even make it into print. Although, you never know. They might be revived somewhere down the line in a future follow-up.
But what I did do was I did have about half a dozen of my close friends read the first version of the book. Indeed, one or two of them read more than one version very kindly. I use people who I knew, knew me well enough to be able to say, "Actually, Aaron, this is rubbish," or, "You really need to improve this," or, "Do you really think that's good enough?" Fortunately, for me, Bryan, the feedback was very positive. But I certainly did get quite a lot of comments, a lot of ideas, a lot of thoughts from people that made a difference and enabled me to go back and edit that first version and turn it into a better second version, a better third version, et cetera, until I finally ended up with a story I really genuinely felt was good enough to actually print.
Bryan: Anytime I've done that, that exercise that you described, it is invaluably helpful. Because people will ask questions or suggest changes that I hadn't thought about at all, or I did assume people would just understand. I read a lot of nonfiction. But I've also had to triage feedback that was conflicting. One person would say, "Write more about this topic." Then someone else would say, "Take all of this out. It was boring." Did you have that kind of experience?
Aaron: I did. I had a very, very similar experience, Bryan. Some of the feedback I had — to be fair, all of the feedback I had was incredibly helpful. I knew it was coming from a good place as well because it was people I knew. And so, none of it was wasted. I think I probably took on board, to be honest, an awful lot of it one way or another. There were certain people came up with a few details that I hadn't thought of, that I actually added in, and I think have definitely improved the final book.
But there was other feedback. Because the other thing I found with this is that when I've had feedback from people who've now read the final book, a lot of people are reading it just on the surface as a thriller. Other people are reading a little bit more into it. Again, it was the same with the people that I asked to read the early versions. Some of them were very much just giving me feedback as a very straightforward novel, and others were thinking a little bit more about the ideas behind it. So, it was really useful to have different people actually giving their input on it. It certainly gave me something to think about and undoubtedly lead to a better book. So, I would seriously urge anybody like me writing their first novel to seek out some opinions from people that they do trust and they can rely on.
Bryan: Did you need to get a proofreader at any point?
Aaron: No, that's the fortunate thing for me. I was able to do that myself that, although one of my readers is also a professional journalist. She was also able to do a lot of the proofreading side for me. I thought I'd caught everything, but there's always someone who'll catch something.
Bryan: True. In terms of the actual timeline, to go from the initial idea when you're writing on the side of work to the finished version, a year or two years?
Aaron: I would say this one was probably about two years. I think that was partly because it started out with the short stories. Then within a few months, I then started writing Outside. If I'm honest, I think it could have been quicker. I think the follow-up will definitely be quicker. I expect that to have that start and then finish within a year. But when you're doing it for the first time, you have so many other things to think about as well in terms of what you're going to do with the book, how you're going to actually produce it, print it, where you're going to go with it. So, there are a lot of other things you're thinking about.
As you said as well, yourself, with your first one, you're doing a full-time job as well. So, there were so many other things in life you have to deal with. I think, with your first one, maybe don't give yourself a hard and fast deadline. Even though, like you, I kind of thrive on deadlines. But I think just that it happened, really. But if you want to keep writing, just keep writing. You'll get there eventually.
Bryan: You mentioned you thrive on deadlines. Is that because newspaper editors are famous for deadlines? Did you actually give yourself, imposed deadlines at any point in the project?
Aaron: I got to the stage about probably about six months in to the serious writing of Outside, where I said to myself, "Right, if you don't give yourself a deadline, this could go on forever." Because I think particularly maybe with the first book, you think, well, is it ever going to be perfect? By perfect, I mean, do I think it's good enough to publish? Of course, the answer to that would be no. You could probably go on making amendments and changes and improvements forever.
So, I did give myself a little bit of a deadline. It wasn't a hard and fast one. But I did say to myself, "Right, within the next three months, I want that first draft completed. Then I'll give it to half dozen people. I'll give them a month to come back to me." Fortunately, for me, everyone was very good. It came back within a week or two. From then on, yes, I did set myself deadlines to get the revised manuscript finished, to work out how the printing was going to happen, where it was going to get distributed, all of that kind of stuff. I think once it got to that stage where I felt like I genuinely had a book, that was when I really let the deadlines kick in and force myself to do it. That was invaluable in actually bringing the final product to market.
Bryan: I'm looking at the cover here. So, it's a red text on an off-white background. It's the protagonist looking out onto this city. Where did you get it, or how did your designer come up with the concept?
Aaron: Well, I was incredibly fortunate here, Bryan. I discovered the work several years ago of an artist and printmaker called John Duffin. I absolutely loved his work. It just resonated with me personally. He's very much focused on often lone figures in an urban background. I found it incredibly interesting and loved his work. I just decided to be incredibly cheeky. So, I found his website. I emailed him, and I asked him if there was any prospect that he might allow me to use one of his images for the jacket with the book. Because there was one in particular I've seen which I just felt was absolutely perfect for it.
I was very fortunate. I sent him a synopsis of the book. I sent him the first couple of chapters to have a read, thinking maybe if he likes it, he might say yes. He came back to me with an incredibly generous email and agreed for a stupidly small fee, to be fair. I shouldn't say that, because I want to use him again. But it was a small fee, very kindly. He allowed me to use it. I was able to do that. As I say, because his work resonates with me, I'm hoping very much to use John's work again going forward, so that the series that I have has a real feel to the design.
Bryan: Yeah, your cover looks quite good on Amazon with a white background.
Aaron: Thank you.
Bryan: Outside is available on Kindle, paperback, and hardcover. Do you have any plans to create an audiobook?
Aaron: Very good question. A few people have said to me that I should do an audiobook, so I am thinking that that is something I should look at. I would like to think so. I think it would be worthwhile. The hardcovers, I had printed myself. So, I had them done really well. The quality of those was one of the reasons why I wanted to sort the publishing out myself, was I wanted to have that creative control for the jacket and also the quality of the book.
Bryan: Is this the hardcover now that you're selling direct rather than the Amazon one?
Aaron: That's it. Yeah, that's the one. I sell that direct from my website. Then on Amazon, it's available, as you rightly say, as both a paperback and an e-book.
Bryan: Yeah, I narrated an audio book during the pandemic. It took a long time, because we kept going into lockdown.
Aaron: Yeah, I bet that was fun.
Bryan: Yeah, well, actually, the narration itself was fun, but it took months. It was quite exhausting. It was non-fiction. I found, after two or three chapters, my voice would start to break, or I would start to stumble over some of my words. Two hours of narration a day was about the most I could get through. I have this new respect for audiobook narrators.
Aaron: Yes, absolutely.
Bryan: I listened to a few people talk about narrating audiobooks. They said, for non-fiction, it's easy for the author because it's in your voice. Whereas with fiction, you have to get the voice of the different characters. So, it's more work again. Basically, Stephen Fry is exceptionally talented.
Aaron: Yes, he's probably also exceptionally expensive. I don't think he's available.
Bryan: You could be right.
Aaron: Although, Stephen, if you're listening and you fancy doing it for free, just give me a call.
Bryan: That's something to think about if you decide to do the narration yourself versus commissioning someone else.
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. It could be an awful lot of hard work.
Bryan: Outside is available now. When are you releasing the short stories?
Aaron: The short stories, I'm expecting to be available in April, all being well. So, not long at all now.
Bryan: Have you set a deadline for the follow-on, or is that still at draft stage?
Aaron: Still at draft stage. I would love to get it for later this year. But if I'm being realistic, which I ought to be, I would say probably early 2024.
Bryan: Interesting. Good. Nice. Just to switch gears for a moment. You're writing your books on the side of working as a magazine publisher. You mentioned at the start of the interview that you're a former journalist. Because you've had experience in different types of writing, from running a business to managing writers, to being an indie author. Do you think it's more difficult or easier for writers today to earn a living from their craft?
Aaron: I would imagine — did you mean as a journalist or as an author?
Bryan: Both, yeah. I'd be interested in your perspective on both.
Aaron: Well, the journalistic side is a difficult one. Because when I started work, I was working in regional newspapers. They were still quite important and still earning money for companies, so they were successful. By the time I left the industry, it was very much on its way out because of the digital revolution, and also just the way that companies were running those businesses. So, I would say, for somebody like me who was effectively a local newspaper journalist for the first half of their career, then that is now incredibly difficult. I would feel quite sorry for anybody who still start out on that particular path.
In terms of authorship, I think if you read — you can read so much about being an indie author. There are so many upsides about it. But the thing that's difficult about it or more difficult than writing or publishing a book is the marketing side of things. I think that's where — there are an awful lot of very good independently published books out there, as well as some that are not so good, as with anything in life. But I think if there was a focus somewhere on people who could really, really help you get those marketed properly, so that you can earn some reasonable money from it, that is something that we could definitely do with. Because the marketing side is not easy.
I have my book on Amazon. I've spent some money on Amazon ads. But the best response I've had in terms of sales for it has come where I've had direct publicity, that I've arranged myself through local newspapers and local radio. Every time I've done that, I've had a really good response and spike in sales. That's something you can do yourself. But even then, maybe I was fortunate because my work background meant that that was a bit easier for me to sort out.
Bryan: My experience with Amazon ads is, a few years ago, it was quite easy to settle campaigns and manage them and sell books. Now it's actually a job in itself, and it's quite hard too. To run a profitable campaign on one book, you really need a series of books.
Aaron: Yes, that sounds right to me.
Bryan: I guess the good news is you're writing in a genre — thrillers, which sell quite well. So, if you have a series of books, ideally, your back catalogue will start to sell more. I was interviewing another author the other day. They were describing how most authors earn more from their back catalogue than they do from their latest book.
Aaron: Yes, that's very, very interesting to hear. That's something that I've read as well. There's hope there for the future for all of us.
Bryan: Aaron, where can people go if they want to pick up Outside or learn more about your work?
Aaron: Sure. Thank you. Well, my own website is aarongransby.com. You can order the hardback directly from there. There's also a link to Amazon where you can buy a paperback or an e-book. That's the best place to go to start with. That tells you a little bit more about me, about the book, and the characters. Of course, Mr. Bezos is lovely. At Amazon, you can buy direct from there, too.
Bryan: Thanks, Aaron. I'll be sure to include the links in the show notes.
Aaron: Thanks very much indeed, Bryan.
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