Can complacency with one’s comfort zone and the status quo cause us to miss out on potential adventures that are literally far from “home?” “Yes, I believe so,” says multi-published author Nick Albert. “Certainly it’s easy to get so stuck in the rut of modern life as to miss the opportunity to explore, but it’s important to realise adventure is largely a matter of perspective. Many people would consider taking a flying lesson as a great adventure but, for the instructor, it’s just another day at work.” Nick’s own perspective change helped him as a writer to recognise the adventure that is all around. “Some people may call it Mindfulness. For me, it’s just a way of looking for the positive story hidden in everyday events. Viewed from the right perspective, life is one big adventure.”
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Many an aspiring author has decided to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) following a life-changing experience which caused him/her to rethink perspectives and priorities. Was this the case for you?
A: I suppose the short answer is yes. However, things are seldom that simple. In retrospect I can recognise the succession of events which contributed to our overall feeling of discontentment with our lifestyle in England. Sometimes we get so focused on the task at hand, making a living, paying the bills and trying to save a little money that we completely forsake the pleasure of living. We were so busy playing the game, we forgot to stop and smell the flowers. Like water pressure building behind a dam, events were conspiring, each causing little cracks to widen until the dam crumbled.
Although our life was outwardly wonderful – I had a great job, a lovely home, a desirable car and so on – my wife and I couldn’t get away from the feeling it was all just window dressing, a meaningless sham. Then, within a few short months, I experienced several upsetting events. My father passed away, a close friend was killed in a car crash, another friend was diagnosed with brain cancer and several thousand of my workmates were made redundant. When I had my own health scare, I found my perspective had changed irrevocably. That change in perspective jump-started a sequence of decisions culminating in my wife and I beginning a new life here in rural Ireland.
Did I decide to put pen to paper because of what happened? No. I’ve always been a writer. My first book, “The Adventures of Sticky, The Stick Insect,” was completed when I was eight. Just five pages long and sprinkled with spelling errors, it was not a big hit with the critics. Undaunted, over the next 35 years I continued to write, gradually developing my skills, but not my spelling. What moving to Ireland gave me was space. At last I had the time I needed to write.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of relocating to rural Ireland? And the easiest?
A: In fairness, we weren’t trying to land on the moon, but I suppose the logistics of getting all my ‘ducks’ lined up was the most challenging aspect. There were so many things which needed to happen in the correct order. It was frustrating trying to communicate with banks, lawyers and property inspectors remotely, particularly as the vendor was in South America and only contactable via a weekly fax message. Fortunately, I’m passionate about making lists and keeping track, so when things went awry I was able to react quickly. In the end, I moved over and rented a cottage until we flopped gratefully over the finish line.
The easiest part of the move? One word, commitment. Once we had made the choice to relocate to Ireland, there was never a moment when we doubted the decision. That kind of clarity in our lives was very refreshing. Considering the relocation and then the huge project of renovating the property without any previous experience, I believe I’ve realised that, with patience, tenacity, careful research and a lot of planning, you can pretty much achieve anything. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to do it all over again though. Once is definitely enough – at least for now.
Q: Along with your latest release, you’ve written two comedy memoirs, a twisty thriller, a children’s book and a golf instruction book. Shouldn’t you just pick one horse and ride it?
A: Is that a law? I don’t think so. If you’ve got a story to tell, and you know your stuff, don’t let protocol hold you back.
Q: So how do you cope with writing for such diverse audiences?
A: Wear a different hat perhaps? I guess it’s a bit like method acting. I just listen for the internal dialog I hear when I’m telling a story or a joke. As a qualified golf coach, when I write about that subject, it’s very much as if I’m giving someone a lesson. The same principle applies to my other works. The humorous sections in the Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series sound very similar to how I tell jokes and the thriller has the same tension and misdirects I would use if I were telling that tale. By the way, there is only one copy of the children’s book. I wrote it for my grandson, he seems to like it.
Q: Plotter or pantser?
A: I’m definitely a plotter. Before I start writing any book, I create voluminous lists and flowcharts. It’s a long and arduous process but essential to create the framework for my story. Once the fingers are flying and the words flowing, I can permit my butterfly mind to occasionally flit off-track, secure in the knowledge I will never lose my way. Having a plan isn’t restrictive, quite the opposite, it encourages creativity. When I was writing Wrecking Crew, there were a couple of times when I was astonished by an event that just popped into my head, particularly as it slotted perfectly into the storyline. About halfway through the book, the protagonist Eric Stone opens the trunk of a car and there was… well, I won’t spoil the surprise. I recall sitting back in astonishment as I really had no idea what was about to happen. Of course, it was just my imagination running along ahead, something that could only happen because it had a clear path to follow.
Q: How does writing a thriller like Wrecking Crew differ from the process you would follow for one of your memoirs?
A: Writing memoirs need strict adherence to a good timeline, particularly for me, otherwise it is all too easy to jump about chronologically and that can become very confusing for the reader. My timelines are usually dozens of pages of A4 covered in scribbled notes and yellow post-it’s. It can take months to get all the events in the correct order. Usually my notes are just single-line memory triggers, meaningless to anyone but me.
For a thriller like Wrecking Crew and the follow up, Stone Façade, which is still under construction, I made a storyboard with detailed notes about each scene including links to important events in the overall plot. When you are trying to slip clues into the narrative to help or sometimes misdirect the reader, it’s crucial to have a clear plan. Thriller writing requires a considerable amount of research, particularly when the storyline touches on areas that are outside of the author’s experience. Google Earth and the internet is now a great resource for geographical research (and a real money-saver) but sometimes there is no substitute for getting hands-on. As part of my research for Wrecking Crew, I took a course in lock-picking as I knew it was a skill my protagonist would need to demonstrate. In the end, much of that scene ended up on the cutting room floor but it wasn’t for a lack of quality research.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your work while it’s in progress?
A: I share every chapter and here’s why. I’m very consistent, so if I make an error the chances are I’m just going to keep repeating it. To my mind, it’s far better to have a reliable eye watching over me and picking up any problems before it’s too late. I would hate to get off-track and not find out until I’ve wasted 120,000 words. Trust me, it happens.
In Zoe Marr, I’m very fortunate to have access to a wonderful editor. She’s based in New Zealand and I’m on the other side of the world here in Ireland. That time difference works to our mutual advantage. At the end of my working day I can email her a chapter or two, secure in the knowledge her edits and helpful comments will be waiting for my attention just after breakfast. It’s a great way to work.
Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher for your work?
A: I began looking for a publisher at about the time the industry began this seismic shift away from the traditional publishing model, brought about by the success of Lulu and Amazon as publishing platforms. At first I approached several agents along with those few publishers who were still accepting direct submissions. All I got in return was silence or cold boilerplate rejection letters. As someone who accepts refusal about as well as a child in a sweet shop, I found it all very depressing. However, when I saw J.K.Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) had experienced the same issue, I began to feel a bit less discouraged. Eventually I ran out of patience and opted for the self-published approach using the Amazon platform.
Over the next few years, I continued to make submissions, but now I had a better offering – a proven track record of sales, hundreds of great reviews and a solid social media presence. Finally, I received an offer to publish. In fact I had four within just six months. Suddenly, I had a dilemma. As a successful self-published author, what had I to gain from signing a contract to publish?
Most of the publishers were essentially offering to do what I was already doing but charge me a fee for the privilege. They were reticent to talk about marketing strategy, budgets or anticipated revenue, but were expecting me to sign over the artistic rights to my work. I chose to sign with Ant Press precisely because they were different. To begin with, they don’t sign books, they sign authors. Secondly, they have considerable experience publishing memoirs, so they really know their stuff. Thirdly, they asked me to make changes to my manuscripts – a lot of changes.
At that time I had two completed manuscripts, totalling almost 200,000 words. Ant Press asked me to make so many changes, it made my head spin. Even so, I was impressed they had such courage in their convictions. For a month we had robust but amicable discussions about what a new series of books would look like. I even rewrote a couple of chapters to see if I was comfortable with the stylistic changes they were proposing. Finally, we were in agreement and I became an Ant Press author. It was a proud day for me. I have no regrets.
Q: Where do you see the publishing industry moving in the next 10-20 years?
A: I see a lot of similarities between publishing and the film business just now. Since the financial crash, it feels like both industries have ceded editorial control to accountants. Whereas before the occasional blockbuster/bestseller supported the less financially successful, but equally important, remainder of their portfolios, now every book or film has to be a huge moneymaker. The financial pressures must be huge. I think this is why we’re seeing so many film remakes and sequels like, “The new blockbuster movie starring (insert famous name here)”. With both industries, this shift in focus has created some terrific opportunities for someone to come in and fill the void. Suddenly, we have Netflix, Sky and Amazon video producing exclusive content. Some of it is world class. The same thing has happened in publishing.
New technologies like Audible, Kindle and print on demand have created almost unrestricted routes to market for authors and modern cloud-based publishers. But, just like the internet, there’s a downside to this new freedom. The lack of editorial control on these platforms is degrading the market, swamping us with so many new books – many of them of questionable quality or subject matter – that it’s becoming difficult for customers to find what they want. I’ve read that 800-1,000 new books a day are published on the Amazon platform alone, with some genres becoming saturated. If the idea of self-publishing was to make it easier for aspiring authors to be seen, it’s close to failure. But there is some hope.
Much like the film and TV business, I think publishing will move further away from the traditional arrangement, work through this messy transitional phase and settle on a stovepipe model of quality exclusive content. Perhaps in the future we’ll see a Netflix sister company called Netbooks, asserting editorial control and producing top quality books and screenplays, written by their stable of authors and delivered exclusively to your device. Whatever happens, I’m confident the future will be exciting.
Q: If we were to take a peek at the bookshelves of your younger self, what might we have found there?
A: Hundreds of books piled chaotically. I was, and still am, a veracious reader, it’s an absolute must for any aspiring author. As a child, I was introduced to the wonderful world of books by my sister, when she gave me her well-thumbed copy of Winnie-the-Pooh. A short while later, I discovered The Story of Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting. I believe I read all 13 books in the series in a month. Introducing a child to the joys of reading is the greatest gift anyone can ever give.
When I was a student living in Norwich, England, my first flat was next door to the best secondhand bookshop in the city. What heaven! Back then I read a lot of sci-fi books and thrillers, purely for the escapism. Because I was from a forces family, I collected hundreds of military biographies. Other favourites in my collection were Clive James, David Niven and Spike Mulligan. These books were treasured possessions, I still have most of them now.
Q: And what would your current collection of reading material tell us about you as a person?
A: My collection is somewhat eclectic, I’m not sure what that says about me. I have a library and dozens of stacked boxes bulging with hundreds of golf books, biographies featuring authors from all walks of life, loads of thrillers, some sci-fi and the complete works of Sue Grafton, Lee Child, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett and William Shakespeare. I’m never without a book. One secret I can reveal, if I’m writing comedy, I’ll only read thrillers – and vice versa.
Q: If you could invite three famous authors (living or dead) to enjoy a bottle of wine and watch an Irish sunset with you, who would it be and why?
A: Only three? Tough choice.
- Gene Kranz, author of Failure Is Not an Option. Gene Kranz was present at the creation of America’s manned space program and was a key player in it for three decades. As a flight director in NASA’s Mission Control, Kranz witnessed firsthand the making of history. He participated in the space program from the early days of the Mercury program, through the moon landings to the last Apollo mission, and beyond. It would be fantastic to hear his story firsthand.
- Beth Haslam, author of the Fat Dogs and French Estates Beth is a fellow Ant Press memoirist and very much an inspiration to me as an author. She was brought up on a country estate in Wales. Her childhood was spent either on horseback, helping the gamekeepers raise pheasants, or out sailing. After a serious car crash, she set up her own consultancy business. As semi-retirement beckoned, Beth and her husband decided to buy a second home in France. This became a life-changing event where computers and mobile phones swapped places with understanding the foibles of the French, and tackling the language. Somehow, she found the time to write a bestselling series of memoirs. In many ways our journeys are similar. We’ve only chatted online, but I think she’d be great company over a glass of wine.
- Terry Pratchett. Because he died too soon and I’d like to have him back writing again.
Q: What’s the oldest, weirdest or most nostalgic item in your closet and what is your particular attachment to it?
A: An old Irish coin. It’s called a Punt and I found it in my father’s desk, when I was clearing it out shortly after his death. To the best of my knowledge my dad had never visited Ireland and he had no earthly reason to have or keep a coin that had no value. At that time my wife and I were planning our move to Ireland, so I felt it was a significant discovery, as if he were saying, “Go ahead, it’ll be grand!” which it was.
Q: What have you learned from your own journey as a writer that you would pass along to someone who came to you for advice about how to break into publication?
A: Before you write, read – a lot. Read what you enjoy. Read the kind of books you would like to write but be sure to observe the authors craft as you read. Take note of how they mix dialog with narration, how they paint their pictures and how they guide your mind. Try to look beyond the words to understand how the story was constructed. Do all this and more, before you put pen to paper.
When you begin writing, remember it is a craft, one that needs developing. No matter how talented you are at the beginning, your writing should always improve over time. You should expect your last book to be much better than your first. Never let anyone tell you that you are unworthy.
Understanding the difference between dreams and goals can make your task considerably less stressful. Dreams are the things we would like to achieve, but have very little control over – like winning the lottery. Goals are the steps we take towards achieving our dream – like buying that lottery ticket. Goals you control, dreams you don’t. That distinction is important. As a writer, you must focus your efforts and evaluate your success based only on the things you can control. Trying to do otherwise is a recipe for disaster.
Many excellent writers have given up because they made getting published their goal and failed. Trying to get published won’t make you a better writer, but being a better writer, and building a large social media following of people who like your work, will definitely help you to get published. Focus on what you can control.
Q: Any new projects in the works?
A: My ‘ideas folder’ is bulging with interesting storylines, but it would be a mistake to take on too much. Just now I’m writing the third book in the six-part Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series. It is progressing well and due out in early 2019. In the background I’m researching a book about my father’s fascinating life in the RAF. I’m also working on Stone Façade, the second in my Eric Stone thriller series. I am very excited about the twisty plot which will bring Stone to Ireland in search of a missing journalist, but not all is as it seems…
Q: Where do you see yourself 30 years from now?
A: I hope I’ll still be writing. Perhaps my spelling will improve. If I can average a book a year until I’m 90, that would be something special to look back on.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: Writing is the loneliest job in the world. I have only my characters and four dogs to keep me company, but becoming a successful author is a team effort. I have to thank my wife, my publisher, my editor, my cover artist and, most of all, the thousands of authors whose books I have read. I humbly stand on the shoulders of these giants, so I can reach a little higher.