About Toni Allen:
I’m the author of five books, one translated into Italian; a photographer of note; a columnist; and an acclaimed Tarot reader and astrologer. My series, Jake Talbot Investigates, began with Visiting Lilly (2014), then Saving Anna (2015) and will continue with Finding Louisa (2016).
I live in Surrey, England, where I happily include pink grasshoppers in my macro-photography, as well as experimenting with abstract photography. For years I’ve tinkered with collecting antiques, having a passion for Bakelite and glass. Over the past few years I’ve started exploring my family tree, so now I’m on the hunt for one of the bird cages my 5x great-grandfather made. A long shot, but my research shows that he was a wire-worker, goldsmith and master-craftsman, so a piece of his work may still exist.
What inspires you to write?
I think, above all else, I’m a people watcher. Observing people sparks ideas in me all of the time. Who are they? What made them who they are? What is their story? I find every part of human behaviour fascinating, from how someone holds their knife, to their speech pattern and onto their body language. The clothes people choose to wear are secondary, but another clue as to their inner identity. A snippet of overheard conversation has me imagining all kinds of forward scenarios as to how their words might play out.
Objects are another inspiration, especially vintage and antique pieces that were previously owned by someone else. Who made it? Who originally bought it? Did they gift it to someone else? They say that every picture tells a story, but I find that everything tells a story, every single object has a fascinating back-story.
Human motivation is another fascinating curiosity to me. People interacting, whether positively or negatively, hold clues as to their motives. You could describe it as human desires, their need for a reaction as much as for the inter-action. We all want something out of every situation, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not.
I keep notes, lots of them, just snippets of life jotted down. I don’t construct an entire novel or story-line from any of these notes; I simply let them filter in of their own accord. They sit in my memory as sparks which help my work come alive.
Tell us about your writing process.
Before starting to write I have to know the beginning scene and the end scene. Without the end in mind, I have no idea where my story is going. I need that final conclusion firmly outlined in my head. No, I do not write it down. To write it down would be to stifle it, to stop the possibility of new characters appearing, or inhibit a plot twist from taking shape.
I also have a definite idea in my head of the overall theme, and a rough idea of the structure. In my mind I will already have written a few key scenes, some pivotal points which will ramp up the action. None of this is written down. At this stage writing anything down kills it for me completely. I enjoy letting the story unfold naturally. Once I do start to write, I always add bullet-point notes to the end of a chapter, stating what needs to go into the next chapter. For example: X meets Y, clue is revealed, end chapter at blah-cliff-hanger or shocking insight into the protagonist’s life-story.
Meanwhile I’m sticking copious notes onto my pin-board. These are plot facts, reminders as to what needs to happen, and questions marks about what I may have forgotten to include or threads I need to tie-up. This board does not get dismantled until my editor and I have finished editing. I have been known to read out every sticky-note to her, so that we can ensure all of the points have been covered.
For every novel I maintain character notes. As I’m writing a series, I already have a pretty good idea of what my main characters, Jake Talbot and Frankie Hayward, are like. This doesn’t stop me from keeping character profiles on them, as I’m always discovering more of their back-story, or having to update facts, such as their current ages. Yes, from book to book, characters get older, just like us. For new characters I start a Word doc, this is for those people who appear in the novel I’m currently working on, and might never be seen again. I start off by writing down basic facts, such as age, who’s married to who, and what part they’re playing in the story, such as ‘he did the murder.’ As I write, I copy and paste pertinent scenes that offer new information about each character under their heading. This not only reminds of what they have said or done, but also their speech pattern, colour of hair and eyes, etc..
One other thing I do, which is vital to my way of working, is to read the four or five pages of what I’ve already written, leading up to where I shall start my session. This gives me a run-up and gets me into the flow of where the characters are, the tension within the scene and, along with my bullet-point notes, reminds me of where the story needs to head next.
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
I watch my characters all of the time. I envisage them playing out the scene, like a movie. If the scene doesn’t work well, or doesn’t lead to where I want it to go, I start them back at the beginning and set them off again. Much of this isn’t conscious thought. I never think, ‘he must say this next,’ or ‘she has to walk over there,’ I let them do their own thing.
Of course, there are those blindingly awkward moments when I’m writing and my characters go and do something completely different to this pre-prepared visual that I’ve created. I then yell at them and say, ‘Why did you go and do that? That’s not in the script!’ This is not a good place to be in, for me or my characters. Rather than trashing what I’ve written and trying to bend the scene into my idea of how it should proceed, I step away from the computer and mull it through. This mulling might take only a few minutes, but I have known it stretch to several weeks. I never see this as down-time; I see it as a creative time. I run fresh scenarios in my head, try and work out where my character is taking me – and why. Mostly these scenes stay in and I work around them, because they tend to bring fresh blood to my writing, and introduce something that I never consciously thought of.
For fight scenes I use a stand-in, my boyfriend. He and I enact fight scenes, trying to choreography precisely where each character needs to be so that the fight works. At this point I become my main protagonist and he becomes the villain. I need to be completely in character, with that person speaking and acting through me at all times. Please note: do not do this when out for a country walk, as passers-by tend to think that you’re being beaten up. However, it is good fun explaining to them that you’re writing a novel, and involving them with your characters.
What advice would you give other writers?
This may sound like very simple advice, but the only thing a writer can ever do is to keep on writing. The act of writing helps you hone your skills. Yes, reading a variety of work helps too, but it’s only the process of writing that helps you discover your own voice.
Taking the brave step of joining a critique group is invaluable. Sitting alone writing, having no feedback except from your imaginary friends; is a very strange and solitary existence. Sharing your writing with others is scary. Not everyone will like your work. People within any critique group will all be at different levels of ability. Sometimes a group member will say something truly awe inspiring that helps you tighten up your work. That’s worth its weight in gold. Sometimes a group member will cut you down, because they had an argument with the cat before leaving home, or have just received a rejection from an agent. At times you’ll feel got-at, useless and as if you’re the worst writer in the world and will never make it. Grow a thick skin – it’s the only way to succeed.
Write, listen to peer group feedback, learn, re-write and grow your skills. Have fun!
How did you decide how to publish your books?
For my first two non-fiction books I self-published. With my first book I’m going back over ten years now, when mainstream publishers were the only choice, and self-publishing was in its infancy. One mainstream publisher sat on my manuscript for nearly two years, dangling the carrot that they might wish to publish, depending on their lists. I eventually asked for my manuscript to be returned and went down the new and exciting route of self-publishing. This wasn’t such a difficult decision, because marketing non-fiction is much easier than marketing fiction. On the back of my marketing efforts I was approached by an Italian publisher, and so now one of my books is translated into Italian and available to a wider audience.
My fiction has been a roller-coaster ride. Again, I started pitching novels out before self-publishing existed. I had rejections galore, but I also had encouragement, offers to re-read my work if I rewrote parts of it, and many apologies that their lists were full. I then tried self-publishing and discovered the hard way that marketing fiction is not the same as marketing non-fiction.
Meanwhile I was still pitching out to mainstream agents and publishers. Then, one day, I saw a write-up on Booktrope and their innovative concept of team-publishing. I went to their website and pitched by book. I heard nothing for eighteen months, but when they did contact me they asked to read my whole manuscript. Six weeks later they said that they’d like me to publish with them. Wow!
With Booktrope I have an editor on my team, the wonderful Cindy Wyckoff, who has really helped make my work the best it can possibly be. I have so much to thank her for. I also have a cover designer, proof reader and marketing manager. My marketing manager helps guide me on how to present by profile as an author, and with her help I’m learning the ins and outs of promoting fiction.
Mainstream publishers are taking more risks these days, devising ways of clawing back some of the superb talent they’ve lost to self-publishing. They’re not a dying breed, and to hook a big publisher is a dream, but life simply isn’t long enough to sit around waiting for others to make a decision about whether or not your work is reader-worthy. Self-publishing sounds like a quick and easy route, but before you press ‘publish’ on Kindle you have to do your groundwork. To have your work professionally edited is a must. It costs money, so be prepared. Build your author platform. Be prepared to work hard in order to gain recognition as an author.
If there’s a genuine new concept in publishing out there, as I found with Booktrope, explore it. Never think of sharing your profits as a loss, think of it as an investment, in yourself and your work.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
The publishing industry is presently in constant flux. When Amazon introduced Kindle the free book was the way to go, now everyone’s calmed down, and getting paid at least a few pennies for your hard labour isn’t considered unreasonable. I’m sure this will go in phases, but giving away your talent for nothing is still seen as a way forward. Let’s be read and known, rather than poor and never heard of.
Something has to crack as far as books in print are concerned. Hopefully someone will introduce a cheaper way of producing paperbacks, a pricing structure that’s able to compete with the digital download. It’s been proven that people remember and learn more from a physical book than from reading off a tablet, so the swing has to be back towards the delight of holding a lovely new book between our grubby paws. We like to have and keep books, to build libraries, to show off our collections. The tide will turn, of that I’m certain.
What do you use?: Professional Editor, Professional Cover Designer, Beta Readers
What genres do you write?: Mystery, thriller, divination
What formats are your books in?: eBook, Print, Both eBook and Print
All information in this post is presented “as is” supplied by the author. We don’t edit, to allow you, the reader, to hear the author in their own voice.