As is the case with many authors, they take a page from their life experience as the jumping point for a story. That was definitely true for KC Murdarasi. The idea for this Scottish author's novel came about from her missionary service in Albania. Read her full Author Interview below!
1. List the titles of your published books (include publisher and year published) plus your author website/Facebook page links.
Augustine: The Truth Seeker
Christian Focus Publications, 2014
The Snow Queen (audio adaptation)
Word of Mouth Productions, 2014
Patrick of Ireland: The Boy Who Forgave
Christian Focus Publications, 2015
2. When did you start writing your first book? Where did the idea come from? Include the synopsis.
I was working as a missionary in Tirana, Albania, when I started my first book. My mother drew my attention to a competition that the publisher Scripture Union was running, to find ‘the next Patricia St John’, a well-loved Christian children’s author. As soon as she mentioned it I realised that I did have some ideas that had been dwelling in my mind for a while, and I would like to combine them into a book.
The result was Leda (or Over the Mountains, as it was originally called), which distilled my years of experience in Albania, and the painful history of that beautiful country, into an exciting YA novel, complete with people trafficking, forced marriage and civil war!
3. What was the hardest part about writing your first book? What hurdles did you have to overcome?
One thing that I’ve discovered about myself is that I need to have deadlines. If I don’t have a real deadline, I have to make up one of my own, otherwise I won’t put in the work. I wrote the first half of Leda for the competition deadline, but after it was submitted I lost that sense of urgency, so that when it was long-listed, and they wanted the full manuscript, I was nowhere near finished! I was back in the UK by this time, and I remember many frantic hours at the desk in my parents’ house.
4. Once your manuscript was finished, what did you do?
The winner of the Scripture Union New Fiction Prize was guaranteed publication, so obviously I waited to find out whether I would win. In the end, my book made the short-list of three, but was not the winner. (That was Fire by Night, by Hannah MacFarlane.)
I hoped that Scripture Union would publish the short-listed books too, but they decided not to. I then went about submitting Leda to a number of Christian publishers, and had some frustrating ‘near misses’ before deciding to self-publish.
5. What did you expect from the editing process? How was the experience?
I’d had a bit of a bad experience with editing during one of the ‘near misses’, with a publisher that required me to put in an extra scene to fit their ethos, and then asked me cut a number of words equivalent to a whole chapter! (And this from a book that was already only 30,000 words long.) But when I came to self-publish it I was blessed to have the help of Dayspring MacLeod, a friend from university who now works as a writer and editor. She is a brilliant, sympathetic editor, who understands how my mind works, and she made some very helpful suggestions for Leda.
6. Describe what re-writing involves and how it makes you feel. How is it different than the initial writing?
I can’t stand editing, and to be honest I don’t do it very much. I know there are writers who see the first draft as raw ore to be thoroughly processed later, but I’m not like that at all. When I finish my ‘first draft’, that’s pretty much the finished product. I do line edits, of course, and change bigger things if necessary, but I prefer to tweak rather than re-write.
Of course, often I can’t see problems with the book, particularly things that make sense to me but are confusing to other people. That’s where a good editor comes in.
7. Did you have non-editors read your book for feedback (Alpha/Beta Readers)? What did you get out of that?
I’m a bit protective of my works in progress. I usually don’t like people (other than my editor) to see them until they’re ready to be published, or are published. However, before I self-published Leda, I sent a copy of the manuscript to Dr John Blanchard (a well-known Christian writer), contacting him through a mutual friend. He provided me with a lovely quote, which I used on the book cover and in my publicity. It gave my self-published book some extra credibility.
8. Who designed your cover? How much input did you have? How important is the cover design?
Again, I enlisted my friends. The mother of a good friend of mine is a graphic designer and agreed to produce the cover at ‘mates’ rates’. Cover design is hugely important. Like it or not, people do judge books by the cover. It tells you not only what genre the book is, but also what age-range. Remember when they brought out ‘grown-up’ Harry Potter covers, so adults wouldn’t be embarrassed at reading a children’s book in public?
However, the cover isn’t everything. I was persuaded to change the title of my book from Over the Mountains to Leda, because it looked much better on the book cover, and was quicker to read at a glance. I realised later that this was a mistake; readers struggle with how to spell and pronounce Leda, and it may put off a male audience.
9. How did you go forward with publishing? Why? How was that experience?
I decided to self-publish Leda with Matador, an imprint of Troubador that provides a very professional, end-to-end publishing service. It wasn’t cheap, but unlike publishing with, for example, Lulu, it meant that the book would be available on distributors catalogues, and therefore in normal bookshops.
I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to self-publish (which is a big investment of both time and money) if Leda hadn’t already proved itself, to some extent, by being short-listed for a prize and attracting the interest of a few publishers (even though for one reason or another it never made it to publication). As it is, I’m glad I self-published, because the reviews and sales of Leda provided a reason for publishers to take me seriously. It was thanks to Leda that I ended up writing two YA biographies for Christian Focus. In effect, it launched my career.
10. How have you marketed your first book?
I had a lot of useful church connections (since Leda is a Christian novel), as well as connections with people who have an interest in Albania, so I used those networks. I also contacted my old schools (since Leda is a YA novel) and did some author visits, as well as appearances at church events.
I sent press releases to local papers in Glasgow, where I live now, and in Sheffield, where I used to live, and I put a notification about Leda’s release in the Alumni News section of my University Magazine.
I have an author website, connected to a blog which I regularly update. Facebook was a useful tool at the time (2011), although now they’ve changed their algorithms so that hardly anyone sees what you post!
Word of mouth is also important, of course. Always tell people that you are an author and, if possible, have a copy of your book handy!
11. How was the initial feedback from readers?
The feedback was positive, thank goodness! It’s always a nerve-wracking time, waiting to hear what people think about your work, but the reaction to Leda was good, not just in person, but in Amazon reviews, too. The Baptist Union of Scotland agreed to review it, and gave me a lovely write-up. One of the lines was “K C Murdarasi writes beautifully and deeply theologically for young people”, which I now use on my media info sheet.
There’s sometimes quirky feedback, too. One of my male friends, who was ex-RAF, said he didn’t want to read it because, he joked, it wouldn’t have enough guns in it. I assured him it did have guns, because it deals with a civil war. He read it and told me it had “exactly the right amount of guns”. That’s not something I’m going to put on my media info sheet, but I love that review all the same!
12. How have sales been on your first book? Did they go as expected? What helps you the most to sell books?
Leda had a modest print run of 500, and sold about 300 in the first year. That may sound pathetic compared to bestsellers that shift hundreds of thousands, but it’s not bad for a niche, Christian YA novel. One day I would like to re-release Leda when I’m better known, so that it can hit a wider audience, but this game is all about patience, and I need to build my author platform and my back catalogue.
What helps me most to sell books is personal appearances: school visits (which I love, by the way – kids are so enthusiastic!), author talks at churches etc. People are much more likely to buy a book if they can chat to you about it, or if they’ve heard you talking about it or reading from it. In a big bookshop there’s just too much choice, and readers will probably never find your book.
I do a bit of crafting in my spare time, and whenever I sell my wares at a craft fair, I always dedicate a section of the table to my books. Quite often, the books sell better than the handicrafts.
13. Talk about print vs ebook. Do you get more sales with one than the other?
Maybe because my books are for the YA market, I sell far more print books than ebooks. My ebook sales are negligible, but it’s still good to have that option because I’ve met some people who will only buy ebooks, never print.
14. Did you set the prices of your print and ebooks? How do you decide how to price them?
For Leda, the price was largely set by the market. Christian YA novels sell at a certain price point, depending on length, and you can’t go too far beyond that without pricing yourself out of the market. I also considered publishing costs, of course, but it was more important to sell copies of the book to get myself established, than to bump the price up to attempt to cover my costs, probably to the detriment of actual sales.
Leda has an RRP of £5.99, but I only ask £5 when selling it direct, because there’s no bookshop to take a cut, and it saves me having to carry lots of change!
15. What made you decide to write more books? How were those experiences (writing/editing) compared with your first book? Did you do anything differently?
I always intended to write more books. I’ve been writing since I was a child; I get ideas and they demand to be worked out and written down. The next book I wrote after Leda was The Apprentice Highwayman, a YA historical novel that is still not published, but which I refuse to give up on. Then, while trying to get that published, I was asked by Christian Focus whether I would consider writing a YA biography. I said I would love to have a go, and the result was Augustine: The Truth Seeker, later followed by Patrick of Ireland: The Boy Who Forgave.
The process was quite different, naturally, since these were novelised biographies rather than novels. There was a huge amount of research involved, but it was important not to swamp the story with research – it still had to be gripping. Patrick was particularly hard, because his life was at the very end of the Roman period, almost in the dark ages, so there’s not much secure information about him. Fortunately, my background is in Ancient History, so this is just the kind of challenge I love!
16. Anything different in the publishing process for your other books?
Completely different. Typesetting, pricing and cover design were all out of my hands. I was consulted on the image for the cover, and I was shown it before it was published, but it was all done for me. It made the process easier, but it was also disconcerting. One of the hardest things to get used to as an author is the weeks and months of silence from publishers. What do they actually do while you’re waiting to hear from them? One day I’d love to find out.
17. When did you consider yourself a "writer"?
I remember the moment it happened. I was in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, consulting Writers’ News for competition and publishing opportunities, and I thought “I want to be a writer”. Then I pulled myself up – I had already written a novel, I was writing and submitting short stories. “You don’t want to be a writer,” I said to myself, “you are a writer. What you want to be, is successful.”
18. When do you write? What motivates you to write?
I’m currently in Albania, where I usually spend my summers. I write early in the morning here, even though I’m not a morning person, just because it’s too hot to do anything later in the day. At home in Scotland I write mostly in the afternoon and evening. I find that, for me, the afternoon is best for non-fiction, and the evening is best for fiction.
Dorothy Parker said “I hate writing. I love having written,” and I know what she meant. When I get into the flow I can completely lose myself in my work, but making myself sit down at the computer in the first place is hard. I ‘trick’ myself into it by saying I only need to write 200 words. Usually, by the time I’ve struggled out a sentence or two, I’m underway, and I don’t stop at 200. If I get really stuck, I go to a coffee shop. There’s something about the white noise and gentle bustle that helps me to tune out.
19. What do aspiring authors ask you?
Mostly, how to get published! I’ve been asked that so often that I’ve started writing a book on it – not because I’m an expert, but because it will save me time explaining the same thing over and over.
I like questions from kids best. They ask the same questions everyone else does (Where do you get your ideas from?) but also ones you weren’t expecting. An 11-year-old asked me if I only write historical fiction, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realised I did! Leda is set in the 1990s, so it didn’t feel like history to me, but of course it is to an 11-year-old.
20. What advice can you offer for aspiring authors about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing?
Take your time. Don’t rush to publication. Have a marketing strategy in place before the book is released, because the release is the only time the books is newsworthy, and you must make the most of that. I was impatient with Leda, wanting it to be in my hands as soon as possible, and I regret that now.
Apart from that, I think some of the best writing advice comes from Stephen King: Read a lot. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. And keep going: “Sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel s**t from a sitting position.”