22 May 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick - I Did It My Way

In 2005 I had five novels published by William Heinemann under my belt: my Arthurian Trilogy and two 11th Century novels. But historical fiction had taken a down-turn in popularity. I decided to step away from the #HistFic genre and write something different, something that was fun to write and fun (hopefully) to read.

When I had the compulsion to write Sea Witch, the first of my pirate/nautical adventures, I knew from the start that I was going to write it as a part-fantasy novel. That was the whole point. Like so many thousands of other movie-goers I had seen, enjoyed, and totally fallen for, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl. The original idea from Disney was that this was going to be  entertainment for children, the ultimate aim to improve the falling  numbers on Disney's Pirate ride but they reckoned without Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Orlando Bloom had been intended as the number-one draw. It was supposed to have been a simple, entertaining family film with a surreptitious message of 'Visit Disney'.  The movie delivered - but in a completely different direction!

Let’s face it the movie, was, really, somewhat silly. Unlike Master and Commander based on Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey Napoleonic War nautical series, P.O.C. was not to be taken seriously. Cursed Aztec Treasure, people who are not dead and become skeletons by the light of the moon is not realism, it is fantasy and meant to be escapism fun. Which is why I still love P.O.C. #1 even though I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen it. (I will add here that the others in the series are not very good. #2 Dead Man’s Chest was OK – but forget the others, they are mere money-making bandwagon jumping movies with the bandwagon missing three wheels....poor scripts, poor plots, poor continuity...)

As an avid reader I wanted to read a novel with the same sort of feel as P.O.C. #1: nautical adventure based around a rogue of a pirate with a touch of fantasy about it, and written for adults. Which means adult content. (Some scenes of sex, violence and swearing.) A grown-up adventure for grown-up readers about grown-up life.

All I could find were the ‘straight’ nautical fiction – O’Brian as mentioned above, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, Alexander Kent’s Bolitho, Julian Stockwin’s Kydd… Or Young Adult stories; Treasure IslandPirates! By Celia Rees. All good novels, but not remotely like Pirates of the Caribbean.
So, as most of you reading this already know, I wrote my own: Sea Witch. Alongside the sailing bits, the adventure bits, the romantic bits and the swashbuckling bits the fantasy was an essential element: the ethereal presence of Tethys, the spirit of the sea and Tiola the lead female protagonist who is a white witch of Craft - all with their parts to play alongside my very human pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne.

I wrote Sea Witch in three months, the story, the scenes, the ebb and flow of romance, escapades and nautical buckle-swashing flowing from me with barely a pause. Read this graphic below again... every single word applies to myself and Sea Witch. By reading the book (buying it?) you are sharing a piece of my heart, my soul... 

The disappointment came when my agent at the time (now ex-agent) hated what I submitted to her. No, more than disappointment, sheer heartbreaking devastation. I had put everything I had into writing that book. I was so excited about it when I sent it off as a typed manuscript. This one, I just knew was going to be the book. My Big Time Hit.

To receive back a wadge of pages two months later with red-ink lines scrawled all over them, accompanied by snarky comments scribbled in the margins was devastating.

I was told that it was  'unsuitable for boys'…

 er… I hadn’t written it for boys. 
Told “No one is interested in pirates,” 
er… Jack Sparrow?
Told to lose the fantasy, "It's neither one thing nor the other. You cannot produce novels that do not have a specific genre."
er.... why not?
Told to change my pirate's name: “Acorne is a silly name. It is too much like TV' s Acorn Antiques.
So what? What about other familiar names? Bond, Snow, Bennett, Potter ... There is about 13,900,000 results for 'Acorn Whatever Business' listed on Google.  For Acorne - with the 'e' there are about 59,400 results. Nowhere near the same. Anyway, that was his name. I was sticking to it.

I refused to change anything, so my (ex) agent dumped me and informed me within the same abrupt telephone call that my publisher, William Heinemann, had also dropped me. (Coincidence? Hmmm.)

I spent two weeks sobbing, then picked myself up, dusted myself down and came back fighting.

I tried a few other publishers but I got the common response of “love it but it’s not for us.” Sea Witch was not the square-peg that fitted nice and neatly into their square-holed traditional (i.e old-fashioned) expectations. I was told to lose the fantasy: “It isn’t one thing or the other is it? How would we market it?”

Sea Witch isn’t just historical fiction, it isn’t just nautical adventure, it isn’t just fantasy... it is a bit of all three bound and woven together, so apparently, according to agents and publishing houses back in 2006 it was, therefore, unmarketable. Which meant unsaleable.

I figuratively stuck my fingers up to the lot of them and went indie - self-publish. I made a bit of a mess of it – those first couple of years were a very sharp learning curve, I can tell you – hindered by the assisted publishing company I went with which turned out to be run by a charlatan. Books were not printed, royalties were not paid … when the company finally went bankrupt (the CEO walking away unscathed, his staff and authors not seeing a penny of what was owed them,) I went to the reliable, professionally run, quality company of SilverWood Books instead. I’m still with them.

The fact is, self-publishing/Indie/D.I.Y is now, in 2018, far more respected than it was in 2006 when I made that ‘Rubicon’ decision. The majority of indie books, today, are  professionally edited and equal (if not even surpass!) mainstream-standard production.

In January 2017 I founded Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, primarily, but not exclusively, for indie published novels. In fact we pay no attention to the logo on the spine or who or how the novels submitted are published because we keep a totally open mind:. a good book is a good book no matter how it is published or comes to be listed on Amazon.

And that brings me to the huge advantages for indie writers. 
Amazon and Social Media.

Most readers buy their books through Amazon because it is quick, simple, and often, cheaper. All very well, but readers need to know about the books in order to buy them… and thanks to Blogs, Facebook and Twitter, us authors can market our books as and how we like. With cross genre not causing the slightest problem.

Hey Big Publishing Companies, did you hear that? 

Marketing - and selling - cross-genre novels is not a problem! Being indie I don't have those restrictions of square pegs and round holes, or of that one-size must fit all nonsense. I don't have to write yet another publisher-demanded novel about the Tudors, or a Fifty Shades of Garbage that Marketing claims to be a good read (even if it isn't). I am aware that adults want to read adult books, that pirates are popular, that fantasy is here to stay and that having the courage (OK, maybe stupidity?) to follow your heart is rewarding. 

I am writing what I want to read, not what  the square pegs stuck in their out-dated holes dictate. So if you want to write and have been rejected and dejected, think about joining us indie writers (but make sure you do so in a professional quality standard way.)

It is scary. It is expensive. It is hard work. But honest pirate - it's worth it!

Amazon: viewAuthor.at/HelenHollick

By buying one of my books you are not just buying a book, you will be sharing an adventure, you will be buying a piece of my heart, a piece of my soul and a very big, very important piece of my life! 

And what's more I am delighted and thrilled to be sharing it all with you!

If, by chance, you've already read/bought any of my books, please place a comment on Amazon
Bottles of red wine sent via Royal Mail are also acceptable....

available in Italian
and as an additional amusement
 huge apologies to Frank Sinatra, a different version of 'My Way'

And now, the end is near;
And so I face that final edit.
My friend, I'll say it clear,
I'll state my case, for which I must take credit. 

Rejects, I've had a few;
But then again, too many here to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each chaptered course;
Each careful step along the writing pathway,
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate rejection up and spat it out.
I chose the font, and wrote the prose...
And did it ....my way!

I wrote, I laughed and cried.
I had my fill; my share of losing.
And now, as fears subside,
I find it all so amusing.

To think I did all that;
And may I say - not in a shy way,
Oh no, oh no not me,
I wrote it... my way!

For what is a book, what has it got?
If not mainstream, then it has not
To be set aside and be forgot!
Don’t lose the words … you have a choice
Find and use your indie voice. 
And write it your way! 


  1. Yaaay! Go, Helen! Good for you for having the guts to do it 'your way' and proving it could be done.

    1. I couldn't have done it without the support of friends, family and other writers... which is one reason why I try my best to support new and indie writers who need help to climb up the ladder

  2. Great post, Helen! And thank you for being such a fabulous support to all us indie authors. And I've finally got around to buying Sea Witch and am looking forward to meeting Jeremiah!

  3. Well said. Good for you. Would love to share it to my wordpress website blog. Doesn’t seem to be an option to do that.

  4. Shared to just about everywhere already. Pinterest, Twitter, FB etc. Will copy the link to my website

    1. Thanks Caz - Blogger and Wordpress are not very compatible, alas .... maybe just share the link?

  5. Hey, Helen, just realised I have one of your books, the first Pendragon one. I read it years ago, and plenty more Arthurian since then, so I’ll read it again to refresh my memory. After all, I know you now, you aren’t just another name on a spine.

    1. Hi Sue - I'm the same I often 'discover' a book on my shelf that I'd forgotten I had! (Kindle is even worse as it's not as easy to 'browse' like you do with real books.) I'd love it if you could leave some comments on Amazon if you do re-read the Pendragon's Banner Trilogy - thanking you in advance!


Thank you for leaving a comment - it should appear soon, but Blogger sometimes chucks its teddies out of the cot and has a tantrum. My apologies if you leave a comment and I do not respond - blame it on Blogger Bloopers. If you are having problems, contact me on author AT helenhollick DOT net and I will post it for you. Sometimes a post will appear as anonymous instead of your name or avatar - I draw attention to this being another Blogger Blooper and NOT of MY doing... That said ...SPAMMERS or distasteful rudeness will be stamped on, squashed, composted and very possibly cursed - if you spam my blog, next time something nasty happens to you just remember that I DID warn you...