Interview with author Michael Jecks

The Writing Piazza:
Hi all my little chickadees and chickadudes. Welcome to another installment of guest author interview, theater. I’m excited to introduce the guest author (ok, I’m excited about all my guest interviewees) this week, so let’s just jump right in shall we?

This week my guest is Michael Jecks. Thanks for joining us today Michael, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Michael:
I was born and raised in the south east of England in the 60s. From an early age I was determined to follow my father into the actuarial profession. An exciting career, that: actuaries are known as people who find accountancy too exciting – still, it was, and is, very well paid. Up until the moment I failed every professional exam I tried, I remained keen.

My failure to pass exams gave me the strong feeling that an alternative career might be a good idea, so I moved into selling computers. I was successful in that – but my employers weren’t. All of them went bust. Most did so while they employed me, so all my income was largely swallowed up by collapsing companies. They all owed me salary, commission, holiday money and expenses as well, so after thirteen years and thirteen jobs, I really had suffered enough. It seemed to me that someone up top was giving me a pretty determined hint. So, in 1994, I decided to not try to find a fourteenth job in the industry, but instead took six months out to see if I could write a book. For three months I worked seven days a week up to sixteen hours a day, and at the end of it I had three books to sell. The Last Templar was the first of the Templar Series.

The Writing Piazza:
Your Templar series is very successful. Tell us a little about how it came to be published.

Michael:
I wrote the three books. One was a non-starter that described how to get employed when you’re made redundant – after all, I had experience of that. The second was a great little spy thriller that should have done well, but sadly it was all about the IRA, who agreed their first cease fire in the year I submitted it. It was out of date. The third book was the one that was taken on: The Last Templar.

The series itself wasn’t supposed to happen. The story was only ever supposed to be a one-off, but when it was accepted, the publishers gave me a three book contract and I had to work on developing the theme. Luckily, I’d written a book about a guy who was fabulously interesting.

My character had seen his friends murdered, or tortured until they were crippled for life. His loyalty had been utterly focused on his Grand Master and the Pope, but he felt that the Pope had betrayed him and the Templar Order. He had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but now his world had tilted. Those to whom he had given his vows were dead or faithless. This was a man who loved and revered the Church but distrusted the highest authorities; a man who was chivalrous but who despised politics; a man who was disgusted by corruption and injustice but saw it all about him. In short, the sort of guy I knew I could live with for some years.

However, I never wanted the series to be about just one man with a kind of godlike, all-seeing infallibility, so I invented another: a bailiff who was based on a real man of his time. Simon, as I called him, would become the local man who understood the customs and characters of his area. He became the foil to the knight, Sir Baldwin, who was himself an outsider, although a man with a greater understanding of the world, of science, and of death. With these two, I felt I had a winning team.

The series started with these two and a series of aspects of life that interested me. To a large extent I was using the series to concentrate my own fascination with a period of history. And with good reason: I am firmly convinced that for any writer to write engagingly and with conviction, he or she must write about the things that really interest them. You cannot concoct a thrilling story about something you aren’t interested in. I, for example, cannot write about soccer or basket weaving. Neither of them floats my boat.

However, after a while the series drifted out away from the shallows. I had always spent much of my time looking at Dartmoor and the South West of England. Now I began to look at the legends and myths of the moors, and from there began to look more at the politics of the period.

The key to the success of the series is that it has developed and grown with me as a writer. No two books are alike. Each is gloriously independent of the ones before and after, so I’ll have a humorous book before a bleak tale of grief and horror. It’s that which kept the series alive for me and kept my excitement going, and it’s that excitement which translates to the reader, I think.

The Writing Piazza:
Wow, that sounds really interesting! Historical fiction has always fascinated me. The style and customs of a time long ago can be very intriguing and offers a different feel than the novels set in current or even future time periods. It also takes a lot of research and thought to get a book like that to feel authentic, so kudos to you for pulling it off!

Was The Last Templar your first published work?

Michael:
Yes, it was accepted in 1994 and published in March 1995 by Headline Book Publishing in the UK. After a few years, HarperCollins in the US bought rights to the first six books in the series, and the titles have sold in Germany, Holland, Spain – well, all over, really. The other books in that first contract were The Merchant’s Partner and A Moorland Hanging.

The Writing Piazza:
Wow! Those are both great publishers! That must have felt so amazing to have your book go out all over the world! One of the questions that bounces around in my head a lot is self-publishing versus traditional publishing. How did you come to the decision to go the traditionally published route?

Michael:
Going back twenty years ago there was no option about publishing. You had two choices: get a publisher to pay you for your work, or pay a fortune to a cowboy outfit who were keen to remove as much of the author’s money as possible. I was never going to do that: I didn’t have a penny to spend. I had to go the conventional route. There was no choice. And I was determined to try to build a career on my work.

The Writing Piazza:
Ah yes, I’m sure most of my writer friends would absolutely agree and empathize with that. Of course I would give my right arm to have a publisher like Harper Collins publish the series I’m working on now. Your series has become a best seller, what would you say contributed the most to this success?

Michael:
Simple: work. If you want to make your way in any career you have to be determined. I’ve worked hard for my stories, and it’s been a hard slog to build the series to the present level. Many people try to write, but complain at the end of the week when they see that they only have a few hundred words written in a coherent manner. However, over the same timeframe they managed to go out to the pub, to watch Game of Thrones, to go out for meals. When I started writing, my wife and I had nothing. I had to work. We got rid of our TV and couldn’t afford to go out or socialize. It was ten years before we had a television again and even now I routinely work through to the middle of the night. Last night, for example, I was still writing my latest novel at nearly one in the morning.

If you want to be called a writer, there is basically one qualification: you have to sit down and write.

The Writing Piazza:
I think that is a very common misconception, that writing is easy or that it isn’t really work. I think especially for those who do not write: they seem to think good writing just happens. But you are so right. You have to really make it a priority if you want to ever make any kind of living doing it.

What were some of the other obstacles you faced when you first started out or even now as you continue in your career as an author?

Michael:
I had no computer, no income, no experience of writing, no proven skill or ability. It was pretty daunting. However, I also had little option. I had the one crack at this opportunity, I felt, and I was determined to give it the best shot I could. It was not easy, but I worked very hard. My first hurdle was, to make sure that I could develop a story: the second was to make sure I could write a full-length novel (not easy); then to try to win an agent; finally, to interest a publisher in the project.

The first I achieved by putting into practice the skills I’d learned while managing computer implementations. I drew out a story as a flow-chart, then started to write. And when I got about halfway, I learned something enormously valuable. I wrote a good story, but because I knew who was guilty I found that the story was far too easy to guess. In fact, when I edited the story, I threw away my original plan and replotted, so that readers would never (hopefully) be able to second-guess me as the author. Now I use this as an approach for many of my stories: I write the first half to two thirds, and then dissect the plot and see how I could change things and develop the story in a different direction.

The Writing Piazza:
I love, love, love practical advice and you are not disappointing me! I am really enjoying this behind the scenes look at how you craft your novels. It’s my hope that people who read my blog aren’t just entertained by my writing but that they learn things too. I think my readers will really find all of this very helpful!

Along the thread of being helpful, what is one thing you wish you had known before you published?

Michael:
I suppose that would have to be how the internet, Amazon and second hand book sales would devastate the market. Publishing today is vastly different from the business I entered twenty years ago. Then, I would have been able to count on a good income from sales of some 20,000 paperbacks per title – now much higher numbers are needed.

However, if I were to pass on my own advice to new authors, it would be that they must always appreciate that the value of an author is directly proportional to how many sales he or she achieved with the last book. You are only as good as the last sales figures. If the sales slope off, the contracts will dry up. I’ve seen so many brilliant authors fall by the wayside in recent years, and it’s terrible – really sad.

The Writing Piazza:
Yes, with the flood of self-published writers and the declining real book market (with the invention of the e-reader) it has become increasingly difficult for good authors to make a living doing what we do. It has also become harder for readers to determine whether a book will be good now that everyone and their brother can self-publish. Would you still recommend writing for those thinking about choosing this as a career and how would you say being an author has changed since you began writing?

Michael:
Writing for a living is fantastic. I love it. But because of the internet there is a constant struggle to balance the need to market and publicize your work compared with time spent actually typing. The internet has introduced the opportunity for authors to connect with readers – but the downside to that is that the author now has many more interruptions in the working day. Authors used to receive letters and would reply to them. The arrival of email, Twitter and other social media means people can write to authors more quickly and easily. They expect fast answers too. That’s fine, but it distracts from the working day. It disrupts the concentration and patterns of thinking which are so essential to the author.

Social media bring their own problems. Whereas in the past publishers would employ marketing teams and PR staff to get news of your work to the market, now most of the work is up to the author. I even heard of a publisher last year which would not consider a new author unless he or she already had over 3,000 followers on Twitter. A ludicrous requirement because, so far as I am aware, there is no correlation between Twitter followers and actual book sales. I’ve not seen any. Don’t get me wrong: I like Twitter. I have 33,000 followers there and engage with them every day. However, that’s for me. I don’t assume I’ll sell a bucket of books just because I comment on the weather down here in Dartmoor!

The Writing Piazza:
Yes, a lot of my research has shown that there is a lot of pressure on writers to build their “web presence” before querying agents and/or publishers. To be honest, this was one of the spurs that lit the fire under me to actually start my blog and join Twitter and other social media sites. I had considered starting a blog before but it was always just a ‘yeah I should do that’ but I never did. Then when I started to research querying agents and publishers, it really solidified my resolve to start building some buzz for my upcoming books.

I know a lot of the writers I talk to (some of whom read this blog) are looking or will be looking for an agent to help get them published. Could you tell us if you have a literary agent?

Michael:
Yes. I started out with one lady for my first seventeen years or so. She was great and a brilliant friend, but I felt after that amount of time that it would be better for my writing if I were to move to a larger agency. It was not fun breaking up, but these things do happen. Now I’m with another agency, Bell, Lomax, Moreton, who are doing great things with the books. We’re working with a film and TV agency too, and hope to marry the series to a production company in 2015.

The Writing Piazza:
That’s so exciting! You will have to keep us posted about the news of your series coming to a screen near us! Having a good agent can really boost a writer’s career! How did you come to be represented by your current agency?

Michael:
One thing that many writers new to the business do not appreciate is the absolute importance of good luck!

The Writing Piazza:
Ah yes, I think those of us control freaks out here hate to hear that because we can’t really control luck! ☺

Michael:
No. But all professionals, no matter what their profession, need luck. Of course, it’s always amazing how much luckier hard workers are than lazy ones, but luck is still important.
For example, when I started out I had no idea where to find an agent. I read lots of books. One (Writing for Pleasure and Profit, by Michael Legatt) told me about the “Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook”. This wonderful title lists all the agents in the UK. It’s essential reading for anyone trying to break into publishing. I looked through the entire list looking for an agent to take me on. However, each entry said, in effect, “In the first instance, write to us with two sample chapters and a one page synopsis. Do not call us.”

I was a trained salesman. I didn’t want to write to an anonymous stranger. I wanted to talk to someone. So, rather than investing in stamps and envelopes, I found one agent who was clearly new to her business and had a note saying “Please call me on this number.” Clearly an invitation like that was like raw meat to a wolf pack, because her phone was constantly engaged. After trying to phone her for the fourth time, I was losing interest. However, on the opposite page of the list was a lady called Jane. Now, one thing I am appalling at is remembering people’s names. I work hard at it, but I am dreadful. So, when I saw this, it looked like fate. My wife is a Jane. I thought, “Well, at least I can’t forget this agent’s name,” So I phoned her instead. She answered, she agreed to meet me, and signed me up the same day.

The Writing Piazza:
Ah yes, the Yearbook! This has become a very important tool for many writers looking for agents. I am actually currently waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail as we speak! Another great tip for my readers who are hoping to find an agent, thank you.

You have mentioned a few times that you were a trained salesman and you enjoy talking with people and on your website I saw that you do a lot of public speaking all over the world. What are some of the questions you get asked over and over again?

Michael:
Invariably I am asked how I got started, what is my best advice, how do I think up new stories, what is my working day like?

The Writing Piazza:
How do you answer these questions when they are asked?

Michael:
Much of this I have already outlined, but in terms of work, the main advice I always give is, routine and discipline. Get a routine for work that suits you, and write to your strengths. For example, I am better in the afternoon and evening than morning. Therefore, I tend to clear my desk of admin (emails, Twitter, answering letters) in the morning. Much of that I can do on my phone while walking the dog. When I get back I will read through the work I did the day before, and then, in the afternoon, I will sit down to write.

The Writing Piazza:
Yay! More practical advice! Love it! Any other questions you get asked a lot?

Michael:
Another question is how I write so much. It is my fixed method of working that keeps my output high. My routine is to work in one hour chunks. If I try to concentrate on the book for two, three, four hours at a stretch, I get exhausted quickly. Instead I work intensely for 50 minutes. In that way I can get 1,000 words typed. Once that’s done, I get up from my desk, make a coffee or tea (or dispose of the last ones!) and while I’m doing that, I can think through the logic of what I’ve just written, and plan out the next scene. Each scene tends to end up at about 1,000 words in first draft, which isn’t bad. It gives me a firm skeleton on which to build the story. I will work through to midnight and beyond most days, which includes the time I spend editing.

The last and most common question is “How do you cope with writer’s block?” Well, I can honestly say that it’s never been a problem for me because I won’t let it. Writer’s block tends to be something that afflicts authors who are comfortable with their work and income. If you have enough money, you can afford the luxury of writer’s block. I’m a crime writer and proud of it. Crime writers tend to write because we have to: we have mortgages and no independent means. I have never met a British crime writer who has experienced the block. Basically, we write no matter what. The words may be garbage and may have to be extensively edited or thrown away, but that doesn’t matter. If you are a writer, you write. The worst you write today is better than the best that you never committed to paper.

Yes, we all get mornings when the sun is beaming down from a clear blue sky, and we can think of a thousand things to do rather than write. It may be that you want to go and watch a TV programme, or take the children for a treat, or just dip into Facebook to see what your friends are up to. That is not “The Block”. It’s indulgence at best. These are work displacement activities. If you were employed by a company, you wouldn’t expect to be paid for not doing your work. In the same way, if you want to call yourself a writer, you have a duty to yourself to write. Being a writer is not an excuse to avoid work; it imposes a duty on you. You are a professional person, and you have a duty to achieve the very best work you can.

It is not always easy. I hate seeing people who write about their work being a heroic struggle – you usually see actors and authors writing in this manner, as though they were threatening their fragile intellects and souls by throwing themselves into their art. No. Writing is not that hard (nor is acting), but it can be exhausting, it can be miserable, it can be soul-destroying when things aren’t going well. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, a book will not sell. Sometimes a brilliant plotline just won’t tie together; occasionally that scene that looked and felt so perfect in your mind translates into a clunky, leaden, turgid description on the page. When you are editing and have already read through that section fifteen times, and you start on it again, you sometimes want to tear the whole lot into shreds and go to work as a miner instead. But writing is fun, it’s rewarding, and it’s worthwhile. Putting the reader into the mind of someone else can help people to understand others and, who knows, perhaps that could prevent a crime or a war?

The Writing Piazza:
I agree that good writing can change things. At the very least they can offer a perspective that someone hasn’t seen before and at the most I have seen how books can change the world. I think that’s why I love books so much. It’s also true that writing them can be hard work but I think it is absolutely worth it when you know your work has touched someone or really affected someone.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, as we wrap up this interview, what last piece of advice would you give to my readers who are pursuing or hoping to pursue a literary career?

Michael:
There is only one piece of advice that matters: if you want to be a writer, it is the easiest profession to join. Don’t worry about courses, don’t pay good money to get a magazine or book by someone you’ve never heard of – if you don’t know them, they probably aren’t any better qualified as a writer than you are. Only buy books by people whose names you know from the shelves of your Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s. But buying a book, buying a course, buying a magazine is only buying time. It’s putting off the fateful day when you have to actually sit down and work. Stop putting it off!

No. If you want to be a writer, all you really need is a pen and paper. Make time, sit down, and start writing.

And enjoy it!

The Writing Piazza:
Thank you so much for your time, just one more thing, can you please tell my readers where they can go to check out your award winning book series?

Michael:
For people who want to learn more about my books, I’d suggest going to my site where you’ll find a list of all the books in their correct order.

www.michaeljecks.co.uk/titles

If you like to see authors talking about their books, please check my video interviews here at:

If you’re in the UK you can purchase the first of the Templar Series here: Purchase the Last Templar now.

If you’re in the US you can purchase the first of the Templar Series here:

And do please “like”, subscribe, comment and share them!

Finally, if you want to keep in touch with me, you can “like” me at Facebook.com/Michael.Jecks.author or follow me on Twitter at @MichaelJecks where you can follow my inane tweets and see what I’m getting up to.

The Writing Piazza:
This concludes another guest author interview! I hope you all enjoyed it. Tune in next time for another thrilling instalment of guest author interview, theater. Same bat time, same bat channel.

  • I have everything written to date by Michael Jecks. I began some years back with one of the books in the series and soon found myself searching for earlier titles. It is wonderful that both his old and new publisher are reprinting all of the series (other formats too). His other works are quite good also from short stories to a jump in genre with a spy novel, Act of Vengeance (an e-book that I hope gets into print format). His new trilogy regarding The Hundred Years War is terrific (one in print and another out soon).

    • Kara

      Thanks for taking the time to post a comment! I love hearing from readers! And that’s so great you’ve read all his work. You’re the kind of reader every author dreams about! Thanks for stopping by!

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