The Collective Inkwell Interview: Emma Newman

Emma Newman is the author of the soon-to-be-published Twenty Years Later, her debut young adult fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic future, which she has been podcasting since last year. She lives in Somerset, England with her husband and two year old son. Though he’s an only child, she considers him her second child – the first baby being her novel.

Emma runs her own copywriting and online PR business called Your Nisaba, named after the Sumerian goddess of writing and knowledge. Nisaba was launched in 2009. She drinks far too much tea, and finds the little real life she spends time in, a curious mixture of terrifying and wonderful.

Longtime readers of Collective Inkwell may recall that Emma won our first Online Fiction Contest, the prize being our redesign of her website.

Last week, Emma released an ebook collection of some of her short stories (see the great cover pictured a bit further down in this story).

1. When did you start writing and what inspired you (also, what kind of stuff did you first write)?

I started writing stories at the age of four according to my grandmother. I wrote all the time until a short story got me into Oxford University when I was 17. That created a block that lasted for ten years! Then I began to write again and the first draft of Twenty Years Later poured out of me over 26 days. I barely felt in control of it. My poor husband was a writing widow.

Inspiration? There was no inspiration to write as far as I recall. It was as natural as breathing and wishing I had superpowers. I remember a desperate disappointment with the world as a child, it simply didn’t live up to the excitement held in books, on film or in my imagination. There was nothing else I could do except read and write myself into more interesting places I suppose.

I wrote stories about magical places, magical powers and weird things happening in the mundane world. I suppose in some respects I never stopped! In my early teens I wrote a huge Star Trek: Next Generation story, mostly because I was obsessed with it at the time. I’m not ashamed of my geeky past… being geeky is one of the few things I’m good at!

2. What genres do you most enjoy writing?

Over the last few months the stories I have written for the short story club have revealed that I have a particular passion for stories that are described as “subtly unsettling” by the readers. I love cross-genre – just to be difficult of course. My novel is in a post-apocalyptic setting, but incorporates urban fantasy themes within a mystery driven plot. Hmmm, perhaps I’m not a big fan of the constraints of genre.

3. Who are your favorite authors?

Oh, that’s hard to answer. Ray Bradbury is a god in my eyes, if I were prone to religious tendencies I’d set up an altar to him and his short stories. I love Isaac Asimov, John Wyndam and Frank Herbert. I’ve recently discovered Stephen Hunt and his steampunk novels, I’m also partial to Neal Stephenson, Michael Marshall Smith and Michael Moorcock – uh-oh… this is turning into too big a list! Favourite you say? Can I have all of them?

4. Who are your inspirations?

In terms of my writing, I can’t point at one person, or one book. I subscribe to Ray Bradbury’s view of inspiration: everything I have ever read, watched or experienced has seeped in and formed a creative mulch within me. If I sat down and really analysed my creative writing, I could pick out threads from so many different places, but I’m not nearly self-absorbed enough to do that. I just enjoy watching the mushrooms grow out of that mulch, and try to write them down as best I can!

5. What is your writing schedule/process?

‘Schedule’ implies that I’ve figured out how to fit regular writing into my life. I can’t lie and say I’ve done that! My life was very different when I wrote my first novel, and now writing is pressed into the cracks and little nooks that are left around the major commitments in my life (family and being the breadwinner whilst my husband is full time Dad).

I have developed a process though. It involves three critical factors: The first is (and always should be) a fine cup of tea. The second is saying out loud “I give myself complete permission to write complete and utter rubbish!” and the third is writing without editing. The first draft is there to be rough and refined later. When I get this process right, the editing time is greatly reduced. If I am in the wrong mindset, the writing takes a long time to flow.

When I write the sequel to Twenty Years Later, I like to listen to Hail to the Thief by Radiohead. It puts me in the mood; I listened to it a lot when I wrote the first one.

6. Tell us about 20 Years Later.

It’s about three extraordinary teenagers who form an intense friendship whilst searching for a girl who has been kidnapped (the sister of one of the trio). It’s set in London 20 years after ‘It’ killed almost everyone in the world. As the children uncover the whereabouts of the sister, they’re unknowingly uncovering London’s darkest secret, and the cause of the apocalyptic event that took place before they were born.

As I mentioned before, it has elements from different genres, grouped broadly into young adult post-apocalyptic fiction. I see the central themes of the book being loyalty and friendship in adverse conditions. Each one of the children swears a personal oath under different circumstances, and the ramifications of those oaths are extensive and world-changing. The children are extraordinary, but they have to deal with the same issues that teens do in the real world; namely absent parents, the emotional turbulence of adolescence and the temptation to join gangs in order to feel safe in a dangerous world.

7. How did you decide to put the book online in audio form?

It was a combination of things. I came across a couple of articles about writers promoting their books with podcasts with great success. I also had the pleasure of meeting Isobel Joely Black who has been podcasting her Amnar novels for years. Her enthusiasm and encouragement convinced me to take the plunge.

I was also driven to just get it out there! The thing I found so frustrating about my (at the time) failure to find an agent or publisher was that I wanted to put the story out there in some way. Indeed, when I started my blog a year ago I was seriously considering self publishing. Podcasting seemed to be a happy balance – I would see if people actually liked the story and my writing, and the actual text wouldn’t be in the public domain. It was one of the best decisions I made last year.

8. What is your favorite thing about publishing online? Least favorite?

My favourite thing is getting comments, emails and tweets from people who are listening to the book and genuinely enjoying it. It is reassuring, thrilling and a huge ego boost of course! After spending so long trying to get published, I was wondering whether it just wasn’t good enough. The response to the podcasts has helped to reassure me that people enjoy it and want to read it when it comes out. I think Nathan Bransford calls that fear the “Am I crazies of writers” and this has been the cure.

Least favourite…. I don’t know. I love recording it, as it brings me back into the world every time and that’s so helpful now I’m writing the sequel. I don’t begrudge the time or effort at all. That’ll be the labour of love thing I guess!

9. What is the idea behind the Short Story Club and what has the response been like?

It’s very simple: people join for free and every month I send out a call for ideas – opening lines, what if scenarios, situations etc. I pick a winner, write a short story from the prompt and the winner who suggested it gets to read the story before everyone else. Once they have read it, I send it out to the rest of the members and the process starts again in the next month.

As for where it came from, I was grumping around my house for a couple of weeks wanting to write a short story but feeling uninspired. I had enjoyed your competition so much, entered another one with a second story and wanted more! I realised that I needed writing prompts, but couldn’t find a good source at the time.

The idea of the club grew out of that in part, but really it just came out of nowhere whilst making a cup of tea (I refer you to my earlier statement regarding the importance of tea.) I wanted prompts, I wanted to share my writing but was uncertain about putting everything onto the blog, and wasn’t sure how to get people interested in sending the prompts in. I hit upon the idea of creating a community of readers who sent in prompts and then get to read monthly fiction for free as a thank you.

In one feel swoop it tackled three problems: it ended procrastination as people were waiting for the story every month, it gives me a pool of amazing prompts and it enables me to share my writing in a public yet private way.

The response has been amazing! There are over 100 members now and the prompts they send in are simply wonderful. Most months I have about five shortlisted ideas I agonize between to pick the winner. The members are supportive and enthusiastic. I couldn’t have asked for more.

10. Tell us about your book deal.

Well, the thing I love about it the most is that I got it through Twitter.

Yup. You read that right…

Early last year I was followed on Twitter by another post-apocalyptic genre fan, and he mentioned a new press (@dystopiapress) in a tweet whom I duly followed. This was before the press had even started up! I sent an email to myself (I’m still trying to find a better way to organise my brain) saying “Watch this press!” Over the next few months I chatted with the press founder over Twitter and waited with baited breath. When the press was officially launched and submissions were called for, I sent mine in.

It was just such a pleasant experience right from the start. After nearly thirty rejections, 95% of which were completely impersonal, I had a personal note from the publisher reassuring me that my submission had been received. Bliss! Three days later I had another email saying that he’d read the 50 page sample and wanted the rest of the manuscript. I’d reached that point before so I tried really hard (and failed) not to get too excited and hopeful.

Four weeks later the publisher got back in touch with an offer of a contract. He’d given the first fifty pages to teen readers and they all wanted to read more, and he loved the book.

I nearly died. In the best possible way of course…

It was an odd situation as Dystopia Press is based in America and I found myself with a contract on the table and no agent. I asked for advice and an author friend recommended the Society of Authors, who, God bless them, offer a free legal contract vetting service for members. I joined, got feedback from them and had a serious think about what I wanted too. Between their advice and my instincts, I negotiated some changes to the contract and the publisher was fantastic. One thing that was very important to me was that I be able to continue with the podcasts. By that point there were people following them and I didn’t want to let them down. The publisher was great and understood my reasons and it was included in the contract that I could continue. In fact, I plan to roll it out on a major fiction podcasting site later in the year too.

I feel so blessed to have found him! The book is in pre-production now and slated for release in October. I am still grinning like an idiot.

11. If you could take any book or series by any author and be allowed to write it, which would you choose?

Hmmm. I’ve dithered over this question and still don’t have an answer. I suppose I have so many of my own just dying to be let out of my head that I can’t imagine picking up someone else’s series!

12. What are your future writing plans?

I am currently writing the sequel to Twenty Years Later and there will be a third book in the series too. The Short Story Club will continue and hopefully grow, and there are several other books crammed inside my brain that are getting increasingly impatient with me. I participate in the wonderful Friday Flash movement, and I’d like to try and do a flash fiction piece for that every week if I can. I’m soon to launch another project but that is currently secret (mostly because I am so nervous about it!)

My ultimate goal is to support my family through my fiction writing alone, but that feels like the holy grail of the profession. I hope that a combination of good fortune, sacrificial offerings of hot cups of tea and the sheer burning madness of simply having to write will get me there in the end.

Subscribe to Emma’s feed here.

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15 responses to The Collective Inkwell Interview: Emma Newman

  1. Emma Newman

    Funny you should say that, I was just about to put the kettle on 🙂

    Thaks Marc, and thanks also to the delightful Collective Inkwell chaps for being kind enough to interview me, skilled enough to create something out of my ramblings and brave (crazy?) enough to publish it. x
    .-= Emma Newman´s last blog ..Friday Flash: The Delivery =-.

    • Sean

      I really enjoyed your interview, Emma. I thought Dave gave great questions and you had awesome answers. Thank YOU for your time.

  2. Shane Arthur

    Hello Emma. Good for you with the podcasting route!
    I’ve never heard your podcasts, so I’m curious; what programs do you use? Audacity? Do you read it yourself or hire voiceover people?


  3. Emma Newman

    Hi Shane,

    I use Audacity, which is wonderful: easy to use and free! I read it myself, and have been told that works well for American listeners especially as my English accent helps to create the atmosphere of post-apocalyptic London.

    I couldn’t imagine hiring someone else to read it – for financial reasons for one thing, but also because I wanted people to hear me reading it – I think it creates a greater intimacy and sense of connection when it is the author reading their own work.
    .-= Emma Newman´s last blog ..Friday Flash: The Delivery =-.

  4. Marisa Birns

    Hi, Emma! Great interview. Enjoyed learning more about you.

    Yes, I’m American, and Emma’s lovely English lilt adds to experiencing the world she weaved (or razed! heh) in post-apocalyptic London.

    She is also generously supportive of other writers, with many kind and encouraging comments on our stories. I do wish I had her discipline. I know it’s a matter of just sitting…and writing, for goodness sake, but…

    However, when I do finally sit down, there’s usually a cup of tea next to me. Earl Grey, hot. I know, I know. Coffee is really only good in the morning. For me anyway.

    Great luck in all your new adventures, Emma!

    And for the Collective (sort of Borg-ish, eh), thanks for the interview. Good stuff!
    .-= Marisa Birns´s last blog ..The Woods =-.

    • Emma Newman

      Thanks Marisa! I love this community of writers that is building around the Friday Flash movement, and the gorgeous Twitter. I too drink coffee in the mornings, like a little liquid cranking for my engine. Two cups, then onto tea by 11am. Then I have two cups of tea in the afternoon (when I am being disciplined).

      Honestly, anyone would think that I was descended from inhabitants of the old British Empire. Oh, wait a minute….

      As for sitting and writing, that’s the easiest and hardest thing in the world. At the same time. No getting away from it, so be gentle with yourself!
      .-= Emma Newman´s last blog ..Friday Flash: The Delivery =-.

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