“Writers shouldn’t be afraid of using their imagination,” Hugh Ashton says, before launching into a quote from Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Ashton, a Japan-based author of new Holmes material and other novels, takes the sleuth’s words very seriously. “I find his character and working practices can be applied to the writer’s trade,” he says. “Indeed, as long as the plot has some plausibility, it’s a good plot. There are some very strange things that happen in real life, after all,” he adds, explaining the message he takes from the words of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-known character.
But what relevance can the logic of a 19th-century detective have for aspiring writers hoping to get noticed in the 21st-century publishing industry? After all, the business has transformed in the last couple of decades from a print-and-paper beast that Holmes could have recognized to something altogether more complex and chaotic (think less “Hound of the Baskervilles,” more the huge amorphous mass in “Akira”).
The last few years have been a tumultuous ride for writers in Japan, as in the rest of the world, but somehow they still survive ― and some even thrive. So how do they do it? We asked some old Japan hands and young guns for their tips for scribes hoping to be make their voices heard in today’s crowded market.
The Internet, of course, has been the key driver of change in publishing, says best-selling author Robert Whiting ― for better and for worse.
“Now you only need a blog to get your writing out there,” he says. “Even researching a story is much easier. When I wrote my first book, I literally spent months at the library checking out old newspaper editions on microfilms. Now you can access most things on your computer, but because it’s so easy, it has lost value.”
One consequence of this: It’s becoming increasingly hard to get paid. “Back in the 1970s and ’80s there were many places where you could sell your pieces,” Whiting says. “Now many periodicals are closing down or getting smaller as advertising revenues are decreasing. I even know people who are writing for The Atlantic Wire for nothing.”
Whiting’s advice to prospective writers is to forget about the money and just write. “It’s always been true but especially now, you should do it as a labor of love and be pleasantly surprised if you get some recognition,” he says. “The worst mistake you can make is writing a book with the idea of making a lot of money. It seldom works out like that.”
Author, poet and frequent Japan Times contributor Hillel Wright echoes Whiting, but offers a chink of hope for writers hoping to make more than a pittance. “When I first moved to the Tokyo area in 1999, I began to attend some poetry readings. There I met several people and ended up co-editing a poetry anthology for Printed Matter Press. My only pay was in copies of the anthology, but that effort led to editing ‘Faces in the Crowds: A Tokyo International Anthology’ for the same publisher. That book sold very well and I earned several thousand dollars.”
Wright, who worked in the commercial fishing business from 1969 to 1992, once took a tour of Tokyo’s huge Tsukiji fish market, whose guide he had met earlier at another reading. “I sold the story to a Canadian commercial fishing magazine. A few months later I got an email from an editor at Fishing News International asking if I’d like to be their Japan correspondent. They offered not only to pay for text and photos, but for expenses as well, including transportation, hotels, meals, taxis, etc.”
Wright will be one of the speakers at this weekend’s Japan Writers Conference in Okinawa, which organizer John Gribble calls “a wonderful way to . . . promote a sense of community” among Japan-based writers.
Another speaker will be Alison Lester, who lived in Tokyo between 1991 and 1999 before moving to Singapore. In contrast to Wright, Lester was never aware of a writers’ scene. “I just worked away at writing, finding a way to make connections and place articles in publications like airline and business magazines as I wrote unpublishable novel after unpublishable novel,” she says. “Maybe there was a scene, but I’d decided on a self-apprenticeship, and didn’t try to find a writers’ group ― or even a buddy ― to consult.”
Lester acknowledges the influence that Japan had on her style. “I did a lot of freelance magazine writing, which meant I had to learn to do effective research and craft a good hook. But more importantly, as a fiction writer, I did a lot of living when I was in Japan, and it made many deep impressions on me. I moved a lot and absorbed the different neighborhoods and neighbors.”
Also speaking at JWC will be Benjamin Martin, whose book “Samurai Awakening” won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Crystal Kite Award this year. Martin began to write while living on Kitadaitojima, a tiny island in Okinawa with a population of just 660.
“As a new writer, I had no idea how one went about getting published, so I did what most people would do: I Googled it,” Martin says. “I quickly discovered an entire industry devoted to ‘helping’ prospective authors: predatory ‘agencies,’ tons of books and services promising a quick fix” ― all in exchange for cash, of course. But luckily, Martin also found a select group of friends who helped him refine both the story and structure of his book.
The next step was finding a publisher. “Through trial and error I refined my agent queries to the point where I began to get requests for more material,” he says. “Then I took a break and tackled the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Though I did not win, I did get to the semi-finals, and the positive performance of my work was likely the point that swayed the acquisitions committee at Tuttle.”
Martin has successfully mined a hole in the Tuttle catalog after persuading them to branch out into the Young Adult genre. “It has been a trial for both of us,” he says. “Dealing with a small press from abroad means I don’t get to meet the staff, and communication can be difficult. On the other hand, when I have a question, it is usually pretty easy to get in touch with someone who can help.”
The bugbear of many a writer worldwide is, as ever, getting that break and being published. At the Okinawa conference, two speakers will use the platform to address this delicate subject.
One is prose and comic-book writer Percival Constantine, who completed his first novel, “Fallen,” in 2005, three years before moving to Japan, and began shopping it around to agents.
“After about a year of trying to find an agent with no success, I went the self-publishing route through Lulu.com,” he says. “I designed the cover myself and learned how to format the PDF properly. Altogether I’ve published six books, with a seventh on the way. Beginning in 2010, my books have carried the PulpWork Press label, which is more an umbrella company than anything else, which means I still handle the technical aspects of my work.”
Speaking about self-publishing, Constantine says he relishes the speed with which he can get his stories in print, the control he has over the final product and the percentage of royalties he receives. “On the other hand, though, you are responsible for everything, and unless you are very talented or have a lot of friends willing to work for free, putting together a professional product can be difficult,” he admits. “Also, there’s still something of a stigma against self-publishing, and although you have a higher percentage of royalties, you will probably sell less copies, so that means you might still make more money with a traditional publisher.”
Todd Jay Leonard has published 16 books with traditional publishers, as well as four titles with print-on-demand (POD) companies. He agrees with Constantine about the pros of self-publishing, calling the very quick turnover time “a huge advantage.”
“In as little as six weeks your book can be in print and selling,” he says. “You also don’t have deadlines and people telling you to rewrite and edit. However, this can be bad if the author isn’t that great, or lazy, or the idea for the book is not good to begin with.”
One thing that never fails to surprise Leonard is how quickly POD books appear on Amazon.com and other websites. “For fun, I sometimes Google myself and I’m always surprised at how widespread my books are. The Internet will continue to change the face of publishing as more and more people exclusively use the Internet to shop for books.”
Leonard admits, though, that traditional publishing still retains an aura of prestige. “That’s what I call the snob factor, but the author’s credibility is undoubtedly increased, although this point is being blurred by POD publishing,” he says.
“It goes without saying that traditional publishers work hard to push titles through distribution channels. Books are sometimes placed in national chains, which get a wider exposure to the public. This doesn’t mean you can’t get similar results with a self-published work. Really organized and motivated authors can turn their POD books into veritable best-sellers, but it takes work and effort to get the word out . . . and money to advertise it in the right places.”
Keio University professor and art lover Robert Tobin has a clear vision on how a book should be marketed.
“Of course you want to sell books, but first of all you want to get your writing out there and have people interested in it,” he says. “Marketing does not start when you publish the book; it starts before you are done with the first draft. This entails knowing who you are writing for and reaching out to that audience as you are writing.”
Tobin believes that having a blog is a must. “Blogging helped me tighten my message and figure out what I wanted to say. You should also give talks ― for free. It’s all about developing ― an overused term these days ― your platform. You don’t need a book tour; you need people who love your writing and your talks.”
Many writers agree that social media is an important tool in spreading the word about one’s work, but Wright is not totally convinced. “Real men don’t tweet,” he declares. “As for Facebook, it was useful in organizing the launch party for my 2012 novel ‘River Road.’ However, with all the money Mark Zuckerberg has made, one would think that Facebook could be more user-friendly.”
Though no Luddite when it comes to technology (he previously worked in IT), fellow conference speaker Hugh Ashton advises writers not to forget that their success or otherwise rests above all on the quality of their writing. And what better way to articulate this than with the words of his literary muse, Sherlock Holmes . . .
“An author should be careful to follow the detective’s advice when he says, ‘You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear,’ ” Ashton says. “In other words, simply writing about what happened is not enough. You must write in such a way that the significance of the events described may be interpreted by the reader from the events. Go deeper into the subject and avoid superficiality.”
While originality is important, an author should never forget the basics of writing, Ashton counsels. “Holmes says, ‘It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.’ When you think about it, spelling, grammar, sentence structure and rhythm are all important details we can by no means overlook.”
Signed print and e-book giveaway
Some of the authors appearing at the Japan Writers Conference have generously offered The Japan Times copies of their works to give away.
In “Sherlock Ferret and the Missing Necklace,” written by Hugh Ashton and illustrated by Andy Boerger, Miss Leticia Rabbit leaves her gold necklace on the grass outside her house one evening. When she gets up in the morning, it’s gone!
To help her get it back, she asks Sherlock Ferret, who lives with his friend Watson Mouse M.D. (a doctor of Mousology) in rooms under Mrs. Hudson’s baker’s shop.
Sherlock and Watson, and their friend Lestrade ― a rhinoceros (though not a very big one) ― set out to find the necklace for her, meeting other interesting and nefarious characters along the way.
Inknbeans Press has kindly offered six signed copies of this book for children (and grown-up children) to readers.
Originally from the U.K., Hugh Ashton now lives in the town of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, together with his wife Yoshiko (and no ferrets).
He has recently published six volumes of Sherlock Holmes mysteries with Inknbeans Press (www.inknbeans.com), all in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The three “Deed Box” collections have been collected and printed together in a handsome hardback edition ― “The Deed Box of John H. Watson MD.” More details here: 221beanbakerstreet.info.
Inknbeans Press has also published his collection of short stories set in Japan, “Tales of Old Japanese,” featuring the culture and habits of the older generation of Japanese.
“Sherlock Ferret and the Missing Necklace” is his first book for children.
Andy Boerger is an American writer and illustrator. Early in his career, some of his politically tinged cartoons were chosen by the New York-based Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate for its “Views of the World” feature, and appeared in such widely read publications as The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
Some of his writing and illustrations can be found
He has published numerous books about learning English as a second language (as well as creating illustrations for them). The popular “Your English Ears” series, written with co-author Kazuo Nagao and published by Sanshusha, now runs to 10 titles (and counting!).
Another title, “Can You Show Your Appeal Using English?” is currently in its 10th printing.
Earlier this year he created illustrations for the children’s book “What Does The Tooth Fairy Do With Our Teeth?”, by Denise Barry.
Boerger hopes to continue to collaborate with both Barry and Ashton, as well as create his own original stories.
He has a particular fondness for children and animals as subjects for both his writing and illustrations.
He lives in Tokyo, with a family including Vinnie the ferret, who would make a very good detective if she were so inclined. She has a special talent for hiding things.
“Samurai Awakening,” the award-winning debut of author Benjamin Martin, is a young adult fantasy set in Japan.
David Matthews’ first weeks as an exchange student have left him homesick and misunderstood. A fateful invitation to the local Shinto shrine sends him on a path no foreigner has experienced before. As Japanese myths come alive, David must overcome his past and accept a new and uncertain future in time to stop the lurking darkness threatening Japan.
Booklist has called the novel “an imaginative take on the triumph of the underdog.”
“Revenge of the Akuma Clan,” the sequel to “Samurai Awakening,” continues David’s story. As his relationships, especially with Rie, his host sister, grow uncertain, he must forge deeper connections with Kou, the tiger god that resides with him, and form new alliances if he hopes to hold back the return of Japan’s ancient enemies.
Even as David explores more of Japan with his friends and classmates, the Akuma clan plots its revenge.
We have a signed copy of each of Benjamin Martin’s books to give away.
Percival Constantine has also agreed to donate 10 copies of his e-book “The Myth Hunter.”
When evidence proving the existence of the lost continent of Lemuria emerges, “myth hunter” Elisa Hill embarks on a journey for the truth. Her quest takes her from the oceans of the Caribbean to the temples of India and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. But it’s a race against time, because a mysterious sect known as the Order and another, more ruthless myth hunter named Seth are also after Lemuria’s secrets.
To enter the draw for these books, please rank them in order of preference in an email, omitting mention of any books you are not interested in, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “Book giveaway” in the subject line of the mail and please include the address you would like print books to be sent to and your phone number. Competition closes at 9 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 18. The seventh Japan Writers Conference will be held in Nishihara City, Okinawa, on Saturday, Nov. 2, and Sunday, Nov. 3. For more information, see www.japanwritersconference.org/index.htm. Send your comments and story ideas to email@example.com.