SPS-341: Writing Into Retirement – with M. Lee Prescott
Mary Lee Prescott is happily busy working on her second career. Writing used to be a hobby but now that she’d ‘retired’ she’s working full steam ahead in both the mystery and romance genres.
- Writing mysteries after encouragement from a son
- On writing romance with a little spice
- Being invited to a book group via a Free Little Library
- On the adjustment of beginning to write full-time
- Thoughts on legacy planning for book series
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.
SPS-341: Writing Into Retirement - with M. Lee Prescott
Announcer: On this edition of the self-publishing show.
M Lee Prescott: It's nice to get the income, but it's mostly just because I enjoy it. Sometimes when I'm in the marketing part of it, I'm thinking to myself, "That's it, I'm really retiring. I'm not doing any of this anymore." But I do it more for my own enjoyment and because I have readers that really do look for the next book. That's gratifying to me.
Announcer: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Here we are Mark, pressing on to summer. We're doing a bit of batch recording this time of year, but we can now say that we have had our... this is a bit weird because at this point the dear listener will have already seen the recap of the conference. The conference is behind us. I'm hoping by the time this goes out, certainly by the time this goes out towards the end of July, that we will have been able to announce the dates for next year's conference.
I'm still on a bit of a high from the conference. It was brilliant and getting lots of really positive feedback about it. We had a few technicals with the venue, but the venue started to feel like home for The Self Publishing Show. And I think that's how they feel about it as well. We hope that by the 29th of July, that we will have been able to announce the dates and probably done a presale of tickets.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, that's the plan. I think we know roughly when it will be. I think we pretty much know what the dates are, just waiting for them to confirm it. And then we'll put tickets. We'll have a longer sales period this year, so people can get tickets. I think we'll offer them to people who are at the conference first, will get first dibs, but that will mean there are still plenty available for others who want to come. I think it will sell out, so I think I'll probably recommend people if they want to come, getting their tickets as soon as they can when we announce it, because I think we had more people in the hall this year than we did last time. I'm pretty confident that next time will be a complete sell out.
James Blatch: It was really fun. We had some good memories there. Hopefully they've looked back at that. Okay, look, we haven't got too much to talk about because we're recording this in the past, where you and I live. Well, I live most of the time in the past.
Mark Dawson: 1950s.
James Blatch: But we have an interviewee who started her independent publishing career after retirement. I think this is relevant for quite a lot of people listening here, perhaps going towards the end of their, what they think is their traditional working life. And they have a passion of writing. We talk a lot, don't we, to youngsters who get going straight out of college or in their 20s and 30s, perhaps more typically, but there's no reason why in your 60s coming up to 70s, you can't start a career as an independent writer. It's a brilliant thing, brilliantly available. This is M. Lee Prescott, Mary Lee, and let's have a chat with her and then Mark and I'll be back for a chat off the back.
James Blatch: M. Lee Prescott, or Mary Lee for the purposes of this interview, welcome to The-Self Publishing Show.
M Lee Prescott: Thank you.
James Blatch: Mary Lee, well, you have written a lot of books and I love the little bit in your bio where you say you started with a torch under the covers, reading, it wasn't Anne of Green Cables, was it? Nancy Drew, I think probably. Those mysteries. And for many of us, those early engagements with books set us on our lifelong quest to read and eventually write. I would like to talk about your more recent career, your writing habits, your publishing methods, and how you dovetail that with your life.
Why don't you start with your first published book, Mary Lee. When did that happen?
M Lee Prescott: Well, the first published books were not the ones I'm writing now. They were professional books for my career. I was a professor of education and literacy for many, many years and so my first published book was Fluency in Focus.
James Blatch: Fluent in Focus, that sounds great.
M Lee Prescott: These are on reading and writing for teachers. And then I did a couple of other ones. One was on reading partnerships and writing partnerships. Those were my first published books, but I had been writing for many, many years at that point. Do you want me to keep going or do you want to-
James Blatch: You can morph us to, when did the fiction happen?
M Lee Prescott: It happened in my life and world 40 years ago, even longer, when I was teaching it at school, we had a writer's group and we started writing things and sharing them. And my first book was still in the drawer somewhere, but I kept writing and I'd write and I'd attempt to market, feeble attempts, and sometimes I'd have agents, sometimes I wouldn't. And then I'd just kind of put everything away.
In 2010, '11, I met a friend when I was travelling in Arizona and she had someone that was doing self-publishing, and she said, "Oh, she said it's very easy." Blah, blah, blah. Well, I don't how easy it is, but so that's how, in the first book that got published from that interaction, I think was Prepped to Kill, which is one of my mysteries. I have to go back and look, James, I'm not quite sure, but then I just kept going.
What happened is, my kids in Arizona dared me to write this romance series that had a lot of... the setting was out there and I started out, and of course those were the ones that sold. And I have two mystery series, and I have a lot of standalones, but the ones that I put my energy into most of the time are the romances. However, a new mystery of the Ricky Steele series will come out this summer. And that first one is that, I believe Prepped to Kill was the first one I published.
James Blatch: You write all the genres under one pen name.
M Lee Prescott: I do. I thought about splitting them. And then I just decided, let's give this a go. And maybe that's why, maybe... I'm in the midst right now of redoing the covers of the Ricky Steele, because I got that advice. So, although I have a wonderful cover artist, we'll see if that makes a difference. But I know a lot of authors do split and have a website for this person and a website for that person. It's just too much.
James Blatch: Yeah. I agree. In fact, we had dinner in Cambridge last night with some authors, including Craig Martelle, and he said exactly the same. He writes different genres, but he doesn't want to have five different websites and all the rest of that.
So, the romance books were the ones that sold and you said you wrote them because, was it your kids or the kids you were teaching put you up to it?
M Lee Prescott: Well, they live in Arizona and my son had all these ideas about, he wanted me to write a mystery set out there in Monument National Park, which I didn't, but I don't know. I just got thinking about it, and this story started. They're really about family and a small community. And readers like them, and I'm working on book 13 at that series, and that has a spinoff series. So, I have readers saying, "Well, when's so-and-so's story going to come?" So, I kind of feel obligated for that to them. But anyway, I'd go back and forth more if I thought it would be okay. But right now that's what I've been doing.
James Blatch: Did you read a lot of genre fiction? Did you read a lot of romance before you started writing it?
M Lee Prescott: Some. I used to read Rosamunde Pilcher years ago and people like that, but not a lot of romance, actually. But I read some as I started off this journey, to see if I was going to be way off-base. My sort of genre fiction that I love is mysteries. But a few, but probably not as many as I should actually.
James Blatch: Yeah, but it's the romance. So, you enjoy writing, it's not like a labour for you to write the romance, and then you enjoy writing mystery.
Because you've written a lot, right? Your series are quite long.
M Lee Prescott: Yep. Yeah, they are long.
James Blatch: So, you enjoy it.
M Lee Prescott: Yeah. I enjoy it. I enjoy the characters in the romances, and the spinoff series, it took us from Arizona to where I live, in New England, it has been fun too. I won't say they write themselves, but the characters, I know, keeping them all straight. I have these elaborate Bibles and things like that to keep them all straight, but they're fun to write. They're all fun to write.
James Blatch: Let's talk about your process, if we can. So, when you approach a new book, do you plot things out? You said you've got a Bible to know what's happened in the past. Or do you just sit there and Marie Foster and think, "Well, what's going to happen when I start writing?"
M Lee Prescott: I have a little bit of an outline with the mysteries, and I sort of know where those are going and who the killer is, or murderer. But the romances, I know who they're going to be about, the two main, man and woman, because they're always heterosexual romances too, so far. I do have a number of other kinds of couples in the books, but the central characters at this point have been heterosexual. And I know they're there. I know they're going to have issues and problems and so forth. But I do know that.
Those kind of write themselves in that way. I let the characters take off. And then I come to know the characters as I write them. I don't write elaborate... which is probably why I have to keep my Bibles, but I don't write elaborate outlines with all the characters' characteristics. They kind of unfold as I go.
James Blatch: What sub genre would you put your romances into?
M Lee Prescott: It's probably contemporary, and the ones that are set in Arizona, I usually use the categories of contemporary Western family sagas, they could be in as well. But they're contemporary fiction. It's a whole present day.
James Blatch: And they're, how do I say this delicately, above the covers, under... I mean, I get a bit confused about all the language about this, but they're not spicy romance or...
M Lee Prescott: They have some spiciness. They're not erotica, but they do go beneath the covers.
James Blatch: Beneath the covers. There you go. I'll get used to all these expressions.
M Lee Prescott: That's not a big focus of the book in terms of, you don't see it every other page, but there are some sexual scenes.
James Blatch: The reason I ask that, probably more than I talk about with other genres is, I know that romance readers do have expectations and you have to be reasonably aware of that when you're writing into a particular sub genre, otherwise you can get bad reviews, simply because something's not there, or something is there.
M Lee Prescott: I have a reader occasionally say, "I love these books, but I don't like to have any sex scenes." And I have thought, I was telling someone recently, "Well maybe I should just keep writing the series, but not have so much sex." And there's not a lot of sex in it. But anyway, and "Oh, no. Once you start it, you have to keep going," she said.
James Blatch: So, your romance series is the one that you seem to have the most feedback on from your readers.
In terms of marketing, is that your main effort, the romances? You see that as the most commercial that you write?
M Lee Prescott: Yeah. For sure.
James Blatch: What does your marketing effort look like?
M Lee Prescott: Well, I have a wonderful woman that helps me with my website and helps me with marketing and promotion, with various things. She posts on Facebook. Well, I post there sometimes, but she does that. I also, myself try to regularly advertise on BookBub. Well, she does that sometimes too, BookBub, Facebook. We tried an experiment with Amazon Ads. At this point, it wasn't too successful, but I get good results with Robin Reads and Free Booksy and things like that.
I think the thing that drives my books and the sales is that the first book of the series is free. At the moment, all the books are in KU and I'm not sure... the free ones, not my other ones. And I'm not sure what that means pricing wise for people who are in or out of KU.
But other than that, ordinarily the first book of each series is free. So, that helps. But I'm trying to think what else. Sue does Instagram. This is by marketing person. And she'll look for things. We've done all kinds of other, Pillow Talk and Coffeetown, and some are better than others. I just had a marketing firm help me with the Amazon Ads. They say if we kept going, it would maybe pick up, but I decide to pause them for now. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with them. They just didn't seem to work for me.
James Blatch: Yeah. But Facebook Ads might be the ones working.
So, your number one in the series is perma free?
M Lee Prescott: Yeah. First one is perma. Is that what you said? They're perma free?
James Blatch: Yes.
M Lee Prescott: Only the first series. Yeah. So, Emma's Dream, Lucy's Hearth, Prepped to Kill, and A Friend of Silence. Those are the first of those series.
James Blatch: And your mystery books you write, would you describe them as cosy mystery again in the sub genre?
M Lee Prescott: Well, that's the trouble. In my mystery series, I have two sub genres. There's a cosy series. There's only three of those, starts with A Friend of Silence, and that's more about a small village type thing. And the other one, Prepped to Kill, she's a private investigator. It's told in the first person, and it's got more humour to it. It's a little bit more gritty, urban settings. So, those are different.
James Blatch: Yes. Which always makes it a slightly trickier task for marketing. But you said you do outline your mystery books a bit more.
M Lee Prescott: Well, I know what I'm doing to start, and then I sort of have a direction, and then I keep a pretty detailed Bible as I add characters and add descriptions and all that. And I know who's going to be the perpetrator, but how they get to that, I could do a better job of that maybe, but I find for me, the writing process works better if I don't spend days and days and weeks and weeks on an outline. And then, I immediately diverge from it anyway.
James Blatch: And to be fair, I think that's quite common, to have the beats laid out and then just enjoy the writing process up until those points. But a bit of both probably, is most people's answer to the question, are you a pantser or a plotter?
Now, let's talk about, again, going back to process, I'm always interested in how people write. Where do you write, how much do you write? And so on.
M Lee Prescott: I usually write either right here or in another part of the house, but just a part of my living room. I write on a laptop. I try to write every day for at least a couple of hours. If I get really going, I might write for three or four hours. Not much more than that, but life has intruded a lot lately. And the marketing I'm trying right now, I just retired from my full-time job a year ago now. So, I'm trying to make that balance be really a balance between the writing and all the other stuff that goes on in life. And sometimes it's easier than not, but I would say I typically write five days a week and it could be a weekend day, or it could be a weekday, just because of all the other stuff. But I try to sit down and write every day. People say that writing is hard and it's arduous, but I really enjoy that time. It's actually very relaxing for me. So, I'm motivated to do it.
James Blatch: How many words do you write? Do you give yourself a word count limit?
M Lee Prescott: I don't give myself a word count, but when I was pushing to finish the fifth book in Ricky Steele, which is now with my copy editor, I was trying to write at least 2,500 a day because I wanted to get it finished. Ordinarily, I would say typically if I'm meandering along, I haven't given myself a really tight deadline, I could write anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 if I really got going. It just depends. It depends on the day and what's going on.
James Blatch: I always like to know exactly how people write. Do you write in Scrivener or Word? And what does that process look like? Do you go back over your writing or do you not revisit it until you revise?
M Lee Prescott: Do you mean what programme do... I write in Word.
James Blatch: And then, do you just write forward, or do you write, go back, rewrite, rewrite, and then move forward?
M Lee Prescott: That depends too, but I tend to write a first draft pretty much all the way through, but when I sit down and write every day, I try to read maybe the last five or six pages that I've just written. And then I go on. But I will tell you, because I usually do just write, write, write, write, write, when the draft is done and I'm revising, there's a lot of, "Oh, the timeline has to be..." I keep a timeline very... I started doing that actually just with the last, probably five books, and that's been helpful because it can be all over the place. And so, I have more revising to do because I don't methodically go back as much as I probably should.
James Blatch: Well, there's different ways of doing it, but yeah, I think some people do advocate just going forward and leaving it to the revision stage, because otherwise you don't get the first draft done, which is one way of looking at it.
So, you retired a year ago. Is that from your professorship?
M Lee Prescott: Yes.
James Blatch: Okay. So, you were teaching up until a year ago.
M Lee Prescott: Yep. But that's a flexible schedule and I had sabbaticals, and I had the summer, so that's where I typically did most of my writing.
James Blatch: And your writing career now, Mary Lee, is this something you do as a hobby or is this a serious sort of part of your pension, if you like, of your income?
M Lee Prescott: Well, it's nice to get the income, but it's mostly just because I enjoy it. Sometimes when I'm in the marketing part of it, I'm thinking to myself, "That's it, I'm really retiring. I'm not doing any of this anymore." But I do it more for my own enjoyment, and because I have readers that really do look for the next book, I feel like. That's gratifying to me. And it keeps your mind sharp. I'm getting up there in age, and it just does keep me sharp and thinking about things and creative.
I have a sister with... Well, no, I don't want to talk about that, but her mind is going, and I think, "Well, I'll keep going." So, you just want to do things. And the one thing I will say, in retirement, the writing takes up a lot of the reading time, and I'm in a really high-powered, wonderful book group, so I have to really push to get those books and then other books. It takes reading time, but that's fine too.
James Blatch: Does your book group ever look at your books?
M Lee Prescott: No. Well, that's how I got into the book group, I didn't know whether you wanted to see them. I took this. My neighbours, I don't know whether you have these in Great Britain, but we have, it's called Song of the Spirit, but my neighbour and I made up one of these little free libraries. You have those over there?
James Blatch: Oh yes.
M Lee Prescott: And someone got that book out of there and invited me to come to the book club. So, that's how I got in the crazy book club. But anyway.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, that's good. And now you're discussing other books.
So, your writing is something that you are obviously dedicated to, even though it's not necessarily a necessary part of your income, let's put it that way.
How long do you think you're going to carry on writing? Do you have a plan? You've got fans who want to know what's happening next. Is there a finite period or you're just going to do it because you enjoy it?
M Lee Prescott: I'll just do it as long as I enjoy it. I enjoy it as long as my brain or my mind holds out. I do enjoy it and if it becomes too much, that's fine too. But it's a lot of fun.
James Blatch: How do you have your interaction with your users? Is that through Facebook Groups or do you have a mailing list?
M Lee Prescott: Yes, I do. That's one of the many pressures of marketing and self-marketing is increasing that mailing list and whether that's helpful. Sue, my PR person has been, or whatever... she's a social media person, has been trying. But yes, I do have a monthly newsletter.
James Blatch: Yes.
M Lee Prescott: It doesn't have enough subscribers, but they're usually the dedicated readers. But yes, I do.
James Blatch: And Facebook Group?
M Lee Prescott: I'm on Facebook, but I have never done the groups. And that's again, the tension of whether to take the time to write, or take the time to do that kind of thing. I probably should. There is a reader group that Sue set up on Facebook, but we've never really done much with it.
James Blatch: I'm just wondering, your readers' relationship, is it largely the romance readers who are the ones who engage with you?
M Lee Prescott: Yes. Although, I've had some interesting conversations in the past when I was doing more marketing of particularly the Ricky Steele books, with people that really love the books, but I haven't been pushing those books because that's not what's been coming out. I'll write one of those every three years or so. But yeah, most of the engagement is the romance readers. But once in a while I'll get the others. It just depends.
James Blatch: Yeah. So, you write every day, you said?
M Lee Prescott: Well, I'd love to, but I bet you, I write five days out of the week. Maybe I'll sneak in half an hour, 45 minutes, even on a day that I "don't write."
James Blatch: I'm asking these partly out of self-interest because I'm writing my books, and at some point I will scale down my day-to-day business activities. And I'm just wondering what that looks and feels like. I don't know if people have different ideas of retirement, don't they? A lot of people think retirement is not going to be having to go to a machine and do some work every day. But for me, I think that sounds like a nice thing to do.
And like you say, we don't really know how the mind works, but exercising it in that way probably doesn't hurt.
M Lee Prescott: I see your book in the background there. I wish I could flip the interview around and ask you all the questions you've been asking me. But retirement for me has been a little bit of an adjustment because I think I was more productive sometimes when all these other forces that are... one of the lovely forces of my life, my family I mean, when I was working, they couldn't have me do this and this and this with them, and I love doing them so I would never not do it. So, it's that illusion, that I'm just sitting here twiddling my thumbs in retirement. Actually, I shouldn't say that. I've put four books out this year, so I can't complain too much. But anyway, so it's a little bit of an adjustment.
I was looking forward to retirement for this very reason to write, but it's been an adjustment. People say it takes about a year and it's not the adjustment of... I love being retired and I loved my teaching career, but I don't miss that. It's just sort of balance and structuring of what you're doing, because I have plenty of things to do. I don't like one thing to take over everything else, like the basement, which I've been trying to clean out. Anyway, never mind that. But it's hard. I think if I didn't have the writing, I'd find something else to do. With the pandemic, of course, the volunteer things that I would be drawn to are usually in schools. And so, that's been a little more difficult with the pandemic.
James Blatch: Yeah. I think that's how you're absolutely right to say that there should be something. I think that's the one thing I fear, and I fear it in other people, is that they suddenly come to an end of a career, and they used to say that BBC pension did very well because, because I used to work for the BBC and I have a BBC pension, but because it's quite an intense career and then it suddenly ends, and the pensioners didn't live that long. I think you need to think seriously about how that stage of your life's going to look and feel because it can be a bit of a shock to some people.
M Lee Prescott: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, dear. Well, hopefully my financial situation will ...
James Blatch: Well, it's not the finances. It's having purpose, I think, isn't it?
M Lee Prescott: Yeah.
James Blatch: Which you obviously do, Mary Lee, and you've done a terrific job. I'm impressed. Well, very impressed with your productivity, which is great. And obviously your interaction with readers is great. We wish you well. I hope you don't mind me asking all these intrusive questions about your process and productivity, because that's how I think most of the people listening always want to know. But Mary Lee, I wish you well, and I'm not going to say in retirement because this is your second career. I wish you well in the rest of your career.
M Lee Prescott: Well, you too. I'll have to get one of your books. What's the genre of your book, James?
James Blatch: It's 1960s based, sort of military thriller. So, the Cold War.
M Lee Prescott: Oh, I'll have to tell my son-in-law. See, one my two sons is very interested in what I'm doing, and I'm thinking ahead, because I'm old. What am I going to do when something happens to me, and what are they going to do? They can keep getting royalties and keep running. Anyway, so one of my kids is very interested in taking the mystery series and expanding that. It's actually the one that's more cosy, but he works for the government and he was in the military, so he's got a lot of more military overtones than I would ever put in books.
James Blatch: Right. He's welcome. Book one, you can see here is set in the UK, but book two is set in California, Edwards Air Force Base. So, it might be more relevant.
M Lee Prescott: All right. Yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah. That's good. And legacy planning, which we haven't really talked about, is a really important part as we get older, because it's very easy for our books to die with us and there's no need for that. We leave people behind, and that's putting it crudely, leaving money on the table if we don't plan that.
M Lee Prescott: My PR person Sue, that does my social media, she kept referring to this woman as her dead author. And this woman has over 100 books. Probably at least a third of those books have been written post her death. And you would never know on the website that this person is not living. It's interesting. I wouldn't do that, but it's just interesting, I think.
James Blatch: Well, she's not the only person who's no longer on the planet writing books. There's quite a few big names. Their books come out quite regularly. I mean, Tom Clancy's done very well since he died, with his books.
Mary Lee, thank you very much indeed. Appreciate the time you've taken, and we'll sort out the technicals afterwards, but thanks for bearing with us and good luck with the rest of your career.
M Lee Prescott: Well, thank for, James. Nice to talk to you.
James Blatch: There you go. When are you going to retire, Mark?
Mark Dawson: Well, I won't retire, I don't think. I can't imagine stopping. That's the joy of what I do, is I love it. So, I can't imagine not writing. That's weird. And it's also is one of those careers that you're not... I can do it wherever. I don't need to commute. I can do it from home. You can do it as you get old and decrepit. Good news for you. So, book three shouldn't be affected by your physical ailments.
James Blatch: Right.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it's a hobby really, just happens to pay the bills. So, I don't imagine I'll ever stop. They'll probably have to, in a kind of John le Carre way, not that I'm comparing myself to him, but he kind of almost died at the typewriter, I think. So, something similar.
James Blatch: Well, you don't even have to die as a writer now when you physically die, do you? Robert Ludlum I think still does, writes books and Ian Fleming.
Mark Dawson: Agatha Christie. Yeah, there's tonnes. Conan Doyle. Yeah, you can live forever as a writer.
James Blatch: Who would you pick to write John Milton books?
Mark Dawson: Well, I don't know. I haven't really thought about that. I'll have to keep my eye on the community and the young guns who are up-and-coming. Well, that's a bit morbid, isn't it? I'm intending to be around for a few years yet.
James Blatch: Good luck with that. I think you should do, you should kill Milton when you're 99 and the doctor says to you, "This is it, now. I've found something." You should write your final short story, go to a waterfalls somewhere.
Mark Dawson: Well, I've done waterfalls before. So, I think readers... I did waterfalls in the last, well my last Isabella Rose book.
James Blatch: Was that a nod to Conan Doyle?
Mark Dawson: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
James Blatch:Yeah. Nice. Okay. Well, look, anyway, talking about getting on, there's absolutely no reason why you can't have an indie publishing career at any age. I think this day and age, you could be at school and you could be in a retirement home. That is the glory and the beauty of this laissez-faire system that exists today. Okay. That's it for this week. I think in the real world, at the 29th of July, I'm somewhere in the US, I think probably in Phoenix or coming up from Mexico to Phoenix on my family vacation, just about to get back and put my nose back to the grindstone after that. But we will be back next week and we'll have news of the ads for author's course, which is unusually going to be open in August, very shortly. So, we'll have news of that next week. Until then, all that remains for me to say is as a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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