Spotlight 34: PJ Skinner
Mark Dawson: I’m Mark Dawson from the Self-Publishing Show, and this is Self-Publishing Spotlight, where we shine a light on the indie authors who are changing the world of publishing, one book at a time.
Tom Ashford: Hello, and welcome to the Self-Publishing Spotlight. We meet indie authors at all stages of their careers, and ask them a series of five questions. Five questions about their process, their mistakes, and their successes, five answers that will help you level up your own author career.
My name’s Tom Ashford, and I’m part of the Self-Publishing Formula. Don’t forget that you can get your self-publishing resource kit at SelfPublishingFormula.com/StarterKit.
This week’s guest is PJ Skinner. She’s written six books in the thriller genre, and she lives in England.
PJ Skinner: Thank you very much.
Tom Ashford: Would you like to start by talking about the books that you’ve got in the thriller genre?
PJ Skinner: Yes. I’ve written a series of six standalone books. They’re written like classic adventures, so they would be somewhere between Indiana Jones and Wilbur Smith.
They’re based on my 30 years, working in various jungles, and remote sites in Africa and South America. They have a female protagonist who can’t help getting herself into trouble. She’s a geologist by trade, and she ends up in all sorts of peculiar places, which is where the adventure starts. The geology is really a vehicle, to get her to the places where she has her adventures.
Tom Ashford: That sounds very cool.
What was the reason for you being in the jungle in the first place?
PJ Skinner: I’m an exploration geologist, so I go into the jungle and look for metals. Gold, silver, copper, iron, things like that.
Tom Ashford: That is very cool.
PJ Skinner: Lots of diamonds.
Tom Ashford: Nice. Okay well, we’ll dive into the five questions now.
The first one is, why do you write?
PJ Skinner: Because I can’t talk about my job, really, is the main reason I started writing. Especially as a woman in this industry, that’s pretty rare to have a female exploration geologist, there’s not many women on remote sites.
When you come home and go to the pub, you can’t really talk about what you do because it sounds so ludicrous compared to people’s normal jobs. People don’t really like it when you talk about your adventures.
So, I clammed up for 30 years. Then, I thought, well maybe I could write about it instead, because I’ve got all this stuff in my head. So, I started writing, and taught myself to write. It’s really gone from there.
Tom Ashford: Are the stories loosely based on things that you encountered in real life?
PJ Skinner: Yes, very much so. In each book I’ll throw in an adventure which didn’t necessarily happen to me, but may have happened to people that I know. Most of the countries, I’ve given generic names, for African countries and South American countries, they aren’t real names.
But what I’ve done is used all my 30 years experience, of culture, bureaucracy, just adventures. I worked in several countries with civil wars, so I’ve used a lot of the experiences that I’ve had, and that other people have had, in order to fill in the background of the books. There’s quite a lot of corruption, because that’s how most of these countries operate. So, the adventures are based around real backgrounds.
Tom Ashford: When did you start writing?
PJ Skinner: I started writing seriously about five years ago. I have had full-time jobs, so that slows me down a bit.
Tom Ashford: Are you traditionally published, or self published?
PJ Skinner: I’m self published. I couldn’t find an agent who wanted to publish classic adventure. So I decided there wasn’t any point, I think I sent queries to quite a lot of thriller agents, and they just said, “We don’t do that sort of thing.” When I’d had “that sort of thing” a few times, I realized that I was being dissed, so I decided I’d better publish my own books.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Well, more fool them, because I’ve definitely seen books in that genre sell very sell. I know a couple of authors.
PJ Skinner: Mine are doing pretty well, at the moment.
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
PJ Skinner: Nobody wanted to know, they wouldn’t even read them.
Tom Ashford: Question number two is, how do you write? Do you plot your stories out beforehand, or just see where the story takes you?
PJ Skinner: I’m a pantser. I do a bit of plotting in the middle. Sometimes I get lost. I generally know the beginning and end, and then the middle is a bit of a mystery. When I get to the middle I get a bit grumpy, and then I start trying to plot the odd chapter out, and figure out how I get to the end.
I can’t plot it the whole way because I don’t actually know what’s going to happen.
Tom Ashford: Fair enough.
Is there a particular set of software that you use, like Scrivener, Word, Vellum, that sort of thing?
PJ Skinner: I’ve tried using Scrivener, but I find I lose my way with Scrivener, with all those paragraphs, and I get them confused in the dashboard. I don’t know, I kind of like Word. I know that’s not very fashionable, but I just like having all my document, in order, in one document. I find Word to be the best for that.
Also, Word will read my work back to me, which I do quite often with dialogue, to make sure they sound realistic.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. I like doing that, with a run through when editing.
PJ Skinner: Yeah.
Tom Ashford: Pure read it back to you, because it obviously has a bit of a robotic voice, you know if it’s going to work well or not.
PJ Skinner: Well, you can hear something peculiar and you think, what was that? And you look back on the page, and find you’ve made some sort of typo that you haven’t noticed, or that you’ve put a sentence in twice, or just something you don’t really notice when you’re reading it yourself.
I do most of my own editing. I use Pro Writing Aid for the first major edit, which picks up all sort of things. Like repetition, and overused words, and peculiar grammar. But, sometimes I find it a little bit unhelpful, because it doesn’t really get my English creative writing terribly well, so I have to leave some of it out. But, I have found it to be fantastic, it’s a great software. I think it’s very good value, too.
Tom Ashford: Is there a time and place that you prefer writing?
PJ Skinner: Well, I’m unemployed. As an exploration geologist, I do have a lot of downtime, so I’ve written most of my recent books being unemployed.
I have a full-time job at the moment, but luckily there’s a month’s hiatus, so I’m using that to write my seventh book, and the last in series, so that’s kind of handy.
Tom Ashford: Nice. Okay well, question number three you somewhat answered.
Are you a full-time author? If you are, how did you get there? If you aren’t, what steps are you taking to make it happen, if you want it to happen?
PJ Skinner: I’m not sure I want to be full-time. I still like to work. For instance, at the moment I’m working in Northern Brazil, in a remote site with no cell coverage. That’s the sort of place you could base a book of any sort, where adventures can happen.
I find mobile phones to be a bit of an intrusion on adventure, because you could always ring someone and get rescued. The reason I set the Sam Harris books in the 1980s, but to the 2000s, was because I could write adventures that, realistically, didn’t have mobile phones or computers in.
The last book has now got both mobile phones and computers in it, so totally different books. It’s quite hard to write adventure with a mobile phone.
Tom Ashford: Once your thriller series is up, do you plan to write more books? Or, maybe a different genre?
PJ Skinner: Yes, I have a standalone that I’m desperate to write, but I’ve been keeping it, and forcing myself to finish Sam Harris first. It’s my treat to myself, when I finish Sam Harris series, to write this book about Ireland.
Tom Ashford: Nice.
PJ Skinner: It’s going to be called Rebel Green.
It’s about the Green family, who go to Ireland at the beginning of the troubles, and live in Southern Ireland. It’s about what happens to them, and how they get involved by mistake in the troubles.
Tom Ashford: Question number four is what mistakes do you think you’ve made, and what have you got right?
PJ Skinner: What mistakes have I made? I don’t know, I kind of bumble along, everything’s a mistake. I don’t really know. I have more success than I was expecting.
I think I’m not terribly good at promotion, and I did have … The covers, in the beginning, weren’t good enough. Now, I think, they’re too thriller. So, that may be a mistake, I may need to change them if I ever meet someone who understands what I write.
I don’t think there’s to many mistakes. What was the rest of the question, sorry?
Tom Ashford: What have you got right?
PJ Skinner: What have I got right? I seem to have hit a nerve, with both the female and male readers, who want to read an adventure where it’s not all about billionaires, and blondes with huge boobs, and explosions.
They want to read a thriller that sounds like they could be in it. And the character is believable.
One of the things I did from the beginning was my goodies are not all good, and my baddies are not all bad. I think people like proper characters, that sound like you might meet them in the supermarket, or down the pub. I think that’s been something that’s got me more readers.
But, because I don’t have explosions and boobs, a lot of people pick up the books and hate them, and give me one-star reviews because they say they’re crap, because they haven’t got enough adventure, or thriller. In a way, I’ve painted myself into a corner, I guess that’s a mistake.
But, in another way, I’ve got very loyal people that read the whole series, so I guess that’s a positive.
Tom Ashford: Question number five is, what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
PJ Skinner: I’ve done about a billion courses, most of them free. I would really recommend that you … in the beginning, you go heavy on editing. You pay a developmental editor, and you listen to what they say. Because a lot of indie authors that I’ve read have obviously not had a proper edit, and I think that puts readers off, and it’s putting readers off indie books, that there are so many books out there that are not very good.
My real advice is to get help in the beginning, until you feel able to do the things like yourself. Like, I feel able to do most of editing now, but I still have a copy editor and a proof editor. I still use beta readers, to tell me where I’m going wrong in my stories.
I think trying to do it all by yourself, for some people, may be a mistake. My advice would be, don’t go it alone too soon, get yourself ready first, and be prepared to rewrite things, and republish books if people notice mistakes or if the story’s not strong enough.
Don’t feel like it’s your only time, when you publish it the first time. You can take it down, and you can rewrite it.
In fact, my sixth book was my first book. It was only after about two months, I realized that it was part of a series, and that I hadn’t really said everything I wanted to say. So, I took it down and started at the beginning. I only published again in September.
No mistake is fatal, the audience is massive. Maybe 20 people have read your book, it’s not the end of the world, start again. That’s what I would say, never be afraid to try it again, and to keep trying, and to keep making it better.
Every time somebody says something’s wrong with my book, I’ll have a look and if they’re right, I’ll change it, and I’ll upload it again. I just hope that my writing gets better, and my books get better, I get a better audience. I never take any criticism to heart, I always check and make sure what people are saying is correct. Then, I keep going.
Tom Ashford: That’s strong advice. And that’s your five questions, up. Thank you very much for coming on.
PJ Skinner: Thank you very much, it’s been fun.
Tom Ashford: That’s it for this week’s Self-Publishing Spotlight.
Don’t forget that you can get your free self-publishing resource kit at SelfPublishingFormula.com/StarterKit.
If you want to appear as a guest on this show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing at SelfPublishingFormula.com/Spotlight-Guest.
Tom Ashford: I’m Tom Ashford, and I’ll see you again next week.
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