Today I have an interview with A.K.Benedict who moved from being an indie rock musician into writing supernatural crime novels. We talk about writing the dark side and why we all need the shadow, the challenges of marketing cross-genre novels, writing audio drama as she does for Torchwood and Dr Who, and how introverts can use performance techniques at conventions and literary festivals.
In the introduction, I mention the updated Kindle app on IOS which now includes Goodreads and how that might impact your marketing, why you should immediately subscribe to The New Publishing Standard as the next wave of growth is global, a personal update on the Coast Business Workshop – check out my pics on Instagram/JFPennAuthor.
If you'd like a dark read for Halloween, check out the Fear Bundle, which includes my novel, Gates of Hell, and my short story, The Dark Queen in the Feel the Fear anthology. Available a limited time at Storybundle.com/Fear. Here's a pic of some of the authors involved.
There are also 2 new podcasts that might be useful: The Smart Author Podcast with Mark Coker from Smashwords, and the Book Marketing Podcast by Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, who also makes KDP Rocket, a super-useful tool for keyword research.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
A.K. Benedict writes supernatural, crime novels, poetry and short stories, radio plays, and audio dramas. She's also been a composer and indie-rock singer/songwriter.
- Tracking creative ideas with online and paper means
- Combining genres and the challenges of marketing those books
- On the market for short stories and their flexibility with genre
- How writing for audio differs from other types of writing
- Finding writing work at conferences
- Performance and making literary festivals more fun
You can find Alexandra at AKBenedict.com and on Twitter @ak_benedict
Transcript of Interview with A.K. Benedict
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I'm here with A.K. Benedict. Hi, Alexandra.
Alexandra: Hello, there. How are you?
Joanna: I'm good. And the people on the video. It is almost Halloween here, isn't it? Which explains your getup, behind you there, and the skeleton which is cool.
Alexandra: Yes. Hello. There's a skeleton, that's Brian, the skeleton.
Joanna: That's cool. And we're gonna come back to dark things. But just a little introduction for those who might not know you.
A.K. Benedict writes supernatural, crime novels, poetry and short stories, radio plays, and audio dramas, so many things. It's a tongue twister. She's also been a composer and indie-rock singer/songwriter which is so cool. So, you're just too cool.
Tell us a bit about your eclectic creative life, and how did you get to this point in writing?
Alexandra: I started out doing music although I've always written since I was a child. But professionally, I was a musician and rock singer, but I was writing novels on the sides and short stories.
And then when I got my book deal I had to make a decision between doing music, writing, and acting because I was also acting in lots of different things and on stage in films, and I couldn't do all three well. So, I went for writing because that's what I've always wanted to do.
There are times that I missed doing lots of other things but, generally, I try and keep, at least, writing and then I do a million different things within that because I can't stop myself.
Joanna: Amazing that you were able to say no to these other things. But like you say you still do lots of things within writing.
Do you think that's just part of your personality that you need all these different things going on?
Alexandra: I think so. I think I have so many things going off in my brain at once that I need to lodge some of them elsewhere at any one time. If I stuck to novels, then that may be one or two a year, but then there are hundreds firing off at all-times short stories and poems. And I need to keep my brain in some ways slightly less chaotic by having an outlet for them.
Joanna: How do you track your ideas? Do you use an app or do you use journals? Or you just wait for them to re-emerge?
Alexandra: I do use journaling. I have a writing journal where I keep track of where everything is. And wherever I go, I take that with me but there's an online version as well just in case all falls apart.
But, generally, they're just they're singing in my brain so they won't let me go but anyway, some sirens calling from different corners.
Joanna: Well, everyone loves online tools.
How do you put those ideas online? Is it a Moleskine journal online thing?
Alexandra: I've got Moleskine online and I like drawing on it and doodling. That's the main one. I've used various other ones that haven't worked as well.
But, I also like having a one that I can carry around with me but I use my hands that I stick things in and take photos and put them straight in as well. So it's a real combination to try and harness everything that fireworks out.
Joanna: Yeah, I know that. And just with everything you've got going on I'm like, “Yeah, how do you track that?”
But I want to come to the Halloween theme, the darkness of the skeleton behind you because you and I are both quite dark creatures in the books that we write and we've ended up on panels together and festivals about it. The nice women who look like they're all goody two shoes. Yeah, we really are. We both look like little angels, and then we come out with some dark stuff.
I wondered where do you think that comes from in you? Why the attraction into the dark side of things?
Alexandra: Well, I'm deep. I don't know, it's always been there.
I don't remember a time when I didn't love ghosts and horror stories and the strangeness. I read fairy tales from when I was very young. I loved “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Mermaid.” The ones that have a sinister, or a dark, or sad ending seem much more plausible to me than they're happy ever after, and I felt much more comfortable with them. But, so I think I led my parents to worry a little bit.
Joanna: Mine, too. My mom's like, “What did I do to you?”
Alexandra: Exactly, yeah. But it's probably that I had meningitis when I was two, two and a half, and was blind and deaf for a while, and they thought I was going to die. And I think something altered at that point apparently I changed and had lots of nightmares.
So I think horror, and crime, and darkness was a way of assimilating all of the darkness that I had quite early on but didn't have any other way to think about it, or talk about it when I was so young. But, I don't know, it's very hard to say how you get to the somewhere, but that's the nearest I've got to so far.
Joanna: Sometimes I wonder whether other people do you see the things that we do, they just won't admit it to themselves.
Alexandra: Yeah, yeah. They need other people to show them the way. Lead them through the labyrinth.
Joanna: Yeah. One of the common questions I think we get at festivals is why do nice women write dark crime? I know these people are listening and will have that question say, sorry, but you get it again.
Why do you think readers want this type of thing? Going past who we are, why do we need the shadow?
Alexandra: Because it's there all the time, and, you're right, we carry on our lives peddling away underneath pretending everything is fine. But, really, we're living a life against death, but that we're being in the now, is so important because we know what's coming, and most people block that out.
And dark thoughts happen all the time, the shadows behind us. And crime and horror gives a little reprieve from that pressure from behind. It's just that little tiny valve that is released briefly and then closed again.
My hot water system doesn't work at all until I release the valve, and then it goes ‘psht' and then I very quickly close it before the pressure drops too much. And I think it's that, it's a discrete and certain amount of time that you can look into the cupboards, that you can look behind the mirror and see the shadows, and then close it again very quickly knowing that you can lock it until the next time.
That's part of our job, I think, is to allow people to see on to the other side just for the moment and then leave it alone.
Joanna: Where do your books sit do you think, and what is the issue with genre when it comes to horror, crime, thriller, supernatural.
Where do you see where you sit and why do we even have these genres?
Alexandra: I think supernatural crime covers it, but I think people do have a problem with marketing supernatural crime because if you do things that are too crimey on the cover, then people object when they suddenly realize that there's a supernatural element to it.
If you make it too fantastical and so that looks like a fantasy book or a horror look, then horror readers or fantasy readers might say, “But this is police procedural with a little small amount of ghosts in it.”
So, I think I can't worry about that too much, that I write the books I need to and want to write and hope that the people whose job it is to market it, find its place, but I think they find it difficult. I don't know about how it works for you.
Joanna: Yeah, I think because our books are quite similar in that they have elements of crime and thriller but also supernatural. And some would say, horror, often ghosts and demons and things, they cross between fantasy and horror.
I don't think either you and I write horror really like Slasher Gore.
Alexandra: Oh, definitely not. No, I haven't written any Slasher or Gore. There's is a small amount of gore in some of my short stories but hardly any.
I think I write more weird short stories. So, ghost stories or things that are a bit strange and unsettling, rather than the slasher element of horror which I also love to watch. And I love Stephen King and so much horror. But, mine is on the unsettling, unnerving, and hopefully, poignant side of haunting rather than slashing.
Joanna: That's why I wanted to talk to you, and I always like seeing you at festivals. I feel like there's a few of us who fall through the gaps of, and the others who would look at us in a weird way, “You mean you have supernatural stuff in your crime book?” And it's like, “Yeah, what's wrong with that?” But I think it's fuzzy.
Because, of course, you're traditionally published and very in that world. But, you come out of the music scene.
Does music have the same type of genre split and the same type of rules than books, as books do?
Alexandra: Oh, I think it does. I think and, again, when I was doing music, I was making something that was variously described as indie punk cabaret noirwhale. It had as many titles as I'm given as a writer. So, I didn't really see it in anything there.
They described me as David Bowie meets Diamanda Galas meets Susie Sue. And I love all those people so I was fine with that, but, that's really hard to sell as well.
And in the indie market, it is slightly easier because they just go, “Oh, it's just a bit weird.” And the weird people find you.
In a traditionally published market, this is mass market commercial level, and that's very hard to depict for something that will go either on the Waterstones three for two or on supermarket shelves. I don't envy them that job and I'm not sure that I would know what to do either really.
Joanna: Is that why you do more short stories? Because even you got two novels, right? Two full-length novels out there.
Do you think short stories are much more open to different genres?
Alexandra: Yes, I think so. And there is a big market for short stories. Particularly in those ghost stories elements and more horror. Not so much crime short stories but ghost stories really fit well with short stories.
There's the short, sharp unnerving horror that you sit down with a drink in the evening in winter is less suited to a crime short story, I think. And I love writing them and reading them out to an audience as well.
And also audio drama works because that combines my love for science fiction as well as horror and fantasy, as well as everything else that I do. So I can all bundle that into one. And it is much more easily accepted, I think, in a market like Big Finish that I write for the audio drama.
Joanna: Let's come to audio drama because I find it so interesting and have been looking at this because I feel people write screenplays for movies or TV and most of them never get made, and yet audio dramas seem much more accessible.
And you've also written radio plays for Torchwood and Doctor Who which is very, very cool.
How was writing for audio specifically different from writing novels or even screenplays?
Alexandra: When I was starting to learn how to write audio drama, it was getting my head round that all the audience has to go on is sound.
When I'm writing a novel, I can be the cinematographer and I'm the makeup artist and the costumery and everything else. But in audio, all you have is what a listener will have playing in their ears. And you can create a very visual sense from what goes into the ears, but you have to be very aware of it.
The writer for audio drama puts in all the effects so that they know what to do, and I didn't realize that to start with. I assumed wrongly that somebody else would do that.
But you have to hear it all in your head in order for a sound designer to be able to then translate your words into sound. So, that was the first one. And then conveying through dialogue with bounce to being very expositional. “So, here I am standing in a car park. Oh, look at those cars, zoom” It's quite tricky.
Joanna: In that case, would you write like a line sound of cars passing on a road or something?
Alexandra: Yes. So, effects would be a traffic noises, cars going quickly, cars going slowly, something that would impact on the scene that's just about to come up.
And that may be then drawn on that one of the cars stopped so there's an accident or something that then plays into plot, or it's just background. You have to be very aware of painting an “owl” picture as you go along. It's quite fun, it's quite challenging but it's fun.
Joanna: Do you think you can do that or that you came naturally to that because you come from music?
Alexandra: I hope so, I think so. I do think in that way anyway, I'm always thinking about sounds. And when I write I use the senses a lot so I use smell and sound in particular to paint pictures when I'm writing. I think that element came relatively easily.
The structuring of it and other elements are harder for me, but, yes, I would really love all elements of sounds. I used to do sound design as part of my making music. So, when I was composing I would sometimes do a score with really strange weird noises on it and also I would do various sound effects. So I think that all came into handy as well.
Joanna: Well, that's so interesting. And now I was thinking, “Oh, I'd love to do that.” And I don't use sound much at all. In fact, I would spend a lot of my time with earplugs in and noise cancelling headphones on; I like silence. So, I'm like, “Okay, maybe I won't try audio drama.”
I'm interested because with Torchwood and Dr. Who, you are very constrained as to the world and the characters.
How different was it writing in an established world versus making stuff up?
Alexandra: They've both got pros and cons. Stepping into existing characters feels like shoes that have already been worn but you can still skip in and dance in. So I know Doctor Who and Torchwood very, very well. I'm a huge fan since when I was tiny, so I knew the voices quite well.
It felt like ventriloquism, in some ways, but also, that I get to get these characters that I love to say and do things that I wanted which is liberating in its own way.
And so, there are constraints, and there are things that you can't show and things that you can't mention because it may conflict with canon or something that's about to come up. There are restrictions all over the place.
But in some ways, that then opens up new doors and makes me think again, and hopefully end up somewhere that's more interesting or at least is more me. So, yeah. And I get to write “The Doctor,” and The Target and “Captain Jack,” which I haven't stopped thrilling about yet. I hope I don't.
Joanna: No, that is very cool. I mean, I would love more series of Torchwood.
They do know that, right? They do know that people want it.
Alexandra: There are petitions online all the time, they really want it. I was really privileged to be able to write an episode of series five of Torchwood which is basically carries on from the TV series but for audio.
I had all the notes from Russell T. Davis who set up Torchwood and is behind it all and for ideas for new characters and new developments. But I would really love to see it on screen. It's wonderful on audio but there's nothing like seeing Captain Jack's coat, you know, flapping as he strides down a corridor.
Joanna: I do like Doctor Who but not as much as Torchwood and I'm pretty sure it's because of that they went much darker.
Alexandra: Yes. Darker and weirder.
Joanna: Yeah, dark and weirder and just generally, yeah, out there and Cardiff obviously.
Alexandra: Obviously Cardiff.
Joanna: We had Cardiff. Yes, so just back on that.
If people are interested in writing audio plays and dramas and things like this, how did you get that work? Because it seems like you can't just have woke up and gone, “Hey, I'll just write something for Torchwood.”
Alexandra: No, no, you can't. It was kind of tangential and one of those so wonderful weird ways that happens when you go to festivals sometimes.
I went to Fancy CON for the first time about three years ago, and I met some people who wrote for Torchwood and Doctor Who, both novels and audio genre. And I was immensely impressed and started jabbering away. I didn't really think anything of it.
And then about six months later, I got an email from the producer of Torchwood who said that, he'd been asking around and my name had been put forward and said to read my novel.
He read “The Beauty of Murder,” which deals with a time traveling serial killer. So, it has science fiction and fantasy elements mixed with crime. And he said, “We'd love you to write an audio drama with Captain Jack and Queen Victoria. Go.”
So it's actually going to festivals sometimes that brings about these weird and wonderful opportunities, and you can call it networking or just making friends with people who love the same things you do. And if it's genuine and authentic, I think it can come. There are really standard opportunities to get into Big Finish to produce audio dramas for Doctor Who and Torchwood.
I think twice a year maybe they put out a call for short trips which is the short version and they look for new talent that way. So there are more conventional ways to get in.
And you can also writes spec scripts for radio for things like that. So there are ways in. But for lots of these it's bumping into people, talking, relationships grow, and something comes out of it. So there are both ways in I think.
Joanna: Well, it's interesting you mentioned festivals because I follow you on social media and you are often out of festivals. Now, you are a performer and you like dressing up, don't you? Dressed up at these things and you look like you are having a lot of fun.
And to my surprise when I sang with you at a karaoke event, you are a hell of a singer, and I was like, “Oh, crap. She knows how to sing.” And now you are part of The Slice girls.
Alexandra: I am.
Joanna: Tell people about The Slice Girls, because it's very cool.
Alexandra: The Slice Girls are a group of female crime writers who sing about love, sex, death and crimes while wearing corsets.
Joanna: And appear only at Literary festivals?
Alexandra: Yeah, so far, anyway. I think there was a launch that we went to after Bloody Scotland and we performed that. But, so far, we've appeared at Batricon and Bloody Scotland and Harrowgate and various other places.
And we're beginning to be around the world now which is brilliant fun. So, I get to travel and sing and have fun with my wonderful friends. It doesn't get much better than that. I didn't know that I'd get into crime writing and end up by stilting a stage in high heeled boots while wearing a corset.
Joanna: What's interesting is the number of you in the group are singer or performers in some way. So I want to ask this, for many people listening, and myself included, it'd be like, “That is the worst thing I can possibly think of.” Dressing up at a literary event and singing.
Do you think that this performance side of you is something that anyone can learn? What are your tips for doing more things like that and putting yourself out there?
What are your tips for making connections at events which so many of us are scared of?
Alexandra: I think it becomes much easier the more you go. So don't put too much pressure on yourself the first time. Scope out the area.
I intend to go and then if it all gets too much, I go back to my room for a bit because I'm an introvert who performs. I shine for a bit and then I go for a sleep or just go.
Don't put too much pressure on yourself, number one. And really, the best things come out of being yourself, and that is easier when you're surrounded by people who are like you.
At literally events, I meet friends who love books and we can talk about books, and writing, and ghosts or crime, or other things and suddenly you find it's three in the morning. And even if I'm not drinking I've been up talking with people when normally I'm in bed by 10, 11 o'clock, 11 with a book.
Be as relaxed as you can, but you will find people that you just click with, maybe for the first time, because you're talking about things that are quite private, the activity reading, and so I was writing. And suddenly you're surrounded by people who understand, and that is wonderful. Just let that happen.
And then the connections and the networking just follows on authentically from that. And I think the best networking is all authentic connections.
Joanna: It's a really good point and that being yourself, I think is really important. And for those of us who have this darker side, I think it can be hard to admit that necessarily. I wondered about the dressing up thing like because is it easier. Like you said, you are an introvert who's a performer.
Do you find that you're putting on a performance by dressing up, you almost hiding your real self and sort of showing people a side and then you can kind of keep a mask almost?
Alexandra: It's almost the other way around. So applying lipstick, or just changing my hair, or popping on the corset, you can't pop them on, it takes quite a lot of effort between the lot of us backstage in a, sort of, queue and cast that kind of way. But, it's like that lets me come out.
The part of me that is slightly rapacious and dominant and can skulk around the place is there all the time but needs a stage and some structure and accessories just to let go.
And it's about letting go. It's less about hiding than unleashing. And sometimes props are all it is needed just to unleash. Just like on Halloween people put on masks in order to unmask themselves. So they can find their darkness and show it by sleeping on a skeleton costume, and then they can inhabit that part of them that we all have.
And that can be quite elaborate or just very simple. But it's finding whatever way you can to express what is lurking and pacing around inside me.
Joanna: That's awesome. It's actually something I've been thinking about because I do a lot of keynote speaking as well as panels, and I find it utterly exhausting. And someone suggested that I should have acting training because of what you learn as an actor around breath work and energy.
Because you are an actress as well, is that something that you've learned is the control of your energy and breath so that you're not so tired?
Alexandra: Yes. I had a need for a very long time in my 20's and early 30's and I was performing at that time and words unleashed something and then I'd be prone for a month afterwards.
I had to learn how to breathe and not let all this energy suddenly explode but actually channel it. And that just took a while. But now I can go on stage and not be exhausted afterwards. I'm more exhausted by talking for an hour with people generally and interacting particularly if we're not sparking.
Joanna: Which is why so many authors use alcohol.
Alexandra: Oh, well, they use it. Oh, yes. But performance is actually quite enervating now rather than debilitating but that's come with time. And breath has a lot to do with it so I do do quite a lot of breathing exercises beforehand, and really, sort of, bring down my energy or chi or whichever way you want to call it, into a distilled version. But, then, I can control and not just blast out of an audience but that I keep to myself as well.
Joanna: Now, this is a lesson I need to learn, and so I'm listening to this and definitely paying attention.
I wanted to come back to what you said earlier about reading out your short stories. This is another thing I think I'm quite one quite happy about, I can talk and speak at panels, but reading my work out loud, like, scares me completely.
What are your tips for reading your own work aloud at events which many authors have to do?
Alexandra: I just begin to think of it as entertaining an audience rather than re-reading my own story. I look at the element areas of the story where I'm building up to either a scare or a reveal, and then work it around that and maybe lure the audience into a false sense of security with the way that I'm talking and then drop the reveal and then get the reaction.
And it's all about what's pleasing to an audience rather than putting my ego out there. So it's pleasing them. Whereas if I start thinking of are they liking it, I don't know, what am I gonna do? I become much more introverted and closed down again.
If I focus on entertaining them, then I don't think like that. One way to start is my job right now is to entertain this audience with what I've got in front of me and try not to think of it as your own work.
Joanna: Yeah, that sounds good. Well then, you know, I feel that there's so much wrong with literary festivals because mostly they are not entertaining.
Joanna: And that's why I think The Slice Girls could be huge because you guys could just entertain every single conference and be the one number one top thing because the rest of it's quite boring.
A lot of people listening are involved in these events. What can we do to make literary festivals better for authors and readers?
Alexandra: I think things are beginning to change slightly. We invented the Slice Girls in Bloody Scotland because they wanted a proper Scottish music night, and thought we'll draw on these resources of singers and entertainers within use… crime writers, not quite a lot.
And they also have a late night quiz, which I did with Mark Billingham and Bill McDermott and people like Bloody Scotland this year where it's about fun, and entertainment, and laughter, rather than serious, let's do a quiz and see how much we know. It's about just entertaining the audience, and making them laugh, and go home with a smile on their face.
So, bringing more of those things in. Funny panels where the aim is just to have fun where you ask them weird questions. Kevin Wignall asked some wonderful questions.
Joanna: Yes. He asks things that children will all ask.
Alexandra: Yes. And so intersperse with something serious is something that is just hilarious. And I think that kind of thing can happen a lot more rather than the, mmmh.
Joanna: We are all so intelligent and so serious.
Alexandra: Yes. Because when you've got that for three days, that's no fun. Is it?
Joanna: No. I must say. We have to do something. I feel like the industry does need that shake up. So, yeah, I think you're right. There's a lot that's starting to happen. The Scottish are a lot better at it I think than the English, and the Americans. Well, we'll see. A lot more of you Americans listening. All right. So we're almost out of time.
What are all the things you're working on right now? What are you juggling?
Alexandra: I have four audio genres on the go at the moment in various different things that I can't say. I've got a film short that I'm writing at the moment. I got two adult novels on the go and I've just finished a children's crime novel.
Joanna: And short stories probably
Alexandra: And short stories. Yeah, and I'm writing an album slowly as well.
Joanna: Music album?
Alexandra: Yeah. I'm just beginning to start doing my own music again. So the there's a lot bubbling at all times as you can see.
Joanna: Yeah. Well, then final question has to be:
Do you schedule your time for each of these projects, or how do you manage your time between all of that?
Alexandra: Often really badly. But I tend to split between morning, afternoon and evening. So, morning, I like to get some scripts done. Afternoon, is my more introspective prose time, so I tend to do my novels. And evening, is quite a good time to write a short story, or a song, or something else.
So, yes, each have their own feeling according to what part of the day it is. That's why it's quite practical in the morning and slightly more navel gazing in the afternoon.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, it's been so interesting. So where can people find you when everything you do online?
Alexandra: My website is akbenedicts.com. My Twitter handle is ak_benedict. And I am AKbenedict on Instagram. Those are the main ones that I do. And also on Facebook.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Alexandra. That was great.
Alexandra: Thank you.