Carla Acheson

Historical Fiction Author

The Novel Path to Success

How I became a bestselling author on KDP.

Having completed the popular NaNoWriMo competition, I was subsequently handed a few serious questions by Sarah, a writer from Seattle, (and a fellow Nanowrimo writing buddy.)

Sarah wanted to know about my publishing success on KDP, as well as how it all began. I answered all of her questions with honesty.

I also thought that by offering them here on my site they might inspire some creative flap to unfold for others, perhaps those who might be starting along the very same writing journey of their own.—-

SARAH:  When you first started writing books, did you take writing classes? Or did you study some books on plot structure, character development etc?

I wanted to set off properly. I looked up a British college and took on a comprehensive writing course. I was living on the top of a hill in a valley in Andalusia, Spain, at the time.

I had zero chance of being near any physical location that was appropriate for a writing course, let alone one in English, so it was a correspondence course all the way.

I also lurked in online writing forums and scoured articles on the internet. It all seemed a bit dull – those confusing elements of construction kept me awake, worrying, and procrastinating over my grammar-worthiness and story ability.

These things can truly kill the buzz. I digested the elements but really wanted to get to the nitty-gritty, to see what sort of thing I could come up with.

I didn’t buy books on writing, I just read piles of books on subjects and authors which interested me. If nothing else I wanted my stories to be deep and passionate.

SARAH: How refreshing! So you totally went the journey on your own, then. No writing critique groups, writers’ conferences, or hiring an agent?

I absorbed everything I could in the publishing/writing world. I mean I spent literally hours every day.

I read works which writers posted online, then studied the critiques that they were given. I made notes of what they did or didn’t do correctly.

When I felt I had acquired a bit of knowledge, I produced a few short stories and articles about my singing/performing days.

I wrote articles on the music industry, firstly. It wasn’t fiction, but it got me writing on a subject that I knew about.

Some articles were printed on music websites, then later musicians contacted me with questions. So people were reading! I also contacted book blog sites and churned out a lot of reviews.

Then I got working with a website, conducting interviews with authors. I pestered publishers for the chance to interview any of their new successful authors. I asked the authors questions. I made friends with them. I learned from them.

I had no idea what I wanted to write about even if I did write a book of fiction. I knew that everything would happen in time. I had to learn to walk before I could run. A person can’t just wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m a good writer.’

Also around this time, I set up my own writing group and somewhat successfully organised weekly sessions so that I didn’t feel like the lonely, stranded writer, out there on a rock.

SARAH: What was the most helpful to you in learning how to take your writing from good to excellent?

My writing isn’t excellent, I just express myself directly from my heart. I want my words to be like an instrument playing a melody that catches in your throat.

It forces you to drop the outside world and pulls you in and I think that if you are an avid reader and have been touched by words like that, well then you already possess it.

So I read a lot of books to steal techniques, but not copy.

Any great writer will say… ‘you steal the method/art/quality of expression from other writers which you love,’ the other kind of copying is plagiarism. We avoid that. Just steal a bit of their brilliance.

My favourite book, (one that spurred me on to write my first novel,) was called, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, which famously went on to become a very good BBC TV period drama about the downtrodden prostitutes in London’s backstreets during the Victorian era.

It was filthy and fascinating all at once. The author tormented me. He used phrases, words and scenes that made me cry, laugh and scream with horror and pity.

And I thought, would there be no end to such clever, refined, delectable sentences? Sentences which he somehow carved around irreputable subjects. It was like swallowing life like some great big stone, yet still wanting more. I wanted to write like that.

But it had to be my story and my style.

I figured that my English was decent. I had a chance and I love a challenge. When I closed the final page of that book I wanted a taste of that authorship. (Even just a small slice!) . To provoke emotion like that had to be possible because he did it to me, and to get there I had to fully believe I could and that I would! I didn’t choose historical fiction, I think it more or less chose me.

SARAH : If you had to guess, how long do you typically spend in the planning phase?

I’m not a big planner now. The first novel had to be planned down to every last detail because I’d never done it before. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out.

Being methodical and thorough made a whole lot of sense. I think I had several hundred drafts before reaching the final one.

I got into each of my character’s heads and sculpted their personalities, the plot and my style and voice.

I wrote for a year (not until it was perfect because nothing can be,) but until I was satisfied that it would make people FEEL. I would not stop until I did that.

Now I have a more simple preparation for writing up character profiles, ideas on the storyline and working out a point of perspective. For this recent novel, I have basic notes with questions such as:

Who is the narrator(s)? What is the theme? What are the struggles they must overcome?

Just the bones of the story.

I then write a sort of blurb (not a full outline) which gives me a basic, skeletal idea of the plot.

I might then write a test chapter or two and give the characters a bunch of flaws and inner or outer issues, then the rest starts to come to you. I get an idea of where it’s heading and so on.

SARAH: What originally interested you in the lives of impoverished people in Victorian England?

The period fascinates me. Never in British history has the class division been so great; the treatment of citizens by their very own citizens was vulgar.

The wealthy attended church, punctually, every Sunday. They liked to believe they were Godly and charitable, but they would rather not be seen within an inch of an orphan or diseased waif.

I particularly focused on the lives of young women.

I wanted to emphasise how important chastity and obedience was as a female back then, and particularly, how devastating it was to become an unwed mother.

The father was often let ‘off the hook,’ and more especially, if he was of a higher class. Many of these central issues of the time were included in my story.

The heroine in my novel gives up her baby under the typically hardened glare of iron-fisted nuns.

Society scorned unwed mothers to the point where they were forced to give up their child for adoption or to baby farmers. The latter often neglected or poisoned them to death and walked away free. Look at that contrast compared to today.

Sarah: I can see that you must have done quite a lot of research about that era for your books?

I did at least six months research of the Victorian era before starting the first draft. It was eye-opening, to say the least, considering most of my research was focused on the lower class and impoverished victims of the slums.

Depressing, but essential none-the-less.

I discovered a few little-known gems like ‘phossy jaw’ and ‘baby-farming.’ I just knew I had to include them in my story.

One thing I did with my first two novels is weave in quite a few historical events and facts, such as the ill-fated Titanic and Jack the Ripper. This was always going to bring in an interested ‘audience’ of those subjects.

Once I had notched up over ten ‘5 star’ reviews I knew that my debut was going to do well. It was such an eye-opening story because it was more about unknown facts and real life than simply a book of fiction, in a huge way.

Sarah: Once you start the first chapter, how long do you spend writing/editing before it’s ready to publish?

It’s extremely random. I tend to go off with a bang, then life or other interests start to drag me away from it.

I have to push myself to stay focused because I am so interested in many creative things, music, piano, crafting, digital drawing. 

A couple of weeks later I stumbled on the Nanowrimo competition link and I entered before I could stop myself.

It worked as it got me to the end of the first draft of my fourth novel. I have to say that I always get there in the end, I may be a bit ‘flitty’ but the writing bug never leaves me. Just like the pianist might get tired of playing, but she can’t ever stop for good!

Sarah: Did you originally self-publish on Amazon, and when your book did well, you got contacted by a conventional publisher?

I spent five years as an independently published author on KDP. I plugged away at it by producing three novels for Amazon over that period of time. I used every free promo tool that I could and never used tacky sales talk.

Instead, I learned how to direct an audience of traffic to my book pages by blogging about the very Victorian subjects I had written about, and, I always thanked my readers individually.

Suffice to say, I was really proud of myself when my novel reached a classic bestseller status on Amazon with the majority of reviews being amazing.

It took a while to get to that point but six months after publication I had a steady flow of sales, a steady income each month and a growing readership that appreciated my dedication.

It wasn’t something that just took off but built up gradually. I hit a record number of sales over the Christmas holidays a year ago, something like 2,000 kindle downloads in a week. It was all so unexpected.

John Morris contacted me. He was impressed with my stamina and what I had achieved on my own without having thrown tons of money on marketing or having the media “push” that a publisher can offer.

I told him I simply had faith in my work. At the end of the day, I was always more interested in the quality of my work than the financial stats, but you see, one brings in the other. John was able to bring my work into those author ‘elite’ places like Waterstones and National libraries such as Oxford and Cambridge. Though for one minute I don’t doubt my books, even if they had stayed inside KDP.

John and I speak regularly and have developed a strong relationship based on respect for what we both do and how we will go about working together in the future.

He has great faith in my work, yet he knows that I am still something of a free spirit and will not do anything that does not suit my own moral compass. He listens and gently encourages me. I cannot be more thankful. But for now, allow me to leave all writers with this…

There is no such thing as a magic formula.

Don’t listen to marketing stuff about writing ‘bestsellers in 30 days.’ What they mean is you CAN write a manuscript in 30 days, but a bestseller? Sorry, no. True quality work takes time, effort and passion.

Those who jump in for the money will fail time and again. READ what you love and write from your heart. Every time. After all, your books are a big part of you! And believe me when I say that if you have never wanted to quit, or had at least one migraine from start to finish, the passion just isn’t there.

Imagine life in a damp and squalid room with death and disease lurking at every corner.

The year is 1866. Maggie Tanner is a young girl born to an impoverished family in the slums of London. Pregnant at the age of fifteen years she is plunged into the social stigma of bastardy and shame. As her life unfolds into every Victorian girl’s worst nightmare she does all she can to save her baby from a disease-ridden orphanage and takes drastic decisions to save both the child and herself, but when her pain and loss continues to haunt her for years to come, one unexpected day one last gift changes everything.

Carla is a successful historical fiction writer and workshop leader. When her fingers aren’t tapping on piano keys, she’s relentlessly guiding ambitious new writers to the finish line with heaps of inspiring advice and motivational techniques.


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