Matt Wainwright

Hello Readers and Writers!

Today we would like to introduce you to an author who is releasing his debut novel this month! During this exciting time he talked to us about the inspiration for his story, his other projects and his history with publishing. This very well read and down to earth author is bound for success in his budding writing career!

Introducing Matt Wainwright!

RL: When did you start writing as a career?

MW: I suppose I still haven't started! 'Out of the Smoke' is my debut, and I haven't earned a penny from it, so I'm not sure I can say I have a career yet. I actually signed my first publishing contract in 2014 with a small startup indie label, for the first book in a YA sci-fi series. Unfortunately the publisher closed a year or so later, without my book being released, but I'd had my first taste and that fired me up to pursue it further.

One very happy outcome of that situation was that I met up with Jaime Dill, founder and owner of Polish & Pitch, who has been my editor with this and other books. She's begun to introduce me to the idea of editing as another side-career, and while at the moment I'm a bit snowed under with preparing for the upcoming release I'd love to pursue that with her in the future.

RL: What's your current work in progress?

MW: I've just started work on my second-ever YA historical fiction novel. My current publisher, Wakeman Trust, loved 'Out of the Smoke' and asked for something else, so I'm writing a country house mystery set in the Tudor era. It's set at the time of the English Reformation, when reading the Bible in English was illegal, and it will feature Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. After spending so long with my mind in the smog and smoke of Victorian London I wanted something set in the fresh air, and as my wife was watching a lot of Agatha Christie's Poirot over the lockdown I guess I was inspired.

Also, I'm fascinated by the idea of the limits of religious freedom when faith clashes with the law, so that era was a natural fit for me. It's wild that at one point in this country the Bible was considered so dangerous that even possessing a copy in your native tongue could lead to you being tried for treason! 

RL: Your write YA Historical Fiction. What led you to write in that area?

MW: About fifteen years ago (I know!) a friend of mine, who knew I was a budding author, suggested I try writing about someone called Lord Shaftesbury, a well-known philanthropist from the Victorian era. At the time I was more interested in writing sci-fi and fantasy, so I tried writing something, but it fizzled out pretty quickly. It didn't help that Lord Shaftesbury was a Member of Parliament, so most of what he did involved making long speeches and drafting Acts and Bills. That draft ended up in a drawer, and I forgot all about it.

Fast forward MANY years to when my first publisher folded. I had spent so long working on my sci-fi series, and it had come to such a disappointing end, that I needed something fresh to work on. I picked up the Shaftesbury idea again, and instead of writing about him directly I decided to approach his work from the point of view of a street urchin, to make it more relatable to younger readers. That was the spark it needed, and from there the characters and story developed almost on their own, and I got the research bug that goes with historical fiction!

RL: Do you have any plans to write in different genres?

MW: As I said, I wrote sci-fi and fantasy for the longest time. Those are the two genres I grew up on. I have a whole sci-fi series and world waiting in the wings - the Shannen Academy - but I suppose when you're writing as a career you go where the money leads you, and at the moment what I'm being published for is YA historical, so I'll continue in that for the time being.

I don't really mind - for me, writing is all about the characters, and the genre surrounding them is more for the reader than it is for me. As long as I love the characters I'm working with, I'm happy to have the setting be historical (in any era) rather than fantastical. Maybe one day I'll come back to the Shannen Academy - watch this space!

RL: Your upcoming release, Out of the Smoke, is based on the work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Tell us how these works inspired you.

MW: Lord Shaftesbury is a fascinating figure. He was an Evangelical Christian living in the Victorian Era, which might make some people predisposed to think of him as stuffy or moralistic - and I have to confess in all his pictures he comes across as being pretty stern and solemn! But when you look into his life, and see just what he was prepared to do for the poor and dispossessed of his time, you realise that behind that apparently cold exterior was a heart that burned against the injustices he saw around him.

He was one of the few of his class and social standing who was prepared to stoop so low as to visit the filthy, stinking slums and meet with the people who inhabited them as human beings and as equals. He campaigned tirelessly in Parliament to improve the working conditions of women and children, and supported so-called 'lunatics' (people with mental illnesses, or who were just considered inconvenient).

He had a special place in his heart for children, which makes him perfect material for a YA book. I hope I can help some people start to understand just what effect he has had on the history of our country.

RL: How do your books rebel against the status quo? 

MW: I made the conscious decision for my main character, Billy, NOT to be the one to overcome his setbacks and ensure his own personal triumph. Instead, everything he does only brings him lower and lower until he comes to a point of having to ask for help from someone higher than he is, and that's what saves him in the end.

It's an unpopular idea in writing circles. Conventional wisdom states that the character must overcome their flaws and grow to a point where they can overcome the antagonist and triumph over adversity - but I feel there are often situations in life where the better thing to do is to admit your weaknesses and throw yourself on the mercy of others, and that's a valuable theme for a young adult book.

Much of the YA market is about self-belief and self-reliance, and in so many children's books adults are portrayed as either uncaring or incompetent - and the good ones tend to get killed off! I wanted to write a book that showed this doesn't always have to be the case. If there is someone older and wiser than you who can offer support, the wisest course of action is to swallow your pride and go to that person. It might not be easy, but it might help you avoid a great deal of pain.

RL: How do you feel about the idea that most YA books are read by adults over 18?

MW: I've always had an uneasy relationship with the YA label. It's a marketing thing, and I don't think it should define how you see your readership. If adults are reading books about young people and their struggles, great! Maybe it'll help some people develop a little empathy - maybe they just enjoy reading those books, and that's great too! The greatest books have always been read by children and adults alike, regardless of their intended audience.

Perhaps there's something about writing for children and young people that frees authors up. There isn't any pressure to be 'proper literature', so you can forget about the subtext and just focus on telling a great story. It's why genre fiction is so popular - the focus is on storytelling, and at the end of the day the reason people read fiction is for a great story. Otherwise they'd read a textbook.

RL: What advice would you give a writer who is struggling to get their manuscript written?

MW: Sit down, every day, and write for ten minutes. For me, it's the graft that gets it done. If you're waiting for inspiration you might be waiting a very long time. The heart is a fickle thing: feelings come and go like the tides. The mind tends to be more stable, and we can usually reason something out even if we aren't feeling it. So take advantage of that fact, and grind out ten minutes of work even when you don't feel like it.

And remember that the first draft isn't the final draft. It's the roughest form of what your novel will become. So don't worry if it's not polished, or it's too long, or it's wonky in all the wrong places. Editing and re-writing are vital parts of the author's process, and have at least equal weight with drafting, if not more! I did five complete drafts of 'Out of the Smoke', and there was more work to be done at the proofing stage once I'd sent it off. Don't get hung up on that first step; remember it's about the journey.

RL: Do you plan writing goals?

MW: I tend not to, at least not daily or weekly goals. The one thing I'll always bear in mind, and do my best to stick to, is my final word count. 'Out of the Smoke' is 85,000 words, which is on the long side (although still just about acceptable for YA historical) - the next one I'm aiming to bring in at 60,000.

Once I'm drafting, I'll follow my own advice and try to work for at least 10 minutes every day, usually in my lunch break or in the evening when the kids are in bed. But I don't beat myself up if I miss a day. Happily, once I get going I'm able to churn out words. The bulk of 'Smoke' was written in about three months, and I'd like to keep to that time frame for the next one. But I'm easy. As long as it gets done, and I meet any deadlines my publisher gives me, I'm happy with my 10 minutes a day. 

RL: Talk to me about the path you choose in publishing.

MW: I've already spoken a little bit about my first publisher. Before that I was querying agents traditionally, with some nice feedback but without much success. When the publisher folded I looked very seriously into self-publishing, and I still consider it a viable option for the future. But happily (yes, there is always an element of chance in these things) I knew someone who worked with a more established independent label, and one thing led to another and they ended up taking 'Smoke' on. Prior to this they've only ever published more academic titles, reprinting out-out-print theological books and books on Christian issues - they've never released a YA fiction title! But 'Smoke' is a good fit for them, focusing on the work of a noted Christian figure, and I think with it being a niche market I'm confident the book will find its readers.

I guess you could say I fell into it! But I'm really enjoying the historical fiction, and the subject matter fits well with my own Christian beliefs, so I'm happy staying with them for the present even if it wasn't my plan from the start. One thing I've learned through all of this that there is no such thing as 'normal' when it comes to publishing!

RL: What are you reading currently?

MW: You'll laugh, but I picked up the Redwall books from my daughter's shelf and now I can't out them down! It's a middle grade fantasy series with talking animals, battles and quests, written by a man called Brian Jacques. I used to love them when I was nine or ten, so I recently bought the first two in the series for my daughter, who as it turned out didn't love them nearly as much as I did - so I picked them up instead, and found myself pleasantly surprised. Jacques is often criticised for having cut-out characters and recycled plots, and this is true, but I agree with those who say this is part of the attraction - especially for younger readers who are looking for something longer to get their teeth into, but who might not be comfortable with an over-complicated narrative. Jacques doesn't mess around; he gets on with the story, and you have to keep up or go home.

I'm also reading 'Dexter and Sinister' by Keith Dickinson - a self-published steampunk whodunnit with strong shades of Terry Pratchett. I used to read a lot of Pratchett when I was younger, and I've read some pale imitations in my time, but Keith is the real deal. He gets that very understated, dry sense of humour that has a special place in every English heart, and his prose is great. I'd recommend picking it up.

RL: What can readers expect from you in the future?

MW: More YA historical! I'm hoping to have a new book out next year (depending on how this one does) - the Tudor book I spoke about before. So as we approach the end of the year I'm going to have my head down and drafting. I'd really love to leverage publication into a side gig working with schools and teachers, and maybe even young people on the wrong side of the law. I've done quite a bit of youth work in my time, working with and around teenagers from a variety of backgrounds, mostly in central and south-east London, so it's a natural fit for me. I feel that Billy's story, despite being set 150 years ago, resonates with a lot of what is going on in inner cities today. Some things are universal, and crime and poverty have never left us. If I can do even a fraction of the good that Lord Shaftesbury managed I'll consider my life having been worth living.

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