10 Questions With… Debbie McGowan

Hi everyone, and today’s post is me chatting to independent publisher and writer Debbie McGowan.

Debbie McGowan is an award-winning author of contemporary fiction that celebrates life, love and relationships in all their diversity. Since the publication in 2004 of her debut novel, Champagne – based on a stage show co-written and co-produced with her husband – she has published a further thirty-five works (twenty novels, fifteen short stories and novellas). She is the author of two ongoing series: Hiding Behind The Couch (a literary ‘soap opera’ centring on the lives of nine long-term friends) and Checking Him Out (LGBTQ romance). Debbie has been a finalist in both the Rainbow Awards and the Bisexual Book Awards, and in 2016, she won the Lambda Literary Award (Lammy) for her novel, When Skies Have Fallen: a British historical romance spanning twenty-three years, from the end of WWII to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Through her independent publishing company, Debbie gives voice to other authors whose work would be deemed unprofitable by mainstream publishing houses.

Debbie joined me for a quick chat about juggling her full time job with running her own independent publishing company. Over to you, Debbie.

1) As a child, did you have a favourite author and do you have a favourite author now?

I loved Enid Blyton. I probably read all of the Famous Five books, most of the Secret Seven books, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and the other series, which is apparently called ‘The Five Find-Outers and Dog’ (thanks, Wikipedia). Looking back, I’d say what I loved about Blyton’s stories was the mix of mystery/problem-solving and friendship/relationships, and I’m a huge fan of book series. Once I get to know a group of characters, I want to keep going back to visit them, but I also appreciate each instalment having a definitive ending so there’s the option to pause/stop reading.

My favourite author now? That’s a trickier question to answer because I work with most of my favourite authors, assisting them in publishing their work. I read a lot of Josh Lanyon, which again is that mix of mystery and relationships (in this case gay romance), but I also enjoy the break it gives me from editing/proofreading as Lanyon’s books are always in excellent shape.

2) When did you start writing? Did you enjoy English at school?

Interesting you should ask! I realised the answer to this only last week.

In fourth year of high school (Year Ten/9th Grade), I recall looking at essay questions set by our English teacher and thinking ‘How can I twist this into something else?’ That was really my first proper ‘creative’ writing, and it didn’t much impress my English teacher at the time, with whom I had a very antagonistic relationship that culminated in my dad coming into school and demanding I be allowed to sit the English Literature O’ Level. It was one of the two O’ Levels I passed!

I can’t say I enjoyed English at school. Most of the time, I didn’t really register I was studying it at all, but I remember in primary school always wanting to be ahead of where I was in reading as it used to take me forever to read a book. That was the only real challenge I faced with studying English; I understood the nuts and bolts without effort (I passed English Language O’ Level the year after I left school with virtually no teaching), but reading? I didn’t want to race through books just to reach the end; I wanted to savour every eyeful.

When I went to university (later, as a mature student), I started off studying for a BA (Hons) English Literature, but by the end of the first year I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to read a book again. I switched to Applied Social Sciences and have never looked back.

These days, I read much, much faster. 🙂

3) How would you describe your route to publication? Do you have an agent or are you self published?

I don’t have an agent, partly because I very quickly got tired of trying to find one (back in 2000-2001). More importantly, I value my self-sufficiency and I hate paying someone else to do something I can do as well or better myself. True, I don’t have the contacts in big publishing, but I also don’t have any ambition to be a bestseller or make a living from my writing. The changes in the world of publishing over the past ten years make it virtually impossible for anyone to make a living from their writing alone.

So my first novel, I touted directly to publishers myself and I had a few bites. In the end, I went with a small, new independent publisher (highblue, no longer in operation) whose ethos matched my values. However, I quickly discovered I don’t like having my work taken out of my hands.

From there, it’s a bit of a long, winding story, but in short: in 2009, I decided to publish my second novel independently, and over the next couple of years developed a skill set I could offer to other authors. However, most indie authors can’t afford to pay for editing, proofreading, cover design, ebook formatting, typesetting etc., so I offered my skills on a profit-share basis, which led to the launch of Beaten Track Publishing in 2011.

Now, in 2019, Beaten Track still runs on the same model, I don’t think I’d consider signing up with a big publisher. But I wouldn’t say no to a TV/movie option. My historical novel When Skies Have Fallen (Lambda Literary Award winner) really needs a BBC period-drama treatment, and my Hiding Behind The Couch series is perfect for Netflix. Just saying…

4) I read that you juggle being a writer with managing your own publishing house. I wondered how you find the differentiation between both occupations?

If you mean as regards finding time to both write and publish, it’s really hard. I work full-time-plus, and I also have a part-time salaried job with The Open University, which pays the mortgage. I don’t make enough from writing/publishing to do only that. The only way I can make time for writing is to take it in blocks when my publishing/teaching workload is a bit lighter, which doesn’t happen often.

In terms of differentiating the work itself, publishing for me combines both writing and reading, and these are what I love doing most. I wake up every morning looking forward to what the day has in store. I’m up front with the authors I work with about my role as their publisher (or publishing partner, really). I don’t want to do admin stuff, marketing or manage staff. I do what I do for the love of books and the buzz of helping other authors get their books out there. I’ll never be financially rich, and that is absolutely fine by me. Yes, cliché that it is, I’m rich in all the ways that matter.

5) When not writing or running your company, what do you do to relax?

I’m not great at relaxing, although I do it more now than I did even a year ago. I read, of course, and I watch TV with Nige. We semi-binge-watch series, grieve when they’re over, find more series, semi-binge-watch, and on it goes. Currently, we’re recovering from finishing Humans, waiting for the final season of Supernatural, and we’re up to season nine of The Big Bang Theory. Eek!

I have two dogs – no relaxation there – and a cat – enforced relaxation.

I’m also in a community choir, which is not relaxing, but it’s fun, and I go to the gym so I can listen to music because I can’t work and listen to music at the same time.

6) What’s your music taste like? Do you listen to bands or various artists?

I have a particular penchant for big music, by which I mean rich, full compositions with bone-rattling bass, ear-whistling treble and everything in between. I especially love symphonic arrangements of rock/pop (for instance, Metallica’s S&M album with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra, or the 2016 remaster of A-Ha’s ‘Hunting High and Low’) as well as rock covers of pop songs.

If I had to pin my music preferences to a single genre, it would be classic heavy rock, and I’ve been a huge fan of the band Queen since the age of nine. That’s my go-to safe place and default listening choice. Other favourite artists: Aerosmith, early Bon Jovi, Muse, Panic! at the Disco, Linkin Park, Metallica, Rainbow, the Scorpions. But I also like some pop and dance music – just a track here and there – and I’m quite partial to a cappella groups such as Pentatonix.

In 2013-14, I wrote a few chapters and then a novel inspired by A-Ha songs, and it’s left a permanent earworm that has afforded me a chance to appreciate their music anew. In fact, I’m taking my middle sister (always a big A-Ha fan) to see them play in Leeds this November. 🙂

7) Do you have any advice for the unpublished writer?

Just go for it. Writers are champions of finding reasons not to write, not to submit their manuscripts, not to publish or self-publish. It’s important to decide how you want to proceed: whether you want an agent and to pursue a big publishing deal…or not. But that decision isn’t entirely set in stone (though switching from self-publishing to traditional publishing might require a pen name).

If you’re going to self-publish, make sure your work is ready for the world. Edited, proofread, spell-checked, formatted. Even if you can’t afford to pay for these services, you can still run it through Grammarly (or similar).

Exchange beta-reading with other authors – this is a great way to give and receive free feedback, which can really enhance the quality of your work.

Ultimately, be confident that you know your own mind and its creations better than anyone else. There are many experts and industry ‘professionals’ out there, whose advice is sometimes what they want your book to be, not what you want it to be. If they’re promising you big returns (and I don’t mean vague promises of what ‘could’ be if you do as they say/give them money, I mean actual, signed-on-the-dotted-line guarantees), then maybe it’s worth compromising. Otherwise, stay true to yourself.

8) Can you tell me a bit about your latest work? What ideas are currently kicking around in your head?

My latest work is titled Meredith’s Dagger, and I wrote it back in 2011 (during my fourth year of taking part in National Novel Writing Month). I tried a few times to return to it and do the rewriting/self-editing that NaNoWriMo novels need, but honestly? I hated one of the characters, and he’s kind of the first one to appear on-page, so I kept shelving it to deal with later. Anyway, this year, I finally made it past the first few chapters and reworked the entire novel, tightened up the prose, removed passive voice (the wonders of being both an academic and creative writer) and generally developed the characters and plot.

Thank you for visiting my blog, Debbie. Good luck with the release of your novel.

Author links

Debbie McGowan Online:
Hiding Behind The Couch: http://www.hidingbehindthecouch.com
Twitter/LinkedIn/Tumblr/Instagram: writerdebmcg

Beaten Track Website: https://www.beatentrackpublishing.com

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