James’ top tip for aspiring authors: Writing isn’t a race, it’s a marathon. Expect rejection. Have faith in yourself. Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times. Keep having faith. Enjoy what I call “the thrill of the chase”.
James Lee is a publishing phenomenon and one of Australia’s bestselling but least known authors. After a successful career as an advertising creative director in Singapore where he won more than 500 awards, James turned to full-time writing for children in 1996. The 200+ books in his Mr Midnight and Mr Mystery series (first published by Angsana in Singapore) have been translated into ten languages and have sold in excess of three million copies.
Why do you write? I have no option. I’ve been writing all my life. At school. TV scripts for Mavis Bramston, Don Lane, et al. Radio serials. Advertising. Now books and poetry.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? Producing TV and radio documentaries. I love history. I’m curious.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Time, firstly. I couldn’t write while working full-time. So I took the biggest gamble of my life, “retired” at 55, when I could afford to buy a window of time.
And ignorance. I didn’t know how the publishing market worked. I thought it was simply a matter of writing and submitting. Wrong! So I invested. I went to the Maui Writers Conference in Hawaii, bought sessions with agents and editors, and soon learned the “business” side of writing. That made me more focused, more pragmatic, and HUNGRIER!
How involved have you been in the development of your books? Do you have input into the cover/illustrations? When I first published books about advertising, I convinced my publisher that our target readers would not respond to traditional covers. I hired (and paid for) the best art directors to design cutting edge covers, even the book formats.
With my kids’ fiction in Asia, I recommended an illustrator. For years I’ve sent him rough cover sketches or detailed descriptions of what’s needed. At xoum in Australia, their brilliant Roy Chen designs stand-out covers and illustrations.
I’m very fortunate. All those years in advertising taught me the art of branding and positioning. Each different series of books is a brand unto itself, appealing to specific consumers. And, like Colgate and Unilever, I have several pseudonyms, so that each one can produce a different kind of product. (One name, producing different books over a variety of genres, would be confusing to target audiences.)
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Freedom, and the thrill of making readers happy.
—the worst? Having NO freedom. I work seven days a week.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? Learn the rules of the market. Understand the business. Format manuscripts properly. Treat it very, very seriously.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Writing is not driven by inspiration. Inspiration is fickle. You need to develop a work routine and state-of-mind that are sacrosanct.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? The winning formula: VOICE … STRUCTURE … INTRIGUING SYNOPSES.
What are the most significant changes you have seen in the publishing industry since your first book was published? The arrival of the e-book, and its recent “demise”.
The wonderful news that publishers and agents now accept m.s. and queries by email.
Do you consider it more difficult now for writers to become published? It’s always been difficult. Once, Australian writers had to post their work to the UK or US. Now we have our own vibrant publishing industry. However, given all the various writing courses and seminars, more people are writing now than ever before.
Story 1: Dead Men’s Gold