I first met Elka Ray via Twitter I think and since then we have conducted a radio interview, I have read and reviewed her expat novel, Hanoi Jane and soon plan to read her two expat kids’s books as well. She is an inspiring role model for any expat who wants to really make a living as a writer. If you want to find out how to do it too, read on.
Tell me about your book. What is it about? Can you describe it in just a few sentences?
After moving to Hanoi with her fiancé, the book’s main character, a young American reporter named Jane, is dumped for another woman. What starts as a desperate bid to discredit her romantic rival and win back her fiancé ends up with Jane embarking on a wild adventure in the mountains of northern Vietnam. By the end, as well as getting revenge, she’s learned to appreciate her life in Hanoi and has found real happiness.
Why did you write it?
I’d spent years writing a serious novel, which various editors claimed to love, yet ultimately rejected as “too complicated”. To cheer myself up, and because I had a newborn and lacked the energy for serious thinking, I wrote “Hanoi Jane” to amuse myself. My “ah-ha moment” came in a room full of smart, successful professional women. When I outlined the plot of my serious novel they all listened politely. And then I quietly admitted that I was writing chick lit and they all lit up and started begging to read it. So it turned out that I wasn’t the only one looking for light entertainment.
What qualifies you to write this book?
Having lived in Vietnam for 16 years, nine of them in Hanoi, I probably know Hanoi better than I know any other place on earth. I also remember what it’s like to be a young, single woman living far from home. While the plot and all of the characters are made up, I think that many of the emotions that Jane feels – loneliness, a sense of alienation, uncertainty – will be familiar to expats, and to everyone who’s ever felt out of place.
Who do you think will read your book?
“Hanoi Jane” was published as part of Marshall Cavendish’s “Asian chic” series, which clearly targets young women. While I expect that most of the readers are women, I’ve gotten some emails from guys who claim to have enjoyed it too. Bless them! I think that the book makes good holiday reading for anyone with an interest in Asia or a love of travel.
It does not matter how good a book is, or how good your writing is if no one knows about it. What steps have you taken or do you plan to take to promote your book?
I’ve been profiled in some local magazines and on expat websites, which is lucky. I have an author’s site and blog at elkaray.com, and readers can sign up to receive emailed blog updates. Facebook is handy too.
How did you publish your book? Did you find an agent, a publisher or did you publish it yourself?
I have an agent, who handled my first (unsold) novel. She deals in literary fiction and had no enthusiasm for “Hanoi Jane”, which is classed as commercial fiction. I sent a query to Marshall Cavendish and was surprised when they took it. For years, I’d thought that it was impossible to publish any fiction without an agent, but obviously that’s not true. That being said, since I write in different genres, I am glad to have an agent, since I’d rather focus on writing than sending out queries.
Please describe your process and tell us how you found the experience. Is there anything you would definitely do again or never do again?
I think that there’s still some stigma attached to being a self-published author. But while being published by a traditional publisher might be good for one’s reputation and self-esteem, I’m not sure that it’s always the best option financially. If a publisher is willing to give you a big advance and commit a large marketing budget to your book, go with them. But if you’re going to have to do all of the marketing yourself – and share the profits – self-publishing might work out better for you.
What was your biggest challenge regarding the writing of your book? How have you overcome that?
“Hanoi Jane” pretty much wrote itself, in less than six months, during which I also had a new baby and a half-time job as an editor. But that being said, I’ve been writing fiction since I left university, where I studied Journalism and Asian Studies. Writing this book was easy because I’d made such a mess of my first one. I started that one with no plot and it just grew and grew to include about ten different books. One day I will pull them apart and tug one decent novel out of the crazy tangle.
Now you have written this book, what has writing it done for you, your family, your self-esteem or your business?
Publishing “Hanoi Jane” boosted my confidence. I’ve gotten great feedback on it, which has encouraged me to keep writing. After 15 years I am finally okay with letting people read what I write. In the past I would have been crushed if someone didn’t like something – now I think: “Fine, they didn’t like that one, but maybe they’ll like this one.” My prose is strong enough that I can write in a range of genres.
If you were to give advice to someone else who is thinking about writing a book, what would be your number one tip?
If traditional publication is your goal, before you start writing think of the blurb that will go on the book’s back cover. Publishers want a book for which there is a simple answer to the question: “What’s it about?” My four main tips are: 1) Have one strong central character and a single point of view. 2) Know this person and his/her story inside out before you sit down to write. 3) Write the way that you – or your main character – talks. 4) Tell your story as simply as possible.
All the latest news, views, and writing tips from Jo Parfitt and the team at Summertime Publishing
Sign up to Summertime's monthly newsletter for your free copy of So You Want to Write a Book?