Debut Interview Project: Lavinia Thompson

I am very excited to launch my debut interview project. I will be talking to a variety of authors who have debuted recently (or not so recently) and their experiences of writing, publishing and life as a published author. And the first author I get to talk to is Lavinia Thompson and her debut Beyond Dark 1: Belladonna (which just came out in February), and her publication journey. This is somewhat of a guinea pig interview, so let me know if you have any suggestions/things you’d love to know from debut authors!

Please tell us about your book:

My book is called Beyond Dark 1: Belladonna (add it on Goodreads here, and order a copy from here). It is the first in the “Beyond Dark” series, which focuses on two criminal profilers, Agents Alyssa Rawkesby and Thayer Volikov. Alyssa is a veteran profiler who specializes in female serial killers, while battling her own mental problems. Thayer is her mysterious new rookie partner with a past he keeps quiet. They must learn how to get along while tracking down serial killers. He wants to learn from one of the best profilers out there, but quickly learns she wants little to do with other people – why is she so closed off from the world? The series explores their developing friendship, their individual stories and the cases they encounter along the way.

How did you celebrate your book’s release?

I kept it simple with an online launch via a Facebook event. I didn’t put too much planning into it, but I did do a special event for those who came – they got the change to request a signed copy of the book when paperbacks are ready! I’ve also been playing around with different marketing techniques.

Why and when did you start writing in earnest?

I don’t remember how old I was. I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Stories, both reading and writing, were an escape from an abusive childhood. Even now, writing is how I cope with my complex PTSD and severe depression. I always knew I wanted to publish books, to make a career out of writing. I dabbled in various genres over the years, only starting in mystery a year or so after my divorce. Sometimes in writing, our new beginnings in life get reflected in our writing and I know mine is like that. I went from dark fantasy when I was my teens, then in my twenties I was writing a rock star story, called “Edge of Glory”, which I never finished, then in 2019, I started the “Beyond Dark” series. I’m a long-time fan of true crime stories, be it books or documentaries. My mother let me watch “Law and Order” and true crime shows when I was a kid. So, this genre was pretty inevitable for me to fall into.

What was your publishing journey like?

It’s been a long one. I originally began reading about self-publishing in 2012 when there was that explosion of successes. I was just graduating college and trying to break into a journalism career. That didn’t quite turn out how I planned, so I kept returning to my books. Back in 2012, I don’t think I was quite ready for the amount of work that came with a self-publishing career. I was restless, impulsive and pulled in many different directions. I didn’t know what I wanted. Various failed relationships and my marriage and divorce led me off the path I wanted to take when I was younger. Of who I was. One day I was graduating from college and over-confident in my future, and the next I was a 30-year-old woman, single and unsure of who she was.

Funny thing, age. My personal journey impacted my publishing journey so much. When I was in relationships, I didn’t write as much. My focus became making my partners happy, even when it became toxic. I’d rip myself away and return to writing. Originally, I returned to “Edge of Glory” because it was familiar, I’d been working on it for so long already. I really, truly believed that would be my first success with self-publishing. But I couldn’t seem to get the story right. I am still playing with it. But I needed something new, given that my life was in this transition stage. So, I took up writing for a character who had resided in my mind for many years. That’s where Alyssa came from. Beyond Dark 1: Belladonna is her introduction to the world.

How many books did you write before your debut and what did you learn from them?

Quite a few! I wrote short stories as a kid, tons of poetry over the years, I wrote a couple of fantasy books, and “Edge of Glory”. In 2004, I lost all of my writing in a housefire. I was 14. I had fantasy novels, journals and notebooks of my poetry. Gone up in smoke. The original draft of “Edge of Glory” was one of them. I was devastated. I quit writing for a while, but turned back to it when I became suicidal as a result of the abuse and the fire. Writing saved my life. I think it was simply some scribbled rant on loose paper, but it reminded me of why writing was my therapy. It’s been there for me when no human was.

Sometimes the journey is like that. We’re constantly growing and learning, both personally and in writing. That first book you really believe in won’t always be the one you publish. Sometimes it is the one meant to prepare you for the project that will be your debut. With “Edge of Glory”, I learned tons about character development, story arcs and story structure. I learned that stories don’t always work the way we want them to but it doesn’t mean we need to give up on them. “Edge of Glory” is a story that in many ways grew up with me. It came to a point where I outgrew it and now have to figure out where it is still relevant to my life. I’ll finish it one day. I swear on it.

But it also came to a point where I had to shelve it for a while, which I did in January 2019. It taught me that sometimes, as we’re growing with these stories, we need to give them space to grow. I am excited to revisit it, as I adore the characters and their stories, and to revisit their growth in the time since I have shelved it.

How has your relationship to writing changed after finding out that your debut would be published?

I take it more seriously, for sure. Before, self-publishing was one of those “someday” aspirations. “I’ll get there one day,” I’d always claim. I had been working on “Edge of Glory” since I was a teenager, and while I always wanted to publish it, it never seemed time. But with Beyond Dark 1: Belladonna it was so quick. I started in January 2019, and in February 2021 I was hitting that “publish” button. It had gone through various rewrites, with my wonderful beta reader several times, a professional edit and me being so indecisive on cover art. But now here it is. It’s out in the world! I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so fast. Now, I am focused on getting the second book finished, edited and published within the next year or so. If you enjoyed Belladonna, then I believe Gravedigger is a fitting follow up!

See? I’ve already tapped into my inner book marketer. That’s another thing – book marketing! So daunting! I read tons about it before publishing “Beyond Dark” but I still sometimes sit in front of my laptop wondering, “What am I supposed to be doing?” After publishing, be it traditional or indie, it is something that takes up a lot more time. I already work a full-time job to pay my bills, so I find my writing time cut down a bit so I can market the book. It’s a learning experience, as is the whole process. I am enjoying my time learning about the other side of publishing. I am a learner at heart, so I enjoy absorbing knowledge. I find that in publishing, I am looking for more ways to better my writing. I am studying story structure and my own genre more. I am allowing my self to grow into the mystery genre and make mistakes and learn from those. I feel like my relationship with writing has only deepened. I enjoy it now probably more than I ever have. I am single, childfree and able to focus on my books. Something I have always wanted. I feel truly great about my relationship with writing.

What do you wish you had known before publishing your first book?

How long editing actually takes!! I have been writing for a long time, but never went through the full, proper editing process until Beyond Dark 1: Belladonna. To make it professional and up to publishing standards is a lot of work. My beta reader was amazing with the story and seeing my vision. The draft was admittedly a mess when it went to her, but she saw what I was trying to do and only made it better. I also did a lot of self-editing. It was also my first time working with a professional editor. I learned so much from him, and most of all, I learned why a professional editor is so important. He put a professional touch on my book that I couldn’t have. Very detail-oriented, picked up on many things I missed, and he took the time to explain many of his edits, which was really eye-opening and insightful. I am definitely a better writer for having done that. It made the book better than I could have done on my own. It’s something I am proud to put out there.

What challenges do you face as a published author?

Time. Between working full-time, book marketing, and other obligations, I really have to make my writing time count more than ever these days. I might be single and childfree, but I also need to sleep sometime and take breaks to avoid burnout. Once the pandemic is over, hopefully later this year, I will be looking forward to reviving my social life. Finding that balance is a challenge. It’s a second job, it truly is.

Market oversaturation is a challenge faced by all authors right now. I read somewhere that there are roughly seven million books published on Amazon. That’s a huge sea to wade through in order to find ideal readers who will buy the book. Standing out in this market is hard. This is a thrilling age to be a creative mind. We have at our fingertips the internet, which allows us to put our projects out there, overstepping the publishing companies to do it on our own. But the downside is also what makes it great. Anyone can do it. We face that great big sea of works and wonder how to stand out, if we will stand out. One of my co-workers at my job makes music, and we recently discussed how the indie music industry is facing the same challenge. Every creative deserves the chance to be heard, but sometimes it feels like we yell into a crowd whose attention is torn in fifty different directions. In the digital age, attention spans are short and if we don’t capture the reader within the first few words of a blurb, we lose a sale.

Do you feel the industry has been welcoming to you?

Absolutely! I have mingled in the writing and publishing community online for many years now. The support from the community has been wonderful. Again, it’s an overfilled sea of books, so I didn’t expect fame and stardom immediately, but I had great support at the small book launch I did, from my writing group on Discord, and on Twitter. I published during a weird time, when we don’t have face-to-face interactions, so I do feel like I have lost out on that for this launch. But the online community has been spectacular. This industry feels so competitive sometimes, yet at the end of the day, writers are also a community and we need to support each other.

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

At times, yes. For the most part, it’s given me more time to write and edit, which I believe is why Beyond Dark 1: Belladonna got done as quickly as it did. In May and June 2020, I was temporarily laid off from my job, as many people were, so I took that time to dive into the developmental edits on that book. It put me ahead. In that time, I also started a spinoff series, “Beyond Cover”, which is about two undercover agents. That was a fun side project that has become a serious spinoff to the main series. If the pandemic impacted my creativity, it did do in a positive way. As always, writing was what got me through the year of isolation, the lack of a social life, and offsetting the impact all of this would have had on my mental health otherwise.

Do you think that current events have changed the reception of your debut?

You know, I do wonder about this. This last year has seen a lot of societal change. The Black Lives Matter movement and the calls for police reform (both of which I completely support) made me question how a police procedural would perform in the market. As a white woman, I don’t feel the matter of racism is my story to tell, so I don’t really touch on it in my series. I’m not trying to tell that story. At the end of the day, the “Beyond Dark” series is Alyssa’s story, and so I hope that her character is what stands out. That readers will see who she is, versus just seeing another cop. I was worried when there was talk on social media about the fate of crime dramas amidst all this police brutality that we see. I hope current events, despite how important the discussion about systematic racism and police reform is, don’t impact how readers might receive “Beyond Dark.” I am not trying to change the world with this series. I simply want to tell Alyssa’s story and give a creative outlet to my fascination with criminal psychology. So I think that’s what it boils down to: knowing what story you are telling and for who.

How do you approach reviews, what was your first negative review like?

I have yet to get a negative review for “Beyond Dark”. As of this writing, it has a singular five-star review. But given that I have been posting publicly for years, I am certainly no stranger to negative reviews. Basically, I take what’s constructive and helpful, and see how it can better my stories. If someone is being overly negative and hurtful, I say nothing and move on. It’s not worth the energy spent to respond to such a thing. People are entitled to their opinions. It’s a shame when they use that privilege to be hurtful, but we as writers also have the choice to move past it in a mature matter.

What are you planning next?

Oh, I have lots in the works! I am almost halfway done the first draft for Beyond Dark 2: Gravedigger. I am hoping to have that edited and published for early next year. If it happens sooner, great, but I learned from the first book that editing is a long process, so I don’t want to rush that.

“Beyond Cover” will have four books to the series. I am about to start writing the third while I edit the first. Publishing is in the future for this series, as well. Beyond Dark 3 will be a crossover with the spinoff, so I likely won’t publish the spinoff debut until the third “Beyond Dark” is released. Give it some sort of introduction before pointing readers to the other series.

I am also slowly working on “Edge of Glory” and seeing where I can take that. And finally, I have a silly side project, called “She’s so Lovely” – a mystery/romance novella series about a private investigator who seeks life after a rough divorce, while solving the cold case of two missing girls. My first drafts of my work all get posted on Booksie, a writing website. I emphasize, first drafts. By no means is what people read there what finally gets published. It’s fun to get reader feedback and see analytics during the early writing process.  

Do you have a set writing routine?

I write for a few hours before work, and after. I fit in book marketing time somewhere in here. It’s set, but it is also conditional on how tired I am after work and other obligations. But I am consistent in writing or doing something book-related at least once a day, because even the small things matter.

What is your preferred writing soundtrack?

I don’t have just one. I have a separate playlist on Spotify for each book. I make a soundtrack for each, since every one has a different vibe to it. I am a music addict in general, though. One can find almost any genre in my song library. Beyond Dark 1 had a soundtrack full of Lana Del Ray, Billie Eilish, Lacuna Coil, In This Moment, Kelly Clarkson, Linkin Park, Madonna, and even Britney Spears and Annie Lennox. I basically just pluck out songs that fit the book’s vibe and add it to the playlist. Anything goes, really. So far, Gravedigger has had a dark or old country vibe to it, since it is set in a small prairie town. Gretchen Peters, Lindi Ortega, Johnny Cash, Pistol Annies, and then I added the “Dark Country” albums to it. Those are a mixture of songs with a creepy or ominous sound.

Coffee, tea or other writing fuel?

This depends on the time of day. Before work, it’s coffee or tea. After work, it’s tea or a whiskey or two. I also smoke weed after work (legal here in Canada), which is helpful to my anxiety and complex PTSD, and helps me focus. Music is my other writing fuel.

What was your favourite moment on the journey to publication?

I want to say hitting that “publish” button, but honestly, it was the online book launch. It was small and short, but engaging with friends and readers was really wonderful. These are people who have supported me the entire time, and it means the world to me. We hung out online and discussed female serial killers (I learned of ones I didn’t even know!) and then criminal psychology. It was a delight to connect with people who are so supportive.

What books (or other media) have you loved recently?

I read a lot of true crime. I recently read a book called Jersey Tough by Wayne “Big Chuck” Bradshaw, his memoir about going from outlaw biker to undercover cop. A truly fascinating read. I am currently reading The Great Diamond Heist by Gordon Bowers, about the 2015 diamond heist in Hatton Garden in London, England. Otherwise, I have been absorbing books about book marketing and self-publishing.

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