EP27: From Script, To Screen, To Book | Jo Ho
In this episode you will discover…
- How Facebook groups can help guide you through your writing and self-publishing
- How to cold-call editors and publishers successfully
- How you can react to reader feedback and improve your book
- And what essentials you need to build your readership
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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Jo Ho is an award-winning screenwriter and director, best known for creating the BBC TV series Spirit Warriors, but she has recently turned her hand to self-publishing with great success. The first book, Wanted, is a YA thriller, and her suspense novella The Boy Next Door was a Kindle bestseller. We caught up with her in a South London cafe in a break between her many writing projects…
We started by talking about The Boy Next Door
It’s a sweet story that I originally wrote and tried to get made as a short film, but I couldn’t get funding for it, so I adapted it and changed it around a bit, and I actually prefer it more now, in this incarnation, than as a short film.
How did you start out as a screenwriter and get your own TV series?
I wrote a feature script, and it was a personal story called Monkey Nut Tales, and it was a magical realism drama. It stars three Chinese women, one of whom is only ten, and the middle one is mentally ill, then the grandmother is 65 and doesn’t speak English… So you can see how this had blockbuster written all over it!
I knew it was going to be a hard-sell, but it was a personal story, it was something I really cared about.
It dealt with mental illness, and health, and how the Chinese community views it, but was a lovely, lovely story and I wrote it, and got that in the hands on someone quite big at the BBC. I had been trying to get into the BBC via the normal routes like through the Writers’ Room, any kind of schemes and competitions, and nobody was interested, but I knew I had something and I was determined that somebody would look at it. I managed to get it in the hands of Ruth Caleb, she was the first female to run a drama department at the BBC, and she’s awesome, and she loved it, and she recommended me to all the drama departments at the BBC. For me, trying so hard to get meetings at the BBC — Please talk to me! — she just basically said to them you need to talk to this girl. I think when Ruth says that, people listen. I was really lucky and met with all the departments. They all read and loved the script.
How did you make contact with Ruth? Was that via an agent?
There was some kind of scheme, a development scheme, that I got onto, and she was one of the guest speakers there. I’m one of those annoying people, in that I’m always looking for opportunities.
Everyone there is interested in finding talent, but you just have to approach them in the right way. You don’t lie to them and you don’t big yourself up, you just tell them the truth, tell them who you are, be genuine and honest, and I’ve found that’s got me into lots of places.
That got me into Miramax – just from being honest and cold-calling. I’m very American in how I do things. I hope I’m not abrasive. My family are immigrants. We didn’t have any money, and it was a struggle, and my parents didn’t even finish school, so it’s been real hard graft trying to get here, and I’ve not had any help, or luxury, or any security really. When your life is literally on the line and rent has to be paid or you’ll be homeless, that really puts it in perspective. So, when you talk to people, they can see that you’re genuine, that you’re really wanting this, and that you’re working for this, and you’re trying to everything you can, but everybody needs some help sometimes.
Everybody just needs a break, but to get there you gotta ask for it. No one just comes up to you and says here’s your chance.
I think also learning as much as you can, saying will you look at what I’ve written already, I’ve done the research on you, on your company, I’ve seen the kind of stuff you make, I think you might like this, would you please just have a look?
And where do you find out about the development schemes to meet these people?
I was on a lot of forums online. There were things like mandy.com, all these websites where you can search for opportunities in the film industry. Admittedly, they’re few and far between, and typically if there is an opening somewhere it will probably go to somebody who knows somebody, unfortunately, it’s just how it is. But I did a lot of cold-calling, and when I started I was also trying to get jobs in film production, because I wanted to know everything about filmmaking, and I started cold-calling film companies, told them who I was, told them I was up for learning. Did they have anything? Even if it was just a week? And I got jobs that way.
Your first self-published novel came out in November 2016, and in the following December I saw you tweeting that you’d had a bit of success…
Yeah, it got to bestseller status, because it hit number one in some of the categories that it was in.
How did you do it?
This was naughty. Don’t do this. Do your research.
Don’t write the book, put it up and just pray, which is kind of what I did.
My boyfriend was coming over from the States and he’s not here that often so I had all this stuff building up and I just had to get it all done and so I joined a bunch of Facebook groups. This has been the most amazing thing for me. There are so many Facebook groups with self-published authors, lots of them in the same boat as you and I, in that they’re just starting out. Some people are in there and they haven’t published anything yet, but they’re building up to when they publish, which is a hundred percent what I recommend to you guys. You just learn from the people who are doing it and a lot of these writers that I’m in the groups with, they’ve only been going for three or four years, so not that long, but a lot of these are already on six figures, some of them are on seven figures, and they’re outselling your traditionally-published authors, and they’re making a hell of a lot more money than they are.
I’m talking money because this is a business, and that’s how I treat it. I want to entertain the masses, but I have to pay my bills, too.
Those authors, they’re just awesome. If you have any questions, just shove it in there no matter how stupid, no one takes the mickey, everyone knows that we had to start somewhere. They only started a few years ago, they remember. And, typically, in each of these Facebook groups, as soon as you join, right at the top, there’s The Hundred Most Asked Things From Newbies, so you don’t even have to ask! These guys have done the work for you. You’ve just got to go in there and read it all.
Any of these groups that you particularly recommend?
I’m writing YA books at the moment, so there’s a great one that I’m in AAYAA, All Things Fantasy & Promos, and they’re awesome. They do great things like Tuesday Team Up, every single Tuesday, if you’ve got a book that’s just come out, or you’re Tweeting something and you want more eyes on it, you put it in there and anybody that sees it and wants to help, they then Tweet it to their followers and everyone helps and supports and nurtures in that way. The other one that I love is the For Love Or Money group, by Susan Kaye Quinn, she’s brilliant. She’s also written a couple of ‘How To’ books. If I’d done it the proper way, absolutely I would have got her books first, did what she said in there, and launched my book. It would have been more successful.
Write the book, but whilst you’re writing the book I would say give yourself at least a few months to try and learn the process of launching a book, how to give your book the best chance possible, because writing a great book is just the first part. Getting eyes on it is the hardest part.
Getting your book to be what they call sticky, so it sticks in the charts and stays high ranking, that’s like a whole other thing. And there’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to constantly do to keep that ball rolling, unless you’re super-lucky.
You have a personal and private Facebook page and an author page. Which one are you using to join these groups?
I’m using my author page for people to see me talk about my books and my writing, and I’m using my personal Facebook for everything else, which I probably shouldn’t, but y’know, I never do things properly!
How do you break up your day?
I haven’t quite got it structured yet, like my screenwriting would be, but I am trying to spend some time on Monday, maybe half the day doing promoting and marketing work, and again on Friday, and then trying to do the rest of the time writing books. It’s not really working, because there are two films I’m supposed to do as well!
I started publishing my screenplays as well. I realised nobody’s done it, and I don’t know if this will be successful experiment. Nearly all that up are up on Amazon are very famous movies, but I thought I’ve got all these screenplays and they’re not earning money while they’re not getting made, and then I thought about how the film industry likes a sure thing… it’s always about established IP (intellectual property). If you’re an established brand like Harry Potter, people are going to throw money at you to make it.
If you’re an original screenwriter, with an original project, and no existing IP, no one wants to know. No matter how good it is.
When you think, oh, Hollywood makes all these terrible films, why is no one writing original projects… We are! They’re not making them! Don’t for a second think that we’re not. We really are, and they’re fricking good as well. But they’re not getting made because Hollywood loves a sure thing an their budgets are getting astronomical, the stakes are getting higher and they’re not willing to make the gamble. There’s this low pocket of low budget indie movies, which we’re all trying to make, or there are these giant tentpole movies, and there’s not too much in-between, and there lies the difficulty. I just thought, why not try and get an established IP fanbase for all my screenplays?
Is that also what spurred you on to do self-publishing? Or would you have written them anyway?
Oh, absolutely. The same way that I started, I looked for opportunities. When you don’t have the contacts, or the trust funds, and you’ve got to think outside the box and think what else is no one doing? A lot of the ideas that I write are really big budget, they’re really big ideas, end of the world, apocalypse, zombies, spirit ninjas, that sort of thing.
The thing to do is look for opportunities, look for ways of doing it, so I decided I’ve got all these stories and all these ideas and lots of them are high concept, so I thought why don’t I just turn them into series of books?
Because I can connect with readers. It’s very hard (as a screenwriter) to get to the stage where people actually see your work. I wanted people to enjoy my stories, get what I’m trying to say, get my themes and messages, love the characters as much as I love them, and to be entertained. Self-publishing is a way of controlling that. As a screenwriter, you write your project and it’s in the hands of everybody else. You don’t get a choice what happens. If somebody buys it, or a producer comes on board, or a director’s come on board, you have to do what they want, and then there’s nothing you can do in that process. Your baby is taken away from you, and whether it happens or not, whether it works or not, whether the final thing is what you conceived, all of that is out of your hands as the writer, which I think a lot of people don’t realise.
With self-publishing, you get to decide everything. At the same time, it’s such a fast industry and you can interact with people so quickly. If something isn’t working, someone can tell you and you can fix it very fast, which I love. It’s so amazing, I can write the book, and then publish it, and then people are reading it a few weeks later. That never happens in screenwriting.
What sparked the idea to self-publish?
When you see these big Hollywood movies coming out now, it’s always based on the bestselling book, isn’t it? I thought, that’s it, I’m going to write bestselling books! I had a meeting at Heyday, the producers behind Harry Potter, and one of the things that happened is I pitched them a project, which the head of development really loved, but she said to me that even they would find it hard to make, because it was original and expensive and it wasn’t an established IP. And I just thought, Jesus, if even the Harry Potter people are saying this what chance do we normal mortals stand of any of these things happening? Her advice to me was why don’t you write this as a book and when it’s a bestseller… Just like that! Like it’s so easy. And that’s what her advice was and it was in the back of my head for a year or two, and I got fed-up with how long things were taking.
What were your big mistakes when going into self-publishing?
Not doing my research before I launched my book.
I cannot stress this enough: looks for Facebook groups, look for these authors that I’ve already mentioned, they have all this free information. They’re there to help.
See how they do things. Build up your mailing list of people who are already interested in your books, then when you launch a book, you hit them up beforehand and say hey, this is coming out. You can give away your books if you want to, they’re your books, and then, hopefully, some people will read it and if they like it they will leave reviews. Reviews are crucial, because other people judge your book based on what the review are saying and how many stars it has.
So, I’d say build up your mailing list, do your research, get a professional cover design.
I’m having my first on re-done now, because I don’t think it’s catnip for the audience, so I’m relaunching that book in a few months’ time, and I’ll probably relaunch it at the same time that I launch the second book in the series. Big plans, people!
Get yourself a website, too. That’s crucial. People need to have somewhere to go. It should say something like Join My Mailing List.
The number one thing you want when you start up is not actually to sell books, I know you think it is, but I think the number one thing is to get fans and get a mailing list together, because those people, if they like your stuff, they will buy your stuff and then they will also recommend your stuff.
When you started, did you have anything to offer, like a short story?
No, one of my mistakes that I made, my mailing list was basically people I knew. And a few people that I got off of a promo. I joined a thing for a month, Instafreebie, and it’s a website where you can put whole books up, or chapters, or anything really, and just give it away. But you can require that they sign up to your mailing list. I made the mistake of just sending out a few chapters on Instafreebie, so I did get about forty or fifty people join up, but that’s nothing. Whereas, if you give away a whole book, you’ll get thousands of people joining. People like freebies. This only works if you’re writing book one of a series, so I wrote a short story. It’s what we call a magnet, to attract new readers, and you say join my mailing list and get a free book. And also within your novella or short story you should feature the first few chapters of the book that you’re actually trying to sell, which is what I’ve done.
Did you use an editor?
Editors cost a lot of money. I don’t want to spend, if I don’t have it. I’m really running this like a proper business. So I haven’t used an editor that charges, but there are websites that do this for you. One’s called Grammarly, one’s called Pro Writing Aid, and you can put in your whole manuscript and it will flag up immediate issues, like spelling mistakes, extra spacing, wrong grammar. It obviously won’t catch everything, and it won’t be as good as a pair of eyes, but it will weed out basic mistakes. What I intend to do is, when this is doing really well as a business, is I will pay someone to go back and do this all properly, and make sure they’re perfect, When you first start, I wouldn’t say go crazy, because it costs thousands of pounds for an editor. And who has that sitting around if you’re a newbie writer? Don’t fret too much, try your best, and get one of these online editors, publish it, and then later, when you start making money, then you can try and go back and get a proper editor.
How long did it take you to write Wanted?
I started six years ago, and then I got super busy with all the film and TV work, and I just did not have time to go back. And then last year my boyfriend read some of it and he said, ‘Oh God, this is so good, why have not done this?’ and then he really was the encouragement that I needed to sit my butt down and get my first book out. Then it was just super fast. I was trying to do ten thousand words a day.
Whoa, how many a day?
About ten thousand. I’ve always written fast. When it takes you longer, it’s because you write one sentence and go like, oh that’s not good enough, and you go back and spend half an hour tweaking that sentence to death. Not having the luxury of a lot of time, the best way for me is to blitz it. Do not worry about how it sounds on the page when you’re writing it.
Just write, just get the first draft done. The beautiful writing comes when you start editing, when you go back and rewrite.
I would literally just write, and never went back, and that’s how I did it really fast, that’s how I was doing ten thousand words a day.
What’s in the future? What are your ambitions for your books?
Bestsellers, obviously! All of them. I just want to do really well. I want to get to a point where lots of readers are discovering them and loving them, and they develop their own IP, and then the studios will be like, here’s all the money, let’s turn them into movies! I still have the films and the TV series, that’s always my main, big goal, but I’ve learned now it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t control so much in the film and TV world. You can only control your writing, that’s all you can control.
I never knew it would be this fun and I never knew I would get so much from it. I’m really thriving doing this on the self-publishing side.
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