For a long time I've been pondering how to record the many instances of everyday magic that happen in our lives - coincidences, serendipity, bolts from the blue, timely bumpings into people, texts from a long-lost friend you'd just been thinking about ...
You know the stuff. Those little things where you think, 'Wow! You couldn't make that up!'
Sometimes, though, it's something else that feels like magic - and that's what I've had over the last few weeks since I started setting up Jill Marshall Books. That magical inspiration, weirdly, was COVID-19.
1. Hold on tight to your dream
Since 2012, I've been pulling all my books, series, characters, thought processes together into an ensemble series called SWAGG. It's my Avengers Assemble, if you like. In fact, that's about how long I've been thinking about it - since I first saw the cardboard cut out of Ironman, Cap, Hulk and all at the cinema all those years ago. I stood in front of it for ages, realising that I already had superhero characters, with different powers that could work together brilliantly in a team scenario.
And so SWAGG was born. The first book in the series was written, edited, beta-tested, edited, written and re-written. The four Origin Series were completed, which meant at least another four or five books to be written in addition to SWAGG 1, Spook. And the ideas rolled and rolled in my brain, gathering clay, starting to stick, wanting to be born - not just a new book, but a new world, even - one day, perhaps - a multi-verse.
Until very recently, that's where it all stopped. All written, all ready to go, with no home to send a franchise of 16 novels to, other than the various folders on my laptop.
But then came Coronavirus. Then came tales of kids in lockdown with no access to libraries, no new books to read, not even able to take on the neighbour's pre-loved collections for fear of infection.
I have long since believed that the future of books was digital, more direct from writer to reader - but suddenly there wasn't just a desire for that to happen. There was a need. And my dream might just provide a solution.
I know many, many writers and publishers, libraries and retailers have collaborated to provide readers with books - but I wanted to give readers a new book. Something they haven't had access to. And for free.
2. Switch off the Voice of Doom
There were many, many reasons not to kick this project off. For a start, I've been working very hard in my day job - communications in an 'essential services' area, including arranging messages from our ace PM, Jacinda, to the unsung heroes of the waste industry. All from home, all with a lively two-year-old in the house, all with dodgy internet.
Then there was the speed at which I wanted to move. I spoke with people in the industry about it, but they couldn't move as fast as I wanted. It's asking a juggernaut to tackle a hair-pin bend at max speed. As with everyone else, publishers are working from home, juggling projects and schedules with children and elderly parents and fear and concern. It's really not easy, and my heart goes out to them.
So what else could I do? I decided it was time for some everyday magic - and I got going within a day of first having the impulse to do it.
But first I had to switch off my inner nay-sayer. Louder than my inner critic, this one wasn't just whispering 'You're not really good enough for this, are you?' It was screaming, 'Are you MAD? Do you have a DEATH-WISH? Where are even going to START, you crazy woman?'
I took a deep breath, thanked the voice for its input and let it go.
It did have a point, though. I had all the books ready but just in Word documents - all, that is, except for two of the Jane Blonde books where neither the publisher nor I could lay hands on the original files. I sat with one of the physical books in front of me, wondering how long it would take me to retype it all - as the universe waved its glittery wand and things fell into place.
Well, not things. People. People and technology. Today's magical combination.
2. Reach out and let the magic in
I started doing this on my own. Within days it had become a global collaboration on a scale that I could never have imagined.
To begin with, I formatted, edited and re-formatted complete books time after time to get them to the highest standard possible for one person working out of their garage or, for a change of scenery, their bedroom. I started loading them to Smashwords, the marvellous e-book distributor - and there discovered that someone could help me with my missing files.
From my home at the bottom of the world, I ordered the two books from Amazon in the US, who sent them directly to BlueLeaf Scanning in Missouri, and within 10 days I received Word and PDF files of every page of the two books. Cost me very little, saved me so much in time, effort and frustration.
Meanwhile I'd realised that SWAGG needed a whole new look, which meant new, different-but-coordinated covers for all the origin stories including Jane Blonde and Doghead.The original Macmillan covers for JB were pretty darn spectacular and would be hard to beat, but I knew they needed to be older, sharper, more agile to fit the SWAGG image.
So again from my garage in NZ, I commissioned illustrations from the supremely talented Madison Fotti-Knowles. Trapped in lockdown herself, she was able to get nearly two dozen fantastic images to me in less than a week. These then needed to be converted to SVG files to be incorporated into the covers. I didn't even know what that meant - but luckily, Shahzad in Pakistan, did. Hired via Fiverr, he produced startling images in no time at all, and kept me entertained throughout the whole process.
Next, designer Katie Gannon who's in Australia pulled together a suite of amazing covers, and helped out with designing and finessing this website. I'm so lucky to have worked with her in the past and have her usual clients be on the down-low because of COVID-19, because she had time to help me.
Now, here's the thing that most amazes me. Katie is a commercial designer who I've worked with in corporate life. I had no idea if she could produce book covers. I'm not sure she knew herself! But she set to and came up with the most amazing covers, web designs and ideas, and helped every step of the way to turn Madison's illustrations into beautiful, sumptuous, inviting books.
And Madison the illustrator? Actually a professional ballet dancer. This is her side hustle. It's quite sickening that she's so amazing at such a variety of things, and I'm so glad she is. Magic.
4. Don't give up, even when all seems lost.
You will be tested, over and over. Just remember that it's from those 'dark nights of the soul' that the most life-changing changes evolve. The fall-through moment reveals itself as the break-through moment.
The Smashwords thing wasn't going so well. I got utterly frustrated trying to format SWAGG properly, only to have it rejected again and again by the system's autovetter. I didn't have a hope of getting this done.
In the end I had a bit of a drama-queen fit and contacted the lovely Jim in the States. He's the marketing manager who'd hosted a Smashwords author day the previous week. Jim, help, I pleaded.
He didn't have to, but he did. He escalated my issue, put me in touch with Matt who rolled out some techy upgrade, and moments after I had finally given up, had literally pushed the 'unpublish' button, Matt let me know the issue was sorted and my book had finally passed. Some tears of relief and joy may have been shed ...
4. Be agile
If you don't work in corporate life, you may not be familiar with the current obsession about agility - but believe me, it works. It just means pause, re-assess, see how you can make the most of a tricky sitch and then set off again. Adapt. Evolve. Shift gears.
I had many bleak moments, mostly when loading books to yet another platform, mostly to do with technology. Every time, though, I learned a little more about how I could make the process run more smoothly. By the fourth or fifth of sixteen books, I'd usually got it down pat.
I also changed tack. My original goal was to give SWAGG away for free, but then I got side-tracked by a facility to do pre-orders on Smashwords. I toyed and toyed with it, then suddenly realised that not only was this eating up my time, but it was also taking me away from my vision. I wasn't holding on tight to my dream.
Once again I let go, and just went for a 'get this book free' button. It was done. In an instant. And people could actually get my book for free. In an instant.
In that moment. I arrived back on my path, much further along than the point where I'd left it. Mmmmmmmmagic.
5. Go at 80 to 90% - or Ready, Go, Set
So here we are, less than two months since I decided this had to happen, and I have a whole new publishing company offering all my books in whole new ways. They're even available as Flipbooks, which I've only used for corporate mags before but which I've discovered work beautifully for actual books.
And SWAGG Book 1, Spook, by Jill Marshall, is available for free.
There have been many strokes of magic that combined to make this happen, not least the technology we can use. I incorporated a company, found domain names, created webites, set up business accounts - all without getting up from my chair.
This has all taken place without me having a single conversation with anyone other than by email or their professional platform. I wouldn't know Shahzad or Matt or the BlueLeaf guys if they sang barbershop at my door, but I know I wouldn't be here without them. Katie, Madison, Jim - I've stretched each of them beyond their usual roles and they've all been 1) happy to do it and 2) slap-my-thigh staggeringly good at it.
I love each and every one of them with bleary-eyed gratitude, and we've never really met.
But one other thing that made a major difference was my decision to go at 80-ish %. My perfectionism was sorely tested, but I knew if I didn't quash it I would keep twiddling and tweaking until the moment was lost.
So I launched my website before all the book formats were ready to click through to a sales option.
I acknowledged that I probably couldn't format everything as gorgeously as a team of creatives in a large publishing house. I left out headers bearing the book and chapter title at the top of each page. I figured my readers would forgive me, if they even noticed. It would just have taken too much time for too little purpose.
I decided not to worry about spines. Not mine (although it could do with a good post-lockdown pummelling) but the spines of the paperbacks. Publishers spend a good deal of time making them stand out on a bookstore shelf. I'm not sure mine will ever even end up on a bookstore shelf. My spines - they're there, but functional. They tie the front cover to the back cover with the correct info on them. I figured down the line I can send out sets of stickers for reders to apply to collections, or address the issue some other way. Or not. It may never even be an issue.
I set off at somewhere between 80% and 90% ready. When the book was available for free. When it was too late for me to turn back. When I knew I'd have to commit to completing, and magic would make it happen.
So how do you keep on thinking big when the world is contracting? It's simple really. Suck in a lot of deep breaths, brave some calculated risks, return again and again to your vision - and take a massive leap of faith.
The universe - I swear it - will catch you.
I really hope that a bit of that magic rubs off on the books. I hope that you feel the energy, the cooperation, the sheer miraculous zap (or should I say, Zoom?) of being able to have an idea and stir a technological cauldron of world-wide talent to actually create it - I mean, to actually see it come to life before your eyes.
That's magic, my friends. I'm sorry I couldn't make it happen any faster, but I hope it's soon enough to be of some benefit during these troubled and testing times.
(For more information and to grab your free copy of SWAGG, go to jillmarshallbooks.com)