NYUAD professor Deborah Quinn’s real-life adventures in self-publishing

Frustrated by the glacial speed of traditional publishing, Quinn took the initiative - and has never looked back.

Deborah Williams, seen here at NYU’s downtown campus in the capital, writes literature as well as teaching it. Lee Hoagland / The National / May 2014
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"This is a terrific read, filled with plot twists, history, humour and romance…" "A great book for teenage girls …" The handful of readers who have taken the time to fill out a customer review on Amazon's website are well-disposed towards The Time Locket, a self-published novel [Amazon.com] by Deborah Quinn. Quinn is the pen name of Deborah Williams, a professor of literature at New York University Abu Dhabi and National columnist, who began work on her first foray into Young Adult (YA) fiction before she moved to Abu Dhabi to teach three years ago.

In the novel, 16-year-old Amelia is struggling to come to terms with her parents’ acrimonious divorce and decides to borrow her parents’ car to escape from her home in New York to her grandmother’s house in North Carolina. On the way, she has an accident and wakes up in 1587 in the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Many more adventures are to follow as Amelia jumps between a physically dangerous past and an emotionally uncertain present.

Some 115 English settlers – including the first English child born on American soil, Virginia Dare – were left on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina in 1587 and never seen again. Their fate is still one of America’s great mysteries. Researching this ­real-life drama kick-started Williams’ writing in earnest. “Somehow, I don’t remember now, but the Lost Colony surfaced in my consciousness and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s perfect. Let’s go there. Let’s see what might have happened.’”

The increasingly popular YA genre is one that has long appealed to Williams as a reader, even though “by no stretch of the imagination, am I a young adult,” she says with a laugh.

“I’m a big fan of Young Adult fiction, as are many grown ups. It’s possible in the realm of ‘young adult’ to be in some instances more adventurous. Sometimes young audiences are more receptive to ‘let’s imagine x’ and then go forward, without needing a whole lot of exposition.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that younger readers are as generous as amateur critics though, as Williams found out. “I’d put the time travel in but had not really thought about the logic of it … Then a couple of people, including an editor who read the manuscript said, particularly if you are writing for teenagers – they are the most critical audience of anybody – your time travel has to have rules. I got very indignant. I thought, ‘Why? It’s not real. Who cares?’ [Teens] are open but if you’re going to create a world, you have to live by the rules of that world.”

Frustratingly, that same editor ­rejected The Time Locket after keeping the manuscript for a year, so Williams decided to self-publish mainly via Amazon.

Much of the “curating and caretaking that goes with self-publishing” Williams learnt through trial and error – and with a little help from complete strangers. “I would go online and say ‘formatting issue with chapter headings’ and there would be 10 websites with step-by-step instructions and videos – and free, all just out there,” she says. “I owe that whole community, none of whom I know personally, a real debt.”

Experience taught Williams that there are rules in the form of dos and don’ts that apply in the world of self-publishing too. “It is an industry and there are protocols and procedures,” she says. ”Anybody can publish a book but just because you can does not mean you should, right? It’s trying to impose a little bit of quality control. If you are going to publish a book, take the time to make it look good. Don’t just give it a PDF of your computer font and call it done.”

While the business of self-­promotion is a daunting prospect, The Time Locket remains a labour of love and not simply because the novel's heroine Amelia has to choose between a love found in the past and returning to her present.

“Most of the history I know comes from fiction. I love historical fiction; when I was growing up it helped me feel like I was understanding the past.” Williams worked hard to make her narrative as fun to read as it was to write: Amelia is a heroine with “some gumption” and the plot contains swashbuckling, sword fights and “chases through the woods”.

Williams describes her own sons as “highly critical readers” and they enjoyed the novel for its pace and adventure. Sitting down with a book is clearly encouraged, even if it is often done interrupted by text messages and other intrusions of 21st-century life. “It’s important to think about and imagine things that aren’t portrayed for you on a video or movie screen and you’re not told, ‘well, this is what actually happened, these are the facts’,” she says. “I think that fiction matters.

“I have a much livelier sense of the past – and most of it’s accurate – from reading because it makes it animate and I think that really matters.”

Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.