Wrong time, wrong place, wrong body…
Jo’s world is about to change forever, and it’s about time
Her marriage is on auto-pilot, daughter hates her, job sucks and it’s not even Tuesday.
As Jo’s life implodes, a freak event hurls her back through time and space to ‘90s Los Angeles where, in a parallel universe, she’s about to hit the big time as a rock star.
Jo has to choose between her dreams and her family in an adventure that propels her from London to Hollywood then Glastonbury, the world’s greatest music festival.
In her desperate quest, Jo encounters a disgraced guru, a movie star with a fetish for double-decker buses, and the biggest pop star in the world… who just happens to want to kill her.
Back to Reality is the brainchild of author and screenwriter Mark Stay and fellow Brit and inspirational non-fiction author, Mark Desvaux (who writes fiction as Mark Oliver). I’m delighted to welcome both authors to The Shelf today to tell us a little more about their bestselling book, and the unusual genesis for it!
Welcome both! First things first, can you tell us a little bit about Back to Reality?
MARK S: It’s a fun, pacy, page-turning read about second chances. Our protagonist Jo is forty-two, stuck in a rut, humiliated and facing the sack when a Back-to-the-Future-meets-Freaky-Friday body swap event happens and hurls her back to nineties where she becomes her twenty-four-year-old self on the verge of rock stardom. And there’s a funny bit with a cow.
Back to Reality has a rather unusual genesis as it is the result of your participation in The Bestseller Experiment podcast. Can you tell us a little about the podcast, and how the writing of Back to Reality came out of that?
MARK S: I wrote a movie called Robot Overlords, and then wrote the novelisation, and lots of old friends got in touch and one of them was Mark Desvaux. He told me that he had always wanted to write a novel but he had never got beyond twenty-thousand words. Well, one thing led to another and suddenly we’re running a weekly podcast and writing a novel together! The challenge was to write, edit and publish a novel in twelve months and get a Kindle bestseller flag. More importantly, we challenged our listeners to beat us to it and many of them did! In fact, this week one of our listeners, Lorna Cook, hit the overall number one spot on the UK Kindle chart with her debut novel. It’s been amazing watching our listeners’ careers jump into orbit.
How did you find the experience of co-writing Back to Reality and did you feel that this changed the eventual feel and style of the book in any way?
MARK D: Co-writing is a completely different experience to writing solo. It has incredible challenges but also incredible benefits. We pretty much plotted out the whole novel upfront – 50,000 words! – but it helped us know which way the story was going, and probably prevented some pretty interesting debates down the road. The best part about working together was when we were bouncing ideas off each other. It is one thing to play with an idea in your head, but it’s great fun throwing it out there and then hearing the other person run with it and up the stakes even further. It is definitely a case of the sum of the parts…
We had so much fun coming up with challenges for Jo, our protagonist, and it was often the throwaway comment that suddenly stuck and became a huge part of the story. I highly recommend for every author to try it, as it takes you outside your comfort zone and you also learn a huge amount form each other.
MARK S: I’ve co-written screenplays before, but filmmaking is such a co-operative experience that you expect to work with other writers, actors, directors. But when I write a novel, it’s my happy place. I can write at my own pace and have complete control and chop and change as I like. So having someone else write a novel with me was hard work! The advantage, however, was it became the book that never slept. Mr. D is in Canada and I’m in the UK, so I would write in the day, hand it over to Mr. D to work on, and then I would wake to find a ton of changes and notes. It was like having an editor sending you corrections every day. It certainly kept me on my toes.
Back to Reality is a heart-warming and funny story that centres around a woman who finds herself hurtled back in time and into a parallel universe, and it very much fits the current trend for ‘up-lit’! What made you choose that particular idea when you set out to write a bestseller? Was it a result of your own styles and previous writing experience, the podcast research, industry knowledge?
MARK D: I love stories that inspire. I think part of the reason why Up-Lit is so popular right now is it counters all the challenges we see every day in media headlines. As I have spent many years coaching, giving seminars and radio getting people to think about what is really important in their life, I really wanted to make sure the book had that feel-good factor. Like life, it’s is not all plain sailing though – Jo is really put through the wringer!
As two long-time married family men with incredible wives, the book is also a tribute to sacrifices Mums have to make. Looking back, this unconscious choice that developed as a core theme in the book was even more pertinent when I discovered my wife, and Mum of our three children, was diagnosed with terminal cancer just a few months into the project.
MARK S: We put together a spreadsheet of all the things we liked, including music, books, films, and we discovered the common threads in our lives. Music was big, as was Douglas Adams and Back to the Future, hence the rock n roll/time travel themes in the book. If you listen to the earlier episodes of the podcast we did briefly consider writing a Gone Girl/Girl On The Train-style thriller, which would undoubtedly have been a bigger seller, but we’re not big fans of that genre and I think the readers would have seen through that. It was important that the book be a reflection of us and be truthful. And the theme of second chances really resonated with our listeners who are all writers — many with families and jobs — all looking to achieve their dream of writing and publishing a book. We wanted it to be a positive book that readers would recommend to their friends.
In The Bestseller Experiment, you speak to authors, readers and publishers about the key things that go into making a bestselling novel. As Back to Reality has become a Kindle bestseller, clearly the advice worked! What would be your top take-away tips for anyone looking to emulate your success?
MARK S: There are no hard and fast rules, but there are common principles that will help you become a more successful writer. Treat it like a job. The write-every-day thing doesn’t work for everyone, but you do have to put the hours in one way or another. You have to be diligent and persistent. Yes, there will be rejections and bad reviews, but the writers who fail are the ones who give up.
And we found that building a community of writers — like our fantastic listener base — really helps. That doesn’t mean you have to be going to swanky launch parties in London, but you should get to know your local booksellers and librarians — they will have tons of contacts — and go to local writers’ groups and festivals. You will find your peers and you will help one another as you rise together (and then you start getting invited to their swanky launch parties in London!).
How did you go about publicising Back to Reality and turning it from a published book into a bestseller? And has promoting the recently released paperback edition differed in any way from publicising the e-book?
MARK S: We built a small army of beta-readers from our listeners. We had hired an editor and a copy-editor for the bulk of the edit, but we also wanted the listeners to take ownership of the novel and give us their feedback and it was invaluable. We popped a Google doc online and they left us hundreds of notes. It was amazing. It also meant that we had them shouting about the book on social media on our launch day, and that was crucial in getting us those bestseller flags. Since then we’ve dabbled in Amazon, Bookbub and Facebook ads with varying degrees of success. We’ve been very honest about the ups and downs on the podcast, and our listeners — many of whom are published now — have been doing the same.
The paperback gave us another excuse to make a noise and it’s lovely to have a physical book to show people. Marketing the paperback has been more difficult as print costs mean we can’t compete on price with larger publishers, but we’ve had some great support from the likes of The Book Depository and we’ll keep plugging away at festivals and conventions. Next up is the audiobook edition… and we’ve been tinkering with a screenplay…
Has the experience of taking part in The Bestseller Experiment, and the subsequent writing of Back to Reality, altered your writing going forward? And, if so, how?
MARK D: In every way! Our eyes have been well and truly opened by the incredible authors we have interviewed. At last count, they have collectively sold over 350m books between them, so it is the highest level of advice you can probably get. It has been an honour to deep dive with them and we are constantly humbled by their stories of early failures and persistence. It is a good reminder to us all to never give up.
MARK S: I learn something every week on the podcast. It’s like a never-ending creative writing course. It’s helped me find the balance between writing for myself and writing for the reader and keeping them on the hook. I’m a much-improved writer because of the podcast.
Now that Back to Reality is out in the world, what is next for The Bestseller Experiment? Will there be another bestseller forthcoming from the podcast? Or are you both now working on individual projects?
MARK D: As usual, I have 101 writing projects I want to get stuck into… On my list right now is a non-fiction book on which takes a very different approach to dealing Cancer and a Children’s Picture book called The Marshmallow Bear. I am also busy promoting the book my wife left my children called “The Very Last Monster Book” which has been really well received and apparently was the top-selling children’s hardback in Canada over Christmas
MARK S: People keep asking for a sequel, but Jo’s story is done and we’re happy with it. I published my fantasy novel The End of Magic this year, and I’m also working on new TV and film projects, and I’ve just finished a draft of a new magical fantasy series called The Witches of Woodville. I’m a busy boy!
Thank you so much to both authors for answering my questions about Back to Reality and The Bestseller Experiment.
The novel is definitely a feel-good read that is perfect for summer, and the podcast has had some fabulous guests including (but not limited to!) Joanna Harris, Ben Aaronovitch, and Michelle Paver so makes for a great bookish listen.
You can find out more about The Bestseller Experiment on the project website, and the podcast is available to download on all good streaming and podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts.