Joseph Sale is a writer, editor, content-creator and writing coach. I first came to know him when he submitted a wonderful short story, “The Heaviness of All Things” to Idle Ink in 2018, and since then I’ve followed his work (and there’s a lot of it). In addition to working with The Writing Collective and STORGY Magazine, he’s written a slew of novels and offers his services as a writing coach and editor. He is, in short, many things all at once.
J.L. Corbett: Okay, we’ll get right into it. Do you remember the first thing that you ever wrote?
Joseph Sale: That’s a really good question. I think I can answer that, actually. I was in school, in Year Six, so I would’ve been nine or ten years old, and we were asked to write a short piece of creative fiction. I guess I’d written a few poems before then with my dad (we did a lot of that kind of stuff together), but I remember this story really distinctly because it caused a controversy. I decided to write a story about a soldier who was standing on a wall that had been erected outside this city, and he was smoking his last cigarette before an imminent attack. He was thinking about his life and it was very existential actually, I was clearly a messed up ten-year-old.
And then when the attack comes, you don’t actually see it, it’s just a glimpse of it, but it’s basically aliens. It’s almost a last man on Earth narrative, I guess. I just remember my teacher reading it and stopping on the word “alien”. And then absolutely trashing me.
It was that corny sort of story that a lot of creatives have, of that person who says “You are never going to make a living writing stories about aliens, this is childish, immature and how dare you write this rubbish, this was supposed to be a really thoughtful-” and I was thinking “I thought this was really deep, man!” Like, I was going into this guy’s life and his thoughts. I mean, if I read it now, I probably would think that it was pretty terrible, even for a ten-year-old, but it was quite a knock to the confidence.
I had a few rival students in the school that had written stories that were praised by the teachers and they were really violent. I thought “So I’m not allowed to do it, but these guys are, that’s really annoying!”
So it’s almost like sci-fi is worse than violence, at least in terms of writing.
Yeah! There was a girl in my class, she wrote a story about this guy who had brutally murdered his wife, so I was thinking “Yeah, really gory violence is okay, but the word “aliens” is such a hard stop”. It was almost like that Blackadder scene where Samuel Johnson reads the word “sausage” and he completely loses his mind. It was very much like that.
Have you come up against much of that attitude with the stuff that you write? Like, the sense that you’re never going to succeed writing stuff like this?
Yeah. I think most people, especially in the UK, have this attitude that it’s just not something that you make a living doing. It’s kind of a fantasy. [laughs] Ironically, fantasy and sci-fi. It’s like there’s no possibility of you actually getting a job, it’s a one in a million thing. I think a lot of people don’t realise that there’s a lot of steps and places between being a writer who just writes for fun and being Stephen King. You know, there are middle grounds between that.
It’s a spectrum.
Yeah, absolutely, it’s a spectrum. That’s a really great way of wording it. You don’t have to be Stephen King to make a living, and you don’t have to be Stephen King to write really great books that really affect people, not that I’m necessarily saying that mine do, but there are loads of great writers that I know that are almost unknown to the public. It sounds strange – how can they be making a living if they’re unknown to the public? But there’s always more people reach, right? I’m probably unknown to some people.
I think a lot of people don’t even realise that the term “indie author” exists, it’s not something that’s very mainstream.
Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve encountered this, but it’s that question of “Oh, so are your books in Waterstones?” That’s the UK one, and in America I think it’s Barnes and Noble. Lots of authors that I really like are not in Waterstones.
My next question is slightly more nefarious: what is the worst thing that you’ve ever written?
Oh, I’ve published some bad things, I will freely admit that! It’s been a journey to discovering, to kind of filter my own work for quality. Some of it is still findable, if you really look for it. I’ve tried to eliminate the traces of it, but some of still remains.
You don’t have to answer. I mean, everything of yours that I’ve read has been very good.
You are too kind. Too, too kind. Probably the worst thing that I have ever written is a book that I will never release. Oh my god! Oh my god, when I say the title, you’ll understand so much…
I have to contextualise this, or you’ll just think I’m insane. I really like Eraserhead Press, who publish a lot of bizarro work. And those of you reading, you’ve probably never heard of Eraserhead Press but you may have heard of Carlton Mellick III, who is probably their most successful author. He was even featured in The Guardian a few times, he’s doing very well. Great author, love his books. And there’s that specific kind of aesthetic for bizarro, that kind of things mashed together.
I was chatting with a mate of mine and he came up with this ridiculous idea. He’s not a writer, just a very funny, creative guy. And he challenged me to write a book using this concept. And I didn’t want to do it, but I did write a 20,000 word novella which must never ever see the light of day. It’s called Doctor Cocktopus and the Mutilator Man. As you can imagine, it’s got a kind of horrible in-built sexuality to it, it’s a really horrible piece of writing.
The title alone is very strong.
The title is strong! I almost feel that one day I will write the true Doctor Cocktopus and the Mutilator Man, maybe I’ll revisit that story idea and write it better.
So, did it get published? Did Eraserhead pick it up?
I never sent it to them! I sent it to a couple of mates, and I said, “Look, I really need your honest feedback here – is this at all any good?” And you know what? They were surprisingly positive. And there was one character in it who actually did appear in another book, he was worth saving.
Oh, so some good came out of it then.
Yeah, totally. But no, I think they would have laughed me out of shop, put me on a blacklist and never ever looked at anything I ever sent them ever again.
Have there been any stories of yours that you particularly liked, that didn’t end up doing as well as you’d hoped that they would, or perhaps thought they might?
That’s a really good question as well. I think every writer does, right? I think Nekyia is probably the main one. It’s a novel that’s not really a novel, and that’s probably why it’s not done that well! It’s kind of like five novellas and they seem really tangential, but they actually do all connect and they do a lot of the legwork of setting up the multiverse that’s lying behind the scenes in a lot of my novels.
That sounds really cool!
Well, thank you for saying that. I thought so too! But I think a lot of people thought “What is this thing?” It’s 700 pages, it’s five interconnected stories, it’s not really clear what it is.
Not very commercial, I suppose.
No, no. I think that if I was really motivated by money and wasn’t just always constantly onto the next thing, I would probably split them into five and release them as five separate stories. That’s maybe a project for the future, if I can be bothered.
Do you have any stories of yours that have come out and have maybe been interpreted in the wrong way by readers, or in a way that surprised you?
Ooh yeah, that’s a controversial question. You know, I would never say that anyone’s interpretation of my work is downright wrong, in the sense that I place a great value on the reader’s interpretation. I found that Save Game, which I published last year, has been a really interesting experiment because people have taken it in really different directions. I did intend that in some ways. Some people read it as a very anti-technology book, you know, like the dangers of going too far into the virtual world and leaving behind reality and not being grounded. And that is very personal to me, because I do struggle to be grounded sometimes, and I do escape into fantasies and gaming. There have been really dark times in my life, and they’re normally the times when I game the most, because it is an escape.
But at the same time, a lot of people have read it as a vindication and a validation of gaming and gamers. And that’s true as well. It’s a love letter to it. And it’s asking people to not say “well, you’re just wasting your time playing video games”, because they are an artform. So, it’s been taken in completely opposite directions by people, and I think both are right in some way, because the book reflects a bit of conflict in myself, I guess.
It sounds like it’s evoked a lot of different things in people, which I think is probably what we’re going for as writers.
Well, thank you. I mean, you can only hope, right? I guess I would advise, if anyone was reading this, and they’ve had work put out and they’ve had some responses to it that have concerned them or that they feel maybe aren’t in line with their vision, I would advise them to try – if they can – to let go and to see it as a good thing that people are engaging. And if people are engaged, that is awesome. I fought for years just to get people to engage, I went years screaming into a void and not getting anything back or feeling like I wasn’t getting anything back. You know, no readers, no reviews, no opinions on my work! It was like I didn’t exist.
It’s funny, I’ve used that exact phrase myself a few years ago: “screaming into the void”. It can be frustrating when you put so much work into something and there’s just zero response. Have you ever had any negative feedback at all, either from readers or from editors?
I should preface my answer by saying I’ve been quite lucky, I think, compared to some writers that I know, and film directors and other people. I think I’ve gotten away pretty lightly. Which is, you know, maybe that bubble will burst one day. But yeah, I have received some pretty harsh criticism, and again, of books that other people have really enjoyed. You’re always going to get that mix. When you put something out in the world you expose it to an infinite variety of opinions.
It’s hilarious, there were a couple of reviews of Save Game that I could almost believe that the same person had written them as an exercise in presenting different sides of an argument. One said, “it’s really shallow, there’s no characterisation, it’s surface level, it’ll only appeal to people who like video game references”. And the other one was like “this book is really deep, there’s loads of characterisation, you can read the story at multiple levels, and the great thing about it is that even if you’re not a gamer, you can really enjoy it”. It was completely opposite, line for line.
That’s so strange! I think it’s good to evoke different opinions from readers, though. I feel like you only really make it as a writer when some people love you and you’re upsetting some other people as well. It’s not interesting to be a complete people-pleaser.
Absolutely, I think you’re right. And you only have to look at someone like Stephen King – there are so many people I know who hate him, who hate his writing.
Exactly. He gets so much hate, yet he’s one of the most popular writers of our time.
Yeah, and I think there’s a lesson there. One has to develop thick skin to do anything creative – it’s a cliché, but it is true. I know that yourself, with Idle Ink, being a publisher right, there’s an onus of responsibility that must be quite tough for you. You put out a story and then someone says “Oh, I didn’t like what this writer says” or “why are you supporting this writer?” You don’t just have to worry about yourself, you have to worry about all the other people, right?
Yeah, you feel oddly protective towards these writers that you bring on board. I suppose it’s because you’re the one showcasing them that you feel that kind of responsibility towards them. I know that you’re involved with The Writing Collective, have you ever experienced that kind of thing through your role with them?
We’re in quite early days, so I guess so far so good. It’s funny actually, I was reading a book (I can’t unfortunately say what it is), an upcoming book that we’re going to put out, and there was a scene in it and some words that were used… and I felt like [sharp intake of breath]. If I was just in an editing capacity, or even just a friend reading their work for them , I probably would have thought that’s okay within the context of what they’re doing. But because I knew I was putting it out there, I knew that I needed to think really carefully about it, and maybe even get another opinion from somebody who’s slightly more qualified to make a call on it.
Yeah, you become so hyper-aware of things when you’re the one putting it out there. How did The Writing Collective come about?
Oh, that’s a lovely question. Me and Ross Jeffery have worked together before on STORGY Magazine, and we encountered so many awesome writers, including yourself.
Absolutely. And so we worked with all these great people, and there were people whos work we felt probably wasn’t right for STORGY – for the edge that it has, its genres and aesthetics. And STORGY’s really jam-packed as well, there’s a lot of releases coming out which are really exciting.
I feel like every other day I’m hearing something about STORGY, which is brilliant.
They just want world domination! So, we had all these writers who we rated really highly, and we felt that these were the emerging new voices and we wanted to see what they could do with a novel. We’d seen what they could do with a short story, but what would they do with those longer forms? And so we thought, well let’s give them a home, and let’s do it in a way that’s really fair to the writer.
Both me and Ross have experienced self-publishing, and I’ve experienced some traditional publishing, like independent traditional publishing. I know what it’s like to have really bad deal as well, and to have dodgy contracts and stuff that you can’t get out of and unfair royalty payments.
Also, I worked with Ross on 13 Dark. That was a project I set up with a similar aim. When I set up 13 Dark in early 2017, I didn’t really fully know what I was doing. In many ways I still feel that I didn’t quite do right by the writers, and the stories they turned in were so good, such high quality. I’ll stand on that hill and defend it ’til I die!
You’ve mentioned before that 13 Dark didn’t really go to plan. Can you talk a bit about what the vision was initially, and what it ended up being?
The original vision was a serial release of novelette length work, so like 6,000-10,000 words, those awkward stories in between. And I knew lots of writers who loved writing in that medium, but none of them could ever sell those stories.
It’s a really hard sell.
Yeah, nowhere will take them. So, I wanted to be the guy who would take them! And I wanted to do pamphlets with stories and illustrations and deliver them, like one a month. And the way I chose to do this was via Kickstarter. I offered a semi-reasonable rate; it was going to be a £500 flat payment to each writer.
That’s very good for the writing community.
Yeah, I mean, it is, but for a story of that length in America you’re probably looking at a bit more. But yeah, I think you’re right. It was good for what we were doing. But the Kickstarter didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, and I miscalculated a lot of things. I approached it in the wrong way.
This is a slight tangent, but I think it’s quite relevant if we’re talking about learning from failures and being a creative. At that time, I had the attitude of: I’m creating something, I need to sell it. But my approach after 13 Dark and various other mishaps completely changed. The way that I actually eventually did become a self-sustaining creative was by changing my attitude completely to: how can I be of service to people?
So, rather than desperately trying to flaunt a product, I now have the attitude that I’m offering a service to people, and I’m trying to help them. And that creates so many more opportunities, because most people are not in a position to buy something from someone they’ve never heard of before. But they might need help with something, and then normally after I’ve helped someone, like I’ve edited for them, or done something for them, they then want to take an interest in what I have and my novel. So, it’s almost like flipping the whole thing on its head.
But at the time, with this Kickstarter for 13 Dark, I was in this mindset that because I’m creating something awesome, people are going to want to buy it and, um… no, they’re not. [laughs]
It’s not enough to have an awesome product. Like you said, if no one knows who you are – unfortunately, this is the world we’re living in – it probably won’t do that well. But it’s good that you came to the realisation that it is more of an exchange, I think I’ve had that same realisation myself, if I’m honest.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. I’d love to talk about that more. I feel intuitively like I want to ask you questions, but I don’t know if that completely destroys the format that you’ve set up! But I’d love to hear more about that.
I don’t want to dominate your interview so I’m trying not to interject too much! I had a look at your website recently and I saw there was a paragraph where you talk about this process. You also mention that you came to this realisation of writing stories that you wanted to read that didn’t yet exist in the world. Which I think is a realisation that a lot of us come to, I know I have. How long did it take you to get there, or how did you even make that connection?
I mean, it would be cool if I had a crazy anecdote about going down to some volcanic lair and having an epiphany, but I don’t quite have that. I think a lot of writers are trying to find their voice, right? I think it’s something I’ve always struggled with, I’ve always not quite known who I am as a writer, and that’s why I do so many different genres.
But then in a weird way… to use a very China Meiville phrase, that’s who I am. I’m interested in a lot of things and I don’t have to be the guy who regularly as clockwork turns out a sci-fi or a thriller or a zombie novel, I can zig-zag about and people expect that of me. That’s why my website is a bit zany and I try to embrace that side of me.
But in terms of writing stories that I wanted to see in the world, actually Richard Thomas was the person who inspired me to that. For those who don’t know, he’s a brilliant neo-noir author in America, and he’s been published alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub and Chuck Palahniuk. Richard’s really awesome and he runs a lot of writing classes.
But Richard… at the time, I had just written Gods of the Black Gate and I was trying to sell it, and I was doing very badly at that. That novel went through a lot of revisions and at one point I was working with an agent on it. It was quite a big agent, I can’t even say who it was, but it was quite a big deal. He’d represented some crazy people. So that was a very exciting time. That eventually deteriorated, sadly.
Do you mind me asking how it went awry?
Well, you know, it didn’t… there was no bad blood. Unfortunately, there’s no shocking scandal, I didn’t sleep with anyone. The agent basically doubted my sell-ability. So, there was no chagrin or malice, and we didn’t have an official arrangement fully in place yet. It was still very early days, so they just kind of… it was more that they didn’t fully pick me up. But they’d done all this editing work with me, so in a way I shouldn’t complain, because I got free top-tier editing from quite a major agent without having to pay for anything. They actually taught me a lot, so I should be quite grateful for that.
When that fell through, I posted a despairing tweet on Twitter and Richard saw it. He angelically reached through the cosmos and he was just like “I see you, brother. I know that feeling, I’ve been that guy, I’m there. If you want to send me just like a blurb of your book, I can tell you other places to send it. Never give up”.
Oh wow, how generous of him!
He’s like Jesus. He’s the most amazing guy.
I suppose that’s the really good side of Twitter. It makes it so much easier to connect with people, even people on his level – there’s no other medium with which you could communicate with someone like that.
Yeah. Even that one-off interaction is amazing. As you say, when I’m doubting Twitter and thinking “Oh god, why am I even on this platform?” I remember that story, and I keep going. But it went even beyond that, because now me and Richard are really good friends and pen-pals, I’ve been on several of his courses and we’ve even been published together in an anthology, which was really cool. That was a career high.
Yeah, I bet. That’s amazing!
That was a big moment. So, it went beyond even that one interaction. I often reflect that the most trying experiences I’ve ever had as a creative have almost always been immediately superseded by something miraculous. So, you know, I’m very fortunate.
One of the things I find a little bit challenging with Twitter is that whilst it’s great for connection and collaboration, we’re all guilty of presenting this very successful image. I know that I tend to post when things are going right – I don’t really post about rejections or setbacks. I’m not too sure why I don’t (I probably should), but it ends up presenting a very skewed image of how it is to be a creative. Have you had any challenging moments on Twitter?
I think you’re absolutely right. Twitter is particularly bad for it, Instagram’s another one that’s bad for it – I’m not actually on Instagram…
No, me neither. It terrifies me!
I don’t have a beach bod so it’s probably not my medium. But I have friends who are artists and they actually do have a really good usage out of Instagram, but they say it’s the same. It’s this false positivity. A lot of people think I’m way more successful than I am. I mean, what is success? We could get into that as well. But people think I’m more… shall we say traditionally, economically successful? And you get people asking you for money…
Yeah, and I’m like “Dude, I don’t think you get that I was this close to missing my water bill this month”.
Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that people seem to think that you’re a lot more successful than you would class yourself?
A bit of a cheat answer, but I think it’s a bit of both. Because when people perceive you as being successful the horrible truth of reality is that a lot of people flock to you. People like supporting successful people. It’s really weird, but I think it is human nature.
I’ve got more support now than I did in 2016 and 2017, when I was so down, and it felt like my writing was going nowhere. I really needed a helping hand back then. But then when you’re on the meteoric rise, people want to be attached to that comet. And I’m not condemning or blaming anyone, because I’m the same. I think sometimes we all can be. You have to kind of fight your own nature to try and really notice the people who need help, who are not on the rise and could benefit even more from the support.
That’s what The Writing Collective is all about. It’s trying to find those people who have missed the boat and give them another boat. And we work with a huge age range. We work with some older writers and that’s really great, because some of them have been sitting on a novel for twenty years and they’re saying “It’s never going get published”, and we’re saying, “No, we will do it!”. It’s not a pity thing, it’s amazing stuff that should’ve been published and it’s been overlooked. As far as we’re concerned, we’ve struck gold. It’s a goldmine!
I think it’s such a good thing that you are all writers as well. I believe it’s described on your website as “by writers for writers”, or something to that effect? Which, as a writer, it’s a very comforting thing to see. You get drawn to it a little bit by thinking, “well maybe these are the people who’ll understand!” I think it’s a brilliant thing that you’re doing, I really do.
Thank you. I’m sure we’ve got a lot of lessons to learn, I’m sure mistakes will be made, and we’ll have to re-evaluate at times, but we are really happy so far with how it’s going. We’re really grateful to give people these kinds of opportunities.
I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about… Somebody once said, “Joe, you should’ve been born American”. The British class system and the aristocracy and all these elite circles you know, they kind of really bug me. And it bugs me that there’s all these talented-ass people on the outskirts. I guess, as me and Ross are both people who were born outside of this inner circle, we’re kind of outsiders in our own way. We’re kind of forming our own little outsiders club. Because everyone needs a club, everyone needs support, everyone needs a network of people.
I think it’s sorely needed in the writing community. A lot of the time it does feel like most of the really big publishers, they do have that outdated sense of classes, almost. And it should be about the work.
You get writers writing these pieces on social divides and the terrible conditions that a lot of people from minority backgrounds are living in, like in London, for example. And they talk about people of low economic standing, or people who are just poor, and then you see that the writer went to Oxford. And, you know, people do get into Oxford who are not part of that elite circle, people do break the system – that’s awesome. If somebody works their ass off to get there and they get there, that’s really good for them. But there is this clique, and they’re always the ones who masquerade as people from tough backgrounds. I mean, I grew up in a really rough area and a really rough school. I’ve actually been stabbed twice.
Really?! Oh my god.
Yeah. And you know, I’m considered posh by a lot of my friends from back home. Because I did get like a bit of leg up – I managed to study Latin and a few other things, so I was really fortunate in that regard. But I was still from the gutter, really. So I really sympathise with other people who are in that situation and don’t have the opportunity to have somebody pay for their rent, for example, so that they can work on their novel, who have to work a full-time job and write their books. I did that for years. For probably seven or eight years, I was working 45-50 hours a week and writing my books as well.
At the moment, are you able to write full time? Or do you also have to have “normal” job?
[laughs] What is normal? Yeah, I work full-time for myself. I don’t write full-time because I also do editing, for example, and I do ghost writing as well.
Oh, I didn’t know you did ghost writing.
Yeah, I’m quite picky with my ghost writing projects, because I feel I have to have a personal connection and a belief in the project to do it. I support my writing income with a slightly more solid income from editing and ghost writing, and little bits of copywriting as well.
I have a thing that I teach, which is called the Parthenon Model. It’s really simple, it’s just the idea that the Parthenon, the building, the roof is held up by multiple columns. And that’s kind of how a modern person looking to make money doing creative things has to operate now. We don’t really get to have the single column anymore. We have to have these multiple streams, because at any time one could dry up, or be made redundant by a new technology, or something bad could happen.
That’s so true.
Yeah, so that’s how I approach it. I’ve written for board games; I do all kinds of different stuff. And all these different things together keep me alive. [laughs]
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone else in the literary community who has as many things going on as you do. How do you manage to do it all without burning out?
I knew you were going to say “burning out”! Everyone always says, “Joe, how do you not burn out?” Well, unfortunately the answer is that sometimes, I do. But I’ve developed strategies to reduce burnout and to mitigate it.
It is very busy, and it can be very draining to shift focus. When you’re doing lots of different projects, sometimes deadlines shift. You were just writing somebody’s memoir and now you’ve got to shift into writing for a board game or edit someone’s manuscript. That can be very jarring for the brain. They’re doing loads of studies on that kind of adaptability now, actually, and that’s a project I’m involved with as well.
Yeah, another one, right? So, I had a little bit of insight into why it’s so difficult mentally for us to do it. We can’t multitask – we think we can, but no one can truly multitask. But the great thing that’s set against all of that is the flexibility and the time. When you work for yourself you don’t necessarily have the financial security of somebody with a “normal” job, but you do have flexibility with time. And that allows you to look after yourself, if you need to.
Sometimes I don’t. I forget, I overwork. But you know, being able to say, “Tomorrow, I am going to have a lie in, I’m going to make myself some healthy food, and clear my head, go for a walk, drink plenty of…” You can do that in a way that the 9 to 5 really doesn’t allow you to do. When I used to work at a call-centre it was a 9 to 5 but really strict timings on lunch. They even counted the number of toilet breaks I took…
Yeah, I’ve been there. I used to work in call centre for a while.
It’s really tough, right? It’s one of the toughest jobs.
Definitely. It sounds like you’ve reached quite a good place in your career. I know you’re still moving upwards, which is excellent, and it sounds like from what you’ve mentioned briefly maybe about how things were in 2016-2017, that you’re in a much stronger place now. Thank you so much for being my first interviewee!
To sign up to Joseph Sale’s mailing list (and score a free ebook), you can visit his website.
If you’d like to develop your writing and storytelling skills, you can get an online course “Epic Bootcamp”, created by Joseph, with over ten hours of audio-material, including guest interviews, here.
And if you’d like to read Nekyia, the book of crazy interconnected multi-verse stories that should have done way better than it did, just pop over to Amazon.