Those exciting milestones

All writers have those milestones in their career that stick in the memory. The first time you actually finish a manuscript or a draft. That one alone suddenly moves you out of the “I’ve got a great idea for a book” category into the realm of a writer. There are many dubious stats but I’m sure that most people never even make it that far.

Then, and this one is like it was yesterday in my mind – the first time that a stranger buys your book. Over ten years ago I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book, The Busy Pagan. It had its own ISBN and when people ordered it from bookshops I sent it out to the wholesalers. The thought that someone was reading my words, not my family or friends but a stranger is the most wonderful thing. It’s the end of the writing process – so much more fulfilling than having a first draft in the bottom drawer of the desk.

Much more recently, I was going round the cycle of submitting the manuscript, getting rejections, making changes before going back to submitting it. After several years of this, getting the request to for a full manuscript was another landmark moment, thankfully followed by a publishing deal.

And then, at the beginning of this week, my publisher provided me with this link – The List – my project has grown from words on my screen to a real book. (It’s now available to pre-order, just saying.)  From now on it’ll be one thrill after another – when I get my physical copy, when the reviews come in, and of course when the first copy sells to a genuine stranger.

Looking back over this list one thing stands out. Writing is one of the loneliest professions – usually it’s just you and the words on the page. Once you get past the first one, which proves that you can write, the rest of the milestones are about sharing your work, letting other people breathe life into your words.

So this post is a long and rambling way to say thank-you. To the publishers, editors, cover designers and the readers. To everyone who reads what I write, and for a little while makes it live in their imagination, thank you. It is a strange and lovely thing that you are inhabiting the world I created in my head. You are the end of the process of being a writer. You make it all worthwhile.

The Hay Festival 2017

I have a confession to make. We’ve lived here for nearly six years, and The Wife was born in South Wales and her mother still lives here. So, we have had many opportunities to go to the Hay Festival. And this year was the first time we actually managed it!

An awkward distance

This was the first problem. According to a popular mapping website, the journey from home to the festival site was under an hour. But, we bought a week long ticket for the park and ride, so parking, catching the bus and getting into Hay itself added another fifteen to twenty minutes. Then there was security, venue changes, queues, etc. Factor in a bit of tractor-time (our route is all one lane A roads) and we ended up leaving between ninety minutes and two hours before our first lecture. In the end it was an annoying in-betweeny distance. Too close to justify paying out for an expensive B&B yet the daily travelling was a grind!

On the positive side

It was brilliant. I experienced the same feeling as going to a rock concert – that feeling that you’re home, among people like you. In the current times of Trump, Brexit and anti-intellectualism this was a real tonic. Just to be somewhere that thinking, debating and reading are normal was lovely. The talks, to be honest, varied slightly in quality. But they were, in the main, given by people who are good at writing books, not at public speaking. To keep it positive, honourable mentions go to Andy Stanton, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and Tony Robinson! Although it was tiring we, all five of us plus mother-in-law, had a really good time.

Time for a crossover

I don’t know if my readers are aware but I run two blogs. My other (not-so-secret) identity is writing The Penguins Knee – my life as a house-husband and father to three boys with Aspergers.

With this is mind, my boys found it a contradictory experience. They all loved being in a place of books, with the chance to see and meet some of the authors they know. On the other hand, it was a new place with big crowds. These crowds were very variable. When the talks were all in progress and during the weekdays it was pleasant – no queues for food, not much jostling, a chance to sit down and catch your breath. However, it was possible for literally thousands of people to come out of talks all at the same time. Which, for our Aspie boys (and us) can get overwhelming. Also, going up every day overloaded them – they needed more pyjama days interspersed with festival days.

On the up-side, they did get used to the place and find the food stalls they could eat from, the quiet places to recharge and generally settle into it. Overall it was an enormously positive experience for them. (Not so much for our bank balance but most of that was on food and books!) They all loved their time there.

Now that we’ve learnt the ropes we’ll definitely be going back. When the program is out I think we’ll be far more selective about when we go, where (or if) we stay and which talks we go to.

Did any of my readers go to Hay? What do you think?

A quick update

As long term followers of my blog will know by now, my brain has a limited capacity for producing words per day. When I start either writing or editing intensively, I don’t have any spare words left over for putting down in a blog. Or answering emails. Or marketing my book. Or organising life, come to think of it!

So, this is me coming out of hibernation. I’ve just gone through a fairly major edit on The List. I’ve got the word count down by something like 6,000 words by tightening up everything.

Thinking about editing it occurred to me that a book takes months or years to write. And maybe a few days or weeks to read. One consequence of that is that the words a reader reads might’ve been written years apart. Even if you write a book straight through from opening chapter to satisfying conclusion, it will still need editing. I know that in my case sometimes new sections are written in during the edit stage. So, if you read The List, you might get a paragraph from 2015 next to one from 2017.

This is why I tried to blitz the edits. I went through the whole book in around ten days. I made many minor changes to language. It was subtle, but it very slightly moved between formal and colloquial, clear and flowery language over the course of the manuscript. Hopefully I’ve done a good job and it’ll read much better now. (I do know that most readers won’t spot these changes but I do believe that they have a subconscious effect on the perceived quality of the book!)

Now that I’ve handed over the edits I have two things to focus on. The Sequel when I get my writing brain back and marketing on social media. I had a revelation on that last point. Facebook and Twitter are great but it’s getting harder and harder to get your message in front of people who might want to read your book. (I have a friend who gets between 3% and 5% of their page likes actually seeing what they post.)

So, I’m starting a mailing list. Click here to sign up. If you’ve read this far, you’ll realise that this will be a sporadic newsletter. When I have a finished manuscript I’ll probably send out updates once a week, certainly as publishing date approaches. If I’m head-down and writing, you might not hear from me for a couple of months! (And I won’t be selling your data either.)

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I’ll just leave this here and hope it appears when this is shared on Facebook!

What do you think? If you’re a writer do you alternate between self-promotion and writing? Or have you some magic to let you do both?

 

Modern crime writing

A lot of crime writers bemoan the modern era of smart phones, Google, Facebook and everything else that conspires to change the face of crime and detection. Some even go so far as to write retro-crime setting their books in a past period.

The changing face of crime

This link shows how much technology is changing criminal behaviour. To summarise, in about twenty years, the number of bank robberies in the UK dropped by around 90%. From better CCTV to screens that rise in under a second to smart water, the advantage has swung firmly towards the banks. If you add in the rise of internet banking meaning that there are fewer branches carrying less cash, you can see why the traditional bank hold-up is consigned to history.

Of course, criminals have never stopped wanting to separate people from their money. Much crime now is moving online. The last successful bank robbery I read about involved distracting a bank worker and attaching hardware to their computer terminal. This then interrupted network traffic and diverted money away from the rightful owners to the criminals’ accounts. Obviously this is a far cry from a traditional robbery and needed a lot of technical skill.

I’m catching up on a series (DI Tom Thorne by Mark Billingham) so currently I’m reading a book written in 2004. To me that doesn’t feel very long ago, but already we’ve had a video rental store owner talking about Blockbuster and complaining that no-one rewinds their rental tapes!

The only advice I think I’ve got is that you have to pick a date, write in that date and stick to your guns. If it appears dated later on, well you’d have to be thankful that people are still reading it and also just say that it adds authentic feeling to the piece!

The changing face of detection

The other side of the coin, the police service, is always changing too. I had a realisation the other day – the time when a lone Detective Inspector could solve a crime has passed. The image of an Inspector Morse figure driving around a classic car, listening to opera and solving crimes is as outdated as a bank robbery by men with stockings over their faces and sawn off shotguns!

Murders, especially serial killings, are now solved by Major Investigation Teams. There will be a senior officer at the helm, but he or she will be aided by a large team of both police and civilian helpers. Some TV programs (like Scott and Bailey) focus really well on the personal stories of a small number of protagonists, while still keeping the ensemble feel of a modern investigation.

In my Jonah Greene series, without realising I was doing it, I’ve found my own way around this problem so far. In the first book the death is not treated as suspicious, so a full MIT is not called together, leaving the protagonist to work on his own.

Now I’ve seen the problem, I am working on other ways to keep writing in the modern world but to keep the focus tight on a few major characters. But, for the minute, I’d like to keep my powder dry on those!

What do you think? Do you prefer really authentic modern crime novels? Or are you happier to delve into the past where it’s all more understandable?

Where do you get your ideas from?

This must be one of the most common questions that writers get asked, so I thought I’d have a go at answering it.

Training Inspiration

I believe the brain is capable of being trained even in something as nebulous as creativity. I can’t find the quote now, but someone said “I write whenever my muse strikes, and I make sure that happens at nine every morning.” Let me explain a bit. I write crime mysteries. So, I pay attention the news. I scan the headlines. If I see something that piques my interest, I record it or buy the newspaper. I see what’s going on the world of the police, how real crimes unfold. I started off making it a conscious process, now it’s become second nature. It also helps that I have an enquiring nature and tend to look up and check anything I find interesting in case it comes in useful later.

A bit here and a bit there

Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a flash of divine inspiration that allows for a whole book to be written. Instead I think of ideas. Sometimes it’s characters. I have had what I call a Harry Potter moment where a complete character arrives in my head. Other times, I indulge in playing “What if?”. My main interest in writing is asking “what happens next?”. If I read a book or watch a film, my brain keeps running another fifteen or twenty years past the end to imagine what would happen to those characters. It’s probably why a lot of my books feature the “what happened 20 or 25 or 30 years ago” style of plots.

I do keep notes (probably not as well as I could) about all these ideas. At the moment I’ve got a character that I’ve matched up with a crime for them to solve. I also have a really gruesome series of murders that would make a fantastic book, but at the moment I haven’t got a detective in mind to solve them! And I’m aware, because of the idea, it would be quite a departure from my usual style, so I don’t (at the moment) want to make it one of my current series. So, that idea is parked for now. I’m sure I’ll come back to it.

The same applies to characters. I collect traits of both appearance and personality (and sometimes phobias) – some are observed in people, others just come to mind. Then I combine them together in (hopefully) interesting ways that people can’t recognise in my friends(!)

Actually writing the book

As I’ve said before, I’m a great believer in planning. Partly that’s because I have a very busy life and with a solid plan, I can drop in and out of a draft. I can actually write as little as a few hundred words every day without losing track of what’s going on.

When I have a decent main character matched up with an interesting crime, I try to put it into a plot. I need at least two crisis points, some major setbacks and some breakthroughs. I check I’ve got a decent antagonist who the reader can understand if not agree with. Also needed at this stage is a strong cast of supporting actors and some good locations too. Plus a something extra to make it stand out from the crowd!

So, that’s where my ideas come from. I think I’m very fortunate in that I seem to have too many ideas. Well, fortunate in some ways – it is also very tiring! But at least I can skip over those courses and blog posts that suggest ways of generating ideas. For me it’s more a case of marshalling and herding the ideas into sensible patterns that make good books.

I know I have writer friends who read this blog. How do you get your ideas?