I have wanted to return to the Levels in Somerset for some time. When I began writing the “Alex Hastings” books in 2010 my tutor, Carol Clewlow, told me I needed to find a setting strong enough to be another character in the story and the Levels soon became just that. I left Somerset twenty five years ago and apart from a quick trip by car one day whilst staying near Bath have not been back. Instead I hunted through second-hand shops for maps and picture books dated around 1980 and used the internet to look at locations and older photographs. Mixing this together with my memories and a pinch of imagination, I have written about the Levels for the last four years but I got a bit concerned I might be using too much imagination as the memories began to fade.
The chance to revisit this beautiful area came in the form of the annual rail excursion arranged by our local train enthusiasts. Not only could I get down to Somerset for a weekend, I could do it in style as the train uses first class Pullman carriages. The chance was too good to miss and I set off to see if I had somehow dreamed this mystical landscape. I hadn’t.
We spent a long, gloriously sunny day driving across the Levels, stopping for me to photograph at intervals. Some pictures were obvious and attractive – the encircling hills, Glastonbury Tor in the distance. Others probably have less universal appeal – the rusty sluice gate, for example. And the drowned cygnet. As we bounced along one road (it did have grass growing down the middle so probably should have been avoided) I spotted some peat workings, a fascinating mix of rich dark earth, rushes and water oozing from the torn land. Leaping out I began to photograph, much to the interest of a lady who had set up a picnic table and chairs by the road. As I looked around I realized I was standing opposite the exact building I had used in “The Drowners” as Derek Johns’ hiding place, only then it had been closed according to the pictures on the net. The lady beckoned me over and asked what I was doing. I tried to explain and she laughed. “That’s my father’s business,” she said. I told her it was in a crime novel and gave her a bookmark. Strange how things can happen like that.
And the image of the Levels I brought back? Despite the terrible floods, scars from which can still be seen in a number of areas, they are still quite lovely. The breeze blows almost constantly but on a fine day this sets up just a whisper in the warm air. It is hard to believe there are so many greens in the world, so varied is the foliage. There are vivid patches of golden hay, red and black cows and delightful, playful cream and tan goats. Swans drift in the canals and streams that catch the sunlight and send it, broken and glittering across the eyes. I saw so many tiny paths and little bridges and wanted to follow and cross them all. I will be going back soon, to explore some more but for now I have the Levels in my heart and my mind. it’s time to get serious about the next book.
“Be Here Now” – the slogan a friend wore on his t-shirt way back in the 1980s. It was all a bit mystical and Zen at the time, a call to live in the present and appreciate the world around us but it is just as valid today. Perhaps it is even more so. Then there were no mobile phones, let alone smart phones. The Internet was a plaything for genuine technologists and our idea of a computer was a ZX Spectrum with 16K of RAM (yes – that is kilobytes) and the wonder of 8- colour graphics on a portable TV set. The great distraction was the Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player with ear-muff style headphones and a deeply irritating metallic jangle that affected all around. We became accustomed to seeing people nodding their heads and humming tunelessly as they ambled along and there is something wonderful about having music playing in your head but it does set up a barrier between the user and the rest of the world.
What has this to do with writing, you may wonder. Well, I’m quite happy to use my I-pod to build my own world in my mind, especially on those long, cold winter mornings when I’m outside wondering why I have dogs. Very comforting and distracting, but not good for seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling what is around. Most of the time I walk and look, listening to the wind or the birds, seeing the trees move and watching people as they pass by, each with their own world and their own story. When I get to my desk I have pictures and fragments of sound in my head, scraps I can weave together to try and create a living world within my novels.
I was walking through our lovely Valley Gardens a few months ago with my niece and we stopped in a secluded area just to listen to the birds singing. She commented on how peaceful it was compared to Tokyo where she lives and I agreed. In fact I waxed a bit lyrical about the breeze, the rustle of the trees, the colours and ripples in the water by the bridge, the scent of the newly cut grass… She gave me that hard stare nieces can give their aunts and said, “How do you notice all that? It must be really confusing seeing everything all the time”. I was surprised. I thought everyone noticed this stuff but apparently not. Maybe that is one of the things that makes a writer, this awareness of the world. I am “Here, Now”, and I could not do my job unless I were. The singing railings and murmuration of starlings from “The Drowners”? I experience them every week. My dogs become Mouse and Mickey and around me I hear fragments of conversations I can give to Ada or Lauren or Tom. So my advice to any would-be writer is to train your eyes, and ears – every sense in fact – because once you are open to what is around, you can take your readers with you into a world or a time of your own creating and it will be real to them.
“Be Here Now” and so will they.
The subject of genre is one that continues to concern writers and publishers, though perhaps not readers so much. Genre, we learn in creative writing classes, is very important. It allows our work to be categorized, placed alongside similar works and so, we hope, will find an audience more readily. Agents are great fans of genre too. Some – a lot of them actually – specialize in specific types of books. They have built up a network of contacts in the publishing world and have a keen sense for the way the market is going. This, by the way, is why it is so important to find out about an agency or agent before submitting your manuscript.
Writing in a defined genre also bestows a sense of identity on the writer. There are organizations run for the benefit of certain groups – I belong to the Crime Writers’ Association, and very proud of that too. There is a sense of community, of shared ideas and interests as well as interesting opportunities to learn about important aspects of our work. Good research, as I’ve said in a previous post, is vital if the reader is to enter your fictional world and believe in it. The late, great Terry Pratchett said there was nothing wrong with creating a universe that had flying pigs. Just don’t forget to add umbrella merchants.
It gets a bit more interesting – and more complicated – when a genre splits into sub-genres. There is crime fiction, for example, and the crime thriller. When I began writing the Alex Hastings series I read as much as I could find about the genre and was surprised to discover there seemed to be fixed rules governing the crime thriller. There had to be at least three deaths, I was informed. And a very strong sense of personal danger for the protagonist. Right. So that was part of the planning for the first book, “Death of the Elver Man”.
Then I got on to the next book and it began to change. In a recent article for “The Guardian”, Val McDermid argued that crime thrillers are right-wing whilst crime fiction tends to lean more to the left. I would like to add a further distinction between the two types. Having studied screenwriting in the past I became more aware of the difference between plot and story. The plot covers the main events – the crime, the hunt, the sense of peril – all the stuff that makes it thrilling. Plot is dominant in much crime writing, both in novels and for television. American crime dramas especially focus almost exclusively on the plot. The story, on the other hand, is more subtle and runs below and around the plot. It is the background, the life and journey of the people in the book or drama. British crime writing tends to use story as part of the narrative and thus becomes crime fiction.
In the Alex Hastings books I found the stories were becoming more important as the serial characters developed and so I am planning a series of novellas to ensure their tales can be told without overwhelming the plots of the longer novels. After all, however you cut it, where would crime fiction be without crime at its heart?
I was watching Matt Haig on the television this morning and was impressed by his openness and how much good sense he spoke. I also wondered how on earth he’s managed to write so much and so well, considering his struggles with depression. The popular stereotypes of the writer seem to be either a rich dilettante declaiming aloud whilst a nervous and wispy secretary follows them around taking down every precious word or, more commonly, a tortured genius wrestling with self doubt, drinking heavily and somehow wresting great works from the edge of the abyss. Of course, it’s much more mundane than that. Writing is long hours sitting alone, sometimes with ideas bubbling away excitedly but more often inching towards a daily, then weekly target. It is flirting with repetitive strain injury and running up and down the stairs to see exactly what the damn dogs are barking at. And then losing the perfect phrase you had in your head – for ever.
Writing is a lot of hope, even more waiting and an ocean of disappointment. It is knowing you’ve written something good but no-one will so much as glance at it. It’s a lot of standing around with a fixed smile hoping someone will come to the table and look at your book. There are radio talks that seem to pass unheeded and readings fraught with terror in case no-one comes. Writing, my friend, is not for the faint-hearted.
So why do we do it? Well, there is the thrill of seeing your name on a book – a real, honest-to-goodness commercially published book. There are the people who email or (occasionally) stop you in the street and comment favourably on what you’ve written. And there are the moments where after hours of work suddenly the whole thing comes together in a single seamless whole – plot, story, character and setting combined to tell a tale.
But there are a lot of setbacks in writing. A whole lot of nos. I’ve had a rough few months. A whole heap of confusion, the problems everyone gets whether they’re a writer or not. Things I was hoping for didn’t turn out as I expected. One or two were big disappointments. Sometimes it feels very hard, getting up only to be knocked down again but – well, if I didn’t do this I don’t know what I’d do. Perhaps it’s the same with Matt Haig. Perhaps that’s what keeps all writers scribbling away against the odds.
We’ve got nowhere else to go.
I firmly believe writing a book is a craft as much as an art, at least for most of us mortals. There are a few lucky individuals who might be able to lift up a pen and produce something sublime but generally I believe writing to be something that comes with practice.
A friend of mine once likened it to digging a well. You choose your spot and start shoveling and first there is just dry earth. Then, after a little while you might encounter damp earth, then mud, then muddy water. This is the bit that can separate out professional writers from talented amateurs. It can take a long, long time to get this far and the hardest thing in the world is – to throw out the dirty water. You should keep digging, keep working until the water runs clear.
It takes a long-term commitment to become a decent writer and there is no guarantee you’ll ever get published at the end of all your hard work but if you are serious about your writing you need the strength and discipline to keep on working, keep on learning and keep on getting better. Your writing well is only as good as you make it. We all have a drawer full of “dirty water” – early stories, that first novel, half an autobiographical piece or family saga. I know I have and I’m very glad it is still all locked away. Where it will stay until I’ve sucked out the decent ideas and occasional well written passages, after which it will be consigned to the shredder.
Yes, it can hurt but not as much as it would hurt out there, with my name on it, always turning up in Google searches. Oh the shame…
So, don’t despair, keep digging and the very best of luck for your work.
One of the more interesting aspects of writing is the arrival of the “helpful reader”. Formally identified by Bernard Cornwall of “Sharpe” fame, the helpful reader is more knowledgeable and even more eagle-eyed than your editor at their best (or worst). Helpful readers abound in all genres and eras but they flock to historical fiction with the greatest enthusiasm. Enthusiastic and vocal, these amateur experts are attuned to the smallest slip-up and always ready to offer some helpful advice.
Now, I write books set in the 1980s which can be particularly problematic. Within living memory, the 80s have not had time to settle into the homogenized lump that is history. Those that remember the 80s all had an individual experience. Some never encountered a computer or the Internet at all. Many people flourished under the Thatcher government, enjoying new opportunities and a rapidly improving life style. We do not have history’s verdict on the 1980s and so any description, any story, must be based on individual experience.
This is not to say the research needs to be any less meticulous. I recently had the happy experience of reading a dozen submissions to a publisher and the range and depth of material was a delight but I was very disappointed by the lack of background knowledge in some stories. Perhaps I am a pedant in disguise – or a “helpful reader” held in check by the demands of my own work – but writing demands a certain cold analytic rigour if it is to be successful. Terry Pratchett once wrote it was fine to create a world with flying pigs but you’d better make sure there were a lot of umbrella factories on your planet and he’s got it right. I originally trained to work in the theatre, backstage doing lighting and sound. It was impressed on us all how important it was to get everything right. Theatre, like writing, depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not real and you have to help your reader accept the world you present. A sudden glaring error shakes them out of that suspension and you risk losing them for ever so please – check, double check and ask stupid questions – get it right!
And my own “helpful reader”? I have a gentleman who is concerned the fish in “Death of the Elver Man” don’t act the way his fish do. He would really like to take me fishing to show me what he means. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ve never fished in my life (though I know a lot of people who do). I don’t think I’ll be taking him up on his kind offer but thanks anyway.
The more I do this – job? thing? – the more I realize I had no idea what I was doing when I first sat down to write “Death of the Elver Man” in 2010. I had just completed my MA at Teesside University and was inspired and excited by the experience. Above all I wanted to write. Anything – stories, novels, an opera, screenplays… Not poetry though. No, definitely not that. To be quite honest you would probably have to taser me to get me to write poetry. And only an audience tasered into unconsciousness could possibly bear to listen to it.
Everything else had me smiling over my keyboard and I started off along the path, writing, searching for a publisher, entering competitions – and so began the slippery slope.
I did not know then what I am beginning to understand now. There is writing, the glorious moments of inspiration (rare), the happy sigh at another page in place (more common) and the astonishment at a whole, completed book (three so far and counting). And then there is being a writer. The latter is necessary as soon as a book is published, especially if you want to garner more readers than your immediate family. There are readings from the book to arrange, signings at local bookshops and perhaps the occasional interview with a local paper. A Twitter account needs constant (or at least regular) feeding along with a web page, especially if it has a blog. Yes, dear reader, this is me being a writer. Even if I am actually, physically writing.
Sometimes you might get lucky and a radio station offers you an interview or even a regular programme. (Thank you Southside Broadcasting and BBC Tees). This is great fun as well as good publicity but it all takes time – time away from writing. And all this without even considering things like arranging publicity material such as bookmarks, responding to queries and emails and preparing accounts for the end of year tax return. Sometimes I’m amazed I ever manage to write anything at all.
Well, over the last six weeks I’ve done two radio broadcasts, three book signings and a talk to a local group. I’m preparing material for a literary festival in Montserrat, am reading submissions for this year’s Impress Prize and have another radio broadcast on Friday. It is all rather interesting and wonderful but when it dies down a bit I’ll be so happy to sit down at my desk, get out my notebooks and start on the next novel. Because what I always wanted to do was write and I am very, very lucky I can do just that.
Writing a book is one thing. Getting it noticed is quite another, and that is what makes up a good percentage of a writer’s work between novels.
There are a lot of ways to attract attention, some good and some not so good. An example of the latter is flooding the Twitter feed with messages, all saying “Buy my book!” Surprisingly this strategy has the reverse effect and is a sure way to get yourself ‘un-followed’ on a large scale. A few messages passing on news of the book, signings and so on, preferably mixed in with a lot of other stuff, is much more effective and can actually lead to some nice on-line friendships so I would recommend this approach.
It is, of course, very slow in building a following but, hey – unless you are one in a million lucky it is unlikely you’ll have much of a following as a writer until at least the third book Patience is the key here. It is so easy to get despondent and I wonder sometimes how many writers, good writers with real potential, give up as their books sink below the wash of pulp and self-published misery-lit, unread and unremarked. Local bookshops can be a life-line here. Every book can go on Amazon, of course. That’s part of the problem. How can you attract any attention in such a crowd? But a local bookshop can offer a showcase – perhaps a signing or even a reading. Sometimes they put the book in the window. That’s an exciting moment, believe me.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to speak on local radio take the time to prepare, have a couple of anecdotes ready and be sure to thank everyone who has helped you get this far. Barely 1% of writers are commercially published so just making the cut is a big deal – and none of us make it alone. Oh yes, and let people know when and where they can hear you. In my case, 2pm – 3pm on BBC Radio Tees, Wednesday 8th October (and for a week after on i-player). There, I hope you will all tune in and enjoy my choice of music and listen to us chat about life, writing and the universe in general.
There are also bad ways an author can get attention. In my case I have been setting off the security alarms in my local supermarket for the last few days. No, I’m not shoplifting. This has happened on the way in. I’ve emptied my pockets, left my bank card home, even taken off my watch but to no avail. As I go through the door all heads swivel in my direction and I curse the fact I am wearing one of my “Jennie Finch – The Moth Man” publicity T-shirts. Well, last night I had a good hunt through everything I was wearing and uncovered the culprit, a security tag in my jeans left there by the shop assistant in France. It is with some relief I can go out shopping again in relative anonymity.
Still, on the plus side, Amazon report a sharp rise in book sales and Kindles so I guess it is true to say any publicity is good publicity.
A rather wonderful thing happened to me last week.
I was walking along the street just enjoying the sunshine when Sheila, who runs our lovely Deli “Real Meals”, ran across the road holding a copy of “The Drowners”. Somewhat breathlessly she insisted I follow her into the shop where a young couple were sitting at the window table. Would I, Sheila asked, sign their book?
Of course – I was happy to sign it and have a chat. They had read “Death of the Elver Man”, borrowing the copy from the library, and decided to buy “The Drowners”, which is now available in town thanks to Jenna and her fabulous little book shop in the square. Now, that is how small communities should work!
We had a talk, the young couple and I, and I found myself musing on this tiny, bat squeak of fame. It is a very positive experience when people stop me in town and comment on the books. Sometimes they ask about the characters, recently there have been some queries about the next book. Soon, I promise. Even sooner if I stop writing this and finish the edits and proofing…
I think it was Alan Bennett who told a story about Vincent Price that has been my guiding light over the last few years. A supermarket in Los Angeles phoned to ask if he would open their new branch. They were very apologetic – he was such a big star and they were a small chain – surely it would be beneath him. Price’s wife, the divine Coral Browne, took the call and drawled, “Of course he will. You know Vinny, darling. He’ll go half-way across the States to open a manhole cover”.
Well, if a group does me the honour of asking me to do a reading or signing or to talk about writing, I’m happy to do it if I possibly can. Vincent Price was a real star and I’m a crime writer from a small town, just starting my journey, but I hear that faint squeak of recognition and I thank everyone who reads the books and takes the time to review them, comes to a reading – or asks me to sign a copy.
It’s okay – I don’t bite. I haven’t even cut up any bodies in real life.
Now, back to the final edits….
There is a strange calm that descends on a writer when the latest book is on its way to the publisher. For a few weeks the voices that have echoed around your head are silent – or at least somewhat muted. Plot twists are resolved, surprises no longer lurk around the corner and all is at peace. Of course, it rarely lasts long. There follows a time of conflicting demands. If, like me, you find yourself writing a series of linked novels, the characters can become very strong and some (Ada springs to mind) rather demanding. There is always the next story to tell and the urge to get on with it, to start over and launch into a whole new adventure, grows with every passing day but the finished book – isn’t.
Once it arrives at the publishers it goes in front of The Editor. Yes, the capitals are intentional. The Editor then casts their professional eye over your last year’s work and begins work. Out comes the red pencil (or, in these days of hi-tech miracles, the red font) and every error, any awkward sentence or missed plot point is laid bare. Of course, part of the author’s initial writing process is revising, editing and correcting. Even before it gets to The Editor the manuscript should have been re-read and polished over and over but there’s always something and The Editor will find it – that’s their job.
Then it comes back and suddenly you are thrust into a book you probably feel is behind you. This is much harder if you’re already planning out and researching the next episode in the series. The story moves on and it is difficult to revisit the last book once you’ve begun another so there is a question mark hanging over those weeks or months – wait and be ready to do your best for the current book or start over and begin the next?
After wrestling with this for a few years I decided to tackle two problems at the same time. Books in a series tend to get bigger and more complex as the number of books grows. There are all sorts of reasons for this and I’ll look at this in another post but in some genres, and I feel crime is one, the plot needs an immediacy that can be lost in too many conflicting issues and stories. I decided to take out these “back stories” and write them as shorter character tales. They are still crime stories, just short crime stories, the events and people underpinning the whole series. So now whilst I am waiting for the verdict on a book I can turn to a familiar friend and write their tale. It’s less distracting, it satisfies the need to keep writing and it stops me chewing the telephone in frustration as I wait for that call.