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Finding your “helpful reader”

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.

Writing – and Being a Writer.

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.

Attention-seeking Authors

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.

The bat squeak of fame – and Vincent Price

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….

Starting over – the joy of a series

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.

In praise of bookshops

This weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to read at the official opening of our new independent book shop, “Book Corner”, in Saltburn. Nestling between the former NatWest bank and Whistlestop Wines, it is a small but perfectly formed gem run by Jenna, an aspiring writer . She has managed to create a space that is light, colourful and welcoming and there is always something to attract the eye.
I was particularly struck by the number of mothers (and occasional fathers) who arrived with their young children in tow, every one of whom found something to buy. The sight of all these happy little faces, hands clutching their new book, gave me hope for the future of reading.
It is a brave person who opens a book shop in this age. The press is full of stories about the demise of the printed word. We are all doomed, our stories about to be digitized and handed out free of charge by pirate sites, if you believe what they say. Well, whilst I was in the shop there were customers, happy children and one woman who looked in and said, “I’m running to catch a train but I just wanted to say I’m so glad you are here.”
Of course, the Indies are great for relatively new writers. It can be hard for small presses to get their books into the bigger chain outlets but often the Indies will take a chance on us – even make a feature of us. For the first time you can buy my books in my town. Thank you Jenna.

Even writers need friends

It has been quite a month.
First, the new book, “The Moth Man”, is finished and now I’m waiting to see the proofs before it goes to press – but more of that later.
Then there was the London Book Fair and I’ve given a few thoughts on that experience in my previous post.
This week I’ve been working on producing the perfect pitch for yesterday’s “Meet the Agent” event, organized by the splendid “Writers’ Block” in Middlesbrough.
I had forgotten just how nice, supportive and welcoming writers can be. When I took the MA at Teesside University I met some wonderful people, a number of whom have become good friends but writing is a solitary affair and writers often seem -well, a bit odd. We do a lot of pacing around and muttering to ourselves. Sometimes we seem to be utterly lost in our own imaginary worlds until something captures our attention, at which point be become frighteningly attentive, homing in on the object of interest with the ferocity of a starving vulture.
It is a hard world out there with hundreds of writers chasing an ever-decreasing number of opportunities and you would think we would guard our ideas and knowledge jealously but actually in the hot-house of a ten-minute pitch my new companions were funny, open and so pleased for one another’s success.
I hadn’t realized how much I have missed that and I hope there will be another round of workshops and sessions soon. Like everything else, this depends on funding and the money to support groups in this region is extremely limited. The fact “Writers’ Block” can run a series of workshops culminating in an opportunity to pitch to two of the biggest agencies in the country is testament to their professionalism and the pool of talent with which they work and I really hope they are successful in their next bid.
For myself, I feel I have made some new friends and even someone as anti-social as I am needs friends.
Thank you to everyone who made the day so memorable and enjoyable and a special thank you to Steve, Mike, Luke, Beatrice and Jenna. And the very best of luck with your work.

London Book Fair 2014

This was my second visit to the London Book Fair and I was a bit more focused this time but the whole show is so darn BIG and COLOURFUL and NOISY it is hard to avoid getting swept away by it all. It is a great opportunity to meet people face to face and to explore some of the new ideas and (especially) new technologies that might transform our industry. This is more than just the seemingly inexorable rise of the e-book in all its forms. There are interactive texts, multi-media options, games that are more like stories and stories reading and presented as games.

One particularly interesting area for a writer is the use of electronic communication to meet readers, promote books and share ideas. This is a very exciting time with a lot of new opportunities but it also demands a bit more work on the part of the writer. It’s not enough to simply tweet the equivalent of “buy my book!” twice a day. Actually, that was never enough but leaving that aside, this has great potential but takes a lot of time and effort. Am I writing at the moment? Well, you’re reading this so you tell me…

And the Book Fair? One of the most exciting roller-coaster trips I’ve had in a while. It was great to meet up with the lovely people who run Impress Books and publish the “Alex Hastings” series. Some really interesting talks and ingenious presentations and there was a real buzz of excitement about the place. But nowhere to sit down! Oh, I was so tired half-way down Wednesday. Perhaps the theory is if people are sitting down then they are not visiting the stalls but hey, this is a book fair. People meet and talk, exchange ideas and look at books, covers, handouts – this is part of the delight of a book fair. Maybe next year, in Olympia, there will be a bit more seating and perhaps a quiet area.
Books are exciting but sometimes they are best savoured in a little harbour of calm.

Somerset Levels : A Lost Landscape

When I began writing the Alex Hastings books I started with the setting. My tutor, the excellent Carol Clewlow, asked us to write a place as if it were a character, advising us that the landscape should be central to crime fiction. Reflecting on my experiences in different parts of the UK, it was the beauty and strangeness of the Somerset Levels that came to me as I sat in the class. In fact the opening paragraphs of “Death of the Elver Man” are almost as I first wrote them that evening.

As I continued to write the books I became aware of the changes, physical, economic and political, that had worked to alter the area for ever. I was writing about a world fast disappearing. Many of the changes were possibly for the better – the moratorium on peat cutting, for example, and the tremendous work done to create nature reserves and visitors’ facilities on and around the Levels. All that has been washed away in the dreadful flooding of the past weeks. The Levels have always flooded, to a certain extent. They are a man-made landscape. But they have always endured, supporting life both human and animal, despite the worst the weather can throw at them.

With over sixty square miles of land under a sea of water, sludge and sewage, with the infrastructure, always a little fragile, swept away, it will be many years before this unique landscape recovers, if it ever does. Certainly it will not be the same – too much has been lost or damaged. The Levels are so much more than “just farmland”. They are home for people, birds and animals. They hold an extraordinary and diverse ecosystem and comprise a magical and beautiful part of our country. They need to be saved.

Radio Gaga

I’ve always been a fan of radio. I remember buying my first transistor (cast your minds back – or ask your older relatives) and glorying in the freedom to listen to what I wanted, when I wanted. This was at the time of the pirate radio stations and, living as I did on the east coast, I would sneak the radio into my room at night, listening through a tiny earpiece as the signal crackled and faded under the attempts by the authorities to jam transmissions.

It has also had its disappointments. My excitement when the first Open University course I took announced seven special “radiovision” programmes was only matched by my disappointment when a cassette tape and two dozen colour postcards arrived in the post. To be fair, the programmes were excellent and I still have the cards, small colour prints of new and unusual works of art. Still, it didn’t quite live up to the science fiction fantasy in my head.

Of course, it is all different now and the role of radio seems to be ready for another change. Whilst for many it is just background noise at work, for some it is fast becoming a way to communicate ideas and knowledge to a wider audience. Many of us get our morning news from the radio – so much more informative than the television, more detailed and with a wider range of topics. Whilst music radio is increasingly redundant – why listen to someone else’s choice of music when you can live stream your own from a service such as Spotify? – talk radio opens up the world with new voices and different lives. I firmly believe this is the future for radio. Yes, some music interspersed is great and radio can offer a chance to hear new and different music too. Whether national, local or community station, it is through the voices of other people that radio offers something unique. Something the world really needs right now. All we have to do is stop and really listen for a moment.