On libraries.

Worcester City Library

As an awkward and out-of-place teenager, books were my comfort, my inspiration and my solace.

I was – and am – a voracious reader and we couldn’t possibly have afforded to buy enough books to meet my needs and so my local library, Worcester City Library on Foregate Street was hugely important to me – I still remember my little cardboard borrower’s card in its plastic sleeve with the new-fangled barcode on the front.

I was thrilled to be allowed my Young Adult ticket before the magic age of 14 because I’d read everything I possibly could in the junior section. The YA books included titles by authors such as Lynne Reid Banks, Liz Berry, Judy Blume and yet more now-beloved KM Peyton titles such as Prove Yourself A Hero.

That card also meant that I could venture into the adult shelves too, and the librarians either didn’t notice or turned a blind eye to DH Lawrence and Jilly Cooper being slipped into my pile. It was also where the seeds of crime-writing were sown as I worked my way through the oeuvres of Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Ruth Rendell, PD James, and the determinedly politically-incorrect John Buchan.

I remember the smell of the library – wood polish on the parquet floors, paper, and ink. I remember the high Victorian windows and the sunshine bouncing off the dust motes. The exact note of the barcode scanner’s bleep and the satisfying thump of the date stamp still echo in some distant memory from time to time. I recall the red plastic stacking chairs and the scratchy brown carpet in the children’s section, orange-plastic-and-black-metal chairs amid the stacks in the main section. I remember the museum upstairs, full of local treasures of which the only one I recall clearly is a decidedly non-local stuffed albatross.

I often went to the library with my book-loving grandmother – reading was a shared passion, habit, compulsion even. That and Scrabble. I still notice books that I know she would have loved and I still miss her. Taking out her Scrabble set and seeing her neat columns of our scores can still floor me, some eighteen years after her passing. I still read books and think how much she’d enjoy some of them.

The library gave me knowledge far beyond the small, inward-looking, city I lived in – Kes and Love In A Cold Climate gave me insights into life on a council estate and a country estate. Agatha Christie gave me a knowledge of poison that was possibly unusual and almost certainly inappropriate for a 13 year old. Paul Theroux’s talk of distant stations and souks inspired a love of travel, still there in a hankering to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway. When I got a scholarship to the local girls’ private school, I thought – wrongly – that I knew what to expect because I was well-acquainted with the Chalet School and Malory Towers.

The library showed me a world beyond what I had, gave me the confidence to leave and make the life I have now. Without the library, I would not have been the first in my family to go to university; I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have; I wouldn’t have met my husband; I wouldn’t have the knowledge and experience and confidence to try to build a career as a writer. It all goes back to Worcester City Library.

Closing libraries takes away those opportunities for young people and means that books will only be for those wealthy enough to afford to buy them. It is another example of those who’ve done well and made it to positions of power pulling the ladder up behind them. Fewer people like me will now become politicians or lawyers or doctors or scientists or writers.

Reducing library provision means reducing opportunities, imagination and aspirations.
The people closing our libraries are wicked. There’s no other word for it.

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Another update…

I seem to spend my life composing vague, holding posts that sit in my drafts folder, while I wait for concrete news of what’s going on with The Book. Things are happening. But slowly. I truly believe that there are tectonic plates with more of a sense of urgency than the publishing world.

This is another of those posts. There is interest in the book, there are discussions, there are enticing prospects, but nothing firm that I can talk about or that I want to jinx by even hinting at. My writing friends are sympathetic and knowing, and my family are soothing but also puzzled as to how any business can function at such a leisurely pace. All I can do is shrug and concentrate on my writing.

As I’ve said before, focussing is hard at the moment, especially on the second Tessa Kilpatrick book which is what I should be writing. I know the main plot, I know how my main characters’ story arcs develop through it, I know some of the little back-roads that I want to explore along the way but I simply can’t actually write the darn thing until I know that Book 1 is sold. From a practical point of view, that’s not a bad idea because tweaks will almost certainly have to be made to Book 1 during the editing process and they may have implications for Book 2, so I might as well wait.

So, I explained before I that I was writing something new – a crime novel set in the present day and that it was about art theft. It kind of still is about that but two-thirds of the way through that draft, I realised that it wasn’t a standalone as I thought, and that the book I was writing wasn’t the first book in that series, but probably the third.

My protagonist has a history that’s interesting but also important in terms of the person she is in Book 3.  So, I put that draft to one side and I’ve gone back to the beginning of the story. I’m enjoying writing that character – it’s first person which is new for me and I like Kate very much. She’s sharp and tough and flawed and even though she doesn’t suffer fools willingly, she and I seem to be getting on quite amicably despite me giving her a violent ex-boyfriend and dragging her away from her actual work back to her home town to look for an old schoolfriend who’s gone missing.

I’m currently about halfway through the first draft and it’s going pretty well. At the end of this draft I’ll put it away for a bit and let it rest. And maybe by then Death Will Find Me will have a contracted home and I’ll be able to settle down to writing the second of that series?

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Writing, book deals, life… An update.

It’s so long since I posted here – I’ve been putting it off until there was news but in the meantime I’ve had a couple of messages from people asking if I’ve now turned into an actual hermit, so I’m venturing out onto the interwebs with a quick update.

The Book – Death Will Find Me – is now out on submission with publishers. That was quite nerve-wracking at first because I was constantly checking for emails with Exciting News. Now, following a stern talking-to by the Waitose fish counter from a writer buddy, I’m waiting with a combination of resignation and equanimity that only occasionally boils over into irritation and a crushing sense of inadequacy.

No firm news yet, but interest from some interesting quarters and I’m Waiting To See. I’ve worked in the book trade for years and I know how glacial the process is but it’s so much more frustrating now that it’s me on the having-to-be-patient end of things. I always knew that I would prefer an agent rather than having to deal with it all myself and it’s brilliant having someone to act as go-between.

And I’m writing. To be honest, I’ve been finding it difficult to concentrate on one project so I have three on the go – there’s a 50k first draft of a thriller about art theft that I’m currently taking apart and putting back together, an outline for a potential series of 1950s crime novels that seem to be turning out a bit cosier and/or chick-lit than I really want them to be and which have been put to one side until I can fix that, and I’ve been working on the second Tessa Kilpatrick book. That was coming on a bit slowly but last week a prospective publisher asked to see a synopsis and info re the next few books. Trust me, nothing focuses the mind more than having 24 hours to come up with all of that and I’m feeling pretty chipper about it now.

The rest of this month will be spent finishing the draft of that art theft novel. What isn’t done will almost certainly be parked then as at the beginning of January, Tessa and I will be settling down to her next adventure. One of my goals for 2018 is to get into more of a routine with writing. I get a lot more done when I manage to do that and so I want to establish a series of habits for my day that enable that – writing consistently every day rather than in bursts where I scarely leave the house for a few days and then avoid writing for days; getting some exercise everyday; coralling emails and life admin into set chunks of my day… I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before on making and breaking habits and hoping I can implement some of her wisdom.

So, I hope you get everything done in December that you plan to and I’ll be back soon. Hopefully with exciting book-shaped news.

Vx

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What non-writers don’t know about literary agents. Or, it’s not like the Yellow Pages

What your non-writer friends don't know about literary agents. Or, it's not the Yellow PagesAs you know, I was recently taken on by a literary agent (still excited about that) and I’m getting down to writing my next book. More on that process later – trust me, it’s quite a change of mind-set.

On telling people your exciting news, your writing friends are really chuffed for you (with exceptions that tell you a lot about them) because they know that it’s a really big deal. A Really Big Deal. They know the numbers, they know that some publishers won’t consider work that doesn’t come via an agent, and they know just how hard you’ve worked to get that far, even though it is only the first step on the ladder to publication and guarantees nothing.

But, and I didn’t realise this beforehand, some people won’t get why you’re so over-joyed. They’re happy for you because they care about you and they’re pleased that you’re pleased. Why you’re quite so excited is a bit of a mystery though.

I only grasped this when I was talking to my lovely and hugely supportive father-in-law who asked me why this agent business seemed to matter so much to me. A little questioning revealed that he thought that it was a bit like taking on, say, an estate agent. You look in the Yellow Pages or the online equivalent, pick out someone you like the look of and who has competitive commission rates, and there you go.

When I explained that my agent, and this is far from unusual, gets a few hundred submissions from prospective clients EACH MONTH and takes on a handful EACH YEAR, his jaw dropped. Literally. It’s a hit rate of about 0.1%.

FiL paused for a minute and said: “He must think you’re really good”.* And he was genuinely surprised. Still pleased but in a different way, with a bit more respect for what I’ve done. Which is good, because up until now, everyone has been encouraging me in what has been, in essence, a really time-consuming hobby and they must have asked themselves and each other why I’ve been persisting. I asked a few other non-bookish people and they were under the same impression.

So, if you secure representation, do bear in mind that you might have to do some explaining. Not to brag (although you’ve achieved something great so you’re allowed to brag a little bit) but just to explain the context in which you’ve done that.

* Not that I think having an agent necessarily means I’m good. I think it implies I’ve reached a certain level of competence. What it actually indicates is that I have come up with an idea and a novel that is saleable. It’s not great literary fiction and I’m not saying anything deep about the state of our nation. There is nothing wrong with being a storyteller and entertaining people and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Shelf notes: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. One of the best crime novels I've read in a while - click through to read my review  This, Susie Steiner’s second novel, is crime fiction that goes beyond the usual police procedural. A missing young woman is at the centre of the story, drawn in detail even though we see little of her. Steiner does a great job with her cast of beautifully drawn characters in conveying the urgency of the initial investigation in the 72 hours when a missing persons case is most likely to end well. And after that, she deftly handles the step change to the more measured pace of what is more likely to be a murder investigation. The detail is rich – this is an author who really knows her characters, no-one is just sketched in or a convenient archetype.

The protagonist, Manon Bradshaw, is satisfyingly complex, and likeable even when she’s frustrating. I love details like the way she uses her police radio to accompany her insomniac hours, lulled by the repetition of stolen cars and drunk and disorderly arrests. Manon is going to be a joy to follow in this series of novels.

The sequel, Persons Unknown, is just out in hardback and was on my TBR pile but has been swiped by my mother-in-law who loved Missing, Presumed so I’ll have to wait a little while.

I loved this and if you like Tana French’s Dublin-set crime novels, I think you will too.

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