Decisions, decisions, decisions…

 It is striking that I’ve written only three blog posts so far this year – a vague one about the progress (or lack of it) that Death Will Find Me had made in terms of finding a publisher, a piece about the importance of libraries in my life and a post a couple of weeks ago about a short story I’m working on which I’ll using to launch my mailing list in the next few weeks. I’ve been waiting on having actual concrete news to share, something actually happening.

In some ways the last year or so feels like so much wasted time, writing-wise. Yes, I was signed by an agent but he turned out to be unable to sell the book despite lots of enthusiasm from editors who loved it but felt that it was a tricky sub-genre to sell. I wrote a different type of book but my agent felt it was too niche and that we should part company. A handful of other publishers have seen Death Will Find Me since then and the response has been the same. It’s come close but when it came to actually producing a contract, publishers have backed off.

To quote one: “You’re a fantastic writer – your storytelling is immediate, evocative and atmospheric, as well as gripping and intriguing. I felt like I was right there in 1920s Edinburgh. I was also very compelled by the mystery at the heart of your novel.” And then, as I’ve heard so many times, there’s the next bit: “However, my instinct is that this is a very tough area of the market, which is a real shame. It’s for this reason, sadly, I’m going to have to pass in this instance. But it’s with regret, as I think you’re a talent with lots of potential.”

That editor also expressed enthusiasm about working with me if I wrote something different, by which she means more commercial. In some ways, it’s depressing that publishers are so scared of taking a risk. I mean, Death Will Find Me is historical crime fiction; it’s not as though I’m writing serious, highly-stylised literary fiction.

But it is reassuring in some ways. As friends have pointed out, I’m a good writer and I’ve written a good book. I’ve been told that by people who know what they’re talking about and who have no obligation to be nice! I saw the emails they sent to ex-agent and they were very positive about my writing and the book itself. I asked him whether it was the convention that they said kind things and he assured me that was not the case and that usually he had to edit comments for his authors so that they weren’t upset or offended.

So, where I am now is that I’m a good writer with a good book that is the first in a series which people seem really excited about. But from a business point of view, major publishers don’t see it selling in big enough quantities to be financially viable. After all, riverside offices and parties at the National Gallery have to be paid for by the sales of their authors. And when I look at smaller publishers, many seem to be run by people who have less experience of the book trade than me and I wonder what value they’re going to add to the deal in exchange for their cut of the profits.

Next week, I’m going to outline what my plan is going forward. I’m really excited but I’m also reading this passage by Teddy Roosevelt to reassure me when my courage wavers:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The heroine of Death Will Find Me is not a cold and timid soul, and neither am I.

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Writing in the dunes, imagining the scene as the German Navy surrendered…

In the SYellowcraig Beach, East Lothiancottish National Portrait Gallery, back when I was writing an early draft of Death Will Find Me and still getting to know my characters, I saw an image from the day the German fleet surrendered to the British Navy at the end of World War One. It was something I didn’t know about – that the powerful Imperial German Navy, so feared during the war, had been brought into the Firth of Forth before being escorted to Scapa Flow in Orkney where the ships were scuttled a few months later. Seven are still there today (the majority were salvaged for scrap in the 1920s) and are popular with scuba divers. You can read more about the surrender here.

And I immediately knew that Tessa, my heroine (and she is a heroine), would been there. As a casualty of the war, injured at the Front in 1917, and particularly as a woman who had served, often in a covert capacity, she would have had few people she could talk to about her experiences and when the Armistice finally came, it would have felt rather remote from her. I knew that she would have been pleased and relieved, obviously, but I didn’t think she would have felt comfortable celebrating.

However, Tessa would have needed to see some evidence of the German capitulation in order to be sure that it was over and that she could start to rebuild her life. On the day of the surrender, 21st November, 1918, she would have driven out to the East Lothian coast to watch the British fleet sail out at dawn. And I could see her sitting in the dunes with her memories and her ghosts, processing what was happening. Maybe other people would be there on the beach, people who’d lost loved ones, servicemen who also felt a need to witness this.

I’ve always known that this would be a short story and that it would be the perfect way to introduce readers to Tessa and how her experiences made her the woman we meet at the beginning of Death Will Find Me. Things are progressing publication-wise at last, and I’ve now started work on that short story. In a few weeks, I’ll be using it to launch my mailing list so that readers can meet Tessa and realise why I was so intrigued when she arrived in my life.

Playing around with this story has been a really satisfying way to reintroduce myself to Tessa. I haven’t written anything about her for the best part of a year. It felt like tempting fate to write the second book in the series when the first was still to find a home and when I did show my then-agent an early draft of the opening for book 2 he was pretty dismissive of it which didn’t do my confidence any good as you can imagine. Instead, I concentrated on the contemporary art thriller that’s now complete and which I’ve put to one side until I decide what to do with it.

Now that the way ahead looks clearer, I need to crack on with the Tessa Kilpatrick series and so I took a trip to the coast this morning, to sit on that beach in the dunes. I breathed in the ozone and I imagined the grey hulls of the ships looming out of the haar like ghosts; the other people who would have felt that same need to bear witness to this moment; the way that Tessa would have felt witnessing this. I felt the familiar tingle that comes from storytelling and I drove home feeling more positive about my writing than I have for a while.

Tessa and I are going to be spending a lot more time together in the future and I’m delighted about that. She’s great company and I’m looking forward to seeing what she gets up to.

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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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