Looking forward to 2019 – new opportunities

"For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice." TS Eliot At the turn of each year, I like to look at the previous year and think about what I want to achieve in the coming one. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men… Last January, I had a verbal offer for the book, I’d done the requested edits (heaven forbid that there be a hint of romance between my protagonist and the man she’ll be marrying in a later instalment – don’t worry, I’ve put that back!) and my then-agent was very positive. My goals for 2018 looked very different to how the year actually panned out…

By July, my agent had been unable to convert that verbal offer into an actual contract and he hated the new, contemporary, crime novel so much that after ghosting me for a while, he suggested we part company. It was a shock, but as a friend pointed out, I hadn’t been happy with him for a while and already had an exit strategy…

But after a summer of licking my wounds, I made a plan and now, as I work towards becoming an independent author, I’m feeling pretty positive. I’m in control rather than being at the mercy of fickle publishers and I’m not having to share an agent’s time with a couple of dozen other – possibly more profitable – clients.

And it means that I feel able to make actual plans this year that are dependent on me, not other people who have other agendas. 2019 is full of possibilities!

What matters is whether readers enjoy my books and so far the early feedback has been really positive. But I want to be able to justify spending my time telling stories and therefore I need to build a big enough audience of people who like those novels. So, on the writing front, my goals for 2019 are:

1. To publish Death Will Find Me in February and the second book in the series in the autumn. There’s a sales figure I’m aiming for but I feel hesitant about sharing that publicly right now.

2. To write two shorts about Tessa Kilpatrick for people who’ve joined my readers’ club.

3. To write the next draft of Don’t Blink (the contemporary art-world thriller) and then get some professional editorial feedback so that I can decide whether it has potential. If I want to bash on with it, then I’ll do that once the second Tessa Kilpatrick book is published.

4. To blog regularly. I’ve been blogging for well over a decade, but posting has become very intermittent of late, not least because I was waiting for publication news that didn’t materialise. But I enjoy blogging and talking to readers and it’s a good way to talk about some of the background to the books and the way that I write. Hopefully Tessa Kilpatrick’s readers will be interested in that.

Other than that, my goals centre on sorting out our garden so that it’s both beautiful and productive; take a couple of foreign trips (I’m off to Minsk in later this month); to finally get on top of our admin with everything neatly filed away and our tax returns completed well before the deadline rather than just making it under the wire, and the usual getting fitter and eating better that we all promise outselves we’ll do.

I hope that you have a brilliant 2019 and that it’s as exciting and challenging (in a good way) as I think mine might be.

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Being an indie author is just completing the circle

Anyone who read my last post has probably realised what I’m planning to do with Death Will Find Me, my 1920s-set crime novel.

I’m going to self-publish it.

It’s something I never thought I’d do, but I’ve run a publishing company, I’ve set up and run an award-winning independent bookshop, and becoming an indie author seems completely logical. I’m naturally entrepreneurial and now that I’ve made this decision I feel excited and positive about both the publishing side of it and my writing.

This wasn’t an easy decision as I’ve been pretty scathing about self-published books in the past, especially when we owned a bookshop. Not without reason, to be fair, as some of them were very poor; unedited, full of typos, horrible covers, dodgy formatting, and so on. They may have been good books beneath that but I couldn’t sell them and had to regularly disappoint writers who hoped that our shop would be able to support them. Then came the first rush of e-books when the Kindle was produced and my goodness, there was some poor quality work there that didn’t help the overall image of self-publishing.

But in the last few years, self-publishing has matured and there are some very professional writers coming through who are doing an excellent job and selling a lot of books. People like LJ Ross, JF Penn, Mark Edwards, Rachel Amphlett and so many more. And when I look at my manuscript, the one that has been praised so highly by industry editors but which they don’t think will contribute enough to their bottom line to be viable, I know that there is a readership out there and I know that I have the necessary skills to make a good job of publishing it.

And my bottom line is a lot lower than that of a traditional publisher – as a friend of mine who is very profitably self-publishing after years in the traditional arena, pointed out, his overheads are probably lower than a lot of trade publishers’ window cleaning bills. He also said that since he’s taken charge of things, he’s now financially better off and creatively, he’s never been in a better place.

That creative aspect is hugely important to me. In the year that I was signed to an agent and my book was out on submission, I felt completely stuck writing-wise, all the joy of story-telling sapped out of me. I couldn’t write the second book in the series because that felt like tempting fate and when I wrote something new, something different to Death Will Find Me because I kept being told that it wasn’t saleable, my agent dumped me.

There are new things I’ll have to learn – understanding how metadata operates for digital books and working out how to use Facebook and Amazon ads in cost-effective way, for starters. And there’s publicity and marketing. Instead of relying on a publisher to do it, I’m going to have to build my tribe myself. But then, I look at other traditionally published authors and many are having to do the heavy lifting of the publicity themselves.

I’ll also have to learn to cope with people who sneer at the idea of doing this and who tell me that I’ll spend so much time marketing that I won’t have time to write. Or that I should pursue a trade publisher at all costs despite the fact that I look at some of the tiny ones and wonder what value they’re really going to add. But you know what, it’s readers and their opinions that matter, not people who snipe from the sidelines.

Yes, I will have to invest money; good cover design isn’t cheap, qualified proof-readers aren’t cheap, and an experienced and knowledgeable editor isn’t cheap, but all are invaluable. And although I’ll be paying for it up-front rather than a publisher doing it for me, it’s worth remembering as someone pointed out to me last week, traditionally published authors are still paying for those things in the form of lower royalties.  Much lower, in some cases.

As for marketing, well, I don’t intend to be one of those people who endlessly spams their Twitter followers and Facebook friends with pleas to buy my book. I am in the process of setting up a blog tour so that I can talk about my book and the ideas around it with people who are likely to be interested, and I will use the aforementioned Facebook ads to a degree so that the people likely to be interested in Death Will Find Me know about it, but I plan to have fun with marketing the book, to do it in a way that entertains readers and makes me happy.

And yes, maybe a bit more shameless hustling would sell a few more books, but that’s not me. I’ll trade a few sales for retaining my sanity and my integrity. Steadily building up a solid readership interested in my writing and the characters I create? Much more me.

Over the next couple of months I’ll be blogging more about Death Will Find Me and why and how I wrote it, I’ll probably talk a little about the things I’m learning from the publishing process, I’ll share the cover design here first and in a few weeks I’ll also share the first few chapters of the book, hopefully to pique your interest in finding out more about Tessa Kilpatrick.

For now though, I’m back to fact-checking and copy-editing before Death Will Find Me goes to the proof-reader and I’m thinking about the ideas that prospective cover designers are coming up with to make my book look fabulous. And I’m enjoying it.

(Sorry this is long – I promise to begin writing shorter, snappier posts!)

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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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