I’m delighted to have won the short story dagger, jointly with my friend Margaret Murphy. Details are here and I’ll be writing a bit more about it in the next few days. Meanwhile I am still celebrating!
I read for pleasure – and to feed my habit. I get antsy if I’ve not got a book available (and one for after I’ve finished it). My addiction is fiction – stories. There are many more good books out there than I have time to read so if I’m not captivated by a story early on I don’t persist – life’s too short. If it is trite or confusing or boring or inaccessible then I give up. I won’t finish a book just because I’ve read 30 pages. But there seems to be a recent trend for ever longer books. Novels that I start out enjoying but that lose their appeal as I reach page 300 and realise there’s still 200 to go. I wish they’d been streamlined, edited more fiercely and were less spun out. I know contracts often state 80,000 or 90,000 words for a book and perhaps when supermarkets sell books there’s a pressure to offer quantity as much as quality. I’m a short writer myself (tall woman but skimpy on the page) and always panic about whether I’ll have enough material for a whole novel. For the record my latest offerings Split Second and Dead To Me come in at 312 and 393 respectively which is something of a mystery to me given I was fretting all the way through about running out of story. Are writers being asked to write more wrist-breakers? Is it a question of pacing rather than size? Perhaps. After all, I devoured Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel at over 600 pages and didn’t want to reach the end. But when I see a book is 400 pages or more I do wonder if it’s worth all those words or if the story would have been better told leaner and meaner.
It was amusing to read in the Guardian Review John Dugdale writing about the trend for copycat book jackets, especially as three of my recent titles fall into one of the categories. The Single Female Eye. The book jacket is phenomenally important; it’s what makes the reader pick up the book in the first place or click on the listing. Though sometimes publishers seem to coy about the notion of imitation. My first book Looking for Trouble, a private-eye novel, was published by Crocus, a small press, as a result of winning a competition. On a shoestring, they produced an effective, three-colour cover (black, white and red) featuring a woman in a car watching a typical Manchester street in the rain. When I got contracted to a much bigger publisher for my next title in the series, Go Not Gently, they designed a brand new cover. It featured a woman in a car watching a typical Manchester street in the rain. ‘Great,’ I said, ‘you decided to stick with the same design.’ There was a flurry of disavowals and denials. This was four colours, it was a different angle, it was nothing like the first jacket. Hmmm.
People sometimes ask how much say authors have a cover design. It’s minimal in my experience (apart from that very first time). A standard letter goes out along the lines of, ‘We think this is delightful, we hope you agree.’ And that’s that. To be fair, most of the time it is delightful and I do agree and when I have on occasion raised concerns, which tend to be about the cover not reflecting the tone of the book, I have been lucky to have publishers who have addressed them. But involvement in the process, chatting with a designer, or thinking up ideas or motifs? Nope, doesn’t happen. The most bizarre jackets tend to be foreign translations where one can only assume that cultural differences account for the bemusing designs. For example the Chinese edition of The Kindest Thing, my novel about assisted suicide, shows a woman in a billowing white dress, face obscured by windblown blonde hair, standing in a wheat field. But they must know what sells for their market. Meanwhile I’m waiting to hear about design ideas for my next novel – I’m betting on another Single Female Eye.
Late May was Crimefest in Bristol. Among the highlights for me was listening to Sue Grafton interviewed by Maxim Jakubowski about her life of crime. She was by turns witty, insightful, intelligent and warm. It was also a delight to listen to James Sallis (whose books I love for their language and sense of humanity) debating on panels with other great writers like Andrew Taylor and Sophie Hannah.
A very special event was the discussion hosted by Barry Forshaw between Søren Sveistrup and David Hewson about The Killing – the TV series and David’s recent novel. We learnt a lot about the process of creating the groundbreaking show as well as the challenges for an author writing a book that both honoured the film and stayed true to the demands of a piece of fiction. Elements from the TV did not work as prose and David had early agreement that where the demands of the book required he would alter elements of the story.
One aspect that particularly intrigued me was hearing Søren talk about the differences between series 1 and series 2. Not only was series 2 half the length (at 10 episodes) but there was a conscious decision to do something different each time. Søren spoke of how the first series was very emotional in its depiction of a loving family torn apart by their loss and he did not want to cover the same emotional territory in the second series. So series 2 was deliberately less emotionally moving. I’ve already talked with friends about how I found series 1 much more compelling and suddenly those reactions make sense. I’m a sucker for a good weep! Although I was still hooked as a viewer, I didn’t care about the characters in the second series nearly as much. Søren says he’ll be going somewhere new again with series 3.
Meanwhile David’s novel, one of three he will do, is getting rave reviews. He spoke of having to radically change his writing style to find something that fit the tone and style of The Killing and of having two screens at his computer, one playing the DVDs and one where he typed up his interpretation of the story. Apparently the ending is different from the TV version. I’m writing the Scott and Bailey novels and the business of writing characters that other people have created interests me a lot. You want to get it right but you also want to bring your own skills to bear on depicting them in action. One thing is clear, the two media are very different and in order to enter these sorts of projects everyone needs to be happy embracing those differences.
I’m just back from Crimefest in Bristol. A busy and interesting weekend with some fascinating panels and discussions which I’ll write more about next time. On Friday evening the shortlists were announced for six of the CWA Daggers and I was delighted to be included in the Short Story shortlist for my story Laptop from Best Eaten Cold. A big thanks to Matilda Richards at The History Press for commissioning the anthology, to Martin Edwards who edited the book and Barry Forshaw for the foreword. Congratulations too, to fellow Murder Squaddie, Margaret Murphy, who is shortlisted with her story The Message from the same anthology. We’ll find out who has won on 5th July! Meanwhile you can find out all about the shortlist here http://www.thecwa.co.uk/daggers/2012/short.html.
So after last week’s post, what did change my mind?
Partly the sheer weight of opinion in favour of social networking as a way of connecting with readers and promoting my work. And I got to thinking that compared to all the other efforts I’d made to promote my books (some of which were toe-curling in the embarrassment stakes) wasn’t this actually a relatively easy way to go about it?
Another significant factor was talking to my friend and fellow Murder Squad member Ann Cleeves who has been on Twitter for some time. She made it sound easy, and even enjoyable, and stressed that you could tweet once a day if that was all you wanted to do. Then Murder Squaddie Margaret Murphy recommended a book – Tweet Right: The Sensible Guide to Twitter by Nicola Morgan. I downloaded this and found it clear, witty and very informative. She’s particularly good on etiquette and do’s and don’ts which is reassuring for a newbie. (I wish more tweeps had read the book, or something similar, it might get rid of some of the more irritating tweets!) With a new website planned, if I ever was going to get social now seemed to be time to make the leap.
How’s it been? Well, regarding Twitter – I’m addicted as predicted but I love it so far, I like being able to dip in and out of socialising and I LOVE that it’s so short – I’m one of those writers who naturally writes less rather than more so it’s tailor made for me. The blog’s another matter – whether updating this every week is going to feel too much like a chore, I can’t tell yet. I hope not. As for Facebook – well, got to draw the line somewhere. At least for now. But I’m a fickle creature. Watch this space.
I liked the idea of posting this article, originally published in Red Herrings, the CWA Members’ Bulletin, given my complete volte-face…
Are You A Blogger?
MySpace, Facebook, Bebo: social networking sites and a free way to make contacts and connections and promote your work. A few months ago my dad emailed to ask if I’d be his friend on Facebook and my heart sank. I am your friend, Dad, in the real world, can’t we just leave it at that? My latest copy of The Writer’s Handbook exhorts me to get out there, blog it and flog it but still I balk.
I’m not a technophobe: I love my computer and I’m the only one in the house who can work the DVD recorder, so it’s not that. And I agree that self-promotion (the more shameless the better) is a necessity in these times when few of us get marketing campaigns or publicity budgets from our cash-strapped publishers. In fact twelve years ago, when Margaret Murphy suggested forming Murder Squad to do exactly that, I jumped at the chance. We did (and do) most of the organising online and via e-mail and the venture has proved an excellent way of raising our profiles and generating income from events we do. It might even have sold a few more books. At the last tally four of the seven squaddies had blogs (though one calls his a diary).
And I do like trying out new forms of writing. One of the projects I’ve enjoyed most was with www.the-phone-book.com and involved writing ultra short fiction that was published online and sent to WAP phones (no I don’t either).
So why do I resist? My reservations are random and don’t add up to any coherent position but for what they’re worth:
1) Isn’t it a bind? I can only just manage to keep my (shared) website and latest biog updated. Anecdotally, I met a famous blogger recently, Fiction Bitch, who turned out to be a friend (in the actual sense of the word – not the poking sort*) and who said writing two blogs every day was driving her demented, she ends up doing them late at night and sometimes a little the worse for wear but she couldn’t stop, having achieved some measure of success and notoriety. I guess the name helped.
2) What would I write about? I certainly don’t want to dissect the process of writing, I’m too busy actually doing it and I want it to retain that vaguely mystical, organic feel. And I don’t want to bleat about the vagaries of the publishing industry or complain about my ratings on Amazon or whatever. My personal life is just that, personal, so what’s left?
3) Reciprocity. It wouldn’t stop with what I wrote. People would add comments or respond and I’d have to answer them and visit their pages and it would mushroom. I might have to make friends with people I wouldn’t want to be friends with.
4) Where would I find the time? See above. Already life is busy, full; there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things I’d like to do. So should I make space for something that I don’t really want to do? And sacrifice my writing time?
5) My posts would come back to haunt me. Like reading old diaries. Yikes, what I had for dinner (and tea), amusing tales of the dog and the budgie and who fell out with who in the playground. But IN PUBLIC.
Meanwhile the bandwagon rolls on; I can see it in the distance disappearing over the virtual hill in a cloud of virtual dust. I guess you’re all on it. Off to pastures new. Maybe one day I’ll join you, become a born again blogger or twitter-addict and exhort all the people I meet in workshops to get connected. Till then…Am I losing out? What do you reckon?
* It’s a Facebook thing.
So – what changed my mind? I’ll look at that next week…
My first blog! Though I have guested on a couple before but this is the first of my own. I’ve no great scheme for the blog, it’ll consist of whatever I feel like writing about each week (I do intend to keep them fresh by updating them every week – honest – watch this space). So the entries will likely be a mish-mash of musings on life as a writer and life in general with references to any other blogs or articles that I hope people might find interesting.
I thought I’d start with the process of writing, the actual nuts and bolts and declare that I write longhand – with a pen, on paper. Strange but true. When this came up in conversation with a publisher recently, she said she didn’t know any authors who did that – and she must encounter dozens of writers through her work. Of course I don’t submit anything in longhand, otherwise I’d never have been published, there is a process of typing up my first handwritten draft which also serves as an editing stage. But for me, getting the prose down on paper is the most organic and productive way of writing, it holds true for planning my novels too and sketching out back stories or character biogs, for writing short stories or flash fiction. It’s a different matter if I’m working on a screenplay or radio script, I type those straight into whichever formatting programme I’m using. I’m not completely sure why that feels okay, whether it’s the relative paucity of words, or the fact that the material is a blend of brief dialogue and pragmatic stage directions with little scope for scribbling in the margins and waxing lyrical, going off on a tangent or whatever. Though even with scripts, if I have a particularly weighty or emotional scene to write I will instinctively reach for pad and pen to get to grips with it. (Just for comparison a radio play is around 8,000 words while a novel may be ten times as many – and with radio and TV a story outline has already been thrashed out whereas a novel is still being discovered in the process of writing). At the end of the day all writers find out what works for them, which tools best serve their purpose – I’ve begun to use speech recognition software for the typing up stage. More on that in another blog. Now, back to the book.