Wednesday, August 31, 2011

St Hilda's Crime & Mystery Conference 2011

I have a fondness for the crime conference held annually at St Hilda's College in Oxford, as I have mentioned before. Somewhat more academic than other conferences I attend, the St Hilda's Conference always has a theme, with speakers interpreting that theme in various ways and presenting relevant papers. The delegates at St Hilda's are generally highly educated and extremely well read in crime fiction, and are mostly women. I always end up going to bed far later than planned, not wanting to wrench myself away from the conversation.

This year's theme was "The Anatomy of Justice". The talks, as always, were varied and interesting. For the sake of brevity I am going to highlight some of the ones I found particularly stimulating. Cath Staincliffe's talk on Assisted Dying and the Law raised some interesting questions, not least of which was the point that if euthanasia were legal, would the elderly feel obliged to act on this, under pressure from offspring keen to cash in on their inheritance? This is far too deep a topic for me to go into here, but suffice to say Cath has a much more charitable view of human nature than I do.

The conference lecture by coroner Bernard Knight covered 800 years of the coroner in history, and was highly educational, especially for anyone aspiring to write crime. I had no idea coroners had been around for so long.

I also want to mention Penny Evans, lawyer turned writer, who talked about the legalities involved when one is accused of murdering one's spouse. Up until recently, the law stated that if one could prove that the victim was behaving in a way that might cause an otherwise reasonable person to snap, they might be acquitted of murder on the grounds of uncharacteristic behaviour. However, the 'snap' has to be instantaneous. If you stop to pick up a weapon, it becomes far more difficult to prove the 'snap' because time has passed. Hence, with this law it was far easier for men to get away with murder for strangling their wives, than it was for a woman to kill her husband, as most women are not physically strong enough to kill a man with their bare hands. And if she stops to pick up a weapon - well, that suddenly becomes premeditated and is a different story altogether.

The talk certainly offered food for thought, even if it highlighted one more inequality between the sexes, though Penny did seem to imply that the law has now changed to address this.

As always, the Oxford conference included drinks reception and dinner on both Friday and Saturday night, which always offers opportunity to mingle and socialise. For dinner on Saturday night, I found myself at Val McDermid's table. Val is a regular guest at the St Hilda's conference, being an alumni, and the conference is small enough that it becomes much easier to chat to authors than it may be at larger conferences. But still, I admit to having a 'fan girl moment' when I realised I would be sharing her table.

The book of Val's that I bought (and got her to sign) at the Conference, TRICK OF THE DARK, is set in Oxford and has the protagonist returning to her Oxford college. Val told me it was inspired by St Hilda's. I look forward to reading it, to see if I recognise anything (or even anyone...).

Sadly, the conference was over all too soon and it was time to head back to London and real life. I've been to St Hilda's so often it now feels like visiting an old friend, and I look forward to returning every year.

The date and the theme for next year's conference have already been set. Next year will be looking at humour in crime. I'm already looking forward to it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Prolific Writers

The problem with only having one book publishing credit to my name is having only one book publishing credit to my name. "Backlist is king," or so fellow authors assure me. And while that may be true, unless I self-publish, each story I write must first be accepted for publication. Thus, I can have every intention of wanting to create a backlist but no means to do so. Cue vicious cycle.

I'm impressed at the dedication of writers who consistently publish a body of work. But is quantity really better? According to a recent blog post I read, many commenters bemoaned the fact their favorite authors' works suffered from lack of quality. These readers preferred authors concentrate on writing better stories rather than merely churning out material.

Prolific writers are nothing new. Walter B. Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, wrote "more than 300 novel-length" Shadow stories, writing up to "10,000 words a day" to satisfy public demand during the character's golden age in the 1930s and 1940s"  ( Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, wrote 92 of the 156 Twilight Zone scripts, not to mention the screenplays Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight, among other stories ( Charles Beaumont published over 70 short stories and 15 Twilight Zone teleplays before his death at age 38 (  

Of course, screenplays are different from prose writing. And the 1950s and 1960s are far removed from the publishing environment of today. But while print publishing opportunities may be dwindling, digital publishing is keeping doors open to writers. Not only can writers submit novels but also short stories and novellas. Not that print magazines don't exist, but I imagine that space is a premium and advertisers often have priority.   

While some writers may dream of a contract with the Big 6, I'm happy to seek opportunities with the electronic publishers. Not that I won't ever seek representation. And there's always the chance I will self-publish. But when I do, the work will be as polished as possible. Meanwhile, I plan to keep improving my skills as a writer while the plot bunny whispers ideas in my head. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What I Learned From My Editor #3 - "Stop Burbling"

The two e-books I have on Lyrical's list both went through a rigorous editing process. I tried to take on board what my editor told me. In fact, I find when I write now, my "inner editor" has taken on her voice. "If it doesn't move the plot forward, take it out" is what I hear most frequently.

My amateur sleuth, Shara Summers, has a habit of "burbling". When I am writing about her, I find myself with pages and pages of self-reflection that are really no more than her opinion on things and do nothing to move the plot forward. Or I'm focusing on too much detail. I've talked about this before. if Shari gets out of a car she'll remove the key from the ignition, take her seat belt off, open the door, get out, close the door, lock the door, and so on, when all she really needs to do is get out of the car and the reader will assume the rest.

I'm currently working on Draft 3 of the second Shara Summers book, and when I get to the end of this draft, I hope it will be ready to present to beta readers. As I work on it, I am hearing this voice in my head, and I'm sure it's my editor's. "You don't need all this detail. What's important in this chapter? The six paragraphs you've got before that are slowing the story down. Cut to the action."

It used to be that when I was working on Draft 2 onwards I'd be adding words, feeling the need to pad out the story. My editor has taught me that this isn't necessary.

However, this means that I'm writing much shorter novels. Both SUFFER THE CHILDREN and DEATH SCENE lost over 10,000 words in the editing process, and neither of them were particularly wordy tomes to begin with. The current WIP was less than 60,000 words by the end of Draft 2. At the rate I'm going, it's going to come in at less than 50,000 words when it's finished.

I always thought I was a novel writer. Maybe I'm more a novella writer. Perhaps it's fortuitous that I'm an e-author. There's far more scope for short novels with e-books than with print books.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Character Motivation

Is it too early to start thinking about NaNoWriMo? Every year I make the same resolution: I will plot my 50k NaNo project in October. That way, come November, I won't be writing by the seat of my pants. October 15 rolls around and I think, "Hey, I still have time." October 31st rears its nasty head and when midnight strikes, I'm staring at an empty document screen with only a vague sense of my story and a couple of characters. So November is a flurry of combined pantsing and plotting while trying to get my 1667 words a day.

You can probably guess the horrid amount of rewriting that follows. I also find if I don't plot or give my characters GMCs, I fail to give my characters proper motivation. And my editor has no qualms reminding me of this.  

Character motivation is obviously my bete noire. Not that I disregard it. Of course not. I think it's more I'm so close to my characters I tend to second guess their actions rather than let them be who they are. And to be honest, I'd rather have my editor or CP point out flaws in motivation than a reviewer or reader. Nothing irritates me more than a book where a character does something that doesn't make sense. Like the girl in the horror movie who walks through the spooky old house in her underwear but carries no weapon, even though she knows a serial killer is in the area. Sorry, folks, I'm not buying it.

So I've made a new resolution. To be more conscious of my characters' motivations in regards to plot and interactions with other characters. You see, I read something today that made me feel relieved and even happy: I don't have to rush to get books out there. It's not about quantity but quality. So I'm going to take my time and write the best stories I can.

Let's call this an experiment. But I definitely need to return to those abandoned works-in-progress. Oh, and I also need to complete the research and plot my vampire Victorian project for this November.

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Angst of the Writer

I was re-reading some of my old short stories the other day. During the 1990s, I had reasonable success in getting some of them published. The small press was booming in the UK in those days, and there were a lot of markets for short horror fiction. Most of them were 'semi pro' magazines - paying half a pence a word if you were lucky, and a free copy of the magazine if you weren't. But still, if you were a horror writer there were a lot of places to submit your work.

A lot of the stories I had published were early works - things I wrote in my late teens and early twenties. Only when I look back in retrospect do I realise how horribly depressing they were.

The thing is, though, I've always used writing as a way of working through my issues. And I guess I've had a lot of issues. Certain themes recurred frequently in my writing: betrayal; loss; loneliness; isolation; a fatalistic outlook that we're all doomed to die miserable and alone. A lot of my early horror is more about psychological despair than a Big Bad - and it almost always ends with someone dying in pain and alone.

There are times when I sink into what feels like a deep dark pit, often for no apparent reason, and I wallow there a while. Sometimes it's days, sometimes it's weeks. During these times I get out of bed and carry on with my life but I often feel like I'm just going through the motions. And I try to avoid blogging at these times, because no one likes a whinger and it's not fair to inflict my misery on everyone else. The thing is, though, these feelings always pass, usually disappearing as quickly as they come. So I just ride it out and listen to Muse very loudly on my MP3 player until I feel like I've crawled out of the pit.

Sometimes I think writing is my salvation, because I've always used it to try and deal with these feelings. My grandmother, disapproving of what I wrote, used to ask me why I couldn't write any "happy" stories. I replied that there was no point. Happy feelings I want to hold onto. It's the feelings of misery and despair I try to exorcise, and that's why they end up in my stories.

The writing has kept me sane. If I didn't have it to help me work through these feelings of despair, I probably would have thrown myself under a bus years ago. On the other hand, if I didn't have these angsty periods I probably wouldn't be a writer, since just about all writers I know also experience these feelings, to a greater or lesser degree.

Is it better to have the angst and be a writer, or be completely sane and not be? That's an impossible question to answer, because I've never known life as anything other than an angsty writer.

On a slightly more positive note, I think I've worked through many of my issues, and that might be why I don't write such depressing short stories anymore. There's still plenty of death and despair in my writing, but my recently-published novels have at least featured some semblance of a happy ending in the sense that the main characters work through their issues and move on. It's one thing to be angsty when you're 18. It's another to still be angsty at 40. There are some lessons about life that should have been learned by the time you enter your fourth decade, and one of them is that there are some things you just have to let go.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing Lesson #13 - How Life Changes

My life changed when the publishing contract arrived. And it wasn’t just in the obvious ways. It was a lot of little ways, too.

But, let’s start with the most obvious. Before signing the contract, I felt quite often I was just playing at being a writer. Occasionally I would have daft conversations with non-writers. This would normally be people I met at social events, trying to make polite conversation. Upon finding out I am a writer, they would ask, “so where can I buy your books, then?”. I would then explain that they can’t, because none of them have actually been published yet.

The person would then give me that withering, disbelieving look – the one that says, “how can you say you’re a writer, then, if you’ve not had anything published?” Generally the person would be too polite to say this straight out, but would go and find someone else to talk to rather quickly.

But then, all of a sudden I had a book out. Now when people ask me that question I give them one of my cards and tell them, “you can buy the book direct from Lyrical’s website. Here’s the link.”

Being offered a contract is a fantastic confidence boost for a writer. Here you have evidence that you can write, after all, and what you are writing is publishable. After the initial euphoria wears off, however, you then start to worry that you have to come up with a second book before people forget who you are. No more taking 10 years to write a book. The second, and the third, and the fourth, have to appear at regular intervals.

So there is a need for discipline. Making time to write became important, even if that meant crawling out of bed at 5:30am to get some writing in before work. It was no longer enough to wait for the Muse to be inspired. The Muse was obliged to get to work when I required her to, instead of sitting about on her lazy backside for months at a time.

As well as finding time to get on with the next book, I also had to make time to promote the one that had just come out. I perused online writing forums for any sign of anyone who might be interested in reviewing horror novels. Every time I found someone expressing an interest in featuring writer interviews or guest blog posts on their website, I volunteered. My own blog became a marketing tool, rather than just a series of random ramblings. I post a lot more about writing and publicity now, and less about all aspects of my life which is the way the blog started out.

One very small but significant thing that changed is the way I read my writing magazines. I subscribe to several. I still subscribe, but before the contract I used to peruse each one carefully, pen in hand, and highlight any article regarding an independent press or an agent actively seeking submissions of crime and horror. For a while after the contract was signed and sealed I caught myself doing this, before remembering (with just that small thrill) that I didn’t need to be looking for places to submit the novel any more – I had a publisher.

And finally I have learned to never, ever, go anywhere without my promotional business cards. You just never know when you might meet a potential punter. Now, if the conversation happens to turn around to writing, and the person I’m talking to appears to show genuine interest in the fact I’ve written a book, I can give them the card and point them towards the link. I even take my cards on holiday with me. I have given them to friends of friends I’ve met at social events. I’ve given plenty out at conventions. I’ve left piles of them in Starbucks. I’ve even given them to a few of the doctors at work (should they express interest in the postcards of my book covers I have stuck on my notice board).

I guess I have to admit to becoming a publicity tart. That’s another thing that’s come about since the contract arrived. But that’s a subject for a future post.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"Rules" of Engagement

Like many writers, I have common enemies I regularly engage in combat with. More often than not they’re Depression and Envy.

Oh, no, you may be thinking as you roll your eyes. Not another whiny, woe-is-me, I’m-a-failure-as-a-writer self-pitying rant.

It’s okay. Really. Because that’s not what this post is about.

What I want to explore is acknowledging such feelings without letting them control us and even look at how they can affect us in a positive manner.

Why are writers (and other creative types) more prone to major depression and/or bipolar disorder?  This article, originally published in Psychology Today (April 1987) explores the correlation between major depression/bipolar disorder and creativity, especially when it comes to writers.

Many writers living with depression or bipolar disorder live in silence, believing they’ll be ostracized by their friends, family, perhaps even readers. But they should realize they’re not alone. Well-known writers who dealt with or are believed to have dealt with depression or bipolar disorder include Sylvia Path, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie, among others.

What’s the point of my post? This. Those of us who deal with depression or bipolar disorder need to acknowledge this is who we are. Too often we’re expected to curtail our emotions. Get a rejection letter? Don’t be upset or depressed. Friend land an agent and a three-book deal while you’re only garnering rejection slips? Don’t be envious.

But while taking the higher road is a noble idea, it’s not always realistic. Writers run the gamut of emotions from euphoric to depressive. We’re passionate about what we write, it’s who we are. And so we’re probably going to have these strong emotions which can affect how we react to situations, depending on our circumstances.

It’s when we allow jealousy and depression to rule us that we lose sight of who we are as writers, as creative people.

I may complain on Twitter about feeling like a writing failure. But those who know me know there’s one adage I always adhere to:


No matter what, I fight back. Friend who got that three-book deal? Sure, I’ll admit to being envious. But don’t think for one moment I’m not happy for her. My jealousy is merely self-criticism. In other words, a part of me faults myself for not submitting work that could possibly lead to a similar deal. But instead of admitting that initially, I allowed envy to alter my perception.

What’s so positive about jealousy and depression? For me, they drive me to work harder to improve my writing. Complacency isn’t allowed. They also force me to acknowledge I’m not perfect and I’ll have those moments of negative thinking.

Am I alone? I don’t think so. But perhaps it’s easier for people to deny the truth about themselves rather than admit to what are perceived by many as faults.

Faults or merely human nature? Depends on your POV. But I urge you to keep an open mind even if you don’t believe you have a jealous bone in your body. :-)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Writing Lesson #12: The Publishing Contract

At the point at which the publishing contract for SUFFER THE CHILDREN arrived from Lyrical Press last year, I had two finished novels working the submission/rejection circuit: my horror novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN, finished in 2004, and my amateur sleuth novel DEATH SCENE, finished in 2007.

SUFFER THE CHILDREN took ten years to write. I was somewhat dismayed to discover, when I did finally finish it and send it out on the submission circuit, that in those ten years the popularity of horror fiction in the UK had taken something of a nose dive. When I consulted my “Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook” for 2003 (knowing the novel was nearly ready to go I decided an up to date version would be in order), I discovered virtually no agents that were listing horror as a genre they dealt with. I decided to start describing my horror novel as ‘dark fantasy’, and began to send it to anyone who said they looked at science fiction and fantasy.

America still seemed to have a horror market, however, so I also sent it to American agents. I kept my eyes on the independent press market, as every so often a new small publisher would pop up, willing to consider ‘dark fantasy’.

But it kept racking up rejections. At one point I almost got a bite, when I sent it to a new editor, formerly an agent, who was starting up her own publishing company. She was very enthusiastic, and wanted SUFFER THE CHILDREN to be one of her first books, but sadly before her publishing company got off the ground, she became ill and the project never happened.

Eventually, I ran out of people to send SUFFER THE CHILDREN to and I got discouraged and put it back in the drawer. I decided to focus on the amateur sleuth novel instead. I reasoned that with the number of crime novels on the market, there had to be plenty of places to send that.

It turned out I wasn’t quite right on that point. The big market in crime novels - at least in the UK - is for police procedurals and thrillers, featuring gritty alcoholic loner detectives. What I had was a ‘cosy’ crime novel featuring an amateur sleuth.

I started sending it off to agents who said they dealt with crime and mystery novels. The rejections started rolling in. Some agents said there was no market for amateur sleuths, and although they liked the novel, they felt they wouldn’t be able to sell it. At least one agent said it wasn’t actually a ‘cosy’, as cosies are historical, preferably set in the ‘golden age’ of mystery novels (ie 1930s/40s). My sleuth is contemporary.

And then, at some point, horror seemed to take off again, but wearing a new face. In the guise of urban fantasy, featuring kick-ass female protagonists and sexy vampires, suddenly undead beasties were trendy again, and all over the place new publishers were popping up wanting to look at horror novels.

So I hauled out SUFFER THE CHILDREN, dusted it off, and prepared to send it out once more. I can’t remember how I first came across Lyrical Press – I think perhaps it was mentioned on one of the online writing forums I follow. But I took a look at their website, as I always do before I submit something, and was reassured to see that they had a number of horror novels on their list already. And their submission criteria was to send the entire manuscript as an email attachment. So, no queuing up at the Post Office, and no printing out of pages required. Another bonus.

I sent off the email with the required atachment and cover letter, made a note on my submission database, and continued researching other places to send SUFFER THE CHILDREN, for when it got rejected again. I was, at this point, keeping one list for places to send the crime novel and another for places to send the horror novel and my aim was to have at least one of them, preferably both, out on sub at all times.

A couple of weeks later when an email from Lyrical dropped into my inbox, I opened it fully expecting it to be another rejection.

I was at work at the time. I had to read the email three times before I digested what it said. It was not, in fact, a rejection, but an acceptance. With contract attached. There were a couple of conditions attached to the signing of the contract, the most significant of which was the fact that Lyrical wanted me to raise the age of the main character to 18 and not 14, as they felt it was a Young Adult novel as it stood, and they don’t publish YA. But the contract was real. I printed it off and stared at it for quite a long time, trying to digest the concept of what it meant. I don’t think I got much more work done that day.

I had been working 30 years towards getting a publishing contract for a novel. Sometimes the dream had seemed so unobtainable, I had begun to believe it was never going to happen.

But it did. There it was. And I knew that in that moment, life had changed. Not in any outwardly noticeable way – I wasn’t being offered a huge advance, and I wasn’t about to become rich and famous overnight. But in a hundred tiny ways, initially imperceptible ways, life did change.

And that is the subject of the next post in my Writing Lessons series.