|It fits together nicely.|
A little while ago, a friend of mine – also a thriller writer – asked me an unexpected question. We were chatting about writing and life and the universe, as you do, when he paused and said, “How did you manage it? How did you write your book and finally get it out there?”
I understood what he meant. He’d also been present at the 2008 Falmouth Uni novel writing summer school where Standpoint was born, one fledgling novel among the many. I don’t know how the other writers have made out, apart from one who was published and another who secured a literary agent.
To answer how I did it, I’d need to do a little time-travelling, back to childhood and forward to the steps I took after Standpoint was published by Joffe Books.
Yes, this could be a tea-break length read. Best grab yourself a cuppa, a comfy chair and the biscuits of your choice.
Let’s roll back the years…
Unsurprisingly, I was a bookish child. I was able to read before I started school and loved language. I learned big words and clever synonyms and obscure words, none of which were a ticket to popularity! Words could haunt me, even book titles. Two books I have remembered only by name from school are Firelight and Candlelight and Moonshine and Magic. If anyone can tell me the contents please drop me a line. One event stands out for me – an inconsequential game of hide and seek on a housing estate. It was our side’s turn to hide and I found a great vantage point to watch the other team. One by one our side were captured until I was the only one left. I could have given up and ended the game, but I wanted to watch and see what they did. It seemed like forever before they all went their separate ways.
Books were also an escape. I wasn’t what you’d call a very happy child, especially as a teenager. Naturally I went down the well-worn route of writing terrible (and terribly self-obsessed) poetry, and attempted my first novel at the age of 15. It was a book about a psychic and his best friend, and a government plot (spot the thread…), and I eventually burned the book. I still remember much of it and I included one of the character names in Standpoint. (It’s Ann Crossley, in case you were wondering.)
After leaving school, I entered the world of employment where a wonderful man named Michael Phillips took some of my angst poetry and added music. I still have the cassette tape, but sadly I lost touch with Michael when I left that job. If I could travel back in time I’d thank him for helping to keep a flame alive. I went from poetry to song lyrics (progressed would be too strong a word), and formed a band with two friends. We rehearsed one song – called Coffin Nails – but the band disbanded before we played a single gig (or a second rehearsal). I have a cassette tape of our one practice session as well and we were bloody awful. I named the band Bad Timing, so the clues were there.
Around that time I was getting interested in politics – animal rights, local activism, protests. All from the sidelines of course! I joined a couple of writers’ groups and felt a mixture of awe and inadequacy. Around that time I started what eventually became a self-published magical fantasy, Covenant. I would be the one in the pub with friends, scribbling into a notebook.
I went from noting life’s dramas around me to having one or two of my own. I was mugged by a guy with a claw hammer and a place I worked was raided and someone stuck a pistol in my back. At 21 I took my second trip to the USA, intending to start a new life, in a new relationship, and to become a writer. Maybe that’s a bit grandiose, but I wasn’t planning on coming back any time soon. New York is a city filled with stories – as is London, except I saw New York through a foreigner’s eyes. Fate and drama weren’t done with me yet, however. A taxi I was in had a head-on collision with a van – resulting in a short spell in hospital, I had another gun incident – this time due to me, and my father died while I was away.
Creatively, that fantasy novel progressed and I had some ideas for short stories. I didn’t know it at the time but I was also squirrelling away experiences, scribblings, and other people’s real life stories. I kept a series of diaries as well, each one more false than the last. It was a very long time before I could confront those lies and allow the colourful and occasionally bitter truth to seep through to a new set of pages. Scars & Stripes is my fictionalised version of those times, a transatlantic dark comedy drama. That one’s still waiting for an audience.
When I returned to the UK, poorer, wiser and colder, I continued to keep writing journals. I got on with my life and – in the absence of a better plan – I kept writing. Two books had kept me company on my transatlantic adventure – Richard Bach’s A Gift of Wings and Irwin Shaw’s God Was Here But He Left Early. I loved the first book for the way it used flying as a stepping off point for fiction and philosophy. I loved the second book for its sophistication – tightly scripted with well-drawn characters and dramas.
I picked away at various short story ideas of my own. In 1998 I had a short story, Behind Enemy Lines, published in an Australian Gold Coast Writers’ competition. The Silent Hills was published online in 2010, and was subsequently released as a standalone short ebook by Musa Publishing in 2011. My US based short story, Diner, was published in The Coffee Shop Chronicles by A Word with You Press in 2010. My salute to Isaac Asimov, Rogue, was included in Beyond the Horizon by Bamboccioni Books in 2011. Between the Lines and other very short fiction was included in Kissing Frankenstein in 2012.
I realise, in reading this back, that I’ve omitted three formative events. Mum died around five years after Dad, and my brother died back in 2005. The third, minor event was my writing about David for The Guardian, back in 2008. Once I’d crossed that bridge, without it collapsing underneath me, I felt I understood what my writing is about. It doesn’t have to be pretty and polite all the time. It can be raw, ugly, even untrustworthy at times. But always, I hope, there’s an authenticity running through it.
That novel writing summer school I mentioned earlier revealed one of the limitations of Scars & Stripes and gave me an inescapable deadline. Those are usually the best kind – do or die. I always assumed I’d crime a detective novel, but Thomas Bladen stepped out from the shadows and introduced me to his world.
We have some things in common – preferring to be an observer, a working class upbringing, memories of the Miners’ Strike, a life in London and bad experiences with guns! He worked for a time in the same civil service building as I did – State House – and we both took photos of the London skyline from one of the upper floors. (I merely took snaps on an Agfamatic 110 though.) He lives in Walthamstow while I lived just only a mile or two away. Miranda lives and works around Mile End / Bethnal Green, in London’s East End – an area I used to know quite well.
Otherwise, to some extent, he is his own creation; albeit one crafted from opposites, and remembrances, and forgotten memories and untraceable inspirations.
Once I’d written Standpoint I refined it through several edits, including feedback from two writers’ groups that I attended. I also commissioned an editorial report from Cornerstones (I paid for the report with some of the money I earned from my newspaper piece) and a couple of years later I did the same with TLC (thanks to a grant). Each step was vital in helping me breathe more life into the story and characters, and to cut away the deadwood.
I submitted my manuscript, of course. Boy, did I submit it. I’m almost embarrassed to review exact numbers in case my publisher reads this and wants to revisit his decision. No, sod it, let’s talk numbers.
There were 38 agents, of whom around ten never responded at all and three who gave constructive feedback. I must make special mention of Andrew Lownie, who I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog in other posts. He considered Standpoint back in 2009, but eventually turned it down and advised me to seek out an agent or a publisher who specialised in thrillers / crime fiction. He was not only very encouraging but also responded quickly and offered suggestions about who else I could try. I approached a dozen credible publishers (plus one or two shots in the dark). One kept me waiting for nine months, hanging on out of sheer bloodymindedness to see what they’d come back with. (Answer: virtually nothing.) Some of the feedback from agents and publishers was hard to hear, and some of it was funny, but that’s for another blog post.
I eventually found my publisher through www.writethismoment.com – a subscription site I use for freelance writing leads. Jasper Joffe had some reservations about how Standpoint’s international appeal (which were bang on the money), and he was keen to know what my plans were for follow-up books.
Fortunately, I was so beguiled by Thomas Bladen and his world of surveillance, by the end of Standpoint, that I wanted to know more too. So much so that I’d already written a second book, Line of Sight, and I’d started work on a third – currently called The Caretaker. Nothing helps sell a book like knowing there’s another one in the wings. My winning pitch was very much about the series and how I saw it developing.
This blog post is my way of answering those two initial questions:
1. How did you manage it?
2. How did you write your book and finally get it out there?
I managed it, in the end, by keeping true to my faith over the years. Not necessarily that I’d be a published novelist, although God knows that was something I dreamed of. My faith was in the power of words, since my earliest days, and their ability to evoke emotion, spark ideas, create worlds for us to escape to, and to hold us spellbound. Like a prospector, I knew in my bones that if I just kept on going I’d find treasure even if it wasn’t gold.
I wrote my book line by line. Yes, I know that sounds like I’m being flippant but I mean it. Over the countless hours spent thinking, or scribbling in books, or typing, or arguing them out in my head. I found an idea that entertained and enthralled me enough to want to continue with it, even when there was no prospect of a reader on the horizon. I remembered how other authors’ books had accompanied me in good times and dark times, and it spurred me on. I put writing before other things and other people – rightly or wrongly – and made the muse my mistress.
How I got it out there was by finishing a book yet continuing to work on it, choosing agents and publishers with discernment (eventually!), and by writing in all weathers. Good times, crap times, and times when writing was both a passion and an obligation. Sometimes I just wrote (and still write) because it’s what writers do. I’m past the point of questioning it now.
Persistence, learning from my mistakes, luck, timing, serendipity, an ear for dialogue, a fondness for Raymond Chandler – take your pick. So many elements go into a book, and into its success. If I wanted to be poetic I’d say that my whole life was a preparation for being a writer. But that’s not the truth of it. Writing demanded honesty of me – hidden within the pages, if need be. It gave me a way of opening doors that I’d kept locked and made me more courageous, more lucid. I finally got my book out there by putting everything I’d learned along the way into practice. No magic formula, just graft!
Thomas Bladen is as good at finding out other people’s secrets as he is at hiding his own. So what’s the deal with Karl McNeill? Is he just another surveillance man, working for the unit? Or is there a darker side to Karl’s life that threatens to engulf Thomas’s carefully controlled world, dragging the only woman he’s ever loved into the maelstrom?
Who can he trust?
How do you fight an unseen enemy?
What lies at the heart of Europe?