Thursday 28 June 2012

W.H. Smith does not stock my books

My good friend Juliet Archer, fellow writer and Chair of the Romantic Novelists' Association (North London chapter) remarks in one of her pithy observations upon these blogs that there are similarities between Romance and Crime fiction.

 Not sure. At least, there may be some similarities occasionally in content (as in: ''She was struck by a piercing glance from his dark brown eyes...'' etc). But we are totally different animals in the writing room. Yes, indeedy. Writers of Romantic fiction compose with a red rose tucked behind their left ear, and a big box of Black Magic on the desk beside them. Bluebirds sing outside their window, and small fauns gambol on the green lawns. Sometimes a white horse ridden by a dashing male figure in breeches gallops by in the lane below.

By contrast, writers of crime fiction crouch menacingly over their keyboards, a kitchen knife gripped  between their clenched teeth, ready to stab at any dark hidden depths that might float to the surface during the writing process. They write at night, furtively glancing over their shoulders every now and then, their ears peeled for footsteps coming slowly up the creaky wooden stairs. I know this, gentle blog reader, for I am such a writer. That is also why the highest award for a crime novel is in the shape of a dagger, while the equivalent prize for the best Romantic book ... isn't.

I hope we've got that sorted, though I doubt it! And so to the title of this blog. WH Smith, bastion of likey-likey fiction, do not stock Spy Girl. Waterstones nearly didn't either. The story, told to me by one of the publicity department at Usborne, was that they showed the first cover to the buyers of WH Smith and Waterstones. It was originally pink. Both buyers said if it remained pink, they would not take the book, as it was too 'gendered'. Usborne duly changed the colour. The second book, Out of the Shadows, however, they decided to give a pink cover to. Guess which book has the highest sales figures and has been reprinted the most?

WH Smith however, decided that as the first book is based loosely on Milton's Paradise Lost, it was clearly 'religious', which is a BAD THING in a teenage book (Sex, drugs, drink etc are not) and turned it down. So now you know. I thought you might like to have a taste of Out of the Shadows, so here once again, is the opening:

''The shiny big Mercedes sped down the Avenue des Champs Elysees. It turned into the Place de La Concorde. The small black ATV followed it, maintaining a discreet three-car distance. Autumn sunlight danced on the river Seine as the two cars crossed over the Pont de la Concorde.
            'He's heading for St-Germain-des-Pres,' Field Agent Stash McGregor said excitedly. His partner Suki Smith gripped the wheel of the ATV. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on the road ahead.
             'Stay with him!' Stash ordered.
             Suki edged the ATV out, weaving it skilfully through the traffic.
            'Watch out  - he's making a left turn,' Stash warned, as the Mercedes suddenly swerved off the busy main road and into a quiet side street.
             At the edge of the pavement, an old man stood waiting. He wiped his coffee-stained moustache on the sleeve of his soft check shirt. Under one arm he carried a wooden box of chess pieces. He was just about to cross over when the Mercedes shot into view.
           The old guy stepped back, muttering angrily. The car sped by. For a few seconds however, he had locked eyes with the man sitting in the back seat. He stared down the street at the rapidly receeding car. The colour drained from his face, leaving it as grey as the locks of hair that straggled limply over his collar. Slowly, as if in a daze, he stepped off the kerb, just as the ATV slammed round the corner. There was a cry, a squeal of brakes, followed by a dull thud. Then silence.
           The Mercedes sped on towards the Luxembourg quarter. The driver checked his rear-view mirror, then half-turned in his seat. He spoke in Russian to the rear passenger, 'On ot nas ushol, boss.'
            'Yes, we have lost them,' the man agreed. His eyes glittered. 'But it looks as if we have just found someone else,'  he added softly. And he smiled, showing two rows of gleaming white teeth ''

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Shoot me - I'm a crime writer.

Hello. My name is Carol Hedges and I write crime fiction (nervous smile). Look, I'm a nice person. Really I am. See, I drive a pink car; I have a peach-pretty blog. I help old ladies over the road (usually they're me). But. Somewhere deep beneath the surface lurks a dark, manic, twisted soul who likes nothing better than plotting how to murder, maim or mutilate people. Could it be an attempt to take fictional revenge on all who have, throughout my life, trashed, dissed or annoyed me? In the words of the celebrated failed Alaskan politician: You betcha!

Most writers start at the beginning of a book, and work their way in a sequential narrative until they reach the end. Crime writers do it backwards. We start with the crime and who committed it, then work out why and how it happened. In each of the Spy Girl books, I always wrote the last page first. Then the 'hook' at the beginning. Then the bulk of the story. Sometimes, I had as much of a clue as to what was going to happen next as my teenage heroine. I like this sort of writing, as it is always challenging - I couldn't do the JK Rowling 50 pages of notes and a couple of grids schtick, as I'd get bored. Very Bored. I have to walk away from every writing session thinking: Okay, how the hell am I going to get my character out of THIS?

I thought you might like to read an extract from Dark Side of Midnight, as I've finally (with help) managed to upload the cover onto my blog. This is the opening, the hook that hopefully makes you want to read on. I read these hooks out loud when I'm doing book talks. On a good day, with a receptive group and if I pitch it just right, the audience goes very, very quiet..... magic!

''Dark clouds were massing on the horizon. The rider glanced up and swore under his breath. He knew exactly what it meant: a storm was coming. Not a good omen. For this was Antarctica, the remotest place on earth, a white wilderness where temperatures could drop to below - 54 degrees. The rider rechecked his coordinates, then jumped onto the Snokat. He had to hurry. There was not much time.

Deep in their snow hole, the two men waited, listening to the unending silence. Exhausted, huddled together for warmth, they had not moved, nor eaten for days. Only a thin fragile thread of hope was keeping them alive. Nearby, a third man was curled in his sleeping bag. He looked contentedly asleep. But his two companions knew better: this was a sleep from which he woud never wake -  a few hours earlier the man had finally succumbed to frostbite and the mind-numbing cold. Now he was dead.
And over in the corner, a big black body bag lay against the wall of the snow hole, its zip ominously pulled up.

...The faint whine of the Snokat penetrated the icy prison walls of the snow hole. The two men sat up and exchanged disbelieving glances. Could it be? Or was exhaustion and cold making them hallucinate. The sound continued, got louder. Summoning up the very last of their carefully hoarded strength, they slowly and painfully began to tunner their way out. The rider waited. He watched the two men hatching from their frozen cocoon like grotesque insects. He waited until they had both turned to face him, their snow-blinded eyes bright with joy. Then he drew out a sub-automatic, lifted it to his shoulder and fired two shots.

The Snokat bounced over the surface, leaping ice crevasses, racing ahead of the fast approaching storm. Tied to its rear, the black body bag stood out sharply against the endless white of the polar landscape. The rider crouched low, pushing the machine to its limits. Behind him, two bodies lay crumpled on the ground, their blood petalling the snow with crimson.
The first flakes began to fall.''

Sunday 24 June 2012

Objets d'amour

Everybody (and especially, I think, writers) has special objects on their
desks/workspaces. Objects that have sentimental value,or are just interesting to look at or pick up. Objects that allow you endless opportunities to spend time rearranging them before starting work. On this last - I find I cannot start work unless everything is straightened, or placed just so. (Sad writer with OCD alert!)

These are the things that I currently have on my desk - apart from computer/ notes/postits/empty coffee cups and the usual detritus*:
A rainbow coloured Murano glass pot that holds pens and pencils and my memory stick - a present from Beloved Husband bought on one of his Venetian jaunts.                                                     

 A knitted pink and white cupcake.

 2 tiny black and white Littala glass birds. Nice to pick up and hold.

A bigger Littala glass duck - lots of lovely green colours when the sun catches its sides.

A very small heavy metal circular gear wheel thingy from something mechanical, possibly a bike. It has spokes and can be moved round. See small glass birds for function.

 A paperweight in the shape of an ampersand.

A stone with an ammonite in it - found on a beach somewhere.

 A red beanbag lobster called Thermidor.

*Sometimes I have a cat too, but not as a permanent fixture.

Random research ctd: I have just had to find out what the popular lads mags were in 1999 (Jigsaw re-write).

Friday 22 June 2012

Help! There's a writer in my school.

Just been invited to talk at a Year Seven Parents' evening at a local secondary school. Doing school visits is one of the most enjoyable parts of the 'job', and I shall be sad if I no longer get to do it once I've joined the ebook crowd.

I started doing school visits when 'Jigsaw' (the book I'm currently editing and redrafting) first came out in 2001. Initially I was totally freaked - facing 60+ Year 7's and having to interact with them for an hour seemed even more scary than facing a spider in the bath! Now, I love it. Though I still get stage fright as I see them all file into the room.

 Kids are great. They ask the best questions. The three I always get asked every visit are:
                                                                               1.  are you famous?
                                                                               2. how much do you earn?
                                                                               3. where do you get your ideas from?

But then there are the 'left field' questions that leave you yammering like an idiot. Such as : if you weren't a writer, what would you be? (probably dead.....) Actually, kids are MUCH better at doing this than adults, cos they're less inhibited and not so polite. And afterwards you get to hang out and eat lunch with them too! It's a win-win situation. Friends, have you ever been asked a question you couldn't answer? And how did you deal with it?

Saturday 16 June 2012

Hard Joyce, or Why I've never read Ulysses

So today (Saturday) has been designated 'Bloomsday' by the BBC, and we are to be treated to a whole day of Ulysses readings/performances/commentaries. James Joyce's Ulysses belongs to the: 'books I have never read, never intend to read, but pretend I have' list. Also on the list with Joyce are Proust, Dostoevsky (can't even spell him), Trollope, and A.S.Byatt. As far as the two former writers are concerned, I think my appreciation was soured at secondary school by having to translate Joyce into French, and Proust into English (why,why?) No doubt if the current secretary for education gets his way, students will be reading and translating them at primary level. Then sales will really drop off.

The ability to talk fluently about something of which one knows nothing is an integral part of being a writer. Actually, it is what sets writers apart from the rest of humanity (pace politicians). Joyce got it down to a fine art by scribing pages and pages of stream of consciousness stuff that actually nobody understands, but hey, Ulysses is a great big long book so it must be a classic, therefore let's all nod wisely and say how wonderful it is. Emperor's New Clothes comes to mind.

If you disagree, feel free to take me on. I'd love to know why JJ is considered such a great author and why the BBC is spending the whole of Saturday inflicting this book upon us. Where's the plot, where are the twists and turns? Where's the mystery, the pace and the suspense. Okay, there's an awful lot of language, but even so... given the exacting requirements of today's publishers, it would never get past a first reading today. Hell, it hasn't even got a vampire! Clearly, it's one rule for dead people, another for the rest of us.

On the own book front (plot, suspense, mystery AND a werewolf) I am still awaiting a reply from OUP re Jigsaw, but am ploughing ahead with a re-jig of the text for the 'adult' market, which is where I think it properly belongs. This may mean that Designer Dave will have to do two covers rather than one, and I am going to have to be very nice and polite at our next meeting, and not mention alcohol in any shape or form. Nor whinge about the amount of football on TV. Another gripe. I don't understand football, nor do I understand why everything interesting has to be bumped off the various channels to make way for it. Is there an equivalence between watching football and reading Ulysses? Discuss. Not too heatedly.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

O bitchery!

Scathing reviews of new novels by Martin Amis and Frances (wife of George) Osborne in the Sundays. The latter review written in the Observer by Julie Burchill, who had clearly dipped her pen in vitriol before well and truly stabbing Ms Osborne's literary offering in the back.

Burchill lacks the finesse of the American humourist Dorothy Parker, who wrote reviews for the New Yorker under the pseudonym 'Constant Reader' and could slay in a sentence (her review of Winnie the Pooh is well worth seeking out, if you can find it. She also wrote the killer : This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. Ouch!) Burchill is clearly driven by huge political antipathy to the writer's husband, but hey, it was interesting reading and a bit of schadenfreude every now and then is as good as a feast.

I am currently negotiating with OUP for the publication rights of Jigsaw to be returned to me, as they have taken the book out of print, show no interest in doing anything with it, and I would like to re-issue it as an ebook. Surprise and bafflement on their part. Why would anybody want to do this? Er ... it's called making a living. Something we writers struggle to do.

In anticipation of the rights reverting to me at some point, I have been going through Jigsaw, tweaking the writing in preparation for a re-format (can't use their typeface; can't use their cover; can't use their layout; can't use their blurb; must mention them on the reverse of the title page,) and I am finding examples of lax editing! Which is interesting, as one of the big caveats levelled at ebook and Indie authors by many mainstream publishers is that they probably can't edit professionally. Well, here's news for you, people. Neither can some mainstream publishers. It's reassuring, but in a slightly worrying kind of way.

Apropos, is anybody else enthralled by the Leveson enquiry? Not the revealed shenanigans of media moguls and their over-ego'd bit-part employees, amazing though they are, but the wonderful way Leveson himself uses words: Bailiwick, recondite, nugatory, condign ... just some of his recent offerings. Holy vocabulary - there's a man who could do an awful lot of damage if he ever turned his hand to reviewing!

Thursday 7 June 2012

Easy writer

So here we are, almost the second week in June, and I have just put the heating on again. The rain is pelting down, as it has been since April, yet we have a hosepipe ban. It's a mad, paradoxical world, my masters.

As writers, we are often asked (well, I am) how the creative process of writing a book happens. What I think people desperately want to hear is the apocryphal Enid Blyton response on the lines of: I just wander into my little writing place, and suddenly, all sorts of lovely characters and plots tiptoe through the mental bluebells straight into my mind fully formed, and all I have to do is write them down and hey presto! a book appears. In other words, writing is easy, and you, interested interlocuter, could easily do it too.

Sorry, it doesn't work like that. At least not for this little duck. In another of these paradoxes, I find that  creativity only occurs when disciplinary structures are applied. Rigorously. In other words, I have to make myself sit at the keyboard, regularly, and write. I can fantasize about the book all I want, imgine the amazing prose that I will write when I get round to it, but until my rear end and the chair are brought into contact, and remain in contact for long periods of time, nothing creative happens.

 Sure, there are moments, and flashes of inspiration, when one stares at the screen, and wonders whether the Writing Fairy has just made a house call, but on the whole, these episodes only tend to emerge out of a period of just slogging away at the writing process.

An article in today's Guardian lifts the lid on how to be a successful e-book author. No secret, sadly. A lot of labour and a bit of luck. Heavy on the former. As Wm Blake remarked: Without contraries is no progression. Ain't that the truth!

Sunday 3 June 2012

You don't have to be mad to write. Or do you?

'I have stopped writing books,' Justin Webb states in an article in the Observer, going on to say, 'it is too much, too stressful, for too little return.'  A writing acquaintance laments on her Facebook site that her  new novel, barely out as an ebook, and selling for practically nothing, has been awarded a paltry 2 stars on some reviewing website. She wonders why she bothers.

Are we at some sort of 'tipping point', to use a much overworked phrase? It is now possible to obtain a writer's work for virtually nothing via an internet outlet. Soon, it will probably be available for nothing - I gather the Zon is considering some sort of deal whereby you, the reader, get free ebooks, in exchange for permitting a certain amount of advertising to accompany them.

It takes me about a year to complete a novel - that's research, thinking and writing. I could do it in less, but I have to teach and invigilate and do other money-generating stuff, as I can't afford to write full time. Add to this the second drafting, and then any changes an editor wants me to make. Right now, I am embarked upon a big re-edit of Diamond Girl, as my agent has helpfully, but depressingly, come up with some specific comments upon the plot and characters, and I have learned over the years that there are people whose opinion you immediately discard, and people you fail to listen to at your peril.

So, by the time I upload the book, I will have spent ... oooh ... ages on it. And you will be able to read it for 99p. Or some equivalent price. Minimum wage? Don't make me laugh. Writers I talk to always speak, shiny-eyed, of the 'high' that accompanies the writing process - that glorious experience of words flowing onto the screen almost unbidden, and time passing in a vacuum. And yet. It is noticeable how few of the children's writers I met when my first novels were published, and I was 'doing the rounds' of awards and festivals are still producing new books regularly. When the high of the writing process meets the low of paltry returns, something has to give. And it is not just writers who will be the poorer for it.