I have Jenny Lloyd to thank for nominating me for The Writing Process ‘blog hop’. (Why do I dislike this term? I’ve never liked the ugly sound of ‘blog’ and ‘hop’ has unfortunate ‘bunny’ associations – as if I’ve been given fluffy ears and a scut to bounce around in – hah!) Jenny is renowned as the author of Leap the Wild Water, a widely-acclaimed historical novel focusing upon the sufferings of women and the harsh conflicts and unbearable tensions between self and society in rural Wales two hundred years ago; she’s getting close to releasing a sequel to it, The Calling of the Raven, and is already working on the third book. Thanks, Jenny, for this opportunity to join The Writing Process and best wishes for The Raven! (Do visit her blog at http://jennylloydwriter.wordpress.com/, which for me has wonderfully sensitive insights into her homeland, its people and its history… wiv pitchers!)
So, here I go, with a bounce:
What am I working on?
I’m just writing the concluding chapters to Sausage Hall, the third DI Yates novel. Like the first two novels in the Yates series, it is set mostly in Lincolnshire, though some of the action also takes place in Norfolk. Sausage Hall is the name that the locals give the house that is called Laurieston in the novel. It is situated in the village of Sutterton and based on an actual house, which really was nicknamed Sausage Hall, because it had been built by a butcher who’d gone bankrupt in the 1850s. My grandmother, having worked in domestic service all of her life, moved when she was sixty to Sutterton, which is about ten miles from Spalding and seven miles from Boston, to become companion to a very old lady who lived there. The old lady had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century. The house was frozen in a time warp. It was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. It has long been my intention to write about what I think might have happened in this house. When I began researching the period and the district, my plot was given a considerable boost when I discovered that someone very famous had lived nearby in the late nineteenth century. That person appears in the novel, too. The book is set in the present, but the characters and their actions are considerably influenced by what went on at Sausage Hall more than a century ago.
How does my work differ from others in this genre?
As is well-known (especially by those who organise creative writing courses!), the genre of crime fiction is usually divided into several sub-genres. I’m only interested in a few of these: primarily the psychological crime novel, with a slighter nod to the ‘woman at risk’ variant. Except tangentially – for I do try to get the facts right about policing, the law and the justice system – I’m not what is known as a ‘procedural’ crime writer. I don’t plod through all of the police action step by step, leaving no ‘i’ undotted or ‘t’ uncrossed. Nor do I seek to hold my readers’ attention or shock them with descriptions of excessive violence or bloody massacres. I don’t write action thrillers or spy novels. Conversely, I’m not a creator of what has been called ‘cosy’ crime: the type of novel that those of a nervous disposition can happily read in bed at night when in the house on their own. I like to think that, through careful characterisation and as much psychological insight as I can command, my novels explore some pretty gritty truths and moral dilemmas. I also try to flip the crime-writing conventions on their head in various ways: for example, I tend not to tie up all the loose ends (life’s just not like that) and, flying in the face of the notion of catharsis, I don’t always make it absolutely clear who the perpetrator is. I’ve been told by several reviewers that I’ve broken new ground in the crime genre, but I try not to stretch this too far. For example, I don’t think it works to try to mix genres and combine crime with Science Fiction or Fantasy – a few authors might be able to pull it off, but they’d have to be very skilful indeed. More prosaically, although my novels are set in the present, the town of Spalding in which most of the action in the Yates series occurs is the Spalding of my childhood, not the town as it is today. This gives me the advantage of being able to write about a finite, unchanging place that only I have access to, because it is locked in my memory (with all that that implies).
Why do I write what I do?
I’m not wedded always to being exclusively a crime writer. I’ve written novels and short stories which would certainly be pigeon-holed in the ‘literary fiction’ bracket by most publishers. However, although the quality of my writing was praised when I tried to publish some of these (others have not been and never will be shown to anyone!), I repeatedly received feedback that I needed to tighten up on the plot and make my work more accessible generally. I therefore decided to try writing crime fiction, because it requires a tight and carefully-constructed plot and the action itself keeps the novel moving on nicely. The constraints of the genre provide an excellent way of creating and maintaining self-discipline in the writing. I have to weed out the ‘purple passages’ when revising if I realise that they don’t contribute to the plot. Once I have a sound plot, I’m also less likely to get stuck or suffer from ‘writer’s block’ than when writing literary fiction. However, although I’m very happy writing crime fiction and shall continue to do so, I do have other plans in the pipeline as well.
How does my writing process work?
Following on from what I’ve said in the paragraph above, plot is very important in crime fiction. Once I have an idea for a novel, I work painstakingly on the plot, often during my long annual holiday in France, until I am satisfied that I can make it work. I will usually also draft a half-page outline for each chapter. I don’t always stick exactly to my original plot afterwards, but, if I change it, I make sure that the changes don’t create inconsistencies elsewhere in the novel. I don’t start out by conducting the research. Although I do research the background to my books thoroughly, I tend to do this as I go along. This works better for me than conducting the research at the outset, because, like most writers, I am easily seduced by reading. It’s very easy to spend several days on what you might like virtuously to term ‘research’ when what you’re actually doing is enjoying yourself by feeding a curiosity that far exceeds the requirements of the novel! I’m a firm believer in writing every day if possible, though I don’t set myself huge word targets. I’m satisfied with 1,000 words a day or a little more. I revise constantly – the first revision usually takes place on the same day as the original writing, and I’ll often revise it the next day before I start writing again. Thereafter, I revise in groups of chapters – every time I’ve completed, say, the next eight or ten chapters, I’ll revise this group as a single ‘chunk’ of writing. Often I do this on long train journeys. Finally, I revise the whole book all the way through, sometimes more than once, keeping a sharp look-out for inconsistencies and other solecisms and sharpening up the text. Then I hand the MS over to my husband for checking. He is an even fiercer critic of my work than I am and, as well as weeding out inconsistencies, will scrutinise the grammar, punctuation and syntax. Although I don’t always agree with his suggested revisions, his contribution is invaluable.
‘Ere, Valerie, your turn! Have some fluffy ears and a white fluffy tail and go hopping! I nominate Val Poore @vallypee for this excitement. She’s both a teacher of English for business and academic purposes and a historic bargee… sorry, she owns a historic live-aboard barge in Rotterdam and has turned her rich experiences in England, South Africa and The Netherlands into both funny and serious stories, both autobiographical and fictional. One, The Skipper’s Child, recently won the Wishing Shelf Silver Award. Respek! You’ll find her faring along the European canal system or simply soaking up the atmosphere of Oude Haven, here: http://wateryways.blogspot.co.uk/
Oh, as for blog-hopping, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Jenny’s nomination for today coincided with Bodicia’s very kind guest blog opportunity here. I had to use a bit of the same material for this post on my site, so I hope you will forgive me for that.
I’ve been in Brighton for most of this week, attending the academic bookselling and publishing conference for which I’ve been organising the speaker programme for the past fourteen years. I shall eventually write about the whole of this conference, but in a different forum and for a different audience: I don’t think that a detailed account of the present hot topics in academic publishing would greatly appeal to most of the readers of this blog! However, I do think – and hope – that you’ll be interested in the following account of the comments made by Dr Lucy Robinson, lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sussex and published historian, during a fascinating panel session for authors that took place on the first day of the conference.
Lucy said that there was sometimes a tension between writing her blog and writing her book (she has already published a book with Manchester University Press and is currently working on another). Sometimes, she almost feels that there is a competition going on between them and wonders which is the right way to go: should she focus more on the book or concentrate on the blog? But she also said that a smart author could create a ‘virtuous circle’ in which the blog could feed creatively into the book.
She said that she disseminates her research via a number of social networks, but at the same time wants to publish her history of the 1980s in a conventional publishing format. She explained that the challenges facing a contemporary historian are different from those that a historian of, say, the early modern period has to address. For the latter, the main difficulty lies in getting his or her hands on the small amount of material that now survives. Lucy’s challenge is that her material is ‘everywhere’ and that it is important to tell a version of everyone’s story, down to, for example, the cakes that people in the ’80s made or ate. The format that she uses is therefore to a large extent the product of the particular time that she writes about. To organise the material in a conventional book with the same effectiveness that the digital format allows is difficult. Nevertheless, she wants to see her work in both formats.
One of her reasons for this is that, although she values the internet as a medium, she also loves books. Another is that, for an academic, getting a book published by a recognised publisher is an ‘esteem marker’. Academic careers depend upon producing ‘globally significant research in academic form.’ The object is to influence others – fellow academics, researchers, students – to do or think something differently as a result of the research. This goal of impact cannot be achieved unless the research has been published in a traditional, authenticated format. This does not mean that she does not value the blog, however. She said that “the blog helps you to keep up-to-date. It allows you to change your mind. It is little. It is safe. I can best describe it as a way of being ecological with your work: then you can write it up in your book afterwards to give the work authority.”
She added that writers are now on a journey and it is a tricky one. Social networking enables a sort of autobiographical build-up of identity. Parallel to this is the other persona of the academic writing the book, ‘saying clever stuff and selling it to people.’ She repeated that there is a tension there. One of the audience asked her why the print output of her work was so important to her. She replied that she simply wanted to write a book called ‘The History of the 1980s’.
I found this really interesting, because I think that fiction writers often experience the same kind of dichotomy. We, too, value both formats; most of us also seek validation via the printed word. We understand the value of reaching our readers online, via social networking and blogs, and we don’t begrudge the time and effort spent producing work for them to consume free of charge, work that we hope that they will enjoy. There can be few greater rewards for a writer than to gain a following of loyal online readers who are under no compulsion to read our work but nevertheless return to it time and again because they appreciate it. At the same time, most of us also want to write more formally and there can be few writers who don’t mind whether or not they are paid for their formal creative output. Payment is itself a kind of validation. I said this to Lucy over a cup of tea after her presentation and also mentioned that, for me, there was the further dilemma of not having the energy – or, sometimes, merely the ‘bandwidth’ – to write both blog and book and do the day job as well. She agreed, and said that, although for the conference she had distilled her experiences as an academic writer, many of the things of which she spoke had come from the world of fiction writing originally. Academic writers had picked up on some of the digital initiatives that fiction writers had developed and adapted them to their own writing.
Food for thought, and fascinating, I hope you’ll agree. Lucy’s blog may be found here. I hope that perhaps she will become an occasional visitor to this blog now. I’d also welcome comments from other writers who would like to join this debate.
As you can tell from the date of the picture I took from the train window just over a week ago, this post is a little behindhand. I was then, and am now, heading south on East Coast rail. What a lot has changed in one week! The temperatures have soared, high pressure has established itself over the whole of the UK and the train Wifi is working for once! I’m conference-bound today, with all the lightness of heart that good weather brings. Here’s what I wrote last week:
I’m on the train to London again, for the first time in quite a while. It’s just after 7 a.m. and broad daylight – a luxury that I haven’t experienced on this journey at this time since last October. It’s chilly: the fields are damp, still drying out after the rains, and a low mist rises from the earth as it warms up for the day. The sky is oyster-coloured and fretted with a complex pattern of clouds that seem to form the shape of the skeleton of a whale, or some long-dead prehistoric beast; I see a dog running across the grass, but can’t spot its owner. Mostly the land in this area is flat and arable, but occasional huddles of cows or solitary horses tethered in a paddock, grazing peacefully, flash by.
As usual, there is a problem with the train’s WiFi, but mercifully the electrical sockets are working, so I can still use my laptop. This is just as well, because, try as I might, I’m struggling to find my fellow passengers interesting. Opposite me sits a burly man reading the Metro newspaper. He licks his finger to get a purchase every time he turns the page, an unhygienic habit that I’ve always found irritating (particularly when employed by bank tellers counting out notes that I must then grasp). I wonder how much newsprint he swallows each week? The man sitting opposite is slenderer, younger and quite geeky. He’s wearing square, heavy-framed spectacles and is immersed in his iPad. I can just see that he is reading the Financial Times (and can tell that he is familiar with East Coast – he’s downloaded the paper before getting on the train!). At least there’s not much prospect of his sucking on his thumb and index finger as he scrolls down the articles!
Looking round, I see that all my fellow passengers are men. The ones behind me, each seated at a separate table, are all reading documents and making notes: weekend work that didn’t get done, I guess.
Now the train is approaching Newark Northgate. The sun is riding quite high in the sky, but is still watery and pale. Newark is this train’s last stop before King’s Cross. Quite a crowd of people is waiting to embark, but again not a woman in sight. Smarter than I, perhaps – they’ve managed to stay at home to enjoy what promises to be a bright early spring day.
Breakfast arrives (I’m travelling first class, though on a very cheap ticket, because I ordered it weeks ago). It’s a smoked salmon omelette. Porridge and fruit compote, which was what I really wanted, has apparently ‘sold out’. I’m sceptical about how this could happen on a Monday morning. Someone forgot to fill in an order form, perhaps? The omelette is OK, but the half-bagel on which it sits looks tough and rubbery. I decide to give it a miss.
All of this, I’m sure you’ll agree, is quite humdrum. The journey is one that I’ve made scores of times before, usually, but not always, with more promising travelling companions. (I’m hoping that the rest of it will be as uneventful and that the train will arrive on time, as I have only forty minutes to cross the city to get my connection at Victoria.) But my spirits are lifting. I feel the old magic that I’ve always associated with train journeys since I was a child. It’s been dulled by the dreariness of winter, but today it has returned, in full strength.
It’s 8.10 a.m. and the sunlight is streaming through the train window, flinging a glare of orange across the computer screen so that I can hardly see these words. Spring is here. When I arrive in London, spring will be burgeoning there, too. It is the beginning of March and at last it seems as if the year has really started. There is the whole of the spring to sip at as if it were a delicacy and the almost-certainty that it will be followed by the feast of summer. It will be eight whole months before we shall arrive at the end of October and watch with dismay the withering of the trees and the light as winter approaches again.
Today, I am travelling to London, then on to Eastbourne: an ordinary work-day expedition. But it is part of a much bigger, more exciting journey: my odyssey into 2014.
Today, I am travelling to Brighton, where this year there will be no heaps of snow on the promenade and I’ll be interested to see just how little the storms have left of the West Pier skeleton, which I wrote about and photographed twelve months ago.
Have a lovely week of spring weather, everyone.
I am going to start this review with a confession: although I have been given several books written by Michael Connelly and even lent them to my friends, Chasing the Dime is the first one that I have read – and, ironically enough, I bought it at a book sale in a Co-op supermarket near Oxford, because I’d run out of things to read. Normally, I wouldn’t buy books from a supermarket because I believe in supporting local bookshops. So, two firsts in one go!
The reason I’ve not read a Connelly novel until now is that, and my ignorance is pretty unpardonable, I’d been led to believe him to be the kind of blockbuster author in whom I’m least interested: big-picture, change-the-world sort of stuff (x saved the world single-handed from the next atom bomb, Hermann Göring, Nuremberg and suicide notwithstanding, has been alive and well in South America for the last sixty years and running drug rings, that sort of thing). Chasing the Dime is not like that at all. Instead, it is one of the most perfectly-crafted murder stories that I’ve ever read.
There’s the background, for a start. The hero, Henry Pierce, runs his own R & D company. It is conducting research into molecular computing, in a highly competitive sector where several other companies are also in the race to crack the conundrum. Their mission: to create a computer the size of a dime. Hence the title – but the title also reflects the company’s need to find sponsors and also, sadly, refers to why beautiful young women are forced to prostitute themselves. (The title is one of many aspects of the book that works on several levels.) I’m sure that when Connelly wrote this novel (it’s now well over ten years old), there was a race to bring such a molecular computer to the market in just the way that he describes, but it says a lot about his talent as a writer that, although during the course of the novel he reveals many facts about the complex technology involved (and has clearly mastered what these are), he never obtrudes knowledge on the reader in such a way that this information seems to be anything other than an integral part of the story. Few writers can pull this off.
Then there’s the plot. Henry’s obsessive research has just caused his girlfriend to break with him. Henry moves into a new flat, for which his PA acquires a new telephone number. The problems start straight away: the number had obviously previously been allocated to a call-girl. Because of certain facts in his past – which Connelly allows to emerge at enigmatic intervals throughout the story – Henry decides to find out the identity of the call-girl and what has happened to her. Owing to several rash but perfectly understandable (from the reader’s point of view) decisions, he quickly becomes a murder suspect.
I won’t say any more, for obvious reasons. However, I’d add one further thing: nothing in the plot is incredible; there are no fantastic twists or turns and not much transpires in a way that the reader can’t guess; yet, because of Connelly’s psychological insights and his fast-paced but not too whacky writing, the reader is held, spellbound, until the last page.
I owe Michael Connelly an apology for doubting him for so long. As it is, I shall do ‘penance’ in the most pleasurable of ways: by reading the rest of his novels in short order. You will, I’m sure, be lining up to tell me that his Harry Bosch series is a must-read and roundly ticking me off for my shocking prejudice.
It is Christmas Eve, so I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has read this blog and supported it with so many kind, helpful and insightful comments over the past year. It has been my very great pleasure to have ‘met’ you in this way and I feel extraordinarily humbled that you have spared the time to take so much interest in me and my writing. For those of you who celebrate Christmas and for those of you who don’t, I’d like to wish you a very happy and relaxing time and a spectacularly successful New Year – wherever you are and whatever you are doing. If you are a writer, I wish you some of that elusive luck that all writers need.
P.S. The blog-posts have been a little erratic in recent weeks, as I’ve been away a lot. I shall try to do better as my main New Year’s resolution! However, I’d like to share with you that the day-job is taking me to China in the first full week of the new year, so they may be a bit thin on the ground then – though you can be sure that I shall recount my experiences in as much detail as you can take afterwards!
In this blog, I try to write mostly about crime-related topics, people, places and things that interest me, aspects of writing and other writers and their work. It isn’t intended merely as a vehicle to promote my own work; this was a conscious decision that I made right at the start, because I quickly tire of blogs by authors who use them too blatantly for this purpose.
However, I hope that you will look upon today’s post indulgently, because I have to confess that it is indeed about promoting my next book, Almost Love, which will be published on June 15th 2013. It is a promotional piece with a difference, however, because it also celebrates a gift to me by my publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt. Before In the Family was published, Chris designed a postcard based on the jacket; I sent this, with a short personal message, to as many people (friends, booksellers, librarians, colleagues) as I thought might be interested in it. I received some lovely replies; it may have helped to generate some interest in the book.
Today, Chris sent a similar promotional postcard for Almost Love. In fact, it features both the novels. I am delighted with it and I think that it is a thing of beauty. I’d like to share it with you; that is why it is the subject of today’s post.
I’d also like to say how much I appreciate Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, for their unfailing good-humour and encouragement and also for all their hard work on my behalf. Thank you, both!
I cannot miss the opportunity to comment in today’s post on the social networking session yesterday morning at the London Book Fair. First, may I thank the very many people who attended and made the event very special indeed; you were a lovely, attentive audience and we all valued your interest and contributions.
Secondly, I should like to thank Elaine Aldred (@EMAldred, Strange Alliances blog), who very generously agreed some time ago to chair this session and, with her characteristic attention to detail, introduced the panel and provided a succinct summary of the key points arising, as well as modestly managing us and our timekeeping!
I was very pleased to meet and honoured to join my much more experienced social networking fellow panellists, Katy Evans-Bush @KatyEvansBush) and Elizabeth Baines (@ElizabethBaines), and to be able to listen to the social networking supremo, Chris Hamilton-Emery, Director of Salt Publishing (@saltpublishing), all of whom provided different perspectives from my own. However, though we may have addressed in various ways the topic of how to make the most of the best of social networking, I felt that we were unanimous about the terrific value of what Chris called ‘the confluence’ of such media as Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs in creating author presence and profile. I believe that we also affirmed the essential need to be ourselves (however uncomfortable it may initially feel to present our private side, as Elizabeth very pertinently explained) and to interact with the people we ‘meet’ in a genuine way. We shared the view that ramming our books down the throats of our online audience in a ‘hard sell’, as some people do, is counter-productive; it is much better for us to engage with others in discussion of the things which matter to us, such as the business of writing, literature, topical issues and so on. Katy pinpointed the effectiveness of social networking in creating a global family of friends and followers, something we also all felt.
All in all, the session emphasised that participation, helping others, reciprocating generosity and showing real interest in people whom we come to know online are crucial to creating a lasting author presence. It is really important that authors recognise that they need to have such a profile; with it, books certainly do sell and, as Chris put it, without it they don’t.
Finally, we all accepted the inevitable consequence of managing all of the personal interactions online: it is extremely time-consuming and we have to find our own ways of handling that; if we succeed, the benefits are very clear to see.
My thanks again to all concerned in what was for me a very memorable occasion.
Today’s post is a repeated ‘shout-out’ about tomorrow’s Salt Publishing seminar at this year’s London Book Fair, when there will be an opportunity to listen to Chris Hamilton-Emery, founding director of this world-renowned independent publisher, and three of its authors talk about how to use social networking to promote books and good writing. There will be a question-and-answer session to develop discussion about the topic How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring. Elaine Aldred, an independent online reviewer, will chair the occasion.
Date: Tuesday 16th April 2013
I’ll be joining Katy Evans-Bush, writer and editor, and Elizabeth Baines, novelist and short story writer, to offer some personal experiences of social networking as a means to achieving an online bookworld presence. Readers of this blog will already guess from previous posts here about both Salt and social networking, how much I personally value the opportunities provided by the Internet to meet and mingle with booklovers across the world. I have also made it very clear just how proud and privileged I am to be supported as a writer by Chris Hamilton-Emery and how exciting it is to be associated with an independent publisher with the finest of literary lists.
I hope to become real to at least some of my ethereal friends at the London Book Fair this year!