My master plan for 2019 hinged around a return to self-publishing, which I’d first done on Smashwords in 2013. I experimented with new digital publisher Draft2Digital at the start of the year but decided to sign with Amazon KDP Select, despite my doubts about the way that Jeff Bezos runs his corporation.
As a final flourish at getting published by a traditional publisher, I decided to query a dozen of the most likely looking agents. This list grew to 88 agents, of whom only 45 deigned to reply with form letters of rejection.
I turned to improving my online presence by adding to a blog about writing, reading and publishing (based on Litopia posts) and starting a website devoted to my Cornish Detective crime series. The cyber gods decided to poo on me, as I was locked out of these two WordPress blogs through no fault of my own, then Linux ejected me based on too many backups of the operating system…my fault, through ignorance.
I started to feel paranoid, nervous about operating anything electrical. Even flipping a light switch had me holding my breath…then, two light bulbs failed within seconds of each other! I went from paranoid to feeling doomed, but, fortunately becoming officially old meant my national state pension kicked in, so fresh funds enabled me to buy a new laptop. Which was faulty, though Argos and eBay were so efficient at refunding me that I bought another one from them!
Firing on all cylinders again, I began writing my sixth crime novel Kissing & Killing. Still uneasy from my technical gremlins, I wrote in disconnected slabs, which five months later are finally coalescing.
With my spiffy new laptop, I was two days from self-publishing the first four Cornish Detective titles on KDP Select, when Hodder & Stoughton asked for a full manuscript of Book 5 for consideration as part of their The Future Bookshelf publishing opportunity. While pleased, it stalled my KDP Select plans, as I didn’t feel it was wise to go it alone with a traditional publisher sniffing around.
I haven’t been on tenterhooks waiting for them to respond. And, true to form with literary agents and publishers, they haven’t!
I’ve carried on writing the WIP, which makes me feel a bit like Doctor Frankenstein constructing another monster that no one wants.
Finding the BooksOffice opportunity today is the most encouraging development in publishing I’ve seen for many a year.
Writing feels like swimming an ocean with no destination in sight, while successful authors and uncommunicative agents and publishers sail past in brightly lit luxury liners.
Clawing her way back into show business, after a long period of illness, she’s started a new venture called BooksOffice with her scriptwriter friend Elaine Sturgess. Their website allows users to vote on which unpublished or self-published books should be brought to the screen.
I’ve joined and may well have a go. At least it’s a change from querying literary agents who ignore me!
An astonishingly mature debut novel, by a writer who knows her subject well, as her grandfather owned an orchard in Washington state. I normally devour two to three novels a week, but I slowed my reading pace to savour Coplin’s prose. It’s perfect storytelling, with a believable plot and strong characterisation that binds you to their fate.
A memorable read, it’s sure to be adapted into a film.
Anne Lamott is best-known to writers for her Bird By Bird, which is one of the best guides to the writing life. She’s an intimate writer, drawing you in to contemplate life’s predicaments by the use of self-deprecating humour. Don’t be put off by her religious conviction, which is never overbearing or intolerant. Her common-sense approach to tackling big issues is candid and insightful. How can you not like someone who starts a chapter titled ‘Writing’ with “So, writing. What a bitch.”
Published in 2014, this graphic novel is a treat to view, as it’s so well-drawn, and the story is compelling and grown-up. If you’ve previously dismissed graphic novels as glorified comics, get your hand on this story, which will grip you and change your mind.
I resisted reading this best-selling novel, wary of the hype, but it deserves its success. It’s one of the most skilful layerings of character I’ve read, drawing the reader in to side with socially inept Eleanor. That a happy ending is resisted adds to the story’s power.
6) Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver. After enjoyingWakenhyrst, I tackled Dark Matter. There’s something about polar landscapes that suits ghost stories, where the protagonist’s overactive imagination combines with an ineffable landscape to create dread
The seventh tale featuring Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake who negotiates a troubled period where violence and treachery stalk the nation. A time in British history that continues to be glossed-over, what with the population rising up against the oppressive ruling class, it’s not hard to imagine the same thing happening today.
Sprawling, violent and scary as Winslow explains how the drug trade has infiltrated the highest echelons of power. The third story in Winslow’s trilogy about the drug war, it’s not an easy read, but nobody does it better.
These two books are mighty impressive ‘equals’ (as Pullman calls them) to the His Dark Materials trilogy. Wondrous and exciting writing that draws you into the fate of the two protagonists Lyra and Malcolm. More swearing and sexual activity than before, but Lyra is now a young woman, as rebellious as ever. The stories honour the reader’s intelligence and make astute comments on our troubled times.
Well-researched and brutal, the story is set in 18th-century Stockholm, following the fates of several characters whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. The book’s been criticised for dwelling on violence, but there’s a morbid fascination created by the darkness of the tale. It’s sure to be adapted into a film or television drama.
Thankfully, there’s a resurgence of working-class writers. Two of the best are Catrina Davies and Kerry Hudson, both of whom grew up poor looking for ways to survive, with writing being their redemption. They tell it like it is, they’re real. Fight the Power!
What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don’t have to be recent—old favourites that you’ve revisited will do.
Whenever I kick around ideas for a plot, I take key elements and mentally rub them together, to see what sparks are produced. As Bruce Springsteen sang: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”
For a story to be successful, there needs to be conflict, opposition, uncertainty, some struggle the protagonist faces that will engage the interest of the reader. The conflict can be caused by others or be internal or caused by forces of nature. Think how boring a book would be if everything went right for the hero.
My current WIP Kissing & Killing has a main storyline of mercenary killers hired to murder high-profile big game hunters. They leave the crime scene awash with blood, ten gallons of it brought with them. They ‘sign’ their work with the victim’s amputated hand dipped in blood, leaving a print on the door of the room where they died. The reason for the murders is political, not altruistic, paid for by an African province declaring independence and wanting to retain control of the wildlife on its land.
Subplots involve an arsonist setting fire to farm barns and a gold digger seeking a rich older man to marry. I intend to create sparks by thrusting the subplots into the main plot.
Inspiration for the principal storyline came from three sources:
1) Seeing protests by Extinction Rebellion, where fake blood was poured.
Caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), it’s an infection that affects most people at some time in their lives, so it’s not something to be ashamed of.
There are different types of wart, including common (hands & feet), plantar (feet), periungual (under fingernail) and flat (arms and face). Such warts are not easily passed on from person to person, but anogenital warts transmit readily and are reckoned to be the most common sexually transmitted infection worldwide, with 1% of the population infected.
Of warts likely to be encountered in everyday life, as writers, we should be cautious about those on our fingers, especially if using a shared computer. They may be hard to pass on, but it does happen. I currently have a common wart on the palm of my right hand. It’s flat in profile, and not painful. That part of my hand barely touches the keys, but all the same, I regularly clean the keyboard with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.
My caution comes from seeing preventative swabbing of commonly touched items, such as door handles and electrical switches in homeless shelters. I once knew a young man who taught himself to play acoustic guitar. He had one small wart on his little finger when he began, which soon became fifty warts on both hands, painful enough to affect his work life as a librarian (he was made to wear vinyl gloves), not to mention his love life, as his girlfriend swiftly departed the scene. Friction from the guitar strings caused cracking in his skin letting the virus in. He resorted to surgery, which removed most of them, but some stuck around forever
I’ll refrain from posting images of giant warts and their surgical excision, but stomach-churning photographs are available online. I once cut a wart out of my left index finger (I’m a tough guy!) which required persistence and tolerance of pain, as well as a steady hand. I used a pointed surgical scalpel blade to dig around the head occasionally tugging on it with tweezers. It was deeply planted and when it came free, it had a surprisingly long root, which looked like it could have passed through to the other side of my finger! I even looked to see if there was a hole. I burnt the wart in the stove, imagining it screaming! The wound bled like a tap for a couple of hours afterwards. It hasn’t returned.
I’ve been treating my current warty visitor with Tea Tree Oil which is more sensible.
Traditional ways of removing warts include rubbing them with green tea, garlic, apple cider vinegar and the white latex-like juice obtained by cutting the stem of a dandelion. It’s said that rubbing a potato on a wart, then burying the potato will work…probably not, but you might get a crop of potatoes out of it.
Wart charmers have been around for centuries. Usually, they’re aged females and they use various plants rubbed on the warts or even bacon fat, which like the potato is buried. I knew a wart charmer when I lived in the Cornish village of Saint Cleer, who had success at blitzing warts with bacon fat while uttering incantations. She charged a fiver. A surprising number of burly men used her service. I wondered how much the placebo effect was part of the reason it worked: if you believed it was the solution it would be.
A handyman way of killing warts is to cover them with gaffer/duct tape, which has been shown to be more successful than freezing them off:
When writing a novel, I pause now and again to read through what I’ve penned looking to see if the subtext I was going for is working. Also, I look for unintended messages that aren’t desirable. I realised the other night, that the criminals in my WIP were coming across as masterminds, as not one of them had encountered problems in their lawbreaking or personal lives. I immediately made them more inefficient and neurotic!
I chose to write in the Crime genre as it lets me tackle anything that’s happening in society. Thus, I’ve looked at illegal immigration, human trafficking and slavery, prostitution, gun-running, murder as entertainment on social media and in the press and how crime statistics are massaged with unsolved crimes written off to make a police force look better than it is to get further funding.
Drugs are a contentious issue. It’s impossible to write a 21st-century crime story without mentioning them. I attempt to go beyond the simplistic stance that all drugs are bad otherwise they wouldn’t be illegal, but all medicines are good as governments have approved them. For example, the magic mushroom psilocybin, which when taken creates auditory and visual hallucinations similar to dropping a tab of LSD, was made illegal under UK law in a hasty decision in 2005. It was deemed a Class A drug placing it in the same group as crack cocaine and heroin.
My third Cornish Detective novel opens with a murder victim tripping out on magic mushrooms, which she’s inadvertently taken in tea offered to her by New Age revellers celebrating Litha – the summer solstice. My detective is surprised that a 70-year-old escapee from the mental health system should die while high but reflects on the stupidity of the law. He’s in the process of creating a wild garden and has psilocybin ‘shrooms’ growing around the pond, along with puffballs and field mushrooms. More than enough to make him a supplier were he to dry them.
Banning things makes them desirable. Recent medical trials have shown psilocybin to be effective in treating depression, more so than conventional drugs. He’s gone through three years of depression himself recently and would have preferred a quick and natural cure.
Lost in the details of plotting and penning realistic dialogue, it’s easy to forget about incidental details.
Such everyday activities as listening to music, watching television, eating food and making tea or coffee. I eventually realised that I hadn’t fed my Cornish Detective at all in Book 1 after the hundredth read through; he’d somehow lasted four months without food!
I attempt to round my stories out by including more of the senses than just seeing and hearing. If a character smells something out of place, it gives an immediacy to the scene. Someone who’s trying to keep their balance over a 50’ drop will create unease in the reader.
My main character is a country boy in tune with signs from Nature from having been raised as a farmer before becoming a policeman. He notices things a townie copper wouldn’t. In my WIP, he’s just inspecting a corpse found by a dog walker discarded in a roadside rock salt bin. Observing that the eyes are whole, though crawled upon by slow-moving winter flies, he deduces it was hidden the night before.
As any crime writer soon learns flies are crucial indicators of when someone went from living to dead. Maggot development can be accurately calculated.
My story is set at this time of year. It used to be that flies disappeared in winter, but with global warming, they’re still prevalent. I opened a window yesterday, to find a dozen flies sleeping in the frame gap, practically flattened; a couple took off as aerodynamic as squashed grapes, falling to the floor to shake warmth into their wings. It’s not true hibernation and is known as diapause…the flies slow their development and appetite until weather conditions improve or until a corpse lands nearby!
Flies, moths, ants, butterflies, beetles, bees, wasps, hornets and cicadas have appeared in my stories. Not to forget the arachnid spider. One main character realised which way his quarry had gone by noticing a spider rebuilding its web across a door frame.
It’s estimated that there are 10,000 insects for every human being on Earth, so it would be surprising if they didn’t appear in fiction! To put it another way, there are 1.5 million insect species adding up to 10 quintillion individuals.
Authors have been anthropomorphising insects for years:
I’m not sure that it is. It’s a wonderful thing that readers recall an opening line, for books need all the publicity they deserve. Some of these phrases enter common usage without the source being known.
My objection to overpraising first lines makes me sound grumpy but think about it. Does a film begin with the most memorable scene? Do stand-up comedians tell their funniest joke first? Musicians don’t play their greatest hit to begin a concert. A gymnast doesn’t perform their most difficult manoeuvre at the start of their routine.
Also, it’s a bit insulting to imply that readers will only continue reading if you hook them with the first sentence. None of the five novels I’m currently reading has a dynamite first sentence, though all have intriguing opening paragraphs that make me wonder about the protagonist. I try to do the same thing with my writing.
Perhaps a notable first line is like a mascot on the bonnet of a car. There to catch the eye and create an image, but no guarantee of the performance of a book.
Having said that, I have my favourite first lines, including:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
It began as a mistake. Post Office by Charles Bukowski.
It can take it out of you, this writing lark. As you sit there alone, wondering what to do next, lots of words beginning with self infiltrate your brain: self-motivation, self-doubt, self-abuse , self-discipline, self-control, self-abasement and self-love.
How do you keep going? A treat would help, after all, you reached your daily word count and you edited yesterday’s output closer to perfection.
I reward myself in various ways. Music is my constant companion while working, as I live in a very noisy location, but I’ll find a favourite song and play some air guitar to boost my spirits at the end of the day.
A culinary treat was taught to me by my father, who went through rationing in WW2, unable to buy bananas. Mashing a couple of bananas with milk or cream or plain yoghurt produces a delightful dessert.
Recently, I’ve been rejuvenating my approach to writing by watching European films, old favourites and those I haven’t seen before. An afternoon of enjoying and analysing how foreign filmmakers tell a story sets me up for an evening of writing. Feeling happy and thoughtful encourages fresh thinking.
It’s vital that we view ourselves with the same respect as we do others. If you’re nice to friends and family, why not be nice to yourself?
After all, if you don’t enjoy what you’re writing it will come out in the story.