The discomfort of book promotion

Two events last week tested my resolve as a self-publishing author. Neither had anything to do with writing, and both were concerned with that other side of the business, the one that starts when the book is finished and printed and needs to be offered to people for them to buy. These two events were both ‘discomforting’, in different ways.

One of them involved sitting in a cold and draughty tent at a local agricultural show for six hours, of which the first two seriously sapped my spirit, although things did improve later. The show actually figured in ‘Fallout’ as the location in 1957 of yet another family row triggered by my heroine Jessie Whelan’s habitual indiscretion. It was a classic ‘set-piece’, in which various characters are brought together to provide an opportunity for things to happen, and the setting provided an opportunity for some local colour too:

“they squelched from tent to tent, seeing onions the size of footballs, gleaming leeks with green fanned leaves, dahlias and gladioli, shortbread and rum butter and knitted jumpers and crowing cockerels. Outside in the gated enclosures there were cows and calves, and big Herdwick tups, their fleeces rouged with raddle.”

When the time for the 2014 show came around it seemed a fitting place to sell this book and the others, and perhaps meet some readers. And so it proved, but not for the first two hours. We arrived at nine and set up the table at one end of the History tent, next to banks of old local photos on boards that drew fascinated crowds all day. It was cold: the wind flapped and roared. I read the paper, I sought out a cup of tea, but still no-one came, and my spirits fell as low as the temperature. I asked myself whether this is what I really wanted to be doing on a Saturday morning; whether this was why I want to write fiction; whether it was all an embarrassing folly. But I stayed put, and stoicism was rewarded.

Actually, it was the rain that drove people into the tent, and it was my partner’s cute collie dog Meg who drew them towards my table. But once they were there, the conversations and the sales became more rewarding. By 3pm I was warmed up but ready for home after six hours at my post.

The other discomfort of the week was less easily resolved as it involved confronting photographs of myself, always a ghastly experience. I’ve needed a new photo for ‘promotional’ purposes for several years. The last one was taken in a hurry in St Johns Newfoundland in 2006. On holiday there I had a call from my Canadian publisher saying they needed a photo immediately for the back cover of a new book. A gale was blowing horizontal rain from the Atlantic as I struggled down into town to find a photographic studio and the next hour was purgatory, an experience best forgotten and not to be repeated. But ‘promotion needs photos’, and last week I had to go through it again. At least this time I was on home turf, but I still hated it, and that was before I’d seen the results. Suffice to say, my body may look younger since I lost weight last year but my face has aged alarmingly. Not exactly like my mother in her dotage, not yet, but I look a lot older than I feel. Out of 50 pictures there are about three I can live with, but that’s all I need. It’s all over for another few years, thank heaven, and I can get on with the fun part of the writing business, the writing.



Research: when, how, and how much is too much?

Right back to my student days, ensconced in the circular reading room at Manchester Central Library for days at a time, I’ve loved research, digging around, following footnote leads, piecing a picture together and seeing it emerge in all its satisfying complexity. I still love it. The decision to write historical fiction, forty years on from my student days, was partly motivated by the research opportunities. Now the object of my investigation would be the community where I live, a multi-layered fascinating area with a deep dark past in the far north-west of England, too far from the M6 motorway to catch many Lake District tourists. Off I ¬†went to the local history libraries and my note books filled up with details of events and people and the way lives were led.

As it turned out, by the time came to write the first novel, I was floundering in the details, which stuck limpet-like and refused to be dislodged, weighing down the action and irritating potential readers. Much of it had to go. ‘Murder your darlings’ I was told on a writing course at the Faber Academy that was too good to ignore. And I did: whole chapters, sub-plots, and characters. Thousands of words fell to the sword.

I read something by Ian Rankin, explaining he does the outline first and then decides what research he needs to do. It made sense, but I think there’s more to the research business than this, at least for me. The first stage is to think, about the characters if they already exist, or the times, or the place, and any potential dilemmas or crises that these might generate. Then for me the first stage of research starts, not looking for details but the the feel of a period or a place. The reading may be wide-ranging, with few notes, just to stimulate and titillate to the imagination. Then an outline begins to emerge: don’t ask me how this works. Ideas just bubble up from somewhere, but there are definitely more of these bubbles if I’ve been reading around, slowly sipping information and letting it ferment.

Then comes the first draft of the outline, usually ‘good in parts’ like the curate’s egg (where did that expression come from?). At this point, as the second outline grows from the first, I begin to realise what I need to find out about. There are specific detailed questions to be answered: how long does it take for a body drowned at that point to wash up somewhere else? Where did ladies go shopping for clothes in Whitehaven in 1937? When did formal adoptions start? and so on. Much of the information is findable on the internet while more arcane details mean another trip to the local history library. Even when the research is limited by this ‘need to know’ process, much of what I find out will never make it into the final text. Too much, too specific, unnecessary, intrusive, cut it out. Out of pages of notes you might be left with a glimpse, a smell, an aside, but it will carry all the authenticity you need and the rest is superfluous.

Is research necessary? Absolutely. One bad mistake and the reader’s trust can be damaged beyond repair. But the most common problem is too much rather than too little. Up to a point, authentic detail is admirable and necessary; beyond that point it’s just irritating. It’s a fine line. Whoever edits your books needs to be alert to the possibility of research overload and use their metaphorical red pencil when the line is crossed. As the author you might be disappointed by this apparent disrespect, but you’ll be grateful later. Beware of any novel where the blurb refers to ‘meticulous research’, which must be euphemism for ‘tedious name-dropping’. I could provide examples, but instead I’ll respect the commitment of the author to historical veracity and then read something else.

What is a ‘crime novel’? A question of genre

I know I should understand this by now, but I don’t. I’ve asked various people ‘What is ‘genre’ and why do we need it?’ and the only answer that I remember, perhaps because of its absurdity – to me at least – is ‘So that the bookseller/librarian will know which shelf to put it on.’ When I went through the tedious and time-wasting process of submitting my work to an agent, I was informed that knowing your genre was crucially important, presumably so that you pestered the right agent, but that too seems to me like a post-facto rationalisation, a curious case of how the tail can wag the dog.

So here I am, trying to play the game, thinking of a move from one genre (‘regional historical women’s commercial fiction’) into another (‘regional historical crime fiction’). I’ve bought and read the Arvon book on writing crime fiction. I went on a course at Crimefest with Ryan and Hall and reviewed it favourably in an earlier post. Now I’m reading ‘The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure’ by Michael O’Byrne (published by Robert Hale in 2009). On the first page of Chapter 1 O’Byrne asks the question I’m asking myself: ‘Is it a crime novel or a novel in which a crime occurs?’ He also makes the assumption throughout that the protagonist of a crime novel must be a ‘detective’.

In the novel I’m now trying to plan, the protagonist is not going to be a ‘detective’, except in the sense that he/she is trying to find out ie. ‘detect’ what happened and why. So no Miss Marple, or Morse, or whatever the Nordic noir guys are called. Does that mean that this story is doomed to be ‘a novel in which a crime occurs’ that will leave the bookseller/librarian weeping with indecision? I stamp my foot. I’m the writer: I don’t want my main character to be in the police force, so there. The story will be what is, so get over it.

Most of the advice I have read and heard about writing good stories applies to any story. The 3 Act structure explained by Ryan and Hall works whether or not crime is involved. It’s about gripping the reader and pulling them into a book they can’t put down. You can perceive this structure in Hardy and Austen, who had the good fortune to write before the strictures of genre were so tight. Did Wilkie Collins know he was writing crime fiction? Of course I’m not comparing my own efforts with those greats, but the whole genre thing feels like a game for which everyone else except me knows the rules. As my kids in school used to say when their glaring ignorance came to light, ‘I must have been away that day.’