Do I need a specialist crime fiction editor?

Two things have prompted this question. The first was a response from a well-known crime writer I asked to read ‘Cruel Tide’ a few weeks ago. I was pleased that he said some positive things about it, but he ended his note with words to the effect that I needed a specialist editor. I thought about what that implied, but then put it out of my mind in the flurry of activity leading up to publication.

The second nudge to my thinking about this question has arrived today. This evening I do my first public outing of the new book,at the library in Ulverston, and I’ve thinking about what to say. Why did I turn to crime fiction after the character-driven trilogy that preceded it? What does crime fiction entail, and what have I learned from this experience? The remark about a specialist editor came back to mind and now I’m thinking harder about it.

The role and function of an editor is always tricky for someone like me who’s written a lot over the years and always alone. Many education writers do their work collaboratively, sharing ideas, reading each other’s stuff, getting feedback as they go. I never did. I wrote, read it over a few times, made some adjustments and that was it. Only with the final education book, about school progression for the Canadian market, did I write with others and then have an editor employed by the publishers. I didn’t expect the editor to change much, but she did and all of it for the better, not about the content but in terms of the clarity and economy of expression. I analysed the changes she suggested and learned a great deal about how to write more clearly.

The role of editor, it seems to me, is three-fold: first there is ‘content’ editing. For a novel, this is the story edit, that looks at structure and character and chronology, how the whole thing flows and fits together. Then there’s the way that meaning is communicated, the structure of a paragraph or a sentence. Finally there’s the proof read, checking spelling, punctuation, speech marks and so on. All three functions have been undertaken in my books so far by the same person, a friend who has worked in publishing for decades, but almost exclusively with non-fiction. As a reader and book group member she’s analysed my stories in their various iterations, suggested changes, and pointed out anomalies or others mistakes to be ironed out in the final drafts. She would not describe herself as an expert fiction editor and she has – as far as I know – no links with current fiction publishers.

I’m hesitating to go back to my crime writer colleague and asks him what a specialist editor could do that my current editor can’t. He’s a busy bloke, and I’ve probably imposed on his time enough already. I did follow up with a phone call to a specialist editor he knows, and during the conversation what became clear was not so much the editing function as the networking that lay behind it. The person I was speaking to was well-connected, to other crime writers, to agents and publishing houses. She lived at the other end of the country and was already very busy, so I took it no further, but I was left still wondering what this editor could do for me.

I was back yet again to the issue of genre and the specialised protocols that seem to apply to different genres, and even sub-genres. Obviously a crime writing specialist editor would be more familiar with these protocols than me. She/he would know the insider tricks of the trade that would distinguish my book, and make it more interesting to an agent who would probably also specialise in crime fiction. Editor and agent would have a shared language and recognise my attempts to join that club.

The idea of this shared understanding and its unwritten rules is not attractive for me. It plays to my innate and sometimes unhelpful aversion to following rules of any kind that I don’t understand or see the point of. I still ask myself, what do readers really want? Do they get a buzz from seeing how the crime fiction rules are followed in different contexts and with different protagonists. Do they smile in appreciation as they recognise the genre features that they expect as soon as something is described as ‘crime fiction’? Do they only ever look on the crime and mystery shelves of the library or the bookshop?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

‘Cruel Tide’ is not classic crime fiction, as far as I can judge. It doesn’t have the closed group of potential suspects, or a single dysfunctional detective with a drink problem, or even a genius problem solver. The story is propelled by the characters as much as by ‘events’. There is no final reveal that ties up loose ends and looks ahead to a certain future. The goodies do not necessarily triumph. What would a specialist editor have made of all this, I wonder? If the advice was to follow the rules of the genre more carefully, how would I react? It’s my story after all. If the editor told me that an agent or a potential publisher would expect me to do things differently, I’m not sure I would have warmed to that advice. I’m too old and too awkward, and I’ve chosen to self-publish with all its attendant risks rather than chase any commercial publishers’ approval. If it doesn’t work, so be it.

But still, the notion of a specialist story editor lurks in my head. If I could learn from that interaction, it’s probably something I should do, for myself, but it would have to be someone I respect, and I’d offer no guarantees about my response. Maybe I’ll wait and see the reaction to my first crime novel and go from there. I need feedback, people: specific, considered, detailed feedback and suggestions about alternatives before I embark on the next book in what will probably be a series, although I’m not sure how many more books I want to write. It’s hard work!

Recognition, reputation and expectation

I read something recently about how many readers will only buy books from an author they already know, and how much harder that makes it for people like myself who are just starting off. There are so many books available, and some of them are so poor, that you do need some assurance that your hard-earned money and space on your shelf aren’t both going to be wasted. I do it too. It’s understandable.

I’m just seeing a faint glimmer of hope, however, after years of plugging away, speaking to groups of readers in out of the way places, sometimes no more than half a dozen at a time, and getting occasional mention of my books into the local media. The new book seems to be selling more quickly than any of the previous ones. There could be all sorts of reasons for this. It’s the first attempt at crime fiction, and we know how popular that genre is. Even my daughter, who was vaguely interested in my previous books, greeted the new one with more enthusiasm and said she might actually read it! And we’re learning about how to promote the book ahead of time, on FB, on Twitter, in the local press, and by contacting people who’ve bought books from us before. Incidentally, we had a curt email from Amazon recently, saying that on no account could we ever contact anyone who’d used their website to buy from us. Fortunately the number of hard copy Amazon sales is low. I wish we could do without using Amazon altogether, but the Kindle sales are too good to miss and that still seems to be the most popular route to the ebook market.

I wonder if the main reason for more of the books being sold so far is that more people actually recognise my name on the cover. It’s possible: not a radical change but a gradual seepage into the local consciousness and the word-of-mouth network. And the cover itself may be helping too. It’s certainly striking.

I called one of the local papers last week just to tell them that I had a new book out. They’d run stories about the books before and I thought they might do so again. The initial response was pretty bland, but an hour or two later a young woman from the paper called me back, introduced herself and asked for an interview. We had a good long chat: I quickly realised how important it was to clarify that the content of the book was not drawn from local events, but from the enquiry into child abuse at a boys’ home in Belfast forty years ago. It had been through reading the report of the Kincora Boys’ Home enquiry that I’d begun to understand how institutional abuse could begin, develop and continue even though key people were in a position to know – and to stop – what was happening. I didn’t realise how much of that knowledge stayed with me until I began to write. Some of it, and what I have learned since, was horrifying and I had to tone it down. I wanted my readers to be clear about how the children and young people had suffered, but too graphic an account would be like abusing them all over again.

The other thing we talked about was how young women just like the young reporter I was talking to, and the WPC in the book, had struggled with their treatment in the workplace in the 1960s. There may be many things wrong with our lives in 2015, but as a woman I’m glad I’ve seen things change during my lifetime.

I’ve yet to hear how readers of the new book respond to its fairly dark message, which provides both the context and part of the plot. I’m afraid some of the male characters don’t come out well, but so be it. Two of the young female characters have been badly affected by behaviour which these days might put the perpetrators in the dock. Some of the previous themes in my trilogy also reflected their times and the place of women in society, but perhaps not quite as starkly as this. ‘Cruel Tide’ is not meant to be a polemic, and I hope it won’t be read as such. If the community it represents is deeply flawed, that’s just the way it was, and I hope my readers aren’t disappointed by that. They can’t be expecting a happy ending, as they haven’t had one yet, and the ambivalence is still there in the last chapter. Maybe I should have tied up more of the ends in a neat bow. Let’s see what reactions I get this time. I’ll let you know.




Flogging the new book, but not a dead horse?

Well the books are here, 400 plump pages in each one, fresh from the printers in Cornwall, boxed and shrink-wrapped and fork-lifted into the storage space, ready to be sent out again as feverish demand mounts. I wish, but we did ship out six boxes straight away to waiting customers and that number should grow over the next few weeks in the run up to Christmas, and with the various planned ‘launches’ and events. I earned more through direct sales last year than any other route to market, which is interesting but unsustainable, and I’m constantly looking for ways to increase sales through the regular bookshops beyond the reach of Hills of Workington, the Cumbria-based distributor that takes most of my stock.

The other big distributors, Gardners and Bertrams, keep small publishers like me at something of a distance. We’ll have to pay them a big discount for the privilege of having them store my books ready for despatch. As it stands, they email us whenever they get an order and we send it off, one or two at a time, which is so wasteful and inefficient. With sales relatively low we’re just too small to be taken much notice of.

These distribution issues, and the cost of storage, make the ‘ebook only’ alternative sometimes seem very attractive, but I still can’t bring myself to take that road and abandon the ‘book in hand’ altogether. I love books: ebooks are OK for travelling, but I love the feel of a book, the smell of it, the touch of a page under your fingers, the sight of the spine on the shelf or by the bed. So for the time I’ll carry on playing the real book publisher game and enjoy it, rather than berating myself for making less profitable choices. If you’re proud of what you’ve done, back yourself.

Hopeful anticipation or more self-doubt?

I veer between positive and fearful anticipation from hour to hour in this final run-up to the publication of ‘Cruel Tide’. Very occasionally I imagine what it would be like for it to be a runaway success, with sales off the scale and a rushed reprint. But most of the time I know I’m probably not doing enough to overcome the self-published author’s biggest challenge – getting people to read what you’ve written and created when there are so many other books out there competing for attention.

I’m actually going to get a review for this one in Lancashire Life, the offer of which was unexpected, but what if they don’t like it? Perhaps the value of getting any kind of review is greater than the downside of a bad one. I’ve put out so many feelers, and so few of these get any kind of response that it can be very disheartening. I wonder if those who don’t respond understand the impact they have. Maybe they do, and just shrug. I wish I understood that world better and could handle it with more equilibrium.

This general anxiety wasn’t helped this afternoon when I took an advance copy of ‘Cruel Tide’ to show to one of my strongest local supporters in her shop where she’s sold heaps of my books over the past few years. ‘Do you want to see it?’ I asked, preparing to pull my advanced copy of the book out of the envelope for the big reveal. She grimaced. ‘I’ve seen the poster, but I can’t look at it because I can’t bear hands.’ For a moment my heart sank. ‘I’ll sell it,’ she added, ‘and I’m sure the cover won’t bother anyone else, but I won’t be able to have it on the counter.’ What??? That’s a strong reaction: I know the cover image is striking, but it was meant to spark curiosity not revulsion. Surely someone would have advised against using the cover if it was that bad?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

Front and back covers, with the offending hand.

Anyway, it’s too late now. The books are printed and the full shipment will arrive on Monday. I’m taking a copy through to Waterstones in Barrow on Tuesday and will see what a professional bookseller thinks. I hope she doesn’t have a hand phobia. There must be a special word for that condition, and I hope that it’s extremely rare.

Beyond that the dates and events for presenting the book multiply, in libraries and bookshops all around the area. I’m grateful for all of them, and will enjoy them all too, but I wish I could break out into the wide sales uplands of Manchester or London. What would that take?  Maybe I should just rock up to the huge Waterstones on Manchester’s Deansgate, book in hand, and tell them how lucky they are. That’s what I need – more chutzpah.

Waiting and worrying

Of all the stages of self-publishing the worst, for me at least, is the one I’m at now – waiting for the books to arrive from the printers. It’s too late to change anything, and I dread the possibility that I’ve got something wrong that will haunt me until the re-print. And I keep wondering, who is going to buy them, or will they languish in the storage locker until the covers curl?

Everything’s down to me, and at this stage that means promotion, promotion, promotion : trying to get information out there so previous readers know that the latest book is ready. Can I persuade new readers to buy a copy and enjoy it so much they read the previous books too? I’ve spent most of the morning designing a flyer, knowing very little about how to do so, and hoping that it’ll serve its purpose. I ordered enough to leave in local venues, and take with me to the talks and meetings lined up for the coming month. On a smaller scale, this is the same calculation that you make about how many books to print – the more the cheaper, but it all costs. When does an enjoyable hobby turns into a financial gamble? ‘You have to speculate to accumulate’…yes I know that, but it still bothers me.

At the back of my mind already are shreds of plot for the next book, and the current one isn’t even on sale yet. A wet walk along the coast from Whitehaven to St Bees yesterday filled my mind with ideas and images. Sometimes I feel I should break away from the local Cumbrian backdrop of my stories, but the sense of place is so strong that it keeps me in thrall. This is where I live and think and do my writing, and I’m not sure I could craft stories with any conviction about anywhere else, not yet at least.

So for the next few days, until the new book arrives, I just worry. Will it sell? Will any reviewers like it? Will the characters be strong enough to sustain another story, or another trilogy? Is the timeframe I’ve set myself too tight? Am I loading too much pressure on myself, when I should be more relaxed and taking the days as they come? For a while, when I’m busy running around promoting the book in person the long term anxieties will move to the back of my mind, but they’ll still be niggling away in the middle of the night.

Maybe the current fraught frame of mind stems from my recent long travels and jet-lag and will wear off. I certainly hope so!