The lottery of writing fame

Last Thursday evening I had a great opportunity to see a very successful writer up close and hear the details of her career. Ann Cleeves imageAnn Cleeves was visiting Cockermouth in West Cumbria, not far from from where I live, and I was asked to ‘interview’ her live in front of a sold-out audience. So I got to decide some of the questions that I was most interested in. This woman has written an astonishing 30 books in 30 years: ‘How did it all start?’ I asked her. ‘Well,’ she said with a smile, ‘for the first twenty of those thirty years I made only enough money to pay for a week’s caravan holiday in Dorset.’

It was only after the first of Ann’s ‘Vera Stanhope’ series was bought for TV that her career really took off. And how did that happen? A classic serendipity: in a charity shop in London the book – ‘The Crow Trap’ – was picked up by a person who worked in TV production, as something to read on holiday. The company she worked for was looking for something to replace ‘Frost’ on ITV, Ann’s book fitted the bill exactly, and the rest, as they say, is history. The ‘Vera’ TV shows now sell to over 120 territories worldwide, and the Shetland series has also been successfully adapted for TV. The Crow Trap51D7rW7FLaL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Ann’s books are good, no question, but much of the extraordinary success she has enjoyed in the past decade stems from that chance purchase in a charity shop. As she joked herself last night, crime writers are busy dropping copies of their books into charity shops all over London, hoping to become the next TV sensation and enjoy everything that follows.

Knowing how arbitrary these matters can be, how does it make a struggling writer like me feel? Very happy for Ann, naturally. Some regret also that I left it so late to try my hand at fiction. When you first publish at 65, waiting twenty years to hit the big time is tempting fate. But the overriding feeling, if commercial success is indeed so much matter of luck, is that the only thing you as the writer can really control is the quality of the work you do. Even if your books don’t reach a mass audience, you aspire to make them truly worthwhile – well-researched, well-written, memorable, and a credit to your effort and skills. That’s a legacy to be proud of, whether you sell a thousand or a million.

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How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

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‘The horse’s mouth’…where did that phrase come from? And how did it come to mean ‘authentic first-hand information’? However that happened, I’m learning yet again just how powerful such information is when writing a story set in the recent past.

The first novel I wrote was set in 1937, too far back for me to find real people to talk to about how they lived their lives, and I had to be content with first hand accounts in print. The next one, set in 1947, lent itself to listening to people who were around at the time and had stories to tell. I also found the transcript of the National Coal Board’s enquiry into the pit accident in Whitehaven in August 1947 which provided first hand testimony in the witnesses’ own words. By the time I reached the third novel, set in and around the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957, I was able to find loads of people who remembered the reactor fire there in rich detail, as well as Youtube footage and other contemporary accounts.

The first two crime novels, ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were set locally but dealt with the issue of institutional child abuse, of which they were no cases from my chosen area that I could draw upon. I relied instead on the report of the enquiry into events at the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast, and the news items that are painfully frequent as historic cases are uncovered.

The novel I’m working on now is set during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. There are two sets of factual details I have to get right. One is about the disease itself and its impact on the area. The other is about methods of policing at that time, so that I can ensure that the ‘crime detection’ aspects of the novel are accurate. Family dramas are as old as the hills, but the contexts in which they play out change with the times.

The historian in me loves digging around to find the the best information, and although books and online research are useful there’s really nothing as rich or satisfying as listening to people who lived through the events I’m describing. So far I’ve talked in depth to two CID people who were serving officers in Cumbria at that time, a local vet who played a significant role right through the FMD outbreak, and a man whose job it was to value the farm animals before they were killed. Incidentally, some of the animals were actually free of the disease but were victims of the need to prevent its spread. The memories of my interviewees are raw: it was both cathartic and painful to share them with me. Next I’ll be talking to another person, who liaised with the army and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was in 2001), and to a forensics expert who was professionally active at that time.

The end product of all this activity will be a novel which will also hopefully be a chronicle of a particular time and place, and a community in crisis. This is the community I will live in for the rest of my life and it’s very close to my heart. I owe it to the people here to get it right, and to weave the fictional story and the factual background together in a way that does justice to both. It’s the people, – their memories, their insights and the words they use – that bring life and authenticity to the writing. It’s also one the most fascinating part of my various writing projects, and I’m really grateful to those who are willing to talk to me.

And I still don’t know how and why it came to be known as ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Do you?horse-289x300

 

Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.

 

 

The Unbound project is live!

ABurning Secret Flyerfter a flurry of activity the Unbound project to publish my next book went live on Monday. I’ve been busy the past few days emailing the link to dozens of people asking for their support. This is the very classy flyer that gives the basic details but there’s much more on this link.

Yesterday I did a marathon tour of some of the libraries at the other end of Cumbria, where foot and mouth was rampant, and heard more memorable stories from the catastrophic outbreak in 2001. It was the smell that is most vividly remembered: animal carcasses, and the smoke from the pyres. A dystopian landscape.

For the next few weeks I’ll be busy getting the link and the flyer shared as widely as possible, and encouraging people to pledge their support for the project anyway they can. If you can help, please do and I’ll be very grateful. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost there…

WBurning Secret Flyerith only one or two tweaks yet to make, my Unbound project ‘Burning Secret’ should go live tomorrow, Monday May 8th 2017. Then the fun begins, and readers will hopefully begin to pledge their support. There are some good ideas among the pledges, by the way, and definitely worth a look. The link given in the ‘flyer’ to the left isn’t live yet, but if you want to get a sniff of how it will work, go to Unbound and check out some other projects. And keep an eye on FB and Twitter where I’ll let you know the link to go to as soon as it’s ready. I’m finding the whole business exciting, and moderately scary too. It kept me awake for too long last night.

Part of my commitment to the Unbound project is to update my ‘supporters’ regularly about how the project is going, including my actual writing of Burning Secret’. I’ll carry on with this blog of course, and just link across to the Unbound website and vice-versa. Unbound are understandably unwilling to commit right now to a publication date for the the new book, but my target is to have it out by July 2018, and the paperback to follow by Christmas. To achieve that I have to have the first draft finished by November this year, and I’m pretty sure I can do that. With five novels behind me, I’m more experienced and confident, and less prone to paralysing self-doubt. The real task facing me now is not to finish the book by the target date but to do as good a job as the subject matter demands. It needs to be good, really good, to do justice to the horror of what Cumbria went through.

The ‘Unbound’ contract is signed, so what now?

How did this happen, and now that it has, am I up to it?

I started to write relatively late in life: going on a course on ‘How to Write a Novel’ was my 60th birthday present to myself. Four years later I published my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ and four more have followed since then, one each year since 2012. I tried half-heartedly to find an agent or an independent publisher, failed and gave up. Being self-employed for 25 years provided a degree of self-reliance that was useful in the decision to self-publish, and to do so I well as I could, investing my own hard-earned savings where necessary. I did, and it worked, My books have sold thousands of copies, but most of the sales have been within fifty miles of where I live. They’re all set in Cumbria, and this is obviously very attractive both to locals and visitors, but the stories themselves transcend the setting: it’s the people who matter, what they do, how they feel, how they relate to each other and the lives they lead.

Knowing that the stories are wider than the setting, the promotion and distribution problems that all self-published writers face have been frustrating. With few exceptions, the prejudice against self-published books has been obvious: no reviews, no access to mainstream competitions, insufficient ‘celebrity/literary profile’ for acceptance as a speaker at the book festivals, scant regard from buyers for the major booksellers. Fortunately, I enjoy and am good at talking about my work, and do so regularly at libraries, local writers’ groups, and for Women’s Institutes and other organisations. As a result direct sales of my books are a large part of the overall total. The writer in me gets great satisfaction from readers’ appreciation of what I do, but the entrepreneur in me has been frustrated by the book world’s assumption that self-published novels are ‘ipso facto’ second-rate.

In the end, after all my planning, the invitation to move into a wider publishing world came by accident. At the end of one of my library talks a man introduced himself and told me about his daughter who works for a London-based publisher called Unbound. I listened, but people often tell me that they have contacts in the publishing world and almost invariably it comes to nothing. A week later, however, an email arrived from the daughter, a Commissioning Editor with Unbound, who’d been regaled by her parents about my books – which they love – and my talk. We met, we talked, we negotiated, and less than two months later the deal is done: I will publish my next book in 2018 through ‘Unbound’. With a working title of ‘Burning Secret’, it will be a family/police/crime story set in Cumbria in 2001 at the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Next time I’ll explain in detail the stages of writing and publication over the next year or two. For the time being, check on Unbound, and look at ‘How it Works’. In a couple of weeks my project will go live on the Unbound website, video, pitch, pledges, the works. I’ll post regularly about the process here and through the Unbound website. If you want to share the journey, I’d be delighted.

Do ‘special deals’ on books really work?

I’ve just put the ebook of ‘A Good Liar’ on GoodLiar_COVER.indda Kindle store special deal for a week, starting April 1st. I have mixed special deal -stock-photo-limited-time-offer-price-tagfeelings about doing so, but it’s just for a week, and we’ll see how it goes. If it encourages people to read the whole trilogy, as ebooks or paperbacks, it’ll be worth the angst about reducing the price to less than a cup of coffee.

My ambivalence about this stems from knowing how much time and effort any author puts into writing and publishing their work : setting a very low price seems to under-value all that. But, on the other hand, if you want people to read and enjoy your stuff, making the price temporarily very attractive is a way to achieve that. One of the joys of self-publishing is that you can make those choices yourself.

It was recording the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ that reminded me what a good story it is. The engineer who helped me – Tom Tyson, at the Music Farm in Egremont, Cumbria – is not a great fiction reader, but he was so hooked after the second recording session that he had to read the rest of the story for himself to see what happens.

Jessie Whelan is not an easy character to deal with: she’s self-centred, impulsive, and sometimes insensitive, but she’s had to battle all her adult life, and it shows. She’s also – despite years of abstinence – very interested in sex, which pulls her into a relationship that she could, and probably should, have avoided. Some scenes were really hard to read while I was doing the recording, not just because they portray sexual assault but because Jessie doesn’t really know whether to blame the perpetrator or herself. It’s not in her nature to feel like a victim, although the reader can see that’s what she was. How did Tom react while he was listening to it, I wonder? I didn’t ask him, but I will.

In the meantime, before the next trip to the studio to finish off the edits, I’ll put the ebook version on special offer for a week and see if I can introduce new readers to the trilogy. Maybe some of the millions of Lake District and Cumbria visitors will enjoy the story, and deepen their interest in this wonderful region. I hope so.