Rachel, welcome! Let's get stuck straight into the questions: how do you approach writing a new book? Do you begin with a general idea and just get stuck in, or do you plan and outline before you start?
I’m a planner. I like to have an idea of the phases of a book before I start – where are my characters in their life? And what has driven them to behave the way they do? I pay huge attention to filling in details of my characters before I start, because although I know broadly who does what, I don’t necessarily know the detail of how it will be represented in the story. I have some key scenes in my head, and once the characters begin to take shape, they take over the story.
I was riveted by the different layers of this story, and as usual it's because you've got an eclectic mix of characters, underpinned as always by Tom Douglas. How do you keep track of characters and timeline while you're writing?
For each character I have a comprehensive description with photos, and lots of detail about their eye colour, how tall they are, when they were born, what is their background etc. For the story timeline (and Tom’s longer term timeline) I use a spreadsheet. Where actions are time sensitive, it’s so important to know what day of the week it is (are the kids at school, or at home?), and what time of year it is (when does it get dark?). These details matter so much for me.
How much research do you carry out with regard to location, and how do you do this given you're living quite a way from Manchester these days?
I have a secret weapon – my sister! She still lives in Manchester and she’s retired so when I have researched locations online (because a lot of the places I use are in areas I would never have visited) I send her the information and off she goes with a camera and her husband for support. She has done everything from photograph Pomona Island for Kill Me Again (where she famously asked some workmen where would be a good place to bury a body), to going along to Central Library to discover how and where you can find the photo archives. I ask her to tell me what it feels like, smells like, sounds like as well. But wherever possible, I go myself. For my next book – which won’t be in Manchester – I am going to have to go on a little trip!
Do you think there's a shift in publishing industry perceptions about indie publishing? What barriers still remain for self-published authors going into 2017?
I think most publishers now accept that there are some good indie authors. Most traditionally published writers also accept that, for some of us, remaining indie is a choice and isn’t driven by a lack of a publishing deal.
There are still a few barriers – but I can understand why. While some independently published books are every bit as professionally written and edited as traditionally published books, a lot aren’t. So if you’re the organizer of a writing prize or a festival it might be difficult to open the door to independent authors because you may feel less confident about the quality. If you say ‘yes’ to some, how do you decide where to draw the line?
It will change. Writers will be chosen on merit, possibly as determined by the popularity of their books (in the case of festivals). But being indie means you have to take the good with the bad, I’m afraid
What three tips would you give to someone contemplating indie publishing, apart from having a great cover and having their book professionally edited?
The most important thing is to be prepared to work hard if you want your book to be noticed. At time of writing, The Sixth Window is available for pre-order, although I haven’t been publicizing that fact yet. However, when checking out the pre-release list on Amazon in the UK, there are 17,000 books at pre-order stage!
Once you’ve accepted that the odds against you are high and that you’re going to have to work your socks off, think about every possible way of making your book cover visible. AWARENESS is the very first key to selling a book. You want people to recognize it when they see it and think ‘I’ve seen that book somewhere – I’ll just have a closer look.’
The third tip is to take critical feedback well, and learn from it. Send your book out to early readers before publication – and not just to people you like. Send it to some who you know will enjoy finding something not to like, and then listen to them. You don’t want everybody to say it’s wonderful! And when you get criticism after launch, absorb every word. Decide if it’s just a personal choice issue or whether the reviewer has something sensible to say. Listen and learn from everybody who reads your books
What do you have planned for the remainder of 2017?
I am planning on writing two books this year, but whether that will happen or not I don’t know. It may take me 18 months, but I definitely want to up my game from one book a year. Having said that, I work long hours and most of the time I work seven days a week – so it’s not lack of effort that reduces my output. My books are complex and so they do take a lot of working out and writing. But also, as an independent author there’s a lot of stuff that I have to do for myself – such as marketing. But still – I’m going to give it my best shot
Whilst travelling in Europe last year, the cover for James Swallow's first book in his Rubicon series, Nomad caught my eye and I was soon devouring the book in between sight-seeing.
It's an action-packed thriller with a fantastic cast of characters, and the next in the series, Exile will be out later this year. I'm therefore delighted to welcome author, James Swallow to the blog to have a chat about his writing, and find out what's next for Rubicon protagonist, Marc Dane.
New York Times bestselling author and BAFTA nominee, a former journalist and an award-winning writer of over forty books, along with numerous scripts for videogames, radio and television – the list on your bio is impressive! Can you tell us a bit about how your writing career began?
As for the germ of the idea that became Nomad, it formed out of a few different things. I’ve always liked these kind of stories and at the basic level, part of me just wanted to write one for the challenge of it. I missed the high-octane thrillers that I’d enjoyed in my youth, and I saw a lot of commentary talking about the genre as if it was something that was past its time. I certainly didn’t agree with that. But if I had to point to one single element, it was a desire to invent an action hero for the digital age who felt real and relatable, a guy who has to work hard for every victory he gets.
Those opening scenes with Marc Dane being thrust out of his comfort zone as a techie behind the scenes to fully-fledged agent on the run really snag the reader from the outset. He’s different to a lot of other thriller protagonists in that he’s not all brawn and guns – was this a conscious decision on your part, or was that how the character came to you?
It was absolutely core to the creation of Marc Dane. I’ve been living with the idea of him since around 2008, when I first started gathering material for Nomad, and he’s definitely a reaction to all the fiercely-competent, super-accomplished, never-miss types that populate a lot of action thrillers. Those heroes never seem like they are in danger of failing. I wanted more of the everyman type, a guy who uses his skills and his intelligence more than being a crack shot or fast with his fists.
And Marc also grew out of a realization I had that almost every action protagonist I was seeing were infallible guys with no tech-literacy! The heroes - the trigger-pullers, the door-kickers – were very separate from the backseat guy in the van working at a laptop, and I wondered what would happen if the latter was forced into doing the job of the former. I like the idea that Marc is just out of his depth, but that he can still win through.
And what’s next for you as an author?
I’m currently working on a couple of projects under non-disclosure agreements that I can’t talk about right now, and I’m also developing the plotline for the third novel in the Rubicon series.
James, thanks for being such a fantastic guest - it's been great chatting with you!
It's been a difficult few weeks for me, having to keep this under wraps but I'm chuffed to bits to share with you today the new cover for Detective Kay Hunter's next investigation, Will To Live.
Here's the blurb:
Firstly, congratulations on the success of your debut novel, Deep Down Dead. Was the novel a result of your MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) at City University, London or did you go there with the idea bubbling away in your mind already?
I got the idea when I was out in the States just before I started the MA programme. I’d been sent a brief for a pre-course assignment - writing a chapter that introduced a new character - and had to email it to my tutor and fellow students before we met for the first lecture. It was when I was driving from the mountains of West Virginia and into rural Virginia that I had the idea - inspired by the discovery that the taillights on my hire car weren't working and finding out that the nearest place I could get them fixed was over a hundred miles away! I stayed overnight in a rundown motel and from then on only drove in daylight. But it got me thinking - what if you had to keep driving and your taillights were out? And what if you got pulled over by a State Trooper because of it? And what if when they leaned into the car to take your licence they heard banging in the trunk from the person you'd put in there? It started me thinking about the sort of person who might travel with a person in their trunk and why - and that's how Lori Anderson came about!
What did you enjoy most about doing an MA in Creative Writing?
The way the tutors Claire McGowan and Laura Wilson encouraged us to experiment with our writing – style/point of view/sub-genre/everything really – to find what suited us best and what we enjoyed. The whole programme was highly experiential – we wrote fresh pieces each week to submit and critique in ‘live workshops’ – it got you used to feedback fast, and into the routine of writing to deadlines and self-editing.
Another huge part of it for me was the camaraderie of being part of a group of writers all going through the same thing. We experienced the highs and lows of writing together, celebrated the good stuff and commiserated on the tough stuff, and supported each other through the novel writing process. We still meet now as a writing group and workshop our current WIPs.
Hopefully you’ve never had to bury a dead body (if you have, please don’t tell us where it is!), but it’s evident that the experience and training you undertook has become such an important part of Lori’s character. Did she appear on the page fully formed, or did it take you a while to get to know her?
Her voice arrived fully formed, and I knew there was a dreadful secret lurking in her past but it wasn’t until I’d finished the first draft that I found out what it was (although I knew it was connected to her husband, Sal and JT). When I realised – I was on a train from Scotland to London at the time - I wrote those chapters in one rapid burst.
Writing in first person is something that I’d find a little out of my comfort zone, but it works so well in Deep Down Dead. Was it a conscious decision to write in first person?
That was the way she came out naturally! I’m fairly happy writing in first person or close third, but I wrote Lori as a first person narrator from the start. Maybe it was partly because I was travelling through the American South at the time – my inner voice kind of sounded like Lori, although my outer voice didn’t at all!
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