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Tuesday, 31 July 2007

4th book syndrome

Fellow thriller writer (doing annoyingly well) Tom Cain has posted about the trauma of writing 'The Second Novel', especially when burdened by weight of expectation following the success of the first. He drew the comparison with rock groups, who pack their first album full of the material they have spent years developing in a friend's garage, and then find themselves short of inspiration (and time as they are now on the road) to complete the second.

This got me thinking, because although I have had Dodgy Title Syndrome and Cover Selection Syndrome (all well documented authorial afflictions), Second Novel Syndrome sort of passed me by - The Black Sun had taken shape well before I'd finished The Double Eagle. In fact I think I'd finished the first draft while I was still copy editing the first book. And the third novel, The Gilded Seal, was almost fully formed by the time I finally put pen to paper. Perhaps, I thought, I had some genetic immunity to the diseases regularly contracted by other writers. Maybe I was special.

How wrong I was. A few days ago I received a message from longstanding Tom Kirk fan and email correspondent Jason Watson:

"I know its very early (well maybe not that much) but have you had any thoughts on book 4?"

An innocent enough question, you may think. And not unreasonable given looming mid 2008 deadline, as he helpfully noted. But a question, nonetheless, that allowed me to complete a process of self-diagnosis that I had rather been shying away from. Yes, I admit it - I am suffering a severe bout of Fourth Novel Syndrome.

It's so embarrassing. I barely dare go out, knowing that everyone will be whispering "Look, do you see him? That's the writer I was telling you about. The one who doesn't really know what his next book will be." It's so unexpected too, considering that when I first went in to meet Bruce (my editor) I outlined five or six Tom Kirk plot ideas which have either been used by me, copied by other writers or simply don't work.

Of course it's not that bad - I'm a writer for God's sake, so allow me some creative licence to create a drama out of a crisis!! I do, believe it or not, have some vague elements that are swimming around in my head - Caravaggio, Rome, the Mafia, grave robbing, dysfunctional families, matricide, Geneva's airport warehouses, yachts, the Medici ... But I haven't quite been able to pull them together yet. But that's fine - I think people produce their best stuff when the pressure is on. In fact I'm quite excited.

And in any case, rather than focus on the depressing image of failed rock groups, I have turned to the movie business as a source of inspiration. Martin Scorsese for instance, who had a run that included Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed, proves that you can actually come up with the goods again and again. Or Quentin Tarantino who directed Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill B... Okay, so that's where the analogy falls down, but you know what I mean.

So while Tom Cain scours the world for another famous celebrity that he can kill off in an accident (your words, not mine Tom!), I'm off to knock all these ideas in my head into a story. Or write that brilliant first album.

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As an aside, the fall-out from my account of goings on at the Harrogate crime festival continues ... My publishers (in the shapely form of my publicist Kelly) have received anonymous voice mails demanding that I remove the offending post. Meanwhile I have received messages from phantom email addresses questioning my version of events and suggesting I correct them. But you will be pleased to know that having taken soundings from some of my fellow bloggers as well as people who were actually there, I have decided not to compromise by journalistic integrity by censoring myself. It happened just the way I described it and if you don't like it, then tough. (This is how Bob Woodward must have felt when he blew the lid on Watergate.)

Friday, 20 July 2007

Harrogate - A to Z

Friday 19th July - 7:50am
D Day. Or rather DdM day. Only a few hours and a disgusting British Rail cooked breakfast now stand between me and my du Maurier panel and professional humiliation.

Actually, it's not that bad. I have somehow managed to pack four novels and 8 short stories into the last five days. And after a shaky start, I found in My Cousin Rachel a wonderfully compelling and beautifully written novel. Not to mention the coded sub-text reference to anal sex in Rebecca that I'm still debating whether I should bring up!


By the way, if you happen to be near a radio, Radio York is interviewing me at about 11:30 today. Yes I know - my life is one long sequence of glamorous media assignments ... It'll be Jay Leno next.


In case you're wondering, I'm actually writing this blog while sitting on the train in King's Cross, having successfully dodged all the kids dressed as wizards frantically looking for Platform whatever-it-is-and-three-quarters as they settle in to wait for the publication of the new Harry Potter tonight. The miracle of modern technology. I'll be posting regular updates over the next few days so check back in. It's known as live blogging, or logging, although that sounds like
something you spend the night doing after a bad curry...

Friday 20th July - 8:50pm

So that's that then. Panel done. Thank God for that. And amazingly, it wasn't quite the train wreck I had predicted. At least that's what the nice ladies who came up to me later said.


I managed to cram in references to the few books I had read (and the many I had skimmed through) together with allusions to enough short stories to make it look like I knew what I was talking about! Plus to spice it up, I mentioned that DdM was bisexual, that there were some things she wasn't so brilliant at (character, clunky plot elements etc.) and slipped in my anal sex reference for good measure. You want to give good panel? Just say the word lesbian and back passage in the same sentence and you're onto a winner.


In fact the whole experience reminded me of when I went to see my tutor after getting my degree result. I was feeling rather full of myself at the time, as despite all his dire predictions, I had somehow scraped a First by learning hundreds of quotes by heart and then littering my essays with them to make it look like I was far more widely read and insightful than I in fact was.


Sensing my triumphant mood (and possibly the tactics I had adopted), he lost no time in cutting me back down to size.


"A First isn't a sign of intelligence,"
he said. "It's not even a sign of hard work. In fact the only thing you need to get one is to be a smart alec."


So that's me then. A smart alec. And boy was I grateful for it today!


Saturday 21st July - 9:50am

There is one achievement that crime and thrillers writers prize above all others - outlasting
Alex Barclay at the bar.
And last night I managed it. Long after 'la Barclay' retired, defeated, to her boudoir, I was still up and partying hard. (Needless to say Simon Kernick and Kevin Wignall were still knocking shots back by the time I finally called it a day).

It was in reality, a rather tame evening, as I think people were saving their energy for tonight's no-holds-barred extravaganza. But it didn't wholly pass without incident: there is a rather strange man here, a Scandi called ****** or something
(name withheld to spare embarassment!), who as well as being an unreformed drunk, appears to be an unashamed letch.


Nothing unusual (or wrong) about that some of you might say, but several of us observed him 'working the room' last night, moving stealthily from girl to girl, thrusting his sweaty face into their conversations, casually stroking their bare arms or snaking his arm around their necks to draw them close.


My first instinct was to admire his persistence, as repeated (but far more polite) variations of "p**s off" from his visibly uncomfortable victims elicited nothing more than an amused shrug. Undaunted, he simply crept away to find his next target. The snatched fragment of his chat-up routine that I overheard ("I want to make sexy time" - yes, I am serious) further impressed me - many of us think it, but few of us actually say it.


But as I watched, my admiration soon gave way to a kind of horrified revulsion. Watching him at work is actually one of the more disturbing things I have ever seen; part vampire, part stalker, part night-bus flasher. You just knew that at the first sign of weakness, hesitation or drunkenness from whoever he was talking to, he would strike.
Eventually my patience snapped and I (uncharacteristically for me) marched over and led him away from the two women he had just accosted.

"Why don't you leave the girls alone," I blazed as I pinned him to the wall, overcome with knightly valor. "Can't you see none of them want to even talk to you, let alone be felt up by you. Go to bed and stop making a fool of yourself."


He stared at me blankly for a few minutes, then slurred a response.


"You are not educated British gentleman. You did not go to Cambridge."

That's when I knew the guy was mental. Anyone who equates Cambridge with good manners is clearly beyond redemption.

Sunday 22 July - 10:45am

My chivalric intervention on Saturday night has been earning me doe-eyed looks and gushing write-ups from all the women molested by the "fiddler from the fjords" over the previous few nights. If only I'd realised when I was single that picking a scrap at a bar with someone smaller than yourself and too drunk to put up any resistance made you more attractive to the opposite sex. Maybe that's why everyone fights in Newcastle at the weekend. It's like some primeval mating ritual.


Not that the Scandi sex pest is the only odd person here. One person in particular has a handshake like a drowned ferret and chases authors round the hotel asking for "a leetle photo pleeese". Nothing wrong in that you might think, beyond his strange sing-song voice that is part Borat and part the weaselly guy in The Mummy who carries all the good luck charms around his neck and comes to a rather sticky end.


More disturbing is his rudeness. When
Nick Stone asked him what he thought of his new book, he gave a weak smile and then made a sound like someone laughing nervously while being sick, before saying - "I no like". Unsurprisingly Nick told him to f**k off. Undaunted, the next day he came back as if nothing had happened and asked for another "leetle photo". I refused to let him take mine, saying that I was worried it would capture my soul, an explanation which, weirdly, he accepted without question. But when I went up to my room I did check under the bed to make sure he wasn't lying in wait for me.


All the Harper Collins authors went out for dinner last night -
Stuart McBride,
Alex Barclay, Michael Marshall and Steve Jackson - together with assorted editors and publicity folk, including my dashing editor, Bruce. We had a great meal, the highlight of which was McBride's face when I tricked the staff into believing it was his birthday and they produced a cake topped with an ICBM-sized sparkler. It's not often he's lost for words, or embarrassed, but last night was definitely one of them. (By the way, don't believe a word he says about me and the Madonna concert - he's Scottish and that ridiculous beard muffles his hearing!) We got back in time for the quiz. Our team was bobbins, although I did get the Daphne du Maurier quote!

Outlasted Barclay at the bar again - she's definitely lost her touch. Also there were regulars Mark Billingham, Simon Kernick, Kevin Wignall, Dreda Say Mitchell, Laura Wilson plus all the Harper mob of course and Fiona Cane who showed up looking as glamorous as ever. And 'new boy' Tom Cain put in a guest appearance too - I use 'new' and 'boy' in the loosest possible sense of the words! Have to say the real joy of these conferences are those late night sessions when you get to swap war stories with other writers and meet all you incredibly passionate crime readers. It makes it all worthwhile. (Special mention to Daryl and the nice Irish girl with the red hair whose name I don't know but who was part of the Mark Billingham posse!)

The highlight of the whole weekend for me though, was probably meeting Lee Child (again), and Harlan Coben for the first time.
One of the nice things about the crime world is that people like them who are at the top of their game are so accessible and willing to talk and provide encouragement and advice to the rest of us. But to my annoyance, our conversation was suddenly cut short by a nasal whine.

"A leetle photo pleeese."

Sunday 22 July - 10:30pm
So there we are. Another crime writing festival pats us on the shoulder, ruffles our hair and wishes us good luck until next year. And what a good festival it was. Thank-you
Daphne Wright / Natasha Cooper for asking me to take part - hopefully I didn't let you down. Thank-you also Simon Theakston for sponsoring the whole thing. He and I actually were interviewed together for Radio York on the first day during which he confirmed my suspicions that he's a thoroughly nice man! And he had the most incredible spiel about how a glass of Theakston's Old Peculiar was very much like a good crime novel. I've no idea what he said but I remember thinking it was genius at the time. In fact, I'm off for a pint of Agatha Christie right now.

Cheerio.


Sunday, 15 July 2007

Dead Line

Deadline, [ded-lahyn], noun - origin 1855-1860
1. The time by which something must be finished or submitted; the latest time for finishing something: a five o'clock deadline
2. a boundary around a military prison beyond which a prisoner could not venture without risk of being shot by the guards

Of the two dictionary definitions above, I am infinitely more familiar with the first. After all, the whole book industry seems to anchor itself around deadlines of one sort or the other, some real, others imaginary. The more tangible are often firmly inked into contracts - "Book X, a manuscript copy of which is to be submitted no later than such and such a date ..."

The problem is that deadlines like this never travel alone. They gather up into their skirts a dark host of shadow deadlines who hang tenaciously from the original like ivy from a tree. Dates by which titles have to be agreed, cover designs approved, editorial comments addressed, copy and proof editing completed. Each as real as they one sealed with a handshake and a cheque, but never actually agreed upon or even discussed until they are almost upon you and it is too late to do anything but meet them with clenched teeth and a mumbled curse.

And yet it is the second, more unfamiliar definition detailed above,
with its hint of possible death and disaster, that resonates more with me at the moment. Perhaps this will explain why:

HARROGATE CRIME WRITING FESTIVAL
DAPHNE DU
MAURIER CENTENARY PANEL - 20 July (6pm)
CHAIR: Margaret Kinsman
PANEL: Kate Saunders, Philip Gooden, Laura Wilson, James Twining

The problem? Just the small matter of me having barely read a single book of hers yet, whilst my fellow panelists seem to have been swotting up for months! (See Mild and Bitter). I've basically got five days to consume and digest the collected life and works of Daphne du Maurier before offering myself up to a sharp-toothed pack of DdM anoraks and assorted crime officianados and hoping they're on a diet and let me off with a gentle mauling.
If ever a deadline carried with it the promise of utter humiliation and disaster in front of a gathered host of critics, book lovers and fellow writers, then this, surely, must be it.

As if this wasn't bad enough, the issue has been compounded by the fact that what I've read so far hasn't exactly, how should I put this, moved me. In other words, I've not got much to say and what I do have to say isn't that complementary, although I'm reserving final judgement until I've got a few more miles under the hood.

As the thought of the next five days looms over me, I find myself longing for the warm comfort of the prison camp and the original dead-line as described in the second definition above. At least there I could choose to make a run for it and get shot into the bargain!


PS - if you fancy coming and throwing a few rotten eggs, there are still some tickets available! Click here.

Monday, 2 July 2007

If the shoe fits...

Writing is certainly not for the faint of heart or the weak of spirit. You don't believe me? Just click through to Amazon and read some of the customer reviews posted against your favourite books and writers, including yours truly. It can make for some pretty brutal reading.

Never believe a writer who tells you they don't read reviews. It's a lie. They all do, me included. After all, it would be incredibly arrogant not to care what your readership had to say. If you're prepared to take their money, you should certainly be prepared to listen to what they like and don't like about your work.

And much as you'd like to, you can't just dismiss bad reviews because you don't like them. Not unless you're willing to dismiss the good ones too, which most writers aren't - I post mine up on my website! The problem is how random these more negative reviews can be, with one person criticising the very thing that someone else has identified as your greatest strength. The answer, according to my agent J-Lo, is to "date" reviews, not marry them. In other words, you don't have to take everything to heart. Personally I look for two things before I start listening - either patterns, where the same point is raised by lots of different people again and again, or resonance, where a point chimes with something you instinctively feel is right.

It's certainly much easier to dismiss a review if it is plain wrong or obviously vindictive. For example, the one word review that one Amazon reader left for me ("Dire") was so bad it was funny. The reviews that really annoy me are the ones where people seem to be judging my books against literary or other inappropriate criteria, rather than against other thrillers and the basic features and conventions of that genre. It's a bit like going to a Linkin Park concert and complaining that it's too loud, or moaning that a Ferrari doesn't have enough luggage space. That's the whole point! That's part of what makes it what it is.

I have to say that our good friends the Americans are the hardest to please. Everyone says the US is a tough market, but I didn't know how tough until the first few customer reviews began to be posted on Amazon.com. Not only are they much more vocal in voicing their opinions, but they never seem to occupy the middle ground. They either love it or hate it. The only problem is that they email me when they love it, and post it on the internet when they hate it for the whole world to see!

Perhaps it is an unfortunate by-product of today's Big Brother / Pop Idol world that people seem so ready to criticise, often quite vindictively and at great length, as if trying to out-Cowell Simon Cowell. Praise is certainly the much scarcer commodity. If you click through on the names of some of these e-critics, you can see who else has felt the sharp lash of their keyboard - often they have come off no better. Is there a small army of bitter readers out there - failed writers perhaps - who spend their time knifing unsuspecting authors from a distance, safely concealed behind their anonymous usernames?

With my first book especially, I used to take any feedback very personally. At one stage I was logging in on an almost daily basis to see what comments had been posted, with a good one seeing me in high spirits and a bad one confining me to a black mood for the rest of the day. I used to coral friends and families to post favourable reviews to repair the irreparable damage that I assumed was being done to my career and reputation by these swivel-chair critics. I even at one stage formed a variety of Amazon identities to post up some of the positive messages that had been emailed to me to try and tip the odds in my favour.

It’s a losing battle. And, I came to realise, a pointless one. You can’t (nor should you seek to) control the Internet and the power of free speech it confers onto all users. More to the point, perhaps, people don’t make purchase decisions on the back of Amazon reviews but on word of mouth and newspaper reviews and price promotions and in-store positioning. Good sales are often a far better guide to reader satisfaction than a self-selecting group of Amazon reviewers. In fact I sometimes wonder if there’s a direct correlation between high sales and negative feedback – it’s much more fun to bash a successful book!

As Oscar Wilde once said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about at all!
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