evseymour

Word on the Wire

NO SWEAT

When I started writing a blog I wrote weekly.  It nearly killed me so I believed a monthly blog would work better.  A monthly blog is doable, I thought.  No sweat. Well, I was wrong, which is why I’m just squeaking in my June blog on the cusp of July.  How on earth can the weeks fly by this quickly? And then I looked at my diary and made a sobering discovery.

In the past month I’ve read through final proofs of ‘Her Sister’s Secret’.  Actually, the novel is due to be released next week and I’m looking forward to seeing it ‘in the flesh’.  I’ve worked with six authors on their yet as unpublished novels on behalf of Jericho Writers.  I’ve carried out serious legwork (research) for a brand new story of my own, fielded phone calls – professional, that is –  (personal doesn’t count and there’s been plenty of those) and spent three glorious days away when I should have been working.  I also read Mick Herron’s sensational ‘Spook Street’, yet hardly made a dent in my ‘To Be Read’ list, which is why I feel so damned guilty for only just starting ‘Turbulent Wake’ by fab writer, Paul Hardisty.  Within pages, I was absolutely drawn in and enthralled. Having worked with Paul on ‘The Abrupt Physics of Dying’, it felt very special to be back and in such a safe pair of hands.  If you haven’t read his books, do.  Already I have the impression that ‘Turbulent Wake’ is literary fiction of the highest order;  superb, actually.   

I appreciate that my list of professional endeavours is as nothing to what the average agent ploughs their way through, but, phew, it makes me giddy to read, which explains why, in a bid to maintain a healthy work/life balance, I’m taking the summer off from blogging.  I will still be chirruping on Twitter and playing my face on Facebook so I’m not disappearing from the digital ether completely.  

Have a wonderful summer those of you who follow my blog. See you in…ahem… September.

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WAITING GAME

A writer’s life is a waiting game.  This month, I’ve been in various stages of waiting, but the main wait (and for perfectly good reason) was for a title and cover to be finalised. 

If you’re an unpublished author, following the traditional route, you’ll be waiting for that email offering agent representation, or a ‘yes, please’ from a publisher.  A close cousin of waiting is hoping.  Depending on which way things roll, hope can turn to joy or disappointment.  Overall, hanging on for the cover, the final edits, the agent, the deal, represents the hidden, frustrating side of the business and, occasionally, it can be wearing, if not downright exhausting.  So what to do to avoid going stir crazy?  This is not a formula for all but, for me, this worked:

I gardened.  I walked.  I shopped (not for food). I spent time with friends and family, and read a couple of books, about one of which at least two trusted people asked me:  ‘Why are you reading that?’

I should explain that the author has a problematic past – and this is an understatement – but when said author wrote a ‘best selling and international bestseller’, I wanted to know what all the fuss about.  I should also add that I’d had an encounter with the author who, in a previous life, was a commissioning editor who allegedly wanted to sign me up with a major publisher only for the deal to fall through for obscure reasons.  Anyway, I digress.  Casting aside every preconceived idea, dare I say prejudice, the fact is I loved the novel, but felt extraordinarily guilty for doing so, which is why I’m neither mentioning the author nor the book by name.  Perhaps I’m being unfair, silly or cowardly.  Like I said: waiting can make you stir crazy.  The truth is it hardly matters a jot whether I endorse the novel or the author.  With a movie in the offing and fantastic book sales, he is doing quite nicely without a pat on the back from me. 

But back to waiting:  good news:  I now have a title for my new novel with Harper Collins:  ‘Her Sister’s Secret’.  The cover looks glorious but I’m not allowed to spoil the reveal just yet.  Can’t wait.

THE HOUSE THAT EVE BUILT

I haven’t fitted in a spot of house construction in my extensive free time (not) although moving three times in the past six years to satisfy my nomadic wanderlust might qualify me. No, I’ve been observing our local builder erect another home on the tiny development on which we live (eleven houses in total) and I have to say it’s not that dissimilar to crafting a story.

I haven’t fitted in a spot of house construction in my extensive free time (not) although moving three times in the past six years to satisfy my nomadic wanderlust might qualify me. No, I’ve been observing our local builder erect another home on the tiny development on which we live (eleven houses in total) and I have to say it’s not that dissimilar to crafting a story.

First, there’s an architectural plan. Now I know lots of successful writers are ‘pantsers’ – writing by the seat of their pants – and I have to admit, of late and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become more pantser than planner, but usually I have a rough idea of where I’m heading however vague that middle bit might be.

Getting back to the building development: early on, the ground is surveyed and pegged out. I liken this to reading a ton of novels, not necessarily in your chosen genre, to stimulate those creative writing muscles. I’m staggered by the number of authors I talk to (mostly unpublished) who declare in slightly lofty tones that they don’t bother because they don’t want to be influenced, or ‘simply don’t have the time.’ As Joanne Harris said only last week, and I paraphrase, the best favour you can do yourself as an up and coming writer or even a published writer is READ. And read anything. Cereal packets. NHS leaflets. What some wag has written on the back of a dirty old van. Romantic Fiction when you really like Crime and vice-versa. You get the drift.

Having dug out the footings, and channels for pipes, next the cement goes in. This is where my analogy runs a bit thin because everyone knows that the first draft is more runny jam than hard and fast concrete. In other words it can be changed and often radically so, which really isn’t possible when building a structure, but I digress. Breeze blocks next and these most closely resemble the cast of characters you’re going to use. All the houses here are timber-framed, providing the basic structure of the building, similar to the spine of the narrative and overarching main plot line. For bricks, think scenes, necessary for pinning the story together. Then there’s plastering – could this be style or tone?! Wiring has to be pace and tension to electrify your story. Sorry about that! I admit that I stumbled a bit on plumbing although I guess one could compare it to removing all the crap bits. (Pun intended). As for painting and varnishing, how about polishing the final draft to within an inch of its life?

No do-it-yourself manual on how to build a house – I’m sure I’ve missed out crucial elements – but maybe a rough guide to writing a story. Maybe….

ART FOR ART’S SAKE

We all recognise how solitary writing is. I occasionally feel as if I’m stuck in a far-flung outpost, disconnected from reality, (not a bad thing sometimes) ploughing my own literary furrow, alone. Since October, I’ve been living, breathing and sleeping in my imaginary world – hence my very limited activity on Twitter – but last week, I reconnected with a trip to the Capital.

I can’t tell you how great it was to kick off with a long overdue visit to Goldsboro Books, David Headley’s bookshop baby (now fully grown and mature adult) and home of DHH Literary Consultancy.   There, I caught up with my agent and, after a whizz around the bookshop, we sauntered off for a working lunch with my publisher.   An hour and forty minutes later, I emerged with a new set of edits and spent the rest of my stay belting around various watering holes not far from Leicester Square. Two life times ago, I used to work in a PR consultancy not far away in Gt. Marlborough Street. That same frenetic, edgy, noisy, ‘being part of something’ feeling I experienced then assailed me now. Ironically, I’d be lying if I said I found it entirely pleasant. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in solitary.

I headed back to ‘the sticks’ and on Saturday visited Malvern Theatre to watch ‘Art’, a play written some time ago by Yasmina Reza. Brilliantly conceived, it tells the story of three friends, Marc, Yvan and Serge. Serge buys a modern art painting for an absurd amount of money. The canvas is all white. When Marc comments that’s it’s ‘shit’, (‘merde’ I’m guessing in the original) all hell breaks loose.

With an all-star cast, featuring Denis Lawson, Nigel Havers and Stephen Tompkinson, we knew we were in for a treat but Tompkinson’s sensational and hilarious rant in the mother of all soliloquies had the audience breaking out in spontaneous applause.   The play, above all, is a study of friendship, the bonds that bind us, and those that break us, and it seems particularly appropriate for the uncertain times in which we live. I left the theatre with my ribs aching from laughter, but the play was not simply comedy gold. There was a message in the mayhem and it left me with a strong sense that we all come, make a lot of noise and then we fade away. Strangely, there is unity and grace in that thought.

NEVER A DULL MOMENT.

Keen to take advantage of a week ‘off’, I went to the theatre and reduced my ‘TBR’ (To be read) pile by a factor of two. The theatre trip was amusing for all the wrong reasons so I’m going to gloss over that one – apart from saying that the man sitting next to me fell asleep in the first half and let out a very loud snore. I didn’t blame him.  It didn’t put me off the theatre – not quite – and we booked to see another play in March. But back to reading: first up, and very belatedly, Jane Harper’s highly acclaimed novel, ‘The Dry’.

The big question that drives the plot forward is: ‘Who murdered the Hadler family?’ Although detective work plays a role, the novel is so much larger than a police procedural. For a couple of days after I’d finished the last page, I couldn’t reach for another story, so strong was ‘The Dry’ in my mind. Sublime and original writing – I so admired how Harper runs two complementary narratives alongside each other – coupled with a deceptively simple premise, it had me hooked from the very first line. In common with another Australian writer, the late Peter Temple, Harper uses her tinder dry environment to exceptional effect. No spoilers here so just go out and buy the book.

Finding something to follow was tough so I fell back on a tried and tested, ‘you know what you’re getting’ writer, Frederick Forsyth. Again, another deceptively simple premise: ‘What if a teenager hacker can outclass the most sophisticated security services in the world, with devastating consequences?’ The thing about Mr F is that his stories are terrifyingly topical. When you read them you always receive a masterclass in how the military and security services really operate. Intriguing international insights are discreetly whispered and, it feels, for your ears only.   His stories don’t ring with authenticity they clang. A devotee of the authorial viewpoint, he never writes in a ‘pin your ears back and listen up’ manner. It’s subtle and all the more pleasurable to read.

But it wasn’t solely a reading and theatre week. I caught up with friends and family and generally did that thing most people do over Christmas, which for me last year was a uniquely something and nothing affair.

With deadline one dispatched – more on this to follow – and deadline two met and on track for more edits, I really enjoyed my relaxing week in the run-up to February.   I even managed to make sense of my chaotic writing ‘shed’, and that’s really saying something.

INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE

No, not those early January days following all the celebrations when, bit-by-bit, we stutter into a New Year, with resolutions already broken. I refer to that weird space in time when a writer types the last word of a first draft.  Initially, all kinds of jubilant emotions kick in but, my goodness, they are swiftly tempered by a slump. The big question that haunts the ‘just finished first draft writer’: ‘Is it any good or not?’ (Note the polite version).

Some months ago, I swore off all sorts of things.  My life as I knew it became quite alien.  And the reason?  I was deeply enmeshed in a writing project that consumed me from day one. Consequently, Christmas and New Year festivities were more than scaled back. I didn’t write on Christmas Day, (I lie – I wrote notes before bedtime) but pretty much kept going throughout because, as every writer knows, when the force is with you there is little choice. I’ve never been possessed by a demonic power but this was how I imagined it would feel. All those characters whispering in my head and making their presence felt, occasionally at three a.m.

Ta-da, I emerged this morning not so much like a butterfly from a chrysalis, (nice thought) but an adventurer tramping, sleep-deprived through a jungle, without a compass. How the hell did I get here, I asked myself blearily?

Now, as any fool knows, a first draft is not a finished novel. There is more work to be done. Lots of it probably. So, short term, I took myself off into the sunshine for a long walk by a river and wished Happy New Year to all kinds of people. On my return home, I actually drank a cup of coffee, looking out across the garden, without feeling the need to take it through to where I write. More importantly, I had a conversation that was more or less coherent with my other half. I gazed longingly at the books amassed on my TBR pile and picked one out that came highly recommended – more to report in a future blog. I checked out my editorial work schedule and was pleased to see that there were some interesting manuscripts waiting in the wings. I reminded myself that I had a line-edit deadline to fulfil for my brand new novel (the title not yet absolutely buttoned down) to be released in June with Killer Reads. Stuff to do, in other words, but 2019 is looking great. I hope it’s great for you, too.

 

IN THE ZONE

I’m badly overdue with my post and it’s going to be the shortest ever, but for the best of reasons: I. Am. Writing.

Scary and thrilling in equal measure – hope this translates to the story – I’m literally sleeping, eating and breathing this one and won’t be coming up for air for some time.  Apologies for my abject failure to engage and hopefully normal service will be resumed in the not too distant future.  So adieu, farewell, until we meet again, and, as I won’t get to post before you know what: HAPPY CHRISTMAS!  May 2019 be a good one for you and yours.

ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE

It seems incredible that, two weeks ago, I boarded a train to York for the Jericho Writers Festival weekend. The second I leapt aboard I sensed I was in for a treat. There I was, book at the ready, ‘stuff’ to munch, water to drink and, a few seats away, a hen party en route to Liverpool. And the girls, with mother and future mother-in-law in tow, were in high spirits. A lady sitting next to me flicked a slightly long-suffering glance and we soon fell into easy conversation. It turned out that she was a retired nurse who’d worked with alcoholics. As you might imagine, I didn’t get much reading done on the first leg of the journey.

On arrival in York, I took a taxi ride with a driver who’d fled Istanbul over thirty years previously. A Kurd, he used to be a tailor and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rag trade. The next fifteen minutes proved to be an entertaining masterclass on the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the scenes of some of the world’s best (and expensive) brands. Crikey!

But moving on to the festival itself, a great confidence-boosting, lively and friendly event, for a solid three days I talked shop with likeminded souls and nobody was bored. The place was populated with agents and industry experts, editors and writers and those whose passion is all things ‘book’.

No sooner than my trotters touched the ground after the taxi ride, it was straight into a one-to-one. This is when an author sends in a query letter, synopsis and opening extract of his or her work to either a book doctor (moi) or agent, and we have a chat about it. It’s part brainstorm and part constructive criticism but, as only ten minutes are allowed per writer, it feels like a literary form of speed dating.   Fortunately, when ten minutes are not enough (and they generally aren’t) conversations are continued over a cuppa or in the bar.

At the dinner that night, I found myself on a table with writers from all walks of life. Not one was a crime writer, which was kind of great and really interesting for me.  The youngest delegate, a nineteen year-old student, wrote Historical Fiction.  Commercial women’s fiction, memoir and stories with heavy psychological themes were much in evidence in my assembled group.

My workshop the next morning was on ‘Do’s and Don’ts of Pace and Tension.’ Yes, I’d prepared. Yes, it was well attended. Yes, it went extraordinarily well with a lively Q&A session afterwards. But did I mention the dreaded tooth?!

It has to be sod’s law that, when an important event is in the offing, an affliction strikes. I won’t bore you with the dental details, but it was giving me enough jip that I felt the need to explain that my delivery would be a little less polished than normal – my s’s were particularly ‘hissy’.   Trust me, in a talk lasting over forty minutes the letter ‘s’ comes up quite a bit.

Anyway, I crashed through and managed to do the same in a smaller venue the following day for a workshop on ‘What Crime Writing Can Teach About How to Hook A Reader.’ On both occasions, the audiences were engaged, asked tons of interesting questions and, if you ever need your faith in people restored, this isn’t a bad way to do it.

The train journey back was no less entertaining and the medical theme of the outgoing trip went up a notch as I found myself sitting next to a trainee GP. On the other side of the carriageway: a retired biochemist and a neonatal consultant from Venezuela. She’d just spent eight hours taking exams enabling her to practice in the UK. She, too, was fleeing her country and at that moment I think she wanted to flee Arriva trains because she hadn’t a clue how to get to her destination. Then something magical happened: a ticket collector, called Louise, sat down, worked out a couple of options with humour and grace and enabled our visitor from Venezuela to get the correct connection. People can be quite lovely.

 

 

 

HOTTER THAN JULY

No, this isn’t a reference to the soaring temperature the UK has recently experienced but the fact that, for many months, ‘Hotter than July’ was the working title of my current novel. (For the moment, I’m keeping the new title under wraps). When I explained that changing and ‘chucking out’ (not just the title) is a major part of a writer’s life to a reader the other day, she looked horrified. With genuine concern, she asked if it bothered me.   I can honestly say, with this novel, not one bit. It probably has more to do with ‘team’ input than me. By team, I mean my agent, and editors at Harper Collins.

Often, under an author’s acknowledgements, thanks are given to the many people involved in bringing a story from first draft to publication. There’s an odd paradox that while writing is a solitary occupation, the work that goes into a novel involves numerous others.   And those ‘others’ can make the difference. This time, it was particularly important because my new story is more heavily biased towards crime fiction, rather than psychological thriller. With a nod to police procedurals, it was necessary to enlist the help of a consultant and former senior police officer.

Sometimes, even after many drafts, you instinctively know which bits in a book rock and which are … ahem… a little slow. You tell yourself that it’s necessary to paint the scene, reveal a set-up for a pay-off later, impart information (occasionally this is code for drifting into unnecessary exposition) and allow your characters to survey the countryside or cityscape instead of heading for their destination.   It’s actually quite easy to become wedded to certain scenes – after all you wrote them – when a sharp scalpel to excise would work better. This is where an independent eye and ‘tough love’ comes in.

Whether agent or editor is dishing out advice and suggestions, it’s vital to remember that they are on your side. They want the book to succeed. They have your best interests at heart. With this at the forefront of your mind, it’s easier to listen and, as happened on this occasion, a random line ignited a ‘Eureka’ moment and made me realise that I could take a more exciting and dramatic approach to the main character and, ergo, the rest of the story. Whether I’ve pulled it off remains to be seen. What I can say: more changes will be made before the final draft. All part of the deal.

 

 

 

 

STICKING MY NECK OUT…

It’s often said that we don’t know how to complain in this country. We either go all shouty and launch a nasty review on Trip Advisor or we slump into passive aggression and say nothing.  At the risk of being controversial, I’m about to talk about book reviews.

There used to be a time when book reviews only appeared in newspapers and magazines, care of professional critics. Fortunately, we now have a more level playing field that allows writers, who are not big names, to also have their novels written about and commented on. The growth in the blogger industry is truly phenomenal and hurrah for that.  Anyone and everyone can now write a review and post it.  This all sounds lovely and democratic.  However there is a downside.  Too often, nasty reviews can be posted with little or no thought to the consequences for the writer.  This also includes folk who complain about the packaging, delivery issues, or the wrong book sent to them.

Let me make it plain that I am deeply in favour of free speech. I’m not talking about the kind of review that offers considered criticism and feedback even if the review is ultimately negative. I’m talking about the nasty, the horribly dismissive one-liner, the vicious and arrogant. And no, this is not written as a result of one star reviews of my own work.   After eleven published novels, I’m  accustomed, if not quite hardened, to these. So what am I really saying?

A couple of months ago, I read a review of an incredibly popular and successful debut novel (that I haven’t yet read). The self-styled reviewer not only attacked the work but also attacked, in the most offensive manner, the writer, the writer’s agent and publisher as well as scores of readers. It appeared on a respected site: Goodreads.

Nobody put glass in this reviewer’s food, punched him (or her) in the face, or insulted him publicly in the street. And here’s the rub, the anonymity of the Internet can obscure the identity of those who set themselves up as Judge, Jury and Executioner. Rather chillingly, the reviewer I’m specifically referring to posted a child’s face as his (or her) profile. What this kind of reviewer wouldn’t dare say to a writer in person, allowed and emboldened him or her to go for it in print. Gone are the days when, if you read a novel and didn’t like it, you simply set it aside, and chose something else – something I do quite often.

While I accept that ‘if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen’, that oft trotted out phrase to anyone who works in the Arts, as if ‘creatives’ are fair game to receive the sharp end of anyone’s pointy stick, it’s worth stating a few things.

The reader might spend minutes posting a ‘Ha, take that,’ review on Amazon. The writer has spent more likely a year writing a story with all the commitment, energy, passion, determination and self-belief that entails. Even bad books take time to create. However much a novel is disliked, and for whatever reason, the author will need at least twenty-four hours and often a good deal longer to lift him or her out of the crushing depression that ensues as a result of a destructive review. As for readers who carp about stories of action adventure with villains and assassins and gritty themes, when they only enjoy romantic fiction, the classics or another genre, they confound me. Did they not read the book blurb before purchase? More charitably, I like to think they fancied something new and then found they didn’t like it. A bit like checking out whether or not they really do have a food allergy.

Now I’m not saying don’t write a negative review. In fact, I’m deeply suspicious of any novel that receives trillions of five star ratings that all say how brilliant the story or writer is. But if a reader wants to post critical comments, it would be wise to ensure that these are thought out, and not simply a personal rant as a result of getting out of bed the wrong side, or because life is unkind or, dare I say, due to the reader going through the private hell of having his/her own novel rejected. Respectable and respected bloggers and reviewers, and there are tons of them, recognise this. Often a decent reviewer that doesn’t fancy a novel will simply decline to comment. It’s not a noble calling to save someone else from reading a novel that you personally hated by being deliberately unkind.

With regard to novels that are traditionally published, consider this:   a book may not be worth your hard earned, (in many cases 99 pence.) You may feel cheated of time and energy wasted wading through the most boring drivel, with characters that are cliched and with distasteful or alien themes in your view.   But respect the fact, or at least give a little credit to agents and editors at publishing houses who receive hundreds of manuscripts a week. Novels aren’t accepted for publication because of the goodness of the hearts of those who work in the industry. They (mostly) do so to make money. Their judgements count and they are accountable to higher beings like accountants. If you disparage a book in the crudest of terms, you disparage many more than the humble writer. So, if you are thinking of writing a review today for a novel that you really didn’t enjoy, resist the temptation to verbally work the story or writer over.