Sunday, 26 July 2009


At the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I would like some help, please. I have to have a hip replacement this Friday (31st); such an elderly-sounding operation, and I'm a terrible patient (nurses always are). But with time on my hands (and a nice big Amazon token to spend), I shall have time for lots of reading. What does anyone recommend (MNW writers are taken for granted, of course)? I'd like gripping, easy reads. Nothing too demanding, but absorbing, emotional - in fact anything that has really grabbed anyone recently. I'd be really grateful for ideas.

I'm so sorry that this means I shan't be at the launch of Len's new book, but shall be thinking of him (and anyone else who is planning to go) and I shall toast the new novel in anything I can get hold of.

I would have posted this on my own blog, but have no idea how many people pass by it, and time isn't on my side. So I do hope you'll forgive my taking up MNW blog-space.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What Kind of Writer Am I?

We're in an oasis of calm here, so anyone whose instinctive response to that question was to shout "A crap one!" can go and stand in the corner.

I've been spending the past few days pondering my options as a writer, and making the mental adjustment that a book that's consumed a year of my life is destined to spend a little longer--indeed, perhaps eternity--on my hard drive. Not only that, the rejection of The Last Free City probably marks the end of my Mondia sequence of novels, given the commercial reasons which drove Macmillan's decision.

I despise the kind of happy-clappy facile positive thinking that views every setback as a blessing in disguise. In this case, though, there's no question that this enforced change in direction is not without its beneficial aspects. Having a novel rejected in a way that undermines the entire series forces a serious re-evaluation of my writing goals; and I've been exploring that topic with Will.

So here are the avenues open to the just-rejected fantasy writer -

Give up

No siree! We don't want none of them potatoes!

Write another, better Mondia novel

This is the easiest option - up until the point where I try to publish ithe result I'm very clear that there's no appetite at Tor to see another Mondia novel. If I can place The Last Free City somewhere else, I can readily enough revisit Mondia in the future. Until that point, another foray into Mondia would be commercially ill-advised in already difficult market.

Start a new fantasy series

This would give me a fresh start in a genre I know I can write. With a better knowledge of the market I might be better placed to write something that will sell.

Migrate to a new genre

Before MNW picked up The Dog of the North, I was resolved that it would be my last attempt at a fantasy novel. I grew up reading fantasy, but these days it forms a smaller and smaller part of my diet. I can see now that this is reflected in my development as a writer: with hindsight, The Last Free City is hardly fantasy at all.

If Macmillan had picked up The Last Free City it's unlikely that I would have gone through the rigorous examination of my strengths and interests as a writer as I did over the weekend. There is a certain kind of story I love to write - it will contain individual dramas played out against backgrounds of political intrigue, with morally ambiguous characters facing difficult choices with real consequences; it will be set in a place exotic to the reader, where nothing is quite as it seems. What I'm talking about here is, in fact, a better fit with historical fiction than fantasy. Have I been a closet hist-fic all along?

In truth, I've suspected as much for a while. Now, driven by necessity, I may need to prove it. Moving genres is a challenge - especially into one as exacting as historical fiction. Will has been very encouraging, and indeed is keener to see my ideas in this area than any other.

Looks like I'm going to need to dust off my research skills....

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Sword of Damocles falls...

One of the things a writer has to learn is the courage to submit work to publishers, with the consequent risk of rejection. This is not something that gets any easier; indeed, once you establish a relationship with an editor, if anything it becomes more difficult.

Sadly this remark is made with the weight of experience, as Will emailed me yesterday to tell me that Macmillan were turning down The Last Free City. This was hardly unexpected, but even though I was prepared, the moment of rejection is a grim realisation.

Partly from a desire to explore the issues, and partly to suck up some sympathy (that means you, folks...) I thought it would be useful to look in a bit more detail at why Macmillan aren't taking the book on. Will is very tactful in his feedback, but his comments are always honest ones, so I've no reason to disbelieve him when he says:
The Last Free City is the equal of The Dog of the North in terms of plotting, setting and characterisation
particularly as this echoes my own assessment. Why, then, is such a masterpiece not bounding on to greater heights? Those who know the publishing industry will realise that commercial considerations come into play. The sad truth is that The Dog of the North has not sold very well. The Last Free City would not, therefore, be building on a successful "brand". A publisher will be prepared--indeed must, from time to time--gamble on an unknown writer, but to back a second novel where the first has flopped is playing double or quits: never a good business model.

The implications of this simple truth are nonetheless profound. However good The Last Free City may be (and realistically I'd pitch it about the same level as its predecessor) it was doomed from the start because the first book sold so poorly. There was nothing which could have made the book commercially attractive to Macmillan. I didn't help myself by writing a book with fewer crashes and bangs than The Dog of the North, but it's clear that even a more commercially-savvy offering would still have had to overcome the deadweight of its predecessor's performance.

This isn't a whinge (well, only a bit). Writers have to realise that they are operating in a commercial world, in which any artistic satisfaction they get is between them and their muse. I am taking some time to reflect, and to explore with Will what are the most constructive options for me - but one thing's for sure, that list of options does not include giving up writing.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

A little love-in...

It’s odd to think that in a vocation that’s clearly anti-social (are there many professions where you spend most of your career locked away from the rest of humanity?), solidarity for writers is an important thing, which is kind of apt in a week where the likes of Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz have been haranguing the Home Office for the quite ludicrous (and callously opportunistic) £64 levy for an increased CRB check for writers visiting schools (something that has pretty much kyboshed any future appearances by me at schools in the near future – though a CRB check is a good thing, I don’t agree with the fee either).

But it’s not just politics that brings a little love. It’s empathy.

This lunch time I made a fleeting visit to the local Waterstones in Sheffield to meet John Connolly, a lovely guy who will give you all the time in the world if you have it (Brian can confirm this!). Armed with a few books, with Sarah and Baby Daniel in tow, the visit turned into a bit of a whirlwind which meant bombarding John with questions (sorry, John, if you’re reading this!) about the writing, and the experience of writing with everyday pressures of family and social life (something I’m experiencing to the nth degree lately).
But what I got out of the all too short meeting was more a feeling of solidarity, exemplified by John buying a copy of my book and asking me to sign it for him. “Writers should support each other,” he said to me with a broad smile.
And he’s so right. They should.
And I reckon they do. Especially with Macmillan New Writing. I’ve never met such a disparate collection of authors before, writers who are not bound by genre, but by experience. By empathy. It’s a fraternity, a group of wide-eyed and eager writers stepping onto the page for the first time. Like John did today, we buy each other’s books, pimping them to everyone we know (I’ve lost count of the copies of MNW books I’ve bought for people for Christmas and Birthdays) or the times I’ve asked for hardbacks of MNW titles to be ordered in the local bookshops; and when we can, we attend book launches or book signings. And we support each other on the MNW blog, picking each other up when things don’t go right, or congratulating each other when they do.

Although this blog entry is sounding a bit like a love in, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that. John has shown that you’re never too big, or too successful for solidarity. True, I can think of a few writers who don’t think that way, but with the market-place and writing conditions getting more and more competitive and restrictive (there seems to be mid-list cull at the moment that’s a little scary), it’s good to know there are writers out there who will go that extra mile to help other writers out.

So who’s up for a big group hug?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

July's Book of the Month

(Interview by Tim Stretton)
July marks another genuine debut, rather than one of the old MNW lags sneaking in a second book: James McCreet, who tells us about The Incendiary's Trail and lets slip some tantalising facts about himself below.

The invention of murder . . .Murder is rampant in Early Victorian London. Detective Inspector Newsome of the new Detective Force decides to recruit a recently apprehended master criminal to help bring the culprits to justice. A polymath with a mysterious past, the man is no eager volunteer.

And when the ghastly murder of conjoined twins galvanizes the city, Newsome blackmails his prisoner – Noah Dyson, as he calls himself –into working with the Force’s finest: Sergeant George Williamson.

Unknown to the policemen, the criminal genius behind the murder shares a dark past with their new associate. It is not justice that is on Dyson’s mind, but retribution. As Williamson and Dyson together close the net, the murder-rate soars and the streets of London begin to burn. Ingeniously plotted and seething with grotesque characters, James McCreet’s striking debut will grip readers from its first dark pages.

Hi James. Tell us a little about your novel, The Incendiary’s Trail.

It’s a Victorian detective thriller suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, particularly his short piece “The Man of the Crowd”. What started off as an idle interest in Victorian London slowly became a combination of musings on identity and observation in an era before photography. A man was whoever he said he was – and if he said nothing, he was nobody.

How did the book find its way to Macmillan New Writing?

I think it was October 2007 that I sent the manuscript in – emailed from Harrogate public library. I heard nothing back and assumed it had been rejected. But in February 2008 I sent it in again. That’s when I was told the novel had excited some interest back in October but that my contact details had been misplaced. If I hadn’t tried again in February, it might never have happened.

One of the unexpected things about professional publication is working with an editor. How did you find that experience?

I’m a copywriter by trade, and so almost everything I write is adulterated by someone somewhere, whether cut, padded or just changed. At Macmillan, I was pleased to discover that my text was in the hands of experts and I was happy to learn from the process. It has positively influenced my writing since.

You are one of the few Macmillan New Writers to publish under a pseudonym (although quite a few of us hide behind initials). What made you take that path? Given the plot of the book, are you fascinated by games about identity?

There are many ways I could answer this. I always find evasion is the best policy, so I’ll offer a selection and you can choose the one you’d like to be true:

a) I’m not wedded to historical texts and if one day I choose to write something else, I’d like each new direction to have the freedom of another authorial identity.

b) It sometimes seems to me that when I read through my words, they have come from a different place and a different mind. I use words I didn’t even know I knew. Perhaps the pseudonym is that other place, that other mind.

c) James McCreet sounds like the name of a thriller writer; my real name does not.

d) What is my ‘real’ name? My great grandfather was allegedly a senior policeman in Ireland, but changed his name on emigrating to the UK. If he hadn’t done so, I would be McCreet.

e) The author is just a name on a book – it doesn’t really matter whose, as long as the story is good.

f) My writing is a highly personal thing. I am never more truly myself than when I am writing, so it seems good sense not to reveal that hidden self in a name.

What is your typical writing day?

I work full time, so don’t have the luxury of a ‘day’ as such. I write between eight and ten each evening, usually over a sixth month period. When I’m not, I’m researching the next book.

It’s traditional for us to ask our writers to supply Four Random Facts about yourself—and we aren’t letting you off this one!
1. My most embarrassing moment was being caught under the headmaster’s desk. I was a teacher at the time.

2. My TEFL students in Greece called me ‘kondouli’ (shorty). I am 6’ 2”.

3. I am punctual to the point of mania.

4. I love my Chambers dictionary so much that I won’t let anyone else touch it.

Do you have a writing mantra?

No, but it might as well be, “Don’t stop ‘til it’s finished.”

Do you compose by pen or by keyboard, or what …. and why?

Keyboard. Apart from typing being much faster, my job means that I’ve become accustomed to thinking and typing simultaneously. I occasionally write letters by hand and the slowness is agonising.

Who are the writers you most admire? Can you trace their influence in your own writing?

Poe and Kafka for their imaginations – or were they just insane? Umberto Eco for his ideas and the way he blends history, philosophyand literature. James Ellroy for his distinctive voice. Elmore Leonard for his perfect prose. Kurt Vonnegut for the way his personality comes through in his writing. Ian Fleming for his inner boy. Herman Melville for Moby Dick – a book in which the author luxuriates in his writing. Henry Miller, who made being a writer the subject he wrote about. I’m not sure any of them influence my writing in a perceptible sense. They represent standards to aim at.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m researching the third novel in the series that began with The Incendiary’s Trail. Already I have a long list of words I’m desperate to use – almost none of which can be found in modern dictionaries.

James, thanks for your time, and the best of luck with The Incendiary’s Trail.

The book-a-year syndrome

I wonder how many of us have succumbed to the pressure of feeling that we ought to produce a book a year, or every two years, or whatever. I know that having had two books published eighteen months apart, I immediately felt that I should continue in the same way. A book every eighteen montbs, I thought. That should be manageable. After all, I'd done it before. But it didn't work out. With hindsight, I think this is one of the reasons novel no. 3 failed to make the grade. I grabbed at a plot (having floundered hopelesssly for several months) and plunged in, without really giving it enough thought. I have huge admiration for writers such as Len and Brian, who really do seem to manage it, but maybe it's not for everyone. How do other people feel about this?