‘I really enjoyed my time with Donna Morris. Not only does A Wake of Crows focus on solving the case of the death of a homeless man, but it delves into both Donna’s backstory and her position as a woman of a certain age in what is a changing yet still male dominated environment. She’s a likeable character and her feelings of being torn between being a wife, a mother and her career created a well rounded woman. Strong and determined, yet also vulnerable, she’s very relatable. I especially enjoyed Donna’s backstory which takes the reader to Berlin, prior to the Berlin Wall coming down. A time and place I’ve not read much about in fiction.’ Emma Rowson, The Rabbit Hole Independent Bookshop, Brigg.
Event: Saturday, 18th March, 2023, 3pm Crime panel with Philippa East, Kate Evans, Tom Mead & Nell Pattison, organised by the Rabbit Hole Independent Bookshop, Brigg, Lincolnshire. Tickets are free, but need to be reserved: The Rabbit Hole Brigg
A Dose of Reality I was naïve. I thought getting a traditional publisher would be enough. Trained as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, I know to ask: ‘Enough for whom?’ Enough for me? Enough to prove I am a writer? Enough to prove my writing is good enough to be accepted by the mainstream?
And having my three Donna Morris novels bought by Constable/Little Brown, with the first two published, has been ‘enough’ for all the above.
However, recently I have got stuck in the sticky web of promotion. Why? Because publicity drives sales and sales drive contracts for further books. I have also discovered – in a bizarre Catch 22 way – sales drives publicity. The manager of the local branch of a high street bookshop chain told me I couldn’t have a table display because my sales were too poor (and my book wasn’t humorous). She appeared nonplussed when I pointed out a table display would boost my sales.
Being in touch with other authors, I know I am not alone in the lack of promotion offered my books and the focus on sales. Even the great Val McDermid has said she would not have survived in today’s publishing world, as her first three novels did not sell well.
Number 8 on Damyanti’s list rings particularly true for me at the moment: ‘comparison can be the thief of joy’. Comparison keeps me looped back into questions like: how did they manage that? What am I doing wrong? And it is beginning to drain the joy out of the writing.
So here is something which is completely disconnected from scrabbling for publicity and is wholly to do with joy.
A big thank you to all my blog readers for sticking with me and my ramblings. I wish you all a creative year, finding joy in the precious little things of life.
I am now officially out of contract as I have delivered my third book in the Donna Morris Mysteries series. No Justice will be out in June. A Wake of Crows is currently available in all formats including audio. Drowning Not Waving is already in hardback and ebook and will come out in paperback in May.
I have various proposals with my agent – including further Donna Morris novels – meanwhile I have been writing short stories. The one I am working on at the moment is for the Crime Writers Association Margery Alingham competition. After much prevaricating I have decided to set it in 1930s Scarborough.
I do find novels easier to write than short stories. In my opinion, they are both attempting to seduce a reader into a world created by the writer. Only the short story has a lot less words to do it in. I have said in the past, a short story is like when you are on a bus and you catch a glimpse of people through a lighted window. You are totally absorbed by them for an instant and then you are gone. It is up to you to work out what happened before and after that fleeting engagement.
In her article ‘Story Writer’ (www.theshortstory.org.uk 11.08.06) Jackie Kay writes: ‘What doesn’t happen in a short story is as important as what does. Like pauses in music; it is impossible to think about the short story without also thinking of its mysterious silences.’
She says: ‘A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create.’
Writing a fairly traditional crime based short story has the added challenge that I do want to seed clues, misdirect and come to a resolution. The spaces need to be there, but in quite a restricted fashion.
The other project for January is to come up with a marketing plan which I feel I can implement. For the moment this is mostly about talking to other people (mainly other authors) which I am enjoying.
Have you any thoughts on short stories or any writing projects for 2023 you would like to share?
Winter came to Scarborough and it was beautiful, if treacherously icy in places. Midwinter day in some traditions is a moment for inner reflection. It is also another point in the turning of the seasons, a new year if you like, a moment to look back perhaps.
When I consider our human world, it seems to me to be in a mess and it is rapidly messing up the rest of the earth for every thing else. Once in a while, I see, hear or read about people who are trying to do the right thing within their communities with generosity and commitment. However, this same attitude is not reflected by the leaders of most countries and most big business who appear determined to follow the same old discredited path. I hear on the TV ‘experts’ say we have the answers, we still have time to turn round the juggernaut of destruction and despair. I wish I had their faith.
However, if I speak personally, this year has been an exciting one in many ways. A Wake of Crows came out in paperback and Drowning Not Waving in hardback. I delivered No Justice at the beginning of December. This completes the three books I was contracted to produce for Constable/Little Brown. I now have an agent, Anne Williams of the Kate Horden Agency, and together we have been looking to the future. Finger crossed, further Donna Morris books with Constable/Little Brown and maybe other writing opportunities.
I have had a couple of good reviews in national publications. I was on panels for Bloody Scotland in September, for an online discussion of psychology in writing and for Newcastle Noir in December. I had a signing at a local inde bookshop. I have had coverage in the local media and events in Scarborough and York. I have done my best on social media (still not my forte).
When I first got my book deal, I thought whoopee, someone else will be responsible for publicity. I thought (naively as it turns out) that if a publisher brings out a book, it will want to promote the title in order to maximise sales. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. Most of the publicity I have garnered has been through my own efforts. And though I love doing events and having (good) reviews, I find the work required to get them and the knock backs along the way dispiriting and exhausting.
An author who I am coming to know who is a lot more experienced than me said publishers spend 90% of their publicity budget on 10% of their authors and we are in the 90% who get what’s left. How true. Need I mention Richard Osman? The three books in his Thursday Murder Club series have sold over three million copies. The most recent is the fastest-selling adult hardback from a British author since BookScan records began. Why? Because he is known AND still gets the 90% of the publicity budget spent on him. Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) mentioned him three times in three different articles and it is supposed to be a journal for women who write.
I am not alone in being exasperated by this aspect of book promotion. Katya Balen won the Carnegie prize in 2022 for her book October, October. She said on the BBC Today programme (15th December 2022): ‘Publishers dedicate a huge amount of publicity and marketing to those big names, to their celebrity authors, getting books out into the public consciousness on train adverts, tube adverts, all the kind of places where people are not expecting to find books, where they kind of seep into people’s lives without them noticing. They dedicate budgets to those authors and other authors aren’t getting it. …brilliant books are being let down by publishers. … Let’s put diverse authors on national radio and national TV and let people make up their own minds about what they want to buy.’
I always thought reviewers would like to find something which no-one else has yet discovered. Apparently not. Most of them want to review what everyone else is talking about. And readers can only read what they know about. Our local Waterstones, after much prompting from me, got in a couple of copies of A Wake of Crows which were hidden somewhere on a shelf not even the assistant could find. Whereas Richard Osman had a table inside the shop and window display. Love them or hate them, my novels are based in this very town and written by a local author.
Looking forward, if I care about my books, which I do, I know I have to gird my loins and be more proactive. I am talking to a social media mentor in January to come up with some new directions on that front. I am talking with other authors in the crime genre to see if we can do things jointly. But if you, dear reader, have any ideas, please don’t be afraid to slip them my way. I would particularly like to do more events, podcasts and have more reviews.
In ‘The Crayon Cure’ by Nicola Masters (Mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) she says that, after finding an agent and getting a book deal: ‘The thing I was not prepared for was how my relationship with writing would change when other people were interested in what I was doing. Suddenly, this thing I did for the sheer fun and love of it, that allowed me to ignore my responsibilities, became, well, my biggest responsibility.’
She suggests doing something creative which does not have the same pressure as producing a novel. For her it is art. For me it is collage, yoga and sea swimming. I can enjoy these activities without worrying about getting any better at them; or whether my sales are going up or down; or I am making a splash on social media.
However, writing consistently saves my sanity and is something I can lose myself in with pure joy. This is as true now as it has ever been. I love creating my characters, my stories and my worlds. I have to hold this in mind when the vagaries of sales and marketing gets me down. My books are out there, a few people know about them, a few people connect with them. This in itself is my midwinter gift.
To end this rather rambling post, let me wish everyone a splash of peace and kindness; the space to nourish their creativity; and pleasure in the small things. Onwards to 2023!
Of course, my life has been very different to Una Marson’s, however, the quote above really resonated with me. ‘My writing is my activism.’ Yes it is for me too. I rarely go on marches these days – though I was once tear gassed by the French police on an anti Front National rally. I am involved in various non-governmental organisations, especially ATD Fourth World UK – All Together in Dignity to Overcome Poverty (atd-uk.org), and I give money to others, but my writing is the place where I mainly explore the issues I feel passionate about.
I came to political consciousness through the feminism of the 1980s. The idea that everything is political and the decision not to discuss something is as political as the decision to do so, remains paramount for me. Plus I write what I would want to read. I want to read things which open me to differing worlds and perspectives.
Or do I? Apart from as background for something I am writing, would I want to read a novel from the point of view of someone who supports Nigel Farage?
Apparently we all want to live in an echo chamber these days. And it is true, that I have grown weary of arguments with people who hold views which are completely opposed to mine. In the past, I have found these energy sapping and, quite frankly, a waste of time. How many opinions have I changed? People are as entrenched in their silos as I am. I think maybe only experience changes views. Perhaps if Suella Braverman spent a night in a detention centre, she would behave differently?
However, it’s worth noting, there are studies which show that reading can increase empathy for people who have different life experiences from our own. So hopefully, if I do my research right, my writing could at least have that effect.
Will I lose some readers through revealing my political stance too readily and clearly? Do I care? I’m not sure that I do.
I have been rather overly excited these last few weeks as I have been involved in several literary events.
The first was Bloody Scotland, in Stirling, 15th-18th September. The biggest crime writing event in Scotland, and the biggest I have ever attended. I got to wear one of these for the first time!
It was a whirlwind. I tended to swing between feeling, ‘Yes, I have arrived, this is my tribe’ to feeling small and a fraud. The well known ‘imposter syndrome’. But I got to meet some genuinely lovely people who I hope I will stay in contact with. And my panel went well, ably chaired by Harriet Tyce, with Jane Corry and Trevor Wood either side of me. The audience of about 30 to 40 people were attentive and appreciative.
Then a surprise invitation from Philippa East, to be part of an online panel chewing over the Psychological Secrets of Writing. Along with Philippa chairing and me, there were authors Bev Thomas and Julia Stone who are both working psychologists and psychotherapists. The discussion was far ranging and interesting from my point of view, looking at how our psychology/therapy training and experience interweaves with our writing. It is perhaps not surprising that our novels feature therapists. Some of you will know from my self-published novels a counsellor called Hannah. She will make a triumphant return in my third in the Donna Morris series, No Justice (soon to be delivered to the publisher and out next year).
In the same week, I was lucky enough to be invited to do an event at Scarborough library. It was fun to be on my home patch, with people in the audience who I knew. Not all of them were friends and family, though, there were some new readers and I am grateful for that, not to mention the book sales.
And in October, I am making the short journey to York to be part of their Big Read programme.
I do feel dizzy with it all and that means I have less headspace for the creative stuff. But this week I have to centre myself – walking and swimming will help – in order to complete No Justice and work on proposals for the next three Donna Morris mysteries.
Long time subscribers to my blog know that it is very unusual for me to post two weeks in a row, let alone one day after another. But I want to share this exciting news. My interviewee of yesterday, crime writer Philippa East, has invited me onto a virtual panel ‘The Psychological Secrets of Writing’.
Fellow panellists are writers Bev Thomas and Julia Stone, with Philippa hosting. We all have a background in psychology and/or therapy. We will be chatting about the links between psychology and writing, how our day jobs inform our creative work, and how a little expertise in psychology can help with character, plot and engaging with readers. We will also be delighted to answer live questions from the audience.
Attending events – especially those where a certain amount of networking and putting myself out there is required – is not without its anxieties. Then Covid added its own peculiar menace to being around people. I have to admit, therefore, it was with some trepidation that I set off for Harrogate and Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival on Saturday.
Luckily this year the sessions were in a large airy marquee and eating and drinking could be done outdoors, which allayed some of the fears. And I was able to meet with a couple of authors who I already knew, so that also helped.
I enjoyed the sessions I attended. ‘Experts Chortling’ brought together some of my favourites: (Baroness) Sue Black and Carla Valentine with psychologist Emma Kavanagh. They were joined by former police detective Graham Bartlett. As well as being a wellspring of interesting information, they were all very funny too.
By the time I got to the book shop Sue Black’s books had sold out. I am not surprised. She manages to make the business of death and the dead fascinating and entertaining without ever losing respect for those who have died. Plus, if you are a newbie crime writer, along with Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd, Black’s books, interviews and documentaries are gold dust.
During the panel, Emma Kavanagh said crime writers were too often drawn to featuring characters traumatised by their pasts. What is more remarkable in reality, Kavanagh suggests, are the number of people who fall apart after trauma, and then show resilience, recovery and growth. It got me wondering where this might fit into a crime story.
The other afternoon session I went to was a discussion of the ‘future of the police procedural’. The panel was: AA Dhand; Jane Casey; Parker Bilal and Adam Lebor. All were clear on the duty of the crime writer to tackle difficult issues in a responsible way. Casey suggested crime authors are the ‘Rapid reaction squad of the literary world’ developing stories around current debates quicker than other writers.
Lebor said (as I have done in the past) that there are far too many young women who end up dead in the crime fiction genre. His series is set in Hungary and has a detective from the gypsy community (apparently ‘gypsy’ is the term used by the peoples themselves in this country). It has plenty of scope for exploring the lives of refugees, as well as the prejudices against the Roma.
They all characterised their protagonists as ‘lone wolfs’, especially AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee who the author likened to a gothic comic book hero (not my taste at all and I realised why I had never taken to his books). With my Donna Morris mysteries, I have gone in the other direction. Donna is definitely not a maverick and she needs the team, just as they need her (though she struggles to properly comprehend this). The relationships between the police officers are something which has been praised by some readers. I hoping the future of the police procedural includes space for a team player.
After paying £4.35 for a cup of tea (yes!!) and spending more than I would care to mention on books, I wended my way home. A shout out to Northern and Transpennine Express whose staff were friendly and whose trains were on time, comfortable, clean and not too busy.
Have any of you some good memories of literary festivals you would like to share?
Saturday 2nd July, 2022, 2pm-3pm, I will be doing a signing at Mrs Lofthouse’s Emporium, Queen Street, Scarborough. Come along for a chat, I would love to see you.
Saturday September 17th, 2022, crime festival Bloody Scotland 10:30am-11:30am, I will be appearing on a panel entitled ‘Secrets and Lies’ https://bloodyscotland.com/ to book tickets.
Thursday 20th October, 2022 part of the Big Read, York 7pm-9pm, I will be interviewed & giving a reading at York Explore https://exploreyork.org.uk/
Does the reader have to like the protagonist?
I have recently been given some feedback on the first of my Donna Morris novels, A Wake of Crows: the reader enjoyed the novel but didn’t like the main character. Unfortunately, this was passed onto me second hand, so I couldn’t probe further, but it got me thinking – should I be creating a likeable protagonist?
In fact, this question has followed me around for some time. I self-published three crime novels 2013 to 2015 with a main character called Hannah. More than one person told me she was unlikeable. She was going through a hard time and we were inside her head which got pretty dark at times. Yet her experience mirrored mine in many ways. After a friend waxed lyrical about just how unpleasant Hannah was, I did wonder whether they knew me at all or whether I was just very good at dissembling.
In crafting Donna, I made a conscious effort to create her more agreeable. She is not as ‘abrasive’ as Hannah was, Donna is kinder, she is not as intense.
Of course, not every reader is going to like every character. However, I did start considering whether this idea of being likeable or not stems from my protagonist being female? Are male detectives in crime novels expected to be amenable? How about Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Colin Dexter’s Morse and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. Or even Christie’s Poirot? Though in each case there is a more charming side-kick who is, perhaps, the one readers actually relate to.
There has been a long tradition in crime writing of the detective being flawed in some way. I think Donna is less flawed and generally more genial than some, but maybe she (like many women) just has to be ‘nice’?
Do you have to like the protagonist to enjoy the read?
‘Kate Evans delivers a gripping crime debut with a truly original policewoman as the central character. Highly Recommended.’ Myles McWeeney, review of A Wake of Crows, Irish Independent, May 7th 2022
The days are getting warmer and brighter. In a week it will be the longest day – midsummer. This always seems to come too early for me. We’ve barely begun to enjoy the season and suddenly we are at the mid point.
I also feel slightly out of kilter when it comes to my novel writing. A Wake of Crows has appeared in paperback and Drowning Not Waving in hardback. The first of DC Donna Morris’s adventures in Scarborough is just garnering some interest – like the review above – and I am already finishing off her third story (yet to be titled). I am on track to deliver this in the Autumn.
I was comforted when I heard Abir Mukherjee on Radio 4’s Bookclub. We were discussing his first novel, while he had already published his fifth, and he quipped that he had almost forgotten the plot of his debut. I am certainly afraid I might muddle up what happened when to whom between the three DC Morris mysteries.
What is also facing me – as the excitement around A Wake of Crows is rising – is a big blank. My contract was for three novels and I have, essentially, completed them. What comes next? I have everything crossed for another contract. But the workings of the publishing world are still something of a mystery to me and this is by no means certain. So maybe this is the end of my ‘being published by a traditional publisher’ trajectory. A brief but magnificent arc, like the traces of a rocket on bonfire night.
In my early twenties, I would attend firework displays put on by a BBC engineer friend of my husband. He boosted his pyrotechnics until it felt like being in the middle of the Big Bang when they went off. How I hope my publishing rocket could be given the propulsion of one of his.
I would never call writing a hard job. Not hard like working in a shop or a care home. But there are times when it gets tougher, and, for me, this is during the editing and rewriting stage. I am lucky to have useful feedback from my editor and her assistant. I like to get this as early as possible, in case there are any big changes to make and I always advise writers to find trusted readers to give a decent critique.
‘Don’t try to edit while you are writing. Your first draft is all about energy and unleashing your power. Respect the process of creation and give it space. It’s like planting a seed. You have to water it and watch it emerge and grow before you can prune it into shape.
‘There isn’t any failed writing. There is only writing that is on the way to being successful – because you’re learning all the time. It follows that that nothing you write is ever wasted, and that to become good, and better than good, you need to write a lot.
‘Suspect the judgment of others. What people coming from a different critical context might describe as slowness or failure you need to reframe as patience and a learning process.
‘Harness the power of intuition to free up your story. Many of us learn to write in an academic style, building a logical argument, picking over every line. This can inhibit a novelist. Aim at perfection – but in your final draft.
‘Rules that are valid in the rest of your life are not always valid for your writing. “Try, try and try again” does not always work for the creative process. Sheer bloody persistence won’t necessarily get you where you want to be.
‘Trust that your work will find its natural form – because it will. Our education system fosters habits of mind that knock out the habit of trust in what we create. You need to rediscover that trust.
‘If you are a great reader then you can become a great writer. If you read many novels, and many different kinds of novel, the principles of novel writing will be encoded deep inside you. That’s what I mean by trust. If you are a reader, then you know subconsciously how to tell a story.
‘Be protective of your work and resist the temptation to show it to anyone before you are satisfied with it yourself. When you do show it, make sure it’s to someone who is qualified to make a judgment. People who love you, or who feel threatened by you, will not provide you with the feedback you need.
‘Seek support from the right people. Try to get a professional opinion from someone who doesn’t know you. But always try to balance their feedback with what you know and trust to be true of your work.
‘Have the courage to try something new. If the world doesn’t seem to want your work, then be adaptable and flexible, but don’t compromise your vision or sell yourself short. Timing counts, and your time may come.’
All good advice as you would expect from such a renowned novelist. I do think searching out the right people to give feedback at the right time is crucial. Too early and it’s like stamping on a shoot just as it is coming above ground and too late the bush is already mature and thriving.
Another thing I have found fellow writers struggling with is when to stop editing and rewriting. Personally I like what novelist, Anne Tyler, said on BBC R4’s Desert Island Discs, (20th & 25th February 2022): ‘I revise until I think I will throw up if I read it again.’ Yep, that just about covers it.