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.
Today I am delighted to welcome crime writer Philippa East to my blog.
Philippa grew up in Scotland and originally studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating, she moved to London to train as a Clinical Psychologist and worked in NHS mental health services for over ten years. Philippa now lives in the Lincolnshire countryside with her spouse and cat, and alongside her writing she continues to work as a psychologist and therapist. Her debut novel Little White Lies was long-listed for the Guardian’s “Not-The-Booker” prize and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. She has since published two further psychological suspense novels, Safe and Sound and I’ll Never Tell, and is currently working on her fourth. See more at: Amazon/Philippa East
What are you currently working on? I am currently working on my fourth psychological suspense novel, currently titled The Hoax… It features a remote Scottish boarding school, a group of troubled teens, the untimely death of a therapist, and two ex-spouses thrown together to investigate. I’m coming towards the end of the first draft right now, which means the hard work of “making it good” starts soon!
What has inspired the novel you have most recently published? My most recent novel, I’ll Never Tell, had lots of iterations before it fell into its ultimate shape! I think ultimately, it was a combination of two idea kernels. The first was of a couple arriving in a foreign country and having to confront their own marital crises in the process of searching for their missing daughter. I also was fascinated by the question of how a family might function with a child “star” at its centre. And then I thought: what if the child star was the one who had gone missing?
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life? As a crime/thriller writer, I definitely draw a lot of my story ideas from true crime TV shows and podcasts. I think I write to try and understand people and what makes them “tick”, so although I write fiction, I am definitely always trying to make sense of real life, and the people we encounter in it. Sadly, my novel Safe and Sound was inspired by the real-life story of Joyce Vincent, a charismatic, sociable woman in her thirties whose death went unnoticed for nearly three years. Since I wrote and published Safe and Sound, tragically there have been further similar stories in the news.
You are a working clinical psychologist, how does this help or hinder your writing? I think mostly, it helps it. As therapists, we hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into some of the universal themes of the human condition: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. I think it also helps me understand how people generally “tick” – what affects us and how, what motivates or frightens us, and how we relate to other people.
For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world, other people, and myself. I think this drive originally led me into the field of psychology – and now story-telling has become my means to ask and explore those questions. Therapy is so much about empathising with other people – putting yourself in their shoes, with compassion. This is the way I try to relate to my characters too.
How would you describe your writing process? Um… messy! (Despite being a very organised person generally in life.) I generally will spend a number of months exploring an idea and working it into a rough outline, before I start writing. These days, I steer clear of formal outlines (which tend to lead me down the wrong track) and I just make loose notes in a notebook to steer me along the right story track. I will then do a VERY messy first draft of about 80k words, writing about 2,000 words a day. I don’t edit as I go, and I write in a VERY undisciplined way. I will then usually spend another 2-3 months working through a number of further drafts to sort everything out before showing it to my editor. After which, I’m likely to go through at least another three drafts.
What helps you to write/what gets in the way? Since becoming a professional author (wow, that’s weird to say!), I’ve learnt to keep a clear separation between my creative processes as a writer, and the business of publishing, promotion, etc. Too much focus on sales, reviews, the market, etc can really create a lot of instability and self-doubt which is fatal to creativity! On a more practical level, I treat writing as a job (which, um, it now is!), meaning I prioritise it and carve out time for it every week. Having author friends to chat to and share ideas with is also essential. As you’ll see from the dedication and acknowledgements for I’ll Never Tell, my fellow authors have been an invaluable source of support along the way.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it? Mainly using Google! With the sorts of books I write, there isn’t usually too much research required, and most things I need to know I can find on the Internet. Occasionally, I will put a shout-out on Twitter for someone who knows about something more niche that I need help with. I generally focus on telling my story first, in the way that works for me, and do my fact-checking later, otherwise I think I would get too restricted by the facts and feel unable to keep the plot going. I have to give a shout-out here to my friend Stuart Gibbon, a retired Police Detective who has helped me hugely to get any police-procedural parts right in my books.
Do you have any crafting tips, eg to do with writing dialogue, for scene setting, plot or pacing?
There are five key craft elements that I would say all writers should aim to grasp, practise and master. These are: # show vs tell # point of view (POV) # psychic distance # the “five commandments of story telling” (the art of structure) # story genre (NB: this is different to marketing / publishing genres!)
You write crime novels which are stand alones. Have you ever thought about writing a series? What do you think are the pros/cons of writing stand alones rather than a series? I tend to think of my books as standing “one step to the side of a crime”, rather than traditional crime novels. As a result, I’ve tended to write stand-alone books that often focus on interpersonal relationships and the emotional fall-out of extreme events as much as solving a mystery. For me, story-telling is about a character’s journey though challenge, conflict, “death” and “rebirth” (the classic “Hero’s Journey”). For me, the story naturally concludes once the protagonist has completed this cycle of growth. I can imagine that in some ways it is “easier” to write a series, in that you generally have your setting, characters, etc. ready and waiting for you at the start of each book. However, I think I’d feel too “hemmed in”, since I do like the flexibility of being able to explore brand-new characters, themes and set-ups each time – even if it means starting from scratch with each book!
Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience? I began writing ‘seriously’ about 12 years ago, with a terrible novel that I never finished or showed anyone, but which made me fall in love with writing. I then wrote short stories for many years, which was a great way to practise my craft and learn what it takes to get published. In 2015, I left my full-time NHS job to work part time as a private psychologist, and began another novel. After slogging through 12 drafts (yes, 12), an agent at the York Festival of Writing showed some interest. She read the full MS and then suggested I re-write the whole thing. The thing is, she was totally right. So I re-wrote it – cue another 12+ drafts! – and (thankfully!) the agent took me. This ultimately became Little White Lies, which subsequently sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins. Somehow, I have since completed two further novels, and have a fourth in the pipeline!
The question you wished I’d asked you. Oo, I’m not sure! I’ll take this opportunity to say do come and say hi to me on Twitter (@philippa_east), which is where I’m regularly hanging out. I love chatting to readers, writers and all book-ish people, so I’ll be happy to hear from you. Obviously you can keep updated on my book news there, and I also post about upcoming author events I am doing (online and in person), in case you’d ever like to join in on that. You’ll also get to know my cat Mimi who regularly appears in my posts!
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?
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.
According to the Chinese zodiac, Donna Morris, the protagonist in my crime series set in Scarborough, is a tiger, so it is her year. The first book in the series, A Wake of Crows, is out in paperback soon, and the second, Drowning Not Waving, is published in hardback in June. A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk)
In a lot of cultures, resolutions are a part of the turning of the year. If the number of swimmers in our pool is anything to go by, most of Scarborough appears to have decided to take more exercise in 2022.
For writers – would be and more experienced – the resolution must be to write. To listen more, to notice more, to read more, but always to write.
In another interview, she suggested writing as if no one will read your words as a way of keeping going. This might be a method for circumventing the internal critic for some, however, for others I guess the question which might pop up is: ‘If there are no readers, then why write?’
For the pure joy. To tell us about ourselves. To explore the world as we and others experience it. To understand more. To distract us. To give us a safe place.
These are some of my answers. Let me know your own.
I do think that once we think of sharing our writing with a reader, then we have to consider them. We have to get feedback. We have to craft. But I also know that I would keep writing even if publication is not a possibility. Just as I would keep breathing – my rather fiery breath – since, in Chinese terms, I am a dragon.
A Wake of Crows has a back story which dips into the history of the former GDR (East Germany). I have wanted to write about the GDR for some time because of a long term friendship I have with a woman from Dresden and because of visits to that city and Berlin in the 1980s and after. One thing I noticed soon after the Berlin Wall came down was that the years of communism were being glazed over. Especially in Dresden where it was like the history of the city jumped from Baroque glory to the present day. This is changing somewhat particularly in Berlin. When I was last there, a park was being built up around remnants of the wall and oral histories of the communist period.
However, I do think as humans we are good at forgetting.
Recently I have been reading various books exploring racism to help me examine my part in it. The one I am currently on with is Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. She brings into sharp focus how racism is experienced by Black people in the UK and how white people in the UK have not even attempted to understand our history of slavery, prejudice and denigrating those who have been ‘othered’ and exploited because of the colour of their skin. We white people want to forget, because it is easier to do so. As Hirsch writes: ‘We want to be post-racial, without having ever admitted how racial a society we have been.’ (P125.)
Non-remembering is easier, but it means nothing changes.
There is a danger that the true visceral horror of the pandemic is being lost in the sprint to ‘get back to normal’. Plus, that the trauma and mistakes are not going to be springboards for a better way of doing things. We lurch, it seems to me, from one crises to another without any real vision. And we fall into the trap of silo-ing issues. An item on the news about climate change is quickly followed by another on ‘growth’ or holiday flights or problems with fuel deliveries. No link is made. No pause is taken to say, well maybe, because of climate change, we should be looking at things differently.
I certainly do not have any answers. But as a writer, I do think I have a role in keeping the collective memory alive. I have a role in pointing and saying, ‘There look’, even when it’s uncomfortable and upsetting. This is what I attempt to do, in a very small way, in my writing in general as well as in my novels.
When I was nineteen, I completed writing my first novel (on a typewriter – not even an electric one). As I started to send it out to agents, I knew exactly what my book launch would be like. It would be in a crowded bookstore. I would confidently do my reading before answering questions and signing the many books I was going to sell.
As time passed, I had some pieces published and writing sometimes came into my work, however, I did not secure the dreamed-of contract for my novels which I was searching for. I can’t say publication became less important, it is just that the writing became more important. Through the years, writing has developed into a passion; a support; a way to understand myself and the world better; and a friend.
Scroll forwards thirty-seven years, and I finally have a contract with a traditional publisher, Constable/Little Brown, to write three crime novels based in Scarborough. The first, A Wake of Crows, was published on the 3rd of June 2021. And the question I kept being asked was, what about a launch?
My editor explained that the main promotion would be done around the paperback coming out next year. Plus, well, we live in a Covid-world, so the idea of organising anything seems complex. Yet, I did not want this landmark in what I could loosely call my writing career pass without celebration. So I positioned myself in one of Scarborough’s many green spaces (one which helpfully has a refreshments van that serves vegan hot chocolate) and invited friends to pass by if they could. Some did and many others sent lovely supportive messages. It was very special.
There is a mix of emotions with any ‘birth’ of a creative piece. I remain excited and proud. Though I have not been able to actually open my book (in case my eye falls on a sentence I could have written better) I enjoy holding it, feeling the weight of it and admiring the cover.
The other week I spent several days camping by Coniston Water.
I visited the Ruskin Museum (a treasure trove of stories for any writer): Ruskin Museum – Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901 It has a section on Donald Campbell. He appears to have been a driven man (no pun intended). Once he achieved one speed record, he was onto the next (even though he had no rivals snapping at his heels). I did wonder if publication by a traditional publisher would somehow be ‘not enough’ after all these years of pushing for it. The good news is that I feel content at reaching this particular milestone. I may not have had the launch I envisaged in my teens – all red carpet (tiaras optional) – but it has very much lived up to, and survived, my expectations.
A Wake of Crows is available as an ebook, as an audiobook and as a hardback from all the usual outlets (online or terrestrial). The paperback will be out in 2022. As will the second in the series, currently entitled Drowning Not Waving.
For devotees of this blog – thank you for staying loyal – the concept of pantser or planner, when it comes to writing a novel, will not be new. However, to recap:
a planner plans meticulously each twist and turn in their novel before they start writing;
a pantser writes ‘by the seat of their pants’. They start writing without any real idea of where their story is going or even what it might be about.
I used to be a pantser. After now writing six crime novels – three self published, two unpublished and currently one under contract with Constable/Little Brown – I am moving towards becoming a planner. And, like many things in life it is a continuum, not an ‘either/or’. Or it should be, I believe, for any writer.
‘Pantser’ is joyously following your imagination and characters where they wilt. It means the writing surprises you the writer and will, therefore, surprise the reader. It will mean the writing can really plumb the layers of your sub-conscious and come up with what is truly original, unique to you and what you really what you want to say. On the other hand, perhaps especially with a crime novel, at least keeping a plan as you go along saves time in the future. Clues and red herrings have to tie up in the end. Whatever is written later in the novel has to be presaged by something earlier on. Tweaking or rewriting earlier passages in the re-drafting process means things have to be altered down the line. A prosaic example: in my current novel, A Wake of Crows, late on in the rewrites I decided my main protagonist had to have married when she was just 20, rather than just 19, this changes the wedding anniversary she thinks about in the ‘now’ of the story.
Val McDermid has said she has moved from being a planner towards being more of a pantser and, let’s be honest, her novels have improved over time (perhaps not just for this reason, learning ones craft is also important – writers are rarely born, they have to be developed). I was interested to learn from Ian Rankin (interviewed at the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2020, more of that below) that he writes a first draft and then does the research – a pantser turns planner. I would imagine this must mean the second draft requires a good amount of care in keeping everything straight.
What are you, pantser or planner?
Collage postcard by Kate Evans, Summer 2020
Zoomed Out This pandemic has spawned a host of new language in the usage of once familiar words. Pandemic, in itself, was once something which happened elsewhere but not to us – not anymore. Self and isolation when brought together have developed new meanings (and attendant feelings). Language is always evolving, though often more slowly, it is interesting (if unnerving) to watch it happen over just a few months.
Many of us are spending more time online. Hence the term ‘zoomed out’ (other platforms are available) to suggest too much screen time. I know I have been zoomed out more than once. However, there has been an upside to being forced more into the digital realm. I am a devotee of radio and am now discovering and enjoying more and more podcasts. Plus various events which I would never have thought to attend in person have become accessible to me. For instance, I joined an excellent series of poetry workshops exploring racism facilitated by Charmaine Pollard (https://charmainepollardcounselling.co.uk/) and Victoria Field (https://thepoetrypractice.co.uk/home/about/). In addition, here are a few other suggestions which may serve as an antidote to feeling zoomed out: