North. South. Front and back. It’s hard to keep track.
On our recent long weekend away I suffered from a disappearing library. University library at that.
We stayed in a flat in St Andrews’ North Street. South side. Front windows looked out onto the library across the road. Back windows looked south. It was probably the Waterstones building we saw the back of.
Bedrooms faced front, i.e. north. Living room faced south.
Are you with me so far?
I was pleased to to have a view of the large library building where Daughter once collected her knowledge. Did her homework. But when I sat down in ‘my’ armchair, I was confused because the library wasn’t there. Just some roof top. Wrong windows. Something about which room faces front? Or back. Also, isn’t front always south? Apparently not.
Three days wasn’t long enough to learn where the library was. But I’m sure a library ought to be visible from a person’s armchair…
At least the flat had books. I’d have been quite happy to read some of them, had I come unprepared. There was also a selection of books for sale at Kinross Services, where we had time to kill while the car charged, which it only did because there was literally no parking (Bank Holiday weekend). At all. So I made the executive decision that since the charging spots were empty and we had a car that could ‘eat’ there, that’s what we would do.
With my very senior witch’s hat on I – erm – signed up for this event twice. Nearly three times, in fact. I’m obviously quite keen. ‘How to Write a Crime Fiction Bestseller’ was the way for some Tuesday morning skiving off work, to hang out with Vaseem Khan on Zoom, courtesy of The Society of Authors. It was really for budding crime writers, but as I have no novel – crime or otherwise – in me, I was able to lean back and enjoy.
With two pointy implements behind him – his Historical Dagger Award, and a cactus – plus a suitably messy bookcase, Vaseem looked the business. Apparently crime pays, or at least, it outsells other genres. Beer helps, if he’s to be believed.
I already loved Vaseem, but to find out he used to be a Terry Pratchett wannabe was a lovely surprise. When that didn’t pay, and didn’t even let him escape getting an education, he went to LSE, became a management consultant and went to India to work for ten years. And for twenty long years he wrote seven novels that all failed to go anywhere, possibly because he wrote what he thought was wanted; white, English books.
Success came when he wrote something much more himself, and then added a baby elephant, and there we were. The hook (he kept mentioning the need for hooks) for him was the first sentence: ‘On the day he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.’ I remember quite liking that.
You need to flex your writing muscle, and presumably that’s what those seven unwanted novels did. With less expectation when you are a new writer, you have the potential to exceed those expectations and that’s good for numbers, for publishers. You need a theme, as well as a plot and characters. If you can write something that is the same – but different – as some successful books, that would be good. Comping is a thing. You will be compared to others, and hopefully a place will be found for you. Vaseem admitted to borrowing from the da Vinci Code (I will try to forgive him).
Another ‘magic ingredient’ is quality, which in Vaseem’s case is to attempt to write like Hemingway. Study your favourite style. Remember the hooks. Make sure you don’t say the police jeep has windows when it doesn’t, i.e. get your facts right. Ginger is not an ingredient for either Chopra or Vaseem (I might have to disown him after all).
Characters matter more than plot. Make sure you have some secondary characters, who are actually interesting. Consider what’s hot, or not. Psychological thrillers are in, as is cosy crime. Everyone wants to be Richard Osman. Or write Gone Girl. Vaseem loves Michael Connelly, but also admitted to basing Chopra on the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
On writing outside one’s own culture, Vaseem is all for it. (His book for next year is a standalone set in small town US…)
After a [very civilised] potty break, it was question time.
In a crime novel, every book plot needs to be finished. The characters can go on. And you should avoid saggy middles, which I gather is easier with an editor because they will catch anything that sags. For us older [sagging] forgetful readers Vaseem suggests adding reminders of what’s happened earlier in the book. (I thank you.) And female detectives are allowed to get things wrong, just like their male counterparts.
Vaseem likes events, both large and smaller ones. Anything that gets him out there to meet readers. You want book charisma to persuade people to want your book. Newsletters are the best way of selling yourself online. You are in control and can talk directly to fans who have chosen to be on your mailing list. Events are outside your control, but very good even so.
And for god’s sake, bring back Ganesh!!! (Those are my words.)
It’s never easy. The dentist asked if I was making the Resident IT Consultant’s favourite meal for dinner. After a three second silence I admitted I wasn’t. I used to. But had come to the conclusion that he doesn’t have a favourite; just that he once claimed to particularly like one dish. That’s the Resident IT Consultant, not the dentist.
So I made something else instead. Took me forever, especially factoring in the trip to the dentist in the middle of the day. Plus two cakes, the way I often do.
Back to the presents. With Son having got in with the big guns last week, there wasn’t much we could do. A paperback book each. And let’s face it, that’s enough.
Once I’d bought the Ambrose Parry I suddenly thought it was bound to be one he’d read. Except he’d never heard of him, or them. So that was all right. Daughter played it safe, really safe, and got the brand new crime story collection edited by family favourite Martin Edwards. This time it’s Crimes of Cymru. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t want a cover like that?
Over the years I have gone on and on about the benefits of reading, from my own childhood to Offspring’s. So much to gain in different ways. Read more. Start, if you don’t already.
The other day I was thinking about friends. In general, I mean. I was reminded of how I have [had] many friends in the generation above – i.e. older than – me. (Now I’m so old the boot is occasionally on the other foot; I’m the old one and I have younger friends.)
I was also reminded of the fact that not all friends remain ‘current’ over the decades. And that that’s all right. Someone from my childhood might have slipped off the immediate radar, and I now receive more of my tulips from a newer friend. That sort of thing.
Have stayed good friends with (at least I hope I have) one girl from school, and chatting on Fb or exchanging Christmas cards with a few more.
And then, then I thought of my other friend from school, the ‘same’ age as me (I started too young; no one’s the same age as me), and how she reappeared in my life after a break of almost forty years. That was through books. Hers. Discovering someone from the past because she had written a book, and this leading to annual meetings and fun, thoughtful emails.
I bless the suitcase I went to buy, giving the Resident IT Consultant permission to buy a book while he waited, and it was that book. You just never know what this kind of rash behaviour might bring.
This could have been written about me, the young witchlet. And for that reason, presumably also about many of you, and that will be why it appeals so much. Hilary McKay’s new book for Barrington Stoke is a sweet blend of loneliness and nature.
Jodie is new at school, and hasn’t made any friends. But she still has to go on the school’s trip to the field centre, staying overnight, sharing a room with five other girls, and not only has she got the ‘wrong’, new equipment, but the teacher she trusts is unable to come.
She ends up breaking the centre’s rules, partly because she needs to escape the other girls, and partly because there is this dog that keeps barking and she wants to find it, to help it. And then she gets stuck on the salt marshes.
She is so lonely, and so brave. She knows no one will come for her, no one will miss her. Or be able to find her.
This is a slightly supernatural tale of bravery, love and friendship. Not everything is as it seems.
JD Kirk’s new detective, DI Heather Filson, is slightly less refined than I had carelessly expected [on account of her sex]. There is sex. Much alcohol, plenty of swearing, threats, violence and death. The One That Got Away is well plotted, and it grabs you by your ****. You sit there, clinging on.
Child abduction is never pleasant. Everyone is reminded of the three girls from over thirty years ago, and for Heather it is extremely close to home. But at least the killer is dead. This has to be copycat. Unless the killer is less dead than assumed? But plenty of possible, unsavoury copycat sex pests out there.
Kept back by an incompetent boss, Heather gets impatient. She finds herself spending more time than she would like in the company of the local gangster, who has his own agenda.
A spinoff of the DCI Logan novels, there is also an ace 15-year-old autistic ‘sidekick’ for Heather, whom I would love to see more of.
This was one hell* of a book. What to read now? The next Heather Filson would be nice. I suppose that’s somewhat unrealistic as this one isn’t even in the shops yet. But considering how JD writes a new book every few weeks, I am hopeful.
(*Apologies for the language. I blame JD and Heather.)
‘The actor Terrence Hardiman, who terrified a generation of children in the titular role of the CBBC series The Demon Headmaster in the 1990s, has died aged 86.’ What does the Guardian mean? A generation of children? Yes, I dare say, but what about the parents? I was terrified too. Can’t have been the only one.
We always came home from school and put on the television with our post-educational snack. We usually enjoyed most things that were on. Did we enjoy The Demon Headmaster? I couldn’t say. We survived it.
Actually, I vaguely recall a Blue Peter interview with Terrence Hardiman, where although he still looked like the headmaster, he seemed quite nice. He might even have been a vegetarian. (I don’t know if this is a recommendation, but I took it as such.)
Many years later the Bookwitch read one of the books [by Gillian Cross]. It was set much later, and it sort of explained some of the horrors from the television series.
You’d be tempted to think that made it all right, but in actual fact, it was bloody terrifying. Still. Too. And being a book it didn’t have Terrence Hardiman in it, except in my visual memory of what the Demon Headmaster looked like. Those eyes!
But thank you Terrence, for what you did. It was Very Memorable.
You may recall my thoughts on going into bookshops to browse. Occasionally I really want to do that, to see what’s new. To touch it, and to decide. And how my local shop’s crazy lift makes me not want to browse after all. How I wait until I’m in St Andrews, where browsing can take place on the level. Street level.
So that is what I planned to engage in over the weekend. We went in. I found crime, and YA, and children’s for various ages.
What I didn’t find was inspiration. Nothing leapt out at me. Not having been informed of much that is new, I simply didn’t ‘see’ it. By the time I reached children’s, I could remember one preplanned title. Slightly hard to find, but I did walk out* with Derek Landy’s latest, the Skulduggery Pleasant prequel, Hell Breaks Loose. Which seems very prequelly indeed, going back in time considerably.
*I paid for it. Obviously.
Looked at crime on the way out again, but wasn’t inspired.
So that was that.
Didn’t even muster up any enthusiasm in the shoe shop which came next. Must be me, then.
“Coffee pods have just been delivered. As has ‘The One Who Got Away,’ who clearly didn’t!” So said the Resident IT Consultant in his WhatsApp message on Saturday.
I had, in fact, got away, which is why I wasn’t there for the coffee. But the rest of the message made no sense to me. Book title. Probably. But why, or whose? I’d not bought anything. Besides, he’d have had to have opened any package to know what got away, or didn’t.
When I got home, it was obvious. See-through packaging. Or ‘Evidence Bag’ as they call it. Front cover of the book clearly visible on the clear side of the bag. Very clever. A bit gimmicky, perhaps. But I like a good gimmick.
I have another book on the go, but how am I going to make myself wait?