Thursday 11 December 2014

Girl Online

There has been what we might call a little literary scandal over the publication of a new book for teenagers, Girl Online. To many of us - all right, us oldies - it seems fairly missable, dismissed in the Telegraph as a book that "even Winnie the Pooh might regard as a bit twee". But hang on - a young author's fluffy debut novel published by Penguin and reviewed in a national newspaper? 
To preempt any accusation of sour grapes, I should point out that I've had my fair share of media reviews. My latest book was number 1 in The Times crime review last month. So I am not griping about the success of Girl Online out of any sense of personal entitlement, or jealousy. As it happens, I am thrilled by the huge success my own books have enjoyed. I'm certainly not jealous of the public humiliation Zoe Suggs has suffered. 
I'm just slightly bothered about the issues it raises.
Girl Online has attracted attention from the media that many hard working genuine authors can never hope to receive. I use the work 'genuine' advisedly, because of course we all know that Zoe Suggs did not write Girl Online herself. When Penguin decided to put her name on the cover, they also decided not to disclose the fact that the book had been ghost written by a 'real' author. Their duplicity backfired, angering a lot of people. 
What on earth prompted Penguin to behave in such a cavalier and disrespectful fashion towards authors, books and readers? 
The truth is, Penguin probably don't care about the criticism, because Zoe Suggs has 6 million followers on her vlog, where she chats about fashion and girly issues. Enough of these young girls are buying Girl Online for it to be number 1 on the bestseller list on amazon, admittedly only in hardcover. Penguin expect it to be the number 1 bestseller for Christmas, and I daresay it will be. Teenage girls don't care if Zoe Suggs wrote the book or just put her picture on the cover of a book someone else wrote. They are fans, devoted in the way that only teenage girls can be. Penguin know what they are doing, and it's all about sales. They have come a long way from their original raison d'etre in the 1930s, publishing cheap paperbacks to ensure literature would be accessible to everyone, regardless of income. These days they are running a business, struggling to survive in the competitive world of publishing. Regardless of any rights or wrongs, Girl Online is a profitable project.
The cult of celebrity meets the cult of youth. It's a winning formula. It's nothing new. Shakespeare complained in 1601 about unskilled child actors taking work from experienced professionals. For "there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the fashion." Fashion, by definition, is ephemeral. Does anyone today know who those child actors were?
Instead of putting their efforts into promoting a transient fad, for a short term financial gain, Penguin would be better off supporting their many genuinely talented authors. Is Zoe Suggs (who isn't actually Zoe Suggs at all) really the best they can pull out of the bag as their Number 1 book for Christmas? They should be embarrassed. Publishers need to be working hard to introduce readers to talented new authors. If they don't, what is their role other than to make a quick buck?
If publishers simply try to cash in on current fads, they risk hastening their own demise. That is the real issue.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Evening at Waterstones Piccadilly

My name is on the list
Signing one of my books for David Mitchell
With authors Barry Forshaw and Howard Linskey
With my agent Annette Crossland

We all had a fabulous evening - really busy - with plenty of wine and mince pies! Thanks to Waterstones for looking after us so well. 

Monday 10 November 2014

Criminal Masterminds!

It's official. I'm a criminal mastermind! Well, that's what the programme said, when I was booked to appear on a panel at St Albans Literary Festival. Fellow speakers James Runcie (ITV's Grantchester) and Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of Blood and Dr Who) and I were kept deftly in line by BBC presenter Martine Croxall who controlled us criminals with admirable aplomb. I was very well behaved, following Martine's instructions to the letter, talking and giving a short reading. Ben Aaronovitch dived straight off the script and declined to read from one of his books. Of course we all forgave him, not only because he explained that he could not pronounce his characters' accents, but because he kept us amused with his account of his progress from bookseller to bestselling author. James told us why he set his Grantchester series in the 1950s. Along with some hilarious anecdotes, he discussed the moral dimension of his crime novels and offered some insights into the world of television from behind the scenes. As my own series are currently In preproduction, I wanted to take notes under the table.
After a lovely opening with live jazz as the audience packed the large auditorium, we each spoke about our work for around twenty minutes. Following another short musical interlude, Martine chaired a Q and A session, after which there was a different kind of queue as people lined up to have books signed. 
It was a real privilege to share the podium with three such luminaries of page and screen. I can confide from the green room that they are all three not only witty and highly intelligent, but charming and modest too. It was great fun, and the sense of camaraderie that sprang up between us felt very special. I could have chatted in the green room all night! 
All in all it was a wonderful evening - and the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves too! 

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Browsing the web

A writer's (worrying) browsing history - all in the name of research

Whenever possible, I prefer to conduct my research by talking to real people. Whether I'm seeking guidance from a professor of forensic medicine, a police detective, or someone working in WH Smith's, so far everyone I have approached has been really helpful. Many of the details included in  my books are barely noticeable. Nevertheless, they are important, because they help create an illusion of reality. 

A market trader in one of my books has a stack of banana boxes in her front room. Only someone working in a market would know that these are the boxes favoured by stallholders, because they are strong. Although readers might not be conscious of that tiny detail, yet the scene would seem authentic to any market trader reading the book. This is just one example of the care I take to create the illusion that the world of my books is real. 

Like anyone involved in writing, I also research on the internet. It never ceases to amaze me how much detailed information is readily available online. In fifteen easy steps, with pictures, you can learn how to handle a gun. You can find out how to blow up a car, or rob a safe, or how to obtain fake documents.

Browsing the internet feels safe, but in reality the activity is a two-way process.  Recently a man was, quite rightly, prosecuted for posting a racist comment on twitter. If the comment had been made in a pub the speaker might well have been punched in the face, but he certainly wouldn't have ended up in court. We've probably all said something offensive, in private, but posting an offensive comment online is very different. It's out there in the public domain and you can't take it back, or claim to have been misunderstood.

So what is the position with browsing histories on computers? What I do at home is my own affair. It's no one else's business. My browsing history is private, and hidden from other people. At least that's how it seems. But it remains accessible to anyone who wants to look for it. Even if it's deleted, the information can be retrieved. Like leaving invisible traces of your DNA just by breathing when you enter a room, every search you make on a computer leaves a footprint, some of which might, potentially, land you in trouble. 

Of course it's possible to click on an unsavoury website by mistake. Although it may not be not easy, it's possible. But what about a browsing history that shows its user has regularly searched for questionable material? From poison to paedophilia, guns to gambling, torture to terror, homicide and horror, murder and misery, drugs trafficking, people trafficking, my browsing history includes research into many seedy and illegal activities. 

Writing  this post has started me wondering... What if someone put a writer in the frame for a crime that involved material the writer was researching? The police might reasonably treat the writer as a suspect. Perhaps, on balance, it's safer to carry out research by speaking to real people! 

And now I'm off to delete my browsing history on my computer, as far as I can... 

Links to all my books - the results of my research - can be found on Leigh Russell website

Leigh Russell website

Monday 6 October 2014

How the World of Publishing has changed

My own personal writing process has changed almost beyond recognition over the past six years. To begin with I wrote longhand, in pencil. The first draft of Cut Short was written with no plans for the future. I had no idea anyone else would ever read it, let alone publish it. Certainly it certainly never occurred to me that it would become the first in a long running bestselling series, nominated for major awards and reaching number 1 on kindle. At that stage I was writing just for myself. Nine books on, I have abandoned handwriting in favour of typing my manuscripts. It's much faster, which is just as well as I'm now delivering two manuscripts a year to my publisher. The other big change is that I now write for my readers, not for myself. 
The world of publishing has also undergone huge changes, which are ongoing. When my debut, Cut Short, first came out in paperback, in 2009  fellow author suggested I ask my publisher to bring it out as an ebook as well. At that time, I had heard of ebooks but wasn't quite sure what they were... The ebook duly came out about six months after the paperback and that happened again in 2010 with Road Closed. By the time Dead End was published in 2011, the ebook and print book were published at the same time. Sales of my books are huge on kindle, with all of them reaching the Top 10, and one even hitting the coveted number 1 spot. Sales figures of my print books are not quite so high, and that seems to be a trend throughout the publishing industry. I do wonder where books sales will go next. 
Another change that has come about due to the internet is that it is now possible for readers to contact authors directly. A day never passes now without my receiving an email via my website, or a DM on facebook or twitter, from a fan of Geraldine Steel or Ian Peterson. It's lovely to hear from readers all around the world, and I always respond as promptly as I can. This is a bonus that simply didn't exist for authors just a few years ago. 
My life as an author has changed so much since Cut Short came out in 2009. Who knows what further changes are in store for us? 

Links to all my books, and facebook and twitter accounts, on, together with news, reviews, events and interviews
This post was first published in The Reading Thing blog

RACE TO DEATH is out now in paperback, and getting great reviews

Blog Tour Day One

For the first stop of my October Blog Tour I was invited to comment on how the world of publishing has changed.

I hope you find it interesting! I'll post the text of it here tomorrow or you can read it now on 

Thanks to The Reading Thing for hosting. 

Friday 3 October 2014

Is This Education?

Having spent several decades as a secondary school English teacher, I cannot let this article in The Times pass without comment.

          English A-level students will study Russell Brand, Jamie Oliver and Dizzee Rascal, despite accusations from within government that classwork was being “dumbed down”.
          Television clips of the comedian, the chef and the rapper have been approved for teaching next year. Sixth formers will also study the Twitter feed of Times columnist Caitlin Moran, an episode from the children’s TV show Horrible Histories and a comic-style graphic story alongside conventional classic and contemporary literature.
           “This is exactly the kind of dumbing down we are trying to get rid of,” a Department for Education source said at the time. “They must be having a laugh if they think A levels in Dizzee Rascal and Russell Brand are going to be let through.”
          Yesterday, however, the OCR exam board announced that its A level in English language and literature had been approved by Ofqual. It will be taught in schools next year, with pupils sitting AS levels in the qualification in 2016 and redesigned linear A levels in June 2017.
Asked if the content was dumbed down, Ms Bleiman replied: “Absolutely not. This is about serious linguistic study. We have chosen what we think are absolutely fascinating high-quality examples of language in use.”
          Clips of Dizzee Rascal interviewed on Newsnight, Oliver speaking to camera on a cookery show and Brand giving evidence on drugs to a committee of MPs are among 20 set texts for one element of the course and may crop up in exam questions, as may Moran’s streams of consciousness on Twitter. 
The Times

          Well, Ofqual can insist this isn't dumbing down if they like, but television clips and a children's TV show weren't on the A Level syllabus when I was at school. We struggled through Chaucer (in the original), Milton, Shakespeare and Donne - and we rose to the challenge. Without help I wouldn't have coped with those writers then, but I can enjoy them now, thanks to my teachers. Surely that is the purpose of education. 
          What is the point of A Level English if it only exposes young minds to texts they can access by themselves? Or are today's A Level students unable to understand and appreciate TV's Horrible Histories without support? 

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Book of the Month

     Race to Death is Crime Book Club's BOOK OF THE MONTH

Available as eBook and in paperback - links on

Monday 29 September 2014

How to Sell Books

The buzz word for authors these days is 'discoverability.' After all, what is the point of  publishing your book if no one reads it? And how is anyone going to read your book if they don't know about it?
This may be less pressing with ebooks which don't incur all the production and distribution costs of physical books. Whatever form the books take, it must be possible to cut corners for writers on a tight budget, determined to see their work published. But publishing any book still costs money, time and effort. Someone has to do the work, and put in the hours.
Whatever their expenses, self-published authors don't want to be exploited. Yet a shocking 98% of self-published authors fail to even cover their costs. It seems that making money out of aspiring authors is a mega-industry these days. Someone is making money, and it's certainly not the authors.
Regardless of whether they are traditionally published or self-published, all authors want readers, whether because they provide them with an income, or for personal satisfaction. In order to survive, books ('products') need readers ('customers'). In this respect publishing is the same as any other business. Publisher and author enter into a symbiotic relationship. Successful books benefit everyone involved in their production: agent, publisher, production team, technical team, editor, proof readers, sales team, distributor, publicists, translators, bookseller, reader... it's a long list, right down to the modest author who kick starts the whole process.
What can authors do to find readers? That is the big question. Whether we like it or not, the stereotype of the author as remote and isolated in an ivory tower is largely defunct. Most authors nowadays accept that speaking at literary festivals and signing in Bookshops is part of the job.
But the best marketing comes from readers. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool, and it's one that is impossible to control, except by writing books that readers want to read and recommend to their friends.
So the author's job is still to write the best book they can. Some things never change.

Friday 26 September 2014

Writing a Spin Off Series

In all my interviews and posts about writing a spin off series, I never considered the possibility of confusing my two crime series. Geraldine Steel is a DI on the Met in London, while her former sergeant, Ian Peterson, is now a DI working in York. Clear enough?
Today I sat down to type the next chapter of the third book in the Ian Peterson series.
Let me give you the context. I'll try not to confuse you. I completed the seventh Geraldine Steel book, Killer Plan, before starting on the third Ian Peterson. That manuscript was interrupted for about a month while I was away at a literary festival in France, and then dealing with the edits for Killer Plan.
It's probably the case for most authors, that when I'm writing a book the narrative lodges inside my head like a giant coiled up worm that has to be unwound and released. Once a story is inside my head, it occupies my thoughts until I've written it out. Half way through the third Ian Peterson story, I had to abandon it temporarily and it went out of my head. My internal 'reality' changed.
Are you still with me?
So today I returned to the third book in the Ian Peterson series. The chapter I was working on opened with the local profiler. Chancing to check on another character in my 'Character Notes' document, I realised that I had introduced the wrong profiler into the Ian Peterson story! Instead of Ian's sympathetic clever male profiler from York, the rather irritating female London profiler from the Geraldine series was there discussing Ian's case with him in York.
Of course I would have realised, and my Editor would certainly have noticed, so there's no way that could have slipped through the net to publication. Even so... I'm going to have to watch out! Writing a spin off series has more potential pitfalls than I realised...      

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Living the Dream - Life as a Bestselling Author

After writing for six years, I find myself in the enviable position of earning a very decent living from writing fiction. Recently I took the plunge and gave up my day job as a school teacher. After all, if a crime author can't bite the bullet, what hope is there for any writer? So here I am at last, living the dream. I can finally call myself a full-time writer. And this is the point where I am beginning to realise that, in my case at least, 'full-time writer' is a bit of a misnomer. You might expect that I would have a lot more time to devote to my writing, now that I'm writing full-time. That was certainly my expectation when I gave up the day job. The reality is somewhat different...
It's hard to credit, but now that I no longer have the day job, I'm actually struggling to maintain my output. I hesitate to admit that I'm actually doing less writing now than when I was working. (Although I now earn my living from writing, I still can't think of writing as work.)  'Writers' block,' you mutter knowingly, 'that's why she's struggling to write so much.' You couldn't be more wrong.
The problem that keeps me from writing is that I'm just too busy. Take my visit to York in October. I'm going there to research the area for the Ian Peterson series which is set in York. Of the twelve days I'll be be in the area, I actually have two days free for my research. The rest of the visit is taken up with seven bookshop visits, two library talks, and one U3A talk, and then there's likely to be a radio interview and an interview with a local paper - and I still need to fit in a  talk to students at a local college. And so it goes on... I'm going to struggle to fit in all my research. Writing won't get a look in.
Look at my summer. July was occupied with a research trip for a week, followed by a crime festival which took up nearly another week. apart from two book signings, two author talks, and six meetings. In August I spent two weeks teaching at the Writers Lab in Greece, followed by a week at a Literary Festival in France, with a signing and a meeting thrown in between my travels. And so it goes on, meetings, book signings, author talks and workshops, one after another, with seemingly no let up.
It's all great fun, but I do sometimes look back at the days when all I did was work full-time in a normal job, and write books. Life was so much simpler then, and, dare I say it, not quite such hard work.

Saturday 20 September 2014

CWA Dagger in the Library 2014

With Mel Sherratt and Elly Griffiths, also long listed for the CWA Dagger in the Library 

Saturday 6 September 2014

A Solitary Pursuit?

It's a familiar cliche to say that the life of an author is a solitary one, stuck behind a desk typing. But what about those of us who struggle to find a quiet spot in which to write? Not everyone enjoys the luxury of an empty house - or even a private study.
My husband helpfully remarked recently that we have a decent sized garden shed, large enough to house a table and chair. By dint of pushing the garden tools right up against the wall, stacking spare plastic chairs in one precarious pile, and engaging in a battle with the lawnmower, it could be done. The shed even boasts the benefit of a small skylight to admit natural daylight. With the faint glow of my screen, that could be workable. But I'm not sure I fancy spending hours with spiders and garden sheers, especially as I have just (ficititiously!) battered a poor man to death in his garden shed. I should add that this scene was written BEFORE my husband's suggestion!
I do have a very nice desk in the house, complete with comfortable chair, and bookshelves spacious enough to house a copy of every edition of all my books, including all the editions in translation, and more in hardback and large print... Now I come to think of it with two books coming out a year from now on, I'll soon be needing more bookshelves.
   The trouble with my very nice desk in my quiet study is that with three other people living in the house, all under strict instructions not to disturb me when I'm writing, there is usually someone bringing me a cup of tea, and then of course they stop for a chat.
The easy alternative is to go out to a local cafe - but then I'm often accosted by a local friend and yes, they stop for a chat.
And when I am left to my own devices, there are my friends and contacts online: facebook, twitter, and my blog.
So I guess it's me... It's a wonder I get any writing done at all!

Thursday 7 August 2014

Competition in the 21st Century

Margaret Sarlej, at the University of New South Wales, has devised a programme that enables computers to generate simple stories. In a statement that may cause some concern to authors, she claims "computers will be making interesting and meaningful contributions to literature within the decade", although she does go on to admit that "it's pretty unlikely a computer will ever produce works like War and Peace."

For those of you who are interested in what, to some, raises a dystopian view of the future, here is an example of one such story, 'written' by a computer.

Once upon a time there lived a dragon, a fairy and a princess. The dragon hated the fairy. 
One summer's morning the dragon gave the treasure to the princess. As a result, the princess had the treasure. The princess felt joy that she had the treasure. The princess felt gratitude towards the dragon about giving the treasure to her because she had the treasure. The fairy and the princess started to love the dragon. 
A short time later the princess killed the fairy. As a result, the fairy was dead. The dragon felt joy that the fairy was dead. The dragon felt gratitude towards the princess about killing the fairy because the fairy was dead.  

Yes, it's pretty silly. But substitute king for dragon, and wicked queen for fairy, and it starts to make sense.

Once upon a time there lived a king, a wicked queen and a princess. The king hated the wicked queen. One summer's morning the king gave the treasure to the princess. As a result, the princess had the treasure. The princess felt joy that she had the treasure. The princess felt gratitude towards the king because she had the treasure. The wicked queen and the princess started to love the king. 
A short time later the princess killed the wicked queen. The king felt joy that the wicked queen was dead. The king felt gratitude towards the princess about killing the wicked queen.

A child of seven could write that. Give the child ten years and they would be writing something rather more sophisticated. They wouldn't come up with anything quite War and Peace, perhaps, but would be writing a decent story within the decade. Just like a computer, in fact.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Does It Matter What We Read?

     It seems that amazon and Apple have whizzy computer algorithms (whatever they are) capable of analysing our reading habits in order to recommend books to us. As far as I can gather, they do this by registering data such as references to sex, and no doubt word length and sentence length as well.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? No, not that computers will soon be writing books for us -  if that isn't already happening. (How would we know?  Because some books are so badly written? Hmmm. That might explain a lot... ) Forgive me, there are some areas that are simply too horrendous to contemplate so no, I'm not musing about computer-generated books.
      I'm wondering about the subtleties of context.

''Did the victim have sex last night?'
'No, Sergeant. There's no evidence of any sexual activity, or any sexual interference of any kind last night, although she was sexually active.'
'Yes, and we know she was a lesbian.'
       That's four references to sex in what is clearly a (badly written) murder enquiry, with no mention of death.

'She lay immobile as a corpse when he entered her, and could have been dead throughout, her body rigid and unresponsive.'
Two references to death and no mention of sex in what is clearly a (terribly written) sex scene.

What might amazon and Apple's whizzy computer analysis systems make of those? Fair enough, they were written specifically to illustrate the point. Let's pose the same question with some proper writing:

'Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs Jones was already snoring.
As soon as the light in the bedroom went out there was a stirring and a fluttering all through the farm buildings. Word had gone round during the day that old Major, the prize Middle White boar, had had a strange dream on the previous night and wished to communicate it to the other animals. It had been agreed that they should all meet in the big barn as soon as Mr Jones was safely out of the way.'

      What conclusions might a computer draw from that? And what about Shakespeare's verse? Or the poetry of TS Eliot?

'Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.'

     The mind boggles. The mind of the analysing computer, that is...

And yes, amazon and Apple, I've read Orwell, Shakespeare, and TS Eliot, as well as Chandler, Lee Child, Edith Wharton, P G Wodehouse, Kurtz Vonnegut, Dickens, Mark Twain, JD Salinger, Dostoevsky, Kazuo Ishiguru, Jerome K Jerome, Jeffery Deaver... to name just a very few of the random and eclectic collection of authors I've enjoyed. I could name thousands - from Alfred Tennison to Jane Tennison, William Shakespeare to Just William... a hotch potch of authors most of whom who could  never be linked in any way, other than that they are all brilliant in their own way - in my very human opinion.
The issue is that taking any one of these books as a starting point, a computer programme would never recommend most of the others. 'You enjoyed Carry on, Jeeves? You'll like Crime and Punishment.' I don't think so.
Do we really want to restrict our reading experience to one kind of book, or one narrow genre? Surely that misses the point of reading fiction. Yes, we read to be entertained, but through reading the words, ideas and thoughts of others, we can also widen our horizons.
We shouldn't allow an ingenious computer programme to limit our understanding of the world.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Why You Should Visit Your Local

I feel a campaign coming on. "Oh no!" I hear you cry, "not another bloody campaign." Yes, we do seem to see rather a lot of them, and yes, I do seem to be forever banging on about different issues, hopefully with a modicum of good sense thrown into the mix from time to time... but this is an issue that concerns us all. It's an issue that should matter deeply to a society that aspires to call itself a civilisation.
   OK, lots of sweeping statements here. You are free to challenge anything I say. In fact, comments are welcome on my blog. They are screened as I reserve the right not to publish comments, not from readers who disagree with my views - I like a lively debate. The ones I delete tend to come from people who arrived on planet earth from elsewhere in our solar system, or even further afield than that. You know the kind of comments I mean. I deleted one only the other day from a reader who was not from earth, because that's blatant nonsense... isn't it? (If I'm wrong, hearty apologies to the alien in question, if you're still reading this, and of course we should make allowances for your poor grasp of English grammar.)
   Back to the serious matter. I'm talking about visiting your local. When was the last time you wandered in off the street, took the weight off your feet, looked around to see who was there, perhaps exchanged a friendly word or two with the girl at the counter, and left feeling mentally refreshed and invigorated? And all without spending a penny. "All that for free?" I hear you cry. (Apologies, dear reader, you see  to be doing a lot of crying out in surprise in this post...) Well, yes. It's all free. 
It's a poor reflection on our cultural values if you automatically understood your "local" to be the pub (which is also struggling to survive - but that's another campaign). 
   I am writing about your local library - if you still have one. 
   "Why should we care," (is that you, crying out again?) "when we can access thousands of free books at the touch of a screen?"
   I remember experiencing a visceral thrill the first time I entered a library. Within one sweep of my eyes hundreds, maybe thousands, of books were there, within reach: stories waiting to be read, imaginary worlds to enter, and characters to meet. Mr Tumnus, Lucy, Emil, Lottie and Lisa, Alice, Oliver Twist, the water babies, and later Jane and Rochester, Heathcliff, Philip Marlowe and Hamlet - anything and everything to explore. 
   Yes, they are all there, waiting to be discovered on our screens. With one touch we can access any book that has ever been published. It is absolutely wonderful. But our immediate view is limited to a few titles that appear on the screen in front of us. With one sweep of our eyes we cannot encompass row upon row of books that we can reach out and touch in a physical interaction. Ebooks are wonderful, but they offer a different kind of magic. 
   I worry that my children's children will never experience that sense of excitement I felt on gazing around in wonder at row upon row of books, all waiting to be explored.
   So this bears repeating - support your local library. When did you last go in and browse... and read... and exchange a few friendly words with your local librarian... and borrow a few books...? It's free, and if we don't use them we will lose them. 
   If you believe libraries matter then make space in your busy schedule to visit a library this week.

Sunday 20 July 2014

The original 'Mysteries'

What better way to end a weekend at Harrogate Crime Festival talking about mysteries than watching the York Mystery Plays?

Forensic Panel

I was particularly looking forward to the panel on new developments in forensic science, and it  didn't disappoint. As with all the panels and conversations, it's impossible to do it justice here. All I can do is offer a tiny snapshot of the fascinating insights we were given by Tony Thompson, Dave Barclay, Elizabeth Haines and Paul Finch, chaired by David Hewson.
From the earliest recorded forensic examination when someone was killed with a sickle in the 13th century (everyone in the village had to bring their sickles - flies settled on only one) to the most modern methods, the discussion was wide ranging. The panel discussed Oscar Pistorius, and the forensic minutiae left when a victim is shot through a door (leaving traces of wood and paint in the wound). Dave concluded "we mustn't say if he is guilty or not - but he certainly did it."
There was a discussion about how DNA can establish guilt but can also establish innocence, cases where DNA testing was deliberately circumvented, and cases of inadvertant cross contamination.
Paul told anecdotes from his days as a police officer in Manchester, and pointed out how clean crime scenes are when depicted on television, compared to the reality.
Elizabeth explained the role of a police analyst, and the case where she spotted the criminal, while Tony said he prefers talking to criminals, rather than the police, as "crims know more." 
Dave's concluding advice was that if you want to kill someone, "keep it simple. Push them off a cliff." 

Sophie Hannah and S J Watson in conversation

Sophie told us she's interested in the mysteries of life. "If I'm sufficiently interested in something to be thinking about it at all then I'm thinking about it constantly." I real life there are many small mysteries that are never resolved, but that can't happen in crime fiction. The successful solving of a mystery is a feeling we rarely have in real life.   
They discussed what drives their narratives, for Sophie it's plot, for Steve character. Crime fiction tells us that people are not necessarily who we think they are. "We all wear masks all the time." Sophie told us she doesn't have "baddies" but what she calls "flawdies." 
Steve talked about the strangeness of the transition from sitting at his desk typing to seeing Nicole Kidman on the big screen playing the character he had created. 
Along with some hilarious anecdotes, it was a thought provoking and enjoyable discussion.

Saturday 19 July 2014

An interview with Lynda La Plante

I have to confess that I arrived late to this interview - no, I didn't oversleep... I misread the programme... I caught most of it, but couldn't barge through to the front of the room, so the photo here is a little distant, for which I apologise.
    Lynda told us "these events are fantastic for me, I meet the people who read me. It's a fantastic feeling." 
     She described how she insisted on Helen Mirren to play the part of Jane Tennison. She is very excited about writing a prequel. Asked where Jane Tennison came from, Lynda said she's very excited to discover her background. There are  precedents for this. When he was asked where Philip Marlowe came from, Raymond Chandler said "I've no idea." As for who she would like to see playing the young Jane Tennison, she said "I don't want a name, I want to find her and that's going to be very exciting."
      She gave us some hilarious insights into her research in Russia, talked about crimes she wouldn't write about, and about her love for writing. "The key is I love it. I love every second of it. It fills my life." 

Friday 18 July 2014

With other authors at Harrogate

With award winning Belinda Bauer, and with Louise Voss and fellow #1 on kindle author Martin Edwards
   With Mel Sherratt
   With Howard Lindkey, Ion Mills (who publishes us all) and Anthony Quinn
    With Ann Cleeves and Linda Stratman 
  With Alison Joseph and Lucy Santos
    With Tony, Dreda Say Mitchell and Tony Thompson

Meeting friends

Before the next round of events, here are a few photos from Harrogate.

With Lloyd Paige and Will Shaw

With the Crime Warp

With Effie Merryl, Linda Stratmann and Jo Derrick
With Lauren Beukes and Lavie Tidhar
With Howard Linskey, Mark Billingham (in a hat?,,,) and Sarah Pinborough
With Vic Watson

With Elly Griffiths and Linda Stratmann
With Graham Smith

Happy Birthday to Lizzie!

      A lovely interlude out celebrating with Lizzie Hayes on her birthday

In Conversation

One more event to share with you today - Ann Cleeves in conversation with Peter May.
Peter admitted to having no idea why he writes. "I don't think any of us have any idea. I think it's in your DNA." Ann described hearing "a narrative in my head telling me what I was doing... a voice in my head" when she was very young. "Did you tell your parents about those voices in your head?" Peter asked. They greed that concentration is an undervalued skill in writing. They shared their experiences of discovering books, Peter sleeping in a room with bookshelves, Ann visiting her local library, and how they came to start writing. They discussed their research methods - "asking is the most important thing," Peter said, and the significance of location. "People grow out of the place they were born," Ann said. The discussion was full of insights into their writing, and very entertaining as they shared their experiences with us in a conversation that felt very relaxed, just two old friends reminiscing - in front of an enthralled audience.

Worse Things Happen at Home - Panel

Natasha Cooper moderated the panel of Julia Crouch, Chris Ewan, Helen Fitzgerald and Cath Stainton.
Julia Crouch writes about: "Character, darknes, mystery and shock."
Chris Ewan talked about how real life feeds into his writing, and discussed the nature and nurture debate. He discussed how "the ordinary can become monstrous."
Helen Fitzgerald discussed how being one of thirteen siblings affected her when she was growing up. "After years of being called names, I feared no one and nothing,' Motherhood has changed her. "Once you have children you start to fear everything."
Cath Stainton  discussed how violence at home is worse than elsewhere, because there is "nowhere to hide." She is particularly interested in the victims' perspective. "How on earth do you ever move on come to terms with that? If you don't, your life is effectively in danger."
The panel discussed whether killers are born or made, and the forces of innocence or guilt. "I don't think any one of us are entirely innocent when bad things happen to us." 
The panel discussed the damage caused by secrecy within families. 

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream - Panel

Steve Mosby moderated this panel with Lauren Beukes, Sharon Bolton, James Smythe and Lavie Tidhar discussing their cross genre books which don't all sit comfortably in the crime genre. 
Lavie talked about his book Osama, which "takes place in a mental landscape." Mosby wanted to know where his ideas came from and Lavie explained "I just sit in front of the computer and something happens." He talked about how hard it is to write anything contemporary because as soon as a book is published it becomes obsolete.
Sharon Bolton said she writes the sort of book she loves to read. "I love the sense that anything can happen." She described crime fiction as mystery that has to be explained.
James Smythe was happy to be described as "a magpie." He reads "pretty much anything", an eclectic taste which is reflected in his writing where his books are all very different in theme and content. 
Lauren told us "I go where the ideas take me and I write exactly the books I want to write." Her time travelling serial killer is a comment on how little we have learned from history. 
In a wide ranging discussion the panel considered location, horror, and the nature of crime. 

Crime leads to romance

Breaking news - Scott proposes to Jo at Harrogate Crime Festival where they first met

Turning to Crime - Panel

At a hilarious and fascinating panel chaired by Jake Kerridge we heard Natalie Haines talking about the cross over between crime and comedy. She quoted Aristotle who said crime and comedy are "both cathartic" and made us all laugh with her accounts of how she is longer funny. 
Talking about his 3,000 interviews, Mark Lawson told us "it's not true that I haven't been interviewed by me... the technology is sometimes tell yourself more than you'd tell other people." He thought Dizzy Rascal was the most enjoyable interviewee, and the wonderful PDJames whom he interviewed for her 70th, 80th and 90th birthdays. 
The prolific Sarah Pinborough told us how she wrote her first Torchwood novel, and moved on to write for New Tricks. She also talked about her sci-fi following. Asked about the difference between crime fans and sci- fi fans, she was diplomatic: "They're both lovely groups of people... there are less costumes at crime conventions". She turned to writing crime because she has always been "a crime nerd". She wanted to write a book that was "properly sad. It's about grief and love." 
Tony Parsons talked about his experience and how things have changed. "You don't anticipate there will come a point in your life when Bruce Springsteen is not cuddling you in a vest... and then it slips away..." He talked about the impact of technology. "There were probably blacksmiths who thought people are always going to need horse shoes." Now "the culture is starting to catch up with the technology." But, he added, "Newspapers will never die." He started writing crime because he has always been a fan of the genre, and "I like the idea of bumping off rich and powerful people." 
Mark Lawson put the case that there is really no such thing as crime fiction, because crime is at the core of most fiction. 

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

We heard an interesting panel on different routes to publishing, chaired by Martyn Waites - the concensus was that "traditional publishing is the goal" as Mel Sherratt said. James Oswald described his relief when "Penguin came along and... I was happy to stop doing a lot of the work myself." Self-publishing offers a new route to publication but the worry, as Martin Edwards said, is that "the slush pile is going online." They all described the roller coaster of "emotional pain" of years of rejection. Mari Hannah bemoaned the fact that it costs more to buy a birthday card than a book.
Martyn Waites asked, "When amazon has destroyed publishing, what will be left?" but James Oswald replied that he had been in publishing for twenty years, and "publishing has always been in crisis." So the conclusion was that publishing - and bookshops - will survive. 

Thursday 17 July 2014

Is Crime Writing Misogynistic? asks Jake Kerridge in the Telegraph

Well, this is a strange sentiment to come across in a serious article: "those writers who have their female characters raped, gutted or flayed may be the ones who care about women the most."  It came as no surprise to me that these words were written by a man. So all I have to say to Jake Kerridge is - really? Do you honestly believe that? I mean, really?

As authors we are repeatedly told that fans of crime fiction enjoy reading about women in jeopardy. Well, the jeopardy wouldn't be very serious if the threat of violence or death was never followed through. So yes, women do have to be stalked, terrified, and killed. But "raped, gutted or flayed" to show how much the author cares about women? 

The increase in violence towards women in crime fiction probably has nothing whatever to do with caring about women. What is more likely is that authors are, understandably, pursuing what they believe readers want to read. It's a fair enough tack to adopt, given the difficulty of achieving decent book sales these days. After the phenomenon of 50 Shades, my publisher asked me, somewhat wistfully, if I fancied writing erotic crime. I declined. Each to his own. I have great respect for those who can write erotic fiction but I'm a crime girl, read it, write it, speculate about it, research it, that's my bag. 

Back to the female characters who are being "raped, gutted and flayed".  There was a trend in crime fiction not so long ago for the genre to move increasingly over the boundary into horror, with authors going all out to shock readers. Yes, I like to startle my readers. I love it when I scare myself.  

But, like the eroticism which would probably increase sales of my books, there are lines I prefer not to cross. I don't write cosies, but I do have certain parameters. There are some extremely nasty characters in my books who are seriously vicious. They kill people. Some of them enjoy it. Even they might draw the line at " gutting and flaying" because that goes beyond my own boundaries. Usually it's included simply to be sensational. And that's what it is. Not caring, but exploitative.

This is something I feel quite strongly about so I try to be even handed in my books. They feature a female detective inspector, and a spin off series for her male sergeant. Like my detectives, my killers are both male and female, as are my victims. This is deliberate, as my readers have fewer clues to the identity of a potential victim, or indeed a killer. Women can kill. Men can be killed. And vice versa. Why not? 

So is crime fiction misogynistic as Jake Kerridge suggests? Well, not in my books, it's not. Writers who care about women - and men - create strong, sympathetic characters who command respect - feisty, sassy, engaging characters we can admire. They don't objectify women as victims.   

But I can't help suspecting I've risen to the bait in writing this post, because Jake Kerridge's claim that "those writers who have their female characters raped, gutted or flayed may be the ones who care about women the most" is probably another clever ploy to shock us into responding to his article. It worked for me. 

Tuesday 15 July 2014

There's Nothing New

After all the discussion here about how it seems that everyone wants to write a book, I discover this is nothing new...
                Serious post again tomorrow.

Monday 14 July 2014

The Death of the Novel?

First as reader, now as author, all my life I have  have been permanently engrossed in at least one book.  Like many people, fiction is, paradoxically, my 'reality'.
One of the appeals of fiction is that it offers us an escape from life where the pace of change seems to be speeding up all the time. Most events are consigned to the relative oblivion of history after a year, or a month, sometimes even less. As HW said, "a week is a long time in politics."
But sometimes it can be instructive to take a longer view, so let me take you back in time to 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. One of the most remarkable records of that event comes from an eye witness account by Samuel Pepys, whose diary has survived. This is not a novel. Not only is Pepys telling us about real events, but he couldn't have been writing a novel in 1666 as the form did not yet exist. It would not emerge for nearly another century.
The first novel in English was published in the mid 1700s. It took the form of a series of letters, as writers had not yet envisaged the concept of the prose narrator as a character in its own right, or even as a disembodied omniscient authorial voice. The letters were a clever device, taking the reader inside the thoughts and feelings of different characters. This allowed for intimate first person narratives, from different view points. It was entirely new, or 'novel'.
Today we retain the name, but the form itself is no longer ground breaking, or even 'novel'.
There has been a lot of discussion recently, some of it on this blog, about dwindling book sales, and 'discoverability' for authors, and how they can attract more readers. But perhaps the real problem lies, not with the proliferation of authors, or the failing quality of writing, or that people are no longer reading, but with the form itself.
Has the novel had its day? And would that matter?
We can access stories from other sources - films, television, games, the media - but these are not the same as novels which go into more depth. Through the medium of stories, the best novels offer us insights into contemporary life and morals, and hence ourselves. Think of any great novel - Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, Dickens, Hardy - not only were they instrumental in changing opinions at the time, but they provided a record of society and how people were thinking at the time they were written.
Which brings us back to Samuel Pepys, whose diaries tell us about his daily life in the 1600s - no different to a modern blog. Perhaps we have come full circle, and the reason new novelists are struggling to break into the market is that the novel form has outlived its popularity.

No sooner had I finished writing this post than I came across an article about "embracing the artistic potential of social media". Really? Here it is:

"David Mitchell To Put Next Work On Twitter
"Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell is to publish his next work on Twitter. The British writer has penned a short story, titled The Right Sort, in 140-character instalments. It will be serialised in clusters of about 20 tweets at a time over the next seven days. In total there will be 280 Tweets.
But while embracing the artistic potential of social media, Mitchell himself is not a tweeter and had to open a Twitter account for the project."

The end of the novel as we know it? Sigh. Sometimes I would prefer not to be tuned into the current zeitgeist, but then that is the job of an author.
Or is it?

Saturday 12 July 2014

Authors vs Publishers

These days publishers seem to be attracting a lot of adverse criticism. This could be due to growing numbers of self-published authors expressing their disappointment with traditional publishing houses who have rejected their work. But this week even the Society of Authors have thrown their august weight behind the attack. "Traditional Publishing Is 'No Longer Fair Or Sustainable', Says Society Of Authors."
I have the utmost respect for the Society of Authors who have offered me invaluable support on more than one occasion. When I was an agentless author, the Society acted promptly and expertly to protect the interests of a vulnerable member. For that I will always remain in their debt. But it does strike me as more than coincidence that they should throw their weight behind the anti-publishers lobby after they began accepting self-published authors as members. Fair enough, they want to support the views of self-published authors, but isn't this a little one-sided? 
So I'd like to set the record straight, if I may, by putting the case for the much-criticised publisher. 
Not only am I (apparently) in the top 10% or so of authors because I earn a very decent living from writing fiction, but I am - oh heresy! - very happy indeed with my publisher. Yes, I could gripe about a long list of things he doesn't do. I have been known to dash off the occasional stroppy email to him. But we resolve our occasional differences because producing a book is a team effort, where we work together to our mutual benefit. Yes, I'm making a handsome income from my writing, but I work hard to earn my living. And yes, my publisher is also making a lot of money from my books. 
You might think that because I write the books, I alone should benefit from the proceeds. But writing is all I do. The list of what my publisher does do for me is huge, as is the list of what he pays for. He provides me with: a topnotch editor, proof readers, an efficient production manager whose serenity under pressure is second to none, a production team, jacket designer, sales team, publicist, distributor, ISBN numbers, ebooks everywhere around the world. He sells the rights and has my books translated into French, German, Italian, Turkish, published with Harper Collins in the US, published in audio, large print... 
Do I need to go on, when the point is surely made? If I were to deal with all those areas myself it would be a full-time job for about six people, each with various areas of expertise. And some of what my publisher does, like the sales of foreign rights, I don't believe I could even begin to tackle for myself. 
So yes, you could say my publisher makes money out of 'my' books, and in a way you would be right. But that is a gross misrepresentation of what really happens. Because I only write the books; my publisher does everything else. And, let's face it, writing the books is the fun part!
Who really has the best of the deal? 

Thursday 10 July 2014

The Decline in Authors' Income

This week we read that the average income for authors has declined. A typical author now earns around £11,000, not a living wage. At different times blame for authors' declining remuneration has been thrown at the reading public, television, teachers, the end of the net book agreement, Waterstones undermining independent bookshops, amazon ousting physical bookstores, charity shops - but perhaps the problem now lies not with readers but with writers themselves. 
The number of readers may be fairly steady (in our obsession with writers has anyone researched this?) What is clear is that the number of writers has grown hugely. These days it seems that everyone wants to be published - traditionally published, self-published, hybrid, any which way published. Agents are inundated with manuscripts flooding in from hordes of talented hopefuls. Creative writing courses are proliferating. 
There must be a limit to the number of authors the reading public can support, and perhaps we have reached it.
Then there is the vexed question of quality. Of course not every traditionally published book is any good, and there are many brilliant writers who self-publish because they are unable to find a publishing house prepared to invest in them. Some self-published writers are very successful. I have no problem with them per se. But the traditional model did impose a strict limit on the number of books it was feasible to publish each year. With self publication, there is no restraint. Anyone can upload a manuscript and be a 'published author'. If enough people are 'published', the title becomes meaningless. 
Most of us are able to speak. We don't all believe we should therefore be recognised as orators. In the same way, literacy doesn't automatically guarantee the ability to write a book. A vast number of people have confided to me their ambition to become authors. They are just waiting to think of an idea so they can write their book. This attitude concerns me deeply. F Scott FitzGerald said, 'You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.' It's a crucial distinction. Authors are not merely people who can write. The talent to write well is a prerequisite of being an author. But to define authors as people who write is a misrepresentation. 
Authors are story tellers. That is what authors do. Writing is the medium. In an illiterate society, authors are the people spinning tales out loud, because they have stories to tell. Authors in ancient civilisations were the creators of myths, weavers of legends that were told in verse, which allows an oral tradition to be passed on more easily from generation to generation. 
This year I'm very very grateful not to fall into the category of a "typical author", but next year, who knows? As an author currently earning a comfortable living from writing fiction, I can only hope that more people take time off from writing to read more... and hopefully to keep buying my books!

Wednesday 9 July 2014

The Demise of Independent Bookshops

Is it coincidence, or inevitable in the current zeitgeist, that just before reading a request on the CRA website for "posts about independent booksellers and publishers" I saw that my local independent bookshop is closing. This is the reason they give: "Sadly, fast developing technology, changing buying habits and the domination of a few major retailers are ending the era of the independent bookshop. The local community has been displaced by the global community and has disempowered the High Street, and with it smaller ventures like our own."
I live in North West London. It's not what you might call a cultural desert. When I moved here (OK, it was twenty years ago) there were two local bookshops, in addition to the library. Within a couple of weeks there will be no bookshops at all. We have a WH Smith still flying the flag for books, but they offer a limited choice. I was recently told by a manager of a WH Smith Travel store that they can only stock my latest title, as they only sell the books that are in their bestseller charts. (Yes, you can work out the flaw in that logic too.) 
There are multiple responses to the demise of the indie bookshop. For the first time since records started, we had fewer than 1,000 independent bookshops six months ago, and the number has continued to reduce since then. I don't have an up-to-date figure, but it's not going to be an upward trend. To some extent this is one of many ramifications of a society increasingly dependent on the internet. It is a symptom of changing buying habits, reflected across our dying High Streets.
Are people reading less? Well, maybe not. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that ebooks make books far easier and cheaper to access, encouraging reading. So as long as authors are writing, and people are reading, does the disappearance of the physical bookstore matter? Of course it matters to the 'middleman' - the traditional publisher, with their teams of editors, proof readers, jacket designers, publicists, it matters to booksellers and distributors, and librarians. 
But what difference can it make to readers? Well, possibly quite a lot. 
I remember the excitement I felt on first entering a public library. I wanted to read every book in sight. The experience of looking at a screen isn't the same. You can't see walls of books with one sweep of your eyes, books you can reach out and touch, flick through, replace, against a background of books, books, and more books. 
I worry that if too few people buy physical books, they will cease to be financially viable to produce, and my children's children will never experience that visceral excitement of wanting to read every book they can see. 
Is this merely nostalgia, or are we losing something that helps to make human life precious?