February 2019 Newsletter

There's an app for that...

‘How do you find the discipline?’ After ‘Where d’you get your ideas?’, the question of discipline and motivation must be the most common question readers ask authors. My stock answer is, the same way you do – the need to make rent. My personality type is pretty well suited to home working. I’m creative, dogged, a bit anti-social and I don’t mind wearing the same leggings for four days straight. But lately even my discipline has slipped a little.

I’m finding it hard to resist the increasing distractions coming my way; adorable children picking snowdrops from the garden to thrust into my hands screaming at me for the wifi code: events to be scheduled and magazine articles to be written as Stone Mothers approaches publication: news sites to be refreshed, to see what the bloody hell has happened now: and trying to reclaim my health after a festive season that would have made Bacchus himself want to check into Champneys for a mini-break and a lie-down.

Willpower is famously finite: you can only try to resist temptation for so long before you surrender to it. With this in mind, I decided to outsource my willpower to my phone. Here are the apps keeping this lazy, weak writer on the straight and narrow this month.

FREEDOM software is designed to stop people like me wasting their lives on the internet. (The problem is that harvesting likes on a picture of some poached eggs is much, much easier than intricately plotting a 90,000 word novel.) Freedom locks me out of social media for prescribed hours every day. If you see me on Twitter before lunchtime I’m cheating and must be arrested.

SCRIVENER I’ve been using this word-processing software (which lays out chapters and lets you shift them around like cards on a corkboard) for four years now but only just found out that it has a daily word count tracker! The bar starts off red and goes from amber to green as you hit your target. I have a deeply ingrained need to please authority figures and it turns out that a computer programme qualifies as one of those. Since discovering this my word count has doubled. Except for today, when I wrote this.

MYFITNESSPAL I’m trying to radically cut the amount of meat I’m eating without my protein intake falling through the floor. Tapping everything I eat into this food diary is keeping me on the straight and narrow, and also making me realise that actually Percy Pigs are not the nutritionally balanced foodstuffs I once thought.

FITBIT Do you know what I hate about my job? It’s not the insecurity, the bad reviews. It’s the sitting down all day until my bum is square and my brain is scrambled. I won a Fitbit – watch, heart monitor, pedometer, nag – at the school Christmas fete and now I can’t remember life without it. How did I break the ice with strangers before telling them how many steps I’d done that day?

All I need to do now is write my damn book, so if someone could hurry up and invent the app equivalent of infinite monkeys chained to an infinite number of typewriters, that would really help me out.

Erin

A Book In The Bath: What I'm reading this month 

The Wych Elm by Tana French, Viking

 

Eleven years ago, I read a book called Into The Woods, the debut crime novel by Irish writer Tana French. After one paragraph I knew I’d found a new favourite writer. There’s a music and assurance to French’s prose I can’t resist, and she writes the best dialogue in crime: understands that despite technology and forensics, crime fiction is really about psychology; that nothing is as tense as a conversation where one person has a guilty secret.

French seems to have parked her Dublin Murder Squad books for now, and The Wych Elm is her first standalone. An extended family are gathered in a rambling, bohemian house in South Dublin for Sunday lunch. Peace is shattered when one of the children finds a skull in the ancient, towering tree in the garden. Whose skull is it, and how did it get there? Solving the mystery will tear the family apart.

This month I’ve been watching…My brain is WRUNG OUT from plotting and all I want is comfort viewing; but actually, revisiting Friends isn’t always the warm hug I remember. I often write about the 1990s because that was my decade. I can be a bit rose-tinted about those pre-9/11, pre-crash, pre-austerity days but watching Friends the 90s doesn’t look like the liberal paradise I remember. So many of their jokes leap off from the assumption that being gay – or even effeminate – is the worst crime a man could be accused of. I know we’ve still got a long way to go, but a sitcom would be called out on this level of homophobia now in a way that, to my shame, my generation never thought to do. Problematic fave indeed.

Stone Mothers On The Road 

Meeting actual, real-life readers is my reward for two years locked in a room with my imaginary friends who do terrible things. I’m taking Stone Mothers on tour this spring, returning to some of my favourite places and visiting new ones for the first time: find out if I’m coming to a town near you here https://erinkelly.co.uk/events/


January 2019 Newsletter

Picture a badly-heated church hall on a Wednesday night. Plastic chairs are laid out in a horseshoe, upon which a dozen authors are sitting in their fleeces and drawstring pants. I push my chair from under me with a screech, rise to my feet and proudly declare: ‘My name’s Erin and I haven’t looked at Goodreads for two years now.’

Lots of you reading this will be on GoodReads.com already. For those of you who aren’t members, it’s an online booklovers’ forum: a bit like Amazon but with reviews only rather than sales rankings. It is, overall, a force for great good: testament to the blogging community who were so instrumental in bringing He Said/She Said to the bestseller lists, and I am grateful for every review. I love that there’s a purity about GoodReads that you don’t get on retail sites: there’s no risk of someone giving a book they loved one star because the postman left it with a neighbour who then went to Torremolinos for two weeks, for example. Or the man who bought a book for his wife and gave it three stars 'for the benefit of the doubt', not realising that Amazon counts a three-star review as negative. And yes, I speak from experience here.

But. But. GoodReads is not somewhere I should ever set digital foot. I once read a review that began ‘I do hope Erin Kelly isn’t one of those authors who comes on here…’ an opening sentence which should have had me closing my laptop and going for a nice long walk in the fresh air. But I read on, and the review was so brutal I thought about changing my career. I know, I know, no one’s making me log on. But it’s there. Writers are swirling vortexes of ego, arrogance and oversensitivity. What are we supposed to do?

There’s a scene in one of the Narnia books – the sublime Voyage of the Dawntreader*  - where Lucy finds a spell in a magic book that lets her see what her friends are really saying about her. Let’s just say that they’re not gushing about her many excellent qualities. Sometimes when you go fishing, you catch a boot. It's better by far for me to stay in my bubble.

*scroll down for my definitive ranking of the Chronicles of Narnia

Erin

A Book In The Bath: What I'm reading this month 

The Binding by Bridget Collins, The Borough Press

Imagine a world where books are not something to be read for pleasure but something too dangerous to be shared. In the world of The Binding, if there’s something you want to forget, you visit a bookbinder who will draw your painful memories out of you and set them down in a book. Emmet Farmer doesn’t know anything about bookbinding until he is summoned to become a binder’s apprentice. He enters a sinister world of secrets and lies, memories and pain. Then one day, he finds a book with his name on it…

Every once in a while, a book comes along to remind me why I fell in love with reading. The Binding is set in an unspecified (yet undeniably English) town in an unspecified (yet recognisably 19th- Century) time. It’s a fantasy, a romance and a parable; imagine Phillip Pullman and Sarah Waters reworking The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and you’re halfway there. It has plausible magic and forbidden, powerful love. I blurb a lot of books but this is the only one I’ve endowed with the ultimate praise: ‘I wish I’d written it.’ I loved it so much that a) I re-read it within a week, and b) I then went into a massive depressive funk where I couldn’t write because whatever I came up with wouldn’t be as perfect. It’s not a thriller but it has the grip of the best crime novels. I think you will love it, and if you don’t then I just don’t see how we can remain friends.

 

This month I’ve been watching…YOU on Netflix, an adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’s darkly funny novel about Joe Goldberg, a serial killer and social-media stalker who manages a New York bookshop. It’s rare that a TV adaptation lives up to the book, but this might be even better.

 

As promised, The Chronicles of Narnia rated in order of excellence. I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when i was six, and I've revisited the entire collection over three decades, finding something new every time. This is the definitive version, don’t @ me

1. The Voyage of the Dawntreader. This sublime adventure on magical seas is the funniest and most romantic of the Narnia books. The lure of the Utter East thrilled me as a child, as it does now. Plus, who doesn't secretly want to go clubbing with Reepicheep the mouse?

2. The Magician’s Nephew. Coming-of-age Victoriana as shot by Hammer Horror. This book is so weird and dark. Vibrating magical rings (stop it), ATTICS, and in Digory Kirke, a deceptively profound meditation on childhood grief.

3. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This book has had quite enough attention already. Moving swiftly on...

4. Prince Caspian. This book didn't mean much to me until I was about twelve, when suddenly it dawned on me that Prince Caspian was a massive sort. If Lion, Witch is a kids' book, Prince Caspian is prototype YA.

5. The Last Battle. This whole book is one whacking great metaphor for Christianity and even at six I remember being enraged that Susan got cast out of heaven for liking lipstick. I know a lady vicar with an absolutely smokin look which will if anything get her pushed up the queue at the pearly gates.

6. The Silver Chair. I can't actually review this as I only managed to finish it once, when I was seven, and I instantly forgot it. Seven is a good age to learn the lesson not to persevere with a book that's making you want to eat your own ears with boredom.

7. The Horse and His Boy. Yeah, this feels massively racist now. Even a talking horse can't save it.


December 2018 Newsletter

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Five Times Editing Saved My Life

Tidying up my PC lately, I found a folder full of half-edited manuscripts. The pages were a mess of tracked changes and microscopic comments in the margins. Most were broad, structural edits; big problems that need sorting before we were able to focus on the details of grammar and style. After the structural edit comes a closer line edit (style, facts, grammar, consistency), then the copy edit (like the line edit, but even more focused), and finally the proof read (world-class pedantry). The book is refined at each stage of the process: if the proof-reading is a straining through fine muslin cloth, then the structural edit is a big steel colander.

I’ve often heard it said that an editor likes to put their stamp on a book. That’s never been my experience. Mine have simply wanted each book to be the best version of itself. The editing process is like a live masterclass in how to rewrite a book. At the time, I learned the lesson in the moment and didn’t analyse it. Years later, it’s easy to distil exactly what those lessons were. Here are five times a new and expert pair of eyes made me a better writer.

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The Burning Air I

My third novel’s first narrator is Sophie, who is sent compromising photographs of her husband while she’s in labour with their fourth child. An early draft contained a whole chapter devoted to the progression of Sophie’s contractions and subsequent waterbirth. My first reader’s verdict was that it was an interesting account of my own daughter’s birth, but what the hell was it doing in my novel? She was right: I was being indulgent. If I wanted to talk about childbirth that badly I should have blogged it. Sophie’s birth scene was only 900 words long, but it was a digression at the point where I could least afford it. Those first few pages are crucial. Bore your readers here and you lose them forever. In the edit, I cut the chapter at the point where Sophie’s water’s broke. The next chapter picked up ten months later, nobody was confused and nobody had to put the book down to look up the word ‘meconium’.

Lesson learned: Write the book for your readers, not yourself. If your story can survive without this chapter, cut it.

The Burning Air II

Around the halfway mark, my teenage narrator’s beloved but barking mad mother dies suddenly. In my original version, and for reasons which now escape me, I had them dragging her corpse onto a bus and trying to pay her fare across town. My editor and her assistant gently told me that instead of the high drama I was going for, this scene looked a bit…silly. Better, they said, to cut the scene at the moment the body is discovered; the power lies in my narrator’s silent realisation that their only friend is gone. You are, after all, writing a psychological thriller and not Night of the Living Dead.

Lesson learned: Most thrillers skirt the preposterous or sensational at some point. But there’s a fine line between high drama and unintentional humour. Don’t cross it.

The Poison Tree

My first novel originally began with what is now Chapter 2: Karen collects her partner Rex from prison after he’s served a ten-stretch for double murder. Together with their daughter Alice they visit their old house in Highgate, the place where ‘everything happened.’ Early feedback suggested that it felt like the opening to a quiet, literary novel rather than an exciting thriller. My agent’s suggestion was simple but ingenious: I transplanted chapter 25 - where Karen receives a midnight phone call, then drives in a panic through freezing fog – to the front of the book and called it a prologue. Now the book promised the kind of peril it went on to deliver.

Lesson Learned: Those first pages establish an unspoken contract with your reader. Let them know what kind of book they can expect. In this case, excitement upfront meant readers stayed with me through the quieter first chapters because they knew they’d come back to this scene.

The Ties That Bind

Every writer has a ‘book about a writer’ in them and this is mine. Journalist Luke wants to write a true-crime classic and is convinced that the unsolved murder, in 1967, of a Brighton gangster is the story that will make his name. When he’s researching the book, he makes a mistake that threatens his life. My original ending framed the book that had gone before it not as a novel but as a true story published under a novelist’s name. The conversation I had with my agent went a bit like this: Agent: (with her customary tact): ‘I do have some reservations about the self-conscious bookishness of those final pages.’ Me: ‘Do you mean it’s bit wanky?’ Agent: ‘Yes.’ She was right. I’ve since read this twist in half a dozen books, and it’s always felt a little forced.

Lesson learned. Clever twists are not obligatory, and in the wrong place they do more harm than good.

Stone Mothers

Most of my books have got longer in the editing: not a great thing when they’re already tipping 100k words in their first draft. This time, though, I lost FOUR WHOLE CHAPTERS. The book is set in an old Victorian asylum. We see the building converted to luxury flats in the present day, derelict and as a working hospital. It spanned more decades than anything I’d written before and while I knew that years would have to be skimmed, I felt strongly that I should check in on one of my characters from time to time: that the more readers knew about this person, the more they would care. They were little vignettes that were fun to write, but the book could survive without them. (Can you see a pattern here?) In acknowledging how hard it would be to kill these darlings, my editor showed me she had the book’s best interests at heart. A good editor will leave the knife on the table, and let you do the rest. Those culled chapters are still on my hard drive, like deleted scenes from a DVD. I might post them here one day.

Lesson Learned: Don’t spoon-feed your readers. Trusting them to fill in the blanks between scenes shows respect. Also, write a book they can actually hold without spraining their wrists.

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Tub Classics - The Joy Of A Book In The Bath

This month I’ve been surgically welded to my iPhone; work emails, train times, Christmas present admin and the tyranny of missing jumpers in the Year 1 Whatsapp group. The only time I’ve felt calm throughout December is in the bath, completely free from digital distractions. For the good of our collective mental health, we really need to make reading in the bath a thing again.

I don’t have many extravagances but sinking into a hot bath on a cold day with a good book is one of them. The more overpriced, highly-scented stuff I can tip in, the better. I love bubbles, salts, oils and once, because of something I’d read in a magazine, coffee, which I cannot discourage enough. I get a bit obsessive about it: it’s like choosing the right wine to go with food.

When is the right time of day to have a bath? Obviously only a psychopath bathes before noon. According to TV dramas, bathing and reading should occur by candlelight (and be interrupted by either a murderous intruder or annoying spouse. Cross out a square on your TV bingo card if your character submerges themselves in the bath and stares up at the surface to illustrate an emotional crisis). All freelancers know that mid-afternoon is the optimum time. By 2pm the heating’s been off for a couple of hours and I’ve been at the desk so long that my circulation has slowed along with my brain. I also need to switch my mindset from ‘high priestess of the Gothic’ to ‘mum’ before the kids come home at 3.30. They don’t like it when I talk about the best way to commit the perfect murder.

I’ll be celebrating the joys of a book in the bath in my new author newsletter. Every month, I’ll review a book I really love, recommend a bath oil to go with it, and give subscribers the chance to win both. I’ll also be telling you what I’ve been up to, and interviewing an inspirational woman in the arts. Sign up here to join the club. 


Psychological Thrillers In Song - Ten Perfect Pop Songs With Plots, Shocking Twists And Body Counts

It is a truth universally acknowledged (by me, because I write them) that the psychological thriller is the greatest sub-genre of crime fiction, itself the supreme genre of all literature. Psychological thrillers are really just old-school suspense; murder mysteries, but instead of the police coming to solve the crime the reader lives it through the victim’s or killer’s viewpoint – sometimes both. If all art aspires to the form of music then no wonder singers keep writing songs about murder. There are countless pop songs about ‘classic’ crime fiction: from Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sherriff to Jonny Cash’s Fulsome Prison Blues. These songs tell a subtler side of the same story.

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1. Hazzard by Richard Marx

The greatest domestic noir ballad of all time. A small-town outcast finds love with Mary, who disappears in suspicious circumstances. (‘The first time that someone looked beyond the rumours and the lies and saw the man inside,’ suggests the backstory is a novel in itself). I have spent more hours poring over the lyrics than is healthy and have spotted a hole in the alibi. In the second verse he croons ‘the night she went out walking all alone and never came home.’ Yet just before the middle eight he says, ‘I swear I left her by the river. I swear I left her safe and sound.’ These two facts are clearly contradictory. Lock him in Hazzard County jail and throw away the key.

Killer Lyric: No escape for me this time / All of my refuges gone

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zli3zUwWu8g

2. Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine by The Killers

An indie-pop murder mystery in E-flat, about a boy whose ‘friend’ (yeah right) Jenny has gone missing. There are those who say that this is a poor man’s Hazzard although actually the stakes are higher in this novel. Here our narrator appears to be actually in police custody, addressing the officers who hold him. If he’s telling the truth – and unreliable narrators are a staple of the genre – his insistence that ‘She said she loved me, but she had somewhere to go,’ suggests that Jenny had another close friend. We never find out whether he’s guilty but they must have at the very least strong circumstantial evidence to bring him in.

Killer Lyric: There ain’t no motive for this crime

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4j0dPbZe1lM

3. Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry

A masterpiece in subtext: a young woman from the Mississippi Delta narrates the suicide of her classmate, Billy Joe McAllister. Verse by insidious verse she reveals her own tragic part in his decision to leap off the Tallahassee Bridge. In the original, Bobbie Gentry’s haunted voice is at eerie odds with the jaunty guitar picking and the twist in the tale is as disturbing as anything you’d find in a Gillian Flynn novel. Don’t tell the purists but I actually prefer the Sinead O’Connor* haunting cover version. However it is disqualified for having a baby’s cry sound-effect in the final verse. Show don’t tell, Sinead, show don’t tell.

Killer Lyric: She and Billy Joe was throwing something off the Tallahassee Bridge.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaRacIzZSPo

*Sinead version

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn6L9gd8ch8

4. Aisha by Death in Vegas

Iggy Pop rasps a warning that a serial killer is on the loose over looping bass and snaking oboe. In a reveal worthy of first-year crime-writing students everywhere, he turns out to be the killer. The vocal is chillingly convincing. By all accounts Iggy Pop is a lovely bloke in real life but you’ve got to admit it’s very easy to imagine waking suddenly in the small hours to find him sitting on the edge of your bed wearing nothing but silver trousers and unspooling a roll of duct tape. Subtle it ain’t, and the video loses points for a ‘whoops there go my clothes’ girl stumbling across in escape from a killer, but as a game of cat and mouse between predator and victim, this is the pick of the pops.

Killer Lyric: Aisha... he got out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExLqMBLyWd8

5. Stan by Eminem

Witty, meta, disturbing, angry and catchy as all hell. Misfit superfan Stan writes endless scratchy letters to his idol, rapper Slim Shady. Slim’s ongoing failure to reply and an accidental blanking of Stan outside a rainy stage door forces Stan to respond in a way that seems perfectly logical to him: by getting tanked up and deliberately driving his pregnant girlfriend off a bridge. In a truly Shakespearean twist, Slim Shady’s letter arrives one day too late. Uniquely in this list, Stan also presages a real-life crime in that it launched guest singer and video star Dido to global domination.

Killer Lyric: Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSLZFdqwh7E

6. Delilah by Tom Jones

Here’s your mild-mannered auntie on the outside of six Babychams at your cousin’s wedding, leading a chorus of hammered relatives in a jolly little sing-song about a violent misogynist who gets dumped, spies on his ex, catches her with another man and then stabs her to death but it was all her fault because she didn’t want to have sex with him any more, do you see? A masterpiece in victim-blaming.

Killer Lyric: Forgive me Delilah I just couldn’t take any more.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S87jWwzvwd8

7. Funny Little Frog by Belle & Sebastian

This is a dark, brilliant little vignette of a lonely man who takes wretched comfort in an imaginary relationship with a woman he knows only from pictures. Is she a magazine covergirl? A painting in a museum? His repression bubbles over in street violence ‘I’ve been starting fights’ and he finally confesses he can’t bear to think of her in a physical way, suggesting that if this fantasy woman ever turned up on his doorstep he’d go postal. It’s John Fowles The Collector with handclaps.

Killer Lyric: You are my girl and you don’t even know it

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fT6pssrES8

8. Henry Lee by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Only Nick Cave could release an album called Murder Ballads. The record’s breakout single Where The Wild Roses Grow gets all the attention because of Kylie giving it her best Ophelia in a wet nightie in the video, but this, adapted from a folk song, is just as dark. PJ Harvey’s deranged narrator tries to seduce Henry Lee who already has a girlfriend. Unusually for a man in a psychological thriller, Henry is a decent man of deep integrity. He pays for his fidelity with his life: she plugs him with a knife and throws him down a well. Folk songs pre-existing DNA fingerprinting, we’re assuming she got away with it.

Killer Lyric: That girl you love in that merry green land can wait forever for you to come home.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzmMB8dTwGs

9. Goodbye Earl by The Dixie Chicks

No musical genre does narrative like Country and this feminist revenge anthem – think Thelma and Louise in aural form - has a beginning, middle and a gloriously satisfying end. This is a deceptively twangy song about an abused woman who enlists her best friend’s help to poison her estranged husband’s black-eyed peas (bonus points for C&W brand consistency).

Killer Lyric: Ain’t it dark wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7gNf_9njs

10. Don’t You Want Me? by The Human League

You might think it’s a chirpy little synth-pop classic, and on one level I concede that yes it is about a power struggle between two lovers torn apart by showbiz. But now listen to it again, imagining that the song’s dialogue playing out with the woman chained to a radiator in a cellar in Sheffield while police helicopters circle overhead.

Killer Lyric: Do you think you’ll change your mind? You’d better change it back or we will both be sorry.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPudE8nDog0

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What I’ve Learned Writing Six Books (and counting)

  jessica fletcher

New writers often ask me: does it get easier after the first book? And of course in some ways it does. Doing something difficult once gives you confidence and permission to do it again. But ask a novelist who’s published 22 books which was the hardest to write and I bet she’ll answer, ‘Number 23’.

Each book brings new challenges. Some are obvious: you can’t use the same plot twist twice, for example. Themes, now that I have a solid backlist, are emerging. I cannot, it seems, leave the 1990s alone, or make peace with the fact that I am no longer nineteen. In the zombie procession of dead and dying mothers shuffling through my books, I have written and rewritten my twin greatest fears: of not being able to mother my daughters: of losing my own mother. I'm aware of the thin line between familiarity and repetition.

Research is increasingly an issue. ‘Write about what you know’ gets old pretty quickly when you’re essentially a suburban mum. To challenge myself, as well as keep readers entertained, I need something – setting, backdrop, crime – to change every time.

I’m about to publish my sixth book, and deep into my seventh. Here’s what it has been like for me.

                   Book One: The Poison Tree                       

 poison cover

I wish I had known, when writing this novel, what a beautiful experience it was, but there you go; you can’t pop your cherry twice. I’d wanted to write fiction my whole life. By 2007, this ambition was beginning to coalesce; I’d done a couple of short courses and joined a writing group but still had no more than a handful of sketches to show. Then, in 2008, I got pregnant and the biological deadline galvanised me. I flipped my usual work routine: treating the novel as my day job, scratching a couple of hours’ journalism in the evening (and yes, the financial fallout was as you’d expect). But six months later, I had a book. It was only 60,000 words long, and it would change before being accepted, but it was a book.

At the time, I was the usual mess of doubt and worry that I was about to make my family homeless through what is essentially vanity. Now I look back and realise what a treat it was, what a joyous rush of instinct and naivety. A lifetime’s love of books, my own internal library, welled up and bubbled over onto my page. It was as smooth as laying an egg. There was almost no research involved. I remember agonising for weeks over a plot turn that now seems almost laughably simple.

This book was very good to me and I still love the characters and the story. I do twitch to go through it with a red pen. After years of disciplined journalism, the freedom to really write went to my head and it’s overwritten in places. The foreshadowing is pretty heavy-handed. And – since I appear to be in the confessional here – there are a handful of places where I rewrote scenes because my characters didn’t seem enough like people from a novel. I know now, of course, that the goal is the opposite.

 

Book Two: The Sick Rose

sick rose cover

I wrote this book in a bubble. A two-book deal had given me relative financial security, validation and encouragement. Crucially, though, I still hadn’t been published. Never been reviewed; never woken up at 2am and fired up my laptop to check my Amazon ranking. Also I wasn’t on Twitter yet.

Like The Poison Tree, The Sick Rose - about a troubled older woman’s affair with a vulnerable 19-year-old - used a then-and-now structure but with an added layer of complexity as the to-and-fro had two narrators. It was a step up in terms of structure.

It’s set partly in a ruined Elizabethan castle, so for the first time I had to research. I read widely and obsessively about the massively sexy area of heritage gardens, specialising in Tudor parterres. Almost none of it ended up on the page, but my learning leaks between the lines.

Louisa and Paul, my narrators, were good to me. I want to deliver the best-written, most convincing suspense I can, and this inevitably means tension between what the plot needs and what the character wants. Most of my work is about finding the sweet spot where you can be true to both, and I hope I always get there in the end but some fight harder than others. Paul Seaforth, a geeky, oversensitive and horny 19-year-old from a rough estate in estuary Essex remains my favourite of my characters, not because he’s the most magnetic but because he served me so well. I never felt I was making anyone in The Sick Rose act out of character for the sake of the story.

 

Book Three: The Burning Air

burning air cover

This bloody, sodding book. I’ve never cried because of something I’ve written, but there was a moment, a year into this novel, when I burst into tears of frustration.

Before I started The Burning Air, my then American editor said she wanted to see the first third before making an offer on it. So I wrote 25,000 words of pure suspense. It was a story about an extended family gathering in their deserted country house for Bonfire Night. This first act finished with a baby being kidnapped, and the family realising that the night’s events had their roots in family secrets. I wrote it in real-time, 24-style, merrily littering it with clues and red herrings, with no idea how I was going to resolve it. I was Houdini closing the padlocks without an exit plan.

I wrote maybe 90,000 words of convoluted, melodramatic backstory before paring it down to a ‘mere’ 40,000 that bridged the link between a past slight and the present-day revenge. I sailed months past my deadline.

In the end, I pulled it off. Five years later, I still get emails about the twist that comes halfway through the book. Half congratulate me on sleight of hand. The rest complain that they thought one thing but it turned out to be quite another, thus spectacularly missing the point of suspense. More insightful readers ask me whether I the twist is needless showing off. The honest answer is: a bit. It’s gratuitous in that the plot still holds without it. Actually, the twist came almost by default. I left a certain detail blank to keep my options open, then realised I had an opportunity to have some fun with the reader.

Most importantly, The Burning Air was the book that taught me never to give up. Had I experienced this level of self-doubt with a first novel, I probably would have abandoned it. If I can rescue this, I can see anything through to the end. I vowed after writing it though that I would never write like this again, coming up with a great high-concept opening that was torture to execute. It is with a heavy heart that I refer to you my notes on Book Seven, below.

 

Book Four: The Ties That Bind

ties cover

I wrote this book on the rebound from the claustrophobic, very domestic, very female nature of The Burning Air, and, if I’m honest, my actual life. The result was Luke, a gay male journalist investigating the unsolved murder of a gangster in 1960s Brighton. The Ties That Bind (its working title was Ransomed Soul, which I still prefer) opens with him tied up in a cellar: who put him there? His possessive ex, Jem, or Joss Grand, the ‘reformed’ career criminal whose past Luke’s been raking over? Influenced by Graham Greene and Jake Arnott, it’s the closest thing to pure crime fiction I have ever written: still not a procedural but an investigation, with evidence and a paper trail, long scenes of interrogation and confession. There are only two women in it. There are no flashbacks. It is the most straightforward of my original books and was the easiest to write.

It has made me wonder whether the easier a book was to write, the less readers love it. The sales figures were pretty... sobering. The lessons I learned from this book were about publishing rather than writing Ties is a good book and contains some of my most disciplined writing, but it's subtly different to my backlist, harder to market as a crossover between women's fiction and crime. I knew when I wrote it that I was dipping a toe in new waters and getting something out of my system but I didn't consider that in going off-brand I would make it harder for my publishers to sell. The lesson I took was to go back to what I know and love - and do - best. But first I took a little detour to Dorset.

 

Book Five: Broadchurch 

broadchurch

A weird little privilege, this project. Only a handful of novelists have adapted a TV drama for the page. This book is a bit like Paul McGann playing Dr Who. There will always be some people who don’t believe it counts. Broadchurch is not my work, and yet it is. I loved writing this book, and not only for the lazy reason that the heavy lifting of the plot and the characterisation was done for me, and done to perfection.

My job as a novelist was to read the characters’ minds and set their thoughts on the page. Finding the right words is my favourite part of writing. Watching Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker act was like taking dictation. Broadchurch was a masterclass in character. The arc of Series 1, while compelling, is more linear than my own storytelling style; the magic is in the people and the place as well as the plot. My brief was to write up: find language that did the stunning photography and performances justice. I’m proud of the result, not least because I made showrunner Chris Chibnall cry, which was only fair after he’d done the same to millions of viewers.

 

Book Six: He Said/She Said

hsss cover

This, my current book, feels like a debut in some ways. Since The Ties That Bind was published, Broadchurch, and a second child, and a teaching job had happened so He Said/She Said had the luxury of a long gestation period. I was in the mood, and had the energy, for something big and ambitious.

For the first time research could not be taken lightly. The plot of He Said/She Said turns on two very different technicalities. Firstly, it happens over the course of several total solar eclipses, and I loved learning about the phenomenon and the people who travel the world to witness it.

More importantly, it’s courtroom drama about a rape trial, and points of law cannot be fudged. The challenge here was to highlight the mechanics and the frustrations of our justice system in a way that served the story. Laura is the prosecution's star witness: when I realised she wouldn’t be allowed to see the victim’s testimony in case it prejudiced her own, I had my head in my hands. How could I write a serious novel about the horrors of victim cross-examination if we couldn’t get into the courtroom? In the end I had to take my own advice. I often tell my students that the problem is the solution. When we can’t see the victim, Laura’s own doubt is allowed to spiral, and along with it the reader’s. That lack became a driving force.

In other ways, He Said/She Said was back to basics. Broadchurch had reminded me of the importance of character. I re-read old favourites by Chris Cleave, Lesley Glaister, David Nicholls, Maggie O’Farrell and new favourites Susie Steiner and Sarah Stovell where to close the book feels like saying goodbye to a friend. I loved Kit and Laura. I don’t know why I put them through all that.

I also feel a hard-won sense of ownership and authorship with this book. I've said before that Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith hugely inspired my work and they still do, but I don't consciously measure myself against them like I did in the beginning. Anxiety of influence has been something I have gradually shrugged off over six books. This, at last, is all mine.

 

                Book Seven

blank book

Is it tempting fate to include here a book that isn’t finished yet? The deadline for my seventh novel was last week. Present ambitions are to complete it this decade.

It’s set in a former Victorian asylum, the action starting in the present day and leaping backwards over sixty years. The structure of the novel - three acts, each set thirty years apart - was part of the idea. It begins when a Woman With A Past enters what is now a luxury apartment carved from the old women’s wing. The first few chapters flew out of me, mystery and menace on every page, building to an impossible climax. Then I had to find a way to maintain that suspense writing scenes from 1988 and 1958 without sacrificing momentum. Clearly my experience with The Burning Air has taught me nothing.

For the last ten months, I’ve been camped out in the Wellcome Library in London researching the way psychiatry has historically treated women. Spoiler: the system hasn’t been stacked in their favour. The problem for me is focus. Every long-dead case study in these dry textbooks is a novel waiting to be written. Consequently, I feel like I’m writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Every time I learn something new, I find myself writing another doomed scene that is more about me showcasing my new knowledge of outdated psychiatric processes than it is about furthering the plot.

Or is it? I said I’d learned nothing from The Burning Air but that’s not true. I feel patience rather than panic this time. I’m trusting myself, and the process. One of these scenes will be the right one. It feels close, now. I won't finish it when I had hoped to, but abandoning it doesn't cross my mind.

And when I do complete it? Book eight, and beyond, with all the excitement and challenges they will bring. I know that it doesn't get easier, but I also know that I - and my readers - would be bored if it did.

Read the first few chapters of He Said/She Said here

 


You Couldn't Make It Up! On Plausibility

 

Implausible.

meldrew

It’s not a word any writer wants to hear about their book. But with the market increasingly competitive, everyone wants their novel to be the high-concept book that everyone’s talking about. The bar for original, compelling, outlandish plots is getting higher by the year - as is the risk of pushing the boundaries of credibility.

Writers have incredibly wild and fertile imaginations. There's an urban myth - or is it? - that after 9/11 the US government hired a round table of top crime novelists and asked them to imagine worst-case-scenario terror attacks, so that the US security and emergency services could come up with strategies to counter them.

 

Fantastic but improbable books springboard from the news all the time. Emma Donohoe’s book and now film Room was partly inspired by the monstrous real-life case in Germany of  Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughters in a  cellar for years, impregnating them and raising his own children/grandchildren in squalid captivity.

 

room

 

At a literary festival last year I had a heated exchange with a reader over SJ Watson’s smash hit Before I Go To Sleep, in which a woman wakes up every morning with her memory wiped clean. The reader insisted this could never happen in real life. I knew that the author was inspired by a rare but very real neurological disorder; obviously, being a novelist, Watson took a germ of truth and ran with it, but, as I told the reader, ‘It is literally based in fact. Papers were written about it and everything.’ Her eyes narrowed to slits. ‘How convenient,’ she said, before walking off, presumably to harangue a fantasy writer about the lack of orcs and wizards in her neighbourhood.

 

You don’t need to look very far to find hard-to-believe news stories. The following stories are convoluted, far-fetched and in some cases ridiculous – all the qualities serious novelists try to avoid.

 

A woman turns up at her own funeral, wreaking revenge on the husband who paid to have her killed.

Noela Rukundo

A troubled young woman is jailed after posing as a man to seduce her best friend, blindfolding her and penetrating her with a prosthetic penis.

gayle newland

 

A man fakes his own death in a canoe accident to claim life insurance. He lets his sons believe he is dead. Really, he’s living in a single room near Hartlepool. This real-life scam had such a compelling narrative it was turned into a TV drama.

canoe man bernard hill

 

And it’s always worth dragging this one from the archives: Pop star runs over his own head, with his own car, after overdosing on baked potatoes.

brian

 

The people in the above stories are hardly from crime-fiction central casting (although anyone who's seen the Stay Another Day video will surely agree that Brian Harvey ought to have been arrested by the Fashion Police). They aren’t spies, maverick police officers or troubled forensic pathologists. They are the kind of people you meet every day.

This is why I love writing psychological thrillers. Everyone, no matter how benign their exterior, is psychologically complex. We all have monsters coiled within. It’s the darkness behind the twitching net curtain, the monster in the baskets-only queue in Waitrose, that I love to shine a light on.

 

So given that truth is stranger than fiction, how can authors make their novels plausible? When readers talk about implausibility they don’t usually mean, ‘I don’t believe this could happen.’ The mean, ‘I don’t believe this character would act that way.’ That’s why the author must do a convincing job of laying the groundwork to show that this thing could happen to this person, in this place, at this time; not only that it could, but that it’s inevitable. The more unlikely the premise, the harder the writer must work. It all comes down to character. What does your protagonist want so badly that they would act like this? What happened to make them that way? What are they running from? What are they chasing? Once you’ve nailed motive, it’s time to use all the other tools at your disposal. Foreshadowing to seed the darkness in this character. Misdirection to make us look the other way while it’s all happening. Do this right, and readers won’t ever say your book is implausible. They’ll be too busy turning the pages.

 


How I Make It Work

babyboom

I’m usually up at about 5.30am. As a busy working mum, I think it’s so important to carve some time out of the day that’s just for me. Most days I flail dramatically into palpitating wakefulness before the sun rises, still wired from the litre of Pepsi Max I downed the previous day to counteract the insomnia from the night before that. Mindfulness is the best way to unlock my goals so I devote maybe 90 minutes to meditating on the housing shortage, my deadlines, the refugee crisis, the polar ice caps and the continuing employment of Shane Ritchie. It’s important for couples to be intimate so I toss and turn until my husband begs me in a cracked voice to be still please be still for god’s sake what’s wrong with you #lovedup #hubby

I find myself scrolling through Facebook before my eyes are even open. I like to be the first one downstairs in the morning – more me time! It’s good to be a little bit selfish, as I find I’ve then got so much more to give. I’ve read that women who start the day with a green juice are less likely to start crying in the changing rooms at Topshop so I neck three apple Froot Shoots in succession and that’s me done for the day #eatclean

We have post-it notes and flash cards all over the house to help the children’s education: phonics, times tables, key phrases in Mandarin, the basic tenets of Keynesian economics, the usual. I like to play fun games with my daughters, turning, say, the twelve-times table into a family singalong.

schoolrun

I bond with my girls on the walk to school. Even in a city it’s really vital that children learn about nature (I believe the children are our future) so we play a fun game where we try to work out whether the string of turds littering the broken paving stones are from the dachshund at number 5 (in which case I might say something to the owner) or the Rottweiler round the corner (in which case I won’t). I believe in talking to children with the same vocabulary and respect you would use with your peers, so as they run off in different directions as we prepare cross the congested A-road opposite their school I let rip with a string of expletives that would make Malcom Tucker blush. Drop-off ends with a kiss and a hug and a last-minute bribe to the seven-year-old; if she goes all day without saying ‘fuck’ in class, I’ll get her a My Little Pony magazine. They grow up so fast!

kalebitch

Three times a week when my youngest daughter is at nursery (£750 a month, babies in earrings slack-jawed in front of The Human Centipede II) I’ll go to my exclusive gym (£12.99 a month, syringe bins in the changing rooms) to walk slowly on a treadmill while watching Taylor Swift videos, internalising a wider cultural misogyny by comparing myself to a genetically-blessed millionaire fifteen years my junior, tweeting all the while. Maybe I’ll hijack a tangentially relevant trending topic like the Booker shortlist or NASA’s announcement about Mars with a few hundred mentions of my own latest book.

All this and it’s only half past ten! Honestly, I don’t know how I do it!


Ruth Rendell, 1930-2015

Thestorysnail

When I was very little I had a picture book called The Story Snail, about a lonely little boy who wanted to tell stories but didn’t know how to begin. He was befriended by a giant talking snail who told him one hundred wonderful stories, which the boy then shared with his new friends. When they ran out, the boy found that he had learned to tell his own; he had become a storyteller simply by learning from a great. It was by this system that Ruth Rendell taught me to write. Those 10,000 hours they say you have to put in to get good at something? Most of mine were spent lolling on a sofa, a Ruth Rendell paperback in my hand. There are worse ways to spend an adolescence.

I was fourteen when I picked up A Fatal Inversion. Written under Rendell’s Barbara Vine pseudonym, it is a flawless, lyrical story about obsessive love and youthful privilege, set in rural Suffolk in the long hot summer of 1976. When I opened the book I was a keen and curious reader: by the final page, my long-held but vague desire to write had zoomed into pin-sharp focus. This was the kind of thing I wanted to do. Of course, I wasn’t ready at fourteen. I had my GCSE French oral in the morning for a start. But I read, and I read. The beauty of discovering an established writer at the height of her powers is the back catalogue. My local library had literally yards of Rendells and Vines on the shelf, and I tore through them like a termite.

fata inversio

 

I knew that I wanted to write mysteries, but not police procedurals: I just don't have that kind of brain. The Chief Inspector Wexford novels aside, Rendell often dispensed with the question of ‘whodunit’ altogether, occasionally solving the physical mystery on the first page; the suspense is all in the psychological unravelling. 1977’s A Judgment In Stone opens with the memorable line, ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ Murderer, victims and motive are laid bare in the first sentence yet the novel grips to the last full stop. Crucially, it was all done without recourse to graphic violence. Rendellian torture is purely psychological.

She could see the squirming darkness in the everyday, something that fires me, too. One of her most memorable short stories features a husband and wife being driven to murderous psychosis by a loose bathroom window that kept banging in the night. Who hasn't listened to their spouse eating an apple and looked longingly at the knife drawer? It was through reading Rendell I discovered that accident, loss of control, is as likely, and often far more interesting, than premeditation. My books always contain a murder but they are psychological thrillers, concerned with what happens before the police arrive – if arrive they ever do.

Sense of place is hugely important to my novels, and Rendell was a psychogeographer before the term was coined; her stories are indivisible from their settings. She captured that strata of London, where rich and poor, bored and desperate, live cheek by jowl in the mansions and bedsits, squares and estates of our capital. Some locations she returned to time and again; Highgate, Maida Vale, Regent’s Park. There is a swathe of London, from Portobello in the West to Crouch Hill in the north and most of the land in between, where it is hard to walk very far without treading in her characters’ footsteps. Naturally, when I left my home in metropolitan Essex to move to the capital – the same, one-way journey Rendell herself made at a similar age – these were the streets I sought. When I wrote my first novel, The Poison Tree I set it on the edge of Queens Wood in Highgate. (The Poison Tree, incidentally, is a novel about obsessive love and youthful privilege – sound familiar? - I tried so hard not to mimic A Fatal Inversion, but have been told by more than one reader than in doing so I inadvertently captured the spirit of another Vine classic, The House of Stairs. Meh.)  My second, The Sick Rose, took place partly in Kensington. It was not until my third novel, The Burning Air, that I charted my own territory, a thickly-wooded valley in remote Devon.

queenswood

Her political, occasionally almost polemical, style inspired me too. Rendell unabashedly dramatised the causes close to her heart, especially in the later Wexford novels, with Not In The Flesh memorably confronting the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation. The novel I’m writing at the moment, about a young couple who witness a rape, and take the law into their own hands to secure what they believe is the right outcome at the subsequent trial, is, in part, an opportunity for me to climb on board my soapbox. Rendell will be my gold standard in using compelling drama as a Trojan horse for this.

Occasionally I have been asked to defend my devotion, usually by people who say they ‘don’t read crime fiction’, never having tried it. I would always do so with relish. In fact, Rendell was held in almost uniquely high esteem for a genre writer, having the respect of her peers in the literary establishment as well as millions of devoted readers. Perhaps an element of snobbery remained, as she was denied the heavyweight prizes. Had she not cut her teeth writing detective fiction, her 1998 Barbara Vine outing The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy – about the secrets uncovered on the death of a beloved writer – would surely have been listed for the Booker it so wryly referenced. The same goes for No Night Is Too Long had it carried Ian McEwan’s byline, or Asta’s Book Sarah Waters’.

My loss is not personal, in the sense that we never met. The closest I came was a couple of years ago at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival where she had just given a talk, and I was due to appear the following day. She was checking out; I was hot and flustered after a long journey from London and holding a bottle of freshly-expressed breastmilk, much of which was also on my top, for the hotel to keep in the fridge for me. I felt that I lacked the gravitas to impress my heroine. I was happier in the audience.

Recently, I found an early Rendell, The Face of Trespass, in a charity shop. I thought I’d read them all, so to me it was like finding a lost Beatles album. The novel was written before I was born, the idiom dated and the technology on which the plot turns obsolete, yet it was more gripping than anything new I had read in years.

If you have never read Ruth Rendell, I envy you, and urge you to begin today. Her stories will stay with you for the rest of your life: and they may yet inspire you to write your own.