Big Publishing and Me (5): Ctrl-A, Delete (or how not to write a book)

strange-death-cover-350pxAs you know by now, these blog posts tell the story of my adventures in the land of publishing.

As you also know, these posts mark the US release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, a book which Kirkus called, ‘an exceptional piece of work . . . Fiona’s narrative sears the page.’

If that sounds like something you might like, you can buy it here.

[<< Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
That error is simply stated: I wrote a terrible book.

Partly, the problem is simply one that afflicts many new writers: the dreaded second novel syndrome, a disease that often proves fatal. First novels don’t arrive the way all the others do. They just fly in through the window and settle in your head. First novels say to you, write me, it would be fun.

Naturally enough, most first novels are lousy and never get sold, but most first anythings are pretty ropy. Einmal ist keinmal, as the Germans say. Once is the same as never. But in some cases – mine for instance – a good first idea becomes allied to just enough craft that a real book is born. The Money Makers is hardly a work of literature, but it’s a damn fine beach read, fast, fun and warm-hearted. At the time of writing today, and aggregating across Amazon’s British and American sites, the book averages 4.9 stars out of five. I worked hard at the book, it’s true, but the work never felt like a strain. It felt more like a gift from the universe. My work did enough to honour the gift, and that was about it. I was lucky.

Second novels just aren’t like that, or mostly not. They come from graft. From a contractual relationship which says, in effect, You must write another novel. That novel must be as funny, compelling and exciting as your first. It can’t copy the first, but it has to appeal to the same audience. Oh yes, and you have to write it by a certain date and the clock has already started ticking. Good luck.

Some people pass that test. Others flunk it. I flunked. To be sure, my personal life was just a wee bit tricky, to put it mildly. The illness that had seemed like an awful, but temporary, intrusion into our marital home proved to be a huge and ugly beast that had chosen to take up seemingly permanent residence. I wasn’t a full-time novelist, who also did some part-time caring. I was a full-time carer, who wrote a novel in whatever gaps of time became available.

But that’s an excuse, really. I had a new career, the terms of which required that I churn out a new novel, of decent quality, every year or two. I tried my best, but the first draft of that second novel was a mess. A steaming dungheap, a carcrash, a train wreck.

I gave that draft to my editor, who told me it was fabulous, then fled HarperCollins for another publisher altogether and, for all I know, another country, another continent. Perhaps she’s now working in something safe, like mine-clearance or lumberjacking or any industry which will protect her from novels like that one.

In any event, I got a new editor – Susan – who took a deep breath and invited me to come in for a chat. That meeting was, I think, handled as perfectly as any such thing can be. Susan and Nick were patient, and calm, and non-accusatory, but in the nicest possible way they pointed out that the novel I had placed in their hands was a steaming dungheap of a book, a literary carcrash, an insult to language, a stain on all that the gods of literature held holy.

And I agreed. I saw that they were right and I said so. When I got home that evening, I opened up the novel on my laptop. Ctrl-A: select all. Del: delete.

That left me with a screen as blank as my notions of what to do next, but there was something liberating in the experience. And educational. In a funny way, I date the real professionalisation of my writing from that moment. Inspiration and a mood of gaiety had propelled my first novel. My second and subsequent novels would have a strong splash of inspiration at their core, but I’d never again leave myself reliant on that fickle muse. I’d figure out what made stories work, what made prose readable and characters lifelike. I read a mountain of how-to books (something I hadn’t once done while writing The Money Makers) and started to form my own views on what would and wouldn’t work for me.

I rebuilt that second novel from the ground up. The story that emerged – Sweet Talking Money – is about a banker and a research scientist who team up to develop a medical technique that will save patients but threaten the profits of drugs companies. The biggest, baddest drug company doesn’t like that idea and shenanigans ensure.

It is still, I think, the worst book I’ve ever written, but it’s not actually a bad book. The characters have personality, the story keeps moving, there’s a proper sort of climax. The book basically works. In a curious way, I’m quite proud of it: in terms of the distance travelled from inception to finished product, that novel is even impressive, like those Pacific atolls that would be higher than Everest, except that nine-tenths of them lies beneath the ocean.

Other people thought so too. A production company offered me a $100,000 option for the film rights – an offer which I would have happily accepted, if they had ever chosen to sign a contract or send me a cheque. And WH Smith, the UK’s largest retailer of commercial fiction, chose me for their ‘Thumping Good Read’ shortlist – their selection of the best commercial novels of the year. As failures go, this was hardly a horrible one.

I was relieved. I thought, the worst thing that could have happened to me has happened and I survived it. Did well in fact. I rescued the book. The book did OK. And I discovered that I had enough resources of craft to rescue me from any similar situation arising in the future. I was shaken, but confident.

That confidence seemed to have some firm commercial underpinnings. Being part of Smith’s Thumping Good Read promotion meant that my book was, in theory, displayed prominently at the front of all their high street stores throughout the summer selling season. Those kind of retail slots are highly valuable. At one stage, for example, publishers used to pay around £25,000 ($41,000) for the privilege of having one of their titles be the WH Smith ‘book of the week.’ No publisher could recoup the £25,000 from the sales generated in that single week, but they could shift enough copies to rank strongly in the store’s own bestseller charts, thereby guaranteeing good follow-on sales.

Now, to be sure, whenever I went into the WH Smith store in Oxford, I could never actually find my book. Back then, Smiths was run less professionally than it is today and I simply don’t know the extent to which local stores did as they were told to do by Head Office. But still: I was in their biggest annual promotion. Things couldn’t go that wrong, could they?

sweet-talking-money

My second cover.

Only then there was the whole issue of cover. Sweet Talking Money was an adventure story with a financial setting, but it was also a love story. The publishers felt that male readers would be more attracted by the financial thriller aspect of the book, while women would broadly be drawn in by the love story. But how to communicate both aspects of the book? What kind of cover would draw both audiences?

I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I am sure that the answer HarperCollins came up with was not a good one. The cover featured a roll of dollar bills folded into the shape of a heart – quite possibly the seed of a decent idea. But everything else about the design was a mess. The cover never really knew who its audience was. Thriller readers, perhaps? So the design plumped for plenty of gold foil and had a background picked out in a techno-thrillerish silver-blue. But – whoops – what about the girls? That concern prompted the designers to put the title text in a weird mixture of upper and lower case, as though to promise women that there really, really would be some flirty (lower-case) snogging as well as dramatic (upper-case) action.

No one I knew liked that cover. I hated it. So did my agent. We passed on our reservations to my editor, who kept on reassuring us that the cover was amazing, that we’d love it as soon as we saw the ‘special effects’ – meaning the gold foil and the weird blue-silvery thing. We remained dubious, but, being polite and well-brought up, allowed the matter to rest until we had seen the cover in its final form. When we saw it, I was even more confident that the cover was a mess, but by that point it was (as I expect everyone but me knew) too late to do anything about it.

But so what? Before too long, I had a royalty statement from HarperCollins which showed that they’d shifted around 60,000 copies. The book had interest from film companies. It was shortlisted in what was arguably the most important prize for its category of fiction.

My wife (who was starting to recover somewhat) and I wanted to move house. Out of Oxford and into the countryside. The move was going to require a mortgage a heck of a lot bigger than the one we then had, which meant that we needed to believe that my authorial career was for real. We needed to believe that I had an income, not just a remarkable one-off windfall.

In due course, we found a house we loved. It was over our price range, but it was perfect in every other way. We talked over the risks, and decided to make an offer. Our offer was accepted, and we moved from a pleasant Edwardian townhouse in East Oxford to a seventeenth century thatched cottage a few hundred yards from the River Thames. Our new life – the life of a writer and his slowly recovering wife – was beginning at last. We’d been through the worst and come out whole.

We had been in the house only a few weeks when I received a new royalty statement and my publishing education took a further step forward.
[Story continues here.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here.

If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here.

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