We’re running a new, occasional series of writers in conversation. We ask those writers to talk about things of mutual interest to them, but otherwise don’t set parameters for those conversations at all. John is a non-fiction writer about crime fiction; Simon is an author of boldly imagined, high concept thrillers – the (hugely and internationally) bestselling Sancti trilogy and his new Solomon Creed novel.
We’ve got full bios below and plenty of links to their books through the course of this post, but really the best way to introduce these writers is to hear them speak.
1. What was your route into the industry?
My route into the industry is really from the perspective of a reader, rather than a writer. Having started with Essex Libraries I then spent 25 years with Leicestershire Library Services. In 1999 I started giving talks to reading groups, and chose crime fiction as my topic – a popular subject then as now. I devised a talk based on the locations used in British crime fiction – I loved the Morse books of Colin Dexter with their wonderful Oxford setting, the Derbyshire Peak District used by Stephen Booth, and Wycliffe in Cornwall, among many others.
I gave a version of that talk at the Lowdham Book Festival and Ross Bradshaw – the Festival organiser and MD of the small publisher, Five Leaves Publications – asked me to write a book version of the same thing. On retirement in 2012, I had time on my hands, so I said yes before he (or I) had time to have second thoughts. I had never written anything longer than my University dissertation before – so writing a book was a whole new concept. As a librarian, I had organised author events and spoken to many authors, but being on the other side of the fence was very different.
Like you, I’ve always been a voracious reader. All writers are basically readers with a pen. In my case I wrote a book, got an agent, got a publisher. It was actually that simple.
Having said that, before I wrote that book I’d spent 20 years as a producer and director in commercial television, which was a hell of an apprenticeship. I’d learned quite a bit about narrative and also done some living – both of which were crucial I think.
How did you get an agent?
Coming from my commercial, creative background in TV I went about it in a very professional, structured way. I created an excel spreadsheet then looked in the acknowledgement of all the books I’d read that I liked and were close to my own book in terms of genre, and that I also thought were well published (by that I mean they had striking covers, good jacket copy, good blurbs from big authors, good sales). Authors almost always thank their agents so I drew up a list, found their details online and entered them into my spreadsheet until I had a list of around twenty agents.
I then went to each website and looked up their individual submission criteria and made sure I was sending them EXACTLY what they asked for. I then spent a long time writing the perfect cover letter, customising it for each agent (mentioning their clients and why I was writing specifically to them) and sent three out at a time so that all my eggs were never in one basket. I figured that I’d get rejected lots and would start working my way down the list, sending a new submission out with each rejection so that there was always something in play. The first two rejected it, the third one asked to see the whole manuscript. That person is now my agent.
All the advice was the same – getting an agent was a writer’s first priority. And yet, in my case, everything happened without me having one. When Ross Bradshaw asked me about the book in 2012, I said yes, because I now had the time I would need to put into it. So the idea of an agent had not really crossed my mind.
From the perspective of hindsight it probably should have done, but I was grateful to be offered the chance to write a book for a respected (if small) independent publisher.
On drafts and rewriting
I started out trying to write a county by county guide, but soon realised that this was unworkable, as some authors would appear in a whole myriad of counties. On the other hand I had to break up the country somehow. In the end I decided to split the country regionally, starting with the West Country and ending with The Scottish Highlands and Islands. Then I was persuaded to add in Ireland as well (North and South).
I also made a number of other key decisions – number of entries per author, chronological scope, number of titles per author.
For any book, research is key. I had a very good knowledge of British Crime, but I had to make sure my facts were right. Wherever possible I used my own books or author’s websites for details, but sometimes I was forced to check several places to ensure that details were correct. In terms of writing and rewriting, I found that I did not have too much rewriting to do, although sometimes author entries were changed by new books . Most of all though, I was grateful for the work of the Five Leaves copy editor Pippa Hennessey, who as mentioned in the book, turned base metal into gold.
I tend to do some background reading before starting a first draft, enough so I’m not a total novice, then the story starts throwing up its own questions as I write it. I used to stop writing whenever this happened and research whatever I needed to know but the internet is such a rabbit hole that I’ve stopped doing this. Now I make it up and write those sections IN CAPITAL LETTERS so I can easily see what needs checking in the second draft. I often find that whatever I made up is actually not too far from the truth. Sometimes, however, it’s miles off but the truth is so dull that I finesse my fabrication and lean heavily on my artistic license. Just because it’s true, doesn’t make it interesting and I’m in the business of entertainment first and information second.
There’s so much to be said about this that’s hard to know where to start. I write thrillers so they are very constructed and plot driven, i.e. lots of things happen. To put a story like this together is like being a watchmaker, all the tiny components have to be very precisely aligned otherwise it won’t work. I outline a lot in advance to work out the structure but I know other writers who totally wing it and rewrite heavily.
Having said that I also rewrite heavily. The craft is in turning every sentence and every paragraph until it is smooth and balanced and pushing the story forward. Rodin once described how he would approach a sculpture of elephant by saying ‘I’d take a large piece of stone and chip away everything that wasn’t an elephant’. I see writing a novel in the same terms. First drafts are like cutting a huge block of marble out of a hillside and subsequent drafts are chipping away all the bits of stone that aren’t the story.
The cornerstones of my work are knowledge and research. The knowledge has been built up over a thirty year library career and a lifetime of reading crime fiction, but this had to be topped off with a great deal of research.
However there was then the question of how to turn this into a proper reference book. I had to consider how to divide up the country ( i ended up with 13 regions), length of entries (maximum of 400 words per author), number of titles included (maximum of 4 per author) etc. I ended up covering more than 500 authors who had, between them, written more than 5000 crime novels.
What did you set out to achieve, and how?
I honestly set out to write a bestseller. In retrospect that may have been incredibly naive but I was coming from a creative, commercial environment where my job was to come up with TV shows and formats that would play in prime-time, i.e. have broad universal appeal, so I applied the same process to writing a book. I cycled through a bunch of ideas and ended up writing the one that seemed to me to be the most original central idea and was also in a popular genre (religious conspiracy thriller).
I knew I could write because I’d been writing scripts for ten years and I also knew I had the discipline to sit down and produce something. Whether I produced anything decent was up for debate but I’d been a voracious reader all my life so I knew the rules of what I was writing. I was also coming from the ruthless discipline of TV where things are endlessly edited and worked on until they’re finished so I applied that to my writing. I still do in fact. All writing is basically re-writing and every book goes through several, stringent drafts.
I set out to write a reference book that would be of interest to anyone interested in British crime writing. I wanted to write a book which would in a way do for British crime fiction what The Good Pub Guide does for pubs – i e, encourage readers to try different authors (pubs) and make up their own minds about whether they want to take that interest further (read more by an author / go back to the pub again).
My main inspiration was Barry Forshaw’s Encyclopedia of British Crime Fiction. This is a wonderful reference book, but at £90 for two volumes I felt it was out of reach for most readers. I wanted to come up with something which was as comprehensive as possible but more reasonably priced for the general reader. My publisher was very positive about this, and the final price was just £9.99.
When and where do you write?
I have three children at school and basically use them as a timing device. I drop them off at school in the morning, go round the corner to a cafe in Brighton that my friend owns and work there until it’s time to pick them up again. I also try and produce a thousand words a day when I’m working on a first draft. The combination of these two things helps focus the mind.
I was fortunate that the offer to write the book came just after I had retired, so I reveled in the fact that I could work as and when I wanted – I would start at 10am, break at 12 for a two hour lunch, then work from 2-5.30 and then do an hour in the evening if necessary. This timing would be applied to most weekdays (unless there was cricket on TV!). My publisher was very flexible re deadlines and so I was able to work at my own pace.
What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever been given?
Write something that you would want to read yourself.
Ninety percent of writing is re-writing.
Why be a writer? What triggered your love of writing?
Reading. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t read and when I figured out that someone was actually writing these stories that I was reading and that I could do it too there was no stopping me. I love stories and I love telling them.
In many ways I never intended to be a writer. I enjoyed writing when at school, but never considered the idea of being a writer – that was always for others. However when I was given the opportunity, I found that it was something I really enjoyed.
(For Simon) How did you arrive at your lead characters? Who was the inspiration for her?
My lead characters always come from the story. I tend to have the idea first and then the characters emerge from the needs of whatever story I want to tell. With Sanctus I had a relic that had been kept in a male-only monastery since the beginning of time and so who better to try and discover what it was than a woman? My job as a writer of thrillers is to put as many obstacles in the way of my hero as possible and, in this case, making her a woman was a big obstacle to her getting what she needed.
With my new book and series, Solomon Creed, a wanted to create someone very enigmatic and odd and memorable. He’s also a man with no apparent past, a man wiped clean of his own history, so I made him an albino and, just to set up those obstacles right from the start, we first meet him running barefoot from a burning plane in the Arizona desert.
(For John) What other books on crime fiction were your main rivals? Did you spot a gap in the market?
My main inspiration was the work of Barry Forshaw – the pre-eminent commentator on crime fiction in the UK. Amongst other books he had produced The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction (Rough Guides, 2007) and British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood, 2009), and I wanted to come up with something that was as useful as those were. There was also an earlier book called Scene of the Crime, by Julian Earwaker and Katherine Becker (Aurum, 1991) which covered similar territory to mine, but was more “coffee-table” in style. Also as it was more than 10 years old there were many new authors that it did not cover.
(For Simon) The religious background to your Sanctus books is vital. How did you research that?
Actually, I didn’t do much research at all. The central religious story underpinning the Sanctus trilogy is the legend of the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and everybody knows how that goes. I researched monasteries and how they work and other things that were central to the story but the religious background was already universally known, which is partly why I chose it. I didn’t want to have to explain something complicated and with the story of Adam and Eve you don’t need to because everyone already knows it.
What is your view of Amazon reviews? Reviews in general?
I think reviews are important, especially for new authors. I was incredibly pleased to get a really positive review on publication day from Martin Edwards, now chairman of The CWA, and that gave me great confidence. A negative review from someone of his stature would have been a major blow.
Amazon reviews are important because they help make your book visible to their promotional algorithms and, therefore, to the readers. The system of review is deeply flawed, though. I’ve had one star reviews from people who couldn’t download the book or bought a copy in translation (clearly labelled that it’s in Italian or whatever), and also five star reviews from people who bought it for their mum and it was delivered quickly. They haven’t read it but they’re handing out five stars regardless.
When my first book, Sanctus, came out I read them all and took them very personally. Now I hardly read them at all. I’ll check them when a new book comes out, just to see what the genuine reviewers think, but I have no control over them other than delivering the best book I can, so I try and focus on that instead.
How do you set about marketing your book – outside what your publisher can do for you?
One downside of being with a small, independent publisher is that they have little marketing clout. So I give talks, contribute to websites, and use social media (well, Facebook and Twitter) to get my name known and raise awareness of the book.
I’m with one of the big publishers – HarperCollins – but that doesn’t mean I lie back and watch an army of marketeers swarm forth to do my bidding. Any professional author these days has to do a lot of self-promotion and I do all the same things John does – blogs, social media, personal appearances.
One of the hardest things for a new author to achieve is to get a reader to take a chance on their book so competitions and giveaways on things like Goodreads are really useful. These generate word of mouth and positive reviews and then, hopefully, other people will start selling your book for you. A mailing list is also very important as it allows you to connect with readers directly. This takes time to build up but is gold as far as marketing is concerned. Of course none of these means anything unless you have a good book, so first and foremost is making sure you have one of those. That’s all there is to it. 🙂
Simon Toyne is the bestselling author of the Sanctus trilogy: Sanctus, The Key and The Tower. He wrote Sanctus after quitting his job as a TV executive to focus on writing. It was the biggest selling debut thriller of 2011 in the UK and an international bestseller. His books have been translated into 27 languages and published in over 50 countries.
Solomon Creed is the first in a new series of epic thrillers that will span the world and centre around the enigmatic title character. Simon lives with his family in Brighton and the South of France.
John is a former librarian and lifelong crime reader. He spent 30 years working in public libraries before retiring from Leicestershire Libraries in 2012. He was a member of the judging panel for the CWA Dagger in the Library Award from 2010-2012, and is a regular local speaker on crime fiction.
Crime Scene Britain and Ireland: A Reader’s Guide was published in 2014. Featuring mini-essays on more than 500 crime writers, CWA Chairman Martin Edwards described it as “definitely my cup of tea”. John lives in Leicester, dividing his time between crime fiction, cricket, rock music, real ale, and his long-suffering partner, Veronica.