Standalones vs. Series

When I wrote my first novel, Stolen, I thought it would be a standalone. The book was mainly from the point of view of Abby Henshaw, a woman whose daughter was abducted. There was a detective in there, but he was secondary. Until he wasn’t. By the time I got to the second draft, I realised I liked DI Gardner a lot and kept finding more things for him to do. He kept showing up at the door. So I decided to change the book and make it both Abby and Gardner’s story, and when I was done, I realised there was more to say about Gardner and so the series was born. Each of the books work as a standalone but there’s also development of the characters and threads throughout that link one book to the others.

There’s something comforting about a series. A lot of my favourite crime novels are a series. I love to go back to a favourite character. They can become friends, someone you want to catch up with, someone you fear for when things go bad.

The same is true with writing a series. When it came to the second book, Gone, it felt easier to write Gardner. I didn’t have to start from scratch, I could already hear his voice, knew his mannerisms. I knew how he’d act and react to the situations he found himself in. In some ways, his character dictated what would happen.

I also enjoy planting seeds, things that seem unimportant at the time that come back further down the line. In the fourth book, Murder in Slow Motion, we discover Dawn Lawton, one of Gardner’s colleagues, is in an abusive relationship. Gardner thinks back about things he’s seen or heard, wondering if there were signs. Those signs were there in the previous books –subtle hints of what was to come. Of course, this only works if you know in advance what you’ll write about later. I knew from the start I wanted to write about domestic abuse and, even though it took a while to work out that story, I knew enough to leave those trails.

There are other details dotted about that may or may not come to anything in the future. But sometimes this can be limiting. Write something about a character in one book and you’re stuck with it forever (some eagle eyed reader will always notice). There are also other limitations. Setting, for example. I could send Gardner off on holiday to the Bahamas, but any crime that occurs while he’s there, he’d be unable to investigate. Unless he did it unofficially, in which case it becomes a different kind of book altogether. Once you have a certain style to the series, it’s difficult to move away from that. Readers come to expect certain things and can be disappointed if you stray too far.

Writing a standalone, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to do whatever you like. Set the book completely in the past or the future. Set it in New Zealand or Mars. Tell it from the point of view of the bad guy or some unknown narrator. Anything goes. There are no constraints, but at the same time, this can be more overwhelming. The canvas is completely blank.

When I started No Place Like Home, I didn’t have a grand plan, I basically just started writing. It was both liberating and terrifying. There was nothing familiar to cling to, even my usual method of writing went out the window. But it was exciting. I’d spent such a long time living in the world of the series (Gardner’s world, if you will) that it was thrilling to step outside of it and meet new characters.

Not only was the method different, the style was too. Even the tone is very different. Though the books in my series often have ambiguous endings, not entirely happy or unhappy, there is usually some moral centre. Gardner, for his faults, is usually doing the right thing. With No Place Like Home, things are a bit more fuzzy.

So which do I prefer? It’s hard to say. Just before I published Murder in Slow Motion, I read through it one last time. It had been a while since I’d looked at it, busy with other projects. Reading it again, I’d forgotten how much I like those characters and didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until we were reunited. But creating new stories, new characters, new worlds, is always exciting; a promise of going somewhere unfamiliar.

And just like real life, there’s room for both – the familiar and the unknown.

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How Do You Know When It’s Done?

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I finished a book on Friday. Though finished is probably not the best word for it. What I did was get to the end of a first draft which, anyone who’s ever written a book will know, is most likely terrible – full of plot holes, clichés and generally bad writing. Or is that just me? Getting to the end of a first draft is not really an ending but the beginning of what is often a long and frustrating process to get it into something you wouldn’t mind other people reading.

But some of the other things I’ve been working on recently are further down that road and it got me wondering, how do you know when something is actually done?

A couple of weeks ago I was sent the proofs of my book No Place Like Home to check over, and though I didn’t make any huge changes, there was still the odd word change, or cutting a line. Each time I’ve gone over the book, something has changed, no matter how minor. These little tweaks won’t change the novel but they still seem important to do. But how long can you keep doing that? Not anymore, now that I’ve sent it back.

I remember tweaking things from my first novel, Stolen, after it had been published, using a pencil to cross things out and add things in just before I was about to get up and do a reading. But the book itself was done. I could only make changes to what I read aloud. But maybe that’s how it should be. I can look back at my work and cringe and wish I’d done it differently, but that’s just showing that I’m (hopefully) getting better as a writer, and the books as they are show how far I’ve come. In theory, I can change Murder in Slow Motion as much as I want because it’s self published. But should I? Catching typos is one thing, but altering the book itself seems wrong.

So ultimately, I had to stop messing with the manuscript and send it off, knowing it’s as good as it can be at this time. But how do you know when that is?

I was working on a play recently, using competition deadlines as motivation to get it done. I was quite proud of myself for putting the work in – coming up with the idea, developing it and writing it in just a few weeks. I sat up late redrafting and redrafting again. But it got to the point where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and had to put it aside, even though it meant missing a deadline.

But a week or so later, I read it through again and realised that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, and with a few more tweaks, I was able to send it off to another competition. I’m still not sure it’s done. I’m sure I will mess with it some more. But there’s a fine line between done and not done. If I waited for perfection, I’d still be working on my first book. Sometimes you need to let it go, send it out, and let someone else tell you when it’s done.

Exciting/Terrifying

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So, the interweb reliably informs me that Gone will be released in 30 days. This is exciting. It is also terrifying.

Gone is my second novel, so in some respects I should be prepared for what’s to come. And yet…

In 2013 my first novel, Stolen, was published and I experienced a lot of things for the first time – seeing the cover, seeing the book in physical form, seeing the book on a real shelf in a real bookshop, seeing reviews online, seeing a group of people gather to hear me talk about the book. All exciting. All terrifying.

I remember seeing the cover of Stolen for the first time just before Christmas 2012. The lovely Andrea from Moth sent it via email to see what I thought. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure about the orange of the word Stolen. It didn’t seem very crime-y. But she told me to have a think about it over Christmas and if, after that, I still disliked it, we could talk. Fortunately, after a few more hours staring at the image, I decided it was actually pretty cool. What’s wrong with standing out a bit? So thanks Andrea!

I saw the cover of Gone for the first time in May this year and this time, even though I was no less surprised to see it popping up in my email unannounced, I loved it from the start. It’s creepy and unsettling, and, in my opinion, suits the book perfectly. Thanks Mulholland!

I saw an actual copy of Stolen for the first time in the offices of New Writing North, where I’d gone to speak to Liv of the horror I felt about my launch and the other events that would follow. She kindly gave me a copy of the book to take home, possibly to make me feel it would all be worth it, and also put me in touch with the venerable Mari Hannah to talk me down from the ledge. In the end I managed to get through my launch without keeling over, and soon after did my first library event alongside Mari and discovered that librarians and readers are all lovely people. Thanks Liv and Mari!

With Gone, I’ve yet to see the finished book in person, as it were. I’ve had my mitts on a proof copy though, which was exciting for many reasons, not least because it meant it was finished and all the tear-inducing rewrites were over.

So the next step is seeing the book on shelves, then seeing (and trying not to read) the reviews, and lastly, going out into the world to meet more readers and hear what they think of Gone.

So, 15th January 2015.

Exciting.

Terrifying.

Books are my bag

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Even though most of my weekends (and weekdays, if I’m honest) are pretty book-centric, this weekend was extra bookish thanks to the Books Are My Bag campaign and the Durham Book Festival.

Things kicked off with the Gordon Burn Prize announcement at Durham Town Hall on Friday night, something I was very excited about as one of my favourite authors, Willy Vlautin, was nominated. Unfortunately he couldn’t be there on the night but it was fantastic hearing the readings from the nominees and there was great music from The Cornshed Sisters.

Then it was off to Corbridge on Saturday morning to visit the amazing Forum Books to sign some copies of Stolen and chat to customers and other writers about books and other things. And I also picked up a copy of Willy Vlautin’s new book, The Free. Well, it would be rude not to.

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And we’re off!

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Read Regional 2014 kicks off (for me, anyway) tonight with my first event at South Shields Library. It’s been a while since my last event so I hope I’m not too rusty. Fortunately I have the brilliant Susan Elliot Wright to share the stage with and I’m really looking forward to hearing her read from The Things We Never Said and finding out more about her writing.

I recently sent off what I hope will be almost the final draft of my second book so I can focus my attention back on Stolen. Although it was only published in May last year it feels like a long tome ago so I’m hoping readers will help me to remember some of the details!

The event in South Shields will be followed by a trip to Bradford on Saturday afternoon which will be a slightly scarier solo event and then in March I will attend my first book group (as a writer). As a former member of a book group myself, I know how heated the discussions can get and how opinions on the books generally range from love to hate. So I’ll prepare myself for some honest feedback!

A list of all the Read Regional events I’m taking part in can be found on my events page and to find out more about the project and the other writers and events please take a look at the Read Regional site here.

Authors for the Philippines

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Please check out this fantastic site Authors for the Philippines which is auctioning lots of items to raise money for the Red Cross’s Typhoon Haiyan Appeal.

I’ve donated a chance to have a character named after you in my third book (the second is fully named unfortunately) plus a signed copy of Stolen. But if I’m not your cup of tea, there’re lots of other things on the site including signed books, author visits, critiques of manuscripts from agents and editors, and much more.

Please have a look and make a bid! Thanks!

Gateshead

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A great night was had by all (I hope!) at Gateshead Central Library on Tuesday night – I know I had fun anyway! Unfortunately there are no photos as my official photographer Stephen was persuaded to be my official interviewer for the evening. (He did a marvelous job and one lady even told him he was pretty.) So instead, here’s a moody picture of the library at night.

I’m always nervous before events but nowhere near as much as I was at the start of this adventure in May. Before my book launch I didn’t sleep properly for weeks. But after doing a dozen or so readings I’ve discovered that readers are a lovely bunch and are generally enthusiastic about what you’re doing and have buckets of interesting questions.

When I started out as a writer I never imagined having to hit the road so much to spread the word about my work. But it’s been fun and everyone who told me it’d get easier were right – it does. But Gateshead was my last event for a while before I get back on the horse (or train, probably) for more events when the Read Regional campaign begins in February. I’m looking forward to it already.

So thank you to Helen Eddon from Gateshead library for inviting me and to all the lovely readers who came along and made it a night to remember.

The End of Summer Reads

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No, this isn’t a picture of my living room – my books aren’t as tidy as that. But I’m going to be surrounded by books this week as I venture out to libraries and bookshops around the North East.

First up is an event at the new library at Whitley Bay where I’ll be reading and talking about Stolen thanks to the lovely folk at North Tyneside council who chose the book as their Summer Read this year. I’m very excited to meet some people who’ve read the book and see what they think.

Then on Thursday it’s off to Clayport library in Durham as part of the Durham Book Festival. It’s very exciting to be asked to take part as anyone who’s ever been to the festival knows that it attracts fantastic writers and the events are excellent. So thanks to New Writing North for inviting me to take part. And it’s always nice to work alongside fellow Moth writer Helen Cadbury.

Finally, Saturday takes me to Helmsley to take part in the On Our Turf festival, again with Helen Cadbury. We’ll be at the Cut Price Bookstore from 2.30pm reading from our debut novels (as well as sneak peaks at the next books) and we’ll be signing copies too.

See my events page for all the details.

The Crime Bus.

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Before I get on with another round of rewrites for the second book, a quick update on the very nice weekend I’ve had. Despite it raining constantly on Friday and having returned from seeing The Be Good Tanyas at The Sage in Gateshead to discover my part of town was flooded, it was a very nice couple of days indeed. The Tanyas were fantastic (if you haven’t heard them before I urge you to seek them out) and I was also very surprised and warmed to my cockles to receive a fan letter. An actual letter that someone had taken the time to sit down and write and put in the post. Very exciting!

Then on Saturday it was off to Easingwold to take part in On Our Turf. There was all sorts going on and will be more at various locations throughout the rest of September. Check out the website here for more info. Our event was on a bus (pictured above) which was strange but fun – an intimate reading on the back of the bus alongside Helen Cadbury and a very lovely audience. As well as reading from Stolen and To Catch a Rabbit, we bravely (or perhaps stupidly) read from our still-in-progress second novels. Fortunately both seemed to go down well. Thanks to Alex for letting us bring a little crime to his bus.