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Saturday, 7 November 2009


November 5th was official publication day for Washington Shadow and I have been taking a break from the gruesome winter of 1946-47, the background of the next Peter Cotton book, to answer a number of questions I have received from would-be writers and/or the curious.

These questions have ranged from how long a book should be and where did I learn to write, to how much control I have over shoutlines/taglines and book covers, and one from Bookhugger that asked me directly whether or not I have received pressure to change my ‘creative vision’ for commercial reasons. See the previous post.

For the record, my contract asks for a minimum 70,000 words and I have never had a writing class but, if I may borrow from Jorge Luis Borges, ‘writers start as readers’ and at my age, as I have explained to some enquirers, my biggest difficulty was acquiring confidence.

There are some writers – I know one very well – who will fight over a comma. I have just published my second book, however, and have no trouble admitting that, particularly with my first book, I needed to establish a kind of dialogue with my editor. No, she did not tell me what to write but I needed another view.

The dialogue was necessary, not just for me, but because of the genre I found myself in. There are some writers who are very market orientated. Others, I am one, who start by examining certain possibilities, and go on from there. I am by no means alone in this. Recently I had coffee with another writer in Edinburgh and both of us have had moments of puzzlement at being so very firmly pigeon-holed. I even found the same at Crimefest.

Aren’t we an innocent crowd? Of course. We all sweat over what we produce and then, ouch, publishers, marketing people and, of course, readers break in with their perceptions of the world. So to answer that shoutline and cover question – no, most writers - don’t get that much of a say, certainly not when starting out. There are art departments and marketing departments who deal with that. Honestly? I have only heard of Ian Rankin having a strong influence on his.

The reason for this is something called ‘the process’. This ‘process’ is the publisher’s production schedule. The cover is fixed early and when I say fixed I mean settled. It is needed for the catalogue and it is all the marketing and sales people initially have to work on. It takes time to introduce a writer and it takes time to introduce a book. The publishers’ job is to think quickly and clearly about what they are investing in - this sometimes works better than others, of course, but they too need, particularly for a first book, the consumers’ feedback and reaction and are only too happy to change and to work hard at it.

From the first time writer’s point of view, if someone has had the courage to take you on and you are trying to get the content right, the packaging becomes not your business but that of those professionals with a lot more experience than you have.

I consider that publishing a book is a collaborative process but that there will always be some readers who hold the writer entirely responsible not just for the story but for what publishers call the product as well. This is not a complaint. The reader is an absolute monarch of their own opinion.

This brings me on to the last question. ‘Do you ever reply to reviews’? I know of some authors who do so – A L Kennedy, a truly excellent writer, is one. Ms Kennedy is also a stand-up or, with some reviewers, a knock-down, comedian. But the publisher’s advice is clear – don’t.

I have to admit this hasn’t been a huge problem. I was lucky enough to get some favourable reviews by usually respected reviewers like Mike Ripley, Marcel Berlins, Natasha Cooper, Joan Smith, Andrew Taylor and others. Did I always agree with some of their opinions and comparisons? Of course not. But it seems to me elementary respect for that to remain private. I get to publish over seventy thousand words. They get to give their impressions to other possible readers in very many less. It is also interesting and instructive to see different readers’ reactions to your work.

Likewise with unfavourable reviews. Absolutely the reviewer’s right. But there was one reviewer who has gone on and on - for example, to Amazon to join the one star patrol, not something usually respected reviewers tend to do. They give an opinion and move on.

So no, I don’t reply directly to reviews. But there is, I have to admit, an advantage to writing books. Some time ago the late literary agent Giles Gordon, a truly charming, wonderfully indiscreet and normally most amiable of men, took against Michel Faber’s work. Reasonableness had nothing to do with it or, as publishers like to say ‘it is all so subjective.’ So Michel Faber included him as an umbrella carrying client of a brothel in his next book, The Crimson Petal, I think.

A few days ago when I was told of what was probably yet another reference from the same source to The Maze of Cadiz - a year after publication - I remembered (yes, time does move on and I forget things) that I had, around the time of that one star Amazon review, done something similar, though involving a patrolman, in Washington Shadow and that it is, probably, only fair to say so now.

Giles, at least, laughed uproariously.


Uriah Robinson said...

Aly, you might be interested in my review of Washington Shadow that Karen has put up at Euro Crime today. I usually pass review books on to a deserving charity, but with such an interestingly named character, I am keeping this one. ;o)
My children all want a copy, but I have told them they will have to wait until the paperback comes out.

Aly Monroe said...

Thank you for your post. Indeed I was very interested in your review of Washington Shadow - very thorough, patrolman Price.
If you don't have a great many children, I'd be happy to provide them with hardbacks from the author's copies. Just use the contact email on this site.