Tag Archives: Novels

Royalties

It’s that time of year again.

The time of year that the majority of writers anticipate with a mixture of dread tempered by ever-present hope. We should know better, of course, and reconcile ourselves to despair. However, come the close of every September, insane optimism overcomes bitter experience and I expect, and pray for (or would do if I prayed), a larger royalty cheque than I will receive.

The royalty statements from my children’s books have started dribbling in. As they are initially paid to three separate people, I use the word ‘dribble’ advisedly. My first agent handled my first few kid’s books, then I handled the next few when I was without an agent. John Jarrold, my current agent, takes care of the rest.

This year, the statements make salutary reading. My children’s books that are still in print (a handful have been allowed to fall by the wayside), have earned a little less than last time. Most disappointingly, one of the titles, over the course of the six months from January to June, sold just three copies, compared with 81 copies for the previous six month period. So it goes.

On the plus side, my best-selling children’s title, Twocking, sold 438 copies, which was a healthy increase on last time.

All these books came out from the specialist, Edinburgh-based firm of Barrington Stoke, who publish books for reluctant readers. I love doing them, though they haven’t bought anything new from me for a couple of years.

Still, there was a time, over a decade ago, when none of my books had earned out their advances, and every royalty statement exhibited a depressingly high figure in the Remaining Advance column.

Early next year – as Solaris audit their finances to a different time-scale – the royalty statements for my adult SF titles will reach me, and as ever I will be anticipating them with dread and hope.

So it goes.

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Forgotten Authors

My fascination with forgotten authors began back in the early eighties when I discovered a writer who was to become a major influence on my work.

I came across Rupert Croft-Cooke’s The Drums of Morning – the third volume of his twenty-seven book autobiographical sequence entitled The Sensual World – in a junk shop in the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Over the course of the next few years I began collecting Croft-Cooke’s books, and found the story of his life, its many vicissitudes and few triumphs, an inspiration.

Rupert Croft-Cooke is a sadly neglected writer who between around 1930 and his death in 1979 wrote more than a hundred and twenty books: thirty-odd mainstream novels, the same number of crime novels under the name of Leo Bruce, and books on such diverse subjects as darts, gypsies, the circus, wine, cooking, and biographies of Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Kipling, as well as short stories and poetry. But The Sensual World is his lasting legacy to English letters, a brilliant evocation of his life and times, concentrating on the latter. The odd thing is that although he wrote so many volumes of autobiography, he never once mentioned the fact that he was homosexual – partly due to the times in which he was writing, and partly because, as he was at pains to point out, the books were less about himself than the places he travelled to and the people he met.

Skip a few years and I’m in W.H. Smiths in Bradford, when I find on their discount table a hardback copy of the Elmfield Press edition of The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers by Michael G. Coney. I’d never heard of the author, but I liked the blurb. I bought the book and started reading it on the bus back to Haworth, and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those rare and epiphinal moments when you know you’ve come across a writer whose voice, whose worldview, meshes with your own: I knew from that very first reading that I had to collect Coney’s work. Over the years I did so, reading everything he’d written – fewer than twenty novels and around forty short stories. His best work, novels like Hello Summer, Goodbye, Brontomek!, The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers, and the short stories “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel”, “The True Worth of Ruth Villiers”, “The Cinderella Machine”, combined good writing, interesting characterisation, excellent story-telling and an evocative sense of place, often his beloved West Country transported to the stars. His work spoke to me, and still does, even after countless re-readings. Back in the mid-nineties I began writing to Coney, and around 2000 I suggested that we collaborate on a short story. “The Trees of Terpsichore III”, published in Spectrum SF 8 in 2002, was the result.

I came across the novels of Peter De Polnay in the mid-1980’s, in a second-hand bookshop in York. For much of his long writing career he was published by the same company who brought out many of Rupert Croft-Cook’s novels, W.H. Allen – a third-rate stable where ailing mid-list writers were put out to grass. De Polnay is certainly a mid-list writer, a stalwart of the lending libraries of the 50s and 60s, who produced around seventy novels and half a dozen or so volumes of memoirs in a career lasting almost fifty years.

He led an interesting life, chronicled in Death and Tomorrow – about his time in France during the German occupation, and his role in the resistance there – and in The Moon and the Marabou Stork, detailing his time as a planter in Kenya. After the war he settled down and devoted himself to producing, at the rate of sometimes two a year, detailed accounts of mainly middle-to-upper-class protagonists and their tortured psychological lives. His characterisation is second to none, though his attention to style and structure is less assured; you receive the impression when reading De Polnay that he was more interested in the content of his books than in their form: his stories, while fascinating glimpses into the minds of his protagonists, are often rushed and sometimes superficial. However, I find rewards in his best books, among which are Not the Defeated, A Permanent Farewell, and Blood and Water. His autobiographies are well worth seeking out, too.

I’ve been asked, more than once, why I have this fascination with the halt and lame of the literary world, those forgotten scribes little lauded in their own lifetimes and hardly read now. Some people have suggested that I see my own career reflected in these neglected wordsmiths, and while I don’t deny that there might be a smidgen of truth in this, I’ll also claim that my interest in the above writers (as well as others like Robin Maugham, J.T. McIntosh, Norman Levine, Arthur Sellings, Miles Tripp, James Wellard… the list goes on) has more to do with a reaction to the populist and consumerist world in which we live, where the latest best-seller is the must-read title, where celebrity books – ghost-written, for the most part – flood the market. It’s nice to get away from all this, to discover writers who laboured away for years with little reward, and to bring to life their lost visions, even if it is only upon the stage of my own imagination.

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Murder…

I’ve been a reader of crime fiction from the age of fifteen, when I began reading novels. I’d somehow managed to avoid reading fiction before then, but in 1975 discovered Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, quickly followed by Robert Silverberg’s Sundance and other stories. And if Christie was a revelation, you can imagine what effect Silverberg had on my innocent young mind.

After reading his Sundance, I wanted to be a science fiction writer.

Seventeen years after that, my first SF novel, Meridian Days, was published, and for the past twenty-odd years all my output, other than a few children’s books, has been in the genre.

But for over twenty years I had an idea for a crime story. It involved an embittered writer and his murderous scheme to get even with critics, colleagues and editors (and no, it isn’t autobiographical). The central conceit – which I won’t give away here – meant that it had to be set before DNA testing came into use, or the crime would have been discovered in a few hours.

About five years ago I wrote the tale as a short story, not a novel, “The Human Element”, and it sold to Pete Crowther’s excellent Postscripts magazine/anthology. A year or two later it came to me that I could expand the story into a novel.

Not much remains of that early effort, other than the core idea of an embittered author. The central character, not the embittered author but a successful writer of crime thrillers, becomes embroiled in a series of murders. Around him, fellow writers, editors and critics are being despatched one by one – and our hero Donald Langham, ably assisted by his literary agent Maria Dupré, attempts to solve the crimes.

It’s set in 1955 – because DNA testing wasn’t around then, and because the fifties is an era I find interesting. Britain was emerging from the privations of the pre-war years, and change was in the air. London was still the Smoke, and the countryside was relatively unspoilt.

I wrote the first draft in a month – about the average time I take to write a novel these days. I found writing about the nineteen-fifties, writing about the ‘real’ world, as opposed to an invented future world, incredibly liberating. I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up, or to describe things in as much detail. Readers would know of the world I was writing about, because they lived in it from day to day.

I let the ms of the crime novel lie for a few weeks, then rewrote it and sent it off to my agent, with a couple of recommendations as to where to send it. I forgot about it and concentrated on other projects – The Devil’s Nebula and Helix Wars.

Weeks elapsed, then months, and when a year had passed by without any news from the publishers, I nudged my agent (who had been nudging the publishers in turn), and heard back from Severn House. Their response was, “Haven’t got round to reading it yet, but will do soon…”

I reconciled myself to another long wait – par for the course in this line of work – and was surprised when a week later I heard from the editors. They very much liked the novel, but felt that the mystery and intrigue element could be ratcheted up in the last third of the book. I agreed, and duly rewrote the last third, and a chapter near the start, adding two new characters and ten thousand words.

Thankfully the editors were happy with the rewrite. But one sticking point remained: the title. I’d called the book The Grub Street Murders – which I thought pretty well summed up the story. However, the powers that be at Severn House considered it too abstract, and thought that the ‘grub’ in the title wouldn’t go down well in the US, where much of their market resided. We passed through a period of batting alternative titles back and forth before someone in the Severn House office came up with the excellent Murder by the Book which, while not wholly original, did fit with the content of the novel and sounded good.

So my first crime novel, Murder by the Book, came out in June 2013, the opening volume of what I hope will be a series of ‘Langham and Dupré’ mysteries. The second book, Murder at the Chase, was published this year.

Next on the cards, it’s back to SF with a follow-up to my steampunk novel Jani and the Greater Game; and following that the fourth novella in the Telemass Quartet.

And then… Well, I have the vague, first stirrings of the third Langham and Dupré mystery niggling away in my back-brain.

This piece first appeared on Upcoming4me.

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