10 Questions With… Stuart Turton

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome bestselling crime writer Stuart Turton. Stuart is the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and The Devil and the Dark Water. He joined me for a quick chat about his writing journey.

Over to you, Stuart…

1) Did you always want to be an author? What is your earliest memory of writing?

My earliest memory of writing is making up stories for my sister. I’d read them across the hallway at night, from my bedroom to hers, just before she went to sleep. She’d be able to amend the story as we went along, and I’d have to adapt it. It was good training, now I think about it.

2) Did you have a favourite subject at school? Do you think it made an impact on your writing?

I didn’t enjoy school terribly much. I loved RE with Miss Moorhead, because that was about philosophy and big questions. We got asked our opinions on things, and that wasn’t happening to me a lot. Miss Moorhead was one of the first people who told me I was bright, and a bit different. That gave me a lot of confidence. I definitely think that class had an impact on my writing. A lot of the stuff we talked about in RE ended up being contemplated in Seven Deaths.

3) Are you a full time writer? If so, what was your ‘life’ before turning to writing full time?

I’ve been a full-time writer since Seven Deaths. Before that I was a freelance journalist. I actually quit a high paying job in Dubai so I could move back to England and write Seven Deaths. It was a bit of a risk, but I knew I had to have a go or I’d always regret it. I moved from a beautiful 30th storey apartment overlooking the marina in Dubai, to a dingy little flat above a children’s nursery in London. I used to write with the smell of dirty nappies wafting up the stairs. We were permanently skint because I only took enough work every week to pay the bills, then I’d focus on writing my book. It was stressful, and tiring, and horrible. Life’s much more pleasant now.

4) What appealed to you about writing? Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

The first books I fell in love with were Agatha Christie novels, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing something like that – with the tropes, and the fair play, and the clues. When I started writing crime I realised I could mash it up with almost any other genre, which was fantastic. I just feel comfortable in this genre.

5) When you start writing, what normally comes first for you? Is it plot, character, theme or a mix of all three?

It’s the murder usually. I work out an impossible crime, then work backwards. Who died? Why did they die this way? And who wanted them killed? After that my plot is pretty much worked out, and I start thinking about the characters who’d surround the victim. The substance of the characters is always the last thing I think about, because I find that in the writing.

6) The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a striking, unusual stand out title. How did you come up with the title?

Oh thanks. The title of that book was the very last thing I thought about. I just looked around at titles that I’d enjoyed and nicked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. That’s a great title, so I changed it a bit for mine.

7) How many drafts of Seven Deaths did you write before getting your agent?

It took me three years to write Seven Deaths, and I’ve lost count of the drafts. There were at least 27 major revisions that altered plot points, character motivations, and even the ending. That book was forever shifting beneath me.

8) For Seven Deaths, what was your agent hunting process like?

I was really lucky. At that time, crime publishers were looking for something new, so agents were on the lookout for unusual crime story. I sent off five submissions and three people wanted to see the full thing. Two requested a meeting, and I went with Harry Illingworth. He just got the novel, and wasn’t too terrified when I started telling him how weird I wanted my future books to be.

9) How does the writing process differ for your future books? Are they different to Seven Deaths at all?

Yeah, every book I write is different. My aim is to obfuscate the author as much as possible. If I could take my name off them I would. I truly want each book to feel like it was written by a different person, so I plan them completely differently. Seven Deaths was planned down to the minute. Devil was much more loosely plotted – to reflect the way a ship in that period would find its way across the ocean. The writing wasn’t as ornate, but it was grimier. There were fewer metaphors.

10) I find that specific pieces of music help me to engage with my characters. Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you enjoy?

I make a playlist for each book when I first start planning it. There’s usually fifty songs on there, or so. Each one reflects the tone of the book, or the characters, or has something going on acoustically that I’d like to reflect in the writing. That’s my playlist for the duration of the novel, which is handy because after a while it disappears into the background, which allows me to focus on writing.

Thank you for your time today Stuart, it has been a pleasure to interview you. All the best with your writing.

Bio: Stuart Turton is the internationally bestselling author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which won The Costa First Novel Award, and the Books Are My Bag Reader Award among other accolades. His second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water was the Sunday Times Historical Fiction Book of the Year in 2020, and the Daily Mail’s Book of the Year.

Before becoming an author he was a travel journalist. Before that he did every other job you can possibly imagine. Working as a Goat farmer was the best. Cleaning toilets was the worst.

How I Got My Agent… Adam Simcox

Hi everyone, and today on my blog, I’m delighted to feature crime writer Adam Simcox. Adam has written The Dying Squad and discusses his journey to getting a literary agent.

Over to you, Adam…

Getting a literary agent

Trying to land a literary agent – an act which seems to me part job interview, part online dating trauma, part launching your hopes into the void — can seem like an unobtainable dream. It’s not impossible to get published without an agent, but it’s a damn sight harder; it took over 150 rejections before I found mine. Here’s how it happened.

It’s a long, winding tale, filled with pitfalls, pratfalls and shortfalls, and it begins three books before my debut novel, The Dying Squad, was published. I’m a filmmaker by trade and had shot a documentary about three regular people who were hoping to be chosen to go on a one way mission to Mars. I thought it would make a great novel. Luckily, one of the agents I wrote to agreed, and I worked with her on it for a couple of months. The working relationship fizzled out though, and we agreed to go our separate ways. 

Book number two was polished while I studied at Curtis Brown Creative. During the six-month course you critique the work of fellow students and have your work critiqued in return. For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of the course was being inside an agency for six months. Getting an agent (and ultimately a book deal) can often seem like an intangible, enormous thing, particularly if you don’t know anyone else who’s been published. The Curtis Brown Creative course showed it be a living, breathing, achievable 3-D goal. 

I got a few full manuscript requests from the agents there but ultimately no offers of representation. It was a massive blow. I thought that book was the real deal (I still do!), and really believed in it. So, it was onwards with book three which felt throughout like going for a tinder date after you’d been jilted at the altar on your wedding day. Unfortunately, it was a strike out once again – I got one full manuscript request out of fifty or so submissions. 

I believe to succeed in pretty much anything, you need a combination of self-belief, blind delusion, and a smidgen of unhinged arrogance. Never fear reader – when it comes to writing, I have all three things in spades. So, when the opening chapter of The Dying Squad came to me in a dream (I know – the cliché of it offends me too), I knew I had no choice but to press on and write it.  

The Dying Squad was a bit of a genre-hopper: part crime, part urban fantasy, part horror, so I knew it would take a special sort of agent to sell it. Harry Illingworth was top of my hit list from the start. I’d loved The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, one of the writers he represented, and knew Harry specialised in genre-bending, high concept titles. In theory, The Dying Squad should have been just the sort of thing he was looking for. He was young too, which was just what I was after – give me a hungry fighter with something to prove any day. Harry was the one. 

Then, when the book was almost finished, a stroke of luck; I learnt that Harry was taking part in a how to get an agent/pitch session, run by a writing group. You got the chance to pitch your synopsis to him, and this was one of the ways the CBC course came into play; I’d learnt to craft a mean synopsis during the six months I’d studied there. I even learnt it off by heart. 

I don’t mind admitting I was nervous as hell on the day of the pitch. I knew there was no guarantee of anything — there’d be plenty of other people there with strong material. I just knew deep down that this pitch was important. It was the sort of gut feeling I’ve learned to trust. There’s an enormous amount of luck that goes into getting an agent — anyone that tells you differently is lying — and I knew this was an opportunity to stand out from the pack, so that when it came to submitting, there’d be a degree of familiarity to it for Harry. 

The night went well. Like the irritating swot at school, I was the first to stick my hand up when it was time to pitch, and I delivered it fairly well. I’m one of those distrustful freaks that enjoys public speaking. Harry seemed to like the ‘Line of Duty meets Ghost’ comparison. It took me several hours to come down from it, but I’d done it.  

A few weeks later, it was time to submit. The accepted practice is to not put all your eggs in one basket and submit to several agents at once, so I sent The Dying Squad out to five, including Harry. Whereas the other submissions had been a long wait for generic rejections, it was apparent pretty much straight away that this was going to be different; within twenty-four hours, I’d had five full manuscript requests. 

Then, on the Thursday, I got the momentous call. Harry loved the book and wanted to meet the next day. This coincided with a night out I’d already planned, which was fortunate in terms of celebrating, but unfortunate for my hangover the next morning. We met at a coffee shop, Harry outlined what he thought the book could do and offered me representation. I thanked him and accepted the next day. 

OBVS. 

It was very tough getting to that point. I had to swim through a sea of rejection. For a good while afterwards, I almost didn’t trust that it had happened, especially when Harry sold the book to Gollancz, a mere five weeks afterwards signing with him. I was happy, of course, but I was also a little wary. It was something I’d wanted for so long and I almost couldn’t believe that I’d got it. But I had, and The Dying Squad was released on July 22nd. Going into Goldsboro Books to sign 250 limited edition copies (and discovering they’d all sold out) was one of the greatest moments of my life. That moment wouldn’t have happened without the help of Harry.

Thank you for your time today, Adam. It has been a pleasure to find out all about your journey to getting your literary agent!

Bio: Adam is a London-based filmmaker who’s shot commercials for brands such as McLaren, Primark and Vice, and music videos for Britpop veterans as well as fresh on the scene alt-country stars. He began his film career by writing and directing three features: the first sold to Netflix; the second and third won awards and critical acclaim at festivals worldwide. A graduate of the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course, The Dying Squad is Adam’s debut novel.

10 Questions With… Chris Aggett

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Chris Aggett.

Chris is the co-host of one of my favourite writing podcasts and I was delighted when he allowed me to pick his brains on how he set up the podcast, his writing and his advice for new and unpublished authors (like me!).

Over to you, Chris…

1) Did you always want to be an author? What were your favourite books from your childhood?

I believe my story of becoming an author is rather unique. Unlike others, I never thought about being an author. That was until the death of my grandfather. I had quite a lot of life experience at that point of my life having served in the British Army and thought I was fairly comfortable with my accomplishments.

However, when I sat there listening to the accomplishments of my grandfather, who was a wonderful man, I suddenly felt the burning desire to do more with my life. This was only a few years ago. I had experience of jotting down dodgy song lyrics as a teen but that is as far as my creativity went. There was a story in my mind that had been growing and it was an alien thought in my mind. It didn’t belong there. I can’t tell you why I wrote it, other than wanting to achieve something, I just wrote it and I completely fell in love with writing during the process. I had no outstanding book that was an inspiration for me as a child. I enjoyed the occasional comic book, but I really loved movies. Aliens and Platoon were two I still love and remember hearing as a child. I couldn’t wait to see them after that.

2) Do you have an agent? What was your route into the publishing industry?

I do not have an agent. My route to publishing is still ongoing. If anyone knows me or has listened to my podcast long term, then they will know that I self-published both of my books completely free. I studied, googled, and YouTube everything. As someone on a budget, I could not afford to pay out for my book and that included editing. I didn’t even expect people to read my book, but they received fantastic reviews.

My message is that you don’t need to spend lots to publish, but it helps to take your time. The only criticism my first book received was that there were odd grammar issues, but to be honest, people see grammar issues in professionally published works.

What I plan to do next is to get my current WIP published through an agent. I want to show the world that you can do it yourself, for free, and can get an agent too. I plan to use all the knowledge I gain to educate the writing community, which is what our podcast tries to do, with a lot of humor thrown in of course.

3) Do you write full time? If so, what was your ‘life’ before turning to writing?

I do not write full time. In fact, the podcast takes up a lot of my time now. That podcast is called The Writing Community Chat Show, and it is something I created to pay back the help that the writing community gave me on my self publishing journey. So since I created that, my writing has really taken a back seat.

It is difficult to juggle both as I prepare two live shows a week, which often involve interviewing authors. I spent a lot of my time prewriting, working and coaching my son’s rugby team for many years.

4) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to read?

I enjoy reading first person points of view; I think this is why I naturally wrote Deep, The Climb of Truth that way. Although I threw a curve ball in there and opened it up. That was to match the story’s arc. I wouldn’t say that it is my favourite but felt it is a little easier to get in a character’s head that way.

5) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to write?

As mentioned before, writing first person works well for me. I think life experience matters in writing. You notice that people who have learned to write academically lean on the facts and structure. I, as someone who has military experience, was comfortable using what I know to enhance the first reader perspective. I think it’s best to do both.

6) How do you judge a book? Is it by the cover, or the author’s writing style?

I am not ashamed to say it, I DO judge a book by its cover. I am not entirely sure why some people don’t. When you look at the self-published world in particular, and at the growing industry of independent publishing companies, you can find covers that don’t really draw you in. You can also find exceptional ones too. But on the odd occasion that they aren’t great, it makes me feel that the work quality may not be that good either. But, I will read the first few pages and decide if I will read it based on that. So openings are just as important.

7) How did the Writing Community Chat Show podcast come about? How did you develop the concept?

Just as the author path appeared before me, the podcasting path was also a surprise. After spending a lot of time figuring out how to self publish my first book, I found the #WritingCommunity on Twitter. I found an amazing group of self-published and traditionally published authors that were always there to offer sound advice. I have made some friends there that I engage with on a daily basis. After I had published that book, I continued to engage with that community and try to promote my work. It is a constant learning process. I just couldn’t believe that some tweets in the community were amazing and got little to no exposure, yet others that were silly or poor had lots of comments and retweets. The analytics blew my mind. That caused the imaginary lightbulb to appear above my head and the gods, once again, placed a crazy idea there. A podcast! That would be a brilliant way for the community to gain a voice. For the self-published authors to form a stronger community and have us to lean on. I reached out to Christopher Hooley, who is my co-host, and asked him about forming it with me. He responded quickly and the next thing I knew; the ball was rolling.

8) On the podcast, how do you plan your interview approaches?

Loosely! That’s no joke either. As someone who has a busy life, I knew I couldn’t have something that took over my life, or it wouldn’t last. I once again read up on things. Having an enjoyable, sustainable project is the only way to give it a chance of success. So what began as a chat show/interview podcast grew and develop. All while trying to think of better ways to produce, edit and deliver great content. Not just that, I had to battle with technology that I had no previous experience with. It was a huge gamble. Now we are nearing 2 years in and are a live streaming podcast chat show on YouTube with a brand new panel show concept. We have attended our first literary event for filming and have just passed 600 subscribers on YouTube with 12 thousand podcast listens. It is going well. I had to use my time well. The system I use now relies on good engagement and natural flow. Of course, I research the author and their work, but I let the natural conversation take the lead. This works well and we have never had to take down or delete a show. I strip the audio and tinker with it slightly and upload it into a podcast, with saved intros ready and hit publish. It is that simple now. It results from trial and error.

9) For the unpublished author, do you have any advice on querying agents for publication?

We learn so much from the authors on our show. What I would say is that you need to know what genre you want to be in and where your book fits. There may be an author you love and their work may be similar to yours. If that is the case, then their agent may also be into your work! The other bit of advice would be patience! Everyone gets knocked back and the ones who have debut success, and I mean 7 figure success, often know people in the industry. So you will have to be extremely lucky to get a top agent. But it is possible. Some authors never thought they would get the agent they wanted and have. So, give it a go, find your dream agents and submit, but be prepared to be knocked back. Once that happens, don’t take it personally, ask for feedback, develop, improve and try again. 

10) I find that specific pieces of music help me to engage with my characters. Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you enjoy?

YES, YES, YES! I have announced this many times on the podcast. A Spotify playlist called “Creative Playlist” helped me write my first and second book. In fact, I wrote lyrics from certain songs in the sequel for sure. I believe my characters Daisy and Jade have a romantic dance with one of them. Letley I have found this cool desktop app called Noisil. Google it. It is a free software that gives you option of things to listen to for distraction free writing. I use the same selection each time: rain, thunder, a train on a track, a coffee shop and a fire! It’s a brilliant combination. In real life, I love Mumford and Sons. In fact, I have seen them 3 times and the last time I went was just a few years ago. They had postponed a gig and moved it to a Monday! That sucked! Until, I was sitting in a bar with my wife and outside the window next to me stood Marcus Mumford. We actually met him before the gig and had a nice chat. It was a great day.

Thank you for your time today Chris. It has been a pleasure to interview you. I look forward to listening to the next episode of Writing Community Chat Show! 🙂 Everyone should listen to this – you won’t regret it!

Bio: Christopher Aggett aka Cj Left Chris of The Writing Community Chat Show. Founder and pc host of the writing community chat show. Self published author and supporter of the Writing community.

My ultimate goal for this is to open my own writing/book bar/cafe. A place for readers to drink coffee/beer while browsing published and self published books. A place for students and authors to write and a place for our show to take place and for book launches and parties.
My biggest achievement would be serving in The British Army. Followed by self publishing and creating the podcast. I feel there is a lot more to come.

10 Questions With… Mark Stay

Hi everyone, and this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome fantasy/folk horror writer Mark Stay.

He very kindly put together his answers to my questions in the video below. A transcript is below the video.

Over to you, Mark…

1) Did you always want to be an author? What were your favourite books from your childhood?

I always wanted to make things up. Play-acting. I think that’s what a lot of creativity is. Make believe. We didn’t have many books in the home, but we went every week to the library. The Star Wars novelisation was a gateway drug to science fiction. And then it was Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, and then Douglas Adams, and then Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin.

I was probably also the only kid who regularly checked out books on what to do in a nuclear war. It was the early 80s and it was disturbing.

2) Do you have an agent? What was your route into the publishing industry?

I have had many agents. I currently have two: Ed Wilson for books, Matt Dench for scripts. My road into the industry was a temporary Christmas job at Waterstones in Dorking. That was when Tim Waterstone ran the company and insisted that everyone who worked there had a degree. I didn’t. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.

3) Do you write full time? If so, what was your ‘life’ before turning to writing?

I do write full time, very lucky to be able to do that. I worked in bookselling publishing for over twenty five years, as a bookseller at Waterstones, then a sales rep for a couple of publishers, and then looking after Amazon for Orion.

4) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to read?

Not sure I have one, so long as the voice feels honest and true and suits the story. I’m not someone who gets their knickers in a twist if I see something in first person, present tense, or second person. “You open the door, you see a dragon.” Just tell me your story in your voice. That’s the most important thing.

5) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to write?

I like writing in a fairly close third person. I love the present tense dynamism of screenplays, too, which is two very different ways of telling a story. I did write a children’s book, still unpublished, in third person, and then completely rewrote it all in first person, which was fun. Still hasn’t been published, though.

6) How do you judge a book? Is it by the cover, or the authors writing style?

That’s two things there, really. I mean, the cover is what draws you in and makes you want to pick the thing up, and I am a sucker for a great cover, which is why I’m blessed with the covers I’ve got from the wonderful Harry Goldhawk.

The author’s writing style will ultimately be what you judge a story by, I guess. I mean, I don’t like to get too judgey, as long as it’s written truthfully and you don’t bore the reader. I think it’s healthy for an author to live in fear of boring the reader.

7) For the unpublished author, do you have any advice on querying agents for publication? How does an author know when their manuscript is ready?

Agents ask two questions: Do I love it? Can I sell it? And if you can answer both those, you’re fine. Finding the right agent is like dating. Only the odds are more stacked against you.

Just persist and remind yourself of how many times people have been rejected before finding success. Persistence is so important in this business and I really, really, really mean that. In my case we’re talking decades of persistence. You really have to want this. As for querying, keep it short, sweet and honest and be patient. Especially now. Agents are still playing catch up after lockdown and there’s no magic combination of words that will get you repped in a covering letter.

It’s all about your writing. And when is it ready? It’s ready when you feel you could give it to anyone to read. Your worst enemy. Truthfully, that day may never come. So don’t go chasing perfection because it doesn’t exist. Get it as good as you can possibly make it. I know my stuff is ready when I go word blind. I can’t tell good from bad anymore. Then I send it to beta readers and get some feedback and perspective.

8) How did the concept for the Bestseller Experiment come about? How did you develop the concept?

The Bestseller Experiment came about… I’d written a movie called Robot Overlords and did the tie-in novelisation as well, and a guy I knew… We didn’t go to the same school, but we went to schools in the same area, had lots of mutual friends… a guy called Mark Desvaux got in touch. And he said, this is amazing, you’ve written a book, you’ve written a film. He said he’d always tried to write a novel, but he never got beyond 20,000 words. And we got talking.

One thing led to another. We both both have very similar interests, both like podcasts. So we challenged ourselves to co-write write a novel and get it self-published and top some Amazon charts within 12 months. But the important thing was that we asked our listeners to beat us to it. We said to people, if you’ve got a half-written book in a drawer or you’ve got something that’s been sitting in your trunk for years… Get it out, dust it off, polish it. Listen to the guests that we have on the podcast.

And we’ve had people like Sarah Pinborough, Joe Hill, Joanne Harris, major best selling authors, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin giving fantastic, fantastic writing advice… And beat us to it. And the great thing is loads of them did. I can show you. I’ll show you now. Hang on. See the shelf here. These are all the people that have listened to the podcast and, because of some advice they heard on the podcast, they got published. And that’s the best thing we… that ever could have come … Just the fact that all these people have managed to get their books out there because of something they heard on the podcast is… It’s just amazing to me.

And it’s why we keep going. We’re nearly five years old now. Five years old in October of 2021.

9) On the podcast, how do you plan your interview approaches?

For interviews, I usually have five or so bullet points, which is good for 20 minutes, we have a really good idea of what our listeners want. So they like writing habits, writing tips, that sort of thing. I try not to get too hung up on sticking to the list. It’s important to listen. Your guest will take you to places you never imagined if you let them.

10) I find that specific pieces of music help me to engage with my characters. Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you enjoy?

I used to listen to music a lot, I used to have specific playlists. I’m too old now. I need silence. I wrote Back to Reality with Disney Pixar scores and the score to La La Land. The End of Magic I wrote mostly with Jeremy Soule’s score for Skyrim, which was handy. Robot Overlords, I wrote largely to Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack. And when I hear those now, they make me think of those books, which is a lovely thing. But yeah, at my age I need the sound of silence.

Thank you for your time this evening Mark – it has been a pleasure to interview you! All the best with your writing. 🙂

The Bestseller Experiment is available on the Podcasts app for iPhone. Have a listen – you won’t regret it!

%d bloggers like this: