Welcome to the seventy-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with crime novelist Howard Linskey. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello, Howard. Please tell us something about your writing. What have you had published to-date? And can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Howard: ‘The Drop’ is my debut novel and the first time I saw it on the shelves was when we launched the book in the Newcastle branch of Waterstones. I walked in and there was a table full of my books ready for signing. It was a big thrill, after years of striving to get to this point. Fortunately I signed and sold them all that day, so I wasn’t left with a big pile at the end to dampen my enthusiasm.
Morgen: Wow! I’ve heard of some authors (no names… because I can’t remember them ) who have had between one and eight visitors (including a dog, and someone asking for directions) so that was great! How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Howard: I have worked in sales and marketing jobs and as a journalist, so it feels natural to help my publisher to promote the book. It is important for a new author to do all they can to get their name out there and to try to interest readers in their work. We owe it to our publisher for investing their time, effort and money in us and we need to sell as many copies as possible to encourage that publisher to come back to us for another title. I am more than happy to do talks, book signings and interviews to promote ‘The Drop’ and to be honest I like doing them as I like to meet readers and the events .are a lot of fun.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Howard: I’m represented by Phil Patterson at Marjacq Literary Agency and I would never have been published without his help. Publishers are far more likely to take you on if you are recommended by an agent and not just added to some huge slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. A good agent is not just a deal-maker. They have expertise and the experience that new writers lack, they make positive suggestions about your work and provide constructive criticism you’d be a fool not to listen to, particularly when you are starting out.
Morgen: I agree completely. Getting one is the hard part. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Howard: ‘The Drop’ is available on Kindle but I must admit I don’t own one myself. I am a bit old fashioned about books and like the idea of holding a copy while reading it. I’m not against the idea of Kindle however and I support anything that gets people reading, though a few friends have bought ‘The Drop’ on Kindle then commented that it’s a shame I can’t sign it for them.
Morgen: Apparently that’s not far off. Margaret Atwood has a machine (I have a feeling it was created especially for her) where she can sign books remotely but then that still wouldn’t work with eBooks. If they’re your friends you could sign something else for them. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Howard: It’s a massive thrill because you finally realise you weren’t entirely deluded in thinking that you could actually write something that a publisher likes and values enough to give to a wider audience. All those years of being told that the odds against being published are sky high, recede from the memory. Getting ‘The Drop’ accepted by a publisher, particularly one as well regarded in the industry as ‘No Exit’, was my biggest thrill to date. I had a couple of meetings with Ion Mills and during the second one he suddenly said ‘I want to publish The Drop.’ I then politely thanked him while simultaneously resisting the temptation to run round the restaurant, punching the air and shouting “whoo hoo!”
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Howard: Like every writer I know, I’ve had rejections for earlier works but it is possible to take heart and gain confidence from a nice rejection. If the publisher has taken the trouble to outline what they liked about your book, praised your writing but explained a practical reason why the novel isn’t ultimately for them, like the wrong genre for example, it can sustain you and encourage you to keep going.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Howard: I’m currently working on “The Damage,” which is the sequel to “The Drop”. The reviews for the first book were so good the publishers immediately commissioned a follow-up, which I was thrilled about. While I was writing ‘The Drop’ I started to envisage future stories for some of the characters in the first book; the ones that make it out alive at the end of the first story in other words.
Morgen: ‘The Drop’… ‘The Damage’… I see a theme running here. I recently met up with crime novelist Adrian Magson (http://adrianmagson.com), who you know, whose series are also title themed. I like that. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Howard: I try to write every day, which is not the same thing as actually achieving it. It’s very difficult to balance other commitments and still write every single day but that is the best way to build momentum. I average 1,000 to 1,500 words when I do write but the most I’ve ever written in a day was probably around 4,000 words. Any more than that and my brain would probably go into some sort of melt down.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Howard: I think I have a weird brain. I take the germ of an idea, which usually involves the beginning and end, then I try to write all the bits in the middle, so I can get from one end of a book to the other. For added insanity, I don’t write chronologically. Instead I write the scenes that I feel in the mood to write then I try and put the whole thing together afterwards like some giant and annoying jigsaw puzzle. I also seem to favour labyrinthine stories, which add even greater complexity and ensure lots of turmoil while editing the first draft. It’s like trying to assemble an onion. In short, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend my way of doing things but it seems, somehow, to work for me.
Morgen: How do you create your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Howard: I often create a character and flesh him or her out but have no idea what their name is going to be until much later. This means I end up writing long scenes with XXX inserted instead of a name, which I then fill in weeks or sometimes months later. Again this is not ideal or to be recommended. Eventually a name will come to me and, if it fits, it stays. In terms of believable characters, I try to put myself in their shoes, even if they may have had a life I can scarcely imagine living. I believe strongly that a character’s words and deeds are largely derived from their experiences. If you can imagine a back story for them, a history that doesn’t necessarily have to make it into the book, then you can start to put flesh on their bones and make them real.
Morgen: And I guess you have to be careful replacing the XXXs. I know someone who changed a character from Mark to… Phil and had ‘replaced all’ and had something Philed out in error. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Howard: Phil, my agent, would always be the first person I’d show my work to.
Morgen: Oh, another Phil, how funny.
Mark: If he likes it then there’s a good chance others will. If there’s a bit that hasn’t convinced him, I’m usually happy to rewrite it or bin it. Well, perhaps not happy exactly, as I may have spent hours or days writing that bit, but I work on the basis that sometimes you have to amputate a limb to save the patient.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Howard: I do a lot editing, as I am always thinking of the person who has parted with his hard earned cash and given up hours of free time to read my book and I feel very responsible for it. I would hate any one to read ‘The Drop’ and think it was a waste of their time or money. I want it to be the very best it can be and I see small improvements virtually every time I read a book, right up until the day I submit the final draft to No Exit. They might be minor tweaks here and there but they are all worth it, if they improve the book even slightly.
Morgen: What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Howard: I wish I could spin you a tale about grinding fresh coffee beans, lighting a cigar or playing soothing music, before easing myself into my writing but I have so little free time I pounce on every available opportunity to get started and have not time for any preamble at all, except perhaps pouring a glass of wine, if I’m writing in the evening and need sustenance!
Morgen: Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Howard: I used to write everything in long hand and type it all up later, which became a bit laborious. Then I started working as a journalist and got used to typing thoughts straight down onto a keyboard, which is quicker and easier to edit, so I prefer that method. If I’m on a train, parked up in the car or sitting in a coffee bar, without my lap top, then I might write a few hundred words in long hand though, so that none of my precious time is wasted.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Howard: I wrote ‘The Drop’ in the first person quite deliberately, because I did not want the reader to have any more or less information than the main protagonist, David Blake. I think ‘The Damage’ will be a combination of first person and third person though, as I want to tell a wider story from different perspectives. Not sure I’d be entirely comfortable telling a story in the second person. I give myself enough complexity to worry about without adding another layer.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Howard: Like most writers, I have old manuscripts I spent a lot of time that never got published but now I look back on them as part of an apprenticeship I served. They were okay but weren’t quite good enough to get me into print, though I learnt a lot while writing them. I did write one book called ‘Hunting the Hangman’ that is a true story set in Prague during World War Two. It was that book that got me my literary agent and we have not given up on it. We had a couple of near misses with publishers so we know they took it very seriously. I just need someone to fall in love with it one day and I hope they will.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Howard: There are lots of good parts but finally holding a published book in your hand with your name on the cover is pretty close to being the best bit. My least favourite is not having enough time to spend on writing. Did I mention that before? Oh I did.
Morgen: If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Howard: How nice everybody is in the crime writing fraternity.
Morgen: Aren’t they? Adrian and I were discussing this and it’s so true (and not just crime).
Howard: I’m not just saying this but the writers are an immensely supportive and generous bunch and I think this is partly because they all know how hard it is to get published then established. I love the big events in Bristol and Harrogate. Every one congregates in the bar and shares war stories until the early hours. It’s good for the soul but not necessarily for the liver.
Morgen: An occupational hazard. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Howard: Be your own biggest critic before you send your work off to anyone. If you don’t love what you have written then it’s likely that no one else will. Once you have done that, believe in yourself, no matter what anybody else says, develop the skin of a rhino and the stamina and tenacity of a worker ant. If you do all of that then you will get there eventually. It can be done.
Morgen: I like that; an ant with rhino skin. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Howard: I’m on Facebook, which is a great way to spread the word about events, interviews or reviews but is also a terrible distraction, as is the web generally.
Morgen: You are, and we’re Facebook friends.
Howard: I think writers often find themselves mindlessly surfing the internet while in what I refer to as ‘work avoidance’ mode.
Morgen: Yes, the web is a terrible distraction. Sorry, what were you saying? Ah yes, where can we find out about you and your work?
Howard: The page on my publisher’s web site has everything you need to know about The Drop including an extract, as well as reviews, personal appearances and interviews: www.noexit.co.uk. I’m also in the process of setting up a web site on www.howardlinskey.com which will be on line soon. The link to The Drop is Amazon.co.uk.
Morgen: Thank you Howard. I’m really grateful for your time.
Howard Linskey has worked as a barman, journalist, catering manager and marketing manager for a celebrity chef, as well as in a variety of sales and account management jobs. He has written for newspapers, magazines and websites on a number of subjects. ‘The Drop’ is Howard’s debut novel, published by ‘No Exit’.
Originally from Ferryhill in County Durham, he now lives in Hertfordshire with his wife Alison and daughter Erin.
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