Welcome to the one hundred and fifty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, bloggers, biographers, agents, editors, publishers and more.Today’s is with crime novelist Stephen Booth. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello Stephen. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Stephen: I think I was always a writer. I began producing stories almost as soon as I could read, and wrote my first novel when I was 12 years old (science fiction was my thing back then). From the moment I finished that novel, I knew it was what I wanted to do when I grew up.
Morgen: Wow. I’ve had so many interviewees saying they knew they wanted to be writers early on – I didn’t have a clue. What was your next step?
Stephen: I went into newspaper journalism because that was a way of earning a living by writing. It was great fun for a couple of decades, but newspapers changed so much that I wanted to get out, so I set my mind very seriously to getting a novel published. My big break came when an agent picked me up, and my career took off from there. I’m very lucky that my books have always earned me a decent income, so I was able to give up the day job pretty quickly!
Morgen: And of course the fact that talent comes into it somewhere. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Stephen: I write crime fiction, featuring two young police detectives, Ben Cooper & Diane Fry. In the USA, my books have been called mystery, thriller or suspense. I’m not sure who decides the difference! Crime fiction is a very wide umbrella – you can write about any subject you like and still fit into the genre, provided you have a good story. I do have a few unpublished novels in a drawer which are quite different from my Cooper & Fry series, but which would still be classed as crime. I also wrote a couple of paranormal thrillers, which I couldn’t get published. I think I was a bit ahead of my time with those!
Morgen: Maybe you could now? I heard someone say a while back that crime stories are usually quite contained; in a village, town or district whereas thrillers tend to be more global but obviously I guess it depends on the author and plot but it sounds about right to me. I know you’ve been prolific as I do see your books when I’m out and about, and I have two of them, what have you had published to-date? Can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Stephen: There have been 11 novels in the Cooper & Fry series, and I’ve just finished writing number 12, which will be released next year. I clearly remember seeing my first book ‘Black Dog‘ on the shelf. My local branch of booksellers W.H. Smith had told me they wouldn’t be stocking it. So when I walked through the store one day and saw it on their ‘bestseller’ shelves, my ridiculous first thought was: “Oh no, someone with the same name as me has had a book published! And it has the same title too…”
Morgen: Like Geoffrey / Jeffrey Archer.
Stephen: It took me a while to get used to seeing my books sitting next to those of my crime-writing heroes.
Morgen: I’d be so tempted to go up to the shop assistant, like the scene from Pretty Woman, and say “do you remember… you said you wouldn’t…” How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Stephen: I do a lot of this myself, and always have. In the early days, I learned a lot from US authors, who were already big self marketers. When I first started producing my own bookmarks and Stephen Booth pens and so forth, it was frowned on by many established UK authors. I suppose it’s not considered very British when you try too hard to sell yourself! Things have changed since then, though. We all have to do it these days, or risk getting lost in the crowd.
Morgen: Bookmarks and pens, I like the sound of that. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Stephen: Yes, I had an amazing run of award nominations. This might be hard to believe, but I wrote 11 consecutive books which either won or were nominated for prizes (some of them for more than one prize). And five of those books are still unpublished! This means I’d already attracted attention before I signed the first contract. When I gave up the day job in 2001, I found myself on three award shortlists at the same time – two in the USA and one here in the UK for the Gold Dagger, which is our top crime writing award. It was a great help to me, because it raised my profile very quickly in the early stages of my career. Getting your name known is the biggest challenge for a new author, and awards are wonderful for that.
Morgen: Not hard to believe at all but still, wow. Presumably you’ve had an agent through all this, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Stephen: Being signed by an agent was my first big break. She saw promise in my writing and worked with me until I produced something she was able to sell. She ran an auction and got me an excellent deal for my first two books, which enabled me to write full time. The novels have since been translated into 15 languages, as well as being published in the USA, and optioned for a TV series. I would never have been able to do all that on my own.
Morgen: I wouldn’t have said so, certainly with paper books. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Stephen: Here’s another remarkable fact – I was one of the first UK authors to have an ebook published (possibly the first). That was way back in 2000, long before anyone had invented such a thing as an ebook reader. The book was in pdf format, and you could only read it on your computer screen. I think the publishers sold about 20 copies. As I said, I’m sometimes ahead of my time!
Morgen: Am I’m only just catching up.
Stephen: Since then, the Kindle has been a game changer. I have one myself, and lots of my readers do. My agent has just read my new manuscript on her Kindle. All of my later books are available in various ebook formats, and the early titles in the series will be soon. Ebook sales are increasing rapidly, and as an author I want my books to be available in every format people want to read them in. This year, I self published the ebook version of a novella, so that I understand the process for myself. Some of those unpublished novels might appear on the Kindle one day.
Morgen: Ooh, I’ll have to pick your brains, I’m at that stage now. Before the novels, if this is applicable, what was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Stephen: Of course, I’ve been published for a long time. I was having short stories published in my school magazine when I was 15, and a particular thrill was getting a story accepted by the BBC for radio broadcast when I was in my early twenties. I think the offer for that first novel was the pinnacle, though, since that was the culmination of a childhood ambition.
Morgen: And really life changing, giving up your job. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Stephen: Absolutely! Getting rejections is part of the learning process for a writer. I put my work out there at an early age to attract rejections. I found the trick was to be busy working on the next book by the time the rejections came in, so I was always looking ahead to the next submission. The anxiety never totally goes away, though. Even now, I get quite nervous waiting for the response from my editor to a new novel.
Morgen: I interviewed Freda Lightfoot recently and she said the same about her 38th novel! What are you working on at the moment / next?
Stephen: I’ve just finished the 12th book in the Cooper & Fry series, and there’ll be an editing stage to go through next. I’ve been asked to write a short story to help promote the new book, so I’ll be working on ideas for that. And no doubt an idea for a new novel will come into my mind very soon!
Morgen: Ah, short stories – my first (and latest) love. Being so prolific, do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Stephen: I’m at my desk every day, though I don’t necessarily have any words to show for it. I insist that a lot of the writing goes on invisibly in my head! However, in the later stages of a book, the writing speeds up a lot. When I’m in full flow, I can write about 1,000 words an hour. The most I wrote in a day was 9,000 words. That doesn’t happen very often, unfortunately.
Morgen: But then perhaps that’s quantity over quality. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Stephen: I don’t think writer’s block really exists. Yes, I can give in to distractions like anyone else, and let them prevent me from starting work. If I did that for too long, I could convince myself I don’t know what to write. But I know the way to spark the creative process is to get the fingers tapping on the keyboard. This is because I was a journalist for so many years. As a reporter, you can’t go to work in the morning and tell your editor you’re not going to write anything today because you’ve got writer’s block, or you don’t feel inspired. You would lose your job pretty quickly! So you just sit down at your desk and start typing. The same rule applies to any kind of writing.
Morgen: Incentives are great – I’m best with deadlines which is probably why I love NaNoWriMo so much. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Stephen: I don’t plot, or plan my novels at all. I’m not sure this is the right way to do it, but it seems to work for me. I generally start with characters and a place, and I have an idea for an opening scene. I put the characters into a situation where they’re immediately under pressure, then I turn them loose and watch what they do. So the story arises out of the characters, rather than the other way round. One of the things I have to do as a writer is take a step back and give my characters the freedom to act, rather than trying to control everything they do. And somehow it all comes together at the end. It might sound haphazard, but I’d rather call it an organic process.
Morgen: I plotted my first NaNo novel meticulously (you can do as much as you like before November 1st without actually writing any of the book) and it sort of worked but I went off at more tangents than Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction so I didn’t plot for the second (in fact I only had a vague idea the day before!) and ended up writing a 117K chick lit. The third, again, was a vague idea as that was a bit more straggly but I’d say after a dozen novels it clearly does work for you. You’ve mentioned Cooper and Fry, do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Stephen: To put it most simply – if I believe in the characters, then readers will believe in them too. I don’t sketch out characters in advance. For me, they develop on the page as I’m writing about them. I discover who these people are gradually, just the way you would in real life. Names have to fit, and I often change a character’s name during the writing process, as I discover what sort of person they are. I’m also careful not to use similar names which might confuse the reader.
Morgen: I know that rule but I did think as I was reading ‘Blood on the Tongue’ (which I’ve not finished yet) how refreshingly different they are. And, apart from being different genders, they’re such different characters that there’s no way of getting them confused. You do characters really well actually – I’m intrigued by Grace and am looking forward to finding out more about her ‘story’ and I love the scene with Murfin’s lobster Oliver. You’ve mentioned short stories a couple of times, apart from the word count, what do you see as the differences between them and novels and why do you think they’re so difficult to get published?
Stephen: I’ve written a lot of short stories, but rarely one that I was completely happy with. I think this is because everything in a short story has to work. It’s like a diamond, with every facet polished to perfection – one flaw spoils the whole thing. I like the space that novels give me to explore the characters, a place, or a theme – or all of them. I read a lot of short stories when I was growing up, but many of the markets for them have disappeared, and publishers say story collections just don’t sell. My feeling is that we’re coming full circle, thanks to the technology. Short stories are perfectly suited to reading on devices like iPhones, for example.
Morgen: They are… well, I certainly hope so as that’s what I write most of (the shorter the better actually). But I have heard that some people are writing short novels (novellas and novelettes presumably) for that very reason. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Stephen: My agent is first, my editor second. They’re the professionals, and if they have any suggestions I know their only aim is to make the book as good as possible.
Morgen: Absolutely. How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Stephen: Yes, the physical settings are very important in my books and I do a lot of location research to get the details right. Readers like to go into the Peak District and find the locations I use. Also, I often find myself writing about background subjects I’ve had to research – not least of which is forensics. The trouble is, no matter how much research I do there’s always someone who’s a bigger expert than me! And I’m writing fiction, so there’s always going to be a point where I start making things up. I get a lot of emails from readers, but those which challenge me on the accuracy of my information generally come from men, who like to catch me out, or prove me wrong.
Morgen: That’s what puts me off getting too clever with crime but at least they’re reading them and taking the time to contact you. I met Simon Scarrow when I was volunteering at Oundle Literature Festival earlier this year and he said someone had challenged him in something but he was wrong so Simon had great delight (I hope the challenge isn’t reading this) in proving so. Alexander McCall Smith didn’t come off as lightly but he concedes that an ‘expert’ will always find something. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Stephen: The newspapers I worked on were computerised as long ago as 1985, so I’ve used computers for a long time and it’s become second nature. I do so much editing and moving things round as I write that I don’t know how I’d manage any other way. But it’s still vital to print out a hard copy to read, as you can miss so many things on screen.
Morgen: Oh me too, I rarely do final edits on screen. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Stephen: I either listen to music or have the radio on. I like BBC Radio 4 while I’m writing, as I often pick up interesting ideas from something I’ve just heard. But music is better when I’m editing.
Morgen: Ditto, I get too engrossed and I only ever watch TV downstairs otherwise I end up staring at it and the whole programme’s gone with my hands hovering over the keyboard. We’ve not really touched on viewpoints yet. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Stephen: I write my Cooper & Fry series in the third person, mostly because I have more than one point of view character. I love first person narrative, which is very direct, but it’s more difficult to pull off effectively. The narrator’s voice is constantly in the head of the reader, so it has to be a voice they can tolerate for long periods. I have two unpublished novels written in the first person, and they might come out one day. Second person would have to be a very particular kind of book, and I haven’t written that one yet.
Morgen: Not many people have, but I love it so I’d definitely buy it. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Stephen: ‘Prologue’ has become a dirty word for some readers, and I think it’s because so many prologues are used for the wrong reason. I’m referring to the practice of pulling a dramatic scene out of the later chapters of a book, then slapping it at the front and calling it a prologue. It’s often a sign that the writer lacks confidence in the real opening of the book. The story should start where it starts.
Morgen: It should. With the action – Marie takes centre stage in chapter 1 of ‘Blood on the Tongue’ for me… now there’s a hook… and then came the snow plough! Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Stephen: I should hope so. No one would want to read my adolescent writings!
Morgen: Maybe they’ll end up in a museum one day. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Stephen: Not writing exactly, but discovering the way book publishing works was full of surprises. I don’t think there’s another industry like it. For me, coming from a newspaper background, a lot of what happens in book publishing didn’t seem to make any sense. Also, I have quite a business-like approach to writing, and it amazes me that authors are still expected to be very unworldly and not bother their heads about money!
Morgen: I think they’re (we’re) getting better especially with self-publishing. Writing is famously a poorly-paid (on average) profession but things are definitely improving… well, opportunities anyway. Regarding money, that remains to be seen. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Stephen: To get published, you need the three ‘P’s – passion, professionalism and persistence. You’ve got to believe in what you’re writing, you have to present yourself professionally – and above all you must keep at it and don’t be put off by rejections.
Morgen: ‘Passion’ sums it all up for me (and coincidentally I have the word in large bold letters on my notice board, as if I had to remind myself that’s what I have!). We’ve talked a lot about the process of writing, what do you like to read?
Stephen: I tend to read non-fiction when I’m in the middle of writing a novel – often quite esoteric subjects connected with background to the current book. Of course, I try to keep with the crime genre, and I have some favourite authors, such as Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson and John Harvey. I don’t have as much time to read as I used to.
Morgen: Me too but I’m hoping to get into more of a routine in the New Year (<whispers> I leave my job at Christmas!). You’re based here in the UK, do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Stephen: It is my principle market, and the country is small enough to travel around doing events and signings.
Morgen: Yes, we met on the silly-steep steps at Winchester Writers Conference back in July. And outside the UK?
Stephen: Being here was a drawback when my books were launched in the USA, and I had to make an effort to be over there every year promoting the books. Even so, there were still vast areas of the USA I never reached. Now, there’s much more promotion an author can do online.
Morgen: There is and being a terrible traveller, I’m so grateful. I know you’re on Twitter, are you on any forums or other networking sites? How invaluable do you find them?
Stephen: I think contact with readers is vital. I’m in lots of forums, discussion groups, mailing lists, networking sites – far too many to be active in them all, but I try to keep up with what people are talking about. A good way of connecting with readers is through social media. I went on MySpace when it was all the rage, then Facebook, and now Twitter.
Morgen: I’ve had the sketchiest of profiles on MySpace but never had any contact through it. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are the way to go I think.
Stephen: I haven’t been on Twitter too long, but I have well over 2,000 followers, and they’re already anticipating my next book, because they know directly from me that I’ve just finished writing it.
Morgen: 2,247 at the time of writing this.
Stephen: Also, about 15% of my Twitter followers are in Sweden, where my latest book has just been released in translation. In the past, I wouldn’t have been able to connect with those readers without physically touring Sweden.
Morgen: Wow… although given the success of Stieg Larsson’s books I shouldn’t be surprised. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Stephen: The best place is on my website.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Stephen: That’s a very big question! Since the major publishers will continue to consolidate and cut back their lists, fewer authors will get the marketing support they’ve been used to. Apart from a small minority, many will find their advances dwindling too. I think more and more writers, both new and established, will decide to try self publishing – often direct to ebook without any print versions. Some will make a great success of it, as long as they’re prepared to put as much effort into marketing as they do into writing the books. As always, the writer who’s willing to work hard, adapt to changing markets, and look for the opportunities will be the one who does well.
Morgen: And I think most of us strive for that. Thank you so much Stephen. I know you’ve just finished writing a book and had a narrow gap in your schedule so I’m very grateful that you took the time out to chat with me, and I look forward to reading more about Grace and Oliver, the rubber lobster!
A former newspaper journalist, Stephen Booth is the creator of two young Derbyshire police detectives, DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry, who have so far appeared in 11 crime novels, all set in England’s beautiful and atmospheric Peak District. The Cooper & Fry series has won awards on both sides of the Atlantic, and Detective Constable Cooper has been a finalist for the Sherlock Award for the Best Detective created by a British author. In 2003 the Crime Writers’ Association presented Stephen with the Dagger in the Library Award for “the author whose books have given readers most pleasure.” The novels are sold all around the world, with translations in 15 languages, and are currently in development as a TV series. The most recent title is The Devil’s Edge. His other books include Lost River, The Kill Call, One Last Breath, and Blind to the Bones.
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