Welcome to the three hundred and forty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with psychological thriller novelist and guest postee Rachel Abbott. 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, Rachel. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Rachel: I’m Rachel Abbott, and I live in central Italy – in an old converted monastery. Not as huge as it sounds, because there were only ever four monks here, but it does have its own little chapel.
I was lucky enough to sell my business in the UK about 12 years ago, and that gave me the opportunity to give up work a lot earlier than I would have expected to, which in turn gave me the chance to write, something that I had been wanting to do for years.
Morgen: Your ‘house’ sounds wonderful and with your surname, the perfect place. I’ve just given up my job (20 years early) although I still do bits of work for them (and will probably have to for a while) but at home, which is wonderful. We’re living the dream, aren’t we? What genre do you generally write?
Rachel: I write psychological thrillers – I find people completely fascinating and I should really have been a psychologist. I tend to create scenarios in which people who appear on the surface to be completely normal are actually hiding dark secrets. I did toy with the idea of writing for young teens. I had a really good idea that I still love, but when I tried to write, it just wasn’t good. By trying to write for a younger age range, my writing became very stilted.
Morgen: I think I’d be the same, not helped by not having children. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Rachel: My first novel – Only the Innocent – was published in November 2011 for the Kindle and other e-readers. I’m delighted to say that it reached Number 1 in the UK Amazon charts on 18th February.
Rachel Abbott is a pseudonym which I actually decided to use because I wasn’t sure I could handle publishing something in my own name if people didn’t like it. Fortunately, it appears that the majority of people do like it, so I needn’t have done that. However, I like the name Rachel Abbott much more than my real name!
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Rachel: I do have an agent, but I didn’t until Only the Innocent had become successful. I don’t think that an agent would have had much impact on sales of the Kindle version of Only the Innocent, but I am confident that in the future my agent will have a huge impact on my writing. I have found her to be immensely helpful and supportive and whether we decide to go the traditional route or stick with self-publishing, I am confident that it was the right decision. If I am honest, I would still really like to see my book in a bookshop, and the best chance of that is with a good agent. I tend to read on my Kindle or iPad now, but I have a massive library at home with thousands of books. I just love them.
Morgen: I don’t have an agent and do feel that they earn their keep (in most cases) but I love being able to do our own thing, making our own choices. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Rachel: To date, I have done all of my own marketing – with no budget at all. When I launched Only the Innocent, I had no sales platform – nobody knew I existed. So it was a very steep learning curve. I used Twitter extensively to start with – and although people say that you only perhaps pick up one or two sales a day with Twitter, the reality is that in the early days of selling a book, every individual sale is vitally important to the book’s visibility on Amazon.
Morgen: It is absolutely, and realistically even a book or two a day is good. Your cover is very striking, please tell us more about its design and how important do you think they are?
Rachel: A friend of mine designed the cover. We used to work together, and now he is the Creative Director of a large company. But when I told him what I was doing, he wouldn’t let me use anybody else and insisted on doing it as a favour.
I think the cover is really important. I’ve seen lots of discussion about this, and I’m sure that people don’t actually buy a book because of its cover, but I think it might make them decide to look twice. A poorly designed cover seems to somehow show a lack of commitment.
Morgen: I think it certainly makes them look twice. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Rachel: I’m working on another thriller. The detective will be the same, although his role in the investigation will be quite different. All the other characters are new. As with Only the Innocent, the new book is about people who appear on the surface to be ordinary people, with the ordinary flaws that everybody has. But at least one person is hiding a deadly secret. It is very different in setting and relationships to Only the Innocent, but I do hope that it will evoke the same reaction in readers.
Morgen: I went to a crime writing workshop (hosted by novelist Helen Black) at the fantastic (and unbelievably first!) Chipping Norton Literature Festival yesterday afternoon. I’ve been to a LOT of talks over the past seven years and although it’s was only an hour, including questions, it was one of the best I’ve been to. Perhaps because of the timescale, Helen packed in so much information that I felt I learned such a lot about writing generally, and I thought I knew so much already. It was pure nuts and bolts and has really fired me up to squeeze in writing new crime novels as well as editing the four (various genre) novels I’ve written already (plus everything else ). At her book signing one of the ladies who bought her book (there were men as well) said she struggled to write every day and I said I’d only worked out recently that 300 words a day equates to 100,000 words a year. Feasible really (I certainly plan to ). Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Rachel: I would love to write every day! At the moment, I am still marketing Only the Innocent – it was great to be at number 1 in the UK, but I would like to make more of an impact in the US, and I want to maintain the momentum. So I am writing a lot of guest blog posts, and posts for my own blog. But I am going to be strict and focus on my writing every afternoon.
I don’t suffer from writer’s block – I suffer from planner’s block! I plan my novels with absolute precision, and I have to completely understand the motives of each individual. In my novels, everybody has a story. There are really no spare parts or padding. Each and every person has something going on in their lives, and these lives are all intertwined. I have recently had a problem with my really “bad guy” because I couldn’t quite come to terms with what this person had done. It didn’t feel quite right, so I struggled for a couple of weeks to clarify in my mind how everything would fit together.
Morgen: Two thirds of the readers of this blog are from the US so hopefully this will have a dent (if not an impact) over the ‘pond’ (this interview comes out 7am on a Monday morning so should catch their late Sunday evening). Thrillers are one of the most complex to write, and you say you plan with absolute precision, how do you plot your stories?
Rachel: Massive plotting, planning, character sheets, flowcharts, timelines – I am obsessive about it. I need it to be 100% clear in my head before I start to write. That’s not to say that other ideas don’t pop up from time to time, and they get added. But the plot is everything in a thriller, so it has to be just right.
Morgen: The first talk of ChipLit was a women’s fiction panel (with Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell, Fiona Walker, Veronica Henry – hosted by the brilliant Jane Wenham Jones) and when the question of ‘how’ they write, Jill came out with an A5 folded timeline which was just landscape A4 sheets sellotaped together with post-it notes of the plot on them. By using post-its she could peel them off if they were in the wrong order as she was planning or writing the book. I’m going to use that process (Helen does something similar with A4 sheets with the scene number, characters, location, and summary, all in order on her dining room floor) instead of my Word document of notes as I’ve found one scene happening before something that’s already happened, so I’ve ended up dating each chapter but a more linear process does sound good. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Rachel: I write very long – far too much detail. But I write very quickly so I just get on with it once the planning is done. I don’t check back over what I’ve written until I get to the end. Then I get a big red pen and chop out huge amounts.
Morgen: I write quickly too and perhaps with too much detail, currently too many cups of tea in the first novel so all but two or three will go! Do you have to do much research?
Rachel: I did for Only the Innocent. I had to find out when Rohypnol was first used in the UK, how Eastern European prostitutes get into the country and what they cost to ‘buy’ from their smugglers. I needed to find out how to kill a man without poison or blood. My husband was getting a bit concerned that the police would be round any minute if they were monitoring our Google activity.
Morgen: They’d arrest thousands of us writers if that were the case. One of my favourite aspects of writing (I’m a nice person really, but I do have a dark streak when it comes to fiction) is that we can kill people legally. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Rachel: Daphne du Maurier because she must have been an amazing person, Stephen Fry because he’s just so bright and so funny, and David Beckham for my personal titillation!
I would cook spice crusted tuna and chicory salad, a fillet of beef in a soy honey glaze with Tuscan potatoes and green beans, fresh apricot sorbet with a raspberry coulis.
Morgen: Yum. I like your choice. I went to a talk by Alan Davies (who’s on QI with Stephen Fry) and some of the questions were about Stephen and you could tell Alan had a wonderful time recording the programme, even though he usually gets ‘picked on’. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Rachel: I love to cook. I have actually written a couple of cookery books – but only for friends and family. We did talk about publishing them – but I have no idea when I would have the time.
Morgen: But you have them, that’s the main thing, they’re there for when you have the time. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Rachel: I chat to people on Amazon forums and on Goodreads. I love it. It’s great to discover other people’s perspectives, but I have found that everybody is unbelievably supportive. It has been a huge and pleasant surprise to me how people really seemed pleased about the success of others, and how ready they are to help those who are struggling.
Morgen: I was amazed when I started writing how friendly (mostly) the writing industry is. I think we all know how hard it is and, like learner drivers, we all empathise and help where we can. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Lovely, thank you, Rachel.
I then invited Rachel to include an extract of her writing…
Laura Fletcher indicated left, and swung her car abruptly from the main road onto the unlit lane which approached Ashbury Park. Slamming her foot hard on the brake, the car slowed to a crawl as she stared nervously at a strange white glow, lighting up the sky above the trees ahead. She cautiously turned the final bend towards the gates of her home, and was met with a shattering sight.
‘Oh, dear God’, she whispered.
There was no escape. The hordes of press, hearing the deep hum of her Mercedes coupé, rapidly whipped their cameras round towards her. The television teams swiftly adjusted their arc lights to point at her approaching car, the bright beams penetrating the interior of her car with their harsh glare, momentarily blinding her. It wasn’t unusual to see photographers at these gates, and she could practically taste their excitement. After all, Hugo’s fame and near celebrity status had virtually been built by these very same individuals, as he skilfully fed them just enough information about his work to maintain their interest.
But this was different. This was a feeding frenzy.
And there was only one way that she could gain access to her home. Hugo had insisted that the electric gates had a keypad opening system rather than a remote control. That way, he could change the code regularly. Remotes could be lost, or even sold to the highest bidder.
Rachel Abbott is the author of best selling novel Only the Innocent. She spent the majority of her working life running an interactive media company that designed and developed software and websites, mainly for education. Her company was sold in 2000, and although she continued working for another 5 years, she also fulfilled a lifelong ambition of buying and restoring a property in Italy, where she now lives with her husband and their two dogs.
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