Welcome to the four hundred and ninety-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with crime novelist Alan Tootill. 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, Alan.
Alan: Hello, Morgen. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to appear on your blog.
Morgen: You’re very welcome, great to have you. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Alan: Hard to say where I feel I’m based, I move around a bit during the year. Currently I’m in Devon, where most of my books are based. But I’ll soon head south for the summer and autumn to Puglia in Italy, and over the winter I usually spend a couple of months in India. Out of the three places, I feel I get most of productive work done in India, where I go for music festivals. With weeks without chores or responsibilities – or travelling – I find writing during the day and attending concerts in the evening a perfect stimulating environment.
I’ve come to writing fiction late in life, I’ve been working full-time on it for maybe three years now. But it feels like longer. Because my business in Puglia was hit by hard times I found myself spending more time reading. And that in turn led to writing. I had written quite a lot before over the years, technical manuals and magazine articles. I also used to write press releases, but writing fiction of novel length was a new experience for me.
Morgen: Judging by the photographs you sent me it’s been a prolific three years. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Alan: I write crime fiction. That’s what my reading started to focus on and I found it easy to slip into writing what I enjoy reading.
Morgen: I love crime fiction and it’s incredibly popular with readers. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Alan: Under my own name I’ve completed five in the Martin Cole series of novels, which lean to the cozy side of British crime fiction. But I’m currently working in a new style, harder and noirish. Writing as Nick Poulton helps me change the outcome, somehow.
Morgen: Yep, definitely prolific! You’re self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Alan: Maybe I don’t have the years left to wait for an agent or publisher to take me on!
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Alan: My first four novels are available as ebooks. Personally I still prefer paper, although I recognise book life is changing. Of course like most authors I would love to get into print, but I’ve no plans to go the self-published vanity route.
Morgen: Authors are more aware these days of who to avoid, especially when there are advice sites such as http://pred-ed.com. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Alan: My series books share a basic friends and family cast list. I write in the first person as private investigator Martin Cole, so unsurprisingly he has a bit of me in him. I like him a lot! Mainly for the ways he’s different from me. But I like all the people who carry from book to book, that’s why I keep them developing. Even Carol, Martin’s ex-wife, has some good points.
Morgen: I’m sure she’d be glad to hear it. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Alan: Titles are my own and always would be. My son-in-law designed my ebook covers. In an ideal world I would have covers totally professionally produced. There’s not the money budgeted for that at the moment, frankly.
Morgen: I really like them… and have seen some appalling professional covers! What are you working on at the moment / next?
Alan: Apart from more sketches for Martin Cole plots I have two ideas running for novels based in Blackpool, where I grew up. The first is turning out – deliberately – rather Chandleresque, but contains more humour than I anticipated when I first started writing it, although the plot is dark. The other will be darker and with less humour, although I can’t imagine writing any book without some creeping in.
Morgen: That’s great to hear. I went to a crime writers’ conference at Oxford recently where the topic was crime and humour. They’re my two favourite genres and the fact that the second day was my birthday made it all the more special. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Alan: Actually I am at a bit of an impasse at the moment. There are a couple of reasons for that. I had to take time off for getting another three of my novels out there. But also the original plot I had for my current book was for a novella. As I wrote it started expanding into a full novel, but I haven’t got the overall picture in my head yet. And still haven’t taken the final decision as to cut the plan to half-novel length.
Morgen: It’ll come. Working on different projects must help. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Alan: My initial plots are very sketchy. I find that once I’ve started chapter one the novel begins to write itself. I get very immersed in my book when I’m writing. I can’t restrict myself, I have to devote all my time to it. And that includes my nights as well. If I were a writer who could stick to a work schedule of daily time slots I guess I’d have to plot quite extensively in advance, otherwise I couldn’t keep the momentum going.
Morgen: “the novel begins to write itself” that’s what I love about fiction, especially when the characters take over. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Alan: My plots are largely dialogue-driven. I think the characters emerge through this. Once in a while the characters may seem a little eccentric, but I don’t think in a work of fiction everything has to be one hundred per cent credible. Even real life’s not that.
Morgen: I’m a big fan of dialogue (my eyes glaze over at chunks of description) and especially love eccentric. We all are to a certain extent and the characters have to be realistic. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Alan: With the Martin Cole series I have a pattern established. That makes writing and revision easier. After my own repeated revision work chapter-by-chapter my wife Christine gets the job of editing, correcting errors, making suggestions. Some suggestions I implement, some I reject. We normally pass it back and forth a couple of times. After the first fully-revised draft I then go through the book myself again as a whole at least twice until I’m happy with it. It’s good to revisit after a gap. Helps identify awkward patches or, for that matter, the good things that make you feel good about having written it.
The current book I’m working on is less prone to correction. The style requires writing in short sentences, and there are fewer grammatical considerations. That’s good. It stops me rambling and committing probably my worst sin, overcomplicating sentences. It means more plot effort to chalk up the word count, though.
Morgen: I’ve written four and a bit novels (three for NaNoWriMo) and have found in the last couple that I could tell better when I was starting to ramble (waffle in my case) so reigned it in. NaNo is all about quantity not quality but there’s little point in writing something that you know will only come out. Do you have to do much research?
Alan: No, for the reason I so far have stayed in locations or situations I am comfortable with. I don’t do heavily descriptive writing, about places or activities. If I do need research, it’s normally no more than I can get by trawling the internet, which is such a boon.
Morgen: I try and avoid writing subjects that need research as I love it as much as editing (not) but love the fact that the internet will tell us pretty much everything we want to know. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Alan: I love writing first person. As I said, my books tend to be dialogue-based rather than descriptive and objective narrative, and I feel my thought processes fit this way of writing. I can put myself into the mind of my characters, particularly my main protagonist. But as a relative newbie I do have plans for some short story or novella writing to help develop my skills in third person.
Morgen: The ‘bit’ of my fifth novel is a conversion of a script I wrote for the (now defunct) Script Frenzy so that was dialogue / directions going to third, it’s was an interesting process. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Alan: No. When I start I intend to finish. The only things I abandon, or put to the side for later, are sketches for new plots.
Morgen: Well done. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Alan: I wanted to concentrate on writing rather than be sidetracked, so it wasn’t until I’d completed my third novel that I sent the first to an agent. I received a refusal. A very pleasant reply, but still a rejection. I wouldn’t be upset by the expected continued rejections. But I then took the deliberate decision to float my work as ebooks and see what happens. In a year’s time I’ll review the situation.
Morgen: Do let me know how it goes. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Alan: At the moment I am doing it all. But I don’t boast marketing skills, and I much prefer to spend my time writing.
Morgen: We all would but marketing is seen as a necessary evil. Has anything surprised you?
A: I have been surprised at what a consuming passion the writing process can develop into. It’s also very good feeling when you finish a novel and enjoy what you’ve written. It’s even better when someone else genuinely likes it.
Morgen: I adore writing but feedback does make it seem a validation somehow. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Alan: Above all, reading a lot worked for me. It helps you pitch your work at an appropriate level for your ability and ambition, helps you identify what’s good, and also can help you learn what to avoid.
Morgen: I need to read much more than I do. I have a Kindle and used it a fair amount but bought an iPad as I’m starting to be invited to do talks (and even getting paid for some… woo hoo!) and prefer the two-page layout, even if it’s not so good for my eyes. 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)?
Alan: Writing is a relatively new occupation for me. My main long-term passion in life is Indian Classical Music, so my guests would all be musicians. Naturally I would cook Indian vegetarian food, which wouldn’t come hard as I’ve been doing it for over forty years.
Morgen: Can we make that four guests please. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Alan: I can’t judge for others or foresee the future of the industry. I personally didn’t set my sights on writing high literature, and didn’t intend to become rich through writing, so I’m happy if I continue to get pleasure from the process, especially if over the coming years I feel my technique and output has improved.
Morgen: It would be a bonus, wouldn’t it. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Alan: My website is http://www.alantootill.com, and there are links there to how my books can be purchased direct. Also there are free samples of the books available for download.
Morgen: Thank you very much, Alan.
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