Welcome to the two hundred and fiftieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with thriller and crime novelist and short story author Stephen Leather. 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 was a journalist for more than ten years on newspapers such as the Daily mail and The Times in London and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. I’ve always been a fan of crime novels and thrillers so I guess I set out to write the sort of books that I enjoy reading. I wrote my third novel, The Chinaman, while I was working on The Times in London and the advances were big enough that I could start writing full time. That was twenty-five years ago and I haven’t looked back.
Morgen: You mentioned that you have a journalistic background, many authors have, do you think that helps?
Stephen: Very much. It teaches you to write concisely and to research thoroughly. I can’t think of a better training for a writer.
Morgen: Absolutely. I can imagine how many 2-hour evening classes that would take. What have you had published to-date?
Stephen: I have written 25 novels published by Hodder and Stoughton. Of those 14 are stand alone thrillers, eight are in my Spider Shepherd undercover cop series, and three are in my Jack Nightingale supernatural detective series. I have also self-published two novels in Thailand (as paperbacks and eBooks) and a further four books solely as eBooks. I have also published four short stories as eBooks. My self-published eBooks are Once Bitten (a vampire novel), The Basement (a serial killer novella), Dreamer’s Cat (a science fiction murder mystery) and The Bestseller (a crime novella set in the world of ePublishing).
Morgen: Wow, what a mixture. 🙂 Do you have a favourite of all your characters?
Stephen: Jack Nightingale, supernatural detective, and undercover Dan “Spider” Shepherd are my favourites.
Morgen: Can you remember where you first saw one of your books in a bookshop or being read by a member of the public?
Stephen: I once flew from London to South Africa, then took another plane to Zimbabwe, then a small plane to Victoria Falls, then a taxi to the Victoria Falls Hotel, then walked out on to the terrace to find an Australian reading a copy of The Chinaman. “That’s my book,” I said. ‘No it’s not, it’s mine,” he said. I had to show him my American Express card to prove that I was indeed the author.
Morgen: I went to talks by crime novelist Stephen Booth and Peter James late last year and both recounted incidents of trying to tell members of the public that they were reading their books (Peter, for example, spoke to a little old lady on the train (who’d found the book) and she said he was welcome to have it (back) because it wasn’t very good anyway. Oops. Clearly not his market audience. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Stephen: My publisher Hodder and Stoughton rejected Once Bitten, The Basement, Dreamer’s Cat and Private Dancer (a Bangkok bar book). I self-published them all and have sold more than 400,000 copies, so rejection doesn’t bother me.
Morgen: Very few authors have received no rejections but we keep going, don’t we. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Stephen: I have an agent now but I think with ePublishing an agent isn’t necessary and can sometimes be a hindrance.
Morgen: 🙂 You have a Wikipedia page, how accurate is it? Have you ever been tempted to make changes to it? (I would, especially putting on one of the hilarious photos from your website :))
Stephen: I tend to distrust anything I read on Wikipedia and don’t look at my page.
Morgen: You’ve written short stories, some of which are available as eBooks, and you mention a possible book of eight?
Stephen: I am working on a collection of short stories about a detective in Singapore, which is great fun. Singapore is a low-crime city state, and Inspector Zhang loves mysteries. But the problem is, there are very few mysteries in Singapore, almost all crimes are solved. And they have only ever had one serial killer. I’ve written five short stories featuring Inspector Zhang so far. I was aiming for eight but now I hope to eventually have a book called “The Twelve Curious Cases Of Inspector Zhang.” We’ll see!
Morgen: I love short stories so look forward to that. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Stephen: I am trying to finish my new Spider Shepherd book. It doesn’t have a title yet. Then I will start on a new Jack Nightingale book. Busy, busy, busy!
Morgen: And on that topic, your website’s author page ends “I just wish there were more hours in the day” (don’t we all), given you are (or certainly appear to be) so prolific, do you manage to write every day?
Stephen: Pretty much. Though some days are a lot more productive than others!
Morgen: What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it?
Stephen: No such thing. If I find I am running out of steam on one project then I switch to another.
Morgen: Well you do have plenty to choose from by the sound of it. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Stephen: A combination of both. If am lucky I will start writing knowing the complete plot but more often than not the story develops as I write it.
Morgen: I love that about writing. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Stephen: The latter. These days I tend to edit myself as I go along.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research for your novels?
Stephen: Huge amounts, mainly talking to people (especially cops) and visiting places that I write about.
To do the research for Fair Game, which was published by Hodder and Stoughton last July, I booked myself on one of the world’s largest container ships for an eighteen-day voyage from Malaysia to Southampton. The main reason for the trip was to research what life is like aboard a huge container ship, and to experience for myself what it’s like to sail through the pirate-infested waters around the Horn of Africa.
Morgen: Wow. That’s dedication. 🙂
Stephen: The hero of my book – undercover cop turned MI5 agent Dan “Spider” Shepherd has to go undercover on a ship that is about to be seized by pirates. It’s all part of a cunning plot to rescue the Prime Minister’s god-daughter, who has been seized by the pirate group, and to thwart a terrorist plot.
I got lots of work done, as well as getting the ship descriptions right. I’m not suggesting that every writer book onto a freighter, but I found it a brilliant way of shutting myself away from distractions. My mobile only worked when I was close enough to shore to get a signal, and there was no internet connection. And as I was the only passenger, I was on my own for most of the time – the perfect writing environment.
Morgen: Absolutely. Apart from being at sea, I’d love that. 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 need noise. I guess because I started my working life as a journalist and also worked in busy newsrooms. I do my best work at airport coffee shops!
Morgen: I imagine Thailand to be pretty hectic, and beautiful – I can see why you’re based there. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Stephen: Yes, done all three. In fact my Kindle bestseller The Basement has two viewpoints, first person and second person and was a fun book to write. I self-published it and across all formats it has now sold more than 200,000 copies. Amazon Encore now publish it as an eBook and a paperback. Generally my thrillers are in the third person, as that’s the best way to tell a story. Second person is difficult to do and first person is quite limiting.
Morgen: Second person is really hard. It’s my favourite point of view to write but much over 1,000 words and it gets tiring (for writer and reader). Third person does tend to be the most popular, especially by agents. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Stephen: Nope, pretty much everything I’ve ever written has been published, though I do have a few screenplays that haven’t sold yet but that I might well turn into eBooks at some point. I waste nothing!
Morgen: Good plan. I think I’d probably do the same… when I eventually wade through my back catalogue. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Stephen: The typing bit is very, very boring.
Morgen: I don’t mind that. Having been a secretary since I left school (<coughs> years ago) I’m pretty quick – maybe you could dictate into a digital dictaphone and send me the files to type. 🙂 It has made me a very slow handwriter, as I find out every time in my fortnightly writing group. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Stephen: Write every day. That’s what writers do, they write. And read. Read as much as you can and learn from the good writers.
If it’s your first novel then you shouldn’t expect it to be published. Very few writers see their first novel in print. I think of writing a book as being akin to running a marathon. Anyone who finishes a marathon deserves kudos. It’s a long haul. It’s hard work. But just because you’ve run a marathon doesn’t mean you should be running at the Olympics.
If you have written a book then you deserve a pat on the back. Well done you. But just because you’ve written a book doesn’t mean it’s good enough to be published. And just because you’ve been published doesn’t mean that people will buy it.
A very wise friend once told me about the Rule Of Ten Thousand. Basically he took the view that it takes ten thousand hours to acquire any skill. That’s about how long it takes to learn a foreign language, or play the piano proficiently, or play pool expertly, or become a good poker player. It applies to almost everything (except maybe free-fall parachuting).
Morgen: Oh, I don’t know, I think I’d want 10,000 hours to practice that. 🙂
Stephen: My first book, Pay Off, was published, by Harper Collins, but by the time I had written it I had been working as a journalist for more than ten years and so had been writing for at last 10,000 hours. To be honest, I didn’t hit my stride until my fourth book.
Morgen: I’ve done four and a quarter, and 100+ short stories, and I feel about ‘there’. 🙂
Stephen: Let’s say you write for two hours a day. That means you hit the 10,000 hours after 5,000 days, which is what, thirteen years? And yes, that’s probably how long it has taken most writers to reach the stage where they get published.
Morgen: Oh dear. Six down, seven to go then. 🙂
Stephen: Writing for the most part is a craft. A skill that has to be learned. Very few writers published the traditional way see their first book in print. It’s often their fifth or sixth that is good enough to be published. Jack Higgins famously wasn’t published until after he’d written more than a dozen novels and he didn’t achieve any real success until his 36th – The Eagle Has Landed.
EPublishing has removed that learning curve. Now any book can be published, no matter how awful. And I think that’s bad for writers. My advice to any writer who has finished their first book is to relax, take a deep breath, and start the next one. Send your first novel out to every agent there is, and see what happens. You will probably be ignored, you might get a one-line rejection, but the fact is that if the book is good then it will be picked up. Eventually. And if you can’t get an agent, maybe consider that the book isn’t very good and make the next one better. And make the one after that even better.
Once you’ve done your ten thousand hours you can consider yourself a real writer and at that point you can go back and examine your early work. You’ll probably realise how much it can be improved, or maybe that it’s simply not publishable. And if after you’ve done your ten thousand hours you still haven’t got an agent or a publishing deal, then maybe you should think about self-publishing.
Morgen: I didn’t try very hard to get an agent (a dozen emails and four face-to-faces) but I love the control that self-publishing gives. We have to promote our work anyway, don’t we? 🙂 What do you like to read?
Stephen: Biographies, mainly. Especially of spies, cops and villains.
Morgen: And what do you do when you’re not writing?
Stephen: I have a private pilot’s licence.
Morgen: It’s funny, when you said ten thousand hours, flying sprang to mind.
Stephen: And I scuba dive. And I drink Black Label whisky with soda while I sit in bars and listen to people. That takes up most of my free time.
Morgen: People-watching (listening) is part of the rules of writing, isn’t it? 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Stephen: The review sites www.indiereader.com and www.redadeptreviews.com are good. And I pop on to the www.goodreads.com forums from time to time. There are a lot of trolls on the Amazon Kindle forums, so you need to be careful there.
Morgen: Now that is funny. 🙂 You’re on Twitter and Facebook, how valuable do you find them?
Stephen: They’re a great way of getting your books reviewed and bouncing ideas off fans. I get a lot of valuable feedback through Facebook and Twitter.
Morgen: I don’t do enough on there. There’s a fine balance between the bare basics (automatic blog retweets and oddments) to “buy my book” over and over). 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Stephen: As time goes on more people will have eReaders and I think that within five years there will be more eBooks sold than paperbacks.
Morgen: Apparently they have already overtaken hardbacks.
Stephen: But I don’t think paperbacks will die out for a long time yet. Most people do seem to prefer to hold a real book in their hands – I certainly do. Publishers will have to adapt, and most are starting to change. Agents too will find their work much harder. In the past it was agents and publishers who decided which books were published and sold. But ePublishing has changed that, now anyone can publish their book and it is the readers who decide what sells. That is a major shift in power that I think people in the industry are only just coming to terms with. But there is definitely a role for publishers in ePublishing. I would say that ninety per cent of the eBooks that are self-published are awful. And I would say that ninety per cent of the books published by traditional publishers are excellent. So who are buyers more likely to trust when it comes to buying a book? That’s why we’ll always need publishers, because they more than anyone understand the importance of maintaining quality. And we’ll definitely always need writers – unless they can design a computer than can generate fiction!
Morgen: I still think that it’ll come down to reader reviews (interesting you say that you find Facebook and Twitter useful in that respect). If a book has a dozen 5/5 but fifty 1/5 then a reader’s going to think twice… plus an author can only have so many friends. 🙂 You have two websites (http://www.stephenleather.com and http://www.jacknightingale.com – I really like the countup on the latter and it doesn’t disappoint when you enter the front door :)), do you run them both and are they the best ways of finding out about you and your writing?
Stephen: The concepts are mine but I pay website designers to do the work. It’s a skill that I just don’t have, sadly. I was one of the first authors to have their own website – fifteen years ago – and I am constantly adding to them both.
Morgen: They’re very handsome. Thank you so much Stephen. 🙂
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