Welcome to the three hundred and eleventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with crime fiction and non-fiction author Alison Bruce. 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, Alison. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Alison: I live in a village a few miles outside Cambridge. I moved here when got married and before that I’d lived in the West of England and worked in London. I first visited Cambridge in 1997 and when I decided to set my detective novels here the city was still relatively new to me. First long as I can remember I have written bits and pieces – mostly poems, short plays and stories while I was school, and later, my love of music led me to writing reviews of gigs and short biographies of musicians from my local radio station. I never aspired to being a novelist but enrolled on a short screenwriting course after coming up with a story idea but I felt would make a great movie. The man running the course was the director David Yates who was also staring out in his career, he liked the story but advised me to write it as a book first, OK I thought, how hard can it be? I guess there’s nothing like the combination of ignorance and enthusiasm for underestimating the job at hand.
Morgen: Having written four and a bit novels and 102 pages of script, I know which I’d rather stick to, although I don’t actually stick with either – I’m short stories through and through. What genre do you generally write?
Alison: I have written crime fiction and non-fiction. I don’t particularly see myself as only ever writing crime however I have so many crime stories bubbling in my head perhaps I’ll never find the time to try anything dramatically different. Having said that, I have the idea for a screenplay and if I’m ever in the position to tackle it I will jump at the chance.
Morgen: Ooh, Script Frenzy runs 1st to 30th April – your ideal opportunity. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Alison: I don’t write under a pseudonym, my publishers toyed with the idea of A.C. Bruce or Ali Bruce but as I already had non-fiction books published under the name Alison Bruce I was keen to stick to it. My first book, Cambridgeshire Murders, came out in 2005 and my first novel, Cambridge Blue in 2008, since then I have written one more non-fiction book, Billington – Victorian Executioner and three more novels in the same series, The Siren, The Calling and the book due out in July 2012, The Silence.
Morgen: I actually interviewed another Alison Bruce back in September 2011. It would be interesting to know whether readers ever mix you up and whether this has improved sales for either / both of you. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Alison: I have had rejections but fortunately not a huge number, I think this is partly due to finding the right agent before my first novel was pitched, it meant that the manuscript had been through quite a long editing and polishing process before if ever arrived on a commissioning editor’s desk. From the rejections I did receive I took all their comments and, as an exercise, decided to try to come up with a plot and character that addressed their various points, it turned out to be both fun and a very positive experience as the notes I ended up with turned into the bones of a stand-alone novel that I am currently writing.
Morgen: Oh wow. That’s the first I’ve heard of that happening. What a great result. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Alison: When I was 15 I had a poem published in Pony Club Annual, my prize was £1 and a copy of the book and I can’t remember even coming close to winning anything ever since.
Morgen: My first was £10 from Woman’s Weekly – I still have the original cheque. So you have an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Alison: The publishing world is going through huge changes at the moment and there are opportunities for writers to have success without an agent and even without a publishing deal with a traditional publisher however, I think the advice and support my agent has given me has been invaluable. She has years of experience and far more objectivity than I could have of my own work.
Morgen: I do think they are worth every penny (on the whole) but with eBooks so accessible it’s very tempting for an author to go that way after a few rejections trying the traditional method (like me :)). Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Alison: This debate reminds me of the CD or vinyl debate… I love buying vinyl but love playing MP3s. I never thought I’d convert but the convenience won me over and I guess the same may eventually happen with my use of eBooks. So far I have read a couple on the Kindle App for my MacBook but it doesn’t quite feel the same yet. My novels are available as eBooks and have sold very well for Kindle with The Calling peaking at number 2 in the crime fiction chart.
Morgen: Well done. You must be chuffed. I’m yet to put my books on Amazon (but will before or when the novels are ready) but I do love my (month-or-so-old) Kindle. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Alison: I really love events where I can meet readers and answer questions, and I never turn down an opportunity like this. Sometimes events are booked via my publishers, but very often I’m approached directly, so I make sure I have all the publicity materials that will help to make the event the success. I have cards, promotional photographs, press releases and a display stand, all of which I have organised myself and I think these are the kind of items that make a big difference in the amount of publicity an event can generate and also the impression that readers are left with after they have attended.
Morgen: I’m off to a friend’s book signing today (his first as far as I know) and I love going – even if it’s not me doing the signing (I don’t plan any paper versions but never say never), it’s the whole experience of it. I went to Sheryl Browne’s book talk and signing recently at Droitwich Library and that was great (especially as she pointed me out and we ended up having a conversation about second person). Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Alison: LOL, I like this question!
Morgen: Thank you, it’s quite new.
Alison: My favourite book changes constantly and I suspect that it is usually the book that I have finished writing most recently, so at this very minute I’d have to say ‘The Silence’ which comes out in July 2012. I have a huge amount of affection for ‘The Calling’ because it was the first book I wrote, and ‘Cambridge Blue’ because it was the first novel published… But then again I love some of the twists in ‘The Siren’ and it also introduces one of my favourite characters Sue Gully. So you see, it’s a very, very tricky question, the style of the books is changing as the series develops and although each one can be read on its own, I think starting from book 1 and reading them sequentially is the best way to understand my detective, Gary Goodhew. Cambridge Blue is, in many ways, more of a conventional whodunnit than the books that follow which become more thriller-like as the series progresses.
Choosing a favourite character is equally tricky, Goodhew has 3 people close to him, his old school friend Bryn, his grandmother, and his colleague PC Sue Gully.
Morgen: I posted a really grim 328-word short story on my blog last weekend for Tuesday Tales online writing group and quite a few of the comments asked me to continue it. It features four very strange men and I must I did warm to them. It’s amazing how attached you can get in such a short word count. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Alison: I think every book has had its title changed by the publisher from the title I originally came up with. Having said that, I think that every title so far has come from a list of suggestions but I have then put forward, so I am very involved but I don’t always get my first choice, and with hindsight this is often a very good thing! The original title I had for The Siren was Kimberly’s Song and although I still like it I think that the new title was more appropriate for a crime novel, especially one that has proven to be as popular with male readers as female.
Morgen: I must admit Kimberly’s Song sounds quite romantic to me. The Siren is definitely intriguing.
Alison: I don’t get hung up about the title, and now I think of any title that I give a book as its working title only. At the end of the day the publisher should be better placed than the author to know why some titles are more appropriate. The cover situation is very similar, there has only been one occasion when I have actively disliked a cover and thankfully the publisher’s final decision wasn’t to pick that particular design. The cover design is the one of the most important marketing decisions but for me, seeing it for the first time is also the moment when a manuscript becomes a book.
Morgen: I designed all mine so not quite the same, and I uploaded them, but I was still thrilled to see them on Smashwords. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Alison: Now that the final edits of The Silence are complete I am looking forward to working on a new book and the next project is a crime thriller with the working title ‘The Moment before Impact’.
Morgen: Oh yes, I like the sound of that. Do you manage to write every day?
Alison: I don’t write every day, it’s very easy to tell yourself that you should, but realistically, I need time out to let go of a previous book before I settle down to work on the next one. When I first work on book it is at a slower pace than when I get towards the end, I usually find the last few weeks are very frantic simply because the words are coming into my head faster than I can put them on the page. Every book I have completed has usually involved me writing straight through the night several times in the last week, there is something utterly magical about writing as the sun comes up.
Morgen: I love getting up early although towards the end of last November’s NaNoWriMo I had a 21-hour day s I wouldn’t want to do that too often. You sound really prolific, do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Alison: Yes I do get writers’ block, so far it has occurred either when something is so stressful in my non-writing life that I cannot put it to one side enough to concentrate or, the more typical writers’ block which occurs when the words refuse to go onto the page in a manner that sounds like publishable English. In either case I have learned not to beat myself up!
Morgen: Absolutely. That’s the mantra of NaNo; it’s all about getting it down – quality not quantity, and you can’t edit a blank page.
Alison: The one thing I have learned that seems consistently true about the latter type of writers’ block is that it seems to occur when my subconscious is telling me but there is a better way to do whatever it is I’m trying to write. For example, I may be trying to describe someone’s arrival in a particular place and I may have started following the character from outside the building and finding that the words do not come together. Perhaps writing the same scene from the point of view of someone already inside the building and witnessing the dishevelled arrival of the scene’s key character may have greater impact than the original idea. Writers’ block probably works differently for different people but I would say that if you know your own writing voice and trust your instincts then the block will pass when you find the right words, just don’t give up, that’s when it grows into a monster.
Morgen: Quite a few of my interviewees have been writing different projects so variety must help too. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Alison: I tried the ‘idea and running with it’ approach and it was a bit of an upset to throw 30,000 words in the bin, ultimately I wrote myself into a corner and wouldn’t want to do that again in a hurry. Since then I have plotted very carefully, which in my case, includes a backstory for each character. That doesn’t mean that I don’t go where my imagination takes me, but it just means that I have a path that I am following and know that I will rejoin in order to make the story threads come together in a coherent and satisfying way.
Morgen: 30,000 ouch. Maybe you could have converted some of it into a short story or two? But then I guess you can see it as practice. We mentioned a few characters earlier, do you have a method for creating yours, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Alison: Character names can be fun and I think you instinctively know when you’ve found the right one for the character you are developing. Apart from that my golden rule for characters is something I just mentioned: backstory. I write enough about character so that I understand their motivations, fears, upbringing and ambitions. I try to understand another about them so that I know how they’re likely to behave in certain situations and how that behaviour may change under stress. For me believability comes when you read a character and feel that they really did exist before you first met them in the book.
Morgen: Absolutely – it’s got to be one of my favourite parts of writing. Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Alison: Apart from the publications I’ve already mentioned I have had a small dabble at writing short stories. I wrote one which appeared in Cambridgeshire County Life and a second, called ‘Fest Fatale’ is in The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 9.
Morgen: I have some of the Mammoth books, but sadly not that one. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Alison: I edit as I go, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t quite a few typos along the way but it means that each chapter is as fully formed as I think I needed to be at the point when I save it and move onto the next. I have never been able to write just a stream of notes because I find I need to be very thorough when I first work on a scene and capture it in the freshest, most complete way that I can. Coming back to it a second time is never the same, so my aim is always to finish even if that means I may spend a week on one chapter alone.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Alison: Yes, when I have an idea for a new book I do some basic research to make sure that I can plot it properly then before I write I compile a list of much more thorough questions so that I can research the relevant material in an in-depth way without getting side-tracked into other interesting, but unrelated areas.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Alison: I find 1st person an interesting and very immediate way to write but limiting from the point of view of showing a variety of storylines. Mostly I write the person but sometimes I have interspersed some 1st person narrative. I have not tried to write fiction in the 2nd person beyond a simple writing exercise and cannot imagine using it unless I was producing a short piece that had some kind of ‘rant’ quality about it. Maybe if I write an instruction manual sometime?
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Alison: Not yet, the closest I have come so far is a radio play called ‘Like I’ve Never Been Gone’ which was recorded for a radio station called BBC Wiltshire Sound, the Sunday afternoon show that was going to broadcast it was scrapped in a programming reorganisation and nothing ever happened to it in the end. There are several other projects that I want to write and I think if those ones never make it to print I will feel disappointed, although ultimately it is down to me to get on and write them.
Morgen: It would certainly help. It’s a real shame about your play although my interviewee yesterday, Bryna Kranzler, can trump you with her one act play. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Alison: I first had the idea for the crime novel that eventually became The Calling back in 1989 and although it was 2001 before I finished it I was still amazed that it took another 10 years to get it published. I enjoy every part of the writing process although sometimes I think the one I enjoy most is anything but the one I’m currently involved in! If I had to pick one thing I love I’d say it’s the creation and visualisation of a new story.
Morgen: I’d agree with you on that one – I love not knowing what’s going to come out and generally loving it when it does. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Alison: Number 1. Don’t give up. It doesn’t matter whether you leave it for a while but a book will not get written until you sit down and do it one word at a time. Number 2, take advice, whether it’s going on course, dissecting somebody else’s book or reading a pile of how-to books, or better still, a combination of all of the above. From these sources you will learn some of the rules for writing, the final magic ingredient is finding your own voice. And maybe the hardest thing of all is recognising it and let it grow into the style of your very own. So finally, Number 3, when you find your own writing voice nurture it – it will make your storytelling unique.
Morgen: Sounds good to me. 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)?
Alison: Hmmmm. I can cook (up to a point) but if I was about to entertain Elvis Presley, Patrick Jane (the character rather than Simon Baker, the actor) and my grandmother (who I never met as she died in 1940) I think I’d leave someone else to do the catering.
Morgen: Oh yes. Big fan of Patrick Jane… and Dexter Morgan. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Alison: Epitode. It’s a word that my daughter made up when she was small, but I really think it should be in the dictionary. She misheard ‘eye of a toad’on Scooby Doo and because Scooby Doo pulled a face where one eye was bigger than the other she thought that eye epitode meant having odd sized eyes, we then used the word epitode to apply to an unmatched pair of things that should normally match, e.g. a Penny Farthing has wheel epitode, when a sock shrinks in the wash, that’s sock epitode, and so on.
Morgen: Oh how sweet. Maybe you could submit it to the OUP or suchlike, although it may need more than your family to use it. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Alison: My husband is a singer / songwriter (www.jacenbruce.com) and sometimes I write lyrics for him. His latest album, The Siren, includes 4 tracks featuring my lyrics, including the title track, which we wrote to coincide with the release my book of the same name. I enjoy the challenge of writing lyrics, it is a good discipline to express something in very few words. I have an author page on Amazon where I can link up my books but I was frustrated when I found that I could not add music onto the same page even though lyrics are still writing that is published. When I queried it I was told I was the only person who had ever made that request.
Morgen: Writing lyrics is on my list of things to try. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Alison: Party tricks? I can circle my hands in opposite directions, does that count?
Morgen: I’d say so.
Alison: My free time is usually spent with my husband and children. My daughter also sings so we tend to go to a lot of live music events.
Morgen: It’s lovely to be able to do such collaborative things together. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Alison: There have been three books that I have found most useful along the way, all three are books that you can dip in an out of. Story is very thick and I never got all the way through it but the first half really changed the way I thought about delivering a story and because it is a book that was originally aimed at screenwriters I think it suited me as I always think of my stories as if they were films.
Evan Marshall, Novel Writing – 16 Steps to Success
Roger McKee, Story
Helen Corner / Lee Weatherly, How to Write a Blockbuster
Morgen: I don’t have Evan’s but do have the other two. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Alison: I’m on Facebook and Twitter, but not much else. I spend far more time on Twitter than Facebook now. I like to meet people but I cannot afford to be online too much otherwise I would never get a book finished.
Morgen: I think that’s my trouble – my email pings and I’m there, or I see the numbers on the internet’s tabs so I know something’s happened. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Alison: In the music industry the Internet has totally changed the way record companies do business and therefore the way artists are signed. It is now possible for anybody to record music and get it distributed worldwide. It is harder for the music buyer to find new artists as there are an endless number out there, in many cases this has led to huge sales for a very few and dwindling sales for everybody else. A record label is now more often becoming a brand in itself, a place where the music buyer can go knowing that they will discover artists and music to their taste and also recorded and produced to a good standard. If publishing follows a similar course then the market, especially for eBooks is likely to be flooded with a lot of projects that are not of a very high standard, amongst those will be some fantastic books that absolutely deserve publishing. How will a reader choose between two books that both say they are excellent? This is where writers who have, or can build, a loyal following will win out. It’s likely to be tougher than ever to earn a living at it but there will be plenty of opportunity – and competition too.
Morgen: That’s the thing about eBooks is the quality or lack of it. I do think that reviews will prove a writer’s worth as he or she can have only so many friends. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Alison: I have my own website at www.alisonbruce.com, I’m in the process of making it more blog-like and the ‘new look’ will be fully live in April 2012. For Twitter I’m @alison_bruce and that’s where I am most frequently. There’s also my publishers’ page.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Alison: I am a big fan of the 1950s and rockabilly music. My books all feature a soundtrack at the back, it’s a list of the 12 songs I played most as I wrote that book.
Morgen: Ooh, great. Thank you, Alison.
This interview was picked up by Patti Roberts on her eNewspaper!
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