|Copyright Ella Bernhardt|
It had taken three years to write The Last Winter of Dani Lancing – but that was part-time while I had a real job and I had a two-year-old to look after a couple of days a week. Surely, as a full-time writer with a daughter now at school, I could write a book in a year. Twelve months. Twelve whole juicy months. Easy. But… the thing is that there weren’t twelve months. Here is what happens.
A week after the phone call I met with my editor. I knew from my agent that they loved the book but didn’t like the title. We had sold it to them when it was called A Half-Remembered Death. My agent had taken it on when it was called A ferocious love and, for most of the three years I was writing it, the title was Three Drops of Blood. Over lunch my editor outlined a few areas she would like me to work on with the novel (I was fine with that), we talked about the title and about tweaking my name. ‘Initials are hot’, she told me, and ‘P.D. Viner has that ring about it’ (what the D stands for is a story for another day). Then she outlined the timetable for getting re-writes done, her notes on those, then having the copy editor read it and give notes and finally getting a manuscript to publication. The book would be ready in March/April. She smiled. I counted on my fingers – that left 6 months for the second book. Then she talked about writing blog posts, upping my Twitter profile (you can follow me @philviner) and attending the Theakston Crime Festival in Harrogate. Plus there would be meetings here and there and parties. ‘Oh.’ I said. Inside I was thinking about how it looked like I only had five months at most to write the second book. But then I opened my mouth and said something incredibly stupid. ‘I did all this research for the first book, and I have these two stories in my head. The case that makes Tom Bevan’s career and allows him to set up his Serious Crimes Unit and the story that Patty Lancing breaks to make her crime journalist career. The Sad Man and The Ugly Man. I COULD WRITE THEM AS NOVELLAS AND THEY COULD BE GIVEN AWAY FREE.’ I meant that they would be written after I completed book two, but my editor loved the idea. ‘Can you write them now?’ she asked. NOW? Now, as a marketing idea it is good (and they are both fabulous reads and available free from all good eBook stockists), but as a pressure on me during my twelve months (already down to five) – it was crazy. I came out of that meeting with a list of areas in my book to look at, a new title to come up with, a tweak of my name to consider and I was writing two novellas and a second novel. I realised we had not even discussed the second novel. Could I do it all? I wasn’t sure I could. Maybe the jump from part-time writer to full-time was too much. With the first book there was no expectation, only hope and very supportive people around me. I had put myself on a fantastic two-year writing course that meant I had people who would read my book chapter-by-chapter and give me feedback. But that support was gone. I was alone – or at least that was how it felt.
The rewrites on the newly titled The Last Winter of Dani Lancing (and now I cannot think of it as anything other than this, as I love the title) were fun to do and I really enjoyed working with an editor. The copy editor was brilliant at getting me to tighten the time line (it is a very complex structure over twenty-plus years) and I was writing the back-story novellas as I put the finishing touches to the book. The novellas, in part because I had been plotting them over the last three years, came very easily – though at 30,000 words each, they became a lot more substantial than I had originally conceived them. But The Last Winter of Dani Lancing was put to bed and both the novellas were written by the end of May 2013 (I also directed the audiobook version of Dani Lancing, but that is also another story; the story of my Kurtz-like insanity in the jungle). I had five months left. Gulp!
On the positive side, I also had lots of ideas and from (almost) the start I had conceived of this being a trilogy; the mystery of Dani Lancing and how her death affects those who loved her would twist and turn over three books and four novellas. Each one was planned so that they could be read as stand-alone works, but if you read them all you will get more from each one. I also had seeded into many of the elements and characters I would develop in books two and three. I also had a title – book two would be Summer of Ghosts. I wanted it to be my Godfather II or Return of the Jedi. I did not want Exorcist II. No pressure then.
So I began to write in earnest, surrounded by a stack of notebooks that I had been jotting ideas in for months. (At this point I would like to point out that I only use Moleskine notebooks. I am including this fact, as I want Moleskine to send me a lifetime supply of notebooks, I want to be the face of Moleskine. Because I’m worth it.) So I began writing just as the first reviews started coming in for TLWODL and I really began to start feeling the pressure… feeling that the second novel is more important than the first. Debuts can make a flash. They can even take over the world – I am thinking of Before I Go To Sleep – but then how difficult is that to follow up? Crime fiction is not like literary fiction; there is the expectation that a new book from Peter James or Sophie Hannah (or P.D. Viner) will appear every year. With each book you build a relationship with your readership and forge your career. For every mega debut there are a hundred crime writers out there who are building a universe for their creations and body of work. Val McDermid and Ian Rankin have both said recently that they didn’t start selling in large numbers until books five or six, but by that time they had a back catalogue that could fly off the shelves, and had found their voices and characters. Personally I think there is nothing better than discovering a writer and then finding they have other books you can buy, borrow, rent or steal – so you can stay in their world a little longer. That is reading bliss. But it is also writing pressure.
Then there is your own publicity. I was being called 'a master of mystery' (I’m sure that was a marketing person) and I was being compared to ADD FAMOUS NAME HERE. I also imagined people actually paying money for my books and expecting them to be good….
Agh! I have to be good as well. When you’re writing your first book in the anonymity of a shed or a coffee-shop (my office of choice), I don’t think the audience enter into your mind as anything more than a formless lump. But with book two looming I became more and more concerned that the book wouldn’t be twisty enough, wouldn’t be exciting enough wouldn’t be enough. Plus, some writers I love, like Sophie Hannah, Stav Sherez, and Mark Billingham, were saying fantastic things about TLWODL. My hat wouldn’t fit. There are many stories of bands that spend months and even years trying to perfect a follow-up to a hit album. There are bands that have split up over the second tricky album. And there are writers who have never followed up a big hit novel (To Kill a Mockingbird II anyone?). In the August of 2013 I was in danger of imploding. As the launch of Dani Lancing approached (September 12 2013), I was second-guessing reviews (oh my lord I had to stop reading my GoodReads reviews, they are too much a rollercoaster of highs and lows) and erasing most of what I had written. I could have gone up like a rocket at any moment. So what happened?
Research. I spent time with the Sussex police – who were fantastic. In August 2013, I spent a Saturday night with the 999 response team under the guidance of Andy Kille (real name) and then another Saturday cruising the mean streets of Brighton. I got to see arrests, macings, drug tests, domestic violence and the best and worst of humanity. It was deeply affecting. After that I spent time with CID teams, in briefings and with officers and their case-load. I got to talk drugs gangs and psychonauts. It grounded my writing in real experiences and then I let my imagination loose from there. I also found that my agent and editor were fantastic resources, as were other crime writers. Some of those figures I had admired so much, made me feel really welcome in their ranks. Crime writers are incredibly generous, and that sense of joining a profession made it easier to write. And of course a deadline helps to galvanise the spirit.
Did I get the second novel in for October? No. But by the time the contract was done in 2012 I had until November 30th 2013. Did I get it in by then? No. Actually I handed Summer of Ghosts to my editor in the first week of January 2014. What did I think? I could not be more pleased with it. I think it is my French Connection II. But, of course, I am still a little scared. When I handed it in, no one had read a word of it. Even now only about ten people have read it (the response of those few has been pretty encouraging). Proofs went out last week and soon I will feel the groundswell of opinion. But you know what? I can’t sit and wait with crossed fingers to hear what people think. I have a deadline. Book three is knocking at the door. It is titled The Fall of Hope (at least today it is), and I have three notebooks (Moleskine) full of ideas. I think that what I have learned from my tricky second novel is that, if I am going to create this universe of the Sad Man and the troubled Lancing family, and then I have to totally trust my own spider senses to mould and create their world. Feedback and reviews are great, but it is me at the end of the day (okay, with some pushing and snipping from my editor) who makes the choices. So, roll on August 14th 2014 and the release of my second tricky novel. And then roll on Autumn 2015… and pretty much that’s the road map.