A long lesson in frustration . . .

Almost publishing a book the old-fashioned way.

I never had a problem finding something to write about, at least not with this book. You see, professionally, something remarkable happened to me. I’ve said in previous posts, but I’ll briefly recap . . .

One rainy day back in October 2013, I broke one of the most notorious murders in recent criminal history . . . the Wycherley Murders. Two old people killed by their own daughter and son-in-law, buried in their own back garden in the dead of night. 

Then they’d gone about profiting from their crimes . . . transferring money from account to account, taking out loans in the Wycherleys’ names, using their names to act as guarantors on other loans.  profiting from their pensions, eventually selling their house.

Andy Done Johnson

Why they did it and what they spent the money on will be the subject of  a later post. If you don’t know the case well, you really won’t believe it.

They constructed a web of lies. They told the neighbours the Wycherleys had moved away . . gone to live in Morecambe or Australia, or were living out their later years travelling around Ireland. They told relatives the same and sent them letters, sent them cards at Christmas. 

So that was the book, that was what it was going to be about.

I decided to do a draft after I’d been interviewed by a couple of true crime documentary makers, and the BBC had come knocking wanting to pick my brains for a drama about the case – not the Olivia Colman one, but another, which I’m told still might see the light of day.

I rattled out a draft over maybe six months. It wasn’t right. I knew it wasn’t. It was all about me and my involvement, and I wasn’t the story. The story was Susan and Christopher Edwards, what they’d done, why they’d done it and how they were eventually caught.

I was a sub-plot at best – a first hand observer to what was happening. It couldn’t be about me, at least not mainly about me.

I’d never got close to writing a book, or at least finishing one. I’d get a chapter written, they lose interest or go the wrong way with it, get frustrated and abandon it. 

But here was my first draft and I sent it out anyway, dreadful though it was.

I’d done my research, but I was also quite set in my ways . . . to publish a book you need to attract a publisher, and to stand a chance of getting it under the nose of one of those, you need to get an agent. Right?

So I sent out my sample chapters to ten-or-so agents, thinking I’d never hear a word back, and was amazed when I got a phone call within a few days from one of them asking to read the rest of it.

Done deal? Erm . . . no.

“It needs a lot of work,” he said. “You need to get to the centre of the story. You’re not close enough to the events. Go away and do it again.” 

But I was massively lucky. He wanted to be involved, he wanted to help, and he wanted to see it out there. We spent months pinging emails back and forth, me sending various plans through, him throwing them back, saying ‘try again’.

In the end, out of utter frustration, I took a month away from it, spent more time with my family, spent time not obsessing about the bloody thing. 

Then I went back to it, ripped up everything I’d done before and started again.

“The more it reads like a novel, the better it will be,” the agent said repeatedly, and really that’s how a memoir, or a true crime book became, of sorts, a work of fiction.

It’s a strange work of fiction, because the majority of the characters are real people, in the book they do what they did in real life, they said what they did in real life. I had to make a few inventions though, fictional characters to get the reader to where they needed to be, to impart information that I couldn’t have done without them. I didn’t want to betray any of my real people by placing them in a fictional situation.

I’m going to skip ahead now . . . how I wrote it, constructed it etc is probably the subject of a future post.

“It is a remarkable – I’d even go so far as to say brilliant – novel”

My agent

So a year goes by, and by now we’re in January 2018. I’d submitted it to the agent – I’m not naming him by the way, wouldn’t be fair . . . he tried his best – about three months earlier and heard nothing back.

Then an email . . . 

“I finished The Wycherley Murders  (title?) On Friday evening. It brought tears to my eye. It is a remarkable – I’d even go so far as to say brilliant – novel.

“One of the greatest pleasures of this job are the times when an author doesn’t just respond to the notes I give but goes far further than I ever could have hoped for.

“This truly is the story turned into a novel but in a way and to a degree that is hugely impressive. It is sad, thought provoking and compassionate – it is also extraordinarily compelling.”

So that was me . . . contemplating my new life as a full-time writer.

Only it wasn’t to be because, I had failed to realise, the whole game had changed and the conventional publishers had got mega-safe, mega-conservative. That part of the publishing industry is now, sadly, more of the same please, just more of the same. 

Susan and Christopher Edwards

Crime writing has to be rip-offs of Colin Dexter, or Jo Nesbo, or Val McDermid, and the only thing we could think to compare A Garden of Bones with was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

It went out to all the big players. Here’s one, as an example . . .

“This is brilliantly done and I was biding my time in the hope of catching publisher and co off guard to make a case for it, Well, it would in facet be quite an outlier on our list, and I fear it just didn’t overcome that hurdle. A reluctant no from me.”

There were plenty more, some more positive, some less so . . . one deeply apologetic and that he’d almost begged them to say yes, another accusing me of ripping off David Peace.

But the theme, generally was ‘reasons why we shouldn’t publish it’, rather than ‘reasons why we should’. 

Even the agent told me, at one point, that “ten years ago they’d have been biting your hand off for it”.

We tried a few more angles – contacted a few smaller, northern publishers . . . thinking perhaps that the subject matter was a bit too working class, a bit too ‘outside the Home Counties and the M25’ for the agent’s stable of contacts.

We looked around for writing competitions to enter it into . . . but these things tend to be fiercely geographically based. I didn’t qualify for anything in the north of England, for example, because officially I’m in the Midlands, and the north starts about 11 miles north in South Yorkshire. 

Frustration after frustration after frustration.

Eventually I gave up on it and abandoned A Garden of Bones in a digital draw, gathering digital dust for the best part of a year.

Then, in a nutshell, I got a bollocking . . . off the wife. 

“Sort it out and publish it. Do it yourself. What have you got to lose?” sort of thing. 

So I started doing my research . . . I’m a journalist, so digging around is really my thing, and I discovered this brave new world.

Authors could publish themselves . . . and actually get read. Gone were the days where if you self-published you’d be trying to flog copies out of a cardboard box at car boot sales, and passing on what you couldn’t shift to relatives as Christmas presents.

Gone were the days of forking out for vanity publishers, and dragging around small independent bookshops, hoping they might stick a couple on their shelves. The internet happened, digital publishing happened, Kindle happened, and I am delighted and excited to be a part of this.

We don’t need Picador, or Penguin or Random House or whoever. We can do it on our own and we can connect to our readers in a way that we never could before, and they can connect to us.

They don’t need us either . . . we can leave them to their policy of ‘safely, safely, more of the same’ . . . replicas of previous successes, ghost-written romances from Katie Price. I think we are all better than that. 

Reviews that count now aren’t from some schmoozed and tweed-wearing critic from the Guardian or the Telegraph. The ones that count are from our readers . . . on our WordPress pages, our Amazon author pages, our Goodreads pages.

Virginia Woolf set up her own press to get her books out around 100 years ago. We are merely doing the same. Exciting times, taking back ownership of our own creative destinies.

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