What a time to launch a debut novel

Image shows Kerry Buchanan holding a paperback version of Knife Edge.

This blog first appeared on the Society of Authors news page on 30th March.

In April 2014 I began writing my first piece of fiction since school days – at the kitchen table, on my husband’s iPad. Six weeks later I’d hammered out a 130k-word time-portal novel set in Dark Ages Britain, and thought I was the bee’s knees. It was rubbish, naturally, but by then I’d been bitten by the bug and the urge to write was irresistible.

It took time to learn this new skill – I’d been a vet for many years until I had to retire due to my own decreasing mobility. The last time I’d studied English was at age 16 (O-level English Language), and by this time I was pushing 50. It was a steep learning curve. When I began getting paid for writing short stories, I thought that the pinnacle of achievement, but there was more to come.

In 2017, I attended a crime writing workshop with Brian McGilloway, NYT bestselling author. I’d always thought I wasn’t clever enough to write crime, but Brian was encouraging and within a week I had the first 20,000 words of Knife Edge typed out. 

I finished the novel later that year, but then self-doubt crept in, so I sat on it, and went on sitting on it until early 2020 when I heard of another crime workshop at Paul Maddern’s wonderful River Mill Writers’ Retreat, a firm favourite of mine. It was being delivered by Steve Cavanagh, and I’d been lucky enough to win a SIAP award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland that would pay for the workshop.

I felt like the poor relation because everyone else seemed knowledgeable and experienced, and they’d all written so many crime novels and been to crime writing conventions, and there was me with my first draft, saying how much I enjoyed reading Agatha Christie.

“By then we were deep in lockdown, so I hardly expected a reply from anyone. I’d done what I’d promised Steve and submitted it; now I could get on with growing vegetables again”

As part of the workshop, Steve read the opening of everyone’s work-in-progress, then he gave feedback in private. He probably said the same thing to everyone, but when he told me he loved it and that I should start submitting it, that was the confidence boost I needed.

So I dragged it back out and reread it, trying to see the good in it. Some bits seemed okay, so I tidied it up a little and in early May I sent it off to four agents and one publisher, Joffe Books. In doing so, I broke all my own rules. No one apart from me had ever read the entire novel. It was less a leap of faith than a desperate act, I think. All my trusty beta readers were science fiction and fantasy fans and had no interest in reading a crime novel.

By then we were deep in lockdown, so I hardly expected a reply from anyone. I’d done what I’d promised Steve and submitted it; now I could get on with growing vegetables again.

Except less than 48 hours later I received an email from Joffe Books’ managing editor to say they loved it, and a few weeks later they offered me a three-book contract for Knife Edge and two more with the same characters. (Shout out to the SoA and their helpful contract advice, free for members – so reassuring for an inexperienced author.)

Which brings me to today.

Knife Edge will be released into the wild on 15 April 2021. When I signed that contract, I never expected that we’d still be in lockdown by the time the book was launched, but then I don’t think any of us knew what was ahead. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Some of us might have found it even harder to keep going if we’d known how long the crisis would last and how many would lose their lives or their health to this virus.

Mine may not be a typical book launch, but just because we can’t go into bookshops, it doesn’t mean we can’t have a virtual launch. I’ve been running writing groups and writing classes via Zoom for most of the year. I’ve even built up a loyal fan base of sorts (albeit quite small and insular).

But this situation suits me very well indeed. As a full-time carer for my dad, and as someone with a compromised immune system, I’ve been wary for some time of going into crowded places. This pandemic has been a major disaster, but for every cloud, there’s a silver lining. I like not having to worry in case someone in a crowd has an infection they’re not even aware of that could be passed on to me, and maybe through me to dad. If someone coughs on Zoom, all they have to do is give their screen a wipe.

Will the lockdown impact on my book’s success? I don’t know, and one of the good things about being a debut author is that I’ll probably never know, because I have nothing to compare it to.

If Knife Edge flops, I can shrug and blame the pandemic; if it succeeds, I’ll probably put it down to people reading more because they can’t follow their usual pursuits these days.

The confidence boost that Joffe Books gave me when they put their trust in me as a writer inspired the second book in the series, Small Bones. It should be released soon after Knife Edge, so perhaps by then we’ll know if the pandemic has impacted sales. Book three, Close Hauled, is almost finished now and should be with my editors shortly.

I can thank the lockdown for that, too, I suppose. I get to spend more time at home these days, and less time behind the steering wheel. More time at home means more time to write, and these arthritic fingers of mine just can’t stay still.

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