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.

Exhilaration – and fear

Yesterday, I received the preorder links for Knife Edge from Joffe Books. You’d think that by now, more than eight months after they offered me a contract to publish my books, I’d have become accustomed to the idea.

In some ways, I have. Writing is not just a pleasurable hobby these days but a job, and I can say to people, “Sorry, no. I’m working today,” then hide away and write. Without the guilt!

However, my emotions when the email came through from Nina caught me on the back foot. Knowing that Knife Edge will one day be published has been a warm glow I’ve been nursing inside me for all this time, but seeing it up there on the Amazon website in all the glory of the wonderful cover that Joffe Books commissioned, absolutely terrified me.

As of yesterday, people were able buy the book. In 26 days from today, it will start to appear on their Kindles and phones and tablets, and then they’ll read it. And then they’ll learn what darkness hides inside me. Because people think I’m nice, and I’m really not.

And all my friends and family are buying it. Their faith in me makes me smile, but then the smile falters. What if they hate what they read? What if they turn away from me, knowing I’m a person capable of writing about such terrible acts?

It’s a bit like waving off your first child to school. You’re willing them to soar and succeed; to be popular, sporty, academic, kind, loved, and all the time you’re dreading that they might be bullied by the bigger kids (or worse still, be the bully). You worry that their brilliance, that spark you think you see in them and that their gran swears is there, won’t be recognised by others. And of course, if they put clingfilm across the toilet bowl or tie someone’s plaits to the back of the bus seat, everyone will turn to look at you and say, “You’re the parent. You’re responsible for this… this… abomination.”

My little book is out there now. It’s gone beyond the point of no return. It’s on its own. It will have to stand on its own feet because all the edits and proofreading are over. And that is what terrifies me.

But instead of dwelling on it I’m going to go on writing, because until the axe falls, I can still dream that it will be a success. The next book, Small Bones, is well through the editing process already and will be released soon after Knife Edge, but the baby of the family, Close Hauled, is still unfinished. So I’ll bury myself in writing it, and pray that its eldest sibling behaves itself out there in the big, wide world because whatever it does, bad or good, will inevitably reflect on the rest of the family. What a responsibility. Poor little book.

Why a cat?

I live in the middle of a menagerie of humans and animals. We have six chickens, five cats, four horses, two dogs, a lizard, a snake and countless tropical fish, not to mention some humans that occasionally behave like animals. I include myself in that.

The cat in the photo is Meriadoc Brandybuck (Merry). He and his brother, Peregrine Took (Pippin) came to live with us in 2017 and quickly realised they were on to a good thing. The other cats are a little more aloof (except Mo, but he deserves a blog post all to himself really). When I write, I’m usually surrounded by a pile of snoring animals. Bramble often sleeps behind my chair, so when I roll it backwards, I run over her long, Border Collie tummy hairs and she shrieks like a banshee.

But if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t answered the question. Why a cat?

Well you see, Merry likes to whisper in my ear when he sees me becoming distracted by social media or emails. You could call him my inspiration, I suppose, since his suggestions for plots tend towards the gory, with disembowelment and disfiguring incisions featuring prominently. You could even say that he’s the reason I turned to crime.

Paying it Forward

Since I began writing fiction in 2014, I have received help, encouragement, advice and friendship from so many other writers, all over the world. This writing community is a very special place, and I’ll never be able to pay back all the folks who have given freely of their time and expertise to help this bouncy, over-enthusiastic new writer with more energy than skill. But I can try to pay the favour forward, and that’s what I try to do these days.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for delivering a free online writing course. I hoped to target marginalised people, those with disabilities, chronic illnesses, carers and anyone who was struggling to attend formal classes, and I was overwhelmed by the response from the community of Northern Ireland.

I ended up running three separate groups to meet the demand, and together we learned how to create engaging short stories, how to edit them, and how to get them published. The vast majority of attendees were from my target groups, which was wonderful. Instead of an effort, I found each session strengthened me, almost recharging my batteries, as I watched people’s confidence grow.

At the end of the course, I sent out an anonymous questionnaire and the feedback was reassuring. People had enjoyed the course and learned from it. The only suggestion for improvement that came up (more than once) was that the course should have been longer. Not a bad criticism!

So, I felt guilty that I hadn’t made it longer, although my own health and my own caring duties meant that I’d made it as long as I’d thought my stamina could cope with. Then I wondered what else I could do to help this fledgling writing community. To pay it forward.

The answer came from one of the subgroups of the Society of Authors of which I’m a member. A lovely woman called Sofia posted a link to the London Writers’ Salon (LWS), a group of writers who meet three times a day Monday to Friday on Zoom, and just write together whilst muted (after a short introduction and some words of wisdom). I signed up, and after the first session, I was hooked! This was something I could bring to local writers in Northern Ireland.

A couple of weeks ago, I set up Ulster Dedicated Writers, a smaller and less ambitious version of LWS. I’d already paid for Professional Zoom thanks to the Arts Council’s funding, so why not put it to good use. We began small, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am, with only the previous members of my writing classes invited, but once we realised how useful these dedicated writing times are, we are starting to expand. We have new members, friends of existing ones, and we’re up to three sessions a week (aiming for four next week).

How does it work?

Anyone interested in joining us emails me (or uses my website contact form) and I add them to the contact list. Each week I send out the Zoom link, and we all pop up on the screen one by one, introduce ourselves, chat briefly about what we’d like to achieve that session with our writing, then I mute everyone and we write. For just under an hour and a half, all I see on my screen is the top of people’s heads as they type or handwrite their poetry, novel, short story, blog, whatever.

At the end of the session, we unmute and chat about what we’ve achieved, which is usually astounding.

There’s some magic about these writing sessions. Something about the knowledge that other people are beavering away at their writing alongside you seems to unleash everyone’s creativity and drive away their gremlins, their writer’s block.

If you think this might work for you, why not give it a try? London Writers’ Salon are brilliant, but you’re also welcome to join us in the Ulster Dedicated Writers. Just email me or use the contact form on this website and I’ll add you to my list.

It turns out paying it forward is fun. I’ve met some brilliant, talented, wonderful writers, and I can’t wait to see them spread their wings and fly. I hope they’ll also pay it forward, when success finds them and when they’re in a position to do so.

Shy Halos

Corona = Halo

From the Cambridge English Dictionary:

Corona – a circle of light that can sometimes be seen around the moon at night, or around the sun during an eclipse…

If you were to type the word Corona into a search engine, you would be flooded with results about the coronavirus pandemic and Covid – 19. These are dark times, an eclipse of our usually sunny lives. People are locked in their houses, avoiding contact, afraid of this unseen enemy that can pass to us from seemingly healthy friends and neighbours.

But dark eclipses can have a silver lining. Like a halo around the moon, dark times can highlight the generosity of spirit and kindness of so many people. We all give thanks every day for the NHS, for their bravery and selflessness, but there are other halos out there, too, hiding in unexpected corners.

Take those in the caring profession, looking after all the sad and confused people in nursing homes and residential care facilities. And the retail workers, the delivery drivers, the kids stacking shelves, the freight ship crews, the airport workers and port workers keeping the supply chains open.

If, like me, you are a member of the Very High-Risk category (I even carry a card to prove it!), you’re probably even more anxious than most. If you’re a carer for a high-risk person, or if, like me, you are a carer for a very elderly relative, that ups the stakes even more.

As a family, we chose to self-isolate a little before the government advised everyone to do so. This involved Fraser working from home, changing our sleeping and daytime arrangements so that we all have our own dedicated space in the house, etc. It also meant keeping my dad away from his day centre, which he loves to go to three times a week. There, the more mature folks sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a warm, stuffy room, the perfect petri dish for growing bugs, even with the exceptional hygiene they have there.

Two weeks ago, we began to eat our evening meal in the lounge, on our knees, instead of crammed around the kitchen table as we always have before. It gets messy, but I’ve learned not to cook Spaghetti Bolognese anymore.

With some strategic planning (NOT stockpiling!), we’ve been managing our food supplies quite well so far. The young and healthy Katrina has been going out to shop for us to Iceland and the local pharmacy to collect our asthma meds and my arthritis injections. She washes her clothes and showers when she gets home, and we disinfect all packaging before bringing it into the house. It’s like a surgical procedure, double-gloving and all!

Bread and milk have been a challenge. With five of us in the house, all munching cereal and toast and drinking tea and coffee, it soon runs out. So, we decided to send Katrina to the local shop, Carlisle’s. As we have two elderly neighbours*, I phoned them both and asked if they needed any supplies fetching. One was okay, the other was not. I took her order and prepared to send my beloved daughter out into a cloud of unseen viruses.

First, I texted another neighbour who works in Carlisle’s to check the optimum time to shop and avoid crowds while still finding food on the shelves. She phoned me straight back and offered to do the shop for us, including our elderly neighbour’s shopping. She was able to buy our groceries as soon as the delivery arrived at the shop (bread, milk, fruit and soya milk for the one with a food allergy that could put her in hospital) and store them in the walk-in fridges. She was careful to stay within the guidelines for rationing but we still got everything we needed.

So here is another one of our shy halos, gleaming in the shadows. Catherine is over sixty, but as spry as a twenty-year-old and sensible with it. She has offered to repeat this up to three times a week for us and for our neighbours.

Spring of 2020 is like no other spring we’ve ever experienced. My dad, who lived through WW2, remembers rationing cards – although his family were so poor that rationing was an improvement for them; they discovered what butter tasted like. This reminds him of that time.

He’s sad and confused at the moment. He can’t understand why he can’t go to the day centre, and thinks it’s because he’s done something wrong. This morning, he tried to make a break for freedom. He set off with his big coat and his hat and his stick to walk to Bardan Cottage Day Centre. Bardan Cottage is at least twelve miles away, and he wouldn’t have the first clue how to get there, but he doesn’t realise that.

If only he knew how lucky he is. Another family member’s mum is in a nursing home, also with dementia, and her family can no longer visit her at all. Dad doesn’t know that.

This rambling blog is by way of reminding myself and others, through a dark time, that there is still kindness in the human animal. There is still selflessness.

So, let’s keep all those halos shining. Let’s remember that there’s another meaning for corona, and may that help us through this crisis.

See you all at the other side.

*The expression neighbour should be loosely applied here. This is rural County Down. Can’t actually see any of our neighbours…