The Problem Child?

(Four different C-Words)

Perhaps it’s unfair to refer to my new book as a problem child. I’m delighted with the final version, and will be proud to see it out there in the world, hopefully bringing delightfully creepy shivers to readers everywhere. But it did put up a bit of a fight during its creation to the point that there were times when I felt like throwing away the manuscript and starting afresh with a different story.

Image shows cover of Deadly Shores

I wrote Deadly Shores in 2020-2021, and it took me a full year to finish. This was a record for me, because I usually take around three months from opening paragraph to final draft, but this wasn’t the book’s fault at all. In fact, it is possibly the closest to my heart in many ways because one of my passions is for sailing, and this book carries the tang of the sea with it.

I’m not going to blame the C-word (no, not that C-word but the one that’s been dominating the news for the past couple of years), because although that probably had an effect on my writing productivity, it wasn’t the sole reason.

I can’t blame my father, either, because it’s not his fault that his dementia deteriorated to the point that he became a danger to himself and even to us, his carers.

Nor can I blame yet another C-word, Cancer, although that also caused grief and anxiety in our close-knit family when one of us was diagnosed in spring of 2021.

Now, in spring of 2022, Covid (rats, I said the word) is still very much with us, but we’re learning to deal with it and it no longer dominates the news. Sadly, the plight of Ukraine has taken its place, but that deserves a blog post all to itself, perhaps.

My father is safe in a wonderful nursing home, surrounded by people who care for him better than I was able to. They’re trained, they have lifting equipment, and they work shifts, so they are able to sleep at predictable times. When I was looking after him, sleep was a distant memory, and even when I did nap, I was on constant alert, listening for the baby alarm to warn me if he’d gone outside again, calling for my mum (who died several years ago).

The family member with cancer has received excellent treatment and is doing as well as can be wished for at this stage. We are optimistic about the future, and have been making exciting plans for the years ahead.

And I am writing again. Book four took roughly three months to complete and is now with my wonderful beta readers before being sent off to my editors at Joffe Books. It was an absolute joy to write and the words flowed as they usually do, because I could keep my head clear and concentrate — apart from the fourth C-word, of course. Cats walking up and the down the keyboard as they look for scratches are a daily hazard.

Thank you for your patience in reading this far. There is a moral to this blog: times can be hard, worry can eat away at you, but if you can only manage to keep on plugging away, there will eventually be light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s not always an express train coming the other way.

I’ve been incredibly lucky. I have a really loving, supportive family, and friends who are a delight and always know the right thing to say, but I’m also very lucky with my publisher: Joffe Books, and particularly my editor, Emma, have been so understanding and given me the space and time I needed to get through the various challenges life was throwing at me. Not everyone is that lucky.

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.