Today I’m talking to a wonderful author who captivated us as the keynote speaker in June 2012 at loveahappyending’s Summer Audience. Times flies and I thought it was about time we caught back up with Catrin and found her, as usual, writing dangerously…
“Dorothy Parker once famously said (forgive me, I can’t recall the quote verbatim), “If a young person asks you for advice on how to embark on a writing career, you could give it to them. On the other hand it might be kinder to shoot them.”
Looking at what pre-published writers endure, it might at that. As I see standing – I hope – midway through my career, there are two ways to approach writing.
First, the safe route. Go into a bookshop, if you can find one or even a functioning High Street these days. Or search the Amazon bestseller charts. Study what’s selling, examine the genre, acquire the guidelines from publishers or agents – e.g. Mills & Boon – try to emulate the style and pray to St Anne (patron saint of the lost and writers – how apt) and hope to produce a book an editor will like, publish and pay you for.
I tried that route. Oh how I tried it because members of my writers’ circle told me it was the door to getting published. I burned with stories I wanted to tell, but I was assured by my newly acquired agent that once I had a couple of Mills and Boon under my belt publishers would queue up to publish my original work.
I wrote a Mills & Boon, in fact I wrote 17 of them to be precise. After the first I was invited to lunch by a Mills and Boon editor, who continued to invite me after the second, third, fourth and so on submissions. I was assured over every lunch that I was “almost there”. A tweak here, a tweak there and I’d have a book in my hand – no sorry that isn’t quite right – write another and another.
At the time I was working twelve hours a day as a management consultant, coming home to three young children and a long suffering saint of a husband who said he didn’t “mind” me writing every day from midnight until four in the morning “honest”.
One cold dawn I appraised my work. It was set in the Caribbean (at that time I’d never been there). Most of the characters were wealthier than Bill Gates except the heroine. I hate to say it but she was poor, envious and unlovable. The hero was an Adonis. He looked like a young Tom Selleck complete with moustache but with a dash of Cary Grant’s insouciant charm and Gregory Peck’s mysterious aloofness. Charlton Heston’s integrity was in there (he did play Moses), Kevin Kline and Robert Downey’s junior peculiar sense of humour and Johnny Depp’s star quality. Problem was he couldn’t be bothered with the heroine and frankly neither could I when she sashayed (how I loathe that word) in and out of elegant, over furnished billionaires’ boudoirs.
I telephoned my agent (I acquired one before I published a single word, it was a lucky fluke they do happen) the following morning and told her I admired Mills and Boon writers (I most sincerely do) but I’d come to the conclusion that I simply couldn’t write romance. She replied I was so close to being published by them if I didn’t produce another m/s she’d drop me. I was naive in those days and didn’t understand the business so I said “fine.” All my manuscripts came back. A Touch of Style . . . A Touch of Class . . . A Touch of Fire . . . A Touch of . . .
One day I’ll have an enormous bonfire in the garden.
The next night I disinfected my study of romance, sat in front of my computer, took my tall dark handsome hero, his insouciant charm, integrity, honesty and aloofness and killed him in the first chapter. I didn’t realise then but I was writing dangerously with no genre or plan in mind. Frankly I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or where I was going but I carried on. I finished a crime book of sorts sent it to another agent one fine day in May 1989. He wrote back at Christmas offering me a contract with his agency. I signed it. Christmas 1990 he sold the crime book.
My editor at Random House telephoned and said the words every author dreams of hearing, “what else have you written?”
My reply, “How many books would you like?”
For an obscure reason (If I tried to explain, this article would be longer than War and Peace) I’d spent ten years writing and researching a book set in Mesopotamia in the First World War (modern Iraq). Given the recent wars in the Middle East, you’d think this would sell. To fast forward, my five agents have worn the knees out on their trousers begging editors to buy this book. I’m not fickle my agents have in turn, fired me, (1) retired on me (2), moved to Italy (1). I’m trying to hang on to number five, he’s a gem.
My editor read The Long Road to Baghdad. She loved the characters and the plot, hated the setting and advised me to “move it to Wales in the 1930’s.” Slight problem, there were no Arabs (or very few) and no desert (the sands at Porthcawl don’t count) and no war in Wales in the 1930’s. Besides, I didn’t particularly want to write about Wales in the 1930’s. My father was born in 1920, he’d grown up during the depression and I knew horrible demeaning things had happened that no one in the family ever talked about.
My editor bribed me by offering double the advance I’d received for the crime book. I braced myself and talked, really talked to my father for the first time in my life. The result was Hearts of Gold which was eventually filmed by BBC worldwide.
So there I was, writing one crime and one historical novel a year for two major London publishers while working as a management and later business consultant.
For the latter position all consultants had to be self-employed, not bankrupt and know the rudiments of book keeping. Writing wasn’t considered a proper business so I was given the other oddballs who weren’t considered real business people, e.g. the worm breeders, stuntmen, dough modellers, and a hairdresser who set up a lucrative side line in cutting and blow drying for the croupiers in the local casino at 4.a.m. One day I may write about the local vice squad’s reaction when she printed posters and a bumper sticker for her car with her telephone number and the legend “SALLY TWENTY FOUR HOURS”.
The turning point in my career came when one of my editors asked if I’d like to write “raunch”. Yes, it was around in 1994 long before Fifty Shades. She wanted three linked books. The advance was enough for me to give up full time work and become a full time writer.
I was in an enviable position, three publishers, and on-going book contracts, but I wanted more. I wanted to write my stories and I was on a treadmill producing what my editors thought would sell. I hate to say it but sales figures suggested they weren’t always right.
I didn’t write dangerously again until 1995. My mother was born in Eastern Europe, in the beautiful medieval town of Allenstein (now Olzstyn) in East Prussia (now Poland). Her family lost homes, country, all their materials possessions and most of their relatives in the Russian invasion of 1945. Only now, 67 years later is the full story of East Prussia surfacing. I set aside a month to take her on a last visit. While we travelled around her homeland and the haunts she’d fled in 1945 she gave me her diaries.
The opportunity for a writer was too good. I turned them into a book One Last Summer. I didn’t show the outline to anyone, I didn’t ask for an advance. I wanted – no I needed – to write it. So I did. My then agent loved it, but he warned. “A wartime book from the German point of view is going to be difficult to sell.”
It wasn’t. I was offered a contract by the first editor to see it. I met her and it was obvious that she wanted me to graft a Mills and Boon ending on to the book. You can do many things with a novel set in East Prussia but, with apologies to the title of this blog, you cannot give it a happy ending.
I didn’t argue, just smiled politely thanked her for the lunch and left the contract unsigned. I returned home and put the book in the same drawer that held The Long Road to Baghdad (my Mesopotamian book) and carried on writing safely.
When my last but one agent ran off to Italy to make friends with George Clooney in 2006 I was left agentless. A friend recommended my current agent, a wonderful man the same age as my son. I went to him mid contract. His first question, “Have you any books written but not sold.”
I gave him One Last Summer. He sold it in a week. It was my first historical to be sold in translation into Germany, Hungary, Spain and in Poland it became a surprise bestseller. I’ve toured Poland twice as a guest of the Polish Library in Olzstyn, talking about the book and my mother’s experiences. It was humbling to stand before an audience who’d suffered so much during the war and in the Communist era and yet were hungry to discover something of the pre-war history of the town their families had moved into after 1945.
Shortly after the first tour of Poland my elderly parents succumbed to dementia. I couldn’t concentrate on writing anything new. I broke my contracts and occupied myself by ghosting and penning the novelisation of a film. It wasn’t the first time I’d written for money. When broke I have to sell my skills as a writer because much as I’d like to be a world class actress, ballet dancer, or musician I’m realistic enough to know I lack the talents required for those professions.
I earned enough to take stock and think about the stories that I wanted to write. In the meantime the publishing world I knew was being revolutionised. I posted the Long Road to Baghdad as an e-book. Contrary to the belief of various editors some readers did want to know about the war Iraq in 1914. I took a long look at the other stories I wanted to write.
I’ve spent the last year writing a novel set in Russia. History is repeating itself. Last week I received a rejection complimenting me on the writing, the characterisation, plot and overall book with the comment – “no one wants to know about nineteenth century Russia. It will be impossible to market.”
Whether the public do or don’t at least I have the option now of publishing it as an e-book.
Now I’m writing a crime set in Eastern Europe. Will my agent sell it? Time will tell. In the meantime I remain resolutely optimistic. The major publishing houses are concentrating on what they believe are “safe books” those ghosted for celebrities, cookery books and TV tie ins (take a look at the charts). Sales figures suggest these books aren’t always the “safe” options publishers believe them to be.
Historically the real bestsellers are the ones that come out of the blue because the authors kept pushing for publication and never lost faith in themselves. Think JK Rowling’s rejections, or Watership Down – there’s a legend that Richard Adams stalked into a publishers dropped his m/s on an editor’s desk and said,
“This is a book about rabbits. Read it.”
Whatever the truth, I do know that books should come from the heart not a board meeting of accountants, marketing gurus and editors. I love being part of the e-book revolution in publishing. I’m grateful to my agent who’s kept me on his author list and continues to sell my work into translation when so many other agents drop the bottom performing ten per cent of their stable every year.
The future? Will I continue to write dangerously?
After 39 safe books, and 2 dangerous ones, looking at the sales figures and reviews of the ones I took a risk on, what do you think?
Excuse me I have to return to my new book. Did I tell you that I’ve set it in Konigsberg in 1919?”
Having met Catrin I’m not at all surprised that this is one author who isn’t afraid of ‘writing dangerously…’ and is proud to do so. Thank you for such a fun and inspiring insight into your world of writing. Oh, and some sterling advice!
and don’t forget the books written as Katherine John
Brought to you by Editor and author Linn B Halton: