I recently attended a CWA talk given by Leigh Russell, author of the successful Geraldine Steel crime thriller series amongst others. Leigh was speaking about how to sell a million books. So I was there, front row, with fellow Endeavour Media author and mate Paul Sinclair. Leigh’s best advice was to buy a bookshop, boom boom.
Seriously, though, she spoke well, wise words from a woman who knows; get a good publisher, keep working and be lucky. And be receptive to being lucky, by at least partly making your own luck via the second suggestion above.
Questions were taken and I had a few. Foremost being should I change my name to Lee or Leigh, what with her success and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, it sounded liked a good start. Weirdly enough she didn’t entirely disagree.
My next question was about ideas, or more specifically, prioritising them. I’m big on ideas but small (er) on time to write, scribbling not being my full-time profession as yet (I write this on Saturday morning after early breakfast but before the kids’ sporting enrichments). ‘Lucky you,’ replied Leigh, ‘can I have a few?’ A humble question indeed from a woman who has written twenty-odd best sellers.
But perhaps not such an absurd proposal.
Cut back to the previous Sunday and I was enjoying a cold beer in the warm sunshine (I do other things apart from beer drinking, but I sneak it in when I can). We were at an annual family reunion on my wife’s side, and I got speaking to a cousin of a cousin, Amanda. Talk turned from novel writing to creativity in general and to the genesis of ideas. Amanda said ideas were butterflies from the universe, we don’t actually own them, they find us, choose us. Sometimes they alight on our consciousness. If we welcome and make use of them, we can watch these beauties grow, but if we don’t… Off they fly, they land on someone else, and though that person might see its colours and contours a bit differently from you, it’s essentially the same creative energy, but now it’s theirs to grow.
Now, in case you’re wondering, Amanda wasn’t puffing the magic dragon, not that kind of party really. I left her chatting to my wife’s sister who’s an artist that can hold her own when it comes to selling original interpretations door to door (often it’s the moon that’s to blame I’m told). Scoff as I did, what Amanda said stuck, and I couldn’t let it go.
If you write books, or even if you are planning to, I bet you know what I mean.
That feeling, that absurd vulnerability that joins you like a shadow at your desk. It whispers that somehow, if you don’t get cracking, if you don’t finish up that all-important first draft, then someone, somewhere will finish it before you. Irrational as it is, you honestly fear “they” might write your book first, and it will be lost to you even as you struggle to complete it.
Or, maybe, that’s just me?
But in case your thinking that I’m puffing the magic dragon, listen to this. I met a guy once who did moderately well with his first crime thriller, but told me that his original book idea, a great idea involving serial murder with a religious twist, literally appeared on the shelves as he finally got round to writing it.
I kid you not.
I had an idea, a fleeting image in my mind some years ago, but I knew then that it was a super opening for a novel and a great set up. I wrote a very rough first few pages but let it die, or, perhaps, let it fly away. What became of this? Well, a few years later I read something alarmingly similar but published by another crime writer. He did well off it too. I can show you my dated drafts, you will probably recognise the premise.
Losing the butterfly is not the only way to lose your ideas. A mate of mine, whose father, a very famous film and screen actor who sadly has since passed away, once told me that his old man had an awesome idea for a screenplay. He sent it to someone in Hollywood, never heard back, and let it go. He saw his movie idea advertised on the side of a London bus a couple of years down the line. You have probably watched the film, most people did.
Try blaming that on the moon.
Intellectual theft aside, more often than not we lose great ideas simply because we fail to nurture them and when you’re a novelist, that means writing them. This week I laid down the first 2000 words of a new novel, and a new series if my feeling is right. And what a feeling. But earlier in the week, while travelling to work I wrote a thousand words of a different, stand-alone, that came to me out of the blue. Like a butterfly landing on my hand, you might say. Both voices were strong and clear and I want to breathe life into each.
Leigh said that she once wrote two books a year while still a teacher and it almost finished her. But she didn’t say she regretted it. I have no idea whether I can do the same, but I’m going to try. God knows I’ve wasted enough time making excuses for not writing in the past. And I know for a fact that hard graft rarely leaves you feeling cheated. The real regrets in this life are the opportunities, experiences and great ideas that we allowed to fly away.