I spent an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening last night at the Hampshire Writers’ Society. I was invited as the warm-up act, giving a brief plug for the Writing Hampshire project, which is going strong: over 100 poems now, and more coming in all the time. Next I hope we can get 200 poems, including more by kids, and more for poor old Basingstoke, which is badly under-represented at the moment! But the main pleasure of the evening was listening to the main speaker, crime writer Graham Hurley.
Graham gives a mean lecture: energetic, funny, revealing. If you’re interested in becoming a full-time fiction writer, and you get the chance to listen to listen to him, you should. His talk told me a great deal about fiction publishing, and what it might take to succeed. But beyond that, his story also made me think about how we can all find our ways as writers: figuring out what kind of writer we want to be, and what we can be good at.
Graham’s story started with a rejection, as so many do. In 1999, with a dozen or so standalone thrillers published, his publisher refused to take any more. Instead, they ‘asked’ him to try something new: a three-book Rebus-style crime series, set in his home city of Portsmouth.
A decent opportunity on the face of it. But Graham hated, and still hates, crime fiction: he hadn’t read any then, and he doesn’t read any now. He was being asked to change his genre completely; rather like Faber offering me a contract on the condition than instead of poetry I send them a cookbook. Being 100% dependent on his income from publishing, he had to give it a go. And as you’ll have guessed by now, he succeeded; the series became 12 books long, sales have gone ever upwards, and there are popular adaptations on French TV (and possibly soon in the UK).
So here’s my moral 1, and any writer who’s ever written a piece with constraints should recognise it: Be thankful for problems and limitations in your career, because your best results may come from them.
How Graham responded to his new limitations is also revealing. He said he had two options. I think he had three. The first, which it’s clearly not in his personality to do, was to grumble and be bitter about this new twist in his life.
Which leads me to moral 2:If you want to fail as a writer, be as bitter and resentful as you can, and focus as much as possible on the ‘if onlys’ of your career. I can’t think of a better way to ensure you’ll never get anywhere.
To go back to the two options that Graham saw, they were: 1) To read every book of modern British crime fiction he could find, and then try to imitate them; or, 2) To start from scratch, and find his own way to write the genre. The first option comes straight from the advice that I have many times seen, and many times given: you’ve got to read what you want to write. But Graham hates crime fiction; so he chose not to. He has, in fact, become a complete exception to that ‘rule’: a proof that you don’t have to read what you want to write.
(However, I want to make clear there are caveats: he was already an experienced and proficient writer of thrillers, so he knew the craft. And while he doesn’t read crime fiction, he has read a lot of good work, and still loves reading. You still can’t succeed as a writer without reading anything at all.)
Instead, he took option 2; and here I think is the most interesting moral from his talk. He drew intelligently and profoundly on the kind of person he is, and the unique skills and experiences he’d acquired. He’d worked in TV as a journalist and documentary maker for 20 years; he was also, and therefore, in touch with every strand of life in Portsmouth. His TV experience had involved investigating in depth, and recording with fidelity, the lives of a wide range of people, so he did that again: he spent months shadowing Portsmouth police, getting to know police work and police officers with clarity and precision. Then when he wrote, he combined what he’d learned with what he knew about the city; and the combination worked. I’m making a selective interpretation there; there was a lot more to it than that, but Graham explains it better than I could (in his Kindle book ‘Backstory‘).
Which leads to moral 3: To be a good writer, don’t try to do what others have done. Draw on what makes up you – your skills, interests, experiences – and chances are it will work.
Not only will it work for readers: it will work for you as a writer. You’ll believe in it, and probably enjoy it.
And here’s another benefit: it will make you stand out from other writers. Graham’s work stands out from other crime fiction in two ways: by being factually accurate in its portrayal of contemporary UK police work (so much so that Hampshire Constabulary started to invite Graham on special police operations, so he could use them in his work); and by dealing with wider concerns – the life of a whole city – than is usual than the genre.
So here’s moral 4: being yourself can give your writing that ‘USP’ that publishers are so keen on.
And that’ll do for now. He also said some things about the role of luck in a writer’s life, but I think that’s another post for another day.
Happy New Year everyone.