On getting published and becoming a writer – Twenty7 Open Submissions

Looking for inspiration for our 27 Days of Open Submissions, which we’re running in association with Cornerstones? Author GJ Minett describes how he came up with the idea for his gripping debut novel, The Hidden Legacy.

 

‘I trust you will be sitting down when you read this’ – the simple opening line of a life-changing email from my agent, telling me ostensibly that I had a two-book deal with Twenty7 but in reality telling me so much more than that. And on Friday 13th too – you couldn’t make it up!

I’d had plenty of time to prepare myself for a moment such as this, more years than I’d care to recall of hurling myself against doors that creaked and groaned but somehow refused to open. And yet, once the initial mad scenes of celebration and frantic phone calls to friends and family were out of the way and I had time to sit down and reflect on things, I was surprised to realise that exhilaration was having to share top billing with other emotions. Prominent among these was a huge sense of relief at no longer needing to feel like some sort of fraud whenever I talked about my writing.

One of the hardest things about being an unpublished author, at least in my experience, is convincing yourself that you are a writer. I’d been trotting out the same old answer for years whenever anyone asked what I did for a living: teacher, timetabler, data analyst. If writing ever got a mention it was way down the list, usually once the conversation turned to hobbies, and I always found it hard to talk about any literary aspirations I might have without seeking out that knowing look in their eyes. It was probably a reflection of my own insecurities but the feeling was always there that others would be bound to see this as some sort of pose assumed by a wannabe who never would be, and the realisation that I’d no longer need to equivocate over such things brought with it a warm glow that I’ve carried around with me ever since. Yes, it’s exciting to have broken through. Yes, it’s nice to be talking with publishers about editing and publicity and book covers and blurbs and shout lines instead of emailing to check whether my manuscript has made it off the slush pile. It’s wonderful to have entered this new world where I have so much to learn. But more than anything else, it’s just so damned liberating to be able to say ‘I’m a writer’ and not squirm inside.

I remember so many panels I listened to, so many talks by authors, publishers, agents, and whenever they were asked by aspiring writers for advice on how to get published, there was always someone who suggested that the answer was to keep going, to accept rejections as a necessary evil and take the positives out of them. If you want it badly enough, the message seemed to be, you’ll get there eventually. And I found myself wanting to scream at them, because all I inferred from this was if you don’t get there, it’s because you don’t want it enough. And I wanted it so badly – I really did.

But they were right. I was a long way short of doing everything I could to make the breakthrough and it wasn’t until I acknowledged this and gave my writing the level of priority it required that things started to move. I didn’t get a book deal by opening an email from my agent. That was the final stage of a planned route which I followed faithfully. I studied for a part-time MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester where I discovered that I wasn’t even close to the finished article I’d always assumed I was. Then I entered competitions, making use of the short stories I’d written for the course, and set about putting together a CV that might persuade a busy agent to break off from her/his frantic schedule and take a look at my opening chapter. I may not have bought into the cliché of papering my walls with rejection slips but I did study every letter carefully in an attempt to identify criticisms (positive as well as negative) that were common to most. Once I started getting longlisted, then shortlisted and finally winning competitions, I knew I was ready to research agents who specialised in what I wanted to write. And once I found the right agent . . .

It worked for me but it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all scenario and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting everyone should do the same. All aspiring writers need to find their own way which suits them as individuals. I always swore that if I ever made the breakthrough I would never patronise others who may be only days away from following me. All I would say is that at 5.30 on Friday 13th I was a person who writes. At 5.35 I was an author. But it’s amazing how much needs to go into those five minutes to turn you into an overnight success.

And if I could urge any writer to take one thing from my own experience, it would be this. If you enjoy writing, whether it’s for your own amusement or to entertain or impress others, you are a writer. If you dabble in the occasional short story or are deep into planning a 100,000 word novel, in those moments when you shut yourself away with pen in hand or laptop at the ready . . . you are a writer. Say it – I’m a writer. You need to tell yourself that as often as you can because it’s what makes the difference. And if you don’t believe it, why should anyone else?

Good luck.

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The Hidden Legacy GJ Minett1966. A horrifying crime at a secondary school, with devastating consequences for all involved.

2008. A life-changing gift, if only the recipient can work out why . . .

Recently divorced and with two young children, Ellen Sutherland is up to her elbows in professional and personal stress. When she’s invited to travel all the way to Cheltenham to hear the content of an old woman’s will, she’s far from convinced the journey will be worthwhile.

But when she arrives, the news is astounding. Eudora Nash has left Ellen a beautiful cottage worth an amount of money that could turn her life around. There’s just one problem – Ellen has never even heard of Eudora Nash.

Her curiosity piqued, Ellen and her friend Kate travel to the West Country in search of answers. But they are not the only ones interested in the cottage, and Ellen little imagines how much she has to learn about her past . . .

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How I wrote Stasi Child – Twenty7 Open Submissions

STASI CHILD Struggling to come up with your big idea for our 27 Days of Open Submissions? Author David Young describes how he came up with the idea for gripping crime thriller, Stasi Child.

A detective fighting for the truth in a communist country where every move is closely watched by a fearsome state security service. It’s been done before, of course, most notably perhaps by Tom Rob Smith in Child 44. But – as far as I could tell – no-one, at least in English-language novels, had used the setting of East Germany. And so, the idea for Stasi Child was born.

It was initially only a first chapter for the Crime Thriller MA I was doing at City University. My tutor – crime writer Claire McGowan – encouraged me to expand it into a novel. For any aspiring writer, turning 2,000 words into 80,000-plus is a daunting prospect. But Claire liked my unusual setting and the twist that my teenage girl victim appeared to have been murdered trying to break in to the east from the west. The key to transforming it into a novel was rigorous planning. I had an idea for every ‘scene’ or chapter – and a road map that was more complicated than Spaghetti Junction (or its German equivalent, Kreuz Kaiserberg, though that’s in the west!). But my advice would be to do something similar. Have a plan. You can deviate from it. You can tear up parts of it. But your plan – for me sixty or so scenes – is your insurance. When you hit a wall, just jump forward and write a different scene. You’ll probably find a solution to your writer’s block at the same time.

Once I began, the decision to go with the idea that became Stasi Child immediately posed other problems. I don’t speak German – well other than to order a beer and a hotel room – and the opportunity to actually visit and research first hand in the ironically titled German Democratic Republic ended in 1990. On top of this, as a male aspiring author I made life more difficult for myself by making my detective, Karin Müller, female – and having a second narrative through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl. So much for the advice of writing what you know!

But what you can do – and what I had huge fun doing – is take a research trip. I visited the eastern part of the now-unified Germany. You can find and talk to former members of the East German ‘CID’, the Kriminalpolizei or Kripo – part of the People’s Police. One of the most helpful to me was former Hauptmann Siegfried Schwarz, who headed up the murder squad which solved the GDR’s most famous homicide case, The Crossword Puzzle Murder. After he showed me round his old patch – the now decaying East German ‘model’ city of Halle-Neustadt – we had a lovely afternoon tea in his hunting lodge, swapping stories in pidgin German.

My task in writing Stasi Child was to construct a world which was authentic. Oberleutnant Karin Müller, at least at the start of the series, believes in socialism, and accepts the necessity of the Wall to prevent a brain-drain of the GDR’s brightest and best. But from the very start of the novel, those beliefs are challenged – at every turn.

Any novel will contain artifice. Anna Funder, author of the excellent non-fiction Stasiland, praised Oscar-winning The Lives of Others as a ‘superb film’. Yet she criticised the authenticity of the main Stasi character, the ultimately sympathetic Hauptmann Wiesler, on the grounds that ‘no Stasi man ever tried to save his victims’. I’m sure I will have made similar ‘errors’ in Stasi Child.

But I’ve tried to be honest. I’ve tried to reflect a world where you could enjoy one of the highest living standards in the eastern bloc, with excellent childcare facilities, where female workers were valued, and where absurdly low state-controlled prices meant many had more eastern marks than they knew what to do with. But if you opposed the regime, the Stasi’s methods – their use of techniques such as Zersetsung, the gradual undermining of a target’s life and reputation – were brutal and left lasting damage.

Lenin’s idea that crime would ‘wither away’ under socialism, however, was just plain wrong. Crime levels may have been lower that the west, but there were plenty of crimes in East Germany for my fictional Oberleutnant Karin Müller and her ilk to solve. I hope Stasi Child can be the start of a long series where she’ll get the chance to do just that.

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STASI CHILD

“An exceptionally fluid mystery that holds the reader gripped. Reminiscent of Fatherland and AD Miller’s Snowdrops, Stasi Child heralds a bold new voice – and character – in historical crime.”
NetGalley Book of the Month, October

East Berlin, 1975

When Oberleutnant Karin Müller is called to investigate a teenage girl’s body at the foot of the Wall, she imagines she’s seen it all before. But when she arrives she realises this is a death like no other: it seems the girl was trying to escape – but from the West.

Müller is a member of the People’s Police, but in East Germany her power only stretches so far. The Stasi want her to discover the identity of the girl, but assure her the case is otherwise closed – and strongly discourage her asking questions.

The evidence doesn’t add up, and Müller soon realises the crime scene has been staged. But this is not a regime that tolerates a curious mind, and Müller doesn’t realise that the trail she’s following will lead her dangerously close to home . . .