The Nottingham Connection…

 

When I first met Charlie Resnick, John Harvey’s jazz-loving detective inspector, on the page in 1991, I was thrilled.  Here was a new series from a British crimewriter I hadn’t read before.  Three books in, and I was hooked — on Harvey’s award-winning command of the genre, and on his Nottingham-based copper.  For Resnick is the classic loner, weighed down by too many memories and not enough of a personal life.  My kind of guy.

By the time Easy Meat came out, the eighth in the series, I was reviewing crime fiction for the Ottawa Citizen, writing mysteries of my own, and about to teach a one-day workshop.

I called it How to get away with murder…in print! 

All I had to do was put together a suitable outline knowing that, on the day, I should expect the unexpected.  And sure enough, there was this guy, sitting at the back of the room taking notes, and asking questions like “have you ever been in a police station?”.  I mumbled something about being in the back of a cruiser once, and next thing I knew he was asking me out to lunch…and taking my fingerprints.  As one does on a first date when the officer-in-charge is a detective inspector with the Ottawa Police.

But what happened next is total happenstance.  Richard (the aforementioned detective inspector) told me he’d spent his early years with the City of Nottingham.  I told him about John Harvey, and then fact and fiction merged.  Not only had Richard worked out of the same Canning Circus police station as John Harvey’s fictional detective, they also shared a connection to the Polish Club, Nottingham’s gathering place for the vast numbers of Poles who had remained after World War II.  There was nothing for it, but to go to Nottingham, meet the relatives (Richard and I were definitely an item by then) and walk the beat.  We made it a working trip, connecting with John when we went back down to London.

It was brilliant.  We met at Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus, grabbed a coffee, and talked shop, about crime writing and about the amazing coincidences between Richard’s and Resnick’s backgrounds.  Even their take on Nottingham was the same “a gritty mining town famous for Players’ cigarettes, Raleigh bicycles and lace factories,” tempered by D.H. Lawrence and the legend of Robin Hood.

When we returned home, Richard wrote a piece for the Ottawa Citizen about “following Charlie” through Nottingham’s dark alleyways and back streets, remembering the thieves and soccer hooligans, and the first prostitute he’d ever set eyes on.  “She was young, no older than I was (19 at the time) and when I turned my flashlight on her in that narrow, dark alley, she pulled her skirt over her head because she didn’t want to be recognized.”

He ended the article by suggesting he had a “great idea for a book that brings Resnick to Canada.”  It didn’t quite happen that way, but in Darkness, Darkness, John’s twelfth and “final” Resnick published in 2014, he gave a nod to Richard in Chapter 49,

“Resnick had known an inspector in the Notts force who’d gone out to Canada…Brzozowski.  Polish descent like himself.  Good policeman, good detective.  Resnick had liked him.  Would have bet good money he’d more often then not got his man, too.”

Or, in this case, woman!

Outside Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, 2016

Over the years, twenty as of this writing, we’ve met up with John whenever possible, sometimes in Nottingham, where lunch at the Warsaw Diner was always a favorite, or in London at Foyles on the Charing Cross Road.  Last autumn it was Soho with John bringing us up-to-date on his most recent project:  his adaptation of Darkness, Darkness which had just finished its premiere run at the Nottingham Playhouse .

Unfortunately, our timing was off, but with a little luck we’ll be back in England for an early spring, and the release of Body & Soul, John’s fifth “Frank Elder” novel.  Totally different series (although Elder is ex-Nottingham, of course!) from a very prolific, and engaging, writer.

Lonely Hearts, John’s first Charlie Resnick novel, was named by the London Times as one of the “100 Best Crime Novels of the Century.”  And in 2007, he was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.

Body & Soul will be published in hardcover by William Heinemann on April 18th.

John Harvey’s website is:  http://www.mellotone.co.uk

 

 

The Art of Collaboration!

 

In the days before writing romances together as Stephanie Browning, Susan Brown and I wrote mysteries for middle-grade readers.

We also co-authored scripts and dabbled in a bit of television, but the following article was, in fact, our first “official” collaborative piece.  We wrote it after delivering a workshop at the Detroit Women Writers annual conference, and the rest is, as they say…history.

 

So where’s ubiquitous?

or

How to maintain the balance of power in a collaboration!

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written by Anne Stephenson

(rewritten by Susan Brown; re-edited by Anne Stephenson;

final version by Susan Brown;

last call to the editor by Anne Stephenson)

 

Not long ago, Susan and I gave a seminar about collaboration to a group of aspiring writers.  We called it, “Making Collaboration Work.”  A piece of cake.  One way or another, we’d been collaborating since we were room-mates at Ottawa’s Carleton University.  But this was formal.  We divided the research and organization, prepared the same number of handouts, planned the presentation so that we got equal time, and split the fee.

It was great.  Our audience was responsive – they laughed in all the right places, asked questions we could answer, and clapped enthusiastically at the end.

Why?  Thorough research, of course – but the real learning experience came from watching the finely-tuned dynamics of a working collaboration.  We took pot shots at each other the entire time.

When Susan discussed compatible work habits, she called me a neat-freak.  The crowd tittered.  I countered by pleasantly suggesting she use coasters for her coffee cups instead of our manuscript.  She lounged against the wall and assumed an air of long-suffering.  The audience lapped it up.

When I pointed out how important it is for each partner to receive a copy of any correspondence with agent or publisher, Susan, who forgets to mail everything that isn’t addressed to an editor, had the grace to blush.

She tried to get me on deadlines.  In collaboration deadlines are, of course, sacred.  I get writer’s block; the words don’t flow; my muse is off playing squash.  Susan gets on the phone claiming she needs Chapter Five, so she can get on with Chapter Six.  I tell her I’m still waiting for her edits on Chapter Four.

We went on to discuss how writers often have favorite phrases that grow like toadstools throughout their copy.  Susan’s characters “exchange glances” so many times they get cross-eyed, I said.  She “looked at me pointedly” and told the group how important it is to edit each other’s work with kid gloves.

Writers have such fragile egos.

We trundled through the legal jungle of what can happen to whom when one makes promises unbeknownst to the other.  Susan used several examples of possible scenarios.  In every one, I made wildly improbable promises to publishers, was killed in car crashes, skipped the country with head-earned advances, or a combination of all three.  She finished with a sweet smile and a somber warning that you must know and trust your collaborator or be left holding the bag.

I’m a reasonable person.  It was only in the interest of education that I told them the truth about ubiquitous.

Once the project is finished, I explained, one partner has to do the clean copy and send it in.  This is the position of power.  In our case, it’s Susan.  She nodded modestly.  Her computer and printer, I went on, are more sophisticated than mine, so she enters the final draft, prints it, and mails it to the publisher.

And that’s where I lost ubiquitous.  Ubiquitous is one of my favorite words.  It has tone, it has class; Susan can’t spell it without a dictionary.  I had used it to describe Miss Belcher, the teacher who lurks around every corner in our juvenile mystery, The Mad Hacker.  Throughout the entire writing and editing process, I had warded off Susan’s attempts to cut that word.

After sending the original to the publisher, she sent me my copy of the manuscript.  I was impressed.  It was beautiful – no typos, no coffee stains, no ubiquitous.

The audience loved it.

They didn’t, however, hear the last word on ubiquitous.  After the conference, Susan and I went our separate ways home.  My route passed the publisher’s office, so I decided to stop for a chat.  Susan’s computer, I explained to our editor, had inexplicably left out a word.  Could she please insert “ubiquitous” on page five?

Ah, the balancing of power…

(Postscript:  The advance copies of The Mad Hacker arrived today.  The editor blue-pencilled ubiquitous.)

So where’s ubiquitous? first appeared in Canadian Author & Bookman.

 

 

The Perfect Pitch: How to Write a Query Letter

 

I once had a creative writing student with a marketable manuscript who was absolutely convinced that no one would ever look at her work. She had no writing experience, no publishing history, and no connections. But she did have a PhD in Microbiology, a penchant for pigs in tights, and an adoring audience of preschoolers. Now I don’t know about you, but that combination alone would pique my curiosity.

And that’s what you want in a query letter.

It’s a one-shot, one-page opportunity to grab an editor’s attention and convince them that you, and your work, are worth looking at. Given the huge numbers of writers out there these days, you’re competing for a very small piece of the pie.

So make sure you are directing your query, be it email or online submission, to the appropriate editor; that the magazine and/or publishing house is the right one for you, and that your market information is up-to-date.

Pretty basic stuff, but after a year – or two – writing, editing and polishing your manuscript, even a simple mistake can lower the odds.  Nobody knows your story as well as you do, but you have to be able to describe it in one or two paragraphs and hit all the right notes:  concept, conflict and characters.

And should you have already met the editor you’re approaching at a conference or a workshop, do mention it. It never hurts to have a connection no matter how small it is.  Failing which, find an angle which makes you and what you have to offer unique.

Be brief, be professional, include all your contact information and other details, like word count and series potential, list any publishing credits you may have, then close with a hook — and wait.

If you haven’t heard back after a reasonable amount of time (opinions vary on what constitutes a “reasonable amount of time” from six weeks to six months), find a way to remind the editor who you are and what your project is.

Case in point: I had written a query letter to a major publisher and received a request to submit a synopsis and the first three chapters of my novel. Which I did. I was also keen to establish a relationship and keep the process moving so I followed up with an email about six weeks later.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

“While I realize it’s a bit soon for a response to the first three chapters of Remember This, I thought I should let you know (were you to request the complete manuscript) that I’ll be in the U.K. until early April, visiting family and walking in the footsteps of my latest main character, thirty-year-old silver expert Gillian Maxwell.”

I went on to “pitch” my new story in the second and third paragraphs with a reference back to the book currently under review. I didn’t sell that original submission, but this second letter prompted another reply and another request.

And as soon as I finish that manuscript, I’ll be on to the next.

Good luck with yours!

How to stall like a pro…

 

This was the morning I was planning to print out a partial first draft of my romantic thriller. I’m 25,000 words in, and feeling good even though I know I need to cut at least 5,000 words before moving on. Some scenes start too late, others ramble, and I have one secondary character who is so strong, she needs to be cut down to size. The good news is…my main characters are riffing off each other well, the emotional tension is building, and my convoluted plotline is, at long last, beginning to make sense.

So then why am I writing this piece?

Because there’s another manuscript out there sitting on an editor’s desk waiting to be read, and it’s driving me crazy. And while I know I should be plowing ahead on my work-in-progress, I’m starting to get antsy. Checking my inbox, messing about on the internet, doing the laundry….

It’s a pattern I’ve never outgrown.

And probably never will, so, here’s the plan. I’m going to take little miss bossy from my WIP and give her a book of her own because, when it comes to romance, three’s a crowd. And if the aforementioned editor, the one who’s going to call any minute now, is interested in one book, she may be interested in three.

Okay, now I’m thinking series. And, unlike mystery and detective stories, in the world of romance, the main characters only get one book. They may play a secondary role in another, but a new hero and heroine will take centre stage, and then they, too, will move on.

The rules apply whether it’s a contemporary romance set in a small town like Cedar Cove (see Debbie Macomber’s award-winning series), or a Regency-era quartet like Sarah Maclean’s “Rule of Scandals.”  Because, when it comes to relationships, the possibilities are endless!

As for me…I think my new plan has potential, the laundry is done, and those 5,000 words I need to lose from my WIP may just find their way into another book…with little miss bossy in the starring role.

And with a little luck, my phone will ring tomorrow!