Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Because of the current restrictions on large gatherings and like many events across the board, the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival couldn’t take place as it normally would. Still, organisers managed to pull off a successful online event last weekend with a packed schedule running through Thursday evening until late Sunday night, with crime writing giants such as Lee Child, Val McDermid and Iain Rankin topping the bill. The event was free for the most part and attendees could dip in and out whenever they wanted. Not much time for loo breaks, however, if you wanted to watch every panellist session. It went so well (even with a few technical issues) that it is open to speculation as to what impact this format might have on future events. Many attendees commented that a combination of both live and online tickets might be the way forward and enable the festival to reach a wider audience. I’d say this is a potential format all event organisers might adopt, at least until the pandemic abates.
Personally, I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to access this event. I try and make a point of attending at least one big writing event each year if I can. The festival I had planned on attending in person back in March was cancelled amid the global lockdowns and, unfortunately, didn’t make it online. Let’s hope the organisers are able to sort something out for next year.
Despite the gargantuan effort of the BS organisers, an online festival misses one key aspect and reason for going: networking. Yes, there was a chatbox for attendees to talk to one another, and some people did swap twitter handles, but it doesn’t beat meeting people in person. The introverts out there might be thinking that sounds great, but I’m a very sociable person and I love meeting new people, I like to hear about what people are writing and I also like to hear their writing woes. Why? Because it reminds me that all the struggles I have with my own characters, plots and managing my time are the same as what everyone else experiences and it makes me feel less alone, more connected.
Obviously, I made some notes, which I present to you below. They are bitty – six to eight hours of constant watching on the computer in a day is actually harder to focus than one might think, but I hope some of it will be of use to you.
Click here for the full event brochure.
The industry panellists in the crime writing master class: Oli Munson, literary agent; Alex Saunders, Fiction Editor at Pan Macmillan; Vikki Reilly from Publishing Scotland; and Moira Forsyth, editor at Sandstone Press.
Discussion about what they would like or expect to see coming up in the market:
- Some thought maybe domestic noir and psychological thrillers might be drawing to an end because they have been so popular over the last ten years, but others felt there is still an appetite for those genres.
- There was mention of wanting more contemporary novels based within the last twenty years.
- Because of the difficulties in writing novels based in the current circumstances, the agents and publishers expect to see more speculative fiction with made-up/alternative universes/histories where social distancing need not be an issue in order to write the scenes. They also expect to see a huge wave of historical novels to accommodate this.
- Crime is becoming a huge umbrella genre, much as speculative has, and it was noted that horror elements are creeping more and more into crime and mystery novels.
- Psychological thrillers is a saturated market, so it’s hard to break through, but as it shows no sign of waning a strong, original idea and gripping writing should stand a good chance of rising through the ranks.
- The importance of your submission package: cover letters and synopsis will allow the agent/publisher to know a little about the author and if they have more than one book in them. It also gives them an idea of the writer’s expectations of the publishing industry. The synopsis helps them to understand how the writer wants to shape the novel. A synopsis should be 2-3 pages.
- Things authors do wrong: send several books in one submission.
- Most attractive submissions are stand-alone novels with what’s termed as ‘returnable characters’ (they can be revived for later works).
- What’s the USP? What’s unique about this book?
- Be genuine and authentic.
- Sales of series used to work better when there was a strong high street bookshop presence rather than relying on supermarkets.
- The problem with series for the publisher is deciding if they have enough money to see it through to the end simply because they believe in it, if the series is not selling.
- When asked how long a book should be, one answer was: it’s not the length that counts, it’s what you do with it. (which elicited a lot of LOLs in the chatbox.)
- Can self-publishing help an author get a conventional contract? In some ways, yes, because authors get that marketing savvy and how to build an audience. However, it was noted that novels that were taken up by traditional publishers were new stories from the author as stand-alones or previously unpublished from their series, not the ones already self-published. It was also noticed the difference in editing standards between the ones they published themselves and the books the publishing houses worked on. (Anyone out there planning to self-publish, never underestimate the worth of a good editor!)
- Top tips: Do your research of agents and publishers; support your local bookshop; get support through writing groups, etc. and test out your ideas before sending them to professionals; don’t send the first draft; make sure the first fifty pages is full of drama and the book has a good ending!!
There was a lot of talk across the weekend about both Covid and BLM and the effects these issues were having on writing contemporary crime fiction of all types. One author disclosed that it is currently impossible to pitch a cop show to Hollywood right now in light of the BLM movement because the perception of the police has radically changed. Many authors picked up on this reversal of roles – where once they were writing from the perspective of the good guys, the BLM issue has highlighted the line slipping between good and bad.
The difficulties of writing crime fiction under the current circumstances were recognised within the context that writing crime fiction is incumbent on reflecting modern society (well, not always, in fact.) But, overall, there were mixed opinions on how much the virus, in particular, should feature in contemporary novels. Some felt it was unavoidable not to integrate it while others felt it could be avoided by including references to it happening in the past but not featuring as an intrinsic part of the plot.
Many authors spoke about their writing processes and approaches. Every single one was enthralling – some authors spent 3-6 months bashing out the first draft and fixing issues in edits, while others preferred a more measured, organised approach by pre-plotting and having their research well-organised. Some write like it’s a job, Mon-Fri while others might binge write – write for a few weeks or months and then not write anything for ages. Overall, everyone was absolutely agreed that writers sit down and write – not talk about writing!! – and that most issues and the majority of the quality get dealt with in later drafts.
One comment from Shawn Cosby: You can write anything you like as long as the story earns it. My interpretation of that is, as long as you make it authentic.
A couple of notable comments during the John Connolly and Mark Billingham session:
- It takes 2-3 books to get away from writing people like yourself.
- An author has certain obligations to the reader when creating a story.
Lee Child and Val McDermid
Spoke quite a bit about getting older and retirement. Lee recently turned 65 and receives a pension from Granada TV, which he finds both amusing and a little bizarre. He mentioned that throughout his novelist career, he’s always been aware of the new talent coming up from the rear and it always boosted him into finishing his books, but in his last project he felt he was possibly running out of gas. He’s always wanted to quit writing on a high note, rather than keep plugging away and possibly be accused of losing his talent. In light of this, his most recent book has been written in collaboration with his younger brother. He says the book has benefitted from the age difference (fifteen years) and gives it some extra energy while bringing Reacher more in line with modern society.
He also discussed the forthcoming Reacher TV series. Apparently, the negative backlash from fans over the Tom Cruise casting was unending. Lee acknowledged that although Cruise is an accomplished actor and a great guy, he wasn’t the right physical stature for the Reacher part. Now that they are making a TV series of the Reacher character, Lee will be more involved in the project (and who gets cast, I think).
However, for the moment they have had to abandon filming because of Covid. It has been left to run rampant in the state of Georgia, the location for the first series, and so they had no choice but to postpone it until next year.
Val also has a TV series being made around her Karen Pirie character which is set to start filming in January. In the meantime, she has started a story set in 1979 because she can’t write a story that integrates Covid.
There were other sessions that I haven’t included because they were more in line with research for crime stories rather than industry or writing advice. Prof. Sue Black talked about her forensic work and shared some of her extensive knowledge of bones. If this is a subject that interests you, she has written a book called Written in Bone. Another notable author for the purpose of research is Catherin Ramsland who worked with serial killer Dennis Rader on his autobiography. If criminal psychology is an area you need to brush up on in your knowledge base, her latest book is called How to Catch a Killer.
Lastly, one thing that filtered through from many of the published authors at the event: you have times when you feel what you write is no good, or feel overwhelmed, or feel you have no authority on the subject you write, but you push through it. It’s an encouraging message and one that, in my opinion, can never tire. We must remind each other from time-to-time that it’s part of the process but it shouldn’t stand in our way in the pursuit of success.
And I think that is a good note to leave this post on.
EDIT: I just received an email from the organisers informing everyone that the event will be available to watch on YouTube until 30th October.