Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Alan Jones
Tell us about yourself.
First of all Barbara, I'm honoured to be asked to do this, so thanks very much.
I'm in my mid-fifties and I'm married with four grown-up kids. I write books, make furniture, sail a 40-year-old boat, cook and read, but the only problem with all of that is that I still need to work. My job is in the animal health industry and, because I write very gritty crime stories with strong language, violence, sex and Glasgow slang, I agreed to keep my writing and real life identities separate, so I use Alan Jones as a pen-name. No-one in my home town, other than family and few friends, know that I write. The town is one of many on the Ayrshire coast, and it allows me to keep my boat nearby. I gave up playing football last year due to a goosed ankle, (and old age if I'm honest) which has left a big hole in my life.
I started to write about 15 years ago. I've always been an avid reader of a wide range of genres, and one day, after finishing a number of books (from pretty big authors) which left me distinctly underwhelmed, I made a disgruntled comment that I could write better myself. Over the next few days it struck me that I should put up or shut up, and have a go at trying to put something down on paper. I'd always been good at short stories in school, but I hadn't written since then. To cut a long story short, it took me 10 years to come up with a plot and write my first book, 'The Cabinetmaker'.
When I was unsuccessful in finding an agent or publisher who was interested, I nearly gave up, but within a few weeks I had two 'nibbles'. One publisher thought my book had merit and, although it wasn't for them, they suggested a raft of edits that would improve it. I cut 20,000 words, and sent it off to a few more agents and publishers. Only one asked to read the complete manuscript, and he contacted me after he'd read it and told me he'd nearly taken it on, but for various reasons it wasn't just quite right for him. He suggested that it would be worth my while self-publishing it on the Kindle store, so I did.
The next two books, 'Blue Wicked' and 'Bloq', took me between 12 and 18 months each, and with each one the feedback and sales figures have improved. I've also had a steep learning curve with book promotion, and publishing the paperbacks. So many readers have been fantastic in recommending my books and leaving reviews, and I don't know where I would be without the enthusiastic help of book bloggers.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
I generally use online lists of forenames and surnames to find a name that I think suits the character. It also means that I can be geographical when I choose them - Scottish names in my first two books and a variety of nationalities names in my latest book, Bloq, including some brilliant sounding Albanian names.
I quite often use nicknames that I've heard while playing football, or when I was a kid. My gran lived in the notorious Red Road high flats in Glasgow, and we spent a lot of time there as children. Even at that age, I was fascinated by the people who lived it the scheme, the language they used, and some of that comes through in my books.
How do you go about plotting your book?
I generally have a rough plot in my head, and I'll jot down ideas for characters, action and dialogue any time they come in to my head. Although it doesn't fit in with the 'romantic' image of writing, at some point, fairly early in the writing process, I plot all the key events on a time line on a spreadsheet. I've set it up so that if I put in a day number 0 for the start of the narrative, I can add events before and after this and it will automatically work out the date and the day of the week for me, which is very useful; for instance, if I want the main characters to murder someone on a Friday, six months after the first entry, I can put in +180 and adjust it back or forward to make sure it happens on a Friday. As I write the book, and fill in all the detailed events, it helps me keep the timeline accurate, and if I have to change a date, it automatically moves all subsequent events for me.
By the end, everything that happens in the book is on the spreadsheet - It's a good way of checking that there are no lapses in time that would require time travel to make sense! It also stores characters' births, deaths, marriages and other major events in their lives so that I always know their age, how long they’ve been dead etc.
Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?
For the first two books, I wrote about an area that I knew very well, and the subjects I chose to write about were very familiar to me. Both books were based in Glasgow, and although I had to use Google earth and a little bit of petrol to find all the locations for the second book, which was based in the Paisley and Renfrew areas, it was all fairly straightforward.
The first book, The Cabinetmaker, contained a lot of football and furniture making, so I didn't have to do much in the line of research for them and, without giving too many spoilers away, the connections I had through my work made it easy to research Blue Wicked.
Bloq was a little more difficult, as I didn't know London as well as Glasgow, and I thought I would have to visit the capital a few times to find locations. In the end, Google Earth and maps, along with the amazing Street View provided me with everything I needed, even down to the interiors of pubs and restaurants! I do enjoy researching, but it's difficult not to get side-tracked when I spot something interesting.
Because of the lack of on-the-ground knowledge of London, I had two proof readers from the city, who checked Bloq for accuracy (it turned out to be not too far out), but they also suggested a few tweaks to make the book more authentic.
I'm currently researching my fourth book, which is a departure for me - It's not a crime novel and parts of it take place abroad and go back much further in time than either of my other books, so the research has had to be much more thorough and wide ranging. I'm
trying to avoid starting to write until I have the research nailed, as I don't want to find I'm heading down a blind alley and have to rewrite chapters later.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I'm not sure I would describe myself as ever having a first 'break'. It has been more of a gradual process, with a few significant steps along the way. The first was when I discovered that book bloggers existed, and that a few of them were willing to read my books and shout about them. After the first two books had been released for a while, I decided to publish paperback versions, and to launch the first one, we put on a repeat of the street cabinetmaking stunt we'd done when The Cabinetmaker ebook was first published, but this time we did it at the Bloody Scotland crime festival in Stirling. Although we weren't on the programme, the organisers couldn't have been nicer or more helpful, and we made furniture on the street outside one of the main venues, spoke to a lot of crime fiction fans, sold some books and gave away the finished small items of furniture on a competition on Twitter and Facebook. Here's the video: (Bloody Scotland)
Not long after that, I did my first Blog tour to launch the Blue Wicked paperback, and the two events close together seemed to raise my profile as an author. By the time I published Bloq, I had a blog tour in place for the launch, and through a number of fantastic Facebook book clubs, I was able to find a group of readers to read advanced copies and review them for me, making Bloq my first book to have a planned launch. The result has been 70 reviews on Amazon in a few months, over 50 of them with a 5 star rating.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
One reviewer, who also writes, gave my first book a 3-star rating, but suggested that the book would have been rated much higher if I had it edited by a professional. I contacted him, and he put me in touch with Julie Lewthwaite, who edited a sample to show me what she could do.
By that time, I had almost finished my second book, Blue Wicked, and I had enough sales from The Cabinetmaker to pay for the new book to be edited. When Blue Wicked sold enough copies to finance it, I then 'returned the favour' and went back and had The Cabinetmaker edited.
Julie has now edited all three of my books and I think this has made a vast difference to how my books have been received by reviewers.
What book do you wish you had written?
'Trainspotting' by Irvine Welsh. Although it takes a bit of effort to get your head around the rich dialect and language he uses, the warts-and-all depiction of the drugs scene in Scotland's capital city, the juxtaposition of humour, violence and pathos make it one of the best books to come out of Scotland, ever. It was written without fear or compromise, and it allowed me to write books primarily that I felt in my heart were right, without worrying too much about upsetting readers!
If you could be a character in any book, including one of your own, who would you be?
Probably Patrick Hare, the furniture maestro from The Cabinetmaker. As well as his single-minded determination to get justice for his son, I would love to be able to turn out the incredible quality of furniture that his small workshop produced. Some of my pieces are very nice - check them out on my website if you'd like a look, but if you compare them to a professional cabinetmaker's work, they are in a different league. Stuart Clachan is a friend of mine, and he works to tolerances I could only dream of.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
The way I write is to try to immerse myself within every story; to think, speak and act as the characters would, so it makes it easier when I write about things I'm very familiar with. In the first book, all the elements are lifted straight from my own life; the central themes of fine furniture making and football have been my passions for most of my life, and they were the glue in the main characters' relationships with each other.
My knowledge of the animal health industry and the large number of veterinary contacts I have made it easy to write Blue Wicked; I even managed to find a place for my love of sailing in the book, with the flow of the tide having a bearing on the final journey down the river Clyde of Jamesie Prentice, one of the serial killer's victims.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing is when readers tell me that they've been moved by a book I've written. Some of the readers who reviewed Bloq admitted to shedding a few tears along the way which was nice to hear, as it means I had succeeded in putting across the depth of emotions and turmoil the characters went through in the book.
The worst bit about being an author is watching the sales figures on a quiet day!
What’s the secret of your success?
It depends how you define success. It's definitely not financial - I'll need the day job for the foreseeable future, but if success is getting great feedback from readers who've really enjoyed my book, I'll take that.
I think, first and foremost, that because I love reading, I write books that I would like to read myself. I've always loved books where I can identify closely with the characters - ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I also really enjoy reading some of the detail about their lives and backgrounds, and I find learning about some aspect of their life in depth acts as a hook - quite often this is their job, and I don't mind if the writer delves a little deeper, as it often fleshes out the character's reasons for being as they are.
So when I write, for better or for worse, I try and incorporate as much of the characters' backgrounds as I can without losing the flow of the book. Whether I've succeeded or not, I'll leave it up to the readers to decide.