Mick Finlay: Diary of a Debut Author
The review copies of my first novel Arrowood arrived three days ago. I had a couple of glasses of wine and opened one but couldn’t bring myself to read the words. It’s getting serious now. You put a lot of yourself on the line when you publish a novel.
I signed my book deal in April 2016, and it’ll be published in March 2017. Someone told me the time would race by, and publication day would come before I knew it. I can see how it would be that way for my publishers (the great new Harper Collins imprint HQ) and their marketing team, as they have a constant cycle of other books being commissioned and published, but I only have one, and I’m afraid to say it’s too easy to obsess over every step. My most recent weakness is looking on the internet to see which book-selling website it’s appeared on. You can’t buy it, of course, but it’s there, all over the world, in languages I don’t recognize.
Other writers told me about this period between signing your first book deal and it being published. One told me I should try to enjoy it, this golden time between being able to call yourself a writer and your book being out there in the market. You’ve been accepted, your agent and publishers love your book, and you can sit in that cocoon and enjoy it before the people that matter, the readers, can tell you any different. Another told me how difficult it is, the waiting and wondering what will happen when it finally comes out. That’s what I do a lot at the moment. Will my friends like it? Will it get reviewed in newspapers and blogs? Will it get on the tables in Waterstones? How many stars will it get on Goodreads? Will anyone buy it?
At least there are distractions. The to and fro over cover designs, negotiations over TV rights, joining the Crime Writers’ Association, news of publishers in other countries signing it, and the small issue of writing a sequel that has to be finished in January. I’ve tried to arrange my life better so that I can be a writer. There’s a new shed in the garden to work in. I’ve negotiated going part-time in my job (I’m an academic in a Psychology department). My publishers have set a date later this month to train me in social media and to plan a PR strategy. I’ve even had my dog’s ears emptied of wax so he doesn’t yelp when I stroke him. And life goes on.
I work in my job three days a week now, which leaves two full weekdays and parts of Saturday and Sunday to write my sequel. Before getting the book deal, I’d write for an hour before leaving for work, for an hour in the evening, two or three hours here and there at the weekends. Even if I only had half an hour, I’d use that. Writing a novel takes a blind discipline and a bit of selfishness. I always took my laptop on holiday too, and would snatch an hour or two a day, before my family woke up or when they were lazing in the afternoon.
Arrowood is set in London in 1895, and features a private detective who lives south of the river at the same time as Sherlock Holmes is enjoying fame to the north. But Arrowood works the poorer parts of town and resents the success and the well-paid cases of the great detective. Writing this type of fiction requires a huge amount of research, and I’ve spent the last few years collecting sources on Victorian life. For the first Arrowood book, I read about the Fenian bombing campaigns, early theories of psychology, crime and policing in Victorian London, the lives of the poor, and, of course, plenty of Sherlock Holmes.
It’s been great, but as I write I’m always having to check facts. What would a clerk wear on a cold day? What food could you buy in a coffee shop? What was the layout of the racetrack at Alexandra Palace? This week I’ve been puzzling over maps: the streets of South London are important for my story. I previously relied on a few different on-line sources, including Booth’s poverty maps and the OS maps (1892-1905) available on the National Library of Scotland’s website. On these maps you can find Coin Street, near Waterloo, where Arrowood lives in rooms behind a pudding shop. A week or so ago I bought a beautiful A to Z of Victorian London from the London Museum, which contains Bacon’s 1888 street maps, only to find it doesn’t have Coin Street! I don’t know if it was built in the intervening period or if either the OS or Bacon’s maps are wrong. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I have to keep reminding myself I’m writing fiction. It’s the characters and story that count, and very few people will know if Coin Street really existed in 1895. Anyway, it’s in my book now, and the book’s on my shelf, and soon it will be on the shelves of bookshops. I just hope people will like reading it as much as I’ve liked writing it.
Mick Finlay (@mickfinlay2)
Arrowood will be published by HQ (Harper Collins) on 23 March, 2017.