Writer Seeks Readers By Fergus McNeill
Stories can connect people in all kinds of ways. I once drove over a hundred miles to speak at a library event. I had to take the afternoon off work to make sure I wouldn’t be late, and the traffic was a complete nightmare, but I arrived with plenty of time to spare. Being a little bit early, I sat in the car for a while, then made my way to the entrance and went inside. It was just before 7pm – outside normal library hours – and an elderly man at the front desk looked up as I approached and asked if he could help me.
“Hello,” I smiled. “I’m here for the author talk.”
Through a set of glass doors, I could see a large room filled with people – it looked like being a good-sized crowd.
“Author talk?” said the man.
For a moment, I was at a loss. Then, fortunately, I spotted a poster on the wall just behind him, with the words “Meet crime author Fergus McNeill, 7th July”. There was even a little photograph of me on it.
“That one,” I said, pointing at the poster.
The man regarded me thoughtfully, then turned around and studied the poster for a while. When he turned back to me, he was nodding. We understood each other at last.
“That’s for the 7th of July,” he observed.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Today is the 7th of June,” he said, gesturing towards the roomful of people. “We’ve got the WeightWatchers folk in tonight.”
I looked at him for a bit, then looked at the poster. I checked the date on my phone. To his credit, he maintained an entirely straight face throughout.
“Oh,” I said, at last. It was one of those situations that managed to transcend embarrassment. Not knowing what else I could say, I simply nodded quietly, and turned around to begin the hundred-mile journey home. He waited until I reached the doors then, without even a hint of mischief, called out, “See you next month.”
Library talks and other book events are important. Yes, publishers expect their authors to go out and drum up a bit of interest in their books, but it’s more than that. It’s a chance to connect with people… and that’s vital, even though you never know what those people are going to say.
At one library, during the Q&A after my talk, a little old lady in the audience got to her feet and fixed her eyes on me.
“Why must you be so MEAN to that nice Detective Harland?” she demanded. “You’ve given him such a hard time, and I think he deserves a bit of happiness.”
It was startling. I’d never met anyone who cared about my characters as much as I did, and her sentiment really touched me (so much so that I rewrote the final chapter of Cut Out just for her).
Author events are a great way to connect with readers. And then, of course, there’s social media. I’m a hopeless Twitter addict (it’s @fergusmcneill in case you want to say Hello) and I check my timeline compulsively, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. Many of the discussions are, I admit, rather lightweight musings about cakes and cats, but every so often there are people who want to comment on one of the books. Some have questions; some have theories, while others want to share some real-life experience that they’ve been reminded of. And there’s always a rather special quality to those conversations, because I have something in common with each of these readers: we’ve all experienced the same events from the same story.
But what’s so special about that? Why is this sense of connection so important? Well, maybe it’s because writing is such a solitary business – hours and days and weeks, shut away from the real world of family and friends, hauling ideas from our imaginations and fixing them to the page.
No wonder it matters whether people read the stories, and no wonder some writers are keen to discuss what they’ve been struggling with. Because writing isn’t always fun; it can be a real slog sometimes. But that’s why readers matter so much. I’m not doing it for the money; I’d still write, even if there were no hope of getting paid… but I wouldn’t write if nobody read. I want my stories to connect with people.
So on the 7th of July, a month after my first journey, I drove the hundred-plus miles up-country once more. The same man was standing at the front desk, and he glanced up as I came in.
“Back again,” he observed, with magnificent understatement.
Yes, I felt foolish and yes it was embarrassing to walk into the library where all the staff knew about my mistake. But as it turned out, there was an excellent crowd – almost as many as WeightWatchers attracted. And when I sat down at the front of the room, I knew I had a great icebreaker to get the whole room laughing – another little story to connect us all.
Fergus McNeill has been creating computer games since the eighties, when he started writing interactive fiction titles. Over the years he became known for his own content, and his adaptations of other authors’ material, including working with Terry Pratchett to create the first Discworld game. He also wrote and directed voiceover scripts for a number of award-winning titles.
EYE CONTACT, a contemporary crime thriller, was his debut novel, followed by KNIFE EDGE, the second in the Bristol-based Detective Harland series published by Hodder.
Now running an app development studio, Fergus lives in Hampshire. He is 44, married, with a teenage son and a very large cat.