My First Book (blog 1)

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In 1996 I began to write a book. I wanted to write a murder mystery about a serial killer where the scene of the crimes kept shifting. I decided to set it during the First Crusade, which started in 1096 – exactly 900 years earlier.

I began by rereading Steven Runciman’s wonderful book: A History of the Crusades – Volume 1. Then I outlined my plot, pasting the action onto the geographical progress of the crusade. A lot of research about the period followed. What did people wear, eat, and so on? Who would have been responsible for investigating the killings? What system of justice did they have?

I spent a lot of time trying to decide what sort of language to use. My main character is the son of a blacksmith who lived in Brittany. Since I was writing in English there was a mismatch to start with right there. I decided to write the text in modern English while avoiding modern idioms and slang.

The dialogue needed to be accessible to the reader. This meant it needed to be reasonably modern, but avoiding modern idiom, words etc. I read a lot of Ellis Peter’s books to see how she handled language.

I wrote the book. That took about a year. Then I spent another year editing, rewriting, weeding out anachronisms. The metric system, for example, was introduced after the French Revolution – who knew?

The book was called THE SIGN OF THE CROSS.

I sent out queries to about 20 agents in London, and got about 14 rejections. The remaining 6 never responded.

At that stage, I put the book on a shelf in a box file, put it out of my mind, and went back to writing the occasional short story.

In 2007, I spotted an advertisement on a writers’ web site for a literary agency in New York. I sent a sample of the book off and forgot about it. Within a week, the agency responded that they wanted to represent my novel. They said it had potential.

I was delighted by this news. As it happened, I was in hospital at the time, undergoing a series of tests. I didn’t have access to my computer, so I had to communicate with my new agent via my wife. She received the contract, printed it and took it to the hospital.

I signed up, and began to work on my second book.

As soon as I had signed the contract, I was contacted by my agent (Georgina) who recommended that I send my book to an editor in a sister company. For $1,200 this editor would help me to prepare the manuscript for the market.

This, I agreed to. I sent off the money and the manuscript, and, within a few weeks, I received a line edit. There were some anachronisms still in there. I remember that the word “pantaloons” was not appropriate. We settled on “breeches”.

Shortly after that I discovered that this “agency” was no more than a well-known scam, whose purpose was to extract fees for editing services from unsuspecting and naïve people like me. I cancelled the contract.

The one good thing that came from this experience was that it got me writing again. Maybe I might have got there without spending that money. Maybe, but I doubt it. As a writer, I was in a horrible black hole of self-doubt. I’m not sure if I would ever have found my way out of there any other way.

Tune in next week to find out what happened next.

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