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  • Yet another winner!

    Tue, 21 Sep 2010 08:33

    Another competition, another winner! Many thousands of entries to win a great iPod touch. The winner has been decided entirely randomly before a panel of independent Book Depository adjudicators. Drum roll please........

    Karen Gnioto! Well done! A shiny iPod with 20 books is on its way!
  • R.J. Ellory

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    R.J. Ellory has been called "one of crime fiction's new stars" by the Sunday Telegraph. He started writing more than ten years ago and hasn't stopped since. Twice shortlisted for a CWA Dagger, Ellory divides his time between writing and voluntary programmes in the areas of drug rehabilitation and youth literacy.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for A Quiet Belief in Angels?

    R.J. Ellory: Perhaps, for me as an author, A Quiet Belief In Angels answers that perennial question: Are all novels somewhat autobiographical? In this case yes, but perhaps not altogether intentionally. I wrote the novel for a simple reason: To once again put an ordinary individual in an extraordinary situation, and at the same time highlight the sheer indomitability of the human spirit. It has always amazed me the degree to which a human being can rebound from loss or tragedy. Sometimes I think of the terrible things that people have had to endure, and I am amazed that they can pull themselves back from the brink of personal disaster, and keep on going. The central character of A Quiet Belief loses everything, and yet survives. I wanted to tell his story - a story about childhood, about the way children deal with things that they should never have to deal with, how their means and methods of coping are so very different from adults. I also wanted to remind myself of the sheer magic of the written word, and how such classics as To Kill A Mockingbird enchanted me as a child, and somehow helped me deal with whatever happened personally.

    The basic idea actually came from a number of different sources. I wanted to set something in the Deep South, I wanted to take a boy who had grown up in a very small, rural, religious-minded community, and then send him to New York in the early 1950s. I kind of wanted to reverse what happened to Truman Capote, in that Capote left New York as an adult to go to Holcomb, Kansas, and there investigate and write about a terrible crime that tore a community apart. In A Quiet Belief In Angels, it was essentially a matter of taking a child from a small community like that, impacted and impinged upon by a terrible crime, and send him away to the big city. It was all about the themes of humanity, the loss of innocence, the way in which people deal with the awful things that can happen in life.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    RJE: First draft was completed in about ten weeks. I started it back in the autumn 2006 and then as we approached Christmas I worked on some editorial changes so it would be ready for publication in August of 2007.

    MT: What does it mean to you to be on the Richard & Judy list?

    RJE: It has been unimaginable. Truly! To put it in perspective, the paperback print run for my last novel (City of Lies) was something in the region of 7500 copies. Yesterday I received a call to say that another print run of A Quiet Belief had been authorised, which now brings the total number of copies in circulation to 193,000.

    To give you some kind of an idea of what this really means, I came across some statistics the other day which really highlighted how tough it can be to break into this fiction writing business (wasn’t it Hemingway who said that in comparison to writing fiction, horse racing and playing poker were sensible business ventures?)

    1. Of the 200,000 books published worldwide each year only 2% become bestsellers.
    2. 84% of the bestsellers are published by the 5 largest New York publishers.
    3. 2 out of 10 books published make a profit for the publisher.
    4. In 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies, which means that 1,150,000 books made an average of £10,000 for the publisher before any production, marketing, advertising and distribution costs were deducted. This translates to approximately £900 for the author.
    5. Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
    6. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. In the UK it is significantly less.
    7. Only 10 books a year sell more than a million copies.
    8. Fewer than 500 books sell more than 100,000.
    9. The magic number for a book to be considered successful is 10,000, which makes an average of £100,000 for the publisher before all production costs are deducted, and approximately £9,000 for the author.
    10. The average income of a published author is in the region of £7,000 per year.
    11. In excess of 90% of published authors do not make enough money to live on with this as their sole income.  

    That gave me a real understanding of how much competition we’re all up against to say the least!

    For me it was always about the writing. In the summer of last year I secured another publishing contract, but it was not without a couple of weeks of nervousness about whether or not I was selling sufficient books to actually warrant being granted another contract. The worst thing for me would have been to have known what it was like to be writing for publication, and then because of low sales be in a situation where I then could not get published. Luckily my publishing company are very definitely of the viewpoint that they believe in and support what I am doing, and then later on, when we got the Richard & Judy selection, it kind of vindicated and justified all the tremendous support and encouragement they have given me over the last five years. The Richard & Judy selection has at least given me confidence in the fact that I can see a career ahead of me. So, in simple terms, being selected has made it possible for me to continue doing what I love.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing your novel?

    RJE: The research. Making sure that the details were precise and correct. The book begins in a very small rural farming community in Georgia in the late 1930s and continues on through New York in the 1950s. It deals with differing areas of culture and history, with how people dressed, how they spoke, their personal situations, and the key for me was to make sure that they really came across as a genuine representation of how things were at that time and in those places. It took a considerable amount of work, but I feel confident that I was true to the craft and got it right.

    MT: How much research into rural Georgia in the 30s, 40s and 50s did you have to do?

    RJE: As I mentioned before, it was quite a task. Finding out details of peoples’ lives and circumstances in such times and places cannot just be ‘googled’! I read books, obtained accurate maps of the time period, worked out how different historical events would have influenced the location, for example there were certain freezes on agricultural pricing and limitations on what people could obtain as the USA came into the Second World War. This impinged on farming communities very directly, but would not necessarily have been noticed in a city. You can’t make mistakes with something like that, and despite the fact that the majority of readers might not necessarily know such details, it doesn’t change the fact that you know, and I never want to feel like I’ve cheated someone on some information for the sake of half an hour’s extra research.

    MT: What draws you to crime-writing Roger?

    RJE: The simple fact of putting an ordinary individual into an extraordinary situation. The vast majority of us never have to deal with bank robberies and murders and suchlike. For me it has always been the challenge of representing the nature of people, how people deal with difficult and trying situations, how they cope with the tougher aspects of being human. A wonderful lady at the Bookseller Magazine called Sarah Broadhurst once said that I didn’t write crime fiction as such, I wrote ‘human dramas, but always in some way focused around a crime’, and I think that’s possibly the best description that was ever given of what I am trying to do.

    MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your novel? Have you learned anything from them?

    RJE: I don’t think you can help but read the critics! I have been fantastically blessed with some wonderful reviews from the Telegraph, the Guardian, on fiction websites and numerous magazines. Every once in a while you might get a hostile or critical reader review on Amazon, but they are very much in the minority. On the whole I have been very well-received it seems, and I have no complaints whatsoever. What I heave learned is that there is always something to learn, and a few reviews recently have been real enough about the way in which I write to make me step back and look at how I can make some aspects of it a little more accessible.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    RJE: For years I wrote longhand, almost three million words, but now I use a computer. Sometimes when I'm away from home I'll write longhand, and then transcribe when I return. I tend to write a whole book, furiously ploughing through it, and then I go back through from start to finish and handle all the snags, anomalies, mistakes, cut back on the over-writing as best I can. It’s kind of organic in a way, like it’s something that takes on certain character aspects of its own. It’s like living with a bunch of people for a few weeks, and you watch them grow, watch them take control of certain elements of the story, and then when you’re done it’s like losing something. Capote once said that finishing a story was like taking a child out into the yard and shooting them. Perhaps a little melodramatic, but I know what he means! When a book is finished it kind of leaves a hole in you, and then you have to start another one right away!

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    RJE: I read as much as I can. I do voluntary work. I work with my son on his schooling. I am a keen photographer, musician and painter. I don’t watch TV as a rule, but I am a sucker for great movies. I value family very highly, and as a result of my sudden heightened prominence some people I have not spoken to in thirty years have come back into my life. One of these people finally told me who my father was, and my brother and I are going to take a look at whether or not we should find him and ask for pocket money! Somewhat strange, after forty two years, to know your father’s name, but it makes life that little bit more interesting, you know?

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    RJE: Wow, what a question! An ‘ideal’ reader. Well, she’d have to be brunette, maybe five foot three or four... No, seriously, I don’t think I have an ideal reader in mind. I think I work on the basis that I want to make what I do as accessible as possible to as many readers as possible. That’s why I think what Amanda Ross and the Richard & Judy Book Club have done is so remarkable. For years I have been banging on about the fact that JK Rowling and Richard and Judy have gotten the country reading again, and I stand by that statement. I never anticipated that I would be the benefactor of that phenomenon. The common theme I have come across in talking to people who have read books as a result of the Richard & Judy endorsement is that they have read things that they otherwise would never have read. That’s magic as far as I’m concerned, because it opens up avenues of enjoyment for people that would have remained closed. So no, I don’t have an ideal reader as such, but a hope that what I do will appeal to as wide a readership as possible. With 193,000 copies of A Quiet Belief in circulation, I’m probably going to find out soon enough!

    MT: What are you working on now?

    RJE: I have completed two more books, one for August 2008, one for August 2009. I have started working on Number 8 for publication in the autumn of 2010. I like to be ahead of things as best I can! The book for this year is a Washington-based thriller that focuses on the long-term effects of the war in Nicaragua, and how certain people who profited greatly from the drugs that came out of Nicaragua have managed to maintain secrecy regarding their criminal actions. It is – in effect – a companion work to A Quiet Vendetta, similar in length, and deals with corruption with the US intelligence community and the lengths people will go to in order to maintain their vested interests. The one for 2009 has the working title ‘The Anniversary Man’, though I doubt very much it will keep that title. It is a fast-paced serial killer novel, and deals with the investigation of a series of brutal murders carried out by an individual who is replicating some of the most famous serial killings in history, and committing those killings on the anniversary of their original occurrence. I am very pleased and excited with them both, but more than that I am constantly working on expanding the different themes in my books, taking on subjects and styles of story that I think are challenging. I think that’s why I would never write a series about the same character. I enjoy diversity of plot, diversity of style and place, and I feel that it’s healthy for me to continually exercise and challenge my own limitations as a writer.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    RJE: The writers I admire include Capote, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather, James Agee, Annie Proulx, Harper Lee, Paul Auster, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Chandler, T.C. Boyle, Don DeLillo...and many more!

    Books that carry a special place in my heart, amongst many others, are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, IT by Stephen King and Sophie's Choice by William Styron.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    RJE: From my own viewpoint, if you have something incomplete then you really, really, really have to turn off the TV, unplug the iPod, the MP3 player, the Walkman, the Playstation, the X-Box or whatever else you use as a procrastination device, and get to work. Finish the thing for God’s sake! Discipline yourself to get up and go to work, or come home from work and go to work! I did that for years and years and years, and despite rejection after rejection after rejection (a total of 400+ rejection letters) I got over twenty novels completed, and it was the best experience I could ever have given myself.

    If you have something completed, then I recommend you do the following:

    Taking into account the fact that you have a script you feel is as good as it can be in its current form (and don't forget that anyone - editor or otherwise - is going to have some suggestions as to how it could be improved; this is completely standard, no question about it, because you are reading it from a very specific and individual viewpoint (as the author) whereas someone else is going to be reading it with a fresh eye)..then what do you do with your script?

    My recommendation is that you find an agent.

    There are a great deal of opinions about agents, but all of them come down to whether you should have one or whether you shouldn't. I think you should, for what it's worth. The standard industry percentage for an agent is 10% of your earnings, but this is paid on earnings, not on money you haven't made yet! The agent takes a percentage of what he has helped you make. He doesn't charge you for services before the fact. You are paying an agent for his experience, guidance, judgement, contacts, ability to get you a better deal...

    For an example, I was paid an amount of money as an advance for my first novel. I did not have an agent. For my second contract (by which time I did have an agent) I received nine times as much! So how do you get an agent? You go out and buy a copy of the 'Writers & Artists Yearbook'. It's published each year, and there's a section in there that gives details of all literary agents in the UK, a little about them, some of the authors they represent, the genre of work they like etc. You make a list of all the agents that you think are appropriate for your material. You write a personal letter to each of them. It should be brief, give a very succinct and clear idea of the manuscript you are proposing to have them read, and the suggestion that you send them some sample chapters and a synopsis. Keep a record of the agents you write to, the date you wrote. Make sure your letter is word-perfect, correct spelling, exemplary punctuation etc. etc. This is a first impression. When you receive replies asking for material, then send it. Print your script on A4, double space, at least one-inch margins on each side, top and bottom. Number the pages clearly. Send a polite cover letter thanking the agent for his time, and address it back to that person by name. Keep a record of what you've sent out and who it went to. Wait three weeks from your first batch of letters out. Make a list of all the agents that didn't reply, and write them again - succinctly, politely, reminding them that you wrote three weeks before and you would very much like them to look at some material. Wait for replies, and then send out any additional material requested. Wait another three weeks. Make a list of all the agents who still haven't replied, and write them again - succinctly, politely, and tell them you are still interested in forwarding some material.

    Persist. Send out material promptly and professionally to everyone who asks for some. Don't send them more or less than they ask for. Address it to the person who wrote to you, not the company or a department. Make sure it arrives on the desk of the person who asked for it. Wait for replies. Don't hassle them. These guys are busy, believe me. Treat an agent as you would wish to be treated yourself. You might get letters asking to send the complete manuscript. Do so. Be prompt. Be courteous. You should get word back from someone who is interested in representing you. You may be asked to go and see them in person. They may recommend some changes and alterations to your script. Make the changes, if you agree that this could improve the work. I don't know any author (and I've met a good few) who hasn't had to stop and look at his own work and then realized that they could make improvements. Remember that if an agent is asking you to make some editorial changes he or she is doing it from the viewpoint that they believe with these changes they could approach a publisher with your work.

    So what then? Well, once your agent has a script that he feels he can 'sell' he will forward it to the editor at the company that he feels will understand what you are trying to do. An agent - over years - has built a network of contacts and acquaintances in the publishing industry. He will know that a sci-fi should go to so-and-so, whereas a romance should go to someone else. This takes the 'luck' option out of it. An agent works for you. He uses what he knows, more importantly who he knows, to get your script on the desk of someone that will look at it because it came from your agent, and for no other reason. That's what an agent does. That's why I think they are necessary.

    I spent seven years writing and sending out material directly to publishers. It was a great experience, and probably necessary, but if given the time again I would get myself an agent. I don't know necessarily that I would have wound up in print any faster, but I kinda think I would have done. Hell, I know I would have done! Now my agent does all the things I don't know how to do, or don't have time to! He chases money, he finds foreign publishers, he gets me interviews, radio appearances, signings, library tours, Literary Festival invites. He reads my work and tells me how to make it better before it goes to my editor. He rings people up and makes them do the things they promised to do. He's also become a very good friend over the last three years, and when he moved company I went with him...because I know that he's working for my interests, that he really gets what I want to do career-wise, and because he's just a damned fine bloke! So that's my advice on this perennial question: How do I get published?

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    RKE: Have I said enough? You know ... once you get me going, I don’t shut up. I want to say thank you for your interest. I want to say to all those who supported and encouraged me that it would have been an awful lot harder without you, and I really hope that you feel as proud as I do of what we have accomplished together. And I want to say that I have a great many ideas for a great many books, and as a result of what had recently occurred I now feel secure in the knowledge that I will be able to continue my work for many years to come. And thank you for the interview – it was fun, as always!

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