Stevyn Colgan knows stuff about things. He just does. And, as it’s publication day for his new novel, A MURDER TO DIE FOR, published by Unbound Books, I asked him some things about stuff.
How did you get started?
I wrote my first novel in 1984 on a typewriter I’d bought in 1979 with my very first full-time wage packet. It wasn’t a great novel (I read it through recently,) but it was an achievement, and proved to me that I could write a sustained piece of work. So then I wrote another. And another. And I kept writing. And, around the turn of the Millennium, I realised that I’d written 13 novels (and, thankfully, computers had come along to make it easier.) But I’d never submitted them to publishers because I didn’t think they were good enough. I was still learning the craft as far as I was concerned; the pleasure was in the writing itself, and in telling stories.
I didn’t have an agent or any contacts in the business (I was still a cop) so I decided to send a few off as blind submissions and, while there were some encouraging bites, there was nothing concrete. Rejection is always a downer – especially when it’s an obviously standard rejection letter – but I didn’t let it get to me. I got on with life and wrote two more novels. But then, in 2007, a mate said to me, ‘why don’t you try writing non-fiction?’ So, I wrote a book about the interconnectedness of things and suddenly I landed an agent, a fat advance, and a deal with Pan Macmillan. And I piqued the interest of the people behind the TV show QI. And so, for the next six or seven years I went down that route; I wrote a trivia book, and books on problem solving, the future of policing, and the campaign to save Bletchley Park.
So, you’re Quite Intelligent, then?
Well, I contributed to the QI annuals, wrote for the radio series ‘The Museum of Curiosity,’ and eventually became one of QI’s main script-writers. I started to get a little bit of a name for myself. Then, in 2016, I decided to return to my first love. I submitted a novel to my agent, and he said, ‘But you do non-fiction’. ‘Not exclusively any more,’ I said. ‘I’m a wannabe Renaissance Man.’
‘Well, give it a go,’ he told me. So I did.
It’s been a long journey but I’ve finally got there. Novels have always been where my heart is. In fiction, you can play with language in ways that would be difficult with non-fiction. A brilliant metaphor is a thing of beauty – imagine PG Wodehouse or Douglas Adams without them. As much as I love the challenge and the research and the discipline of non-fiction, I’m so much happier writing stories.
How was the conception of A MURDER TO DIE FOR? Did the idea just come to you, or did it evolve over time?
It began with the urge to write a comedy novel. Britain has a great tradition of comic writing, from Jerome K Jerome, Stephen Potter and the glorious P G Wodehouse to George Macdonald Fraser, Stella Gibbons, David Nobbs, Helen Fielding, Michael Frayn and the late, great Tom Sharpe. That’s to name but a few. But we seem to have dropped the ball somehow. These days it’s hard to find new comic novels that are written for a general readership. It can still be found as a sub-section of other genres; there are still plenty of laughs in women’s fiction, for example, and, thanks to people like Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde and Terry Pratchett, there are chuckles aplenty to be had among the wizards and aliens too. But there’s a dearth of comedy novels out there for a general readership and I wanted to bring some smiles back to the faces of people on the daily commute to work.
What was your main source of inspiration?
Inspiration came from many directions. The first element in the mix was my love of classic crime fiction. I do love a good whodunit, and I’ve read almost everything by the likes of Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Sayers, Conan Doyle et al. I also like TV whodunits … but not cop shows. Like many police officers – or ex-police officers – I find them dull. Everything is overly-dramatic, the procedures are all wrong and I can’t suspend my disbelief if the programme makers try to sell it as ‘real-life’ when I know that it isn’t even close.
But classic murder mystery is a different thing altogether. It doesn’t pretend to be real. It’s delightfully silly and set in a world far-removed from reality; a world of poisons, elaborate alibis and ridiculous mechanisms. And beyond Poirot and Marple, there are shows set in the 20th century that have that same glorious silliness to them as well, such as Murder She Wrote, Columbo, Jonathan Creek, and Midsomer Murders. The latter, with its cop show façade, is deliciously bonkers at times; any script that features someone being staked out on their croquet lawn and then being bludgeoned to death by having their wine collection hurled at them by a replica Roman trebuchet has my vote any day.
Did real life experiences play a part?
Yes. The second element was my own knowledge and experience of being a police officer. I’ve been involved in real homicide investigations and they are a far cry from the world of literary and TV detectives. Real crime is visceral –and real crime investigation isn’t even vaguely glamorous. I thought it would be fun to throw the two cultures at each other. All the best comedy (and drama) comes from conflict.
How did it all come together?
The third element came to me when watching a TV show about fan conventions. I’ve been to a few in my time, including the extraordinary Comicon in San Diego, where the fans dress up in costume – cosplayers – and are almost rabidly passionate about their show/ film/ book/ author of choice. I suddenly thought to myself … what better place for a murder to happen than at a crime fiction convention where everyone is dressed as their favourite detective? So then, when a grisly murder is committed, the police find themselves having to investigate a case where the victim, the witnesses and very possibly the perpetrator are all dressed much the same. And, to add the police officers’ annoyance, they find themselves having to compete with the fans who believe that they too can solve the crime using skills honed by a lifetime of reading crime fiction. It was so much fun to write.
How did you end up with Unbound?
I’ve now done four books with Unbound. From the start, their business model struck me as brilliant. The publishing industry had, in recent years, become tremendously risk-averse. Maybe it was the decline of bookshops, or the threat of e-books – I don’t know – but it seemed that, all of a sudden, the only books getting commissioned were TV tie-ins or celebrity-related publications. Certainly, the huge advances being paid out to the stars meant that there was no longer any money for the little guys like me. Unbound’s idea was simple: create a new publishing house with all the advantages you’d expect (editing, guidance, design, distribution,) but get prospective readers to choose which books get published, rather than the accountants. They do this by pledging money up front.
Sounds like a great idea!
This wasn’t a new idea; it’s the same subscription model that paid for Dr Johnson’s dictionary and for most of Charles Dickens’ novels. All Unbound did was bring it into the modern age by using the internet. So, you pitch a book and if they like it, they take it on. If they don’t, they ‘wish you luck placing it elsewhere.’
How does it work?
There’s a discussion about the sort of book you –and they– would like to make. It could be an e-book, a paperback, or a hardback. The project is then costed and a total is set that needs to be achieved. You shoot a promo video with them and then launch the book on its own page on the Unbound site. You can set all kinds of pledge levels, from a few quid for the e-book, right up to things like having dinner with the author, or signed and dedicated copies, or tickets to the launch party. You really can be as inventive as you like.
Then, the crowdfunding begins. Once the total is reached, things switch back to traditional publishing. Unlike other platforms like Kickstarter, where you’re pretty much doing everything yourself, at Unbound you’re assigned a structural editor, copy editor, designer, cover artist, proof reader, marketing person … and then the book goes out to all the usual book outlets as a trade edition. However, those people who pledged money get posh special edition copies and they get their name listed in the back of the book to say thanks for believing in it.
Sounds pretty good …
As I said, it’s a great model. And it’s good for writers too:
(a) you have a direct connection, via the Unbound site, with your readers;
(b) the profit-share on all money made after the 100% production total is 50/50 between Unbound and author. So every book you sell, you get 50% as opposed to the 10-12% you’d traditionally get;
(c) you stand a much greater chance of being published. And the finished articles are beautifully produced books. Unbound has been going for just over five years but has already scored a Man Booker Prize longlist nomination, a Book of the Year award, sold the TV and film rights to several novels, and enjoyed a string of Number One best-sellers. It also has its own literary magazine and a podcast called ‘Backlisted’. I’m pretty sure I hitched my cart to the right horse.
How much of yourself did you put into A MURDER TO DIE FOR?
Quite a lot, as it happens. One of the main characters is a retired detective called Frank Shunter, who is coming to grips with leaving the force. I went through a similar thing when I retired after 30 years as a policeman. I live in Buckinghamshire and, for three decades, I got on a train and commuted for an hour into London, did my eight hours (or 12 hours depending on the shift I was working,) had a beer with colleagues after work and then spent an hour commuting home. I saw more of London and my colleagues than I did my family. So when I finally hung up my helmet and boots, I was a bit lost. I realised that I didn’t really know the area I lived in that well and I had no friends locally – all my mates were in London. So I had to readjust to a very different life. Shunter faces the same situation after moving to the country. Plus, he can’t quite switch off the policing instinct. I’m the same. I’m still doing talks and university lectures on criminal psychology and crime prevention even now.
Shunter’s about my age, too –and he sees the world much as I see it – he’s a bit of a dinosaur, but an unfettered optimist too. When you’ve seen the worst that humans can do to each other, you get to realise that 95% of people are pretty good. The world isn’t anywhere near as bad as the tabloids would have us believe.
That’s bloody lovely, that is! Nice and uplifting … Is this book suitable for little old ladies, then? Coz me Ma wants a gander, like.
There is some swearing, but not a great deal. I’m very much of the old school in that respect. I have no problem with any swear word, to be honest, but I believe that they should be used sparingly to preserve their shock value. Think of the use of the F-word in ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian.’ Two instances? Three? But each time – perfect.
Did you have any actors in mind as you were writing your characters?
Yes, but curiously, it was for their voices more than their physical appearance. There are a lot of middle-aged ladies in the book and, in my head, each had a particular voice. One was Margaret Rutherford and another was Hattie Jacques, for example. I’m a big fan of radio dramas and audio books, and that’s probably why. June Whitfield is just perfect in the BBC Miss Marple radio dramas, Bill Nighy is fantastic as Charles Paris, and no one will ever be a better Lord Peter Wimsey than Ian Carmichael. Some of the police officers in the book were based on real people I worked with – or they were an amalgam of all the worst behaviours of several real people – but the voices I imagined for those characters didn’t belong to the cops they were based on. Blount, for example, I imagine sounding rather like Richard E Grant in ‘Withnail and I’ – pompous, angry and endlessly frustrated by circumstances.
Are you a plotter, or a pantser?
Pantser –very much so. I don’t even aim for a specific word count. It finds its own level. Neil Gaiman got it spot on with his Eight Rules for Writers, I reckon. The first three are (1) Write, (2) Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down, and (3) Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
The sooner you get on with it, the better –build some momentum. I have friends who have been plotting for years and haven’t yet written a word. That’s not being a writer by my definition. That’s being a researcher. Plotting can be more fun than the physical business of writing so I understand the appeal but, for me anyway, too much plotting is a distraction. I want to get a first draft nailed to the page. Your first draft is like buying a chunk of marble, and subsequent drafts involve chipping away at it like a sculptor to get it into the most pleasing shape.
How many re-drafts does it normally take?
I will quite often do 10, maybe 15 re-writes and re-drafts. Each time I go through the story, the characters become more real and more detailed. Relationships blossom and plots thicken. Obviously there is always some planning involved; I don’t start writing until I have some idea of where I’m going. There has to be a finishing post. But how I get there is the fun part and the journey quite often surprises me. I love that.
Describe your writing environment. PC or laptop? Trousers or pantsless?
I’m lucky that I have my own office. I’m also lucky that my kids have grown up and left home, and that the road I live in is very quiet. It’s ideal for writing – although I keep the blinds shut, as watching squirrels and the many red kites we have in this part of South Buckinghamshire can be very distracting. I’m surrounded by bookcases and books, which feels nice, and I write on a desktop PC with a full-sized keyboard and two screens – it’s great to have that extra screen for research pages, notes etc. I write in Microsoft Word. No bells or whistles, just the words.
Two screens? Swanky! Do you write to music?
I can’t work in silence, as it makes my brain look for distractions. So I will sometimes have music on – instrumental only, as lyrics are as distracting as squirrels – or ambient noise. Stephen Fry introduced me to coffitivity.com and it’s been a real help. That murmur of barristas and punters in the background takes the edge off the silence but doesn’t distract. Similarly, the Bodleian Library in Oxford has a live web-feed of the sound from the various rooms there. That’s quite nice as background noise.
Do you stick to a schedule?
I write from 9am to 11am and then break for elevenses. Then from 11.30am to 1pm before stopping for lunch. Then I write from 2pm to 4pm when I have tiffin – more tea and maybe a cheeky biscuit – and then I stop at 6pm. It’s important to me to be disciplined and to treat it as a job. If I don’t, it’s just squirrel-watching all day. Of course I wasn’t always this lucky – I had a full-time 40 hours a week job (plus commuting) and a family. But, if writing really is your passion, you find the time. For example, I’ve never played computer games and I don’t do sports; every spare minute I ever had went into writing – which is how I managed to write 15 novels before I became a full-time writer.
So, what next for the writing MACHINE that is Stevyn Colgan?
2018 looks to be quite an exciting year. There will be signings and lit festivals and appearances here and there to promote A MURDER TO DIE FOR. I’m also making inroads to production companies to sell the book as a TV serial. And then, in July, my most recent non-fiction book is getting a makeover and a release in paperback via Penguin Random House. It was called ‘Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road’ but we’re re-badging it to encourage a wider audience. I’m not sure what the new title will be, but it’ll be based around the idea of always being ‘One Step Ahead’. That might even end up being the title. And I’ll also be launching the campaign to crowdfund the sequel to ‘A Murder To Die For’ with Unbound. It’s called ‘The Diabolical Club’ and it picks up two small plot strings left unanswered in ‘Murder,’ and turns into a whole new murder mystery that involves a skeleton buried standing up, a local dogging club, a secret kept since the first World War, and the mystery of Agnes Crabbe’s (my fictional murder-mystery writer) lost manuscript. And, as always, lots and lots of laughs.
Just this morning someone told me that they’d laughed out loud on the Tube while reading ‘A Murder To Die For’. Job done.
Job done, indeed. Thanks, Stevyn!
The hard-sell promo bit:
You can buy Colgers’ A MURDER TO DIE FOR here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Die-Stevyn-Colgan/dp/1783524383
Some more stuff and things about Stevyn Colgan over on Unbound: https://unbound.com/authors/stevyn-colgan
PLEDGE AWAY to his latest bookiewook here: https://unbound.com/books/the-diabolical-club/