How I Write A Book: The Big Idea

I’m back from my second trip to New York in the space of a month – this one was for Book Expo America; the best place to catch up on my shenanigans is the ‘Book Expo NYC’ highlight on my Instagram account – and while it was the Most Amazing Fun Ever, by the end of it I was itching to get back to my desk. This was partly because being elbows deep in the book world for a week, discovering new reads and making new writer friends and talking about ideas and processes and story, was like getting a concentrated dose of motivation and inspiration. But it was mostly because of the distant drum of growing panic.

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Me, at Book Expo America: a study in nonchalance

Well, not panic exactly. At least, not yet. But The Deadline of Doom approaches. Book 4 Draft 1 is due on the 1st September or 12 weeks from now, give or take. That would be loads of time if all I was doing between then and now was writing and watching Love Island. (Don’t judge me. If you’re a writer, observing human behaviour via reality TV can be a goldmine.) But I’ll be doing that and taking a screenwriting course, teaching a week-long writing workshop at West Cork Literary Festival, hopping over to Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, giving a plotting seminar at a writing retreat in Lake Annecy (!) and, hopefully in there somewhere, sitting on a beach for a week. Plus my new book, Rewind, comes out on September 3rd in the States and September 5th here, so I absolutely cannot be late.

So what I thought I’d do is procrastinate by writing a series of blog posts about this part of the process, idea to completed first draft. Today’s instalment is the first and it’s all about The Big Idea.

Before we begin, a disclaimer. This is just what I do. This is what works for me. There’s only one right way to write a novel and that’s whatever way works for you. So if you disagree with any of this, that’s fine. You don’t have to do it. Take what you think is useful and leave the rest. Also bear in mind: what I’m really talking about here is writing commercial fiction, which tends to be more plot-driven and high-concept than, say, literary fiction. (And if you don’t know me and you’re saying, ‘Who is she, anyway?’ you can catch up with my bio at this link.)

THE BIG IDEA

Before I write a word of my book, I need to feel 100% confident that this is the right one – and I need to be excited about it. I know this because that was not the case with my second novel, The Liar’s Girl, and although that all worked out okay in the end (um, more than okay, hello Edgar Best Novel nomination!), I could’ve done without the 18+ months of feeling like I didn’t have my homework done and then delivering the Worst First Draft In History a year late. Plus all the crying wasted a lot of mascara, and that sh*t isn’t cheap.

And it was the case with Rewind, the book that’s coming in September, which (a) I really enjoyed writing, (b) delivered on time – ahem, basically, but what’s a fortnight between friends, eh? and (c) is getting the best reaction I’ve ever got to a novel so far. It’s also my personal favourite, or at least it will be until I finish this first draft, because I’m even more excited about the idea for Book 4. So I’ve learned the hard way: this is the right way for me.

Not to get out my sweeping-statements brush, but I feel like a very common problem among writers who are struggling to finish their first book – or who have finished it and are struggling to sell it – is that they just dove in and started writing without really thinking about the idea at the centre of it.

Take a moment to think about what your idea has to do, if your goal is to get this book published and into the hands of readers:

  • Sustain you for approx. 100,000 words. Not only does it have to generate all that plot and forward motion, but it has to pull you back to the desk day after day after day for months, maybe years, even on the days when, like, Netflix releases the new season of The Crown
  • Grab the attention of an agent. When my agent took me on, she told me she gets 5,000 submissions a year and, on average, only takes on 3 new writers. And that was at a small, boutique-style agency – the ratio in a typical situation is probably much, much worse
  • Convince an editor that your book is worth publishing, that it’s worth investing money in because it’s going to sell
  • Convince everyone else (sales, marketing, etc.) at the acquisitions meeting that that editor takes it to of the same thing, so they say, ‘Yes!’
  • Be strong enough to be one of the books that the sales agent pitches when they only have one meeting to pitch all the books to booksellers, supermarkets, etc.
  • Be strong enough to be one of the books that the booksellers, buyers, etc. at that meeting think will appeal to their customers, so they order it in
  • Be the book that a customer picks up – potentially in a bookshop stocked with 1000s of titles – and hands over hard-earned cash to pay for because they believe it’s going to be a great read
  • and loads of other stuff but let’s not depress ourselves totally.

Yes, I know: BIG NERVOUS GULP. It seems so daunting and potentially impossible. But it’s not. Not with the right idea. Some books you hear the premise and you just instantly think, I need to read that. For me in recent months that has applied to books like Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary and Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay. (I’ve linked to their Amazon pages so you can read their descriptions.) Think about the last book that made you think I need to read that. Which book was it? And why did you think that?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, while you groan and roll your eyes. Isn’t this  – ugh, yuck – writing to market? Isn’t this selling out? Isn’t this chasing trends? No. What we’re doing here is creating the book we want to read but can’t find on the shelf – forever my starting point – while trying to increase the chances of it getting on a shelf by being mindful of the road ahead and what it’s going to take to get to the end of it. If you just want to retreat to your turret and write your magnum opus sustained by candlelight and charcoal, marketplace be damned, fine. You do you. But I don’t have time to work like that and I don’t enjoy it. Like I said: this is just what I do, what works for me.

Also: it’s not all about the idea. I would hope that’s obvious. You have to write a bloody good book, well. But here’s the heartbreaker: most of the people involved in deciding the fate of your book will probably only read the whole thing after they’ve made their decision, right down to the reader who buys it, because unless they’re a shoplifter or there’s a really comfy chair in the bookshop, they’ll only read it after they get home. You have to convince them it’s a good book before they crack the spine. So the idea is the workhorse. It needs to be able to pull its weight.

Anatomy of a Big Idea

The idea for Rewind had to be bloody good because The Liar’s Girl had made me question my career choice – yes, the not-done-homework feeling was that bad – and because I was out of contract. Rewind was the idea that was going to have to convince two publishers, my UK one and my USA one, that they should sign me up for more books. So, like, no pressure…

*looks to camera*

The idea for Rewind came in two parts. The first was in a hotel room in Villefranche near Nice, France, where I was staying with my friend Andrea. We were scrolling through our phones in companionable silence when she said, ‘Did you see what PostSecret posted today?’ and then she showed me it. PostSecret is best described as a project where people write their deepest, darkest secrets on postcards and then mail them to a man named Frank Warren, anonymously, who puts them online, in books, exhibitions, etc. You can see some of them here. This secret was a picture of a bedroom and the secret was I trade hidden sex cam footage with other AirBnB hosts.

BOOM.

About 1.5 seconds later, I thought to myself, what if you were doing that and you got more than you bargained for? What if you captured a murder? What would you do? What could you do, without revealing your own criminality? 

I was instantly excited about this idea and knew it was The (Next) One. I could feel it. But it wasn’t enough. I needed more. I needed a little pixie dust that would turn the idea from interesting to irresistible, at least in the eyes of the decision makers. I started thinking not about plot, but about structure… What could I do to really make this book exciting, not just for readers but for me too, while I was writing it? It’s a book about something caught on camera… A tape… You watch a tape—

BOOM PART II.

I would structure the book like a videotape. You start “watching” in the middle, then you turn the page to find a ‘rewind’ symbol and you go back, then after that chapter there’s a ‘fast-forward’ symbol, skipping you forward, and at other times you might ‘pause’ or just let it ‘play’. You’re “watching” it all unfold out of order and it’s only when you get to the end that you know everything, you’ve “seen” the whole story and can finally put together the shocking truth. Time stamps orientate the reader and the story is simple enough to follow but complex enough to satisfy.

And so, Rewind was born.

The Jacket Copy

The next thing to do was to write a little mini-synopsis or blurb, essentially the text that would go on the back of the book when/if it was published. I have always done this first because it helps me see how much of a story I have. The answer is always not enough so I tinker with it until I feel like I’ve got the bones of the story. This may take days or weeks and there’s often several iterations. My aim is always ‘good enough for now’, meaning I know at this early stage it can’t be perfect, but I don’t want to half-arse anything. I want to show my agent, editor, etc. that I know what I’m doing with this book and I want to convince them that it’s going to be a good one.

This is what the jacket copy for Rewind looked like at this stage. Bear in mind, it is NOT the copy that will actually appear on the back of the book, although it still (mostly!) applies to the finished story. This was just something I wrote for me and the best ideas always come in the writing of the book, so things change.

YOU’RE THE ONLY WITNESS TO A MURDER. BUT YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN LOOKING.

A man is secretly recording a sleeping woman via a hidden camera when something unexpected happens: on screen, a hooded figure emerges from the shadows to attack the sleeping woman and then he destroys the lens. What has the hooded man done? Why has he done it? And how could he have possibly known that that camera was there?

REWIND

As soon as Natalie arrives in the wintry isolation of Shanamore, she starts wishing she hadn’t come at all. Something isn’t quite right with the young manager, Andrew, and the cottages’ overbearing caretaker, Richard, turns out to be the local creep. And who is the woman she’s seen in Andrew’s cottage but whose presence he denies? She wants to leave, but she can’t. She’s come here to search for something and she hasn’t found it yet…

FASTFORWARD

In Dublin, entertainment reporter Audrey is tasked with covering the disappearance of Natalie O’Connor, the woman behind a popular lifestyle blog. Sensing an opportunity to graduate from stories about D-list celebrity cellulite and Twitter spats, she digs deep – and finds evidence that the perfect life Natalie chronicled online was a lie.

PLAY

Seanie Flynn knows Andrew from way back and only Seanie knows the truth Andrew hides from everyone else. This time around, he won’t let him get away with it. This time around, things are different – because Seanie is Shanamore’s Garda Sergeant.

This is a story about a murder caught on camera. When it begins, you, the reader, have already missed the start. To get the full picture you must go back, you must rewind the tape. Later you’ll skip forward and, at other points, you’ll just let it play. You’ll watch these events out of order but by ‘The End’ you’ll have the whole story. You’ll know what happened here.

Try not to look away…

So that’s it for The Big Idea stage of the process. Join me at an unspecified date in the future when I’ll be procrastinating more writing about the next step (for me), writing a synopsis.

If you want to know more about my process and you can get to Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, for a day in September, come join us The Inspiration Project. Tickets are on sale now!

In other news, I still cannot believe how many blurbs have come in for Rewind. Crime writers are so the loveliest, despite the fact that we kill people for a living. You can read all the early praise – and *whispers* pre-order – here.

(This blog post is 2,366 words. You can see why I struggle to make deadlines, can’t you?!)

Comments are closed because the internet is a toxic waste dump but if you have any questions or comment, tweet me @cathryanhoward or pop your Q into the Contact form and I will try to answer them in the next post in the series. 

 

A Series of Amazing Events

In The White Album, Joan Didion says that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. ‘We live entirely,’ she writes, ‘especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’ In other words: we assign nice, neat storylines to what are really just random events in our lives in order to make sense of them. I do this all the time and fair warning: I’m about to do it three times in this post.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I’m just back from an absolutely amazing trip to the United States. (Also: sorry! There were a LOT of updates.) First, I headed to New York to attend the Edgar Awards, where The Liar’s Girl was up for Best Novel. (Walter Mosley won, but I can’t be sad about that because Walter Mosley won.) In the days before the ceremony itself, I realised a dream by spending a night in The Library Hotel, did a bookshop crawl armed with ARCs of Rewind and tiny bottles of an Irish whiskey called Writers’ Tears, sat on a panel at the Edgars Symposium and finally got to meet the amazing team from Blackstone, my American publishers. Then I headed to San Francisco where I was a guest speaker at an ‘Irish in SF’ breakfast at the Irish Consulate, and from there it was onwards to Berkeley where I had a wonderful few days at the brilliant Bay Area Book Festival, speaking on the ‘Criminally Good Writing’ and ‘Writing Irish’ panels, and doing, um, let’s say a dramatic reading of my ‘The Girl With Girl in Her Title’ piece at their Noir at the Bar event.

Click on any of these images to see bigger versions.

I was away for seventeen days and nearly every one was filled with new experiences, new people and new things to be excited about. It got to the point where I almost wanted to take a day off from it, just so I could sit in a dark, quiet place and think about the amazing things that had happened and appreciate them. I began to fear that I’d forget some of them or that I’d start to feel blasé about, you know, getting invited to speak at a consulate (even if the event started at 7:30am. STARTED), or getting invited to a book festival where Joyce Carol Oates was also on the bill (even though I never saw her), or getting invited to a party that Harlan Coben had also been invited to (and then being too afraid of radiating Annie Wilkes vibes to speak to him). But fear not: my story-loving brain was on hand, taking all these amazing events, joining them up, arranging chronologies, imposing narrative threads…

Three Years To The Day

I now have an accomplice in this assigning-narratives business. Or perhaps enabler is a better word…? I speak, of course, of Facebook Memories.

On the morning of Thursday, 25 April 2019, I woke up in New York City. It was a stunningly beautiful morning and I spent it strolling through Central Park admiring the cherry blossoms. Then two strangers came to my hotel room armed with a hairdryer and a case of potions and worked their magic, and when they were done I shimmied my way into some industrial-strength shapingconstricting undergarments and took the elevator down to the ballroom to attend the Edgar Awards as a nominee. I won’t take up another blog post with how much this meant to me – you can read that by clicking here – but it was a lot. In summary: I honestly thought the Edgars was something I wouldn’t come into contact with during the entire length of my career, let alone on my second book. Sitting in a room filled with writers I’m in awe of, wearing a name-tag with a red Nominee tag, seeing The Liar’s Girl projected on the big screen by the words ‘Best Novel’ alongside just five other books… It was crazy.

But here’s what was even crazier: at some point during the day, Facebook Memories informed me that exactly three years earlier – on 25 April, 2016 – I walked into Dubray Books on Grafton Street, Dublin, and saw Distress Signals on a bookshop shelf for the very first time.

Publishing is a strange business to be in. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait, and when the realities of it hit, there can be some crushing disappointments. But three years from first shelf sighting to the goddamn Edgar Awards?

That was something to celebrate.

And I did. But after shimmying back out of the aforementioned undergarments.

The First Real Writer

The first writer I ever met in real life was Mike McCormack: author of Solar Bones, winner of the Dublin International Literary Award, national literary treasure. He came to my school when I was 16 – that would’ve been 1998 – to talk to my class about writing and stories and books. Things are different for young aspiring-writer now. They can talk to their favourite writers directly on Twitter and there’s endless conferences, etc. But until that moment, I had never encountered an actual writer in the flesh. The girls who wanted to be doctors or lawyers or teachers met their role models in the course of everyday life, but when did you ever meet writers? It had a big effect on me and made me think that, actually, maybe I could do this. Maybe I could be one.

The second time I met Mike was a couple of weeks ago, on the day we were both guest speakers at an event at the Irish Consulate in San Francisco. It was just as interesting to listen him to talk about writing and stories and books all these years later, but this time I was sitting alongside him, talking about my own writing and stories and books as well.

I tried not to think about the 16-year-old with the hair she’d bleached at home, crazy dreams and absolutely no idea how she was going to get to where she wanted to go because I would’ve been… Well, hashtag totes emosh.

But I was delighted for her.

(Of course I told him, and he remembered the visit. Potentially because I’m pretty sure we’re the only school in the nation with bright purple uniforms.)

Coincidence Cab

Getting home commenced on the second last day of my trip, with a flight from San Francisco to JFK. It was supposed to be a boring day and I was looking forward to it for that reason: I wanted the exciting amazing things to stop happening so I could reflect on all the exciting amazing things that had happened and send my head home ahead of me, where Book 4: Draft 1 really needed me back at my desk. But then the festival organisers told me that another writer was getting the same flight back and so we’d be sharing a car to the airport, and that writer turned out to be—

Well, let me back up. I went to university as a mature student; I just graduated last year. In place of a dissertation I wrote a 10,000-word piece of narrative non-fiction, which meant spending my entire final year elbows-deep in the work of A British Author because the piece was about something that had happened to him. A British Author is lauded but not especially well known and so anytime I explained to anyone what I was working on, I had to explain who he was and what had happened to him as well.

And then I meet this other writer and we put our suitcases in the car and chat as heavy rush-hour traffic slows our route into San Francisco and I discover that she’s an editor too, at a New York publishing house, and that one of her authors is A British Author and that one of the books of his she edited was one of the books I wrote about.

I MEAN.

I honestly can’t tell you how I felt in the moment of finding this out. The situation was so utterly improbable. I’m pretty sure no other undergrad has ever written about A British Author, at least not in the way that I did. (The thing that happened was a very recent event.) Then a year after I submit the piece I travel 8,000 miles from my home to attend a book festival and am randomly sent back to the airport with another author who is also an editor who I discover by chance has A British Author as one of her authors. So improbable but also so exciting: someone to talk to about my specialist subject without having to explain anything about it first. I will tell you this: as soon as I could I sent a message to Elaine, my college buddy and the only one who truly knows how much time I spent poring over pages written by A British Author, and that message had lots of exclamation marks in it and was typed in ALL CAPS.

It was supposed to be a boring day. Just travel. Planes, (Air)Trains and automobiles. But instead it was the twist after the end, the one in the final few pages that really makes it a satisfying read.

It was the perfect ending.

***

In other news, we’ve announced our next Inspiration Project presents Refreshers Week event! Yes! More exclamation marks! This September we’re heading to the STUNNING dlr LexIcon Library in Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Find out more/book your place on The Inspiration Project website.

I very nearly fell over when I saw that The Guardian included The Liar’s Girl in its list of 50 Great Thrillers by Women. Thank you so much to Sarah Ward for including it as one her picks. P.S. if you’re in the UK/Ireland, the e-book is currently on sale for mere sofa change. Sofa change, I tell you!

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The other news it that tomorrow, I’m off to NYC again. On Wednesday I’ll be joining Kalisha Buckhanon, Helen Philips, Chris Pavone, Riley Sager and Karin Slaughter on the ‘Thriller Quest’ panel at the Library Journal Day of Dialog. Then on Thursday I’ll be at the Blackstone booth (#1411) at BookExpo for an ARC giveaway/signing of Rewind, and on Sunday I’ll be back there doing the same at BookCon. More info here.

Brace yourself for more Instagram stories.

LOTS more.

How To Get An Edgar Nomination in 72 Easy Steps

Last week I wrote a new blog post for Writing.ie, or rather I updated an old one. I took my How To Get Published in 50 Easy Steps post and added the extra ones needed to get to where I am now, i.e. an Edgar nomination. It’s been a long, long road – that involved F1 Champion Jacques Villeneuve, Disneyworld and several John Mayer albums…

In May 2016, my biggest dream came true: my debut thriller, Distress Signals, was published. I had wanted to get a novel published since I was 8 years old and the journey to that moment had taken much longer and had many more twists than I ever could’ve anticipated. To mark the occasion, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post called How To Get Published in 50 Easy Steps.

Last week I learned that my second novel, The Liar’s Girl, has been nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Their coveted Best Novel award has been awarded since 1954 and previous winners include titans of the genre like Raymond Chandler, Ian Rankin, Minette Walters, Dennis Lehane and Stephen King, who won it in 2015 for Mr Mercedes. I can’t say this is a dream come true, because I didn’t even dream it! To be even tenuously linked to such names is beyond incredible and it’s only in the last few days – helped, probably, by my latest deadline on Book 3, ahem – that I’ve come back down to earth.

And so now, to mark THIS occasion, I’ve updated my list.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST ON WRITING.IE

Introducing… REWIND

Ten years ago this year, I did something slightly dramatic and incredibly reckless: I quit my Proper Job and booked myself into a holiday home by the sea in East Cork. (I totally blame Alex Barclay for this because I read an interview where she said she finished her first novel in holiday homes around Ireland in the wintertime.) This holiday home was actually not very close to the sea, it was more like in the middle of nowhere. And it was November. And I don’t drive and I was alone. The idea was that with no wifi, no company and only two channels of static on the TV, I’d get loads of writing done. And I did. But in an isolated house in the desolate cold of an Irish coastal winter – a house that felt like it had more windows than solid walls – I also didn’t get a proper night’s sleep for six weeks.

What was weird about this house was that, due to the aforementioned windows and isolation, it could be scary even during the day. There were huge double doors that led to the rear garden from the kitchen, and that garden was communal, i.e. there were no fences, walls, etc. Typing away at the kitchen table, I often wondered: what would I do if I looked up and a strange man was standing at the window, looking in at me? (Clearly born to be a crime writer, these were perfectly normal thoughts for me. How can a serial killer get me here?) There was no one around. I had no mobile phone reception. Glass is breakable. What would I do?

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Image credit: PostSecret.com

Flash-forward now, I think, to the summer of 2016. I’m on holidays in one of my favourite places – a much nicer place than that holiday home – AKA Villefranche-sur-Mer, just outside Nice, France. My friend Andrea says, ‘Did you see what Postsecret posted on Instagram today?’ I take a look. It’s a picture of a bedroom and the secret on it says, ‘I swap hidden sex camera videos with other AirB&B hosts.’ I think, first of all, boy am I glad I never stayed in an AirB&B and then, immediately after that, what if you were doing that and you got more than you bargained for? What if you captured a murder on tape? How could you report it without revealing your own criminality? What if the murderer – somehow – knew the camera was there and who was watching?

This week, I revealed the cover for my third novel, Rewind. It’ll be published by Corvus in the UK and Ireland on September 5 and I hope to have American publication information for you soon (stay tuned). I am very, very, VERY excited about this one. Not only is the cover amazeballs, but I’ve had a lot of fun writing this book because of its structure. The idea is you’re ‘watching’ a ‘tape’ – but you start watching it in the middle. Then you have rewind to see what led up to this moment, at other points you fast-forward into the investigation, and sometimes you just let it play. What really happened will be presented to you out of order, but when you get to ‘The End’ – or STOP – you’ll know the whole, shocking truth.

9781786496560

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PLAY

Andrew, the manager of Shanamore Holiday Cottages, watches his only guest via a hidden camera in her room. One night the unthinkable happens: a shadowy figure emerges onscreen, kills her and destroys the camera. But who is the murderer? How did they know about the camera? And how will Andrew live with himself?

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PAUSE

Natalie wishes she’d stayed at home as soon as she arrives in the wintry isolation of Shanamore. There’s something creepy about the manager. She wants to leave, but she can’t – not until she’s found what she’s looking for…

rewindcircle

REWIND

Psycho meets Fatal Attraction in this explosive story about a murder caught on camera. You’ve already missed the start. To get the full picture you must rewind the tape and play it through to the end, no matter how shocking…

From the bestselling crime writer shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger, the Irish Crime Novel of the Year and the Edgar Award for Best Novel comes an explosive story about a twisted voyeur and a terrible crime.

COMING FROM CORVUS BOOKS ON 5 SEPTEMBER 2019

Click here to pre-order the Kindle edition (Amazon UK)

Click here to pre-order the paperback edition (Amazon UK)

Comments are closed here but you can let me know what you think on Twitter and Instagram at @cathryanhoward. 

 

Signs and Corners

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that the Saturday night before last, at precisely 1:44am, a framed print I have hanging above my desk that says Something wonderful is about to happen suddenly fell off the wall.

I was at the bottom of a bottle of wine and into the second series of my West Wing re-watch, and after a long, dark and dull start to January (plagued by the plague *coughs*), I wanted it to be a sign that something wonderful was going to happen, and not merely that Blu-Tac is an ineffective material for hanging picture frames.

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I was in Paris in July 2016 when my friend Erin sent me a text message from the CWA Daggers shortlist announcement. I knew Distress Signals was on the longlist for the John Creasey New Blood Dagger, but I had no expectations that I’d advance any further. Erin promised me she would text either way so when my phone beeped, I presumed it was with a ‘Hard luck’ message – but she was texting to say I’d made the shortlist.

Growing up, devouring every crime novel I could get my hands on, the same two awards kept popping up on the About The Author pages: the Edgars, awarded by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Daggers, awarded by the Crime Writers Association of the UK. So this, for me, was A Very Big Deal and probably the highlight of my writing career.

Last Tuesday afternoon, I got another message from Erin, but this one was completely out of the blue and totally mind-boggling. This time, she was texting to tell me that The Liar’s Girl had just been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. What?!?!?

Some context: the Edgar awards, named for Edgar Allan Poe, are awarded each year by the Mystery Writers of America to “the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television” and are “widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious in the genre”. If the Edgars are the Academy Awards of crime fiction, the Best Novel category is the equivalent of Best Picture. A judging panel of 8 whittled more than 500 entries down to a shortlist of 6 and The Liar’s Girl is – miraculously – on there.

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I’m fairly sure I’m the only Irish author nominated this year and I’m pretty sure I’m only the second female Irish author ever to be nominated in this category. (Tana French is the other, for Faithful Place.) Previous winners of Best Novel include names like Raymond Chandler, Stephen King and – anyone who knows me will know what a big deal this is to me – Michael Crichton. (Writing under a pen name because he was still in med school, but STILL.) More recently, the winner of Best Novel was Flynn Berry, who wrote a crime novel so good – Under the Harrow – I broke my lifelong rule of not taking a pencil to books because I simply had to underline some of her stunning sentences.

Because of all this, I’m typing this a whole week later and I’m STILL muttering, ‘I can’t believe this has happened’ and periodically checking the Edgar shortlists online to check that I’m still there.

The ceremony is in New York on April 25. Stand by 24/7 Instagram updates from the City In Which Catherine Definitely Won’t Sleep Because She’ll Be Too Overwhelmed And Excited.

Writing books for a living is a wonderful but weird job to have, and it can be an emotional rollercoaster. My Inspiration Project partners in crime, Hazel Gaynor and Carmel Harrington, and I often talk about corners – about how, at any moment on any given day, you can get a phone call or an email with amazing news. It could be something major, like a new foreign deal, or it could just be something nice, like being invited to a festival you’ve always enjoyed going to. But with your books out in the world, the possibility is always there. Last Tuesday afternoon, I was sitting on my couch sorting out my laundry on a grey, dull, cold January day when, without getting up, I turned a corner.

Something wonderful did happen.


Bargain alert! If you live in the UK or Ireland, you can download The Liar’s Girl in e-book for just 99p for a limited time.

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Writers, Go Forth and Binge-Watch Netflix

I often think of the additional books I might have written if it wasn’t for the invention of Netflix, and I mourn them. I watch so much Netflix and I almost always do it in a binge.

Last summer I started what I’ve heard referred to as ‘extreme scheduling’, i.e. the only kind of extreme anything you’ll ever catch me doing, which is where you use an hourly planner to keep track of and/or to plan out your days. The same week I discovered Project Runway. There’s four (old) series of it on Irish Netflix, each of which have about 14 episodes, each of which are approximately 40 minutes long.

That’s 37 hours of television which I blasted all the way through in the space of about eight days.

This despite the fact that I was supposed to be writing the first draft of Book 3, Rewind (coming September 2019; more on that soon) and that, as per my Must Write This Amount of Words In Order Not To Be Late calculations, I was on track to not finish in time.

Thirty-seven hours. I had to write that down in my planner and look at it in black and white. I felt terrible about it. Shameful and guilty and icky and stressed. But yet I still hit PLAY NEXT EPISODE every time I was given the option.

My brain just doesn’t do rewards. I can’t say to myself, ‘I’ll write now, and save this as a reward for when my draft is submitted.’ Instead I say something like, ‘I want to watch this now, and the wanting is distracting me, so I think it’s better that I down tools and watch it now and then write later instead.’ I wasn’t going to change. I wasn’t going to stop binge-watching Netflix.

So I needed to justify it – and that’s why we’re here today. Here’s why I think all writers should be watching Netflix, lots…

Netflix Helps You Write

If you haven’t watched Set It Up on Netflix (five times already, ahem) then you definitely you should. Immediately.

It’s a smart, funny and fresh rom-com that also contains one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across.

Harper is the very much overworked and underpaid assistant to Kirsten, the founder of an online sports news site, but she dreams of being a sports journalist herself. She was hoping that sticking it out as Kirsten’s assistant might help her writing career, but there’s a crucial problem: Harper has never actually written anything. When she finally opens up her laptop, she feels like everything she’s writing is a pile of molten sh*te and despair ensues. But then her roommate gives her some great advice. She tells her, ‘You’re not a bad writer – yet.

One of the biggest lessons you have to learn when you start out as a writer is that the first draft of anything is sh*t. Listen to me: the first draft of anything is sh*t. Because I’d heard that time and time again and yet, when I sat down to write, I got frustrated that the words on the page weren’t matching the vision I had of my book in my head. But realising – accepting – that you’ll never get to that amazing fifth draft without writing drafts 1 through 4 (or however many) is a game-changer. And it’s something you may have to accept again and again, as I did, when I sat down to write Book 2. And Book 3…

You can’t skip that step, you have to write through it. You can’t evaluate your work on your first attempt. You’re not a bad writer – yet.

Netflix Helps You Write Better

A few months ago, Netflix released The Good Cop. I was looking forward to watching it because it starred Josh Groban and I very much enjoy looking at his face. Plus it was from the creator of Monk, which was incredibly popular and I think multi-award-winning.

But I only got 12 minutes into the first episode before I turned it off.

the-good-cop

Why? Because in those first 12 minutes, characters repeatedly said things like this:

‘That’s a nice way to talk to your father.’

‘You talked to Chuck Finch? […] ‘You’re not supposed to talk to anyone in the department. It’s a condition of your parole. […] Especially Finch. He was on your crew, for God’s sake.’

‘Oh, it’s Cora now? How sweet. My son and my parole officer.’

‘Don’t quote your mother at me. I was married to the woman for 29 years.’

‘You asked me to sell my liquor licence, I sold it. No problem. You asked me to move in with my kid, here I am… You gave me 90 days to find a job. I’ll do it. I still got 3 weeks left.’

‘Save your tears, Captain. Jack was dead to you 8 years ago, the second he agreed to testify.’

Now, disclaimer: I’m not a TV writer. I didn’t create a show that drew in millions of viewers and won awards. I can only evaluate this as a viewer, and as a viewer, I was annoyed. Because it felt like the characters weren’t having real conversations, but dumping chunks of exposition into everything they said. Show me Tony Danza’s character is father to Josh Groban’s character. Show me that his parole officer is in a relationship with his son. Show me that he’s living with his son against his will. And if none of that is possible, find a way to tell me in dialogue that feels like real people talking in real life.

Clunky exposition is the kind of thing where, once you notice it, every subsequent occurrence is mercilessly amplified. I’m sure loads of people watched this show without noticing this at all, but apparently not enough of them to convince Netflix to do a second season. Personally, 12 minutes in, I just couldn’t take any more.

When something someone else has written doesn’t strike you as ‘right’, ask yourself why it doesn’t. You can learn a lot about what not to do that way. It’s always easier to see mistakes in other people’s work (unfortunately!).

Oh well. I did very much enjoy looking at Josh Groban’s face…

Netflix Helps You Deal With Rejection

And finally, back to Project Runway.

If you’ve never watched it, it’s basically a reality competition show like The X-Factor or The Voice, except it’s for fashion designers. Michael Costello was a contestant on the 8th season, who was sent home first in the finale, in fourth place.

And he was devastated. Broken. CRUSHED. He looked like he was in physical pain and he was clearly struggling to accept that his chance of getting his dream – the prize is to show a collection at New York Fashion Week – was gone, over. He was inconsolable. In an interview filmed shortly afterwards, his eyes still red from crying, he said, ‘I just couldn’t take it. The first thing that came to my head was my family… Once they see it, they’re going to say, “See? Just give that up now.”‘ I was heartbroken for him, watching it.

Then I Googled his name to see what he was up to now.

Four years later, Michael Costello dressed Beyonce for the Grammy awards, on a night when she took home 3 of them, and his career has just been on an upward trajectory since then. He’s designed gowns for Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and Katy Perry, and Oprah has personally delivered him pizza. He is living his dream, and it’s probably bigger and better than he ever imagined.

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I know of a time in my writing life when I had pinned all my hopes on getting a ‘Yes!’ from someone who then said, ‘Thanks but no thanks’. I was devastated then too. I didn’t see a way forward. It felt like this could be the only way, and now the door had closed on me. But you know what actually happened? I got a better version of the thing later. It was actually good that I got rejected that time. And that’s happened a few times to me. Rejection is part of the journey, not the end of it.

So next time you get a rejection, think of Michael Costello. And don’t feel bad about mainlining four seasons of Project Runway in the space of a week. Not too bad, anyway…

[Catherine’s Deadline: What the actual—?]

A note: one of my writing goals for 2019 is to get back into blogging on a limited basis, so 1-2 blog posts a month. But I’ve decided to turn off the comments. For chat, I’m over on Twitter, where I’m @cathryanhoward. Happy New Year! 


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