A Short Story About Scarpetta

I’m heading to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate tomorrow morning (for the first time ever and feeling a bit like the new girl who switches schools half way through term and has to walk into a class where she doesn’t know anyone!) so this evening, while I procrastinate instead of pack, I thought I’d share with you a story about my introduction to crime (writing): Kay Scarpetta and the woman who invented her, Patricia Cornwell.

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One Christmas, back when I was (I think) either 12 or 13 (ish), a friend of mine lent me her older brother’s Patricia Cornwell paperbacks. Now, I’m not sure if she leant me one and then I bought the others, or if she lent me the whole lot and I just never gave any of them back – in fact, the more I think about this entire incident, the fewer tangible details I can recall – but I do know that several nights in a row, over the school holidays,  I stayed up reading until three or four in the morning because I couldn’t sleep until I got to THE END.

Now I’m sure I’d read other crime novels before that but there was something about Cornwell and her central character, Kay Scarpetta, that moved me from mild interest to totally obsessed. The feisty women, the high-octane plots, the autopsies (ewwww), the pristine house (I STILL want my own mud room and totally OTT home security system) and the detours into highly descriptive Italian cooking sessions (???) – I loved it all. (I never quite understood why a medical examiner would be out in the field investigating crimes, but anyway…) They would be my gateway drug into Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Gillian Flynn (I was reading her long before Gone Girl was a blinking cursor on her computer screen HASHTAG SMUG), and all the other amazing crime/thriller fiction writers whose books I devour today.

Last August I finished my own thriller and when it came time to write the all important cover letter, I mentioned that Cornwell was my introduction to the genre:

Crime/thriller novels have been my reading passion ever since a friend’s older brother irresponsibly let me borrow his collection of Patricia Cornwell paperbacks when I was 12 and, if my apartment spontaneously burst into flames right now, my ‘grab’ item would be my limited-to-200-edition, numbered, gold-edged, slip-cased, red leather-bound copy of Nine Dragons that Michael Connelly personally inscribed to me as a competition prize. (Safe in the knowledge that my MS has been saved to Dropbox, mind you.)

Flash-forward now to the beginning of April this year. My superagent, Jane Gregory, has got me a 2-book deal with Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books, and although I’m not allowed tell everyone yet, I have told a few someones: my writing friends. A gang of us go out to dinner to celebrate in Jamie’s Italian in Dundrum. There’s five of us setting at the table – all either published or about to be – and three of us write crime while a fourth says she doesn’t but there’s a dead body in her book. (Although I’ve stopped saying she’s written crime because it’s starting to really annoy her, I think.)

(But it IS.)

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So the waiter arrives at our table to take our drink order, and we decide to order a bottle of wine. (Good decision.) Everyone elects me to choose which one. (Bad decision. I only started drinking wine in the last year – I actually started drinking it at the Irish Book Awards when I turned to Hazel Gaynor and uttered the immortal line, “How winey is that wine?” – and all I know about it is whether it’s white or red.) The waiter eventually steps in and says he’ll pick a wine for us, tells us nothing about his decision and then disappears to go get it.

This is what he brought back:

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Naturally, the table erupted. I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t believe it now. (And no, the waiter knew nothing about who we were, what we did, why we were there or what we were celebrating.) Isn’t that amazing? I mean, what are the chances?

(And it was quite nice, by the way. If anyone knows where outside of Jamie’s Italian you can buy it, do let me know.)

I’m hoping it’s a good omen for the adventures ahead…

I finally caved and joined Instagram. Follow me there and on Twitter for updates from Harrogate and if you’re in Harrogate too, come and say hi! 

Side note: reading this back, you can tell that I’ve had a LOT of coffee today and that I cleaned out my talent for writing words more good getting the latest draft of Distress Signals done last week, can’t you?

The Surprising Thing About Rejection (Or What I Learned in 2014)

This will likely be my last blog post in 2014 and you might want to make a cup of coffee, because it’s gonna be a long one…

In past Decembers I’ve compiled gift guides, and last year I shared my first Christmas in a place I lived all by myself (and so could decorate as I pleased, safe in the knowledge that no one could touch anything or suddenly appear with a strand of the most offensive substance known to man, tinsel). But this year I’m coming to the end of my first term in Trinity College Dublin, barely three months in to a four-year degree in English Studies that I started at the ripe age of 32, and assignments are due. This necessitated a move to Dublin, one of the most expensive cities in the world; the shoebox I now live in, while comfortable and suitably Catherine-fied, couldn’t fit as much as a bauble. (I have no books here. That’s how small it is.) And once college breaks up at the end of the next week, I have to use my month off to—

Well, let me back up a little.

This has been a very exciting year. There was always something about 2014; I knew it would be a big one. During it I did three things I’ve been dreaming about for ages, for years in some cases: I moved to Dublin, I started studying English at Trinity and I signed with an agent. The agent, rather. The one who is at the very top of your wish list if you’re a woman who writes crime, the one who represents such awe-inspiring writers that you nearly didn’t even bother submitting to her because you assumed there was absolutely no chance, and when—

Well, let me back up a little again.

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2014 Highlights: Trinity College Dublin as it looked on my first day as a student. 

I want to tell you about the two very important lessons I’ve learned this year.

The first is that when it comes to making big changes, pursuing your dreams or just doing anything that will yank you out of your comfort zone, making the decision to do it is the hardest part.

Honestly, it is. Strolling around Trinity’s historical campus one sunny day in September – having previously only ever strolled around it as a tourist – I couldn’t quite believe that I was there. I go here now, I kept whispering to myself. How had it happened? [For those of you who don’t live in Ireland, Trinity is like Ireland’s Harvard. It’s for the top scorers. Mature students aren’t considered on their years-old exam results – thankfully! – but places are incredibly restricted and competition is fierce. But I filled my application form with all my book and publishing antics over the last five years, and I’m convinced that’s what got me in.] I’d had to apply; interview; come up with the fees; find a place to live in Dublin in what was described as the worst year for rental accommodation in three decades; move out; move up; and show up for the first day of Orientation.

But they were all easy compared to sitting in front of my computer at 11.30pm on January 31st last, half an hour before the CAO [Central Applications Office; how we apply to third-level education in Ireland) deadline closed for the year. I drummed my fingers on the desktop. Was I really going to do this? Could I do this? How could I leave the apartment I loved so much? Could I really move to Dublin in just a few months? Live there by myself? Afford to? Was there any real possibility that I would even get in? I’d been thinking about it for months but when it came to down to it, I wasn’t sure. It would be easier not to do anything. With minutes to spare, I finalized my application.

And that was by far the hardest part. Making the initial decision was the most difficult thing I’d had to do. After that, all I was doing was following through.

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Highlights of 2014: Champagne and Starbucks. What more does a girl want? (Thanks for the bubbly, Denise!)

Lesson number two was that rejection doesn’t mean no.

Quick recap, if you’re not familiar: I love self-publishing, and I can’t even imagine where I’d be now without it. (Not here, anyway!) But my goal has always been to get published. I don’t feel the need to justify it but if you’re wondering why, it can be summed up like this: because that’s what I want, okay? This little girl didn’t ask Santa for a typewriter because she was dreaming of seeing her book on the Kindle store after she put it there herself:

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Around about the time I self-published Mousetrapped in 2010, I finished a novel, Results Not Typical. Chick-lit meets corporate satire, I called it, or The Devil Wears Prada meets WeightWatchers. It got me a meeting with the editorial director of a major publishing house, who didn’t like that book but liked me and hoped I might write something else. We met every few months for two years, but after various outlines, sample chapters and synopses, I just wasn’t coming up with the goods. With hindsight I can see that my heart just wasn’t in it. I was trying to write a book that I wouldn’t choose to read, which of course is completely and utterly insane, and insulting to books and stories and publication dreams in general.

Meanwhile I’d had an idea for a crime/thriller novel. I am OBSESSED with crime/thriller novels. They are by far and away what I predominantly read. My favorite author of all time is Michael Connelly. If I color-coordinated my bookshelves, half of them would be black. I just love, love, love a good mystery, a chilling serial killer, a twist that comes like a sudden slap in the face. As for writing them, it’s something I thought I would do when I was older, when I had more experience both in life and as a writer. But one day in the summer of 2012, fed up with my failed attempts to write women’s commercial fiction, I caught myself thinking, When this outline is done, I’m going to try and write that thriller just for fun.

*ALARM BELL ALARM BELL ALARM BELL*

Shouldn’t everything I write be for fun? Why was I doing it otherwise? I ditched all notions of writing anything except the book I wanted to read, the book I really wanted to write.

I’d love to tell you now that I banged it out in a caffeine-fueled week or something, but what followed was eighteen months of mostly procrastination. Still, the idea was percolating away in my brain, so all was not lost. By January of this year I had a long synopsis – or, ahem, an outline; tip: if your synopsis is too long, just call it an outline instead! – and the first third of the book, written and re-written to what I thought was a high standard.

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Highlights of 2014: At the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards with Hazel and Elizabeth. (Photo credit: Derek Flynn.)

I have a lot of writer friends, many of them published, and two of them in particular (shout out, Sheena and Hazel!) urged me to start submitting to agents. I said no, not yet, I want to wait until I feel like it’s perfect or, at the very least, finished. Don’t be daft, they said. Are you happy with the first third? Yes? Send it out then. You’re not a novice, you have all this self-publishing stuff behind you, great contacts and you do freelance work for one of the world’s biggest publishing houses. No, no, I said. I’m not ready. I can’t do it. But they kept at me, Dr Phil-style, and finally I said, Okay, okay. I’ll start submitting.

And then anxiety started pushing its way out of my skin in the form of sweat. My heart began to race. I was genuinely scared of the idea of submitting to an agent.

Why?

Because getting published had been my dream since I realized that people actually wrote the books I loved to read. With 30,000 double-spaced words under my arm and a cover letter I’d been perfecting for months, this dream was still intact. But what if I sent it out and got nothing back but a form rejection letter? That would be devastating, a sharpened scalpel tip right into the balloon of my publication dreams. So of course, it was easier to stay in the limbo in between, where my dreams could still happen.

Making the initial decision to take action was the hardest part.

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Highlight of 2014: finalizing the plot of The Novel.

But I did send it out. And it did get rejected. And I was devastated.

It was rejected by three agents. The first gave me detailed feedback, and some of it caught in my gut. I knew she was right so I rewrote it. The second one just said no (or a disinterested “Nah…” in my head). The third one said no too, in the worst possible way: I really enjoyed it, but I just don’t feel passionate enough about it to represent you. As I feel all authors deserve an agent who is passionate about their work… etc

I have a writer friend whose book launches I’ve been going to every summer for the past four years (shout out, Maria!) and who, not that long ago, went to London to meet with two agents, both of whom were desperate to represent her. They both pitched to her and then she got to pick. We first met at a writers’ workshop back in April 2009, when both of us were just dreamers. It had happened for her; I wanted it to happen – and happen that way – for me. But when the rejections started coming in, I stopped believing that it ever would.

I started thinking, Well, the best I can hope for now is an agent who’ll reluctantly take me on because, well, he’ll give it a go, and a deal with a small publisher with no distribution potential and no advance. I was downsizing. Because here’s the thing: if it was a good book, I thought, wouldn’t its goodness be universally recognized?

I finished my book over the summer and decided that my careful, one-agent-at-a-time strategy wasn’t getting me anywhere. I might never get anywhere, so what did I have to lose? I submitted it to two more agents, the agents, the agents I really wanted but had been holding back on submitting to because (a) if the agents on my next-best-thing list all said the book was a stinking pile of crap, it would need a re-write, and I didn’t want to ruin my one chance with my Dream Agents by sending them the first version (although I should say the agents I had sent it to were still brilliant, amazing, well-known agents that I would’ve been delirious to have been represented by) and (b) I thought there was no point, because they got thousands of submissions a year and took on hardly any new clients.

One of the agents was so selective that she only accepted the first ten pages of your book. Fifty is the norm. I’d no chance. I actually remember being on her website and thinking, There’s no point. It was a repeat of January 31st, drumming my fingers on the desk, thinking there was no point in applying to Trinity.

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Not a highlight, but what I’m stuck with reading as my essay deadline looms. Ugh!

But I’d got into Trinity, and now I was living and studying in Dublin. Making the decision was the hardest part, remember? So I took a deep breath, submitted my ten pages and hoped for the best.

Actually, I just hoped for a response.

Both agents requested the full manuscript. And then they both offered representation, one of them even before she’d finished reading the book. I shook and squealed as I read their e-mails. And just like my friend Maria, I had a day (during my first Reading Week!) where I flew to London and met with two amazing agents and listened, slightly dumbfounded, while they pitched for me and my work.

The day before I’d got an invite to the Irish Book Awards and the day after the new Michael Connelly book came out, so that was quite the giddy week, let me tell you.

A few weeks before my London trip I was watching an episode of ITV’s Crime Thriller Club where crime writing queen Lynda La Plante was being interviewed. She said if she could give advice to aspiring writers it would be that “rejection doesn’t mean no.”

I rolled my eyes. Um, that’s EXACTLY what it means? Come on, Lynda. Aren’t you supposed to be a writer? But after my London day, I realized what she meant.

Publishing is an incredibly subjective operation. Whether or not someone likes your book depends on their personal tastes, their professional experience and even what mood they’re in when they sit down to read it. Whether or not an agent will take you on depends on all this and the level of belief they have in you, what they see in the possibility of what the book can become. Timing factors in too, of course. Maybe they just took on a similar author, or they know that a publishing house just paid five-figures for a similar book. That’s why we have these stories of Ms Author getting rejected all over town for years, and then getting an agent and going on to hit the bestseller lists.

Just because your book got rejected doesn’t mean that your publishing dreams are dead. It doesn’t even mean that you have to modify them. Rejection, as Lynda said, doesn’t mean no.

Last week I signed with Jane Gregory of Gregory & Company. Next week I’ve to hand in my first lot of university assignments. Then I start on a re-write of my novel and after that, who knows what the new year will bring? It might bring everything I want, or it might bring disappointment. I’m ready either way. I’ll keep you updated.

In the meantime, remember that making the decision to take action is by far the hardest part and that rejection doesn’t mean no. Consider this when you sit down to think about your writing goals in 2015.

In the meantime, thanks for reading in 2014, especially as life has got in the way and I’ve become so sporadic with my blogging. I hope to improve a bit in the New Year!

Wishing you and yours a fabulous Christmas and a New Year that brings everything you want.

Catherine x

(Fun fact: this blog post is the exact length each of my four essays has to be. Procrastinating much?)