I figured out a good “author outfit” a few months ago, and it’s been trotted out about a dozen times this autumn. Here’s what my peacock blue t-shirt and red blazer have been up to:

I’ve visited with several book clubs, which is always delightful (and usually includes tasty treats and/or flowers, which is very kind!), and did two events with dear friend Sophie Hannah, in St Neot’s and at the Ely Literary Festival. Both events, scheduled well in advance, happened to fall right after the exciting announcement that Sophie’s been given the go-ahead from Agatha Christie’s estate to write a new Poirot novel. Exciting!

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As can be seen in my books, I adore Cambridge’s colleges, so it was a real treat to be invited to speak to the university’s “visiting scholars” at Corpus Christi College’s master’s lodge. My second book, The Start of Everything, is partly set at Corpus Christi, so it was especially fitting. What a lovely room!

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Several of the visiting scholars from China (from Nanchang University, Zhejiang University, and Shanghai Lixin University of Commerce) asked to interview me. It was humbling to try to answer their insightful, thoughtful questions, and see their copies of my books bristling with post-its, and the margins full of notes.

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That same week that I had the pleasure of chatting with the Chinese academics, an English-language bookshop in Sweden chose The Whole World as its “British Crime Fiction Book of the Month.” Makes me want to start sticking pretty pins in a world map on the wall.

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Most recently, I joined in with Heffer’s bookshop’s “Christmas Chrime” quiz evening. The questions could only be answered by the attendees looking at the books of various crime authors or chatting with the authors themselves—good thing we were all there. Lovely to share the evening with Rebecca Tope, Kate Rhodes, Allison Bruce and others. (Thanks for author Leigh Russel for the pic.)

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One of the nicest parts of the evening for me was running into two women who had taken a workshop I taught at Lucy Cavendish College two years ago. One of them recalled several things that I had taught and said how much they meant to her. That was really lovely.

Lastly, I must retract my endorsement of the Zebra pen. In a previous post, I said it was the best signing pen in the world. I take it back! Mine has started leaking. I fear my recent signatures are a bit messy!

I’m writing this post having just returned from a week in a student room at Churchill College. Close readers of The Whole World may recall that Churchill is the character Morris’ alma mater. I needed some solitude to work on structural revisions of book three, especially Morris’ point of view.

Now home with family to celebrate birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s. Happy holidays!

The reason I have trouble with anagrams is that I mentally transform letters into phonemes and then mix up the phonemes in my head instead of the letters. If I could just back up a step, and mix up the letters while they’re still just letters, I’d be a lot better at making new words.

A similar transformation happens to words when I write. Once a scene is written, I see it in my head. In that image, the scene seems like it has actually happened, and the elements of that scene have three dimensions. They have backstories and consequences and are really there to me.

When I need to change something in revision, it can be difficult to imagine making something change or disappear. In my mind, it has happened. It’s there. Pulling it out to replace it seems like an immense task.

When I look at the actual words that made the image, though, there are often only a few. It’s often a simple thing to magic away a sentence or two, and then the image created in my head completely transforms.

The best way I can describe my challenge with revision is that the words on the page are a recipe and the image they create in my head is a finished cake. I look at the cake and wonder, “How am I going to tease one ingredient out of this without ruining the rest of it? It’s impossible!” But of course, revision doesn’t deal with the finished cake. Revision is a change to the recipe. The cake is remade fresh every time the page is read.

Changing recipes is actually easy, just like mixing up letters to make new words is. I just have to remind myself to deal with just letters, or just words, before I’ve baked them into a finished product in my mind.

At the beginning of my recent launch party, while people were still milling and drinking wine, a friend asked me to sign a book right then in case he had to leave before my talk was done. He was prepared, with an open book and a pen. I put down my glass, signed, and marvelled. That was the best signing pen I had ever handled. This is it:

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I asked if I could “borrow” it for the evening. I want to give it back to him, but I think he knew even as he surrendered it that that may never happen (our paths don’t cross as much as we would both like). It was rude of me, I know, but I had to have it for the rest of the books. I’ve just ordered 12 more from the link above.

Thanks, Alan!

Thank you, Heffers! What a wonderful shop, and a wonderful evening.

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It’s important to me to mark the occasion of  a new book. It’s too easy for the day itself to be nothing remarkable. Suddenly the book is there in the shops, and available online, and hopefully there are reviews popping up. But at home, the day is just as usual. Today my books came out in the UK, and I did laundry. That’s why I’m so glad I had a party earlier this week.

Launch parties have more value than just the evening itself. The process of inviting people is an opportunity to share what’s going on–the pre-release reviews, the excitement–without sounding braggy. You’re offering something (a party!), after all, not just announcing. Sharing an invitation is a lot more tactful than sharing buy links. I do go ahead and share good news and, yes, even reviews and buy links with my non-local friends, but with the party I feel more free.

The party has value after as well, even with those who weren’t able to come. “How did it go?” and “I’m so happy for you!” start lovely conversations that wouldn’t have existed without the party itself.

All that said, the organizing/inviting process is also stressful. I find it helps to send an early invitation 6-8 weeks in advance, then a reminder invitation about 2 weeks in advance. Some people are planners and need lead time; others won’t be able to consider RSVPing until much closer to the date. My preference would be to assume that few will come and then be happily surprised by big numbers, but that could leave the shop unprepared. So, I had to be brutally realistic in my expectations, risking feeling foolish if the numbers were way off. A week before, I was still chasing up RSVPs and feeling frustrated, but it turns out that many of the delayed replies were from friends trying to overcome schedule clashes, which was very kind of them. On the day itself, it turned out pretty much as I had guessed from the start: about 100 adults and 30 kids, which rocks by any standard (especially on a Tuesday night!). I’m very grateful to all who came to share the day.

Also grateful to delightful author Helen Moss, who kindly came to do a talk for the children while I talked to the adults. For my last book party, getting babysitters was a problem for guests. This way, the kids were themselves welcome guests.

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I loved talking about the books, and getting laughs and other reactions in all the right places.

I loved being introduced by my publisher and by my favorite bookseller.

I loved seeing all those books! I signed so many that I got a blister on my finger.

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Thanks, everyone. It was a good day.

Again, a little late, but I would be remiss to not mention my February London visit. This was my chance to visit my publisher on their own turf, and also to catch up with my old department head from college.

Allison & Busby has beautiful premises, and wonderful people. They made me feel very welcome.

As for lunch with my college department head, she hasn’t changed. Still a grande dame.

It was a good day.

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Edited to add: Allison & Busby was (were?) absolutely wonderful at the London Book Fair in April. They supported their authors beautifully, in my case with a big poster, and giveaway booklets containing the first chapters of The Whole World and The Start of Everything (both in one; you flip it over to get the other story). Thanks, A&B!

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I’m a little late commenting on my January New York trip. At the time, I posted pics to Facebook, and just enjoyed the event without other comment.

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It was a great trip. New York has figured in many stages of my life, so visiting there stirs up memories from all over my past: It was “the city” nearest my childhood and teenage home, and so the site of family visits and later fun with friends; though my college years were in Pittsburgh, many of my college friends ended up in New York to act (and I got to see some of them this trip); for grad school, I lived back at home again, interned at the Met, and did part of my thesis at the Brooklyn Museum. I got my first writing job in New York twenty years ago thanks to a party at the Plaza Hotel (and I got to meet up with that editor this trip, too–thanks, Mark Danna!). It’s the city where my sister lives, where my agent lives, and where I published my first book. New York is one of the places I feel at home.

The event with author Jenny Milchman and agents Donald Maass and Janet Reid went great. That Barnes and Noble has a lovely dedicated event space, and even a “green room” for speakers to wait in. Jenny and I snapped pics of each other like giggly teenagers.

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It was wonderful to see old friends there, and it was wonderful to see so many strangers (always a treat when a lot of strangers come to a book event!). My agent brought a good camera and took this nice shot of the talk itself:

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Another agent from my agency wrote a little about the event, pretty accurately in my opinion. Here is a relevant quote:

I recently attended a panel given by two agents and two authors—one of the agents, full disclosure, was my boss, and one of the authors is one of our clients. Over the course of the hour they each spoke about writing and the publishing process—from the point of view of the author and the agent—and about what makes a good book. Don Maass, my boss, spoke about what he thinks makes a book “work” where other books with similar themes might not. Janet Reid, uber-agent, talked about books keeping her from going into the office because she has to find out what happened. Jenny Milchman, whose debut novel Cover of Snow just came out, talked about writing eight books before this one found a home with a Big Six publisher. Emily Winslow, whose second novel Start of Everything was just published, talked about finding freedom as a writer, releasing herself from fear through her early days writing poetry. At the end of all this discussion I was energized to get back to work, but it was time for questions from the audience—and the very first question was on how important social media is to an agent or publisher.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse! And the questions that followed—do I need to pay someone to write a proposal for a nonfiction project? What about autobiography?—were equally off the mark. It is not constructive for an author to think about their twitter feed more than their writing. It is not constructive for an aspiring writer to think about how they’re going to get published before they’ve even finished the book. I venture to guess that an author who is worrying aloud about their social media presence has a deeper fear, that there is something missing from their work that is keeping it from finding a home. I advise them to work on that first. Aspiring writers should aspire to write, and the business of writing is a bit of a long game. But if an aspiring writer with talent then works hard, works long, and is constructive about their craft, then I think they’ll have pretty good luck.

After, I went out for shakes with friends. New York is just getting more full of memories.

It’s rare that I travel without children. These are some of the differences that stand out:

1) Packing for just oneself feels impossibly simple and light. I keep thinking, “It can’t be this easy, can it??”

2) Since the family is staying home, no need for the pre-trip stress of readying the house to be unoccupied.

3) Airport security with only one pair of shoes to come off and one bag to send through is laughably simple. Heck, I remember the days of having to wake up a sleeping baby so I could fold up his stroller and heave it up onto the conveyor belt, one-handed, while holding the now vocal and annoyed baby with the other. Downside: because I will be a lone adult instead of a mom, I will probably be sent through the creepy backscatter machine instead of getting to follow my boys through the regular metal detector.

4) Even with my sweetheart’s frequent flying, we never have enough air miles to upgrade all of us. With me flying alone, however, and it being low season, I have finagled an upgrade. I will drink champagne! I will swivel my seat to face my laptop on a desk beside me, or face the TV shows diagonal to me, or the fancy food in front of me, or even to LIE FLAT. I consider this upcoming flight to be a vacation entirely on its own.

I grew up close enough to New York that my best friend and I occasionally ditched school to catch one of the frequent commuter trains into the city instead. New York is the city of my childhood, and I’m delighted to be “coming home” for a few days.

I can finally share the specifics of the lovely news: The Whole World and The Start of Everything have been picked up by UK publisher Allison & Busby. In June, The Whole World will come out in paperback to accompany the launch of The Start of Everything in hardcover. Hooray!

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This is partly thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence of bookseller Richard Reynolds of Heffers, whose crime fiction expertise is legend. He is devoted especially to crime fiction set in Cambridge, and Cambridge is very lucky to have him.

It’s a general principle that all meetings in publishing happen over lunch. Allison & Busby publishing director Susie Dunlop and I met at the cafe in John Lewis in Cambridge, and I was honored that she’d travelled up from London to see me. She said I would know her by the Allison & Busby tote bag she carried. I said she would know me by the new bright pink coat I had just bought at Marks & Spencer. It’s a lovely coat, new for the season, and I should have foreseen that I wouldn’t be the only woman in that packed cafe wearing one! There were about four of us. Ah, well. Susie and I eventually managed to find one another, and fell easily into conversation. She is going to be wonderful to work with.

Susie gave me that tote bag she was carrying, and it was full of a selection of their lovely books. I’m thrilled to be sharing a publisher with Laurie R. King, Jacqueline Winspear, D.E. Meredith, and Jamie Ford. I’m especially enchanted by the cover of D.E. Meredith’s Devoured, with its textured dustjacket and the old map of London printed on the hardcover underneath.

As I finish The Start of Everything‘s launch month in the US, it’s wonderful to have June to look forward to.

Writers are playing tag!

These ten questions are being answered by writers all over the web.

Thanks for Carole DeSanti, author of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), for tapping me. Carole’s answers are here, and are a fascinating glimpse of an editor’s decision to write, and why:

The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.  arose from a desire to flee the pressures of 20th/21st century  commercial publishing (i.e. my day job) to escape back into the earlier love that brought me to novels in the first place.  As a young editor, I sometimes felt like a courtesan of literary life – if the publisher thought something would sell and dropped it on my desk, I worked on it — from diet books to erotica.  I supplicated bestselling authors and pretended to like things I didn’t, which was hard going, because for me, reading is an intimate, personal act.

Don’t you want to read more?

Here are my answers:

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop:

  1. What is your working title of your book?

The Start of Everything.

  1. Where did the idea come from for the book?

A friend of mine had a very specific job for the Cambridge University Registrar: finding the intended recipients of insufficiently addressed mail. The story possibilities of this role leapt out at me, and The Start of Everything begins with a letter to a women who seemingly doesn’t exist.

  1. What genre does your book fall under?

Like my previous book, The Whole World, psychological suspense.

  1. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A misaddressed letter, an unidentified body, and a compromised cop.

  1. Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by Cameron McClure of the Donald Maass agency, and The Start of Everything has just this month come out from Delacorte Press.

  1. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About a year.

  1. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m inspired by Ruth Rendell, especially her alter ego Barbara Vine, and by Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Kate Atkinson.

  1. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Along with the letter job described above, I was also struck by the strangeness of the annual fen floods. It’s apparently normal here in Cambridgeshire that, every winter, whole swaths of land, including roads, go underwater. The fens were once marshes and, despite drainage efforts that have technologically improved over centuries, the water always has to go somewhere. Here’s a pic of my mom pretending to hitchhike at a point where the road just disappears. In my book, the body is discovered when the floods recede in the spring.

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  1. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I started writing this story just after the unveiling of a new clock in Cambridge. It’s on King’s Parade, one of the most picturesque streets in the city, and people will actually turn their backs on King’s College Chapel, the most iconic building here, to gaze at the clock. It’s operated by an enlarged and exposed “grasshopper escapement” at its top, and this bit of machinery, named for the resemblance of its motion to the legs of a grasshopper, is on this clock represented by an actual monstrous robot grasshopper, which blinks and snaps and lolls its tongue. The designer, John Taylor, who has lived a fascinating long life and is poignantly aware of growing older, says that time is a monster. The clock is present in several key scenes, and various characters react to it.

  1. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I don’t care who plays the parts, so long as it is properly filmed on site in Cambridge and the fens. The setting is very present in my books, and Cambridge itself is the most important character.

My turn:

I tag Marisa Labozzetta, author of  Sometimes it Snows in America. Doesn’t this look interesting? “Born into Somali royalty and Saudi Arabian wealth, Fatma is given away in infancy and, at age 12, forced into an arranged marriage with a young Peace Corps worker. Prejudice and cultural demands lead to a number of painful promises that will dictate the course of her life on two continents. Sometimes It Snows in America is a novel loosely based on the true account of an African woman’s descent into an American hell, and finds its echo in the descent of her native Somalia into its own hell of violent desperation. It leaves the reader with the gifts of unsuspected connection and surprising hope.”

Is your new year’s resolution to finish your novel, or to start one? Join literary agents Janet Reid (“Query Shark”) and Donald Maass (“Writing the Breakout Novel”), in discussion with authors Jenny Milchman (“Cover of Snow”) and Emily Winslow (“The Start of Everything”) for advice, inspiration, and solid ideas for making this your year.

Writing a Novel With Blockbuster Potential
Wednesday January 30, 2013 7:00 PM
Barnes and Noble
86th & Lexington Ave
150 East 86th Street, New York, NY 10028, 212-369-2180

Emily Winslow’s The Start of Everything “[brilliantly portrays] the ragged fragments of these lives. What emerges isn’t a single killer with motive and means, but a tangle of stories crossing and colliding, stray intersections of incidents and accidents, misunderstandings, and misreadings, all thanks to the myopia of individual perspectives and the self-centeredness of individual desires.” The Washington Post

Jenny Milchman’s Cover of Snow is a “superlative, dark, wintry debut…These well-defined characters take us on an emotional roller-coaster ride through the darkest night, with blinding twists and occasionally fatal turns. This is a richly woven story that not only looks at the devastating effects of suicide but also examines life in a small town and explores the complexity of marriage.” Booklist

Janet Reid is a literary agent with FinePrint Literary Management in New York City, specializing in crime fiction and narrative non-fiction. Her humorous and insightful Query Shark blog is the go-to site for aspiring authors preparing query letters.

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York, which he founded in 1980. He represents more than 100 fiction writers and sells more than 100 novels per year to top publishers in America and overseas. His books for writers include the inspiring classic “Writing the Breakout Novel” and his new book “Writing 21st Century Fiction.”

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