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CHAPTER FOUR: DREAMING

By the autumn of 2006, the situation was becoming quite grim. With only a bit of consultancy work here and there, my meagre earnings were contributing little to the household: we were surviving on my wife’s salary and our rapidly dwindling savings. In addition, the euphoria of finally becoming a published novelist had worn off, leaving a cold dose of reality in its wake. Although SINS OF THE FATHER had received some good reviews from within the crime community, the wider world hadn’t exactly been shaken to its core by the arrival of yet another writer, yet another book.

The brutal truth is that a novel from a small press, with minimal marketing and publicity, stands virtually no chance of success. The supermarkets won’t touch it, and the high street book shops, if they stock it at all, might put one or two copies spine out on the shelf in the Crime section; not stacked on the front tables and bays where the impulse purchases tend to be made. So although I had my name in print at last, I knew I was still a long way from making a career as a writer.

But there was one saving grace, at least in my own mind. The previous December, my former employers had kindly invited me along to the office Christmas party. After a great night of carousing, I finally made it home to bed in the early hours, feeling distinctly the worse for wear.

A couple of hours later I came awake with a start, having had the most incredibly vivid dream. Early on a freezing winter morning, a young woman walks into a small Sussex village. Just before she enters the shop, she notices what appears to be a body lying behind a Royal Mail van. She investigates, and stumbles into the midst of a killing spree. The gunman chases her through the village, and just as he has her cornered, she makes an even more horrifying discovery...

The entire opening sequence of what became SKIN AND BONES was all there, logical and detailed and thrilling in a way that most dreams never are. Many times over the years I’d woken, excited by a new idea, only to see it fall apart under the cold scrutiny of daylight. But this one didn’t. I knew immediately that I had the makings of a really exciting story. All I had to do was work out what happened next.

Roll forward to October 2006 and the book was complete. I began sending it out to literary agents, starting with two of the biggest players in the crime genre: the first because they were recommended to me by another writer; the other because they made an approach to me. Unfortunately I had agreed to give the first agent exclusivity, and by the time he decided he wasn’t interested, the second agent had inexplicably gone cold on me as well. (Lesson: Don’t agree to exclusivity unless you have a very good reason to do so, and then keep to a limited period: a week or two at most.)

Slightly disheartened, and fearing yet another saga of ‘near misses’, I set about on another round of emails and query letters. One of the first responses was from an agent who wanted only the first chapter, which in this case amounted to just four or five double-spaced pages. Within an hour of emailing it I had a reply, crisply informing me that it needed lots of work, and that in any case the story wasn’t likely to appeal to anyone. All this from a handful of pages; no qualifying statements such as “in my opinion...” or “this doesn’t work for me personally, but you should try elsewhere...” Just a blunt, unequivocal statement that might have killed off the aspirations of someone just starting out. (Thankfully it appears this individual no longer works as an agent.)

CHAPTER FIVE: TURNAROUND

The following day I consoled myself with the thought that the opening chapters were out with another six or seven agents, and that there were dozens more still to approach if necessary. Then, in the space of an hour, I had an extraordinary reversal of fortune: two emails and a phone call from three different agents, all saying they loved the opening chapters and wanted to see the whole book. Better still, all three were happy for me to email it, which seemed an encouraging sign, and also very welcome – it saved me hours slaving over a hot printer and then lugging the parcels to my local post office, not to mention the £40 or £50 a time in postage.

The next few days were absolutely nail-biting, and I barely went more than a minute or two without thinking: I wonder if they’ve read it yet, I wonder if they liked it, I wonder when I’m going to hear from them… (Of course, during this time I remained as delightfully good-humoured and easy to live with as I always am, as my wife and children will surely confirm...)

Finally the waiting was over. One of the agents replied, saying he would like to represent me. After frantically searching round on the Internet for advice, I happened on the marvellous Miss Snark, who suggested that in these circumstances you should politely contact the other agents and inform them of the situation, giving them a reasonable time to read the book and make their own decision.

Well, they did, and lo and behold three others wanted to represent me. Suddenly I was in the bizarre position of having to choose. After years of constant rejection, it was a wonderfully surreal predicament. In fact, only a couple of years before I’d sent an earlier novel to more than thirty agents, a few of whom had actually requested the whole book (printed, not emailed) and had then either sent it back to me with just a pre-printed rejection slip or, in two cases, never responded at all, and completely ignored my follow up enquiries!

Even after meeting the agents, I had a very difficult decision to make, but in the end I signed with Tif Loehnis at Janklow & Nesbit. Then the hard work began: what turned into months of rewriting before the book was judged ready to submit to publishers.

This was also the point when David Harrison was transformed into Tom Bale. The pseudonym meant starting with a clean slate – avoiding confusion with the other David Harrisons, particularly the author of books about Sussex, whom several bookshop staff had assumed was me.

Finding a suitable name was quite a challenge. It had to be fairly unique, easy to remember, and also have a good domain name available. In discussion with my agent, we decided from the start that we would be completely open about my true identity. With my first book having barely registered on anyone’s consciousness, any attempt to create a sense of mystery risked falling rather flat, given that the eventual reveal would be greeted with: “Oh, it’s really David Harrison...

...So who’s he, then?”

I also made the sobering discovery that being published first by a small press can actually be a disadvantage when the time comes to approach the larger publishers. For writers who aren’t celebrities or noteworthy in some way, your best shot at publicity is on the basis that you’re a new, fresh talent. You only get one chance to make a true debut, and in my case that chance had come and gone. (Having said that, I certainly wouldn’t advocate that an aspiring writer should shun smaller publishers while waiting to land a deal with the big boys – unless you have nerves of steel and an absolutely colossal sense of self-belief.)

By now we had reached the spring of 2007 – the publishing process is one of the few human activities that can be recorded in geological time – and eventually feedback began to trickle in. The initial reaction from editors was that they loved the opening, but felt disappointed by what followed.

Despite this, one publisher did show very keen interest, even to the point of arranging a meeting on the basis that an offer would definitely be forthcoming. The meeting seemed to go very well, but we then waited for over a week and heard nothing. Eventually my agent discovered that the editor in question had been over-ruled by a senior colleague, forcing her to break her word. My initial reaction was a sense of betrayal, quickly followed by enormous relief at my lucky escape.

But it wasn’t all bad news. The book had also gone out to some foreign publishers, and in Germany the wonderful Andrea Best at Goldmann responded very quickly with a pre-empt for German rights.

CHAPTER SIX: BREAKTHROUGH

Brooding on the feedback one day, I saw where the problem lay. Following the massacre at the start of SKIN AND BONES, the story jumped forward several months. In doing so, a lot of the tension was lost. What I should have done was continue the story right from the moment the shooting spree ends.

But to change that now would mean keeping the first ten thousand words, and virtually ditching and rewriting the other hundred thousand.

Gulp.

While I was mulling this over, my agent had arranged a number of meetings with editors, including one with the legendary Rosie de Courcy, who had just joined a brand new imprint at Random House (at that time still unnamed, but now called Preface Publishing). Again the meeting went extremely well, and I felt an immediate rapport with Rosie. After spelling out my ideas for a very major rewrite, I wrote up some more detailed notes on the changes and sent them to her.

Two days later, I received the phone call from my agent that every aspiring writer dreams of: on the strength of my proposed rewrite, Rosie had offered me a two-book deal. As a result of her remarkable act of faith, I would be able to earn a living as a writer, finally realising the ambition I’d been nurturing for the past thirty-four years.

What followed was yet more months of work, this time taking the book apart and rewriting it with a completely new timeline, as well as new sub-plots and several new characters. SKIN AND BONES Mk II was completed in December 2007, two years after I’d had the original idea. It would be something of an understatement to say I was slightly anxious while waiting for Rosie’s verdict on what was, essentially, a new book.

Thankfully, both she and Tif felt it was a great improvement on the original, with far more tension and a much stronger, more satisfying ending. Several more months of relatively minor editing, copy-editing and proof-reading followed, and then, by the spring of 2008, it was absolutely, completely, finally finished. Advance reading copies were printed and sent out in the summer and autumn, and publication date for the hardback was set for January 2009. But by then, I had much more important things to think about.

The second book of my two-book deal. It was time to do it all again.