Typo paranoia . . .

When I first entered this circus – around about the time of the fall of Carthage – it was a different world, to put it lightly.

Firstly, it was still deemed as a remotely sensible, if a bit showbiz, means of earning a living, It never was, by the way. It always struck me as a bit intrusive – a bit like you were walking into other people’s tragedies and being offered a temporary seat at the table while they poured over their grief.

Maybe it has to feel like that though. If it didn’t feel like that then that would make me a sociopath . . . wouldn’t it?

It also involved a lot of working over weekends, working late into the evening, hoping bugger all would kick off at five to ten at night when you could finally go home,

I have become ‘battle hardened’ and that worries me. Recently there was an alleged double murder in the next village to where I live – and I have to say ‘alleged’ because the person accused of the killing had gone ‘not guilty’, and is, therefore, innocent until a jury makes a decision. Just like with Susan and Christopher Edwards.

I was at the suspect’s first magistrates’ court appearance, his first crown court appearance . . . and the whole thing will now go quiet until his trial later this year. That’s the way it is.

Speaking to people who knew the victims . . . friends or friends of my wife, I have built up a picture of what happened, the dynamics of why someone might, allegedly, kill his estranged wife and her new lover. And there is a part of me which, speaking as a hack of 20-odd years, just sees the story. You do lose the humanity . . . unless you steadfastly insist on holding onto it.

In this game accuracy is everything, and I suppose getting something wrong . . . some fact, some spelling . . . is akin to a plumber coming round to fix a leaky pipe and flooding your cellar. We take such fuck-ups very seriously, on a personal lever as much as a corporate one.

Last week, I covered a case where a solicitor named and shamed a company which had treated a young apprentice very badly. He’s been fired and punched the son of the company’s owners. Only the solicitor had given the wrong name of the company. I’m covered by court privilege – if it’s said in court, even if it’s not true, I am protected. But it still has an impact and you feel that.

You just want to get it right. You don’t want to flood the cellar.

Many years ago I had a stint as a sub editor, when sub editors still existed. It was their job to go through the copy, sort out the grammar, fix the typos, put in all the stray commas, the missing hyphens and generally make the copy ‘clean’.

They’d also check to ensure that the copy was legally sound, that it didn’t defame or otherwise interfere with any legal processes that may be taking place. There is, frankly, very little worse than being dragged before a judge and being asked to justify yourself in a contempt of court proceeding.

But there is also very little worse than spelling something wrong . . . a typo. The bane of professional writer’s life.

Rolling back 20 years, when I wrote a story, it would go to the newsdesk, which would then take it into a conference, and once approved, it would go back for ‘desking’, before it went to the subs, before it went to the night editor, who would pick up anything that had been missed . . . often literally a missing comma. So by the time it ‘hit the streets’ it was perfect.

Then they got rid of the subs and, in many cases the night editor. It became about the web and immediacy and ‘getting it right first time’ . . . a corporate shitbag in pushing the onus of accuracy onto the reporters; the company taking no ownership in removing layer after layer of scrutiny.

And that’s really how I’ve found the process of writing this book. I’ve produced a little over 80,000 words. A dear friend called Kate did my initial proofs, twice, and I thought it was there, because she’s brilliant.

Then I sent it out to other friends and they came back with more. A total of nine, I think. Handbreak, not handbrake. A few missed hyphens, a few literals. But it’s exhausting all the same. When you want something to be perfect in every way. When you don’t want someone’s lasting impression of the book it’s taken you half a decade to write to be a typo or a stray comma on page 157.

I think as writers though, we need to be paranoid about it. If we’re not then our product will suffer.

To be honest, I’ve had a busy week, I’m knackered, and I could really do with collapsing in front of the telly. Only I can’t because I need to blog, I need to get this book out. So now I’m paranoid that this post will have typos. It probably will. I’m only human. But I hope you will understand.

Another step closer . . .

I’m hoping that the initial artwork will be arriving over the weekend, and to be honest I’ve been incredibly vague about what I want . . . because I don’t know what I want.

I know what I don’t want.

I don’t want a shadowy detective standing in a snow-filled forest.

I don’t want photographs of Susan and Christopher Edwards . . . that would be too ‘true crime’.

“Something a bit abstract,” was all I could really come up with.

Not the sort of book cover I want

I’m working with the fabulous Liam Relph to produce my book covers, and he was an absolute find.

Apart from his artwork – check him out on Reedsy – which is diverse, he has a sense for the abstract. What sold him to me was his promise to read the book. Sounds an odd thing to say, but most of them don’t. And then he came to me with real enthusiasm and a hundred questions . . . because he was genuinely interested and enthusiastic. I’ve talked about Liam in my last post, so I won’t go on, other than to reiterate the learning curve of going it alone.

Through this process, when I finally took the decision to be in charge of my own destiny as a writer; when I decided to move away from that notion of conventional publishing, I effectively had to become a small business.

I had to become my own PR and marketing department, my own accountant, my own project manager. And one of the keys to successful small business, I have learned, is that you need to hire in expertise.

I also don’t really want her on the front

Back in my pre-independent days, I truly never gave this any thought. It would just happen, right? Well yeah, it would . . . to a greater or lesser extent. You may get consulted on covers, but you wouldn’t have the final say, or perhaps not any say at all, because now it was the publisher’s book, not yours.

Would they even ask you about typesetting? Don’t know, but I doubt it.

And then to the editing. When I had lunch with my then agent one thing he said really struck me.

He said: “Of course, this is just the start,” After I’d worked through the night to make all the final amendments he wanted to get it out ahead of some of the bigger book festivals. “Once one of them bites, they’re going to want to appoint their own editor, to pull it around until it’s the book they want.”

With hindsight, I should have said, “Fuck that,” then and there. Because all they want is Inspector Morse and Harry Hole, or any one of a handful of other templates. What works? Just keep churning it out. More of the same, more of the same. Get it in the bookshops at the airport for that extra push.

Books bought at Heathrow and abandoned in hotel rooms all over the world, or left, finished, soaking up pool water in the fading sunlight until the artwork fades.

Abandoned.

And that’s not the route I want.

I will share the initial designs when I have them.

Just a quick one . . .

I think we’re almost there. My typesetting is almost there for the innards, and I’ve had a long chat with my cover artist today, so I hope that within a month A Garden of Bones will be good to meet the world.

Andy Done Johnson

I asked a number of people to read it prior to publication and write truly honest reviews. These are all people I know professionally. But the directive was simple . . . Do not suck my d!c$. Be honest. If you hate it, please say that you hate it. You will be doing me a favour.

“It’s a book that works on many levels . . .”

Jon Smart

Anyway, here is one of them, written by a guy who grew up and still lives in the town where A Garden of Bones is set.

AND I am eternally grateful.

“With a deft pen, Andy Done-Johnson gives a first-hand account of how he broke a true crime story which was gripping, shocking and bizarre in equal measure.

It’s a book that works on many levels.

First and foremost, it gives a journalist’s perspective on what it’s like to catch the story of a lifetime, then stay one step ahead of the press pack to keep it alive.

It’s also a study into the character and psychology of the story’s main protagonists, the perpetrators of such a chilling and callous crime, and the police officers tasked with tracking them down and piecing together the jigsaw of what happened.

Finally, it tells the story of the disintegration of a former mining town that has never recovered from its main industry and employment source closing down, and the devastating impact on the unfolding investigation of ever-tightening budget cuts on a force that’s already been stripped to the bone.

An assured debut.

Jon Smart.”

I’ll be sharing the artwork soon . . . and maybe a bit more of the book.

Landscapers . . .

Can you imagine dragging two dead, bleeding bodies down a couple of flights of stairs, not long after you’ve just shot them.

Can you imagine digging a pit in the dead of night, throwing the corpses in and covering them with topsoil.

Can you imagine going to B&Q the following morning and buying a load of bedding plants to cover the burial scene.

Can you imagine spending the next seven years routinely going back to the burial site to keep it maintained, to keep it looking normal, to stop it from drawing attention.

Ironically, this very act did just that.

In the years following the Wycherley’s murders, the only thing that neighbours found odd was ‘the young couple’ – Susan and Chrisopher Edwards – turning up, from time to time to do the garden.

It’s one of the first things that I was told, and it has, ultimately, created the title for the new drama that will be made later this year.

Landscapers.

It goes a little too far, I would suggest.

In their evidence, Susan and Christopher claimed it was really an act of panic – they were faced with two dead bodies, they had to get rid of them to evade capture. They thought about hiding the Wycherleys’ remains in the attic, but they realised that they would smell, and neither of them had the physical strength to lug the remains of two dead adults over their heads, up a ladder and into a loft space.

But they could take them downwards . . . gravity would help.

So they had lumped them down the stairs; heads banding on step after step; William “as stiff as a board”, Patricis “loose and gurgling” . . . blood pouring out of her.

Susan and Christopher Edwards

It would ultimately be part of their story that would lead to their conviction.

Neither of the Edwards were big people.

Christopher was slight; Susan slighter . . . and the notion of them dragging these two, dead human forms down the stairs, through the lounge and into their, almost, final resting place, seemed almost impossible, when it was described during their prosecution.

But they did it.

I have questioned over the years, was this an act of desperation; was this an act of greed and necessity?

Was it both?

In many ways, and this is a key theme of the book; William and Patricia were victims of Susan and Christopher, but Susan was a victim of William, Christopher was a victim of William.

Patricia was more innocent . . . although guilty by her ‘blind eyes’ to her husband’s behaviour. Maybe she just wanted a quiet life. I don’t know.

Was Christopher a victim of Susan. That’s a tricky one. Possibly . . . I would say. 

But at what point, after you’ve been bullied and abused – physically, sexually and emotionally – do you become a criminal?

We live in a culture of victims and perpetrators; but the criminal justice system, the courts and the press, never really contemplate the victim . . . or whether they actually deserved the bullets that they got. 

William Wycherley was not a nice man. William Wycherley did terrible things. And yet in this black and white world of ‘goodies and baddies’, he is the victim in all of this all the same . . . the vulnerable daughter who he abused, the villain. And maybe we need to look at situations like this through differently-tinted spectacles.

Fantacists . . .

Susan Edwards lived in a dream world . . . a surreal world. Susan was plain. Susan was ugly. Susan did not attract the sexual interest and desire of the opposite sex. Unless Christopher Edwards had turned up, Susan Edwards would have died a virgin.

Susan and Christopher Edwards

Perhaps she is . . . I honestly don’t know, but the Edwards did not come across like a sexually-active couple.

It looked more like a friendship . . . two people who had found each other, two people who could not find anybody else. They were the very best that either of them could do. Very sad. Mote than very sad, to be honest because I spent the best part of a month sitting a few metres from them both while this whole sorry story unfolded, and I did not once detect any closeness whatsoever. It seemed more like an arrangement than a marriage. They had been married for years by the time they were caught. They were childless. Did they have problems having kids? Did they choose not to have kids? Were kids never on the cards?

I think the latter. I just don’t think sex existed in their marriage. I think they got off on something else. I think they got off on fantasy.

Quite early in the trial, we heard that Susan had told Christopher that she had once been invited to a hotel room by the late Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly. Christopher had appeared mortified, in the dock, when this was exposed as a fiction.

We heard a bizarre story about Susan Edwards setting up a pen friend arrangement between Christopher and the French actor Gérard Depardieu. Christopher and Gérard ha spent years sending letters, Susan had even bought a franking machine so the actors letters seemed more real. Seemed more like they had been posted from his Paris home. Clearly nonsense . . . but then Christopher had played along with it for years and years.

These games . . .

It was a fantasist’s world . . .

They lived in their own heads . . . in their own fantasies. He was obsessed with Churchill and De Gaulle, her with Silver Screen icons like Gary Cooper, and they spent literally thousands, buying memorabilia, bringing their heroes into their lives . . . into their homes.

At the heart of this was the deepest insecurity . . . that they weren’t great, or notorious or famous, or legendary.

That they were ordinary . . . more than ordinary.

A long lesson in frustration . . .

Almost publishing a book the old-fashioned way.

I never had a problem finding something to write about, at least not with this book. You see, professionally, something remarkable happened to me. I’ve said in previous posts, but I’ll briefly recap . . .

One rainy day back in October 2013, I broke one of the most notorious murders in recent criminal history . . . the Wycherley Murders. Two old people killed by their own daughter and son-in-law, buried in their own back garden in the dead of night. 

Then they’d gone about profiting from their crimes . . . transferring money from account to account, taking out loans in the Wycherleys’ names, using their names to act as guarantors on other loans.  profiting from their pensions, eventually selling their house.

Andy Done Johnson

Why they did it and what they spent the money on will be the subject of  a later post. If you don’t know the case well, you really won’t believe it.

They constructed a web of lies. They told the neighbours the Wycherleys had moved away . . gone to live in Morecambe or Australia, or were living out their later years travelling around Ireland. They told relatives the same and sent them letters, sent them cards at Christmas. 

So that was the book, that was what it was going to be about.

I decided to do a draft after I’d been interviewed by a couple of true crime documentary makers, and the BBC had come knocking wanting to pick my brains for a drama about the case – not the Olivia Colman one, but another, which I’m told still might see the light of day.

I rattled out a draft over maybe six months. It wasn’t right. I knew it wasn’t. It was all about me and my involvement, and I wasn’t the story. The story was Susan and Christopher Edwards, what they’d done, why they’d done it and how they were eventually caught.

I was a sub-plot at best – a first hand observer to what was happening. It couldn’t be about me, at least not mainly about me.

I’d never got close to writing a book, or at least finishing one. I’d get a chapter written, they lose interest or go the wrong way with it, get frustrated and abandon it. 

But here was my first draft and I sent it out anyway, dreadful though it was.

I’d done my research, but I was also quite set in my ways . . . to publish a book you need to attract a publisher, and to stand a chance of getting it under the nose of one of those, you need to get an agent. Right?

So I sent out my sample chapters to ten-or-so agents, thinking I’d never hear a word back, and was amazed when I got a phone call within a few days from one of them asking to read the rest of it.

Done deal? Erm . . . no.

“It needs a lot of work,” he said. “You need to get to the centre of the story. You’re not close enough to the events. Go away and do it again.” 

But I was massively lucky. He wanted to be involved, he wanted to help, and he wanted to see it out there. We spent months pinging emails back and forth, me sending various plans through, him throwing them back, saying ‘try again’.

In the end, out of utter frustration, I took a month away from it, spent more time with my family, spent time not obsessing about the bloody thing. 

Then I went back to it, ripped up everything I’d done before and started again.

“The more it reads like a novel, the better it will be,” the agent said repeatedly, and really that’s how a memoir, or a true crime book became, of sorts, a work of fiction.

It’s a strange work of fiction, because the majority of the characters are real people, in the book they do what they did in real life, they said what they did in real life. I had to make a few inventions though, fictional characters to get the reader to where they needed to be, to impart information that I couldn’t have done without them. I didn’t want to betray any of my real people by placing them in a fictional situation.

I’m going to skip ahead now . . . how I wrote it, constructed it etc is probably the subject of a future post.

“It is a remarkable – I’d even go so far as to say brilliant – novel”

My agent

So a year goes by, and by now we’re in January 2018. I’d submitted it to the agent – I’m not naming him by the way, wouldn’t be fair . . . he tried his best – about three months earlier and heard nothing back.

Then an email . . . 

“I finished The Wycherley Murders  (title?) On Friday evening. It brought tears to my eye. It is a remarkable – I’d even go so far as to say brilliant – novel.

“One of the greatest pleasures of this job are the times when an author doesn’t just respond to the notes I give but goes far further than I ever could have hoped for.

“This truly is the story turned into a novel but in a way and to a degree that is hugely impressive. It is sad, thought provoking and compassionate – it is also extraordinarily compelling.”

So that was me . . . contemplating my new life as a full-time writer.

Only it wasn’t to be because, I had failed to realise, the whole game had changed and the conventional publishers had got mega-safe, mega-conservative. That part of the publishing industry is now, sadly, more of the same please, just more of the same. 

Susan and Christopher Edwards

Crime writing has to be rip-offs of Colin Dexter, or Jo Nesbo, or Val McDermid, and the only thing we could think to compare A Garden of Bones with was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

It went out to all the big players. Here’s one, as an example . . .

“This is brilliantly done and I was biding my time in the hope of catching publisher and co off guard to make a case for it, Well, it would in facet be quite an outlier on our list, and I fear it just didn’t overcome that hurdle. A reluctant no from me.”

There were plenty more, some more positive, some less so . . . one deeply apologetic and that he’d almost begged them to say yes, another accusing me of ripping off David Peace.

But the theme, generally was ‘reasons why we shouldn’t publish it’, rather than ‘reasons why we should’. 

Even the agent told me, at one point, that “ten years ago they’d have been biting your hand off for it”.

We tried a few more angles – contacted a few smaller, northern publishers . . . thinking perhaps that the subject matter was a bit too working class, a bit too ‘outside the Home Counties and the M25’ for the agent’s stable of contacts.

We looked around for writing competitions to enter it into . . . but these things tend to be fiercely geographically based. I didn’t qualify for anything in the north of England, for example, because officially I’m in the Midlands, and the north starts about 11 miles north in South Yorkshire. 

Frustration after frustration after frustration.

Eventually I gave up on it and abandoned A Garden of Bones in a digital draw, gathering digital dust for the best part of a year.

Then, in a nutshell, I got a bollocking . . . off the wife. 

“Sort it out and publish it. Do it yourself. What have you got to lose?” sort of thing. 

So I started doing my research . . . I’m a journalist, so digging around is really my thing, and I discovered this brave new world.

Authors could publish themselves . . . and actually get read. Gone were the days where if you self-published you’d be trying to flog copies out of a cardboard box at car boot sales, and passing on what you couldn’t shift to relatives as Christmas presents.

Gone were the days of forking out for vanity publishers, and dragging around small independent bookshops, hoping they might stick a couple on their shelves. The internet happened, digital publishing happened, Kindle happened, and I am delighted and excited to be a part of this.

We don’t need Picador, or Penguin or Random House or whoever. We can do it on our own and we can connect to our readers in a way that we never could before, and they can connect to us.

They don’t need us either . . . we can leave them to their policy of ‘safely, safely, more of the same’ . . . replicas of previous successes, ghost-written romances from Katie Price. I think we are all better than that. 

Reviews that count now aren’t from some schmoozed and tweed-wearing critic from the Guardian or the Telegraph. The ones that count are from our readers . . . on our WordPress pages, our Amazon author pages, our Goodreads pages.

Virginia Woolf set up her own press to get her books out around 100 years ago. We are merely doing the same. Exciting times, taking back ownership of our own creative destinies.

Tomorrow . . .

Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about writing, my experience of the publishing industry, and why us writers are better off ‘going it alone’. You may or may not be aware, but a brave new world is upon us. My advice, from one writer to another . . . GET IT OUT THERE. And take ownership.

Andy Done Johnson

I spent two extremely frustrating years going down the conventional publishing route . . . and I had a really good book, and I had a really good agent, and I had the likes of Random House and all the others sniffing around.

In a nutshell, if you’re writing crime, recreate Inspector Morse. If you’re writing chic lit, re-imagine Bridget Jones. You get it? That’s what they want. And nothing else.

Can they flog it in the bookshop at the airport?

But for us that love writing, and for us who love reading, everything has changed.

Did you know that Virginia Woolf set up her own publishing company to get her books out there?

More tomorrow . . .