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.

Almost there . . .

The most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with recently, in terms of getting A Garden of Bones out is deciding on a cover design. The problem, I think, is that I am a creative snob.

I’m going with this one, but changing the sub-head . . . because it’s too flippant.

I had two designs to consider. I loved one, although while, for me, it was more creatively fulfilling, I sort of knew the other one would work better in terms of selling copies. One looked like a true crime book, the other like a crime novel. I’ve said all of this before, so won’t go back over old ground.

I even went as far as asking for a mash-up of the two covers to see if that presented a solution. It didn’t. Everybody hated it and, in a nutshell, saw it as a weaker version (whether they were in favour of one design or another) of the cover they liked.

And I’ve got to say a massive thank you to my cover designer, Liam Relph, for his patience.

What I’ve come to realise, is that from where I’m at now, this has become a commercial over a creative process. It’s about flogging books. And while I initially preferred the other design . . . classier, referenced my involvement in the story, acknowledged me etc etc . . . that was my own ego messing with the process.

I preferred this one, but it was just too ‘true crime’

This is about the book; making sure that it attracts as many people as possible, gets as many people buying it as possible. And for that to happen, you have to take personal ego out of the equation. You have to think about the reader . . . your market, your target audience, and what will draw them in, what will make them click ‘buy’ on their Kindle or their phone.

My strategy, at present, is to offer it to Kindle on their 70 per cent exclusivity deal, and to access their services for print sales.

But the best thing about the KDP thingy, is that it only applies to e-books. They really don’t care about print copies. So you can sign up for this and get a massive 70 per cent on all digital sales, but also push it out to other providers.

So I’m going to go with IngramSpark as my second print supplier, because they supply print copies to a lot of libraries around the world, to a lot of independent bookshops; and because their print editions come out in a much higher quality that Amazon’s offering. Ultimately, if you buy a print book, you want it to sit with the rest of your book collection once you’ve finished it and not look like a cheap addition.

I’ve also resisted Amazon’s preferred manuscript shape. They’d prefer you to publish tall and thin so it works on smartphones.

This was the mash-up . . . and nobody liked it

Fuck that, frankly.

It’s a book, in my eyes, so it’s book-shaped.

This whole thing is running wild at the moment. I’m dealing with cover designers, I’m dealing with page designers, I’m setting up a publishing company, which I’ve called Crazy Dog Publishing (another post for another day), which is essentially for my writing, but wouldn’t rule out expanding.

I’ve forked out £170 buying ISBN numbers – block of 10 when I actually need two – although I may need more in the future.

There may be an audiobook (watch this space) and I sort of want to put out a large print version. My mother suffered a stroke a couple of years ago and is slowly losing her sight. I wanted her to b able to read it in a format that worked for her, but also saw the commercial potential in that market. Old people love a bit of crime, a bit of true crime, don’t they.

But it’s all very real now. It’ all a month away, at best. And I know I’ve got a winner. Afterall, it’s only taken half a decade to get to this point.

Exciting times . . .

So, I suppose when you write a book – when you go through those months and years of endless nights hammering it out; those nights of rewriting, re-plotting and re-planning, you never actually see the thing finally getting out there.

I didn’t. For me it was all about the book . . . getting it written in the first instance, getting a second draft out that I was happy with, fine tuning, tweaking and pondering . . . and finally getting to a point where you knew you could do no more.

It had been passed around numerous people, those who had read it, those who had critiqued it, and those who had proofed it.

Then, finally, it is there. There is nothing else you can do as a writer to perfect it. It’s not perfect, because it never is; but you reach a point where you can’t bare to chance another comma to a semi-colon; where you think you’ll scream if you spot another typo after proof after proof after proof; when you can’t even contemplate whether a tense in one sentence jars with another.

You are happy.

As happy as you can be.

And you need to let it go.

Only, until about a month ago, I had only ever seen A Garden of Bones laid out on an A4 sheet. It didn’t look like a book. It looked like an essay . . . albeit a very, very long one.

It comes in just short of 84,000 words. It’s been longer and it’s been shorter. But considering that the second re-write was essentially a restart, I must have written 160,000 works of it in the past few years. And that’s on top of the, on average, 250,000 word I write each year through the day job.

But it is time to let it go, to let it be itself. I have now stepped back and allowed other expertise to take over. I can tell you from my typesetter – the exceptional Andrew Tennant – that it is 324 pages long and its shape is 12.85 x 19.84 cm. I Ignored the Kindle Direct plea to make it taller and thinner so it works better on a smart phone. Read it on a phone if you want, but, even better, buy a kindle because it feels like a book. Or even buy the book.

It will come to you in bound paper. You can break the spine and prove to those who visit your home and peruse your bookshelves while you pour them wine, that you have read it . . . along with all those others.

I’m now in my second major collaboration with A Garden of Bones. I’m working with the outstanding Liam Relph to create the artwork.

My on is a massively talented artist. Got a Grade A at A Level, currently studying an Art Foundation and plans on studying Fine Art at one of several art schools in London later this year. A lot of people said to me, ‘Why don’t you get Ollie to design it?’. And a really big part of me wanted him to. And I’m sure that whatever he created would have been wonderful.

Only I didn’t want to put it on his shoulders, and I wanted to engage someone who has experience of creating book covers that sell copies.

That’s why we do this, right? We do this to sell as many copies of our book as we can. We have, after all, spent many a long evening kicking this bastard into shape.

Writing is a solitary experience, but at some point two things happen.

You have to involve other people.

And you have to let the bugger loose and start to think about what you’re going to write next.

I’m hoping to be able to share initial artwork ideas over the next few days, and I would very much appreciate your feedback.

Light and shade . . .

When I discover an author I tend to go all out with him or her. My recent discoveries have been Shirley Jackson, Sarah Waters, Donna Tarrt and Patrick Süskind.

I’m not always that highbrow, it has to be said. A couple of years ago I discovered Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series and – following advise not to bother with the first two ‘because they’re crap’ – started with the third novel and read nothing else for the best part of a year until I got to the end.

There’s a new one out which I haven’t read, but it will probably be next on my list . . . unless something else catches my eye.

I did go back to his first two, after I stumbled into them in a bargain bookshop in Buxton. They’re not crap. They’re just not as good as the rest of the series.

And the reason, I think, is that they lack darkness. A crime novel set in Oslo, where it’s dark from 2.30pm in the afternoon, automatically adds a hell of a lot of mood . . . of weight.

If you set your first novel in Sydney and the second in Bangkok – as he does – then the sun is out, the light nights are late, and you have no real way of creating any sense of ‘Noir’.

I can see why he did it. He was new to it, and the notion of exotic foreigh locations must have appealed. Only it was counterproductive to the overall impact of the books. If it had been set in some winter-filled world, interspersed with the intrusion of neon street lighting, freezing smack addicts and the heavy weight of snow on the ground like an intrusive blanket, then the Bat and Cockroaches would have worked as well as all the others. It is a journey of discovery, I have come to realise..

As a writer, and as a reader I am drawn to darkness. I don’t just read crime. My tastes are fairly eclectic. 

But all the same, give me darkness, give me noir.

Give me Dark Materials over Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, give me Perfume, give me Secret History. Whatever the genre, darkness for me opens up the human condition. It makes us explore what is most wrong with us, by exploring characters in works of fiction who have the most wrong with them.

I mean . . . come on . . . who wants to read about people like the ones who live next door . . . unless they’re Bill and Pat Wycherley.

A bit more of the book . . .

Say hello to Susan Edwards

Hesitant footsteps on the stairs, laboured; one creak, then a pause, then another – like someone carrying a heavy load. 

Susan Edwards

The shuffle of feet outside the door; a key, turning in a lock – a rasping clunk as it is pulled out. 

The squeak of the handle, the hiss of wood gliding over carpet, and the sense that someone is standing behind her.

She doesn’t turn. 

After all, who else is it going to be? 

She has stayed all day in the tiny flat, pokier even than their former home in Dagenham. The floors squeak when you walk around and the whole floor in the living room sinks into a corner. If you happened to drop a ball on the floor it would naturally roll towards it.

She is slight – not short but slump-shouldered, which are slender and sagged.

A Garden of Bones

The attic rooms drop in the corners, bend in the walls, and have windows jutting upwards in a failed attempt to make more space, like an afterthought.

She looks out over the skyline, almost Russian in its multi-coloured and domed splendor, every now and then. 

She wanders a lot. She wanders and looks at her watch. She clutches her hands, rubs them together a lot – so bad that she has to use cream to soften them – like there’s blood on them, like a bashful Lady Macbeth.

She is slight – not short but slump-shouldered, which are slender and sagged.

Her hair is grey and forgotten, like she has been cutting it herself, and she wears no make-up. She has no need.

Her clothes are dour and shabby – an old green cardigan over her shoulders, plain cream trousers and a round-necked top of an indeterminable shade of white.

She wears no jewellery.

She never has. 

There is no TV, and she couldn’t understand it even if there was. They have a small radio – good enough to give them a crackly rendition of the World Service. 

There is also no TV because there is no money – what little pot they had has now dwindled 

to a pocketful of coppers. 

Lessons from a literary hero . . .

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

Terry Pratchett

I was watching a programme the other day about the late, great Terry Pratchett – one of my life heroes, to be honest, as well as my literary ones.

There was a section  where he was talking about writer’s block, and saying that he’d never suffered from it . . .

Terry Pratchett

Paraphrasing here, but in a nutshell, he said: “There’s nothing that cures writer’s block better than a narky editor screaming over your shoulder for your copy.”

He went further on the subject, perhaps his most famous quotation on the topic is: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

Like me, Pratchett had been a journalist, although he had bailed on the industry to work as a press officer for a number of nuclear power stations.

But there is something very true in what he says. If you work as a reporter then the notion of writer’s block is something of a mystery. 

If you’re not filling your quota, then someone further up the food chain will be having a word . . . sooner rather than later.

If your copy isn’t sharp, interesting, concise and accurate, then much the same. It is a requirement. Working as a reporter of as a feature even more so, you need to be able to craft words, to build a story with letter after letter after letter, a little like a bricklayer building a wall.

One of my favourite Pratchett novel

Here’s something that I was told when I first went to journalism school . . . 

A news story is the same shape as an upside down triangle, a feature is circular . . . at least if it’s done properly. 

And I do think that is absolutely true. 

A straight news article has all of the big information at the top – the most important bits in the introduction and second and third paragraphs. Then it continues down, getting thinner and thinner with the least crucial information going downwards.

The reason for this is that, back in the day when sub editors still existed, if a news story was too long and had to be cut, it was easy to cut it from the bottom.

But a good feature is definitely circular . . . it should end, pretty much where it starts. So, if you’re writing a feature about a police operation in a now-dodgy part of town and you decide to go in at the start, or near the start, saying that your aunt Flo’ lived there just after the war, then towards the end you need to reintroduce aunt Flo – it takes the reader back to the beginning, and makes it ‘circular’.

Now for me, Pratchett was a genius of the English language, and possibly one of our finest wits since Oscar Wilde. But I also think he was doing himself, and the rest of us lesser mortals, a bit of a disservice on the subject of writer’s block.

“Writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”

Terry Pratchett

Writer’s block happens to all of us, or most of us to a greater or lesser extent. I can always rattle something out for the paper or the website, but when I’m writing creatively, I want it to be perfect, or as near to perfect as it can be . . . as I’m sure do you, if you are a writer.

My writer’s block tends to come if I’ve not plotted properly, if I’m hoping that it will all just somehow come together in the end.

Although that’s all part of the journey really. You’ll start something, get lost at some point and abandon it, at least that’s how it works for me. So now I plot meticulously. I treat a work of fiction like I treat one massive feature and make it obey the same rules. I make my chapters circular for one and, with A Garden of Bones, the whole book. It ends where it starts. It gives the reader closure, I hope.

You need to enjoy writing, love writing even, to stick to it night after night after night.

And as the late, great Terry Pratchett once said: “Writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

See what I did there?

Questions and answers . . .

I’m in the process of preparing a media pack for the book launch and I’ve just sorted the Q&A section, which I thought I’d share here. Please let me know if there’s nything else you think I should include . . .

One of the front pages from the time

What inspired you to write A Garden of Bones?

I’d always hoped to one day write a book; it was a bucket-list thing I suppose, but nothing ever seemed quite right. Then, out of the blue, I was covering the Wycherley Murders, and in the months and weeks afterwards I started to get contacted by production companies wanting me to speak on true crime documentaries, and then the BBC who, at the time, were thinking about making a drama. At that point I think it dawned on me just what an incredible story it was and, apart from some of the police officers who had worked the investigation, I probably knew more about the case than anyone else.

Was it easy to write?

No. Like any book it was a process. I got a first draft out quite quickly but, as tends to happen with first drafts, it was nowhere near right. It was all told from my perspective and it didn’t get anywhere near enough to the centre of the story. So I went back to the drawing board. I went back and re-interviewed some of the officers involved to get under the skin of the police investigation to cover that side of things, and I realised that Susan Edwards needed her own voice, her own character. I needed to be able to take the reader into the house on the night of the killings, to France where the Edwards finally fled, and to St Pancras Station where they were eventually arrested. Then I meticulously plotted and re-plotted until I had the outline I was happy with, where the story could be told through three distinctive viewpoints, and where those viewpoints could thread and weave, and cross over. Although after all that, I think sitting down and writing it was the easy part.

How did you find the time to write it?

Again, with some difficulty. My day job involved some pretty crazy hours at the time and it was really a case of working on it at night and over weekends. I do recall not seeing anything on the television for over a year and often wasn’t getting to bed until one or two in the morning. But you just have to keep going. 

Andy Done Johnson

Why does the book take the style it takes?

I was adamant from the outset that I didn’t want to write a true crime book, at least not in a conventional form, and my original version was essentially a memoire, which couldn’t take the reader to the centre of the story. As it progressed it came closer and closer to reading like a novel, so I suppose in the end I just gave into it and wrote it as a novel. But the issue was that it involved a number of very real people, and I was only prepared to place them in the narrative as a matter of fact, or record. I didn’t want to take liberties with people’s lives or betray confidences, so for the sake of the narrative really, a few characters had to become fictional in order for me to properly tell the story.

Did you play any part in the Olivia Colman drama?

No, it is merely coincidence that the drama was announced at the same time that I was preparing to publish A Garden of Bones. A few years ago I did speak to another producer who was thinking about making a different drama about Susan and Christopher Edwards. I’m sworn to secrecy on that one, but I’m told it still may see the light of day. Although I can’t see how they could have written the Colman script without reading a lot of my reports from the time . . . so indirectly perhaps. After I found out about it I did send her a copy of the book though; not that I’ve had a reply from her agent.

Susan and Christopher Edwards

How did writing A Garden of Bones affect you?

In many ways the book is an extension of the case. I became obsessed with the Wycherley Murders . . . perhaps unhealthily so . . . at the time and then through the court case. I think I document this is quite a lot of detail in the chapters seen through the eyes of the journalist. But it didn’t really go away. I was being asked to relive it all by talking to production companies, describing what I did, being asked who I thought was the driving force behind the murders, going back to the Wycherley’s former house. So in the end I just had to write the book, just to set it down really and be able to move on.

Do you have plans to write anything else?

I’ve discovered through A Garden of Bones that I like to write fiction based on real events, using real people wherever I can . . . I think that’s where my future as a writer lies. I’m in the very early stages of another book, which hasn’t got a title yet but is about the murder of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. I like crime fiction that breaks boundaries, and I wondered how a murder would be investigated during a time before there was anything resembling a modern day police force. But there’s a way to go.

Revisiting familiar ground . . .

My retrospective piece about the Wycherley Murders has now been published on the Mansfield Chad, the news outlet that first broke the story.

It was actually lovely to be able to write the article for the publication that first broke the story, or perhaps more through which I broke the story.

Here’s the start of it.

It was raining outside, grey and horrible and it was a quiet day in the office – one of those where there was nothing much going on . . . the worst sort of days when you’re a reporter.

I was on the calls shift, as it was then . . . things are very different now. Back in 2013 you’d call the police every hour to see what was happening, you’d call the fire service and basically deal with all the breaking news.

Then I saw a conversation on a Facebook page, people discussing a forensics tent that had been put up in the back garden of a house in Forest Town . . . talk that they had found bodies in the ground. The cul de sac Blenheim Close was mentioned.

I grabbed my phone, my pad and a handful of pens and headed to the scene, while colleagues got on the phone to the police.

It wasn’t difficult to spot. As I pulled over there were two police officers stationed at the top of the road, guarding the property on the corner; the tent clearly visible from the road.

I hadn’t even got out of my car when the mobile rang. The office. Police confirmed two bodies had been unearthed and removed. They wanted to make it clear it was a historical find, no mad axeman on the loose, sort of thing.

You can click on or paste the link to read it in full.

https://www.chad.co.uk/news/crime/chad-reporter-recalls-day-two-bodies-were-found-garden-mansfield-property-1370997

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.

Coming soon . . .

One of the most horrific parts of the Wycherley Murders was the disposal of the bodies.

Tomorrow I’m going to write about how the Edwards disposed of the remains of William and Patricia Wycherley, the lies they told, and the story they concocted . . .

And how one slip in the ‘web of lies’ that they build, contributed towards their conviction.

There might even be a bit more book . . . just a bit.