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.

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.

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.

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 . . .