Welcome to Episode 7 of the Art In Fiction Podcast!
Meet Andrew Cartmel, author of the hilarious Vinyl Detective series. Andrew talks about the joys and challenges of writing a series with recurring characters and shares his advice about writing.
Andrew Cartmel is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His work for television includes Midsomer Murders and Torchwood, and a stint as Script Editor on the legendary Doctor Who series. He has also written plays for the London Fringe, toured as a stand-up comedian, and is currently co-writing with Ben Aaronovitch a series of comics based on the bestselling Rivers of London books.
Press Play right now and be sure to check out Andrew Cartmel's Vinyl Detective series on Art In Fiction.
Written in Dead Wax
The Run-Out Groove
Andrew Cartmel's website: http://venusianfrogbroth.blogspot.com/
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Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, host of the Art In Fiction Podcast. This episode is called Vinyl Rules, Digital Drools and features my interview with Andrew Cartmel, author of the hilarious Vinyl Detective series.
Andrew Cartmel is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His work for television includes Midsomer Murders and Torchwood, and a stint as Script Editor on the legendary Doctor Who series. He has also written plays for the London Fringe, toured as a stand-up comedian, and is currently co-writing with Ben Aaronovitch a series of comics based on the bestselling Rivers of London books.
All five novels in Andrew’s Vinyl Detective series are featured in the Music category on Art In Fiction, including Written in Dead Wax, The Run-out Groove, Victory Disc, Flip Back, and Low Action, due out in August 2020.
Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Andrew.
It's great to be here. Thank you.
I'm so excited to chat with you today. I have to say, I'm becoming a bit of a fangirl of your books, the Vinyl Detective series. They just make me laugh out loud. Can you give us a little summary of the Vinyl Detective series? Who is he and what does he do?
Ah, well, this all came about because, I've always wanted to write and I've always wanted to write books, but I did a long detour through working in television, but I came back to the point where I wanted to write novels and as it happened, a very good friend of mine and fellow TV writer had just written what became a very successful bestselling series of novels. His name's Ben Aaronovitch, the series is called Rivers of London.
And I said, okay, Ben, what's the trick? Because I'd written some novels before, but none of them had really worked. And he said, the trick is to write about what you genuinely love. Like not, not to try and second guess the marketplace or, you know, invent the perfect bestseller, but actually to generally come clean and write about what you really adore.
And for me, that's like, digging in crates, looking for old records, you know, hunting down bits of vinyl, playing them on a very good system, record collecting, and listening to music. And I thought, wow, that's not immediately a recipe for a bestseller, but I also love crime fiction. So I thought, oh, the vinyl detective. And at that time, when I first set out on this project, I Googled "the vinyl detective" and nobody was using that phrase. Over the years, as the book slowly came towards publication, that phrase began to pop up in other places where people had also thought that it was a cool thing and had independently arrived at it, but I was there first. I want you to know that, Carol, I was there first.
Well, I'm glad you were. Isn't that wonderful, though? Can you imagine if you got the idea, then you went and they were, like, six of them?
There are now.
But there wasn't then. So you've cornered it.
Virgin territory. So I sat down and started writing these crime novels and thank heavens. They, there now seems to be a growing readership for them.
Well, and no wonder because they are so compelling. And I think what sets them apart from a lot of the genre is the humor. And I'd also, I think the fact that it's unusual, you know, the Vinyl Detective and, and all the music references. I gather you're a huge jazz fan.
I am a huge jazz fan, but not, as you've probably begun to discover, each book is about a different genre of music. Don't worry—if you're not a huge jazz fan, just wait a minute, there'll be a book about something other than jazz coming along.
Can you summarize what each of the books, the five books, are about in terms of their genre?
Yeah. So the first one is jazz. The second book is psychedelic rock music of the sixties. If you think Pink Floyd, you would have a grasp, my starting point. The third book was swing music, which is arguably jazz as well. It's a big-band swing. The fourth book is psychedelic folk music of the sixties. If you were to think, um, The Incredible String Band and the like, and the new book, which is, should've been out by now, but because of certain shenanigans across the globe, it's been pushed back to August. That is about punk rock, which is a genre I think you may have heard of.
Oh, yes. Yeah. We'll talk about that in a little while. But how about classical music? Have you got a classical music in the works?
I don't have one on the stocks ready to go, but during the first novel, there's a little bit about classical music in that. I'm obviously not an expert. It's such a huge field, but I do love certain little areas of it. And also because I'm not just a music lover, I'm also an audiophile. God help cut out this part! I'm very interested in the finest pressings and the finest recordings. In the world of classical music, that is every bit as fanatically pursued as it is in the world of rock or jazz music.
Oh, I can imagine, that leads me to a question. One thing I love about your novels is how the Vinyl Detective himself pokes fun at pretentious people like my favorite, Stinky Stanmer. And he's great. He just sort of pops in and out, doesn't he? And also Erik Make Loud, which, well I'll let you describe Erik Make Loud.
Well, it's good that you mentioned Erik because he's in the new book.
Yes. I saw that. Yeah.
Erik is a narcissistic, wealthy rock guitarist, sort of, of the, I suppose, the Keith Richards school, although I don't think that he's quite as louche as Keith, who's a fantastic guitarist, but certainly, uh, you know, that hedonistic sixties rock guitarist who somehow managed to survive, some of them did. That's Erik Make Loud. Stinky, who you mentioned, is sort of our hero's nemesis and people really hate Stinky and they often get in touch on social media asking me if I could kill him off.
Well, exactly, because I say to them, it would be like, just on a tangent here, I'm a big Game of Thrones fan. And if you remember, I don't know if you are, but there was a character in Game of Thrones called Joffrey who you just hated.
Oh, absolutely. Yes. I've seen it.
Yeah. And but then when he was killed, you kind of missed him and it wasn't the same when he was gone.
Oh, you have to have a villain. Yes.
Yeah, we need our monsters. Stinky isn't really the villain because each book, uh, brings on a new, uh, a new crime and a new mystery and a new killer. And so Stinky's there for the big bad, but he's a big nuisance along the way. And he's terribly useful in his way. I think the readers love to hate him. And I just kind of love him because I just sit down and think I'm going to write a Stinky Stanmer scene, you don't need more than one or two in a book. And he just comes on. He does his thing because he's so preening and self-regarding and so evil, basically, and selfish and all the other bad things, and shallow. But he's so wonderful to write about, such fun.
Oh, he is. Yeah, deep down, he's shallow. I think he's actually one of my very favorites. Every time Stinky comes in, I went, Oh boy. So you actually have several recurring characters. Of course, that's, just backing up for a minute, the thing about writing a series is that you have a small group of characters that goes into every single book. Does that make it easier, in a way?
Absolutely. Carol, when I sat down to write these books, I thought if people actually embrace these and come to love them and make the books, the series, a success, it'll not be because every book has a satisfying mystery and lots of thrills and suspense. They need that too. But what really brings people back again and again are the regular characters, and if they fall in love with them, because they'll be thinking, Oh, I wonder what my friends are up to, by friends meaning these imaginary people in these books. But I knew that because I'm like that. And I have my own favorite series and you do fall in love with these characters. So I thought if I could pull that off, that is going to be the appeal that gives these books longevity.
And actually, that's really good advice for new authors. If they're sort of thinking about, you know, which way to go forward, it's true. The reason I love your books isn't because of the mysteries, which are intriguing, but you know, half the time, I won't necessarily remember that. But I'll always think about Nevada, about the Vinyl Detective's girlfriend, Tinkler, and Clean Head. And of course, the cats. So the cats play integral roles in the novel. I presume you're a cat lover.
Well, here's the thing, Carol. I mentioned my friend Ben, who is sort of mentoring me in a sense, giving me advice when I started writing these books, and I based the hero very closely on myself, partly because it was low-hanging fruit and easy to do. But that character is very like me. I mean, obviously he shares my obsession. So I also gave him the same Hi-Fi audiophile sound system that I own, he lives in a similar place to me. He had all these similarities, certain differences though. He's a coffee snob and I don't drink coffee 'cause it jangles my nerves too much. But basically he was very, very closely based on me, except I didn't put the cats in the book. And Ben said, aren't you going to put the cats in? And I said, no, I think we have to draw the line somewhere.
He said, no, you must include the cats. So I followed his advice and I'm so glad I did because people love the cats. They, they really do. They respond to that. I don't want to give your listeners the impression that these are like those mysteries which are all about cats.
There's several successful, good series of mysteries in which the cats are pretty central. This is not those. But what it is, is the hero owns a couple of cats who put in an appearance a few times in every book, just briefly, but people love those appearances and they adore the cats. And the thing is, this is all part of bringing a world to life. And that is what is sort of magic to the reader. Because once you bring that world to life and you have our hero and you have Nevada and you have the cats, once that world is real, then if you put your characters in jeopardy or you send them on a mission, the reader is totally invested and is totally with them in the moment. And it's just part of the binding of the spell, which you want to do to completely entrench readers.
Well, I think that something that you really do well with these books is this, these are whole people, the Vinyl Detective, because of the cats and his relationship with Nevada, and the wine drinking. And there's so many different things and where he lives. And he's a real person because he's not, like, a detective. He's just this guy that loves records and is always seeming to get himself into trouble. So he's like everyman, but the Vinyl Detective is never named. Will he ever have a name?
The answer to that, Carol, is if there's ever a TV show or a movie, I'm a practical guy. I will give him a name for that, because you'll need one to stick on the script. And also for the publicity and everything. ' Cause I have a very good model for this.
What actually happened was I didn't sit down with the intention of creating a nameless character, a man with no name, a detective with no name, but because I was writing in the first person, I didn't need a name right away because everything is from his point of view, right? So it's all me this, me that. When you're thinking in somebody's head, they tend not to think in terms of themselves in the third person or by name. So it was perfectly natural for him not to have a name. And at sort of that certain point when I was quite deeply into writing the novel, I realized I hadn't given him a name and it didn't matter. And I thought, well, let's go for this, because it sort of adds an extra kind of cool little layer of mystery to it.
Also crucially, I was aware that one could do this because there was some very honorable antecedents. The great crime novelist Dashiell Hammett, who's one of my heroes, he had a character called the Continental Op, Op meaning operative, in other words, detective, who worked for the Continental Detective Agency and we never learned his name.
And also there's a terrific spy novelist called Len Deighton who in the early sixties wrote a series of very successful spy novels starting with The Ipcress File. There was Funeral in Berlin, Horse Under Water, Billion Dollar Brain. And these are terrific books. And again, they're first person narration by a sardonic narrator who's never named, he was known as the nameless operative, but here's the thing: when they made the movie of The Ipcress File, which is a pretty darn good movie, they thought he's got to have a name. So they called him Harry Palmer, which is a very, very mundane down-to-earth name because that was the schtick of, of this spy, that in the world of James Bonds, he was the sort of ordinary man, the everyman.
Well, I thought it was brilliant, because I actually didn't realize he didn't have a name until I started writing a review of Flip Back, your fourth novel. And I was going to reference the character. And then I had to go back through the book going, Oh, wait a minute. He doesn't even have a name, which was brilliant because I, as I said, I never really noticed until I needed a name.
That's so cool. I think a lot of people have sat down to write reviews have suddenly discovered that, which is very gratifying for me, because it's like a little bonus. It's like a little Easter egg.
Yeah, it is totally like an Easter egg. It's wonderful. So you have said that you will do a reading for us, which I'm very excited to hear.
And I tried it now because I actually found a piece that I think will work.
Okay, well I'll let you set it up. So go for it.
Right. So this is from the new Vinyl Detective novel, Low Action, which will be published in August, it's the fifth Vinyl Detective novel.
Chapter One - New Girlfriend
“I'd like you to meet my new girlfriend,” said Erik. “Someone's trying to kill her.” He offered this remark in such a casual, offhand, everyday manner that I had to repress the urge to reply, that's nice.
Erik Make Loud, less pretentiously Erik McLeod, was a former rock star, comfortably wealthy. And if you stretched a point, our neighbor. I never got along very well with him. Erik was self-regarding and superior, to commence a long list, but one muffled gray afternoon in a recent winter, we'd undergone a very horrible near-death experience together. And I suppose that had bonded us, perhaps even made us friends, at least friends to the extent that he'd generally now make eye contact when he spoke to me, which is what he was doing right now as he loomed in my doorway, emanating a cloud of expensive aftershave.
I said, “Come in, Erik.”
Before I shut the door behind him, I looked around outside to make sure the new girlfriend, whose life was putatively in danger, wasn't actually standing there waiting to shake hands.
Erik didn't bother with shaking hands. He was content to slap me on the shoulder in what would have been a comradely fashion if it hadn't been so heavy-handedly hard as I led him into our sitting room where our cats looked up at our guest and regarded him with suspicion, as well they might.
For a start, Erik was wearing a cap that looked like it had been looted off a dead Confederate soldier, along with an elaborately fringed and brightly-beaded buckskin jacket that might've been looted off the Comanche brave who just killed the Confederate. Plus, of course, very skinny black jeans and very expensive black sneakers.
Turk took one look at this apparition then sensibly darted out the cat flap just as Nevada came hurrying in from the kitchen.
“Did I hear that correctly?” she said. She looked at Erik with shock in her mesmerizing, big blue eyes. “Did you actually say...?”
“Yes, dear,” said Erik, gazing at her fondly. Erik had always liked Nevada. Who wouldn't?
“You've got a girlfriend?”
“He also said someone was trying to kill her.”
“One thing at a time, one earth-shattering revelation at a time. You mean a real, seeing-her-on-a-regular-basis girlfriend, not one of your usual...” Nevada waved her hand in the air in a manner which Erik and I both understood to mean inappropriately nubile and fleeting celebrity-besotted one-night-stands.
“Yeah. Going steady. We've been seeing each other for a few months now.”
“My God, who is this girlfriend?”
“She's called Helaine.”
“Lovely name,” said Nevada. “It means light.”
“Does it?” said Erik. “All I know is that she plays a mean guitar.”
“Ah, so she's a musician too.” Nevada looked at me. “The extraordinary longevity of their relationship begins to make sense.”
Erik chuckled. “Yeah, well, it's nice to be able to connect on a musical level, you know, as well as everything else. Very good guitarist, she is. Plays big chunky phrases. Reminds me a bit of Blood Ulmer."
“Well, I'm delighted for you,” said Nevada. She took my hand. “We're both delighted for you. Now. What's all this business about someone trying to kill her?”
It's so great. I, I just enjoy it so much. Um, good old Erik, yeah. And then of course we find out that Helaine is, what is her name, her stage name?
Her name is Helaine Hilditch, that's her real name, and her stage name as a punk rocker was Howling Hell Bitch.
Oh, gosh. It totally took me back to 1977.
You had the manuscript. Right? Gotcha.
That's right. And it's wonderful. I totally enjoyed it and I'm dating myself. But I totally remember when punk rock started because I was at university in England in 1977. I went to Reading.
Oh, my God, well, you're right at the epicenter.
We were, but I knew nothing about it. We, we just, we didn't run in those crowds. We were, I dunno, we fancied ourselves as intellectuals, I guess. I don't know, but I certainly remember when punk rock came out. So I got a huge kick out of your talking about the late seventies and that whole period and how they named each other, and the girls' schools, because I went to university with girls that went to those schools.
So anyway, it's great for people who, well, you know, your novels are great for anybody, but if you remember punk rock, you'll really enjoy this one. That's something all the way through your novels that is so much fun is all the references to the different types of music. You just throw things in every so often. And sometimes I get them, thanks to my husband who knows so much about jazz. Sometimes I don't, but it doesn't matter because I'm always learning new things. So that must be a lot of fun for you.
Well, and also that's what makes the Vinyl Detective work as a detective in a field which is not short of detective stories. The thing is you want to have a detective with a difference. And so you want him to operate in a world that's sort of uniquely a zone and you want the reader to buy into it. And what we love as readers is expertise.
And I was talking to somebody the other day about a novel by Nevil Shute. Now a forgotten novelist, but a huge bestseller in his day. And Nevil Shute would do something, like he would describe somebody doing a piece of carpentry and tooling a piece of wood on a lathe. Now, you and I would both probably be very bored with this as an activity in real life. But when it's described where there's not too much, but just enough detail, and you talk about this guy doing something, in this case machining a part on a lathe, you think, Oh, well, that's kind of interesting, and more importantly you think, this writer knows what he's talking about. And I suddenly believe that this character and the world that this character exists in.
So, you know, you could have a stamp-collecting detective. You could have a detective who's an expert in orchids, Nero Wolfe, that's just to name a name. There's all these different things, different worlds they could be in, but you need to sort of bring that world to life to convince the reader that they are really existing in that world for the duration of the book. So you need a certain amount of that background detail. You don't so much that it becomes boring, but you need enough to give a flavor of this unique world and to sort of excite the reader and to again, to draw them in, the same way that having regular characters are important, having a consistent world is important.
So that's one reason I do that musical detail stuff, but also because it's fun and often funny.
Exactly. Very funny. And I think that's really excellent advice. The idea of expertise, of having your main character be an expert in something and yet just sprinkling it through is wonderful. 'Cause I know I love those bits. As I said, it's the characters in those bits and, and your whole world that stick with me long past the actual mystery.
Thank you so much. So for instance, my character might have to replace some of the vacuum tubes in one of his Mono Block amplifiers and a lot of description of that would be really boring and a real turn-off, but a little bit, you sort of think, Oh, this guy has got a special thing going on and he's an expert in that world. And yeah, sit back and tell me a bit more about him because he's, suddenly him and his world have come to life and you said, sprinkle it on. And that is exactly right. Because it's the special seasoning and it'd be easy to overdo it, it's like sumac or something, right?
You just sprinkle a little bit on and it really adds to the enjoyment of the meal.
I think the point is sprinkling because you don't want to have long info dumps for sure. Little bit goes a long way.
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And now back to the show.
The other piece of advice is, I would write about what you genuinely know already, but if you don't know anything very exciting, like, you know, if you're not, not, say, a medical technician or somebody who works on an ocean cruise liner, if you don't have some distinctive background, then you're going to have to do a deep dive into research. And once you do that, then the challenge will be avoiding those info dumps because you have all these wonderful nuggets, golden nuggets, research you've done and you want to use them all, but you'll have to be very guarded about that.
You have to be very on the ball about not overdoing it and in the age of the computer, that's much easier, because you can go back and trim and trim and trim.
And you have to make sure you get it right because somebody will find it.
Oh, there's been a couple of mistakes over the years. And the great thing about, again, about the world in which we live now is that you can correct the eBooks right away and you can correct the printed books next time they're printed. So you just have to correct the master file. So that's a wonderful advantage.
The only thing you can't do is correct the audio books. We haven't worked out a way of doing that yet.
I actually listened to Written in Dead Wax on the audio version and I kept startling my husband, because I'd be walking around the house, listening to it,and then I'd start laughing out loud. He couldn't see the earpiece and he's going, what's wrong with her now?
I'm so pleased that you do find them funny. And we, you mentioned the humor in the books. I've got to tell you when I first delivered these books to my agent, and I've now got a different agent for reasons which may become clear, he said, but they're funny. You know, it's like, that's a problem. Yeah. Can we get rid of the funniness?
Oh, gosh, no.
And my point was like, no, because this wasn't unique amongst books there, you know, there was the Charles Paris mysteries or the Agatha Raisin books. There are humorous cozy crime novels. I don't want people to get the impression that they're comic novels. They're, they're hard-hitting mystery thrillers which have humor in them because that contrast is fabulous. And that's something I really enjoy.
But to him, he thought everything should be very grim and noir. In his defense, at the time, what everybody was looking for was Nordic noir, which is very Scandi-noir, right?
Oh, I know, I've read a few Icelandic ones, whoa. Scary!
They tend to be very bloody and quite relentless and ruthless. So that was the paradigm, the publishing paradigm at the time. So giving them books, which the guy has a couple of cats and there's lots of laughs along the way. But the point was, I knew that if we could get them into print, they would begin to generate a readership because they're fun to read.
They will find a readership of people who don't actually want to read the noirs. Because I have read the odd Scandinavian one and I find them too gory, actually. I don't particularly want a lot of violence. That's why I gravitated towards the Vinyl Detective.
Oh, that's great. The way I used to describe the Scandi, I used to call them Danish Disembowelments, those Scandi-noir, because a lot of that going on, right? However, having said all that, I just, I must add, so as not to be too much of a hypocrite, that I really love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.
Yes, they're very good.
By Stig Larsson. And also you said you, at some point you might be asking about what's next with the Vinyl Detective? Well, I've started work on book six and it is the detective goes Scandi-noir!
Fantastic. Does he go to Scandinavia?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And uh, looking for a Swedish death metal record.
Because that's a thing. Now, of course, I must give a 'mileage may vary' warning. At the moment, this is the book I'm working on. Because we're under lockdown and the current book has been delayed, we haven't actually got a contract in place for the next book. So my publisher doesn't know it's going to be Scandi-noir so we will see, but this is the book that I want to write, and at the moment, I've begun to write, and I'm enjoying it.
Oh, fantastic. Well actually, I had a trip planned to Sweden this summer, but that was canceled.
Oh, I'm sorry. It's a beautiful place. And one reason that I'm working on this book now is because I did go to Sweden in the fall. And so without knowing it, I did the research because I wasn't planning to write a book and I came back with my head full of wonderful images and a sense of the place, which is really useful.
Isn't it amazing where you get your inspiration? You went to Sweden and suddenly now you want to set a novel there. I'm trying to figure out how I can set a novel in Iceland that isn't noir. Because I visited not very long ago and I absolutely loved it.
The other thing I wanted to ask you about is, your character descriptions are very, very vivid. Even just your little ones, like the lady in the corner or whatever, they just pop right out. You can actually see these people. So do you watch a lot of people? How do you do that?
Well, I've got a bunch of files in a folder which is specifically dedicated to material that might be useful in future books. Like, I've got a dialogue file and a list of names, names have a certain magic. As you know, Carol, half the battle of creating a character is a good name. So when I come across a name and I jot that down, well, I've also got a file of description. So when I see people, because it's such a drag to have to come up with to describe the way somebody dressed from a standing start.
So I've got this long file about, whenever I see somebody, I think, wow, that's kind of a cool thing that they were, even if it's just a tee-shirt with a really amusing slogan I haven't heard before. So I record all those things, but I have to say that I don't often go to that file. Usually in the moment I do create the character. I do want to bring them to life swiftly and vividly, and one mentor, if I could put it so pretentiously, is Raymond Chandler.
After Hammett, he's probably the most interesting crime writer of that era. What Chandler used to do is, when he was working on his books, he didn't work on paper. He used to have a series of 4 x 6 cards and he would type on each of those cards so that the book would be in these little fragments before he would type it into a full manuscript. And part of the reason for that is, on each card, he wanted a little bit of magic, like, whether it was a joke or whether it was an interesting description, he wanted to have something special there, something that would appeal to the reader.
And if you think about that, those are, that's such a short chunk of text in the book that if you do that successfully, your book will never be dull, which was his reason for doing it. And I thought, well, that's really clever. I don't necessarily get a volume of Chandler down off the shelf to read, but I do bear that philosophy in mind when I'm writing.
That's very good advice. My favorite line from Chandler is 'She came at me in sections'. You could just see her, right? The femme fatale.
That's very good advice, just to be observant and jot things down even if you never go to that file. I think the act of doing it sort of attunes you, and then your subconscious just comes out when you're actually writing.
We were talking about advice for would-be writers. And one of the most important things that I ever heard in my life was, there's a film director called Louis Buñuel. He's a surrealist filmmaker.
Yes, of course.
He wrote an autobiography called My Last Gasp. But one of the, he just said this throwaway line in it where he said, 'the imagination is a muscle'. You know, the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. You see, up to that point, I used to hoard my little light. I thought, Oh, that's a great idea. I'll save that for some special day. And I realized I was going about it in all the wrong way. When you come up with these great ideas, you want to use them. And if you do use them and write these ideas you have, the act of writing is exercising that muscle.
It's not like a well that you're going to exhaust. It's the opposite of that. The more you do it, the better you get at it. So I took a completely different approach from that point on. That was a very important and useful piece of advice for me.
And actually, speaking, of writing in terms of how often do you do it, do you have a writing routine?
I try and get it out of the way early in the day as possible because I want to make sure I do it.
Yes, that is good advice. I know. I like to do it in the morning too.
Yeah. In an ideal world. However, if events conspired to mean I can't sit down until even late in the evening, I will do it then. I think the crucial thing is for anybody who's trying to write, it's just, get started. Like, I always think, just give the book a little kiss good morning, just sit down and write one sentence. If you can't do that, just write one word. Because that's what's scaring you. Because it's sure as hell what's scaring me is getting started. So I just said to myself, let's just write a sip. And of course, that breaks the ice and you get going on it.
But to go back to something you asked at the very beginning about whether having this cast of characters, which is getting larger and larger, the basic nucleus of my books is four characters, which is our hero; Nevada, his girlfriend; Tinkler, his wacky friend, sort of the Shakespearean clown; and their friend Agatha, also known as Clean Head. So that's the nucleus of the book, plus Stinky, who's sort of the baddie, baddie in the sense that he's not a nice guy.
So that's the essential core of the books, plus a couple of cats, but I've got this increasingly large canvas of subsidiary characters, like Erik Make Loud, there's Opale, now called Opal. Every time I introduce a new character who doesn't get bumped off, they're likely to come back in the next book. These characters keep recurring from earlier novels, which is great because they're, you've already created them. So you know who they are. So that saves you a bit of work.
But also the readers know who they are. And they're quite glad to see them again. And it again creates the sense of a real world because you think, ah, this is a world populated by a lot of people and I'm seeing them all crop up again. So I'm really drawn into the spell of it again.
And that makes it fun for the reader, but it also makes it easier for the writer because here's one tip. If you've got four characters, say, providing they're vivid characters, and they're in a scene together, by the time you've described the scene and its effect on those four characters, you've pretty much written the scene. So it helps to have these different characters to help carry the story.
Well, what is interesting about your novels is that you can read them in any order. I started with novel number four, but then I went back to novel one, and that was a lot of fun because that's the origin story. That's when you actually meet Nevada for the first time and find out how they get together.
And because I already knew they were together, it was fun to see how that all happened. So that's interesting that you can read your novels in any order, as far as I can tell. And you get a different type of pleasure from going back and seeing how things progress, probably because you like the characters so much.
I'm so pleased you said that because that's exactly my philosophy, because people often take the kind of rigid view that you have to start with book one. I advise them just to dip in anywhere, because if you did start with book one, you'd see the growing relationship between the two principal characters and how that came about.
What you just said is exactly the way I thought it would be. If somebody gets a later book, then goes back to book one, it has this whole other layer of pleasure because you already know that these two characters are together. And as you say, it's the origin story and all the bit where it looks like, you know, that they'll never get together that had, it's not as though it's spoiled by what you know, it's actually enhanced by what you know.
It totally is. When I first found out that it was Nevada, the mysterious woman that shows up at his door at the beginning of the book, I went, Oh, Nevada. Yay. And then they go on all their ups and downs all through the first book. But yeah, I know they'll get together. And so that's a real feat that you can write a series where you don't have to read them in order. And I think that's crucial, actually, to the success of it, because people sometimes do. I don't know why I started with number four.
Maybe you liked the cover. You see, the thing is, all of the series I really loved, and I'll name just two - the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald. If you're a crime fiction lover, please check those out because they're amazing. And then on a completely different tangent, the Aubrey Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, which are about seafaring novels of the Napoleonic era. And in both cases, I didn't start with book one. I just started with a book that came to hand and then started discovering the series. And it was, it was great because you read them randomly. And then if you, like me, you love them so much, you want to read them again, you can read them in order and you're coming at it two different ways. And you have two different pleasurable experiences.
Yes. I actually haven't read all five of your novels yet, because I'm kind of saving them. I could hardly wait to read books two and three, but I have a lot of novels to read right now. So I think, okay. No, I won't. I'll read them later when I have more time.
High praise because I know that's the way I feel. And then if, once you've read them all, you're going to have to wait a year for the next book to come out.
I know. That's why I don't want to read them too quickly. I just wanted to ask you a little bit about the whole publishing thing. New writers always want to talk about publishing. So how did you get published?
I wrote the first Vinyl Detective novel and I sent it to my agent who I mentioned, my agent at the time, the guy who would eventually say, why is it funny? So I had written this book and it felt that this was a crucial thing in my career that I reached a turning point or a tipping point with this novel. And it was a really important novel for me to have written. And I sent it to my agent and he didn't read it for six months.
Oh, my goodness.
Literally, it was almost six months to the day before I got a response. And the reason I'm telling you this, apart from the fact it's terrible and you can sympathize, is that I was going nuts. And the, the only way I could stop myself going nuts, it was to throw myself into another project. And the project that suggested itself strongly to me was write another Vinyl Detective novel, because it was going to be a series anyway.
So I wrote the second novel and then I was on such a roll that I wrote the third novel. Now this is the bit that writers shouldn't do is that I'd written three novels with no publishing deal, which is crazy. On the other hand, it really got me into the books and brought the books to life for me. And eventually when we did get a publishing deal, some years later, uh, I had three books ready to go. So what happened was, my agent eventually read the book, had some mostly negative comments, some of which were right. The book was way too long.
So I went back and I ruthlessly cut about 30,000 words out, which is a lot, just cut them out, threw them away. Bye-bye and it was, the book was much better for that. And I suppose that's another lesson that you have to learn, a useful piece of advice, is don't hesitate to cut, to go back and be ruthless with your own book. And also, when you do your first novel, even if it's not your very first novel, the first in a series, you're quite likely to overwrite, throw in the kitchen sink, as we say, you know, that's what happened with my first book. So it was quite easy to take out a lot of stuff and just make it leaner and meaner.
The agent then tried to sell the books. They didn't immediately sell and he just kind of lost interest. So I had these books sitting on the shelf for a couple of years, but then, thank you, God, a friend of mine called Guy Adams who's also a novelist was just, you know, just getting in touch because we were friends and just, you know, to shoot the breeze. God bless him, he had read the first book just as an electronic file I'd sent to him. And so he knew about the Vinyl Detective.
He said, Oh, by the way, I'm working, doing some books for a publisher called Titan. And there's an editor there in their crime section called Miranda Jewess who is really great. Why don't you try her? Send her the books. And so I sent, I emailed Miranda, said I know Guy, he suggested sending the books. Can I send in the book? Because I didn't tell her I had more than one. And she said, okay, I'm just about to start jury duty. So send me the book. I won't be able to get to it for a long time. So I sent it to her. She emailed me back very quickly said, I actually got to it way quicker than I thought. And she said the two most wonderful sentences that you've ever heard if you're a novelist, she said, we want to publish the book. We don't want any changes.
Oh I know. I had one of those calls once. It really is fantastic, it's what you dream about.
And so I then said, well, actually, you know what? There's a couple more of these books. If you could bear to read them. And I sent them in and she liked all of them. So it started off as a really kind of not happy story where my agent at the time couldn't sell the books and they just, they were going nowhere. But then this is where luck comes in, luck and connections. So I was the writer who knew another published writer who is a hustling writer, who is making connections, who knew editors and knew me. And then he suggested that I approach Miranda. God bless her, too, because she was fabulous. Great editor. I speak about her in the past tense only because she's now got a prestigious job at another publisher. So I've got another lovely editor at the time.
But the point I'm making is that you need to be part of a community of writers and you have to be a mutual support network. Ideally you need to be involved with people who aren't all in the same, what I'm trying to say is if you're all unpublished writers in exactly the same holding pen, then that isn't great. If you, if you know some published writers, that begins to help because they're plugged into the network of agents and editors. And as you will notice in this story, the agent did not sell the book, but normally an agent would sell the book and you'd be well advised to send your work to an agent rather than a publisher in the first place, the agent became incredibly useful. The moment I had a deal, the sniff of a deal, he became incredibly useful.
Yes. Well that's, that's good advice. And I think it's very important that we widen our net and, you know, go to conferences, meet other authors, sort of interact with people. I know I've started to do that more and more. And actually that's what Art In Fiction is accomplishing because I'm learning and meeting so many amazing writers that I had never heard of before. Like you. I'd certainly had never seen the Vinyl Detective before until I was starting to look for novels that were inspired by music. And when I stumbled across yours, I went, Oh my gosh, they're perfect. So they went right on. So thank you so much. I was very much looking forward to chatting with you because as I said, I'm, I'm one of your fangirls now.
Well, that's what we like to hear, Carol.
I'm also very inspired because I was toying with the idea of doing a series. I haven't yet. And that advice about just start with what you really know and love is excellent advice. So I'm starting to think about doing that.
It'll be fun to write about and it's low-hanging fruit, which we all like to have. And as you said yourself, it will communicate itself to the reader. And I'd like to give one last, really simple piece of advice to new writers because it was a great piece of advice that I got when I was starting up, is that in those days you used to send a physical letter through the post. These days it will be an email, but the piece of advice was keep it short, like really short, for instance, 'here's my book. I hope you like it' is almost good enough. I mean, that's pretty much it.
The only exception is if you've written a book, say, about the world of professional magic and you're a magician yourself, that's worth mentioning something like that. Some specialist knowledge would be helpful in tipping the balance. But apart from that, really, because it's very easy to think that you've got to write a three-page letter and that will only make things worse for you. So really, for your introductory email, keep it as brief as possible.
Also, if you could be slightly light-touch and humorous, not too needy or bullying, these are all the good things to avoid. And to also indicate that, you know, the person you're going to be contacting has too many other emails and manuscripts to read. If you let them know that you know that, you will begin to humanize yourself and also to make them look kindly upon you.
It's excellent advice. Yes. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today, Andrew, and have a wonderful day.
What a pleasure. Thank you so much, Carol.