The ups and downs of being a crime writer

10 April 2014

By Pan Macmillan

David Jackson, author of The Helper, tells us the highs and lows of being a crime writer.

Murdering people for a living isn’t all fun, you know. Being a crime writer has both its highs and its lows. Here are just a few of each:
 
Up: That first phone call. You know the one I mean: where an editor says, ‘We want to publish your novel.’ There’s nothing like that call. I went mental when I got mine. The plumber I had in at the time said he’d never met a customer so delighted to have their boiler fixed.
 
Down: The money! Don’t write novels for financial reward. You’ll be disappointed. Despite the success stories you read about in the press, most authors don’t even make a living at it.
 
Up: Seeing the book take shape. The edits. The book jacket. That first copy you hold in your hand. The first sight of it on a shelf in a bookshop. It’s a fascinating process punctuated by unforgettable milestones.
 
Down: Time, or the lack thereof. Following on from what I said about money, the advice not to give up the day job still holds. I have a day job. I also have a family. Kids are not quiet, inanimate objects. They require interaction. I’m lucky if I can fit in two hours of writing a night, and not every night. That’s not very much when you are contracted to produce a novel a year.
 
Up: The people you get to work with. The people at Pan Macmillan are beyond fabulous. Lack of space prevents me from mentioning them all, but I will single out my editor, Wayne Brookes, his assistant, Louise Buckley, and my publicist, Philippa McEwan. And now I have a new agent too, in the shape of the fantastic Mr Oli Munson at A M Heath. All wonderful people.
 
Down: Luck. I’m going to name-drop here and tell you that when I was learning my craft I once had lunch with Colin Dexter, of Inspector Morse fame. He told me there is a huge element of luck in the book writing business. I wasn’t sure I believed him at the time, but experience has proved him correct. If you get good luck, then great, but if not, then it’s not something you can whip up on command.
 
Up: Other authors, especially in the crime genre. Authors are the nicest people on the planet. And the nicest of the nice are those who write crime books.
 
Down: Sales figures and rankings. It’s easy to become obsessive about this stuff. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that one book sale can mean a jump of one hundred thousand places in the rankings, which just goes to show how meaningless they are to your life.
 
Up: The readers. One of the greatest things about being published is the reaction you get from readers. It’s such a joy to open an email from someone who has gone to the effort of getting in contact just to say how much they love your writing.
 
Down: Uncertainty, which seems to come with the territory. Most authors hit at least one point in the writing of their current novel at which they feel it’s garbage. Will the plot work? Will readers like it? Will it sell? Will I get a new contract? Do I have a future as a writer? Questions like these never stop running through a writer’s brain.
 
Up: And finally... the writing! This is what it’s all about. It’s those magical moments when the words sing to you. It’s when your own prose makes you laugh or cry. It’s when a character takes you by the hand and shows you the path they need to take. It’s when you get so lost in your story that all the downsides I have mentioned above no longer matter. That is, or should be, why we write.