Sunday, 8 June 2008

If at first you don't succeed...

Some writers make an impact with their very first novel. Others have to pay their dues, writing plenty of books before they achieve the recognition they deserve (yet others, of course, never win great acclaim and sometimes give up on the genre, or find that impatient publishers give up on them before they manage a real breakthrough.)

Minette Walters was an instant hit, and so was Patricia Cornwell. But Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Andrew Taylor and Peter Robinson are among the best-sellers of today who had to keep the faith for a number of years, and plenty of books, before their talents were at last widely recognised (I think this is a fair summary, even though Andrew's very first book did win an award, and all these writers were critically applauded before they hit the commercial jackpot.)

So what happened to change things for these writers? In some cases, it’s fairly easy to spot the turning point, in other cases less so. Rankin’s Black and Blue was his breakthrough book; it won the CWA Gold Dagger and the rest was history. McDermid’s pivotal moment was probably similar, with the winning of the CWA Gold Dagger for The Mermaids Singing. Taylor’s The American Boy was chosen by the TV show Richard and Judy, and not long afterwards his brilliant Roth Trilogy was televised as ‘Fallen Angel’. With Robinson, the explanation is less straightforward. He once told me that he believed that the key was finding an editor who really believed in him, and a publisher who was prepared to back that judgment by investing real money in promotion.

The rise to prominence of Ann Cleeves, whose White Nights I have featured in this blog lately, is again largely due to the CWA Dagger effect. Interestingly, her Dagger-winning Raven Black opened her fourth distinct crime series. She began with a pair of amateur sleuths, George and Molly Palmer-Jones, in books which had an ornithological background. She tends to be self-deprecating about these early efforts, but I liked them, even though I’d never had much interest in bird-watching, and I was delighted when she contributed to an anthology I edited which reintroduced George in a story called ‘Owl Wars’. Later came a police series set in the North East and featuring an appealing cop called Stephen Ramsay. Vera Stanhope, said by some reviewers to remind them of a female Dalziel, first appeared in The Crow Trap; the book was conceived as a stand-alone, but Vera was too good a character to let go after only one outing. And finally Ann struck gold with her first novel about the Shetlander Jimmy Perez.


crimeficreader said...


I wish I'd caught up with you far more at CrimeFest this weekend as I wanted to ask you a few questions. Nevermind, time will allow. But great to meet you in the flesh at long last!

In this post, I'm not sure I agree with you (fully) re Minette Walters. When it came to crime fiction she was an instant hit with her first novel (The Ice House?).

But before that she'd strutted her stuff and honed her skills in the world of romantic fiction, creating stories of a certain quality, the regular submitting writers fell short of.

Walters did not glide into the world of crime fiction as some think, she grafted before getting there. And in romance, please, that's a grind worthy, surely?

As for Andrew Taylor: good that he got the R&J promo for The American Boy. Until then he'd been a 'jobbing author' with his wonderful novels shy of the public. Andrew's work is a must on all fronts.

Ann Cleeves's new series is another matter again. Superb? Yes. White Nights over Raven Black - well, I am yet to read White Nights. But what I read here has me tempted.

Good authors need some web space. Nice to see some that have it.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Rhian. Yes, it was good to meet and it's always amazing how quickly the time slips by at these conventions. I later learned from a mutaul friend that you're a first edition collector and I look forward to hearing more about the favourite books in your collection.
As to Minette, you're absolutely right about her 'apprenticeship' as a writer of romance. Meanwhile, I've just begun Andrew's latest, and it's got off to an excellent start.

Kerrie said...

Hello Martin

Michael Robotham began as a ghost writer (Lulu, Rolfe Harris, Tony Bullimore)

In his latest SHATTER he has a new character called Ronnie Cray, a DI, who reminded me a lot of Vera Stanhope but without the Dalziel-ness.

You all seem to have enjoyed CrimeFest.

I see you are shortlisted for a short story Dagger

RJ Ellory seems to be another who has struggled to get noticed. In his case Richard&Judy selection has made all the difference.


kathleen duey said...

I am just blogfishing and came across yours. It's very interesting to get an insight into the sort of writing you do. The breakout book/career changing event is the same in my corner of the world. Sometimes, an editor's big push behind the debut novel, sets the stage for commercial success. Far more often, it is a breakout book, later in the career. I have written mostly children's books and have been reasonably successful. My most recent novel was an odd sociological fantasy novel aimed at teens and adults--a real departure from earlier work. It won a silver finalist's medal for a big award, was shortlisted for others. If it had been my first novel, my trajectory would have been very different, I am sure. I am hoping the editor and publisher will get behind my work in a new way now...

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Kerrie.

Hi, Kathleen. Best of luck - and thanks for introducing me to that excellent word 'blogfishing'.