Killer Year–The Class of 2007


You know you’re at a crime festival when…
July 26, 2006, 6:00 am
Filed under: Killer Year Founders, Sandra Ruttan

by Sandra

Your bar tab is more than the cost of your train tickets, and you aren’t traveling between Harrogate and Leeds, either.

Of course, my bar tab wasn’t more. I’m generalizing. Besides, the whole short conversation thing works brilliantly. Someone offers to buy you a drink, you think “twist my arm” and then by the time it’s your turn to reciprocate, they’ve gone off to tango with Jane Gregory and someone else has come along who’s feeling generous.

How to drink and not spend money isn’t the only thing you might acquire a skill for at these festivals, and I learned a lot at Harrogate Crime Festival 2005, which was part of the reason I decided to return for Harrogate Crime Festival 2006. But in sharing about the weekend, I think many people are less interested in the nitty gritty details and more interested in the experience.

And the experience was, again, phenomenal. I don’t think I could stress enough my impression that if you love British crime authors, you should put attending Harrogate high on your list and go to see them on their home turf. I’ve seen Ian Rankin and Val McDermid in Canada, and now in the UK, and the group atmosphere with authors who’ve known each other for years adds to the experience. I think they have a comfort level that allows them to relax more, and have fun with the panels.

Mark Billingham had a tough task, filling Val McDermid’s shoes as program chair, but he did a fantastic job. In true Mark Billingham fashion, he rose to the challenge and then some – Mark is one of the smartest people out there, and his professionalism comes through in everything he does. The program was expanded to include a creative writing day. I heard a lot of positive feedback on the creative writing day (although I didn’t attend myself) and the awards session was a lot of fun, with the authors having a chance to discuss their books and be asked questions from the audience before Val McDermid was named winner for The Torment of Others. A worthy book in a very tough contest amongst many great books, which makes the prize that much sweeter, I’d think. Congratulations Val!

I am going to go on the record about something – something that was on my mind a lot after the festival, and it’s toward the end of my post. So, while the inside jokes may not mean as much in the summaries, they are leading up to something you might want to think about seriously.

The Friday morning panel was a hell of a lot of fun. The Great Gender Debate had Natasha Cooper refereeing Val McDermid and Denise Mina versus Mark Billingham and Ian Rankin.

You would think this panel might be boring, or a rehash of sexist allegations others might make, but it was a definite personal highlight for me. These authors are comfortable enough to crack jokes at themselves and each other in a very entertaining fashion and this session produced one of the best quotes of the weekend: “I’ve never had a man come up to me and say I haven’t gotten impotence right.” – Val McDermid

The point, of course, being that most authors don’t choose who they read based on gender. Interestingly enough, Natasha Cooper had a surprise quiz for her panelists, with each having to read an excerpt from a book out loud and then trying to determine if the author was a man or a woman.

After Val read, she and Denise agreed it was written by a man. Mark and Ian said a woman. Audience: 50-50. The author: Ruth Rendell.

After Mark read, the consensus from both sides of the panel and the audience was that the passage was written by a woman. It was, in fact, written by a man.

Denise’s reading had panelists and audience thinking, “man” but it was written by Natasha Cooper (see quickie below).
Ian read his assigned passage with a soft voice, but the consensus still seemed to be in favour of the author being a man, which was correct.

It just goes to show that even the experts get it wrong and perhaps some of those male-female prejudices should be chucked out the door. That’s where the discussion was leading when Val McDermid remarked that she didn’t wake up saying, “I think I fancy a man today,” to which Mark Billingham responded, “Newsflash.”

The trip was worth the laugh from that alone. Val goes a lovely shade of red, too.

Although I have to say that men do do it better, and I finally figured out why. But this post will be long enough already without me delving into that.

You won’t get to all the panels at a convention. That’s just the reality. Sometimes, the chat or chance to catch up with someone over dinner is much more fun.

Having said that, there were panels that were fantastic. I’ve never read a book by Martina Cole, and I’m going to correct that oversight. She was so down to earth and honest, and I walked away with a lot of respect for her.

It’s almost a crime the Foul Play that Simon Brett wrote wasn’t professionally recorded. Oh, I recorded it (with permission) but I’m sure the camera shake from me laughing will spoil the effect a bit. I knew from last year that Stella Duffy and Mark Billingham could really work the stage, and they outdid themselves. Laura Wilson and Shane Maloney were wonderful as the sleuths who failed to solve the crime, even if Shane is a commoner from the colonies. The audience was way ahead of them this year.

The panel on research was also a lot of fun, and a great learning experience. Although we all remained convinced Simon has a deeper, darker secret to share than the minor one he admitted to. Next year someone should spike the water so we can get the truth.

George Pelecanos is simply incredible.

John Harvey and Ian Rankin chatting for an hour. What more do I need to say? I’ve been sadly behind on John’s books, and have to correct that as well.

And Ian seemed to have something he wanted to say about writing children’s books. But maybe it was more a comment on how the media manipulate statements and mislead people, although he didn’t say that on this panel? I said, ‘maybe’. And that’s all I’m saying.

The quickies:


– When asked if poor, dear sensitive Rebus would find love at last, Ian Rankin answered with a single word. “No.” It loses something without hearing how he said it, because everyone laughed.
– There was applause when Val McDermid vented about her cats solving crimes pet peeve. Val’s my hero.
– Denise Mina has a pet peeve about men using hookers. I’m sure she’s not alone. And damn damn damn that I didn’t get to meet her. I really wanted to.
– Mark Billingham’s plan to write a stand alone involving a heavily pregnant woman includes the research of wearing lactating breasts. I’d love to get a picture of that.
– Natasha Cooper knows nothing about cows.
– When meeting Simon Kernick always clarify if that’s UK time or Canadian time.
– Since we’re talking about Simon, if you email him, be sure to ask how the weather at the fire station is. I wonder if they have a healthy number of women fire fighters at that station? See, now there’s a follow-up question I should ask for that interview.
Stuart MacBride and Jane Gregory have clearly danced together before.
– Simon Brett has a standard line to cover police procedure. “When the police arrived, they were very efficient.” Wonder if that would work for a police procedural? Probably not…

Steve Mosby has a great post up too, highlighting some of the other events. Check it out! And take a look at the new cover for Steve’s next book – it’s fantastic. Available for order now.

Getting Back to George Pelecanos…

This isn’t so much about him, as what he made me think about. In 2005 on the ‘How To Get Published’ panel, Jane Wood from Orion (Ian Rankin’s publisher…. And George Pelecanos’ publisher in the UK now. And George loves Orion. He really, really loves Orion) said that Ian Rankin was an “overnight success” after 10 books. The point was, publishers used to invest in authors to grow a series.

I listened to George and walked out with so much admiration for the authors who struggled through several books that didn’t sell particularly well to start. He had a day job. He had a family. And somehow, George found time to write. That’s dedication. That’s love of writing. And I’m fairly certain that’s why he’s where he is today.

Is it a bad thing to be an overnight success with book one? I think it certainly could be. The pressure to perform again with another book that meets the same level of critical and commercial success, or exceeds it, must be intense.

Certainly, I sympathize with the idea of wanting to make some money for your efforts. But part of the reason I have so much respect for authors like Rankin, Val McDermid and George Pelecanos is that they paid their dues. They persevered.

Maybe too many of us want their level of success too soon. Maybe that’s why some authors start producing rubbish – they get a swelled head early on.

I’m not saying I’m opposed to people selling well with early books. I’m quite pleased for some of my friends who’ve had early success. But I also know them, and know they’re keeping both feet on the ground, that they’re feeling the pressure to improve their writing and live up to the expectations. I know they aren’t slagging off.

I know my best writing is still in me, not on a word file. As much as I can be excited about having a book coming out, there was one overwhelming thing that lingered in the back of my brain on this trip:

I miss writing.

The reality is, for us newcomers, we don’t have 7, 8, 9. 10 books to grow the series. Publishers are cutting bait 3 or 4 books in, sometimes sooner. It’s the reality of the market pressures, and I understand that.

I also see that the result is that we’ve got aspiring writers who spend more time blogging than they do on their WIP each day. (Don’t generalize this – I’m not opposed to aspiring authors blogging. I visit many of their blogs – Amra’s, Vincent’s, James Oswald’s, for example.) But there are people propping themselves up as the voice of insight to the writing life who haven’t even finished – never mind sold – manuscripts.

I guess I’m fortunate that when I started writing, I locked myself away. That first year, I was in relative seclusion, isolated from that side of the equation. And I came out of that first year with three manuscripts under my belt, two of which I’ve sold after extensive rewrites. The third I’m still mulling over. But I wrote a fourth last year (amidst the rewrites), and am excited about that one. So, in two years, I’ve produced three that I’m confident will sell. The fourth, rewrites, I think. It isn’t the book so much as my personal comfort level with it, and that’s a whole other story.

New authors seldom get a big cut of the promotion budget pie. Many won’t get help marketing themselves or their book at all (I don’t understand this and will rant another day, I’m sure, about why the hell the companies producing books are sometimes not marketing their product? The author has to persuade the publicist to get behind it? Fuck me. In no other business do people say, “Yes I sell computers but I won’t talk about them”) and have no choice but to find ways to reach readers on their own.

I absolutely love the friends I’ve made blogging, and meeting so many of them in person was fantastic. The blog community is the only community of writers I’m really part of.

But none of this online stuff should ever come at the expense of working on my material. Truthfully, the reason I miss writing is because I’ve been so busy with edits and rewrites. I just want to go away somewhere absolutely quiet and write a fresh manuscript, write the book that’s screaming in my head to be written.

I wonder how hard it is for experienced authors to get enthusiastic about the release of the last book when they’re already working on the next one? I mean, I’m excited, don’t get me wrong.

But one thing I took away from Harrogate is that my heart is in being a writer above all else. Seeing old friends, making new ones – that was wonderful. I feel socially recharged.

And now I’m ready to get moving on with book #5.

So, if you have a chance to go hear people like Martina Cole (who is now on my dream interview list) and George Pelecanos, Ian Rankin, John Harvey, Mark Billingham, Val McDermid…

Listen to their stories and forget about instant gratification in your career. Truthfully, things have happened fast for me, much quicker than some others who are every bit as good at the writing. But this isn’t a business where you should expect to snap your fingers and become a star, and the authors I’ve walked away having the most respect for are the ones who put craft ahead of everything else.

Personally, I think this is the mark of a great festival. I had a hell of a lot of fun – just wait until you see the pictures, many of which are up now – but I left thinking hard about a number of things, like marketing, writing, integrity, craft. And in the weeks ahead, some of those thoughts will make it to blog posts, because they’re still weighing on me.

The festival next year will have Natasha Cooper serving as program chair. How will she top Mark Billingham’s impressive line-up? I hear the line up will include Frederick Forsyth, Joanne Harris, Lee Child and Val McDermid, for starters.

And Harlan Coben will be interviewed by Laura Lippman.

I’d say Natasha’s off to a great start and you should start saving those pennies now.

Oh, and as for why some of this is double spaced and some single… Guess I haven’t quite recovered from jetlag. I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me.

Sandra Ruttan
Author of Suspicious Circumstances
Release to be scheduled for early 2007
On Life and Other Inconveniences

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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

“I also see that the result is that we’ve got aspiring writers who spend more time blogging than they do on their WIP each day.”

Guilty, but trying to improve. Funny you should mention this at a time when I’m wrestling with my own blog-addiction. I seem to go out of my way looking for distractions (here I am) or making excuses for why I’m putting off the work. My wife suggested limiting my blogging time to just one hour every couple of days, so I’m going to give it a shot. Maybe I’ll actually get the damn book finished this semester.

Comment by Patrick Shawn Bagley

Patrick, in your case, you’ve had a bit of a full plate with other things. Truthfully, I think it’s all about balance, something I’m not particularly good at myself. But you can’t just work 24/7. Not for long, anyway.

I think a set amount of time per day, or “coffee breaks” with a timer isn’t a bad idea. The most important thing is not letting it suck you in.

Trust me – you never even crossed my mind with that comment, because you actually have a lot of sharp insight, educational background and aren’t overly obsessive with your blog. You do a great job.

Comment by killeryear

A wonderful wrap up, Sandra. I love that this conference brought so many issues to the forefront.
The blogging vs. writing debate — I’ll just start telling people now to come by Murderati on Friday to witness some great, inspiring words about discipline. Oh, it’s by a very special guest blogger, not me.
He makes too much sense.

Comment by killeryear

JT, I look forward to that.

I should have perhaps added that one thing someone told me was how potential authors are assessed on a points system, with 1.3 going to the book, and the other 2/3rds being assessed on the author and marketability. Hence the need for writers to blog, to have a net presence and other publication credits certainly don’t hurt. You aren’t just selling your book – you’re selling yourself.

And I do wonder at what point that may hurt the potential quality of the books we see getting out there. But it’s a subject for another day.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

That’s pretty scary. 2/3 on the author and marketablity. That just makes me shake in my boots because I suck at it. But this is one way that reading other people’s blogs helps. There are a few great blogs that focus on marketing and for people like me whose brain does not function this way, it gives me ideas.

Comment by Amra Pajalic




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