I don’t think I’ve ever done a review of the year before. Mostly it’s been about tying up loose ends before saying goodbye to the old and hello to the new. But 2013 has been such a ride, I feel it needs looking back at, just to be sure it really happened.
2012 was itself fairly momentous, going as it did from just about to give up writing and become a farmer full time, to best selling self-published author, to three book deal with one of the UK’s biggest publishers and half a dozen foreign rights sold. 2013 was where it all started to kick off, though.
First came the news that Natural Causes had been selected as a Richard and Judy Book Club Summer Read. I was whisked off down to London to meet the two of them – a somewhat surreal experience, but enjoyable nonetheless. Then the book actually came out, and started selling in astonishing numbers. And as if that wasn’t enough, it ended up being voted reader favourite. Not a bad start at all.
The press had got a hold of my unusual story and seemed keen to run with it, which meant long articles in the Times and the Telegraph – as well as shorter pieces in most of the tabloids – that any debut author would sell his soul for. The farming press has been very kind to me too, especially when it got out that I’d used my first advance to buy a shiny new tractor.
Being a published author seems to mean that people want me to talk at them, and possibly sign things. I’m not used to the limelight, but I’ve done my best. Events this year kicked off with the launches for Natural Causes and then The Book of Souls, both ably compered by my good chum Russel D McLean (whose Dundee-based PI thrillers you should all read).
I’ve talked at people in Kirkwall, Inverurie, Dundee (twice), Ayr, Edinburgh (twice), Perth, Stirling, St Andrews and Glenrothes (oh, the glamour!). I’ve even had a nice conversation with Russel in a castle in Aberdeenshire, evesdropped by a couple of bemused passers-by and most of the staff running the place. I’ve lost count of the radio interviews I’ve given (tosses head nonchalantly), although the most fun so far was doing Loose Ends on Radio 4. Surreal moment of the year number one has to be sitting in a London pub after the recording, talking about Highland Cattle with Clive Anderson. (He has a farm in Argyllshire the land of which he rents out to a local farmer, and he would love to have Highlands grazing it.) In between all this, I’ve been to pretty much every Waterstones and WH Smiths in the central belt to sign stock, as well as making a trip up to Aberdeen to spend the day in my old chum Mike’s comic shop, where I managed to sell about forty books!
I was filmed for a short piece on my self-publishing success last year, but the BBC were obviously impressed enough to come and interview me again for Reporting Scotland as I was about to launch Natural Causes back in May. My rabbit-in-the-headlights stare might have had something to do with my not realising until it happened that it was going out live on the evening news, nationwide. That and the fact that it was the middle of lambing and I’d not slept more than a couple of hours straight in the previous three weeks. April and May are not easy months for a livestock farmer; a fact I hope my publisher has now taken on board.
August isn’t so bad though, and that was when Landward, the BBC Scotland rural affairs programme, came out to film me and my sheep and cows. The weather gods were kind, and we spent a fun three hours filming what would edit down to a ten minute slot when it aired in October. What next? Countryfile?
The publicity side of being an author has been more demanding than I imagined, but none of it onerous. Having spent twenty years and more writing essentially for myself (and occasionally Mr Stuart), there’s something very heart-warming about people being interested in you and your writing. It doesn’t always work – the nice lady in St Andrews I tried to persuade to buy my books was very firm in her refusal, and quite happy to tell me why she hadn’t liked the first one – but by and large people have been very positive.
Interviewers always ask about how you felt when you first saw your book on the shelves in a shop, or when you held your first copy in your hands. On the shelves is a bit of a mixed feeling – there are so many other books there! The first time I saw Natural Causes and opened it up, I discovered a rather alarming error (rapidly corrected by my publishers, I’m happy to report) that may have rather spoiled that moment for me. The best feeling of all, however, was when I got onto the train at Kings Cross on my way home after yet another round of interviews, and saw that the lady sitting across the aisle from me was reading my book. Spotting one in the wild is the best feeling ever.
Of course, then I had to decide whether to introduce myself to her or not. What if she hated it, and then spent the rest of the journey to Edinburgh glaring at me? I asked Twitter, but the responses were evenly balanced either way.
Then, somewhere around Peterborough, she finished it, and immediately passed it across the table to her husband, with a ‘here, you can read it now.’ Taking my life in my hands, I apologised for interrupting her, and asked ‘Did you enjoy that?’ – figuring that if she said no, then I could always claim a friend had recommended it and now I wouldn’t bother.
She said that yes, she had. So I introduced myself, much to her and her husband’s delight. We chatted on and off for most of the journey (which rather scuppered my plans for writing), and I ended up signing the book for them.
I’d delivered the third Inspector McLean book, The Hangman’s Song, in early January, thus fulfilling that contract. It wasn’t enough for my publishers though, who were hungry for more. Thanks to the awesome negotiation skills of my lovely agent, Juliet Mushens, I signed a deal for three more in the series, with the ambitious target of delivering one every six months. The first draft of book four is now done, although as yet it lacks a title. I’ll be starting on book five in the new year, and already know what happens at the end of book six. Where McLean goes after that is up in the air.
The Book of Souls came out in early July, and in its first full week of sales made the Sunday Times top ten. That was another of those somewhat surreal moments. I still find it hard to believe that these books which I wrote seven or eight years ago and had pretty much given up on, have now sold more than half a million copies in print and digital combined.
The second half of 2013 has been mostly about running around like a blue-arsed fly, writing book four, planning books five and six, and trying to adjust the farming system to allow me more time away. Oh yes, and building work has started on the house – one more task to add to the list.
The last week of November was especially busy. It started off with the first ever Iceland Noir, which was a wonderful excuse to go back to Reykjavik (and claim it on expenses). This was my idea of a perfect crime fiction convention – small, friendly and informal. I’m already making plans to go back next year. I got home to a series of back to back events for Book Week Scotland which were fun, but exhausting.
Things have been moving on the fantasy front, too. I was always keen to try and sell my epic dragon fantasy, The Ballad of Sir Benfro, and after some good-natured negotiations, Penguin have picked up the worldwide rights to that series too. The first three are already out there as ebooks, and Dreamwalker will be coming out in print in Autumn 2014, hopefully just in time for all the fantasy and SF cons – any excuse for a party.
The deal was announced just before World Fantasy Con in Brighton, which I went to as one of eleven (or was it twelve?) of Juliet’s authors in attendance. The con was great fun, I think despite rather than because of the WFC committee. I will say no more about that, except to once more thank Lou Morgan, Jen Williams, Andrew Reid and all the other redcoats who basically made the whole thing work. You guys rock.
It was at WFC that I learnt that I’d been short-listed for the National Book Awards New Writer of the Year award – perhaps the icing on a particularly tasty cake of a year (mmm cake). Being a farmer, the full import of this news didn’t really sink in. Fortunately Juliet was there to get overexcited on my behalf.
I went down to London in mid-December to attend the award ceremony and The Agency Group Christmas Party the next day. I didn’t win the award, but just being short-listed was awesome enough. And I got to wear my kilt in London, which is always amusing. Just a shame that the hotel I was staying in put me in a room right below the air conditioning condensers for the whole building.
Around about the same time, I received my free copies of the Czech language translation of Natural Causes. They look amazing, but I’ve no idea whether or not they are any good. Fortunately a friend of a friend is a Czech speaker, so I’ve sent them a copy. Hopefully the feedback will be fine.
I was recently asked to write a piece for The Big Issue about my favourite books of the year – something to tie in with being shortlisted for the National Book Awards. I duly sat down and started to list them, only to discover on checking that most of them I’d read in 2012. Sadly it seems that the one thing that has fallen by the wayside in this most busy year of my life has been reading. My to be read pile is growing all the time, augmented by an alarming number of ARCs that are being sent my way in the hope that I might have time to read them and then write something nice. Since I get to read for about half an hour before conking out each night, and quite often that’s reading my own manuscripts for rewrites, the list of actual books I read this year is rather pathetically small. I’ve barely watched any television at all this year, and only been to a couple of movies and gigs.
So what of 2014? Well, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be any less busy. The Hangman’s Song comes out in February, and I’ve no doubt there’ll be some publicity stuff I have to do for that. Book four is scheduled for July/August, and Dreamwalker will be out later on in the year. Meanwhile there’s the small matter of writing McLean books five and six and getting started on The Ballad of Sir Benfro book four – The Broken World. I suspect there’ll be a lot of editing and rewriting going on as well. Pity it’s not a leap year – I could do with that extra day.
The farm is beginning to come together too, with livestock reaching maturity and being sold, and the Highland fold and Romney flock growing in number. I’ve got help now, and a network of local contractors I can call on when I need to be elsewhere. It’s not quite how I envisaged running the place when I took it on, but I’m not complaining.
And there’s the house build. I hope to have phase one habitable by the spring, which means I can move out of the caravan (and finally have a bath!). Phase two may take a little longer to get started, but it would be nice to have it wind and watertight by the end of the year. The writing comes first, though. For the first time in years I’m really enjoying it, even with the ludicrous workload and tight deadlines. Who knows, things might go tits up in a spectacular fashion next year. I hope not, obviously, but really I don’t care. 2013 has been amazing, and I’m happy with that.
And since we must have lists:
My top three albums of the year –
Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit
Theatre is Evil by Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra
Dear River by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo
My top three books of the year –
Gun Machine by Warren Ellis
Poison/Charm/Beauty by Sarah Pinborough
Long Way Home by Eva Dolan (I know, technically it doesn’t come out until 2014 – bite me.)
Bear in mind that if you ask me to list my three favourites again in five minutes time, I’ll pick something different. These are all great, though.
So that’s it, my round up of the year. A Happy New Year to you all, and may 2014 be at least half as good for you as 2013 was for me.