No Accident is the first novel in the Kent Fisher series of murder mysteries.
It taught me a lot, including the following five lessons.
#1 – I could create original crime fiction
Years of rejection can erode your self-confidence and make you believe there’s a conspiracy against you out there. Equally, you could take the view that you’re free to develop ideas, knowing publishers probably won’t be interested.
Publishing articles in national magazines taught me you not only have to write what people want, it has to be something that sells. In a crime fiction market, bursting with police procedurals, private eye stories and psychological thrillers, it wasn’t going to be easy.
At its heart, No Accident is a whodunit, a traditional murder mystery that owes its origins to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Their complex plots, filled with red herrings, false trails and devious twists inspired me. They taught me how to disguise clues and mislead readers.
But it was private eye Kinsey Millhone, created by Sue Grafton, who showed me how to write a gripping whodunit, driven by a strong, highly principled lead character. You didn’t need graphic violence, language or sex to create memorable crime fiction. There was nothing tame or cosy about Kinsey, whose guts and determination shone through.
She’s the inspiration behind Kent Fisher, an environmental health officer like me, who investigates a fatal workplace accident and discovers a murder, only to find it’s the least of his problems.
Blending my knowledge and experience of environmental health with a complex plot and story led to an original murder mystery that paid homage to the traditional whodunit while remaining firmly rooted in today’s world.
When the first review for No Accident was posted, I knew I’d learned to write original crime fiction.
#2 – you can’t do it alone
Unless you collaborate with another author, writing a novel is a solitary discipline. It’s you, the computer and your ideas. Sometimes a blank screen taunts you. At other times, you wish you could type as fast as the ideas coming out of your mind.
But what do you do when you’re struggling, when you need help or information, or simply a few words of encouragement?
You could talk to your partner, your friends or your West Highland white terrier, Harvey. He’s a terrific listener if you reward him with treats and attention. He was so helpful I put him into the novels as Kent Fisher’s dog, Columbo.
But pets aside, in the real world no one understands like another author. In the days before the internet brought us together, authors met at Writers’ Groups. They still do, but social media offers a more instant and accessible place for authors to gather and share.
In the case of No Accident, it was a chance meeting with a fellow author that nudged me towards publication. I first met him on my environmental health rounds, unaware that the man who ran the tearooms also published historical naval fiction.
We talked about writing. He read the first couple of chapters, gave some encouraging feedback, and suggested a few revisions. Not long after, he offered to introduce me to a publisher, who was setting up a new company and looking for authors.
One email later, the publisher offered to publish No Accident.
I read the email several times in stunned silence. Then the panic set in.
#3 – when a publisher wants your novel, there’s nowhere to hide.
The novel was a mammoth 145,000 words long, at least 50,000 words too many for a crime story. I also had a bigger challenge – Kent Fisher couldn’t solve the murder, essential in a whodunit, you could say. While I read through the contract, I wondered why I didn’t deal with these issues before approaching a publisher. I didn’t because I never expected anyone to be interested in my novel.
That’s what years of rejection do to your self-confidence.
To cut a long story short, I had to cut a long story short.
As I removed unnecessary scenes, characters and subplots, the novel became sharper. Suddenly it was clear how Kent Fisher would solve the murder. I wrote a new ending, reducing the word count some more.
Finally, after five months revising and editing, I sent the completed manuscript to the publisher, hoping they still wanted to publish it. They did, but it needed professional editing.
#4 – editing is fun
For someone who would rather move on to a new project than rewrite something and submit it again, I took to editing like the proverbial duck and its fondness for water.
It’s not straightforward or easy, but once someone points out some of the flaws in your writing, your eyes are suddenly opened. The issues that let down your writing leap out at you. Sometimes, so many jump out, you wonder whether you have any talent at all.
Did I really write that?
I asked myself this many times as 100,000 words became 90,000. The manuscript went back and forth across the Atlantic five times before the final proof edit. Even then, I uncovered errors we’d missed before.
But what made it fun?
Simple – I could see the story getting better and better with each revision. Not only did it boost my confidence, I think it made me a better writer. And nowhere through the process did I feel like I’d lost or sacrificed anything valuable.
#5 – never give up …
… you never know what’s over the horizon.
Apart from being Kent Fisher’s core belief, this lesson fits me too. People who know me will tell you I’m stubborn. I prefer to call it determination. At school, I once filled 14 pages of an exercise book with calculations to solve a maths equation. The teacher wrote, ‘Well persevered’.
Not all challenges in life can be solved in an exercise book, though I suspect many can.
I could have quit writing many times over, but a lack of success doesn’t make you stop loving something. It’s frustrating, sure, but so are most things in life at one time or other. You don’t stop living when things don’t go your way.
If you believe you can, which is not always easy when no one wants what you write
if you learn from your mistakes
if you find people who share your passion and are willing to share their secrets
if you work hard and try to be better
you can probably achieve anything you set your heart on.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.
If you’d like to read more Robservations, please check the boxes below to follow or receive notifications of new posts.
I also produce a monthly email newsletter for subscribers. Check out No Mystery in the sidebar to your right.