Sunday 17 July 2011

Neil White interview: Cold Kill

Cold Kill by Neil White

A quick bio if you would, sir.

I am a prosecutor who writes crime fiction. Or perhaps a crime writer who prosecutes during the day. I’m never sure which is the right way round. I’m from Wakefield in Yorkshire but live in Preston in Lancashire, and I am married with three children.

You persevered for quite a while before selling your debut novel to Avon. Do you think you'd have capitulated and self-published if it had been as easy and inexpensive to do so back then as it is now?

I started writing back in 1994, but I didn’t sign a publishing deal until 2006. I self-published my first ever novel in 2004, Salem, but I’m not sure I would have self-published any earlier because what I wanted to see was my book on a shelf, because I wanted the validation, the knowledge that someone else thought it was good enough to invest in.

I self-published because I had written two manuscripts, Salem and Creek Crossing, and got an agent pretty quickly, but things didn’t work out. When my first agent and I parted company, I realised that I had little chance of being taken on by a new agent, because I had already been rejected by everyone, but I had these two manuscripts that I liked. So I self-published the first and hoped to use the money raised to self-publish the second, just to get them off my floor. As it turned out, the self-published novel led to a terrific new agent, Sonia Land, who secured me a publishing deal.

So I think I would have self-published at the same time, because there was a reason why I self-published when I did.

Cold Kill is your fifth novel. Can you tell us a little bit about the others?

My books are set in the north of England and feature a freelance crime reporter, Jack Garrett, and his partner and detective, Laura McGanity. My novels are Fallen Idols, Lost Souls, Last Rites, Dead Silent, and now Cold Kill. They can be read as stand-alone books, although I try to make the characters progress in each one.

I like to think of them as suburban small-town novels, although they have a bit of northern grit and gristle to them. I chose a reporter as a character because I didn’t want to be tied down by the rules and regulations of the police too much, and a freelance reporter gave me all the fun of the crime without the restrictions of a police procedural. As he is personally involved with a detective, there is the conflict between them, in that he is interested in what she is doing and she has to keep him away from that.

Last I looked, Cold Kill was #1 in the Kindle store. Do you have any tips for getting a novel into the Kindle top ten?

It depends on how well known you are, I suppose. My book got there partly because of a massive price reduction, as a limited offer, by publishers. The more well known you are, the more the book will do the selling. If you are new or completely unknown, make it cheap and hit the internet. People will make impulsive purchases if the price is low enough. You will be underselling your hard work, but if you want to expose yourself to more people, then that is how to do it. It was certainly a great thrill to be at number one, my biggest buzz since becoming published.

Can you sum up the book in no more than 25 words?

Cold Kill is a pacy and dark suburban thriller about seemingly-unconnected murders of young women, investigated by a reporter in the north of England.

What was your motivation for writing it?

The motivation for writing Cold Kill was the same as with my previous four books: to write a book I would like to read. My preference is for crime thrillers that really bubble along, maybe make me squirm occasionally, and so I just try to write something that I like.

How much difference does an editor make?

Editors provide invaluable advice, because they are not as close to the story as I am, and sometimes you need someone to look at it who doesn’t care as much about you as a person. An editor wants to produce a good book, and that comes before massaging the ego of the writer. You get the truth from an editor.

I haven’t always agreed with their suggestions, and I have stuck to my guns when I thought I was right, but I have been lucky to work with a few good editors.

As an example, I tend to write from three perspectives: the reporter Jack Garrett, his partner and detective Laura McGanity, and someone else involved in the story. In the first four books, I wrote the Jack Garrett part in the first person perspective and the others in the third person. My editor for Cold Kill suggested that the Jack Garrett part ought to be in third person as well, as it would make it seem pacier. I wasn’t sure at first, because it was changing so much the way I had done the earlier ones, but once I made the change, I preferred the new way. You need that help sometimes, an outside perspective.

How much difference does a good cover make?

In the shops, it is crucial, because it is what draws the eye and makes the reader pick it up. Other aspects of the book may make the reader buy it, but it is the cover that forms the first impression and attracts the interest. The cover shouldn’t mislead the reader either. As readers, we know what we like, and so we want the cover to give us a hint that is the type of book we like.

Ebooks might change that, to an extent, because you might be drawn to other things about the book. For example, reader ratings. If I am skimming the Kindle page, I am more likely to stop at something with lots of stars than I am at something with a nice cover. It is like browsing in a book shop with someone nodding their approval or shaking your head.

How important is a book's central character?

It depends on the nature of the story. If the book is very much about the character, for example, the Rebus novels, then the central character has to be someone you want to read about and meet again. If, however, the book is very much about a concept, like the Da Vinci Code, then the character is less important. In the Da Vinci Code, for example, the Robert Langdon character was the vehicle to bring out the actual story, whereas each Rebus book is about how Rebus responds to the next set of grisly circumstances.

It’s a difficult balance though. I enjoyed the early Patricia Cornwell books, but I didn’t enjoy her book Scarpetta, because it was all about, well, Scarpetta. The strengths of her earlier books were the grisly details of human bodies and mortuary slabs, and the relationship between Kay Scarpetta and Wesley Benton was part of the dynamic but not why I read them. Scarpetta became about the character, the background thread was shifted too much to the foreground, and so I stopped reading.

What's the best piece of craft advice you've been given?

From Stephen King (I would like to say personally, but it is from his book On Writing): “it’s all about the story, dammit”

I write as a reader, I think, in that I write what I would like to read. I don’t need pages of description or the author’s views on the background to the plot, or proof that the author has done plenty of research. I just want to be told a story. Get on with it, so to speak.

In a pacy crime thriller, the writing should be invisible. I judged a short story competition not too long ago, and the best entries were the ones where I was interested in the story, not the prose talents of the writer. Don’t show off, tell the story. That wouldn’t apply to noir crime though, because in that genre the prose should smack you in the nose, but I don’t write noir.

Some people say “write what you know”. I don’t entirely go along with that. It should be “write what no one will realise you’ve got wrong”.

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

My favourite part is when I have put the last full stop on the first draft and I know that I have got to the end without getting lost. Once I’m there, I love the rewriting, the shaping. It’s where I feel it improves into something I like rather than just something I’ve finished.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

I think my strengths are that I have a fairly easy to read style of writing and can hold a plot together. I’m not sure if it comes from being a prosecutor in my day job, in that I’ve got used to looking at not just the whole picture but also at the individual parts, because you have to look at how the whole picture will look but be aware that a deficient small part can bring the whole thing down.

My weaknesses are my ego and my lack of creativity.

I don’t think I’m particularly creative, in that I can put words on a page and craft it into a long story, but things like concepts are truly creative. For example, I have never tried to write a short story, and I don’t think I would like to, because the point about short stories is that they have to be a neat concept told quickly. I can’t do that. I think I can write, but I don’t think I am creative.

Also, I bruise too easily. I like unqualified praise, who doesn’t, but I take criticism too much to heart. I can accept that not everyone will like my books, but I just don’t want to know, because it hurts me too much. It can ruin my evening. I wish I could shrug it off, but I can’t, and so I don’t read reviews anymore.

What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?

I enjoy meeting people. I’ve done a few library events, and similar things with local bookshops, and it is great to meet people who come out for them. I enjoy the chatting, even when not many turn up.

The downside of still having a dayjob is that I’d like to do more of getting out and about. I’d love to do a tour of libraries and bookshops, and meet people away from the North, but so much time is taken up with writing and working, there isn’t enough left.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading Lifeless by Mark Billingham at the moment.

What are your views on eBook pricing?

This is an interesting one, because there are so many opportunities and issues, because there is no cost for materials once it is formatted. It is only fair that the price should reflect what it is: many hours of entertainment and a lot of effort on the part of the writer. A friend of mine said that an ebook should not cost less than a cup of coffee, as it shouldn’t be cheaper than something that is consumed so quickly. I thought it was a good point.

On the other hand, the ability to price things with no reference to manufacturing costs means that people can reach out to bigger audiences. My current book went to number one in the Amazon Kindle chart due largely to my publisher’s ability to offer a large discount for a short period.

What I don’t agree with is the view of some people that ebooks should be automatically rock bottom price. Do we want books to be so disposable that we’ll give it a whirl for fifty pence and then switch off after ten pages if we’re not grabbed? The publisher is selling the hard work of a writer, perhaps more than a year’s work, and that’s what you are paying for, the story, the adventure.

What are the biggest problems facing writers these days?

Ebooks change the landscape, to some extent, because of the pricing issues. If the prices becomes very low, readers will perhaps discard a story too quickly, and so publishers might feel the commercial pressure to have an explosive beginning rather than telling the story how it ought to be told.

I’m not too sure that piracy will become a huge issue, because I think the Kindle has learnt the lessons of the music industry. There will be some piracy, I’m sure, but it will be perhaps offset by the inability to swap, lend and resell books.

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?

Ebooks present challenges for published writers but provide great opportunities for undiscovered talent. Anyone can produce an ebook. That is perhaps a bad thing in some ways, because the nuggets get swallowed by the mud, but equally it provides a chance for those people who were overlooked by the publishing houses. Although there is some truth in the view that if you are good enough, you will get spotted eventually, becoming published is all about being liked by a very small group of people; ie, an agent and a commissioning editor. Ebooks by unknown writers have the prospect of being recommended by real readers on internet forums and chatrooms, and so helps a publisher know what people are actually reading and liking, not what they hope they will like.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

I’m going to write a book about Johnny Cash and his songs next year (I’ll do it as a hobby, not instead of my crime books), but from a very specific angle. I’m looking forward to the writing and the research.

Cold Kill by Neil White


  1. Thanks for another informative interview, Allan.

    Neil's work sound just up my street. I'll be checking his work out... on the bookshelves... like us dinosaurs do!


  2. 'Sounds', dammit. Bloody tyops!