Recent circumstances have conspired to make me rethink my writing. It's not that I don't like crime fiction - the genre of my efforts for the last few years - but I can't help wondering if the furrow I have been doggedly ploughing of late is perhaps in the wrong field.*
When I first thought I might like to write something involving detectives, crime and assorted general nastiness, my only real experience of the whole loose genre came from the works of Ian Rankin and Agatha Christie. You could throw in a couple of Dorothy L Sayers stories, too, but they were read so long ago as to be almost completely forgotten. Then Mr Stuart sent me a copy of the manuscript for Cold Granite and bullied me into reading the Frost books. A trip to Harrogate opened my eyes to many other exponents of the craft, and I began to think that I might be able to do something similar myself.
But how to be different in such a well-stocked area? How to stand out from the herd? I've been to marketing seminars, and so I knew that I needed a USP.** I just couldn't begin to think what that might be. Then I remembered a character I'd invented for a comic script in the early nineties and revived as a bit-part in a couple of unpublishable novels; Detective Inspector Anthony McLean, of Lothian and Borders Police.
The thing about McLean is that he sees things other people don't see. Or perhaps he allows himself to see things other people can't accept. Not overt ghosts and ghouls lurking in the shadows, but the more subtle forces that don't really fit into twenty-first century rationality. OK, overt ghosts and ghouls too, but subtle ghosts and ghouls. None of this room-going-cold, white-sheets-flapping stuff. And definitely no Derek Acora or whatever his name is.
Natural Causes, the book that was shortlisted for the 2007 Debut Dagger, featured as its main villain an ancient African demon, trapped by a group of young men in an attempt to gain immortality. As is always the way with these things, the demon eventually escapes and comes seeking revenge - involving a series of horrible and inexplicable murders that have the police pretty much baffled. Until good old McLean comes along and sees what's really going on. He can't exactly arrest the demon, or make a case to his superiors as to what's really going on. Neither can he accept it himself, until he's exhausted every other possibility in a great Holmesian manner, and there we have one of the central conflicts of the book.
Having dealt with that, McLean then faced up to his own horrid past in The Book of Souls, the story that was shortlisted for the 2008 Debut Dagger. In this one the main villain was an ancient book that could corrupt and steal the souls of anyone who read it, but McLean took a lot of convincing before he was prepared to accept this, even though he'd lost a little piece of his own soul to the book years earlier.
You can see where this is all going. Book three was to centre around a group of devil-worshipping yuppies, and book four... well, I wouldn't want to give too much away, but its provisional title was The Hangman.
Then reality got in the way. Several people whose opinions I hold in high esteem suggested that I was mad writing such a cross-genre series. No-one would publish it. Crime fiction fans would hate the supernatural; fantasy fans would be confused by the lack of swords and dragons. And just where would those poor booksellers shelve it?*** On top of all this, my then agent was having no success selling Natural Causes - although to be honest that might have been only partly due to the book.
So I took a long look at The Book of Souls, and decided both to rewrite it straight and to have it as the first in the series. Get rid of the demon book and have the baddy simply use that as an excuse to justify his stress-induced madness. I've written here before about that - exorcising it, I called the process. Now I think eviscerating would be a better word.
Because I've come to the opinion that the latest incarnation of The Book of Souls is pretty much a great festering pile of shit. And without his USP, Inspector McLean is just another policeman running after the bad guys. I like to read the occasional police procedural, but I'm not sure that's what I want to write. And if I don't burn with a desire to write that kind of book, then why bother?
In the light of comments I've received about The Book of Souls, and my own re-reading of the first painful few chapters, I went back to Natural Causes, where it all began. And you know what? It's a lot better. You can feel the enthusiasm in it, and the plot hangs together in a much more satisfying way. It rattles along at a good pace, too. Sure it could be better - it will be by the time I've finished with it - but right now I think it's good enough to be published (certainly better than a couple of recent reads by fairly successful authors I won't name here).
If it were an American book, set in some medium sized and fairly old US city - Boston perhaps - I think Natural Causes would have been published a couple of years ago. American readers seem to be much more open to the supernatural resurfacing in the present day. You only have to look at the resurgence of Vampire fiction to see that. But in my folly (and general ignorance of Americana), I decided to set my detective in Edinburgh. Now I need to find a way to persuade an English publisher that supernatural cross-genre detective fiction is the next big thing, or an American publisher that twee old Edinboro is going to resonate with a US audience.
Or I could get on with the book I've been playing around with recently, which is something completely different. Although as yet I've not found that key element that will bring the whole thing together and spark off my enthusiasm the way the initial idea did.
Or I could set my mind to Benfro book four and lose myself in that wonderful fantasy world again. But with no-one to date at all interested in books one to three, how wise would it be to expend a year of writing time on something that might never see the light of day?
Then again, should I worry about that? Maybe the whole reason why The Book of Souls has turned out so badly is because I forgot why I was writing it. Instead of concentrating on the story I wanted to tell, I tried to write the story I thought people wanted to read, and it's left me with a pile of poo.
It's all too much for my little brain. I think I'll take the dogs for a walk instead.
* can you plough something doggedly? Surely if any animal was involved it would be an ox. But I don't think you can do something oxedly. Not without confusing people, at least.
** Unique Selling Point. Come on people, keep up.
*** on a big stand at the front, obviously. With lots of cool marketing stuff. I know what a USP is, after all.