“Elementary, my dear Watson…” Perhaps it was no coincidence that Tom Grove was inspired by one of the greatest fictional detectives to do his own detective work, in finding out what his dream job is. I quizzed Tom to discover what happens when we dream big and then go further, by not settling for a topic that we know, but by diving into the realm of fiction.
Q. When/why did you decide to become an author?
A. One day, I woke up and thought… No, that’s not how it happened. It was a slow culmination of a number of real-life events that led me here almost by chance. In June 2015, a year-long contract came to an end, as had a lengthy divorce and the recovery from a mild heart attack. So I decided to take a long summer break to take stock which extended into autumn and winter. During this time, I had been reading a lot and had toyed with the idea of writing something myself. I had a few false starts, one a reflective project looking at my life and incorporating a few lessons into a fictional story. I ditched this as it was too much like digging over old ground. The other was born out of the advice which states that one should write from experience and I started work on a non-fiction project called “Hey dad, what’s a project manager?” an attempt to distil my knowledge of the profession into a user-friendly manual that even a kid could understand. This I also abandoned, maybe because it was still too fresh but more importantly, it didn’t inspire me creatively.
In early 2016, having just read the complete works of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, I was toying with the idea of my own fictional sleuth set in Norfolk, an area I know very well. My sleuth would not be the archetypal depressed alcoholic surrounded by characters beset with every problem imaginable swimming in murder victims. I wanted someone who was mainly likeable and smart but who would occasionally go off the rails, surrounded by characters with everyday ups and downs trying to solve a single murder which didn’t spiral into a spree. Thus, was born Shaun Young, a criminal psychologist with a borderline bipolar disorder and an intuitive photographic memory who works for the Norfolk CID on difficult murder cases. The Pink Herring was released in March 2017 after two professional edits and numerous inputs from friends and family. I am currently working on the next book in the series, The Nor’easter.
Q. How did you feel, once you’d decided to write a book? Were there highs and lows as you were writing it?
A. I have a long background in research, so the first thing I did was to study the art, not just the classic form and structure of writing fiction, but how others had approached it – famous and aspiring authors alike. I’ve documented how this panned out and my approach to writing in a blog so won’t repeat it here, but it doesn’t explain how I feel about writing. For me, writing feels a lot like reading. What I mean by that is I have a pretty good idea about the setting, theme, plot and characters before I start but, like Stephen King, I let my characters tell the story. This is how the meat of the story develops and sometimes surprises me that a character I initially thought would play a bit part becomes pivotal to the book. As I write, the settings, characters and story become richer and I lose myself in this fictional world. The process of creating a story and engaging characters from nothing is immensely satisfying. It’s intoxicating, exhilarating hard work but the most rewarding thing I’ve done professionally.
I wrote the first draft of the Pink Herring – a manuscript of just over 100,000 words – in just less than three months and it flew by. It was at this point in no way a finished product. The re-writes following the editorials for two further drafts would expand the book to over 130,000 words and take another nine months to complete. The final draft bears little resemblance to the first with much blood, sweat and tears going to into shaping it from a crude story to one which is well crafted with the right balance of conflict, twists and turns, romantic engagement, thrills and spills and a surprising but rewarding ending. The polishing of gem stones, silverware, performance art or literature are all painstaking exercises because that’s what it takes to deliver a finished product.
The low points of writing for me come when I have created a plot hole or have realised a much better way to tell the story. This results in editing sections of the book or deleting them entirely to re-write new parts. I know that the story will be so much better, but it creates a rift in the original story line that must align with the whole book. Proof reading is another area I do not enjoy, but luckily, I have found some friends who are willing to do this arduous but completely necessary job for me. As an example, one friend managed to identify over 500 superfluous commas which made the story flow so much better. The highs include completing a chapter where I have created a character or a setting that I particularly like. There are bars and restaurants that I have imagined that I would love to visit since I know them so well now. I also enjoy the twists and turns that I create and the seeding of clues and leads within the story. But the most enjoyable part is writing what is known as the denouement, the completion of the story where all the threads come together – it’s like finding the last important piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
Q. Can you describe a typical day.
A. Yes, because I treat writing like a job, creating routines and targets to keep me on track. My partner still works in the real world, so I get up with her and make breakfast for us both. She will leave the house at around half eight and I will make another cup of tea to take to the office where I do my writing. The office is like a little library; all my favourite books on shelves in front of me, inspiring me when I get a little dry. I use a MacBook pro and separate display to give me a dual screen set-up; one for writing the manuscript, the other with access to my research for the book and something I call a Storybook detailing the characters, story outline, plots and subplots, chapter summary and a graph for recording number of words written in a session.
I normally start with a new chapter, since I won’t finish the previous day until I complete a section. I read through the Storybook and the previous chapter to get me in the zone, then write until around 11 am when my diary nags me to go for a bike ride. Most days, I’ll comply and take half an hour to ride around the lakes; on others, I’ll just knuckle down and continue writing if I’m in the flow (or its raining). I’ll break for lunch when my stomach tells me to – probably just a sandwich and my fourth or fifth cup of tea. After lunch, it’s back to the office where I may check on sales of The Pink Herring and tweak the various marketing campaigns I have running or think of new articles for the blog on my website. Before long I will return to writing until around five when I’ll save a new version of the manuscript and turn my mind to dinner.
I love cooking almost as much as I love writing, which is good news for my partner as she invariably walks in the house to the smell of a curry or stir-fry or whatever I’m doing that day. We talk about each other’s day over dinner which is cathartic for her and useful for me to get some real-time feedback on my ideas.
Q. Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring authors
A. I wrote a blog which gives 25 bullet points about how I write from which many tips can be gleaned, but these are centred on the how-to elements rather than general advice. I wrote another blog about the pros and cons of becoming an independent author rather than going the traditional route of finding an agent and publisher. Pulling these and my current thinking together, there are a few key points worth restating.
I believe that everyone has at least one book in them, but if you are looking to write for a living, then it something that you can’t do in the margins. To remain sane, you must have a life outside of your writing zone which means doing it before or after work is not sustainable in the long-term. Taking the leap to become a full-time author is a risky one as there are many aspiring authors in or about to enter the market, all looking to make a living from writing. Some will say that you should not be driven by the need to make money, which is true. However, there are few authors making a living from writing about obscure subject matters or niche projects. So, whatever genre you write in, the development of your own voice or style is essential if you are to be distinguishable from the masses – this is something that may not be acknowledged by the market until your second or third book, so it’s going to be a long game. Even the most acknowledged and successful authors had the same uncertain future facing them when they started.
The most important piece of advice I would give any aspiring author is to get your work professionally checked – a full editorial review, taken heed of and acted upon, will improve the quality of your work immeasurably. Thereafter, it is a simple matter of self-belief and endurance.
Q. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?
A. Don’t be scared to make a sea change in the way you live your life – life is short, drudgery is long. Follow your dreams, or at least find out what they might be, and give them a chance without being influenced by what other people say, how likely you are too succeed or how much money you’d likely make. Don’t look to others to make you happy or contented – this is entirely in your own domain. Don’t hold grudges – it’s like taking poison in the expectation that someone else will suffer. Smile when you feel like shouting, hug when you feel like howling. Don’t stifle a sneeze or raw emotion – both will hurt your heart. Cry when you feel like it – not when it’s convenient for someone else. Really do go the extra mile – it is always worth it, whether it feels like it at the time or not.
However, just like anyone’s younger self or the younger versions we may have made of ourselves, whether I’d listen and take heed of the advice is another matter entirely.
Q. What challenges do you have in the pipeline?
A. When I decided to give writing a real chance, I said that I would write three books featuring Shaun Young regardless of how successful the earlier books were. I am currently writing the second which is due for publication in October 2017 and I have completed the wireframe for the third book. It is only when the third book has been published and marketed will I have any idea how successful the series will be, but I have ideas for subsequent books already lined up.
My other favourite category of literature is science-fiction and I would love to write a crime detective novel in this genre. I would take the same approach to writing science-fiction as I do fiction; to keep things as real and plausible as possible. I have some ideas I’ve been considering around the evolution of artificial intelligence and its use within crime detection. I am, as yet, undecided whether to extend the Shaun Young series into this realm or whether to create a completely new set of characters and set it in the very near future.
Outside of writing, I have rough plans to travel with my partner over the next few years including a road trip along the southern states of America and the same for the west coast of Australia. Road trips allow me to soak up the atmosphere of place and its people, aspects of which will undoubtedly influence my writing in the future.
My first book has been reasonably successful and the feedback very encouraging. Whatever level of success I ultimately achieve, I think that I’ve found the profession that will see me gainfully employed for the foreseeable future. I’ve never had a job that I can’t wait to start in the mornings, that I get totally consumed in during the day and have to be dragged away from in the evenings. Long may it last…
For more inspirational people who are doing their dreams, take a look at the rest of the blog. If you are stuck on how to start doing your dreams, get in touch and find out how I can help you.