Julia Crouch: Writer-in-residence on a train

Julia Crouch: Writer-in-residence on a train

So, then: e-books. What do they mean for traditionally published writers? My main problem is that seeing my novels in the kindle store is only a Higg’s-Boson-sized thrill in comparison to the rush of God Particle joy I get seeing my real books in a real bookstore. But I’m glad they’re available on Amazon and Apple, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be selling in the same sort of numbers. It means there are more ways for readers to get at books and that can only be a good thing.

I’m all up for change. I’m also a geek, and, having been an avid Mac user since I first bought one in 1987, I embrace new technology like a Cern physicist loves his or her Comic Sans. So for me – bookshop thrill levels aside – e-books are an exciting opportunity and not a threat at all.
I know there’s a worry that the new wave of self-published ebooks will flood the market and dilute readers’ expectations. But those of us whose books are nursed into print by traditional publishers need not worry that our writing is being drowned by all those self-publishers. I know there are notable exceptions, but once the initial feeding frenzy is over, and we have filled our kindles and i-Pads up with ‘bargain’ free or 99p stuff so badly written we can’t get past the tenth page, we’ll start to realise that we get what we pay for. Quality writing will out: quality writing that has been selected, championed in-house and nurtured by an editor. Quality writing that has been typeset and designed by professionals and marketed and publicised by a team of people who have a personal stake in its success.

And, content aside, there are many ways we can make e-books work for us. I recently worked with my publisher Headline and East Coast Rail on a unique project resulting in the publication of a free e-book short story called Strangeness On A Train. The idea is to raise not only the profile of my own books, but also that of Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and their sponsor, East Coast Rail, in a way that truly benefits readers.

In the year since my first novel Cuckoo was published, I have travelled up and down the country to show my face at literary festivals, library events, and readings. After fifteen rather desk-bound years as a graphic and website designer, leading into yet more time at home alone working on the novel, getting out a bit is a welcome change. My one problem was how I was ever going to combine the imaginative schedule my publicist Sam Eades (at Headline) keeps me on, with writing the three novels I have been contracted to write - at the rate of one a year. (My second book, Every Vow You Break, will be  out in paperback in August.) Then I discovered writing on a train: so long as I have the necessaries of a seat to sit upon and noise-cancelling headphones with something not too bassy (Phillip Glass’s Metamorphoses are ideal) to cancel out everyone else’s headphone leakage, I can get more done on a train than I can anywhere else.

I’ve thought a lot about why this might be. It could be that the end of the journey imposes its own deadline, so you tend to race against the clock somewhat more than if you have all day. It could be the inspiration of the landscape, or the in-carriage dramas you eavesdrop on when you surface from your headphone trance. Or it could be to do with the lack of the internet as a distraction – although that’s now rapidly changing on services like East Coast, who provide fast and cheap wi-fi.

I mentioned my train-writing to Sam and almost instantly another imaginative publicity project developed: I could be writer in residence on a train! The gig involved me travelling First Class on East Coast Rail from London to Harrogate, home of Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, where I had an overnight stop, then back again. The journey takes roughly six hours in total, and my brief was to write a train-themed crime short story during that time. I just about managed it, writing the last line as we drew into Kings Cross. Working at that pace produced a pretty rough first draft, but it was all there, just needing another week’s editing to knock it into shape.

The story, Strangeness On A Train, has been published as a free eBook on Amazon and Apple, as well as being printed up into samplers to be handed out on the Harrogate train and at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival from 19-22 July 2012.  I love the way Headline are using this story as a free gift for readers – a bit like the way Jackie magazine used to have a pot of purple eyeshadow Sellotaped to the front in the 1970s. Most writers have a cache of short stories to their names, and it’s exciting to think that we can get them out in this way, while at the same time enhancing the profile of our novels.

Writers and publishers may worry about e-books. They might even see the whole business as a runaway train that they can’t quite catch up with.  But if we use our creativity – and apply it both to content and function – we could all be travelling first class to somewhere quite marvellous. Possibly even more marvellous than Harrogate – if that’s possible.

Julia Crouch