Sunday, 15 March 2020

Killer Women : Fresh Blood : Trevor Wood

Please welcome the fourth and final Killer Women Fresh Blood panellist, Trevor Wood. Trevor is a playwright turned crime writer who started his working life in the Royal Navy. The Man On The Street (Quercus) is his first novel. Lee Child called it, ‘Fresh, original, authentic and gritty,’ while Mari Hannah said, ‘What more do you want from a debut than a unique protagonist and a cracking plot-line?’

SH: Trevor, you’re involved in working or volunteering with homeless people. And you served in the Royal Navy for 16 years. How did that influence your hero’s story?

TW: The Navy background was the initial influence. When I first came up with the idea of a homeless man seeing a murder my initial research told me that ex-servicemen constitute around 10 per cent of the homeless population. I knew that this gave me a way in to my protagonist – I may not have known a lot about being homeless but I knew how ex-servicemen thought and behaved. Whilst writing the story I went to visit the People’s Kitchen in Newcastle which provides hot meals for over 100 people every day. It’s staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers but at the time they had a waiting list for helping there – which says a lot about the city I think. I kept my eye on the lists and when a vacancy came up I grabbed it so now spend one afternoon a week working in a hot kitchen making supersize versions of the meals I would cook at home. Mixing with the volunteers and the ‘friends’ as we call our clients gave me the impetus to focus more on the homeless experience than the ex-serviceman experience, not just on the shameful way we treat people, or the pitiful lack of affordable housing,  but on the idea that these people were, and still can be, resourceful, capable, members of society and, in many cases, are more honourable than those who are supposed to be role models.

SH: You’re a hugely successful playwright who decided to turn to crime (novels). What would you call the biggest difference between the two disciplines?

TW: The first, most glaring, difference is the sheer number of words. A standard, full-length play probably comes in around 15,000 words while you’re looking at a minimum of 80k for a crime novel – and I had a co-writer for the plays so, theoretically, only had to come up with around half of the words! So sheer volume of work is a big difference. The second thing is the nature of the writing. Plays, by definition, are almost entirely dialogue. There are a few stage directions but actors don’t much like being told what to do by writers so these are usually kept to a minimum. So, when I started to try and write my first crime novel I was confident that I could handle the dialogue but had to learn how to do everything else. I did a couple of local writing courses and joined a local writing group and gradually managed to get a grip on what to do in between the dialogue! My editing, even now, often consists of trimming out dialogue and adding a little more description.

If I’m allowed a third thing… because I co-wrote the plays we planned everything from the get-go. The whole play would be mapped out and then we would divide up the scenes, head back to our own territory, write our own bit and then swop them around. Once we’d got a rough draft we’d sit together to edit. For my crime novels it’s the complete opposite. I don’t plan at all. I start with an opening chapter and go from there. Maybe it’s a reaction to the previous over-planning but it feels more organic to me and almost as if it’s happening in real time – as it would for any actual investigator, my protagonist can follow hunches but has no sure idea what might happen next. I have this crazy idea that if I don’t know what’s happening next it will be pretty hard for the reader to guess. It does mean that I have to do a lot of editing, retro-fitting the plot to make it all work, but if it’s good enough for Lee Child ...

SH: Can you expand on your road to publication?

TW: My first attempt at a crime novel is sitting on my laptop waiting for the world to change. One of the problems was that I stayed in my comfort zone. I wrote it in first person – falling back on the idea that dialogue was my strength (see above). Also, the tone was comedic, again doing what I knew I could do, most of our plays were out-and-out comedies. It got me an agent but stalled there. It was only later that I discovered the publishing world doesn’t really know what to do with comic crime. Editors have enough trouble judging whether a book is good or not, if they then have to judge whether it’s funny that’s two difficult, risky decisions. The knockout blow is that they then have to decide whether other people will think it’s funny. I’m hoping that Mick Herron’s success may mean I can resurrect the book one day.

I decided to throw that all away and try instead to write the kind of book I like to read, gritty, socially aware, realistic crime, think Dennis Lehane, Eva Dolan and, um, Sarah Hilary. This meant completely stripping down my natural style and starting again. So I did another course. The inaugural MA in Crime Writing at UEA – the best decision I could have made. A great course, based hugely on peer-to-peer feedback and I had the help of ten other hugely committed wannabe crime writers and visiting speakers like Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Lee Child. Of the eleven who started the course, five now have book deals, including Harriet Tyce, of Blood Orange fame, and three others have agents and books on the way. The final deliverable of the course was an 80k-word crime novel and that was the book that became The Man on the Street. After that the journey was a story of long gaps with sudden bursts of joy. I had got rid of my first agent (long story, but basically I could never get him to meet me) and I had nearly a year of rejections before the wonderful Oli Munson at AM Heath read the book in a day and offered me representation within two days of me sending out my initial enquiry. We then had a second long wait as rejections, some hugely encouraging but rejections nonetheless, crept in. Eventually we had strong interest from one editor but subject to a significant rewrite. We took the plunge. Several months of hard work later that was rejected too. HOWEVER… the new version went out to a handful of editors and the offers came in almost immediately, including one from the estimable Jane Wood at Quercus. I nearly bit her hand off.

SH: What's next for you?

TW: I wrote The Man on the Street under the distinct impression I was writing a standalone novel. To my surprise everyone else thought it was a series so I’ve been working on book 2, provisionally entitled One Way Street and the second draft is in my editor’s hands as I type this. Like the first book it’s currently planned to be given a soft launch, in e-book and audio, in October this year before full publication in hardback in March 2021. The other big thing is that The Man on the Street has been optioned for TV and film by World Productions, the makers of Line of Duty and Bodyguard. I try very hard to keep things on an even keel – I know that not everything that gets optioned ends up on screen - but I’m finding it tricky not to get ridiculously excited about this.

Thanks, Trevor!

You can buy The Man on the Street here (supporting your local indie bookshop). Do join the discussion on Twitter where Trevor can be found here.


christine said...

Hi! Really interesting to hear about your journey to publication. Do you think your forces background helped you with the focus and tenacity to get there in the end, and what would be your advice to anyone struggling at the moment?

Trevor W said...

Hi Christine, you certainly need to persevere, though where that comes from I don't know. The best advice is to keep going. You don't need every agent to love your work, just one and hopefully that one is out there somewhere. The main thing is to make sure that when you find them your book is in the best shape possible so use the time wisely in editing and re-editing until it's nigh-on perfect. Trevor

Marni said...

Oooo, something to look forward to!