Stevyn Colgan and Claire Gradidge at Hampshire Writers’ Society May 2019

Special Guest: Claire Gradidge

The evening opened with special guest and fellow HWS member, Claire Gradidge, revealing her ‘surprising journey’ to becoming winner of Richard & Judy’s ‘Search for a Bestseller’ competition, supported by WHSmith. Open only to first-time unpublished writers, the competition was adjudicated by Richard & Judy alongside employees of Bonnier Publishing and agents at Furniss Lawton. The prize being a £30,000 world rights publishing deal from Bonnier Zaffre and specialist advice from literary agency Furniss Lawton.

Claire Gradidge

“I’ve spent 30 years trying with more rejections that I care to count, entered numerous competitions and the only one I won was a ‘write a postcard’ competition when I won £8, which I had to spend on a celebratory round with my friends.”

Claire spoke with joviality, her excitement and astonishment at her win shining throughout. Retired from nursing she studied for an undergraduate and PHD in creative writing, by the end of which she had written an historical crime novel she was proud of.
Entry to the competition was free so with nothing to lose Claire sent off her 10,000 words and synopsis and forgot about it. “I felt utter shock when I made the 2018 shortlist of five authors. I thought, I better make the most of the good news while it lasts. So I was dumbfounded in January when they announced I’d won.”

“I remember being astounded I’d won for the longest time. I would travel to London to meet my agent and publisher and would just get the giggles.”

The journey had just begun when Claire’s editor suggested changing the title from Home to Roost to The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox, “I happily agreed- they know what’s going to make the book sell.”

The novel was line edited and I learned so many new things about my writing and how to improve it, for example how often I use the word ‘just’.

Claire occasionally struggled with removing lines they felt didn’t work, but complied with the changes. “Interestingly, they were asking me to shorten it by applying more telling” which seemed extraordinary to Claire, given as writers we’re always told to show not tell.

The novel has now been sent off to famous authors to read in the hope they will endorse Claire’s novel.

Claire left the audience with two simple words of advice: “Enter competitions.”
Set to be published on 8th August 2019, The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox is about a woman’s return to her home town of Romsey for the first time in 26 years where she discovers a family secret.

Claire will also be speaking at the Winchester Discovery Centre on 5 July and the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival between 18 and 21 July 2019.
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Main Speaker: Stevyn Colgan – An Englishman’s Home is his Cackle

“It’s a brilliant felling when you get that first book deal. My first deal was in 2007 with Pan Macmillan with my book Joined-Up Thinking.”

Previous to this, Stevyn was a police officer which led him to write his book One Step Ahead, as well as other police-focused titles.

Stevyn has been writing books for ten years now, with 13 on his computer at home awaiting the perfecting process. Additionally, Stevyn spent over a decade as one of the elves who research and write script for the multi-award winning BBC TV series QI: “There would be two hours of filming so that when all the swearing, long pauses, people just sitting thinking, comments inviting legal action were removed, what remained was a 30 minutes comedy panel show.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by comedy. I love writing jokes and comic novels, and have always been a huge fan of classic murder mystery.”

During his policing days, Stevyn was involved in many homicide scenes, “But unlike in books and on TV, it’s actually very businesslike and dull. There’s processes and paperwork to complete.”

Stevyn Colgan

Years ago, working at ‘Murder HQ’, more officially known as the Major Crime Team, “There was no emotional involvement. It was just a day job.”

Stevyn told a story of how the seed for his book Murder to Die For was planted. On his way to a comic convention he saw two different groups of Batman super fans dressed up. One group had chosen the Tim Burton Batman(all black) and the other, the Adam West Batman(grey with blue pants, cape and mask). Stevyn chuckled to himself while the two groups stole glances at each other and criticised the other group’s costume choice. Stevyn then questioned what would happen if the worlds of classic detective fiction – which he loved – and real-life homicide investigation – which he knew well – came crashing together. And if he used the Batman superfans as detective superfans, there could be hilarious happenings and, occasionally, messy results.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, comic writers started dying out. Between the time of getting his book deal and the time of getting the book published, the whole industry changed. His agent loved the book, but no publisher wanted it. Great comments were received, but no contracts were given because publishers didn’t know, and still don’t know, where to place comedy in the market. The market had gone off comedy.
So where’s all the comedy gone? People say it’s down to mobile phones but people read on their phones and kindles. But technology has made a difference.

The early 2000s saw new levels of competition from the supermarkets and online retailers impacting all specialist booksellers and in particular those with insufficient scale to compete on equal terms. Ottakar’s book store was bought out by Waterstones in 2006; Borders and Books Etc. went into administration in 2009. Books were moving to MP3 format. Publishers were only taking on ‘dead certs’.

“I was pushed aside with many others, and celebrities were brought forward; In 2011 Pippa Middleton was offered £400,000 to write a party planning book; In 2012 the Britain’s Got Talent dog Pudsey and owner Ashleigh were offered £350,000 for his autobiography.”

These changes put a halt on the ordinary Joe getting their books published.
Amazon then came and said ‘publish with us’. And while it’s easy to get published with Amazon, it’s difficult to get noticed. Digital publishing is publishing democratised, but there’s no advances and no quality control.

So Stevyn took his book to Unbound, a subscription publisher with a selection process – best of both worlds – online and traditional. Stevyn now has a few books published through Unbound, including, but not limited to: A Murder to Die For and The Diabolical Club.

“We have to get more comedy out there. Comedy is such a broad canvas. One hundred people can read the same thing and only three people will like it. Publishers are happy to advertise a book as funny to sell more copies, yet publishers don’t want funny books. Romantic comedies still do well, but other comedy takes a while to bed in.”

“Keep submitting comedy. Even if you don’t get published, you must continue to write because that’s your passion. If it fills you with joy and excitement, that’s what it’s all about. And that’s what will win through!”

Event images by Alex Carter, Lexica Films

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