The beginning of the beginning
It’s always hard starting a blog a couple of years after you should have. Where do you begin? What exposition is needed to bring readers up to where you want them to be? Or do I just assume anyone reading my random stream of consciousness either already knows as much of my backstory as they want to or couldn’t care less?
When stuck, start at the beginning on the basis readers can skip ahead or click away as they wish. For those who are interested enough to stay with me for a while then I’ll share how my story started whilst avoiding the usual “submissions followed by rejections” routine most writers do. Instead I thought I’d share the few weeks in my life that probably kick-started my journey to becoming a published author. If nothing else it’s funny.
The Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award for unpublished authors was something I’d been meaning to enter for a a couple of years but had never got round to. So in Jan 2013 I took a week off work, banged out 3000 words in two days then spent another three days doing the dreaded synopsis. By the end of the week it was posted and I was twenty-five quid lighter. By the end of the weekend I’d forgotten about it.
In May I was getting ready for work when I checked my emails (in between putting on my left sock and my right sock if I remember correctly – I’m easily distracted). Nestled in amongst the usual drivel and spam was a short email from the CWA, to the point and almost dismissed as trash. “Dear Mr Craven” it started, but instead of going into the expected “thanks for trying but piss off” message, it began with “We are delighted to tell you”. Along with eleven other hopefuls I’d been shortlisted. An invite to the CWA Awards Dinner in London beckoned.
I suppose now is the right time to tell you a bit about myself. I’m essentially a lazy bastard and hate travelling. My wife, Jo, will confirm, with the exception of a trip to Greece with some friends which I couldn’t get out of in 1991, until I’d met her I hadn’t been on holiday since I went to Canada with my mum and sisters in 1983. My excuse has always been I travelled enough in the army to satisfy any curiosity about what anything outside of the north of England looked like.
The truth was I just couldn’t be bothered. And because I couldn’t be bothered I didn’t bother booking train tickets – and when you’re travelling from Cumbria, if you don’t book early you’re looking at a bill for £300 easy. I talked myself into not wanting to go. I wouldn’t win, I wouldn’t know anyone, there’d be no draught beer, the whippets would be podgy (insert your favourite northern stereotype here). Then I found out Lee Child was receiving the Diamond Dagger and Frederick Forsyth, last year’s winner, would be presenting it to him. This was a game-changer. I’m a huge Jack Reacher fan, and like most writers consider Frederick Forsyth to be literary royalty. I threw Jo my credit card and said “book it”. After a spirited exchange of ideas which included such gems as “do it yourself”, “I’m not your PA” and “piss off you patronising arsehole” we managed to get booked into a hotel near the venue, King’s Place. But because I’d procrastinated for so long I had more chance trying snap a coin than booking a train.
Trains, planes and automobiles
So the train was out. We looked at flying. Not a chance. More expensive than the inflated train prices and we’d have to drive two hours to Manchester anyway. A coach? Ha ha ha. No, it was the CWA Awards Dinner I was going to not The Jolly Boy’s Outing. So after we’d eliminated the impossible (or what I should have booked but didn’t, what I should have paid for but wouldn’t and what I wouldn’t lower myself to) we settled on driving. To London. From Cumbria.
What a pair of idiots.
But then, showing a remarkable lack of foresight, we thought we’d had a stroke of luck. My sister used to be cop in the Met and still had friends down there (it’s possible but not certain she still does – read on for more details). A nice woman (I say nice woman, she was actually a Detective Chief Inspector – told you I could be a patronising arsehole) offered to let us park outside her home and she lived far enough from the city centre to make it an easy commute. She was going to be out for the day but left a key for us so we could freshen up (middle-class terminology for going to the bog although I prefer ‘freshen up’ to comfort break if I’m honest). Job’s a good ‘un.
The big day arrived. Early on Monday, 15th July we set off from Cumbria, down the M6, onto the M1 and six hours later arrived in Hertford, which whilst not technically in London, is close enough to count as far as I was concerned. We found my sister’s friends house with no difficulty, decided although we were in the south and technically in a different culture, it was still England and therefore no way were we going into a stranger’s empty house to have a cup of tea and a piss. Instead I sneakily crept into their back garden to leave a “thank you” bottle of wine on their garden table. Remember that bottle. I’d selected it from our small collection at home. It is the basis of the the epilogue and still a great source of shame in the Craven family.
Now the thing you won’t remember from that day was that it was one of the hottest days of the year. The sun was blazing and there was no wind at all. In short, it was perfect sweating weather. And sweat we did. The “short walk to the station” turned out to be nearer a mile and half. A mile and a half, in desert-like conditions, carrying suitcases, make-up bags and suit carriers. Oh, how we laughed. We didn’t bicker at all.
At the station we discovered one of several differences between the sophisticated capital and quaint Cumbria. You have to have a ticket before you get on the train. Madness, I hear you cry. I know right? None of this buying a ticket off the conductor malarky, that’s far too complex. Instead we had to struggle with a ticket machine of a complexity I have not seen before or since. No matter how many buttons we pressed and in what order we couldn’t work out how to get a ticket. In the end an old lady helped us. Seventy if she was a day.
Forty minute train ride into London, an uneventful tube journey to King’s Cross and about an hour walking around trying to find the hotel. About fifty-five minutes of this was actually cursing the “Maps” app on our phones. Clearly we weren’t the only things being confused by the heat and the noise and the people. It sent us every which way but the right way. Eventually, and probably only 200 yards from the station, we stumbled upon it and checked in. We were filthy, dehydrated, exhausted and totally pissed off. But at least we could now “freshen up”.
We had booked into what they called a “boutique hotel”. When we looked online, the difference between a normal hotel and a boutique hotel was lost on us. Until we saw our room. It was lovely, it has to be said. Large, airy, had a fully stocked fridge, complimentary mineral water and a massive bed.
And a clear glass wall separating the cludgie from the room.
Clear glass. Floor to ceiling. Not even a cheeky little frosted pattern etched into it to give the illusion of privacy. Now, my scatological proclivities had never really taken off as a hobby, and although we hadn’t been married that long, I presumed my wife’s hadn’t either. There was no “When in Rome” spirit in the Craven room that afternoon I can tell you. Through a system of codes and hanging towels we managed to “freshen up”. Time for a nap.
Nap time over. Time for a shower. Jo went first, I could hear her splashing about, getting the stink of day off, enjoying the water. Then a small scream. I ran in. She’s cowering down on the shower floor pointing at the small window. I look up. There’s a man there casually smoking a ciggy. Oblivious to the fact that the walk-out balcony in his room is on a slightly higher level than our room. It afforded him a perfect view into our bathroom. He looked at me and nodded. I nodded back. He finished his cigarette and went back inside. More towels to cover yet another window. Jo finished her shower.
As far as I can tell, the “boutique” in boutique hotel must be swinger’s code for come and watch each other have a poo and a bath. It‟s the only explanation.
And Finally, The Daggers
Ah, the Crime Writer’s Association Awards Dinner. We got a taxi to the venue which was at King’s Place that year (it was less than a quarter of a mile from the hotel – yep, the driver was thrilled with his three quid fare as you can imagine) and then did what reserve northerners do when in a room full of confident southerners who all know each other. We went and stood on our own and hoped someone would come and talk to us.
Luckily some free booze and the arrival of some more debut dagger shortlists, all looking equally as lost, made the early part of the evening flow far easier. After about an hour of getting oiled on some sort of fizzy white wine – my wife knew what it was called (she’s far more sophisticated than me) – we were called to dinner.
We couldn’t believe it when we took our allocated seats. We were on the next table to Lee Child and Frederick Forsyth! Our table was mostly made up of debut dagger shortlisted authors and their partners and was, I think, numbered 18. Lee and Freddie (as Polly and Rachel, the two girls at our table from Transworld Publishers called him) were on table 1 but because of the weirdly shaped room, tables 18 and 1 were only about a yard apart. I had only started reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels a year or so earlier but had quickly worked my way through, what was then, all seventeen books. He’s one of the world’s great thriller writers and if you haven’t read anything of his you need to check him out at leechild.com (after mine of course). And does anything need to be said about Frederick Forsyth? An absolute legend. The Day of the Jackal and The Fourth Protocol were two of the books I put down to me wanting to become an author. At one point they went out for a cigarette (Lee smoked – can’t remember if Freddie did) – I had a cigar in my pocket and was so tempted to get up and join them. But I didn’t.
As well as Polly and Rachel (who was also one of the judges – a true professional – she gave away nothing, she didn’t even tell me not to worry when I told her I hadn’t written a winner’s speech!), also on our table were two lovely ladies from Wivenhoe Writers – Sue Dawes, who was also shortlisted, and Pauline Rendall. Two other shortlisted authors from Canada made up the crew – DB Carew, author of The Killer Trail and Jayne Barnard, author of When the Bow Breaks. Everyone was so friendly and we were having a great time. The red wine was flowing (northerners and free bars is sometimes a bit of dodgy fuse but this time we handled it – bit pished but nothing that was scaring the Trafalgar Square pigeons), the food was great and the host, Gyles Brandreth, was very funny.
The first few awards were dished out but I wasn’t concentrating if I was being honest. It was dawning on me that there were only twelve on the shortlist. What if I won? I wasn’t joking earlier when I said I had nothing prepared. Jo thought I was being pessimistic – she was wrong, I was plain scared. By not writing one it was as if I was giving a nudge to the god’s of award ceremonies that I wasn’t really ready. The wine started to flow a bit faster just in case my flawless plan failed.
The moment arrived.
And the winner is… Well, not Mike Craven I can tell you that for nowt. Some woman on a different table called Finn Clarke was making her way to the podium, huge grin splitting her face.
Poo. Although emotions of relief flowed through me, they were tinged with a small spattering of regret; I’d liked to have won. But I’m glad I didn’t have to stand up in front of half of my literary heroes and make a tit of myself.
Finn is a lovely woman though and well deserving of the top prize. We met her afterwards – she’d written a story about a man who is wrongly accused of murdering the woman he is stalking. And everyone on our table agreed she gave a great speech. To commiserate, and with no reason to stay sober any longer, we called for more free wine.
The meal ended, Freddie gave Lee his Diamond Dagger and the rest of the speeches finished, even the waiters weren’t being so free and easy with their red nectar. The evening was coming to an end. Just as well. All the nervous energy I’d expended earlier, combined with the dehydration from our day’s travel and the free bar meant that the red wine was having an effect. I was piddled.
Polly (Remember her? She worked for Lee Child’s and Frederick Forsyth’s publishing house and was sitting on our table), had been talking to my wife all night. I assumed Jo was bigging me up, trying to snag some sort of deal with one of the “big five”. I checked she was doing some Mike Craven promotion when Polly had her back turned.
‘Nope. Talking about shoes,’ she replied before turning her back on me.
Anyway, Polly had arranged for us both to meet Lee Child. She’d mentioned it earlier but I thought she was just being polite. By this time the tables had broken up and people were mingling. I was talking to some of the other shortlistees when I heard Polly call my name. I turned round and there he was, the great man himself. Wow. Talk about thrilled. And talk about overstaying your welcome on a handshake. Talk about talking absolute nonsense to your hero as well. There were two things I remember from the conversation we had (which lasted about 20 minutes) – first, Lee had wanted to be a probation officer in his youth. Score one for Mike Craven (although as I wanted to be a multi-millionaire author I suppose we should call it a score draw).
Secondly, he congratulated my wife for being shortlisted and insisted on having his photo taken with her. Jo didn’t correct him either until she had her selfie! Anyway, I’m not showing you that photo but you can see the one I’m in.
As you can see, one grinning idiot, one slightly nervous looking mega-author. Up to you to decide who’s who. The truth is Lee is universally known for being a genuinely nice man and I have nothing at all that can detract from that. He was polite, interested and happy to pose for as many happy snaps as we wanted. He even signed my menu. And provided his own pen.
One last photo and one last thing to tell you all about. Someone got as many of the dagger shortlistees together as they could for this. Couple of things worth knowing. Finn is the one on the left and for some reason I’m a different colour to everyone else and looking at a wrong camera. I blame the red wine. The young woman with the tattoos is the last thing I want to tell you about. Her name is Aine O’Domhnaillm and the book she was shortlisted for was called The Assassins Keeper. What a cool title. I mean seriously cool. So what I hear you ask.
Well Aine didn’t get a deal for TAK. But she did for her next book. If you haven’t heard of it you will soon. It’s called Freedom’s Child and it’s being released under her pen name, Jax Miller. It’s already generating a massive buzz with some huge names (including Lee Child and Karin Slaughter), it’s one of the books I’m most looking forward to reading this summer. Apparently she finished it on a Tuesday, an agent read it on Wednesday and signed her on the Thursday. By the end of the weekend she had a two book deal and a future star was born. We chatted in the scrum before the photo was taken and we congratulated each other on our choice of titles. Nice lady, we keep in touch on Facebook and I’ve enjoyed watching her fascinating journey.
Freedom’s Child will be available in the UK on 2nd June.
Anyway, there’s only so much writing about another author’s good news I can do before I start hitting the keypad a bit too hard. Back to our trip to London. The night ended with a couple of cooling beers, a disastrous attempt to find our way back to the hotel using our phones and, finally, a decent night’s kip.
The journey back to Cumbria the day after was just as tough. Very hot. Pain in the arse to be honest. About twenty times longer than getting the train and no cheaper when it was all totted up. There’s a lesson there but me and Jo argue about what it is. I say the lesson is never go to London whereas she insists it’s buy your bloody trains tickets early. Leave it up to you to decide who’s right.
Back in Cumbria, we enjoyed telling our Dagger stories, embellishing them each time. We asked my sister to thank her friend for letting us park at her house and asked her to check they’d received the bottle of red wine we’d left as a gift. My sister couldn’t get an answer.
A couple of weeks later we were happily ensconced back in our semi-rural life. Jo was making some spaghetti bolognese. Cooked from scratch. We’re not quite as working class as I’ve been making out. I’m in the kitchen, bored and being a pest.
“Pass me the cooking wine,” Jo says.
“Which one’s that?” I reply.
“The half open one in the wine rack.”
I check. Nope, only full bottles there. “There isn’t one,” I insist.
With a sigh, Jo leans down to look. I have a track record of not finding things that are there. “Odd,” she says. “There was defiantly one there. It was an M&S Meal Deal bottle.”
The penny drops. We look at each other.
“Oh, you didn’t!” she gasps. Hands go up to her already crimson face.
I could feel my own cheeks flush with embarrassment.
I did. I absolutely fucking did.
In our gratitude at being allowed to park our car at my sister’s friend’s house, the present we left them was a month old, half-finished bottle of cooking wine.
I wonder if they drank it?