Killers in Mascara, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.
DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about Killers in Mascara?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: It’s a murder mystery set in the London music and nightclub scene of the early ‘80s. I know that world very well as I was a pop music journalist in those days and I interviewed most of the big stars of the so-called ‘New Romantic’ movement—groups and singers such as Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Adam Ant and Spandau Ballet. In spite of its rather unusual setting, the novel is in the tradition of British amateur sleuth stories so even though it deals with gruesome murders it does so with a sense of humour.
The first murder in Killers In Mascara takes place in a fashionable nightclub some time between New Year’s Eve 1979 and New Year’s Day 1980. The characters are mostly very flamboyant. In fact I’d say they were a bit ‘over the top’ but for the fact that their real-life equivalents were even more over the top! You have to remember that this was back in the days when Boy George was working as a cloakroom attendant in The Blitz nightclub while his friend, Marilyn (also a man), used to take to the streets of London dressed as Marilyn Monroe. It would be hard to create fictional characters more outrageous than the real people.
Killers In Mascara is the first in a series of novels. I’m already well into writing the sequel—called The Glam Assassin—and I have outline plots for two more after that.
DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: I’ve heard some actors say that they build a character around a trivial characteristic such as the way a character walks or laughs. In the film of The Entertainer, Laurence Olivier was obsessed by the teeth of his character, Archie Rice. There is even a rumour that he had his own teeth filed down to achieve the effect he wanted.
For me, creating characters in a novel is a bit like that (except I don’t file my teeth). I get an idea of the sort of person I need and then I try to find some way of crystallizing the entire character in a single trait—it may be something visual such as the clothes they wear but more often it’s a verbal characteristic such as a speech mannerism or some odd idiom they use. Epitomising a character in that way serves as a mnemonic device for me. If I can visualise or hear a person speaking then I can immediately call to mind the rest of that character’s personality. I keep notes too—to remind me of character traits or elements of each character’s history—but often I find it easier to recall a character by bringing to mind the special feature that I’ve memorised. It becomes like hearing a friend’s voice in your head. As soon as you hear the voice you can conjure up the whole person.
DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: For me, it would somebody who enjoys the journey. What I mean by that is that while the plot and the characters who inhabit the story are important, fundamentally I want to take the reader into a world that they are most unlikely to have visited before. The ‘New Romantic’ scene in London in the early ‘80s was colourful, exciting and strange. It lasted for only a few years and only a small number of people experienced it. My aim is to lead my reader on an imaginative journey into that world.
DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: I’ve been a professional journalist for most of my life. I began writing for magazines when I was eleven. I used to keep tropical fish and I wrote articles for hobbyist magazines in order to earn some money to buy fish and aquariums.
In my teens I wrote a few rock concert reviews for a music newspaper (New Musical Express) and I interviewed some pop stars for a student newspaper. After university (I read English at Cambridge) I did a fulltime office job for a year and hated it. So I quit my job and decided to be a freelance writer. Initially I wrote for music magazines but since then I’ve written for all sorts of other magazines. I have also edited and published magazines and done some TV work.
I’ve written quite a bit of fiction of the years too. I’ve had some short stories published and I write a regular fiction column called ‘Dirtection Inc.’ for IT Expert magazine (it’s about someone who solves crimes by analysing computer keyboard fluff):
In addition, I’ve written a few fairly ‘serious’ novels which have not been published. I sent those manuscripts to several literary agents and often received the same sort of response from most of them: “We like your writing but your novels don’t fit into a genre”. From a hard-headed commercial perspective, I can appreciate their problem. Those novels blend realism with fantasy, they are dark but humorous, they have elements of mystery but they aren’t detective stories, they are set in ‘alternative realities’ but they aren’t science fiction. In short, they didn’t fit into any recognisable category. I still like those novels—to be honest, I think they are the best writing I’ve ever done—but for now, I have decided to take a more commercial approach by writing in a specific genre—the British amateur detective.
DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: Since deciding to write a series of Kindle novels, my writing process has changed a great deal. Before I began Killers In Mascara, I took a long hard look at the way that I had written my previous novels and I concluded that, while their subject matter might be serious, the way I had written them was not. I was writing like an amateur. I don’t mean that the quality of my writing was ‘amateurish’ but my approach to the business of writing undoubtedly was.
When I write journalism, I do it as a job. I study the market carefully, I analyse the preferred style of each publication for which I write, I pitch an idea or I take a commission, I work to tight deadlines and I always deliver copy on time and to the precise length and style required.
But when I was writing novels, I didn’t do any of that. I used to adopt the attitude that I was writing for myself so I didn’t have to compromise on subject matter or style and I could take as long as I wanted to hone and polish my prose. That, I now believe, was a fundamental mistake.
My job as a writer is not to please myself, it is to please the reader. I now take a much more disciplined approach to fiction writing. Having identified a genre for which there is an established readership, I planned out a series of four novels before I began writing the first one. Once I began writing, I set myself a firm deadline and a fixed daily target (2,000 words a day). In short, I approach this in the same way I would approach a series of magazine articles which I had been commissioned to write. I make it a rule that missing my daily target is not an option.
So, come rain or shine, week in week out, I write 2,000 words a day. This workflow is similar to what is advocated by Ed McBain in his excellent essay on the art of novel-writing. Frankly, if it was good enough for McBain, it’s good enough for me.
DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: This follows on from the last question, really. I admire writers who approach the task with professionalism. These would be writers such as Ed McBain, P G Wodehouse, Stuart Kaminsky and Boris Akunin. They are prolific and serious about the craft of writing and they write (or wrote) at a consistently high quality. P G Wodehouse, in particular, wrote around a hundred novels and, in my view, he was one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century.
DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: I honestly wouldn’t have liked to write any book that I have not written. The central quality of all the books I most admire is the author’s ‘voice’. When you read Steinbeck or Dickens, Wodehouse or Hardy, the author’s voice permeates the work. So even though I love many of those writers’ books, I don’t hear my voice when I read them. I’m glad that those authors wrote books that are distinctively theirs. As for me, I just want to write books that are distinctively mine!
DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: It’s early days yet as I only publishing the novel in March. I have a website and a blog. I’ve recorded a YouTube trailer. I have set up my Amazon author’s page. I try to be active in leaving commentaries on other people’s books on Amazon in the hope that some readers may see my comments and be sufficiently interested to click through to my author’s page. I am still finding my way around the online community of independently published authors and suffice to say I am very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in an interview such as this one.
DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: Two reasons: speed and control. Traditional publishing is a slow, laborious process. Finding an agent or a publisher is very hard work and is success is certainly not guaranteed. The problem is that conventional publishing is an enormously expensive process. I know this from personal experience since I was joint-owner of an independent magazine publishing house back in the ‘90s. When so much money is involved, publishers are risk-averse. They either tend to favour novels that are ‘just like’ some other successful novels or else they like to have celebrity authors whose name alone will sell books. This makes the market very difficult, and very slow, for a writer to break into. Quite simply, I’m too impatient for that.
The next benefit is that Kindle publishing gives me full control over what I write and the success or failure of my books is entirely up to me. There is no barrier of agents and publishers and contracts standing between me and my readers. That’s just wonderful.
DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?
HUW COLLINGBOURNE: Do it. But not too quickly.
One of the problems with the instant-accessibility of the Kindle publishing platform is that it makes it very easy for someone with no previous experience of writing professionally to rush a book to market. In the world of conventional publishing that’s not how it works. To give you an example—I have a non-fiction (programming) book that will be published as a paperback by NoStarch Press this July. My original copy has been proofed and edited over a period of about six months by an editor, a copyeditor, a technical reviewer and a proof-reader. At each stage the copy has come back to me with the most nit-picking queries on everything from the order of sentences to the precise placement of a comma.
When you self-publish to Kindle it is most unlikely that you will be able to have your work checked and edited in this way. This puts a big burden on the author to ‘get it right’ first time. To do that you should not only do the obvious things such as spell-check your copy but you should also edit and re-edit your text to avoid duplication, remove inconsistencies and generally ‘tighten it up’.
In my view, the biggest mistake that inexperienced writers make is to over-write. I see a great many Kindle authors emphasising the length of their books rather than the quality. While I accept that some big books justify their length—I wouldn’t suggest that Gibbon’s Decline and Fall Of The Roman Empire should be cut, for instance!—others would be far better if they were shorter. Personally, I would prefer to read 70,000 well-written words than 200,000 carelessly written words. So, before you publish, I’d suggest that every author should look for passages that can be cut without destroying the story. If they can be cut, they should be cut. It’s a difficult task for a writer to be his or her own editor but, since we don’t have the benefit of all the editors that a commercial publishing house has at its disposal, we have to try to be extremely ruthless when editing our own writing.
DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Huw Collingbourne is a writer and software developer. He has also, at various times, been a magazine editor, TV presenter and horticulturist. He has an MA in English and a 2nd dan black belt in Aikido—the latter skill useful when attempting to control his huge, hairy and amazingly strong Pyrenean Mountain Dogs.
In the 1980s he was a pop music journalist. In the 1990s he published the 'adult humour' magazine, 18 Rated, which was immediately banned by all leading UK newsagents (who obviously failed to see the joke).
He is now writing a series of 'New Romantic Murder Mysteries' which brings to life the music and clubbing scene of London in the early '80s. Killers In Mascara is the first novel in this series.
Visit his website and read his blog.
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