By The Sword – the Story behind the Story

Posted: April 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
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 It started on a spring day in 2010, on the train, when I read about yet another of those ned-with-a-samurai-sword attacks in Glasgow. Then the thought occurred to me: “what if it was a really bad guy, like a serial killer?” The character of Banzai Billy Boyle began to take shape in my mind.   It needed a setting: I had just started working in Glasgow and didn’t know it that well. But I joined the inspirational Glasgow Writers Group and got to know the city. From this, grew a short story of around 5,000 words, based on a sword-wielding killer and a conspiratorial twist.  I submitted it to a short story competition, inspired by Stuart MacBride’s first line “In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it.” The story wasn’t shortlisted and sunk without trace. I was disappointed as the characters were very good, but the story didn’t work well as too much happened in it for a short story.Then, someone at the Glasgow Writers Group suggested turning it into a novel. So I did that.

The start grew first of all, the initial murder and the police investigation. Then I added a grand finale inJapan. This part of the story was largely set in Yokohama and Kamakura, two places I’d visited and liked a lot. At this point, the story was maybe around 20,000 words or perhaps 30,000 words – can’t remember.

I added a section in Barlinnie Prison, which allows the character of Boyle to develop through memory and interaction. Before that, Boyle was glimpsed only briefly from newspaper headlines and case files.

I’m not sure at what point the “story” was complete, but it was probably around 50,000 words. Then it was a matter of rewriting it until flesh was put on the bones, reaching 80,000 words. The Japan section in particular wasn’t satisfactory at this point, as it read just like a travelogue with little action. So some incidents were included, such as a subway confrontation. Other small changes were made, to make it seem more like a rounded story rather than a sequence of events witnessed by characters.

I submitted it to the standard agents and publishers. Agents were generally helpful in terms of feedback but not willing to take it on. Mainstream publishers were not interested even if they were open to unsolicited submissions. It is incredibly difficult to get a publisher interested in a new writer’s manuscript. That effectively leaves small presses and self-publishing.

A few small-press publishers were interested, one or two were looking at it or willing to look at it, but Wild Wolf Publishing took it on board in the end. I had a story in their “Holiday of the Dead” anthology and liked the look of them, as a dynamic small press with a dark fiction identity.  It got to a quick start, picked up in September and complete by the New Year, far quicker than the publishing process in the past.

Success? Woo hoo! But there is no massive marketing budget (as for the Big Six) and it is very difficult to get exposure or reviews for such a novel. So the struggle continues. I think it is a good story, it has had encouraging comments, and there is a market for this type of novel. Thankfully we have a vibrant and growing industry in terms of small presses willing to take on board new writers, especially in “genre fiction” like crime and horror.


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