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Travels with a Duchess
Menna Gallie


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The Worst Day of My Life

Lindsay Ashford describes her journey into print

Now a successful crime writer, Lindsay Ashford burnt her boats after deciding to become an author. She describes the day she thought it all went horribly wrong....

I'd been working at the local newspaper for two years when I realised that if I had any chance of making it as a novelist I was going to have to give up my job. It wasn't terribly well paid – nothing like the money I'd been on as a BBC reporter in my twenties – but with four young children my career had been on hold for so long I'd been lucky to get any kind of media job. Living in the wilds of west Wales there wasn't a lot of that kind of work on offer.
I'd written a crime novel, 'Frozen', and it had been accepted by Honno, a small press that published books with funding from the Arts Council. The editor, Janet Thomas, thought my central character, investigative psychologist Megan Rhys, had the potential to feature in a whole series of books. I needed the time to sit down and write another. But with a full-time job, four children and a husband who worked away all week, there simply weren't enough hours in the day.
I talked it over with my husband and he persuaded me it would be okay to give up my job. With a big mortgage to pay, we really needed the extra income I brought in. But he said we'd manage somehow. So I went ahead and handed in my notice. But I was in for a terrible shock. When I got home from work that day Janet Thomas phoned to tell me she had some bad news. The Arts Council had refused to fund my novel, saying it was 'too commercial'. It was the kind of book, they said, that should be brought out by a mainstream publisher, not a small press like Honno.
I was devastated. Of course, I'd tried to get bigger publishers interested in 'Frozen'. I'd even managed to get an agent, but she had failed to sell it for me. It wasn't until Janet Thomas read it and pointed out that it needed some quite severe editing, that I realised why it had been turned down so many times.
I'd been trying to write stories for as long as I can remember. I loved writing at junior school, but at the girls' grammar school I went to next I felt as if any creativity I possessed was being suppressed. The staff didn't seem interested in teaching us anything other than literary criticism. They were quite scathing about the few pieces of creative writing we were asked to produce. The overall feeling was that there was no way any of us were going to be able to compete with the likes of Jane Austin or Emily Bronte – so why bother trying?
Despite this lack of encouragement I managed to win a runner-up prize in a regional short story competition for schools, which made me believe I wasn't completely talentless. But it wasn't until I was in my late 'thirties that I started trying to write a novel.
I'd done a degree in Criminology before becoming a journalist, and after the first three children came along I did the odd bit of freelance research work. I was living in Wolverhampton at the time and a local charity hired me to carry out a study of prostitution in the area. The things I saw and heard while doing the research were incredible. I got to tour the red light district of the town with the local vice squad, interviewing prostitutes soliciting on street corners. When I'd finished I had far more than a collection of statistics; I had the stories of these women's lives. It was the kind of material writers dream of getting their hands on. I knew then that I could make it into a novel.
A few months later, with just a few pages written, I attended a course run by the Arvon Foundation at Lumb |Bank in Yorkshire. It was aimed at people wanting to write crime novels, and the two resident authors gave me the encouragement and guidance I needed to get on with writing my book.
Another baby and a move to Aberystwyth made it a long, slow process, but in 1996 I finished it. Had I known about the rejection and disappointment that lay ahead I would probably have given up there and then.
I was gutted by Janet Thomas' news from the Arts Council. I also felt very angry. I was caught between two stools. How was a first-time writer of mainstream fiction ever supposed to get a break? It seemed that all the Arts Council was interested in funding was literary novels.
There was nothing I could do but get my head down and carry on writing novel number two. I consoled myself with the thought that this one would be better; that I had learned a lot from writing 'Frozen' and publishers might be more impressed with my next effort, 'Strange Blood'. It was tough, though, knowing what I now knew about the publishing industry. I knew the chances were very slim, and in the meantime the lack of my income was beginning to bite.
Five months after I left the paper Janet Thomas called again. She said the Arts Council was handing over the management of funding to the Welsh Books Council, and during the handover period Honno was going to be allowed to make its own decisions about which books to publish. 'And of course, we'll be publishing you,' she added.
So that's how my first novel reached the bookshelves; a quirk of bureaucracy got me into print. 'Frozen' became the fastest-selling paperback Honno had ever produced, and soon afterwards the company was approached by the Ottakers chain, who wanted to know if Lindsay Ashford was writing a sequel. They said they were looking for up-and-coming authors whose books they would showcase as 'Crime Book of the Month.'
Understandably I was thrilled to be one of the writers they were considering. There was just one problem. I had to get the manuscript to them by the end of May, and it was now mid-April. Janet had seen my first draft and said the second half needed substantial rewriting. I worked harder in the next six weeks than I've ever worked in my life. In the end I savaged the book even more than Janet had suggested. In fact, I completely rewrote the second half of 'Strange Blood'. It nearly finished me off, but I did it. And two months later I got the verdict from Ottakers. They liked it. It was going to be 'Crime Book of the Month' for April 2005 in all their UK stores.
On the strength of that I've been awarded a commission to write a third Megan Rhys novel. The Welsh Assembly has allocated a pot of money to encourage writers who live in Wales, and I was one the first to win a commissioning grant. The blurb on the application form said they were particularly interested in novels with commercial potential. The irony of this was not lost on me. The bureaucrats were now on my side. For the first time in my life I have the luxury of being paid upfront to write a novel. And yes, it was worth all the rejection to feel the way I'm feeling now.

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