For writers, although the opportunity to reach the buying public is welcomed, they too are presented with the same dilemma…
For TJ Cooke writing has come in many shapes and sizes. As a feature writer he’s written articles for magazines and press, as a copywriter he’s created adverts for television and radio and as a screenwriter he’s penned scripts for some of the nation’s favourite television dramas, including The Bill, London’s Burning and Bad Girls.
[TJ] Tim has written two novels, legal thrillers ‘Kiss and Tell’ and ‘Defending Elton’, the first of which has just been published online via the Amazon Kindle Store.
Literary agents were keen to take him on, his books were well received and with a background in the law and experience in writing for a mass audience he seemed like an ideal candidate as an author.
As it transpired Tim has had quite a remarkable journey with his books. Even with some of the country’s most respected literary agents backing him for success, it was one peppered with obstacles and ill fortune.
Can we start with how you came to be a writer?
I’m a freelance advertising copywriter, chiefly writing radio commercials these days but I’ve always been interested in writing. I was forever writing poems and ad hoc scripts at school, sometimes under the desk during Maths lessons. I liked to play with words and used to create new ones with comic definitions.
Is that how you started out, in advertising?
Well I was supposed to start out that way. My very first job however was as a clerk at a busy legal firm in London. This mostly involved helping Solicitors prepare cases for trial. If they were criminal cases it invariably meant organising visits to remand prisoners in Brixton, Wormwood Scrubs and Holloway. The firm also represented victims of domestic violence, tenants in dispute with their landlords and individuals who had been either been injured or unfairly treated by their employers.
So a bit of a diversion from your chosen career?
Yes, but the job was only supposed to last six weeks. It was a post-university ‘filler’. I’d been offered a job at an advertising agency that started in the autumn. However, as it transpired, I ended up spending ten years working in the law, mostly as a legal executive, and largely focussing on crime in deprived areas.
Did this inspire you as a writer?
With hindsight, yes. I had a vast range of clients and cases, and every now and again one would come along that left an uneasy feeling. Though I still like to think that our justice system is by and large a sound one, there are cases that seep through the cracks, sometimes leaving the guilty unpunished and the innocent unfairly convicted. It’s these grey areas that have always interested me... and this is often where the most compelling stories can be found.
Did your writing journey begin back then?
It all started when I met the producer of Eastenders, who was a character witness in a murder case. To cut a long story short I ended up becoming the shows legal advisor. Once I’d visited the set at Elstree I got the bug to write again.
Yes. It was something I’d thought about before but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I knew deep down that writing was what I should be doing and when the opportunity presented itself I went for it.
Did you write for Eastenders?
I submitted a trial script for them and also for The Bill. The first response I received was from The Bill so things went from there. I ended up writing for many dramas, London’s Burning, Bad Girls, Family Affairs and a fair few others. I was also involved in the set up of serial drama abroad, including one of the first ever in Eastern Europe. Though I was helping to teach local writers about the intricacies of soaps, and the squeezing out of storylines, I was also constantly learning myself.
How did things move on from there? When did the idea to write a novel take hold?
I had two stories I really wanted to tell. I wasn’t sure whether to write them in screenplay or novel form at first. I decided on screenplay and wrote ‘Defending Elton’. It was commissioned by Catherine Wearing at the BBC. Then Catherine left, the project stalled, and I decided to write it as a novel instead.
Is this when the book journey takes over from the writer’s journey?
Yes I guess it is. It was a new way of writing for me but one I felt comfortable with. I think it also helped to have the experience of formulaic drama behind me as well. It was never really my thing but it taught me a lot. TV scriptwriting, particularly for ongoing serials, is a very disciplined arena. My urge has always been to break the mould, but I learned that you couldn’t break it unless you’d set it first. I remember Les Dawson as a kid, playing the piano off key with impeccable comic timing. He must have been able to play the piano ‘properly’ to do that.
So when you set out to write the stories you wanted to tell, did you apply the same principle?
I was aware that in the crime fiction genre there were established models, both in terms of story and character. But they weren’t necessarily the stories I wanted to tell, and the traditional crime fiction characters weren’t capable of carrying them. I stuck to my guns, but knew that in doing so I might rub some people up the wrong way... the traditionalists I suppose. I think it’s a shame though because if everyone sticks to the model template the same stories tend to get told over and over again. That’s what happens in serial drama. The locations, era and characters may change, the basic stories rarely do.
Once you’d finished your novel how did you go about seeking a publisher?
I had two books near enough completed. Although I had worked for television dramas and was used to the agent system there, I had little experience of the literary world. I was actually in the process of contacting one or two literary agents when I met, quite by chance, an agent called Kate Jones. We bumped into each other in a cafe off The Strand. There was some sort of kerfuffle at the counter which got us chatting. Though I soon found out that she was a writer’s agent I had no idea at the time just how respected she was.
And what happened from there?
We had a mutual interest in the criminal justice system, or a certain angle to it, namely when things went wrong. She told me about her involvement in the Guildford Four story and Gerry Conlon’s book. I told her about some of the worrying cases I’d encountered too, where evidence was fabricated or concealed and where the truth was a little oasis in a desert of deceit. We chatted about crime fiction and I told her I had a different approach to it than the norm. Though I wanted to expose the vagaries of the system I didn’t want to do it in a heavy handed way, but with a lighter touch. I also told her about the central premise of my first book ‘Defending Elton’, which reveals both the inadequacies of our mental health provisions and the malleability of our justice system. She said she’d be happy to read it.
What was her response?
Very encouraging, she said she’d really enjoyed it. In fact her words were “it’s crime fiction Tim, but not as we know it” and then laughed. I wasn’t sure what to make of her response at first but she soon put me right. She said it was inventive and could see it as a cult hit. She offered to help and I was chuffed.
Did she take you on as a client?
Well that was the strange thing, she said she’d like to but couldn’t ‘do it justice’. I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time. She did promise though that she would find me the right agent/publisher cocktail, at least that’s how she put it. I didn’t know then that she had been ill, or that her cancer was about to strike again. I think she must have known something herself, though she didn’t speak of it directly.
I understand things took a tragic turn?
She passed away some weeks later, it all seemed so sudden. It was a dreadful shock to me as all I knew was that she was a lovely person, so bright, and often very sharp and amusing. Just a few weeks earlier she’d given me my draft back with some helpful notes.
How did you take things from there?
Well I didn’t, for a while, I was really rocked. It must have been a few months later before I actually made the changes she suggested. What I hadn’t done though was note down the names of the literary agents I knew she was keen to recommend. I tried to remember the names, and to this day I’m still not sure if I got them correct.
So where did the manuscript go next?
Well I’d actually completed my other novel by then, ‘Kiss and Tell’. I sent that one to Peter Straus at RCW [Rogers, Coleridge and White]. I thought I remembered the name Straus because there was talk of him becoming England cricket captain... not Peter obviously, Andrew... but that’s how I remembered the surname. Anyway ‘Kiss and Tell’ went to Peter Straus and ‘Defending Elton’ went to Broo Doherty at Wade and Doherty.
Why two separate agents?
Well firstly I wasn’t totally sure these were the names Kate had mentioned and secondly I didn’t want to overload one agent with two books. I guess I was also covering my options and waiting to see which one, if either, would bite first.
What sort of response did you get?
Peter Straus responded quickly, he actually made the effort to contact me whilst he was still away on his holidays. He wanted to take me on as a client and try and find a home for ‘Kiss and Tell’.
Yes I was. He was really keen as well. In fact I’ve still got his scribbled note on my draft. “You’re the next Sophie Hannah,” Peter wrote, and “Jill Shadow [the lead in Kiss and Tell] seems a most bankable franchise.” When someone like Peter Straus says that you take note, not least because I then found out that he was Sophie Hannah’s agent too.
So what happened next?
Well this was probably the high point of the journey. I knew Peter had been a publisher at Picador and editor-in-chief at Macmillan, so I was expecting that a deal would follow. Not only that but Broo Doherty came back to me with a favourable response too, describing ‘Defending Elton’ as “a most entertaining romp, and a clever swipe at our criminal justice system”. She made optimistic soundings about getting that book picked up too.
So by then you had two agents, each promising to get you a deal?
Well they couldn’t promise anything, but I could hardly have been in a better position. I knew that getting two really respected literary figures to support me was a godsend. Though my heart has always been in ‘Defending Elton’ my head was telling me that ‘Kiss and Tell’ was the more commercial option. Well Peter Straus was telling me too. He is a man of few words, but when he speaks its best to listen.
Some writers struggle to secure one literary agent, some might say you were being greedy?
I’m glad you said that tongue in cheek. It was just the way things turned out. Maybe, despite Kate’s belief in me, I still didn’t have any confidence. I thought I’d try two agents and just hope one might take me on. I couldn’t have dreamed both would.... but my dreams soon turned to despair.
In what way?
Various rejections started to come back from commissioning editors. It was difficult to get my head around some of them as the general comments were all so positive. However, there was always a ‘but’ at the end.
What was the stumbling block for them?
There were one or two who said it wasn’t for them, or it might be hard to place, that sort of thing. A fair few seemed confident I’d find success but wouldn’t go that further step and make an offer. I didn’t really understand why, this was a new industry to me.
What did your agents say?
Looking back at one of Peter’s emails he said, “I just don’t understand it. I’m very disappointed, you write so well and Jill Shadow could be a very popular character”. He added “They’re very jittery right now,” meaning the industry as a whole I guess. Broo was just as deflated. She just said “You deserve an audience and Defending Elton is a seriously good book.” Very nice things of them to say but unfortunately not enough to get me a deal.
They must have been dejected, as no doubt you were?
Absolutely. Though some new writers were still being offered deals I was told that the field was shrinking and luck was playing a more significant part. Maybe I’d used all mine up?
Did your agents explain in any more detail?
Cutting through all the red tape there was clearly a growing concern, that in increasingly hard times new authors were more of a risk. I knew it was a precarious game. Much had been written about how even JK Rowling had been turned down because they thought Harry Potter would struggle to sell. It must have always been a ‘hit and miss’ culture, but something new was now thrown into the mix, the credit crunch. As one of my agents said “Woe betide those who back the wrong horse when the stakes were increasingly precious.”
From highpoint to low point then Tim?
Exactly. It felt like I’d been hoisted up in the air and then dropped on my backside. A gradual feeling took hold that it just wasn’t going to happen.
It must have been extremely frustrating?
The ‘so near yet so far’ scenario was hard to take, for all of us. There were still some smaller publishing houses and independents to try but by now others were suggesting that maybe going straight to ebook, and publishing for Kindle, was the best way forward.
Is that something you had considered before?
Not really, I didn’t know much about it. I read a lot that had put me off self-publishing but things were starting to change. It was only when I started to read a little more about the changing face of book publishing in general that things fell into place.
Had you exhausted all other options?
Probably not. There might have been a few smaller publishers and independents I could have tried. But I thought if the bigger publishing houses are feeling the pinch then the smaller outfits are bound to be feeling it even more. Then I saw Amazon’s announcement that they’d recently sold more ebooks than paperbacks, in fact more than paperbacks and hardbacks combined. It was then that I saw a way forward.
How did you go about publishing as an ebook?
A bit of research, and a lot of help from friends who are more competent than me! The process isn’t that daunting, what is really difficult is that suddenly you are on your own. There is no real role for your agent in this process and there is no commercial back-up either.
Why not publish in paperback too?
You need a financial outlay to do that. You have to cover costs like printing and distribution etc which don’t apply with ebooks. I’d used up my funds. I’m sure I will sometime but I want to see how the ebooks do first.
With my reader’s hat on I’m wondering how I would be able to know that books like yours have been and read and praised by top literary agents?
That’s the problem. With self published books potential readers can’t always tell. There are many who publish direct who haven’t been through the literary agent process at all, and may not have even garnered as much as a second opinion. Now, that doesn’t mean those books aren’t worthy, because I’m sure many of them are, but how do you spot the nuggets from the fool’s gold?
At least you have a good product, a book that has been considered by industry professionals?
Well I hope it’s a good book yes. I’m not always comfortable talking about self promotion but I’m going to have to get used to it! I’ve only just set up the website www.tjcooke.com Other than that and some social marketing ventures all you really have is word of mouth. A few bloggers are taking an interest now though.
And you’re releasing ‘Kiss and Tell’ first, before ‘Defending Elton’?
I haven’t forgotten what Peter Straus said. He knew that Jill Shadow had potential to develop a following so I’ve taken his advice, and will go back to writing her further adventures.
Tell us a little more about Jill Shadow?
She’s an oxymoron some might say – a likeable lawyer. She’s not your stereotypical lawyer that’s for sure. For starters she’s a single mum from a London council estate. She joined a law firm as an eighteen year old secretary, just before her former boyfriend, and her child’s father Jimmy Briscoe was sent to prison for drug trafficking... a fact he had kept concealed from Jill. Twelve years later we find that Jill has qualified as a Solicitor, the hard way, balancing years of studying with parental care. We join her in a safe house, in fear of her own life and with her daughter apparently abducted from school.
No doubt there are lots of twists and turns?
There are yes. Jill has to work out who the ‘goodies’ and baddies’ really are, which the reader does too.
You mentioned previously that you approached crime fiction from a different angle. Can you elaborate on that?
I found that there was a certain template that many writers stuck to. It’s one that often involves a few grissly murders, a serial killer at large and one or two detectives who ultimately ‘get their man’. I deliberately set about creating narrative and character that went against the grain. Jill Shadow doesn’t always get things right, or pursue matters in an orthodox way. What she does have though is a steely determination, to fight any injustice and to dig out the truth. It’s as likely to lead her into scrapes with authority as it is with the underworld... and in ‘Kiss and Tell’ it does both...
Will ‘Defending Elton’ follow?
Yes, but then I’ll return to Jill Shadow. She’s likely to be more popular as a character.
You’ve been on quite a journey with these books. Any regrets?
At one point I thought self publishing was the avenue of last resort, but so many changes have now taken place in the literary world that I now see it as a major route forwards. I did what I could to get published the ‘traditional’ way, in fact I doubt I could have done any more.
Is it possible that you still might be offered a traditional publishing deal?
Well it may be that fresh editors in new positions will see things differently. In any event I look forward to the future. Kindles and the like are undoubtedly the shape of things to come, but I also think paperbacks will remain. For readers it’s good to have the choice. For writers, well it gives us a better chance to reach an audience, and that can’t be a bad thing.
For details about Tim’s books see http://www.tjcooke.com
Thank you, Tim and good luck with everything :)