The first idea for a novel that ever came to me was a murder mystery involving a crime reporter in the Deep South in the US.
I had that idea about a decade ago. It was the first book I ever tried to write.
It was an absolute disaster.
I made it as far as chapter eight and I was lost. Up to my ankles in pointless digressions, dozens of characters with no sense of direction, a plot with no focus.
There was some good writing in there, but it didn’t know what it wanted to be.
I was out of my depth. So I gave up.
I decided then I’d never write a novel. I’d already been a reporter, An editor. A website editor. I had enough, really, to keep me busy.
Besides, it was all a bit embarrassing. All my life people had been telling me I should write a book. And it turned out I couldn’t.
Five years later, though, I had another idea. At the time, I’d begun working in Westminster for a government agency. It was a job I’d fallen into entirely by accident – I had no government background whatsoever. Every day I walked past Parliament on my way to work, I had meetings in Number 10, and I was acutely aware of how extraordinary it all was. Everyone in that world seemed to know everyone else from school or from university. I’d never felt more like an outsider.
That was when I started thinking about an Eton-like school for the children of the political elite and a political conspiracy in which those teenagers became pawns.
I’d just read The Hunger Games (along with everyone else in the sentient world), that’s probably why the idea of a sixteen-year-old protagonist first came to me. My main character was a teenager in trouble – when we first meet her, she’s being arrested for petty vandalism. She’s sent to Cimmeria Academy to get her away from her miscreant friends, and she walks into a world of privilege, corruption and lies.
I wrote Night School without any preconceptions. I hadn’t even the slightest belief I was capable of writing a novel. I wrote it purely for fun. My commute by train to London was long and boring; writing made the time pass. I was 30,000 words in before I realized it might not be terrible.
The rest happened fairly quickly. I sent the manuscript to three agents – the one I really wanted signed me over the phone. The book rode a young adult wave at Frankfurt that autumn, ultimately selling in 24 languages.
The series was an international bestseller. When it ended, everyone thought I’d write another YA series. To be fair, so did I.
I worked up five separate ideas for my next project, but none of them filled me with the kind of excitement Night School had summoned. I could see how they might work. But my heart wasn’t in it.
Instead, I found myself thinking about that long ago idea, of a crime reporter in a steamy southern town, with a murder in her past.
Without telling anyone, I wrote a 10-page synopsis, just to try it out. And the story fell into place. At last, here was the excitement I’d missed. Everything about it felt right.
At the time, my agent was on maternity leave, busy raising a newborn, blissfully unaware that I’d changed my mind about my entire career.
By the time she came back to the office, I’d written a first draft. I sent it to her on her first day back.
She responded with an email that said, ‘I thought you were writing a YA???’
I replied, ‘Yeah. About that.’
After she read it, we had a serious talk.
Publishers, at the time, were only interested in dark psychological thrillers. They were throwing huge money at them. ‘Domestic noir’ was the phrase on everyone’s lips. Unfaithful murderous husbands or wives, and lost or dead children led all the book charts.
Instead of diving into that pool of money headfirst, I’d written a classic variation on the private eye novel. To make matters worse, it was the first book in a series, at a time when nobody wanted series.
My agent loved The Echo Killing, but warned it veered from the trends. We had a joking conversation about it. After all, I’d written Night School, a non-paranormal political thriller right when all anyone wanted was vampires and angels.
If you’ve got a trend, call me. I’ll buck it.
I was facing two massive hurdles. First, I was genre jumping, from YA to adult. Publishers do not love that. YA sales look small compared to adult. What is a respectable career to young adult novelists can look like a mediocre track record to an adult publisher. Second, I was writing against the trends.
But at the same time, my agent and I both knew The Echo Killing was the best thing I’d ever written. I could feel that book in my bones. I knew those characters as well as I know my own family. I heard their voices in my head when I was writing. I could feel their breath on my skin as the story came together.
It is a monumental experience as an author to have a book write itself the way The Echo Killing did. I swear it’s enough to make me believe in magic. I feel lucky just to have written it.
If it sold? That was gravy.
So we took it to Frankfurt.
And despite the trends, despite the market, despite my background – it did sell. It sold in the US first, to St Martin’s Press. And then in the UK, to Harper Collins. And in nine international territories so far.
Now, I’m not going to lie – it was no cakewalk. We sent that book out widely and, although it went to auction in the US, it was also rejected by dozens of publishers. The vast majority of the feedback was just what we’d expected: ‘Not dark enough for us’.
So there’s that.
And, have no illusions, I’m not building a mansion with my advance. It’ll just about pay the mortgage while I write book two.
But that’s Ok. Success will come or it won’t. I have no control over that.
Besides, I’m really in this, as most authors are, for that uncanny moment I hear my characters in my head. For the chance to watch the story unfurl beneath my fingers like a banner. For those moments that send a prickle down my spine that says, ‘You’ve written it true. You’ve told it right.’
I’m in it for the magic. And I’ve already got that.
(c) Christi Daugherty
About The Echo Killing:
The most exciting new crime voice you’ll read this year!
Fifteen years ago her mother’s killer got away. Has he finally struck again?
MURDER SHOCKS PEACEFUL NEIGHBOURHOOD
A woman in her thirties. Found naked and stabbed on the kitchen floor. Discovered by her twelve-year-old daughter after school.
As top Savannah crime reporter Harper McClain stares at the horrific scene before her, one thought screams through her mind. This murder is identical to another murder she has witnessed. Her mother’s murder…
For fifteen years, Harper has been torn apart by the knowledge that her mother’s killer is walking free. And now, it seems he’s struck again. There are no fingerprints. No footprints. No DNA. Yet still, Harper is determined to discover the truth once and for all.
But that search will come at a cost…and it could be one she isn’t ready to pay.
Order your copy online here.