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It's always fantastic to talk to mega bestselling authors and a few years back, Simon Toyne's Sanctus series was one of the biggest books in the UK, as well as an international bestseller. In this interview, he explains the inspiration behind the books and how 20 years of TV experience taught him the most important elements of storytelling.
In the introduction, I talk about the launch of Business for Authors, my trip to Stockholm and the launch of 1 Fred's Place in London, plus the audio edition of Day of the Vikings, available now.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Kobo’s financial support pays for the hosting and transcription, and if you enjoy the show, you can now support my time on Patreon. Thank you!
Simon Toyne is the bestselling author of the Sanctus trilogy, translated into 28 languages and published in 50 countries. Sanctus was the UK's biggest selling debut thriller of 2011, and all three books of the trilogy were Sunday Times bestsellers in both hardback and paperback.
You can listen above or on iTunes, watch the interview on YouTube, split into two, here (for readers) and here (for authors). You can also read the transcript below.
- Simon talks about the origins of the Sanctus trilogy and what inspired him to write the books. They are fast paced thrillers but they're also about the identity of religion in the West, and the real identity of the main character.
- Sense of place: The importance of the city of Ruin with the medieval Citadel, and the mysterious Sacrament that lies within. What's real and what is fiction.
- On research and traveling for work – Simon worked for 20 years as a Director making travel shows, so a lot of that goes into the books.
- How Simon took 6 months off his TV job to write his first novel. He took his family to France to take a real break.
- On walking the line on religion on spirituality. There's a lot of Christian ideas in the books, but also a lot of pagan mythology. It wasn't intended to be religious in any way. On arriving in France, sleep-deprived after a storm, and seeing the spires of Rouen Cathedral, Simon found a quote resonating in his mind from Ralph Waldo Emerson “A man is a god in ruins.” That became the seed for the books. Simon mentions that The Name of the Rose was an influence (as it was for me!)
- On the Tau cross (pictured on the cover) and how important it was to the myths in the book. What is the Sacrament and what does it really mean?
- Simon's now writing a new modern thriller series about a man who doesn't know who he is, a story of redemption. It's roughly based on the 10 Commandments.
- On screenwriting as a way of understanding storytelling and an apprenticeship for writing novels. Lee Child and Simon both worked in commercial British TV and you learn a lot about story from that world.
- Simon's tips for writing worldwide bestsellers.
- The changes in publishing and how Simon sees the industry right now
You can find Simon and his books at SimonToyne.com and on twitter @simontoyne.
Transcription of interview with Simon Toyne
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m thriller author, J.F.Penn, and today I’m here with Simon Toyne. Hi, Simon!
Joanna: Hello. And just a little introduction: Simon is the best-selling author of the “Sanctus” trilogy, translated into 28 languages and published in 50 countries. The first book was the UK’s biggest-selling debut thriller of 2011, and all three books in the “Sanctus” trilogy were Sunday Times Bestsellers in hardback and paperback. And I love the “Sanctus” books, so I’m so excited to have Simon on the show!
Simon: That’s very kind of you to say so—no money changed hands for those kind words, I’d just like to point that out!
Joanna: No! I’m obviously a sucker for anything with a religious title or a broad-brush cross on the front of a book, so I jumped on your books.
For people who haven’t read the trilogy, can you give us some broad-brush story strokes?
Simon: That’s always the killer question, isn’t it, because you’re sort of reducing 1,500 pages’ worth into a kind of catchy thing that makes sense, and doesn’t make it sound derivative and sucky. At the heart of it, the fundamental idea that kicked the whole thing off and grew into this trilogy, was a notion that what if in the past, right at the beginning of history, right at the beginning of time, when history took a right turn, what happened to the people who were left behind, who stayed on the left path, effectively?
And it’s a modern thriller, and it’s very much about identity, really: it’s about the identity of the West, of Christianity, and of religion, western religions in particular, organized religions, how they grew, but also, mirroring that, the human story is this sense of identity of my main character, who’s a female journalist, who has got identity issues of her own and gets kind of sucked into this huge mystery, and this huge, dangerous conspiracy. And actually what she’s really trying to do, what drives her, is not that she’s trying to uncover some big, faceless plot, is she’s trying to find out who she is. So that was the heart of it for me: it’s this story about identity.
And it’s got dangerous sex, sects not sex—I should have not clarified that; I’d have probably got more readers—and it’s quite a techno thriller as well, there’s lots of technology in it. The third one, “The Tower,” has got the Hubble Space Telescope, and it mirrors the Tower of Babel in that the telescope is looking at the furthest reaches of the Universe, and trying to gaze upon the face of God, which some people think is a heresy.
And so I tried to take all of those, the foundations of western religion, particularly Christianity, and mirror them in individuals’ lives in the present, and our own situation, and pose the big What If what we thought about religion and the origin of it was all a bit wrong. The big what if, the starting point, the seed from which all of these huge narrative trees grow.
Joanna: It’s great, and even if people just download a sample, the beginning part’s really striking, because there’s a monk who commits suicide off the top of this Citadel of Ruin, and I think Ruin itself is almost a character.
Could talk about Ruin and your inspiration for the place?
Simon: Well, Ruin is where a lot of it takes place, and Ruin is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, and it’s situated in ancient Anatolia, ancient Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, the Land Between Two Rivers, those two rivers being two of the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden, so that’s how old it is, which is now modern-day Turkey. Originally, in my first draft, I didn’t want to say where Ruin was, I wanted to kind of leave it vague. But, like a character, the more I got into it and the more I had to work out the history of it and the mythology of it, and all this sort of stuff, I realized I had to say where it was, and Turkey was the best place, because it’s seen this huge amount of history, kind of swishing through it, and it’s right on the edge of Asia and Europe and the Middle East, and the Biblical Lands, so it’s perfectly situated.
And it’s amazing history there,: Troy is there, and Ephesus. I mean, there’s so much history, so much forgotten history that pre-dates what we think of as ancient history, which is generally Greek and Roman: it’s way beyond that. And even in Egypt, there were civilizations before that. So, it was the perfect place to set it, and I genuinely looked around for a real place that I could add a few bits to and plonk this citadel, this carved mountain monastery in the middle of, and of course there isn’t a place, and I just thought, I couldn’t take such liberties with a real place.
So in the end, I just invented this place, because no real place suited the story and the place is intrinsic to the story and does have this character, because effectively, the legend is that there’s this sacrament, this sacred relic, that is kept in this monastery, which is carved out of this vertical mountain in the middle of this town which has grown up around it, that has supposedly got some sort of divine power and it was the foundation upon which ultimately Christianity and lots of the Abrahamic religions were built. And no one knows, no one’s seen it, because people go into the mountain—only men: patriarchal, proper monastery—and no one ever comes out, and that’s how they've kept it secret, what this thing is and whether it even exists.
I liked this idea that you’ve got effectively this almost medieval monastery, surrounded by kind of Disneyland, because this huge industry has grown up of the sacrament, what’s the sacrament, and whatever, and people just go there, it’s a bit like Lourdes, or Santiago de Compostella, all these kind of places, these kind of shrine places which have become industries. The Vatican is another one, these huge industries have grown up, and tourists go there, it’s this kind of religious, sacred, spiritual tourism.
So that’s where it came from, and it was a slow process of building it, because I had to kind of build it from the ground up, and think about the history, and a lot of it’s borrowed. Interestingly, the main character, who’s American, she flies in to a city called Gaziantep, which exists, and is indeed one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and so she flies in there, and gets in a cab and then drives up into the foothills of the Taurus Mountains to Ruin. So that journey from Gaziantep up into the foothills is where she sort of goes off the map, because Gaziantep is real, New York, New Jersey, a lot of it takes place there, is all real, and so it’s only when they go up to Ruin that it slightly goes into the crease of a map, as I describe it.
Joanna: You take a lot of these ideas from places around the world.
Did you do a lot of travel for your research, are you a travel junkie like I am?
Simon: Yes, I did some, I did do some travel for this, but it wasn’t specifically for this, although it turned out that way. Before I was a full-time novelist, I worked for nearly 20 years in television, and when I was cutting my teeth as a director, every other program on the television seemed to be a travel program or a holiday program. So I made a lot of those, and I traveled everywhere, making these little holiday programs, travel adventure programs. And it’s amazing how much of that I have drawn on and continue to draw on when I’m writing. I need a place and I think of somewhere I’ve been, and with Google Maps now, you can go back there from your desk and whatever.
But there’s loads of stuff, I go back to old photographs of me looking ridiculously young and thin and not gray at all, or wrinkly, and go back there, and you draw, I think. T he good thing about being a writer is it makes you reanalyze the stuff that you’ve done and think about it, and make sense of it and revisit these places. It gives you an excuse to navel-gaze a bit, but with purpose.
So yes, I did a lot of travel, but then the story about the travel that specifically feeds into “Sanctus” and the city of Ruin, is that having worked for nearly 20 years in television, I kind of was getting a tiny bit jaded, I just ended up making the same programs that I’d made several times before, and I’d always wanted to write a book; my 18-year-old self, staring out at the vast vista of my life ahead, said, “Yep, definitely going to be a novel in there somewhere.” And I was approaching 40, and was, “Where’s the novel, then?” My 18-year-old self was tapping me on the shoulder and going, “Yeah, you’ve really let me down on the novel front.”
With a full-time career and a young family and everything, it’s really hard to find the time: you can’t just knock off a novel, it’s like saying, “I’m just going to pop out and run a marathon.” You need to prepare to do it, it takes time, it takes a lot out of you. And I couldn’t, the job working in television was very creatively exhausting—I wouldn’t say it was demanding, necessarily, but it was quite creatively exhausting—and I didn’t want to do that thing of carving out a bit of a weekend and going, “Now I’m tired, and I’ve had a hell of a week, but now the novel,” and sort of just do it firing on two cylinders.
So I took the decision—maybe it was a mid-life crisis—to just take some time off. So I quit my job and took six months off. And rather than sit in my spare room depressingly, in my pants, trying to write a novel, with people going, “How’s Simon doing with the novel,” with me with a big beard, um, my eldest was not quite in school yet, so we said, “Well, why don’t we just go somewhere: let’s go somewhere for six months and have an adventure.” And part of it was me thinking, “If I fail at writing the book, I can always then describe this time as ‘that time we spent in France,’ as it turned out, rather than ‘that time I failed to write a book’.” So I was future-proofing my own failure.
So that’s what we did. We rented our place out in Brighton, where we live in England, and rented a place in the middle of the countryside in the South of France, in December, in winter, because it’s cheaper, and spent six months here, and I wrote the first about 180 pages of a book that was then called “Ruin,” and then came to be known as “Sanctus,” a year and a half later, when I finally finished it, after going back to work and having to do the weekend thing and all that stuff that I was trying to avoid.
Joanna: It’s quite a story. I’m interested, because you use a combination of Christian ideas and pagan myths and historical stuff in the book. How do you feel you walk the line between orthodox religion and people who like Christian books, let’s say, with, with a spiritual side of things.
How do you think you’ve managed that line that Dan Brown kind of failed at?
Simon: You’ve got the Dan Brown fatwa on you now by saying such a thing! Well, the thing was, it was really weird, because when I came out to France to write my book, I had two or three ideas that I’d been kicking around in my head. Basically, the answer is I never set out to write a Christian book or a religious book: that was about as far away from what I was intending to write as possible. I had these two or three ideas I worked in commercial television, so I sort of knew I could write, I’d spent 20 years writing scripts and stuff, so I knew I could kind of be creative on demand, I’d produce something, the quality of which was debatable and up for grabs, but I knew I could produce something. And I figured that what I should do was, I should write something that was close to my own experience, because I wouldn’t have to research it. So I thought: modern, contemporary guy, a bit like me, thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Very Hitchcock, very Harlan Coben, that kind of thing. And I thought, “That’s what I need to do, then I don’t have to research anything, and in six months I can probably get a rough draft down of what the story is and sort of work on characters and all that sort of stuff.”
Because the other thing I was aware of is that I’d spent all this time writing scripts, but when you write scripts, you never describe anything: you never have to, because you point a camera, and there it is. So it was a big, new area of writing that I’d needed to develop quickly. And so, again, let’s set it in the modern era, because you can just look at it and describe it, you don’t have to research, well that’s what I said.
So all these reasons, I had these two or three ideas, and it was only when we were driving to France, in December, because it was cheap, at the start of our adventure, and I was in the van full of a bunch of stuff, mostly soft toys to make our rented house in France look homely for when the children arrived a couple of days later, so it was, “Here’s your new home, and here’s your stuff, so it’s home.” We set sail on the midnight ferry, and we were going to drive, it’s a day’s drive to get to where we are in France, it’s way in the south, near Toulouse, and it being 1st of December, we went from Newhaven to Dieppe, and this huge storm just blew up in the Channel, and we didn’t get any sleep, because we caught the midnight ferry because we were going to sleep and then drive through the night and the day to get there, and we got no sleep at all.
So we just arrived thankfully in France, alive, and needed to go and find a hotel somewhere. We drove an hour inland, and an hour inland from Dieppe is Rouen, and as we were coming in, the storm had blown out and, and dawn was starting to lighten the sky, and I saw the silhouette of Rouen Cathedral, up on the hill. It’s a very weird cathedral, Rouen Cathedral: it’s got this hypodermic syringe of a needle of a spire that sort of pierces the sky, and these bits, it’s very Gothic and weird. It’s almost like a spider, it’s a strange thing.
And when I saw it, this quote just popped into my head that I’d read years ago and always liked, and always wondered, and carried around with me in that sort of way, like picking up a shiny thing and putting it in your pocket. And the quote is the one that’s at the beginning of “Sanctus,” the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote,
“A man is a god in ruins”
and there was something about that quote and the image of the cathedral, and the play on words of the Rouen/ruin that just planted the seed.
And then we went and slept in a hotel for a few hours, then got up and carried on driving, and the radio in this old van that we’d got broke, so for eight hours, I was on my own, with my thoughts, with just this idea whirring around in my head. And by the time we got to the house, it had just taken root. Of course it was nothing like the things I was going to write: it required this huge amount of research, in the end it required a huge amount of building a whole city from scratch, history and all, legends and mythology and all. But it was the best idea. It was totally the best idea I had. I just knew it was the best idea. And so these other ideas, that I’ve still never written, just fell by the wayside, and I just started writing this thing.
And so I think, because it kind of came out of this idea of just recognizing a good story, it wasn’t like I went, “Ooh, Dan Brown’s sold lots of books: I’ll do one of those,” or anything. And I mean, if anything, more of an influence is, “Name of the Rose,” which was written 23 years before “Da Vinci Code.”
Joanna: Me, too.
Simon: You know, because “Da Vinci Code” was large in everyone’s sights when “Sanctus” was coming out, everyone was like, “Oh, did you read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and whatever?” and in actual fact, I only read “The Da Vinci Code” about half-way through writing “Sanctus,” when I suddenly panicked and thought, “What if I’m actually writing the same story?”
Joanna: It’s nothing like it, actually.
Simon: No, I know, but you just … I picked it up, and page one, there’s a monk, and I’m l, “Oh, great, there we go, nine months of work, just throw it,” and then, of course, page two I’m, “No, that’s, yeah,” and by page four or five, I was, “Yeah, it’s totally different, I’m fine.” But the other thing is, all the ideas in it come out of the story, it’s not like I have kind of a checklist of, “Oh, I like this, therefore I’m going to write something about this.” I had the idea, basically, I had the end, what I came up with almost first was the end of the first book, and I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, I had no deal or agent or anything, it was just, “Let’s try and write the best book I can,” which is why I picked this ridiculously hard idea in the end. And so I worked backwards from that, I was, “Well, if this is the big secret,” you know.
And the engine of “Sanctus” is, “What is the sacrament? Does it exist, and what is it?”
And because it’s a patriarchal, secretive monastery, only men have ever been allowed to go in, of course, as a writer, what you want to do is make things really hard for your protagonist, so who’s the best person, who’s the most unlikely person to discover that secret? A woman. So I worked backwards, and so my main character became a woman, and again, people were, “Oh, did you write a strong female character because there’s a gap in the market and there aren’t that many of them?” and I was, “No, I didn’t. I wasn’t that smart, and, ‘yeah, this is good, I had a meeting with my people and went, OK, here’s the pie chart of what people are reading, there’s a gap here, shall we do this? Women, hands up for a woman’.”
Everything grew organically out of the story, including the religious stuff. Because the whole point of the idea is that this mystical relic, even though it’s been co-opted by Christianity, pre-dates it, and Christianity grew out of it, and I have the cross, that suckered you into buying it, which was on the cover, which was the Tau, which is the T-shaped cross—favored by the new Pope, in fact, going back to Francis of Assisi—which pre-dates the Latin cross. And actually, when you read about it, it would have been the cross that they would have crucified Christ on, because what do we know about the Romans? They were very efficient. And a carpenter building something like that, with his mortise joints, it’s complicated carpentry, and they were crucifying a lot of people. So they were like, “What’s an easier one? Something like that with a cross thing on it, balance, with the little thing on top. It’s really easy.” So that’s the cross. The Christian cross should look like that.
And so you sort of have all these things, and you kind of go, “Oh, that’s interesting, let’s just go and play with these myths and these kind of preconceptions,” and go back and take a symbol that pre-dated it and was very much seen, it’s in the Egyptian spiritual canon, and it goes back beyond that, it’s a Pagan symbol as well. So that’s where it came from.
And it, so if I blend it together well, it’s just because I think it’s all serving the story. It’s not the other way round. It’s not, “Here’s all this stuff, how can I cobble a story together or bolt it to it?” And actually, religion, or theology, as a subject that I know you’re very familiar with, is really just about ideas. It’s about ideas to do with belief and God and all this sort of thing—gods plural. It’s endlessly fascinating, because they’re mystical mirrors that reflect our own situation, all of them. And so that’s, I think, why we’re endlessly fascinated by it, and actually, if you really drill down to it, they’re just full of brilliant stories. The most amazing, brilliant stories. As a writer, it’s an endless, it’s like a bottomless pit, like a well that will never run dry. There’s always something in there, there’s always something interesting, and there’s always another take to put on it.
The hardest thing, I think, is, is doing the modern thriller thing against that, and making that work, without having to have the history lesson bit, where the expert goes, “Let me tell you about this thing that you don’t know about, because otherwise the plot won’t work,” it’s exposition.
Joanna: Or that I made up.
Simon: Exposition, yes. It’s really the hard thing, where they explain stuff to the idiot.
Joanna: So what are you writing next? What’s your plan next?
Simon: I’ve just finished the first draft of the new book. No, I’m doing the second draft now, so I’m going into that, which is a new series, a new series character. It’s similar territory, and it’s about a man who doesn’t know who he is, and is on an epic journey of redemption, and it’s kind of mystical, but also it’s modern, again, and he has to travel to various places, to go to various dangerous places, all of these places have secrets, and find the secret and fix something. And in each place he learns something about himself.
It’s very roughly based on the Ten Commandments, so it might be ten books, with each one very loosely themed on one of the Commandments, and he has to go and redress the balance of these holy laws that have been put out of kilter.
But largely it’s a modern thriller. They’re more like Westerns, I think. I mean, this first one’s set in Arizona, but the second one might be set on a boat, and the third one might be set in France.
Joanna: I love Arizona. I reckon I could live there, in the red Sedona kind of deserty bit.
Simon: Arizona is amazing, isn’t it, it’s beautiful and weird and alien, and it’s like being on a different planet. I have very Celtic skin, and so basically I’m like a vampire, so I don’t think I could cope with the heat there, because it is ridiculously hot. They close everything in the summer, because it’s too hot. It’s like their summer is the winter, because it’s bearably hot, rather than ridiculously, stupidly, life-threateningly hot.
Joanna: That’s cool, going to look forward to those novels. Now, I want to just ask about your writing, because you and Lee Child, I think, are the famous ones for giving up your jobs in TV screenwriting and becoming novelists, although there are quite a few others who come out of screenwriting.
What are the storytelling techniques that you learn through being a TV writer?
Simon: Well, Lee and I both worked in commercial British television, actually: we weren’t necessarily script writers, we were producers, I suppose. I mean he worked for Granada, and I worked for the BBC and all over the place. The thing is, if you’re making commercial television, what you have to do is constantly hook the viewer. You have to hook them with an interesting story, and constantly hook them and rehook them because if you’re sat in prime time, you’re up against heavy competition. And if you’re sat in prime time on a commercial channel, where there’s ad breaks, that’s when you lose people, because they’ll go, “I don’t want to be sold stuff, let’s see what’s on BBC1, where there’s no adverts.” And if there’s something more interesting going on, you won’t get them back. So you have to be really good at kind of sneaky narrative devices to hook in a viewer, and keep them.
When I was working in television, I went to one of these kind of strange “How to make better telly” things, where someone had done some market research where they’d studied the viewing habits of people, and said that on average, the instinct to reach for the remote and see what else was on kicked in roughly every two minutes. So, every two minutes, and I bet it’s less now: I bet it’s like more like 20 seconds people are going, “Yeah, bored of this, what’s next?” And so what you have to do is you learn techniques of pacing, really, and structure.
You know, you structure it properly so that you have a big proposition at the beginning that’s intriguing enough to make you want to get through the first bit that develops it. Then you pose a big question, particularly if you’re doing ad breaks: you pose a big question that then gets answered, you want to know the answer to that. And it’s constantly question and answer, learning more things so that at the end of it, you have a resolution and you have a broader knowledge of the whole thing: you see the whole picture at the end that has been gradually revealed to you.
And all of those techniques, I could have just described what you have to do as a thriller writer, because rather than just kind of engaging you and not reaching for the remote, you want them to turn the page. And now, as people are reading them on e-readers, or multimedia devices, if your book’s a bit boring, they will then go and watch an episode of True Detective instead, or they’ll go on the Internet, or they’ll go and look on Facebook or whatever. So you’re competing with all of that, and so they’re similar techniques, I think. And it’s a really good discipline to constantly have to kind of construct those narratives and keep them fresh and interesting and make the surprises surprising, because people are very sophisticated in their reading and viewing habits, and they can spot a twist coming a mile away. So you have to second and third guess them in order to make it fresh. And so, it’s good discipline, I think.
And so I think people who come from TV or film, those narrative techniques of pacing and engaging the reader or the viewer are very similar. And also, there’s the discipline, of course: there is the discipline of having to do it professionally, as in, you turn up and be creative on demand. You know, there’s that brilliant H.L. Mencken thing: “I only write when I’m inspired, but I see to it that I’m inspired at 9 o’clock, every Monday morning,” and that’s true, there’s these kind of notions of writers as sitting in cafes and staring into the middle distance, and then some god light hits them and they write in a fugue until the morning, and then there, it’s done. And sadly it’s not like that, is it?
Joanna: It’s not.
Simon: It’s sitting alone in rooms and grinding it out and just writing and writing: if you’re a professional writer, you write when you don’t want to write, which is often, because there’s loads of other things to do, and it takes months to write a book, years to write a book, and it’s not right, it’s not right to be on your own in a room for that amount of time, in your head. It’s weird. It’s a definition of insanity, isn’t it: sitting in a room on your own, listening to the voices.
Joanna: Making up worlds! Yes, but it’s fun.
Simon: It’s amazing, it’s great, and I don’t want to be disingenuous or things like that, but it’s just if you’re a professional you have to do it, and then you produce a book, and you have to produce another book, in a year, or less, and there’s a discipline. And so that, I think, coming from something as fast-moving as television, is a really good apprenticeship.
Joanna: Yes, and of course, you, as I said, quit your job, went and wrote this start of the book, finished the book whilst working, but this, your first book, became this massive, global bestseller, and most people don’t manage that with their first book. Having read them all, I think they’re great books, and they well deserved that success, but do you think that that comes from the screenwriting side?
Do you have any other tips for writing a worldwide bestseller?
Simon: Well, working for 20 years in television was a pretty good apprenticeship. And the thing is, I don’t have any unfinished books or multiple rejected books in my desk drawer. This is genuinely the first book I wrote. Which I know sounds sort of, “Yeah, just wrote a book and it was a bestseller.” But it was built on 20 years of writing fairly terrible scripts, and then writing better scripts and then writing bigger programs, and producing things, so the rigor and the discipline of that, all of the series I made, and all of the narratives that I have been involved in creating and structuring, were my first novels, I think.
And even though the writing is different, like I said about description and stuff like that, and the pacing is different, because the rhythm’s in the words rather than in the cutting, I think that just comes from reading. You know, if you want to be a good writer, it’s really simple. You just read a lot. It’s as simple as that. You cannot be a good writer unless you read widely and extensively and often, because if you haven’t written a book, it shows you how to write a book, because it’s all there in front of you, how narrative works, and everything, and if you are writing a book, it shows you where the bar is. You read people who make you cross, because you’re, “Man, I wish I’d written that,” or, “That’s so good.” I’m constantly reading stuff that just makes me sick, because I’m, “My god, that’s such a great idea,” or a great character or a great turn of phrase, or a brilliant bit of description, there’s always something.
And if I read a book that’s not good, I don’t read it anymore: I stop reading it. There’s too many good books.
Simon: I’ll give it a fair crack, but if it hasn’t grabbed me or there’s too many errors in it, whatever it is: if I’m starting to see the joins, if I can start seeing the manipulation, the strings being pulled, then I just—and I’m a tough reader, I suppose, because I do it. If you make a table, you can look at someone else’s table and see why it’s rickety.
So, that’s it. I mean, that’s the key, I would say.
And if you want to write a bestseller, as well, read bestsellers.
Don’t just read books that you’d quite like to read. And by bestsellers, I mean books that were written and came out as bestsellers at the time, not slow burners that didn’t do very well like “Confederacy of Dunces” or something, that was stuck in a drawer. Because you’re not going to write “Confederacy of Dunces.” Don’t go there.
But those things. There is a very good reason why most books are bestsellers, and it’s because they have a strong, universal appeal. It might be not apparent what that appeal is, with a book like “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” or something like that, you’re, “It’s a book about a kid with Asperger’s, right, OK, that doesn’t sound very, you know,” but there is something in there; when you read it, there’s something very human and very real and very true, and beautifully done, and all that kind of stuff, and so of course that’s universal.
And so, I’d just read those.
Read the ones that strike a chord, and think about what it is about them.
And I think, because a lot of writers think you write the best book you can, and then somehow it’s in the lap of the gods—I mean, it is, to a degree, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had a huge amount of luck, as well, you have to have a load of luck—but you can also make your own luck to a degree, by putting yourself in the right position, and thinking about something that you want to read.
And that’s the thing, a lot of the time with me, if I want to read it, it’s because I haven’t seen it before, because I haven’t read it anywhere else, and I’m thinking, and I’ll get excited by the idea because I think, “Oh, this is new territory,” or, “This is a new take on something,” or, “I’m excited about where this could go, as a writer and also as a reader.”
I have commercial sensibilities, because of working for 20 years in commercial television, I’m finely tuned to those commercial things. But the thing is, ultimately, my tip for writing a bestseller would be: read lots of bestsellers and, and just marinade yourself in the way they work, because they are, generally very well-honed machines of narrative. They do a very specific job.
Joanna: Yes. Now, last question. I was just reviewing the books and I discovered, to my horror, that I didn’t have “Sanctus” anymore, because it came out before the Kindle, so I had it in print, back in 2011 in Australia. There was no Kindle.
Simon: Ah, there you go, then.
Joanna: I have the other two on my Kindle, but not the first one. So I was just, “That’s crazy,” because I remembered the first book very well. So, obviously, you started in this f publishing thing, and you got the big deal, but the publishing arena has really changed a lot. A lot of my audience are indie authors, running their own author businesses.
What do you think about the changes in publishing and have you seen anything of it, or are you insulated?
Simon: Well, no, I’m very much interested in it, and watching the changes, and I’m aware just looking at my own sales over the trilogy how it’s shifting in different territories, my books sell very well on Kindle, I think partly because they’re very fast-paced, and they’re short chapters, as well. All the books are multiple perspective, and again, I think that comes from my film, TV background, because you have a short scene and then you cut to another scene, and part of the pace comes from the structure and the suspense comes from the structure of different points of view, so as a reader, you have a better idea than any of the individual characters, and you can be fearful for someone who doesn’t know something that you know, all that sort of stuff. So they work really well on Kindle.
And I’ve definitely seen my sales slide more towards ebooks, and more people buying them on ebooks.
And they’ve certainly got a longer shelf-life on ebooks, the trilogy’s still, I think, in the Top 20 of the Kindle Conspiracy Thriller chart, and has been pretty much permanently, they dot around, but they come in.
I think the thing is, again, ultimately, obviously if you’re self-publishing, there are a whole bunch of other hats you need to wear, marketing and publicity, but as a so-called legacy author, with a big publishing house behind me, I still have to do all of that. There’s still a huge amount of pressure on having a big social media presence and interacting with your readers and doing that. And I enjoy it, I totally get it, because I had to do all of that for the television. I understand that you make the program, but then you have to get people aware of it, otherwise no one will watch it. And it’s the same, and I think the old days, where you’d have a writer who delivered their book and then went away and sat under a tree and relaxed, and went round the world, and then wrote their next book or whatever, are gone. To be a professional author now, it’s not a great deal of difference.
I mean, the things you have to do are the same, whether you’ve got one of the big publishers behind you, or whether you’re doing it yourself. Ultimately, and this is the given, it’s just got to be a good book. There’s got to be something about it, and you have to do it professionally. If you’re self-publishing, you still need to get it edited; you still need to get someone who you trust to read it and tell you what is wrong with it, and don’t go, “Oh, it’s great”; don’t show it to your mum, who’s going to tell you it’s brilliant and you’re amazing; you want to show it to someone who’s maybe got an axe to grind a bit and is going to say, “Actually, this character sucks, and I don’t care about them, your central character’s annoying,” that’s what you need, because you build a tower and you want to push it and see if it falls down, or bits fall off it, and if they do, you shore it up, you make it stronger.
I’m going through a big second draft now. It’s not as if just because I’m under the lovely umbrella of Harper Collins that somehow there’s a whole team of people who do that for me; ultimately, I have to do it all. It’s my story, it’s my thing. I mean, I have a brilliant set of people who I’ve worked with now on coming up to four books, and editors and people I trust, but we still go through the whole thing and testing it and asking the questions, and writing it and rewriting it, and making it as good as it can possibly be. Being professional about it.
And then, when it goes out, I blog, and I’m always on Facebook and Twitter, and I love that, I use that as a break, and talk to people, and because of ebooks, people are discovering the books all over the world, all the time, and so you get people who just discover it and have read it and love it and want to talk to you about it and what you’re doing next, and I love that, it’s great, because I can’t travel everywhere, because otherwise I’d never write another book, but it’s a brilliant way of that immediacy.
So, I can see it’s changing.
I think it’s harder to get noticed.
I think it’s harder for new authors, because there’s so much stuff out there, and so much of it is free, and it’s funny, I saw this in television, there was a proliferation, when I started, there were four channels in the UK: there was BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4. And now there’s hundreds,: there’s cable, there’s all this sort of stuff, there’s Netflix and stuff, iPlayer, view on demand: people’s viewing habits have totally changed, but what is really interesting is the quality stuff is still there. There’s lots more sort of lower-grade stuff. There’s a lot of mediocre stuff and there’s a lot of terrible stuff. There’s more of it, so there’s more choice, so you have to kind of curate your own tastes, and you have to curate your own viewing a lot more. And I don’t think that’s any difference to reading, I always used to finish a book. I’d start a book and I was committed and I would finish the book. And now, I’m just like you: if I read a book and it’s not doing it for me within 20 pages, 30 pages, maybe.
Joanna: Oh, you’re generous. I’m a three-pager!
Simon: Really, three? No, I’ll give it a go, because sometimes it’s a slow burner. I mean, if I look at a book and I start it and I put it down and it feels like homework, I’m not going to pick that book up. And whether you’re, um, a legacy author or whether you’re a self-published author, or a hybrid, as I think most people will ultimately end up being, you have to go there and bang your drum for your thing. And if you’re passionate about it, it’s what you have to do. And it’s hard work. I think it’s harder for people starting off, because you have got this noise, this stuff, and it’s really hard to go, “Actually, mine’s different,” just focus on the quality and the readers will come, I think, because they will find it, and because word travels, I recommend books that I read, because people ask me, “I’ve just finished you trilogy, what else do I read?” and I’ll recommend books—I’ll recommend yours now.
Because, I want someone to help me navigate through the waters. My agent said, about the whole digital thing, basically what’s happened is the slush pile has been digitized. And it’s true. And the thing is, people have this notion of gate-keepers and go, “It goes on a slush pile and no one ever reads it, and you never get picked.” I My book was picked up from the slush pile, and it was, they do read them, because they’re passionate people and they want to find something good.
But the thing about the slush pile is, the reason it doesn’t get picked up is because most of it isn’t very good.
It’s derivative, it’s unoriginal, it’s badly written, it hasn’t been edited, there’s tons of work.
Joanna: Bad books won’t sell, in general.
Simon: Bad books don’t sell: and they don’t. And people give them away for nothing, and then people fill their ebooks, going, “Ooh, all these free books,” and actually a lot of the time they buy them because they’ve got a nice cover, and what it tells you is that that person’s better at doing covers than they are about writing books! But that’s the thing.
So I think just focus on your craft. Read a lot, whoever you are, whether you’re going to be self-published or whatever, read a lot, make it as good as it possibly can be, write the story that you want to read, and it will happen.
Joanna: Fantastic. So, where can people find you and your books online?
Simon: I am on Facebook, I’m Simon Toyne Author, and I’m Simon Toyne on Twitter, @simontoyne, I’ve got a website, www.simontoyne.net, which is going to be overhauled soon, for the new book, and you can buy my books anywhere, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, anywhere. At HarperCollins, I think they’ve got their own thing, now, so you can buy it direct from them, I believe, now. It’s the future!
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Simon, that was great.
Simon: No, thank you, it was a pleasure. Nice talking to you.
Hi – just a heads up for Simon – it seems the first editorial reviews that appear on the US Amazon listing for the kindle edition of Sanctus are for another book (“This fifth Jack Swyteck novel”).
Loved the interview!
Henry Hyde says
A really enjoyable interview – and a revelation that Simon lives where I do! Who knows, I’ve probably passed him in Waitrose…
Some great tips there, especially concerning the way story is structured for the small screen. There are, indeed, just so many things competing for an audience’s attention. Another analogy would be with website design, which I’ve done a lot of: you have something like five seconds to grab the visitor’s attention, and if they can’t get to what they want within two or three clicks at most, they go somewhere else. With writers entering the digital world, this is the reality we have to accept – grab ’em or lose ’em!
Congratulations on your multiple medium book launch too, Joanna.