Sunday, 14 August 2011


I've been in the writing game now for nearly forty years. When I first started doing school visits, I was so pleased when kids came up to me and said, "I've read all your books." As the years went by, I was even more pleased when they said, "My Mum says she read all your books." When they started saying, "My Gran loved your books when she was little," I wondered - just for a moment - whether my time might be up.

I suppose that in a sense it is. Being published by such as Scholastic, OUP, Walker, Franklin Watts, once something I took almost for granted, now seems a far-off dream. Thus is the hubris of the complacent writer extinguished. Now I'm on my own and everything has changed. Part of me feels like a farmer who has thrown off his ruinous Tesco contract , opened his farm shop to sell direct and now sniffs the heady air of freedom. The other part feels scared stiff.

But why should I be? I have a long list of books to kindle. Some are out of print. People have enjoyed them in the past so surely they can live again. Some are new. Some are still to be written. But though the great days of getting contracts before a word was on paper have gone for ever, so, I hope, has the feeling of impotence when you're writing on spec, with no clue whether your book will ever be read by anyone outside your own house but with a strong suspicion that it won't be. In the end, all a writer wants is to be read. Being part of a community of writers bound together by past achievement and present quality is a terrific privilege and it's why I'm blogging now.

Anyway, first up will be all six of The Joslin de Lay Mysteries. No, that's what they used to be called. I can't blame anybody but myself for such a limp title for a whole sequence. It sounds like Agatha Christie or The Midsomer Murders. So, from now on it's either going to be The Quest of Joslin de Lay or The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay. Both are stronger by far, I think, and much closer to the whole nature of the series. What do you think?

I can afford to change this, by the way, because a request to Scholastic to use the original covers first made a year ago has been at last answered with the curtest refusal I have ever seen. That's what I mean about publishers and primary producers. Out of print eight years, rights reverted, what ever use can they find for them now?

I'll start with Of Dooms and Death and follow it with A Pact With Death, Hell's Kitchen, A Devil's Judgement, Angel's Snare and finally The False Father. Six murder mysteries set in the Middle Ages, first published by Scholastic between 1999 and 2002. They tell the story of Joslin de Lay, a young French minstrel whose father is murdered. He starts on a journey from France, through England to Wales to find his lost mother. Wherever he goes - Suffolk, London, Oxford, Coventry, Hereford - death and murder stalk him. Five separate mysteries to solve - until the last book, when he can concentrate on the end of the quest and the solution to his own mystery.

I've always been proud of these books. When I came to revise them for Kindle I feared that after not looking at them for some time I might not like them after all. Never fear. I can read them now as if someone else wrote them and - what a relief - I still like them. In next month's blog, when the first two should be nearly ready to appear, I'll introduce them properly.

What else? I have the first two books of three set in Nelson's navy in the Napoleonic wars: the journals of midshipman Edward Trefusis - and some pretty hairy things happen in them. Bright Sea, Dark Graves is the title of the whole trilogy. The first story is called The Guns of St Therese: the second is entitled The Nightmares of Invasion. The third is still title-less and swashing about somewhere inside my head.

I have two compilations of short stories planned, some old, some new, some long, some short. Very short. And, biggest project of the lot, is the Ellen Trilogy. In 2006, Walker published the first, Ellen's People, set in the first world war. In 2008 they published the second, Divided Loyalties. Both had really good reviews. Both were on several longlists and each was shortlisted once - Ellen's People for the Hampshire Book Prize, Divided Loyalties for Calderdale Book of the Year. Ellen's People was published in th US by Candlewick, albeit with a new title, Without Warning. Divided Loyalties was taken and already in production. I'd made a few revisions and provided publicity blurbs. So far, so good. Cue for more hubris on my part.

Then everything went wrong. Candlewick pulled Divided Loyalties when it was still in production, citing the dreadful state of publishing in the US and their own need to cut titles and reduce staff. Over here sales of Ellen and Loyalties just weren't good enough. My agent pushed the third book, which I had started and which many readers and reviewers had asked for. No go. Anyway, I didn't have a three-book contract. Suddenly, my enthusiasm for a third waned.

So now both books are on the point of going o/p - if they aren't already. Walker's alacrity when I asked for the rights to be reverted was alarmingly noticeable. BUT - now I can finish the trilogy with an easy mind. It will take time but will satisfy me very, very deeply.

That's it for now. Next month, more about Joslin. Or look at the section on Joslin (with the old covers shown) on my website:


Dan Holloway said...

Dennis, how wonderful to read your first post, having been treated to a reading from Hell's Kitchen on Wednesday. The story about the cover is not only rather sad, it's an interesting insight into the way rights work - that cover art doesn't ever revert to the artist whereas the text inside does. This is something we need to think about as self-publishers as well - what rights do our cover artists retain, how do we deal with them?

Very much looking forward to hearing more about Joslin, and I agree, "The xxx of Joslin De Lay" is a very good title format

madwippitt said...

The Joslin series sounds wonderful - more books I shall have to download and read: I definitely need more spare time!

Judging by the number of lookee-likee covers that are in evidence these days, I suspect that curmudgeonly and tight fisted publishers are busy recycling them ...

Enid Richemont said...

Oh Dennis, your career pattern sounds SO much like mine. How totally mean of Scholastic not to give you the rights to the cover illustration. So far, Walker's been very helpful with me, but how much they've changed from the people I thought of almost as extended family...
Will ponder on the title for Joslin de Lay.

Dennis Hamley said...

Dan, thanks so much for that. Last Wednesday at the Albion Bookshop was a gig I shall long remember. And how amazing to met Joe, who remembers my visit to his school all those years ago. Can I read at your next? Covers? Yes, you and Madwippit have highlighted what I think is something for us to take notice of. It hadn't occurred to me that publishers might recycle covers. I shall look at the Scholastic catalogue with more than usual care.

Enid, Walker are being very kind to me as well. They have a sort of grace which other publishers don't seem to possess. They are even discussing seriously my use of the Ellen covers: no impolite refusal there. And if there is a refusal, it will be couched in friendly terms. But I know what you mean about Walker's 'extended family'. I think I caught the last vestiges of it!

Debbie said...

I guess that's one advantage of being pure indie - I can source my covers myself, deal with my awesome designer and know exactly what rights I have. Downside is I have to pay for them myself too, but it's worth every penny - the first draft of my cover for my YA fantasy came back last week and I'd just never have thought of doing it like that myself.

Susan Price said...

Great post, Dennis. Look forward to downloading the Joslin stories - and reading your next post!

Dan Holloway said...

Dennis, of course!

Emma Barnes said...

I really want to read the Joslin stories now!

Oddly I have sometimes thought that a mystery series about a medieval minstrel would be a great idea (and if only I knew more about the period I might have had a go) and now it turns out you have written them. I'm so intrigued. And I don't like the original covers that much, if it's any comfort. Of course, coming up with alternatives is sure to be a nuisance, but still, maybe you will do better?

Jan Needle said...

hallo dennis - see, i did it! i'm on the list as a team member, even if i don't know how i did it or what to do next. anybody else out there who had the (much lauded) grammar school education and knows practically nothing about anything? i can't even count beyond eleven. good at french, though. pity they didn't invent the computer.

Dennis Hamley said...

Well, there you go, Jan. I told you it was dead easy. Yes, I had the Grammar School education and won't knock all of it because I served me reasonably well. But it's left me with no aptitude for anything requiring any sort of practical experise, although I really do try to do my best. (Woodwork: 'Tries hard but results are few.' Summer term 1948). Crap at French but I can count up to 673on a good day. Any news yet of Jim Riordan?