Nailing Jess by Triona Scully – but mostly, a lecture on craft

Every now and then I make a mad grab for a book, something I run across serendipitously while perusing bookshop events or stumble over in my email. A title or description will catch my eye, I’ll shoot off an email to the publisher and request a review copy. How often this works out satisfactorily to all parties involved, therein lies the rub.

It’s not my normal practice, going rogue. I tend to stick with known quantities, branching out only when I notice debut writers receiving so much attention I itch to know what the fuss is about. Immune to lip-service given to these new, talented warm bodies in the pool, I occasionally lash out with a cry of “prove it.”

When the mad flurry surrounds an indie publisher, as opposed to the big guys, now that’s when reviewing is one hell of a great gig. If I’m harsh, it’s from love – you have to be cruel to cull. Out of the water, bloated reputations. This free swim’s for people who can blow the rest out of the water.

But requesting willy-nilly? Every time I do so, I remember why it happens so seldom.

While not brand new to the UK publishing industry by any means, this summer I’m in the enviable position of having a legitimate excuse to go a-beggin’ for advance copies British publishers are generally reluctant to ship to the States. Before hitting up the big guys, idly scanning through local Edinburgh author events, I ran across Triona Scully’s debut Nailing Jess. Maybe it was the cover photo, or the blurb talking about an original approach to creating a trans main character, I don’t know. I took a chance.

Hardboiled-style detective novels are about overworked, underpaid, disheveled police officers either currently battling drinking problems or wheeling their arms. at the tipping point in mid-fall back off the wagon. They’re divorced or in failing romantic relationships, impossible to get along with and bristly. They’re too valuable to fire, but so rebellious and self-destructive their careers are held on by a thread. Bloody and depraved are the crimes they investigate, violent and elusive the offenders.

It’s how it’s done.

Launching 29 June, Blackwell’s Edinburgh

Scully’s Nailing Jess hangs its plot on the old standard definition detective novel, using as its hook the flipping of gender roles: women are cast as violent killers, men the unwitting victims. D.C.I. Jane Wayne has just been busted down a rank. Now a rung below the new guy – in this case, a man in the typical role of a woman, because up is down and male is female – on a case she formerly lead, she’s working with a huge chip on her shoulder. A string of boys have been found stabbed and strangled, lying on crosses, pages of religious texts scattered around the bodies, crucifixes shoved in their anuses. So begins the race against time finding the killer before she strikes again.

The plot of the book isn’t important. It’s the old standard. The expectation of plot variance is pushed aside, allowing room for the author to take a stab – pun sort of intended – at achieving overt novelty via the subversion of male and female societal roles. This promise of shocking or clever artistry only works when handled deftly, a point so obvious I almost hate myself for saying it.

Simply: if a writer promises, the onus is on her to deliver and big. Splashing blurbs all over the cover is a cop out. It’s what’s inside that counts.

Hanging a “new” twist – more correctly, less common, because there’s nothing new  – on an established genre is smart; the reader knows what to expect from a detective novel, he doesn’t need much outside the usual formula and a hell of a lot of talent. More power to writers who go there, but all that’s needed are a few interesting characters and an amount of bloody savagery consistent with the level of swearing. Thus freed, a writer is given permission to leverage his or her stylistic gymnastics on the book, unbound by re-making the wheel. But you gotta satisfy the judges, and stick that landing.

The knowledge I have an e-galley of Rushdie’s new book waiting prohibits me from lecturing in-depth on what makes good writing, but let’s just take the basics, because it’s been a while since I’ve gone here: voice, style, grammar, syntax, blood, sweat, tears and persistence. Originality? It would be nice, but nail those basics before promising the extraordinary.

Next, you need to hire one hell of a good editor ready to rip your guts out. If you’re not standing in a puddle of your own despair on draft one, you’re not doing it right. That’s how you level up. There is no short cut.

Simple, right?

All my best to indie writers and small publishers working in a brutal field. When your editors have fangs, it’s a joy working with you. It’s when the blood’s off the floor that I come in, relieved and appreciative.

I have to run. It’s reading time.

 

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