Sean Lynn was a celebrity journalist for nearly two decades. The former Hollywood Editor of OK! magazine, he has written for almost every national consumer magazine as well as international outlets such as the BBC, The Mirror, The South China Morning Post and The Sydney Morning Herald. Here he reveals what it was like to add ‘fiction author’ to his repertoire.
Famous Last Words is your debut novel, what made you write it and why now?
Unemployment! I’d been a journalist for over 20 years and started writing various books like every hack does but never really got round to finishing them. So when I lost my job, I decided that instead of sitting around moping and waiting for the phone to ring I’d do something positive.
I’d always promised myself I’d write a book one day, way back when I was a teenager, and I thought, “Well, if not now, when?” I finished it and I had no idea if it was any good but the feeling of relief and pride was immense. It was definitely something I had ticked off the bucket list.
Tell us a bit about it and why you chose this genre?
It’s just a good old-fashioned whodunnit at heart, an homage to those classic country house murder mysteries of the 40s and 50s, but updated for the Twitter and Facebook era. In Famous Last Words, a powerful TV producer invites all his celebrity friends to his Mediterranean island for a birthday party and there’s a killing and, of course, everyone’s a suspect. Enter our detective who’s a disgraced tabloid journalist with a secret of his own.
I’ve always loved crime fiction – even when I was a child I moved straight from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie. But one thing I did notice was that modern detective novels were increasingly forensic – lots of people running round looking for DNA samples, analyzing blood splatters and sending everything to a lab.
I wanted to create an amateur detective like Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey who had no expert knowledge but who pieced everything together with their wits. And, of course, the beauty of that is that the reader is the detective too. You’re given the same clues, the same background info and it’s a challenge to see if you can solve it before the hero. All these books are really just elaborate crossword puzzles.
In deciding this story for your first novel, what made you choose one?
Well they say the first rule of writing is to write about what you know and having been a showbiz journalist for 15 years, I knew a lot (probably far too much) about showbiz and celebrities. Plus there were plenty of stories that I’d never been able to print because the stars would have sued me and the lawyers would have shot me.
So instead of penning some dreadful personal memoir, this way I could reveal the juicy insider stuff but set it in a fictional world and jazz it up with a murder mystery. A lot of the characters are based on real stars I met and many of the details are based on real events but I switched plenty of things around to protect the innocent (and myself from lawsuits).
For example there’s a wayward teen singing sensation, with an overbearing father, who’s going off the rails. Some people insist she’s based on Miley Cyrus, others say Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, even Justin Bieber. Others think the TV mogul is Simon Cowell, but I’ve met a lot of producers in my time and let’s say he wasn’t the worst by any means. Anyway, I’m not naming names!
How do you write and what is your preferred writing space?
I have an office at home but that’s about it. There is no routine, which is the most frustrating thing. I am completely undisciplined. I’d love to wake early and write 5,000 words before breakfast and then get on with the day but the reality is I simply force myself to finish 1,500 a day. Sometimes I can do that in an hour, sometimes it takes five. But it’s always 1,500 words a day. Every day, including weekends.
I often think that I’d work better if I took myself off to a Caribbean island with no distractions and just a typewriter (definitely no internet). But that’s a lie. I’d just sunbathe and get drunk and still only do 1,500 words. I’d still end up with a book, but with a tan and cirrhosis.
Is there anything in there that you’d be embarrassed for your parents to read?
Well, my mother is a traditional Irish Catholic matriarch so if I thought along those lines I’d restrict myself to nursery books. (Actually she reads a lot of Martina Cole whom she finds “very coarse” but devours them anyway!)
But you can’t censor yourself ever. You’re not going to write or create anything of any value if you’re terrified of offending or embarrassing anyone.
Interestingly, the original opening line to Famous Last Words had the C-word in it (said to a child too), which many preview readers thought was arresting and shocking and brilliant. But I was persuaded to change it by my agent. She didn’t feel it was in keeping with the light-hearted, romp-like tone of the rest of the book and would deter many casual readers who’d assume the novel was more hard-hitting and gritty than the fun beach read it’s actually supposed to be. In the end, I agreed with her. But I’m still keeping that line for another book.
[callout title=Sean says:]”If you want to write you should read often and widely. And steal from everyone!”[/callout]
Who are some of your favourite authors and why?
I am thankfully very catholic (small c) in my tastes. My top ten books list would look pretty schizophrenic. The Woman In White is the greatest mystery ever written, The Great Gatsby is in my opinion the best book ever written, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is the one book in my life I simply could not put down. (Let’s not get started on her book The Little Friend, the only book I have literally thrown across a room. Although I’m reading The Goldfinch and she’s back on form.)
But I loved Stephen King as a teenager, the best age to read him I think. He’s a master storyteller and has a fantastic way with words and the sheer volume and quality of his output is breathtaking.
Patricia Cornwell deserves much credit for reinventing the crime novel although I rather tired of Scarpetta in the end (and all the forensic copycats who followed in her wake). And Gillian Flynn is a very exciting author right now. Her first three books were very good – interestingly, I thought Gone Girl the weakest of the lot.
But look at my kindle and you’ll find everything from Austen to Elmore Leonard to Dame Agatha and David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece).
If you want to write you should read often and widely. And steal from everyone.
How hard was it to publish as a first time author?
Frustrating more than anything. Like everyone I assumed you just sent off a manuscript and the offers either came in or they didn’t. In fact, I got an agent very quickly, with one of the biggest agencies in the world, and she really pushed it.
But publishers were very reluctant. They all liked it, some really liked it. The feedback was hugely positive. But they were terrified of committing because they couldn’t pinpoint a market for it. It wasn’t dark enough to be on their crime lists, it wasn’t silly enough to be a true comedy. If you don’t fit a very narrow bracket, they won’t risk it. They say they want original and different but in fact they want familiar and safe.
Unless you’re a name, they aren’t prepared to take a chance, especially not with popular fiction. They’ll still print literary fiction but mass-market paperbacks are going the way of the CD. Everyone’s downloading everything and publishers now expect you to go straight to market and prove yourself there. Then they’ll swoop in and make you an offer.
Unfortunately many of them are discovering that successful e-book writers aren’t interested because they’ve already built up a following on their own. I know of one writer who sold half a million copies on Amazon. She got a publishing deal and her second novel shifted only 8,000.
She’s gone back to self-publishing and is thrilled to be back in control of her own destiny. Plus, a book on Amazon or Nook has an immediate global market. A paperback can take years to reach the same number of people.
My only advice is to get yourself a good editor and a good cover designer. Spend money on those if you have to. After that you’ve pretty much done what any publisher would do. You may not have a marketing budget but with social media, you don’t even need that these days.
For your next novel will you continue in the same genre or will it be something completely different?
It’s another whodunit because I enjoyed crafting Famous Last Words so much so I think I want to stick with crime for now. But it deals with a completely different subject. Whereas this one is about fame, the next one will be about the mega-rich. The one-percenters that we hear so much about these days.
It’s about a super-wealthy, super-powerful family who can control entire governments but who, like any family, have their rivalries and internal strife. I’m researching a lot of the world’s most dysfunctional dynasties at the moment and they’re absolutely fascinating. Many we haven’t ever heard of because they shun the limelight. They’re paranoid about secrecy and rightly so because they get up to some sinister machinations. I’d really like to draw back the curtain and shed a little light on this very shadowy world.
It’s called In Their Blood and hopefully it’ll be out by the end of summer.
What three universal truths do you live by?
1. Anyone who never made mistakes never made anything.
2. Never grow old enough to know better.
3. There is no such thing as a universal truth.
Famous Last Words is available as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk.