From the world of advertising campaigns to the richly detailed panorama of historical crime novels, Martin Lee's creative journey has gone from being intensely collaborative and having a fluid work schedule to one that is more solitary and structured. He talks to me about his passion for history and crime, the nature of publishing today and his creative process of taking an idea and crafting a world of intrigue and suspense.
My name is Martin Lee, but I write under the pen name, M J Lee, for most of my books. No reason really, except that I wanted a gender neutral name. I was born in Britain but have lived most of my life overseas. I took a degree in history and then a doctorate which I never finished - life got in the way. Most of life was spent working as the creative director of advertising agencies with my final post being Chief Creative Officer in China. At present, I divide my time between Taiwan and the UK. Like some birds, I migrate for the summer.
It was a very conscious decision. Agencies and the advertising business have changed immensely since the time I started. By 2013, I just wasn’t enjoying it as much as I used to. I believe that we spend far too much time at work to not enjoy it. So I decided to write historical crime novels, something I had always planned to do. I gave myself two years to make it work and in 2015 my first book was published by a division of HarperCollins.
One day, before I stopped working in advertising, I was checking my bookshelf - I had over 1400 books, far too many- I realised that most of them covered history or crime. Two of my passions. From that time, it was obvious that I was going to make a career from killing people. Given my degree and my love of history, those murders were going to happen in the past.
They are quite different. Being a creative director meant managing people. As an author the only person I have to manage is myself (that’s bloody difficult I can tell you). In advertising, I never knew what I was doing week to week. As an author my life is planned for the next two years. I know what I need to research and what I need to write well in advance. In advertising, I was dealing with a multiplicity of media. As an author, I deal with one - print. In advertising, I was bouncing ideas off lots of people daily. As an author, I bounce them off one person when I’m writing - me. It’s only after I’ve finished that other people get involved. One tends to live inside one's head during the writing phase. The worlds take on a life, with smells and images of their own. But in one case advertising and novels are similar. Deadlines. It seems I will never escape the tyranny of the deadline. I’m just editing a book for publication in September as we speak. I wish I had another three months.
Creativity means creating a world that only exists in your mind and then communicating that world through words so that people can imagine it for themselves.
The first is obvious - getting an idea. I write two historical crime series - The Danilov books set in Shanghai of the 1930s and a series of genealogical mysteries featuring a female detective, Jayne Sinclair, which are dual time line, i.e., set in modern day and the past.
For each new book, I generally come up with a one line idea that describes the book before I start writing. For example, for The Irish Inheritance it was ‘Sometimes, digging up the past reveals more than secrets.’
Then I expand this line into a story idea of just one paragraph. Again for the Irish Inheritance, it was ‘When an adopted American businessman dying of cancer asks her to investigate his background, it opens up a world of intrigue and forgotten secrets for Jayne Sinclair, genealogical investigator. She only has two clues: a book and an old photograph. Can she find out the truth before he dies?’
I’m not a plotter, i.e, someone who works out all the details of a story before they begin writing. I like the story to reveal itself as I write, but before I do that I choose a period and do basic research. In this case, the period was the Irish War of Independence 1916 -1922. I like to use original papers as they give far more insights. I visited Dublin’s National Archive and Bureau of Military History, reading about 1200 original accounts by the participants in the Easter Rising, as well as books, letters, proclamations and accounts of the people and time. I love doing research. I then write a first draft of usually 60,000 words, go back to research areas I missed, and then rewrite this draft to produce a first copy of roughly 90,000 words.Then the work begins.
I edit for almost as long as I have been writing. Making sure the plot works, bringing out themes, checking language, ensuring all the little details are correct.
The book goes off to a development editor who advises on structure and content. It comes back and I usually rewrite for two weeks more. I’m usually pretty good on structure and plot so there’s just a little to do here. It then is given to a copy editor who checks facts and grammar. Again back to me for changes. Finally, it’s given to a proofreader who gives it one last look. And despite all these eyes looking at it, it still can have errors. Human nature - one reads what one wants to read. Covers are designed, the blurb is written by my publishers and the book appears eventually. By then, I’m already nearly finishing the next one.
Amazon has revolutionised the publishing industry. And like most dinosaurs, it may become extinct before it wakes up to the challenges it faces.
I don’t think so. Novel sales in the West are up 8% in paperback and 6% digitally in the last year. When you are bombarded with pictures, sometimes it’s a relief to come home to words.
Books have been written on this subject. Safe to say, traditional publishing will publish fewer and fewer authors, concentrating on a few brands. Some authors will become hybrid, working both traditionally and self-publishing. The majority of authors will self-publish as the ability to do so becomes easier and easier. With that comes the challenge of quality. Once the traditional gatekeepers have been removed, the self-published author has to be his or her own gatekeeper. Personally, I am a hybrid author, working both with big publishing houses, HarperCollins and Endeavour, and indie publishing.
Because most governments are run by philistines. One has only to look at the orange man presently occupying the White House.
Teach children the joy of reading. But no government will invest in that because it is too long term. Short termism in both government and business is the bane of the modern era. The concentration on the soundbite or the next day’s headlines. Or, in business, next quarter’s figures means nobody is building long term. Educate children properly and you will build the future.