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June 4, 2015

Farmers Weekly journalist sells novel written thanks to 5am starts for six-figure advance

By Dominic Ponsford

A novel written by a UK farming journalist in his spare time has just been sold to its 17th overseas territory after being bought by Penguin for a six-figure advance.

Tim Relf is farmlife and community editor at Farmers Weekly and What She Left is his third novel, the most commercially successful.

Publisher Penguin has sold it overseas in deals worth £800,000 so far, with Serbia the latest foreign market to take the book.

Published under the pseudonym TR Richmond, What She Left tells the story of 25-year-old journalist Alice Salmon whose body is found in a river after a night out in her old university town.

The story is told through the eyes of a professor who reassembles her life and the circumstances surrounding her death through the digital and paper trail she leaves.  

Relf said: “It’s a contemporary epistolary novel, which includes newspaper and magazine articles, diary entries, emails, blog posts, Facebook and Twitter messages, letters, police transcripts and forum posts. I wanted to tell a modern story in a very modern way.”

The novel was influenced by Relf’s day job in the sense that he sees it as a reflection of “our changing media, the nature of news, our digital identities and social media”.

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He said: “I’m very conscious that the internet and social media have revolutionised how people relate to each other – and it was my fascination with this that originally sparked the idea. Fact is, more than at any point in history, each of us leaves a digital footprint nowadays and it’s from this, jigsaw puzzle-like, that I’ve reassembled my protagonist’s story.”

Relf said he wrote the book by working weekends and with lots of 5am starts.

Asked for what tips he would give to journalists who fancy writing books, he said:

  • If you’ve got a day-job, get a routine that works for you and stick to it. Even if you only write fiction for 30 minutes every day, it’s amazing how much ground you can cover
  • The saying 'write about what you know' is good advice – so focus on your knowledge/expertise/interests. It’s the same with non-fiction – pick a subject that you’re uniquely well qualified to write about
  • Polish and re-polish your proposal before you approach agents or publishers. You don’t need to have finished the book before you contact them, but you’ll only get one shot at these people, so make sure you’re giving it your best shot.

He said: “Basically, fiction editors like working with journalists – because they know they’re good at sticking to deadlines, they’re happy to work collaboratively, they’re not precious about being edited, and they understand the commercial realities of the publishing landscape."

What She Left is published by Penguin and available now in hardback.

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