Monthly Archives: May 2014

Book Review Saturday – ‘Back to Blackbrick’

At the recent CBI Conference, I was lucky enough to hear this book’s author, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, speak about her journey to publication and the genesis of Back to Blackbrick. It deals, in a unique and touching way, with an elderly man’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and its effects on his family, particularly his grandson Cosmo, the story’s narrator.

Image: gatheringbooks.wordpress.com

Image: gatheringbooks.wordpress.com

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s father suffered with this cruel disease, and her heartbreaking note at the back of the book dedicating it to his memory was very moving. However, for some reason, I didn’t find her depiction of Kevin (Cosmo’s grandfather) and his struggle with mental decline to be quite so emotionally wrenching. Overall, this is a book I admire and one which I respect, but not one which I love.

It starts out well – Cosmo’s voice is funny and engaging, and some of the scenes with his grandfather, though narrated in a deadpan way, are clearly terribly sad. Kevin is spotted talking to a lamppost by some of Cosmo’s classmates, and word gets out at school that the elderly man is crazy; Kevin mistakes the dishwasher for the toilet, causing the family to start ‘…putting the super hot cycle on twice (p. 2). His relationship with his wife – Cosmo’s Granny Deedee – is wonderful, particularly in an early scene when she describes the beauty of his hands, a beauty that Cosmo cannot see. Cosmo’s family structure is complex: his mother has left Ireland for Australia, leaving her son behind (which I found a bit troubling), his brother Brian died in an accident at the age of ten, and his uncle Ted is living in the US. So, his grandad Kevin and granny Deedee are all the family he has. For the most part, Cosmo is happy at home, despite the fact that he will not speak to his mother when she phones; he and his grandfather share a love of horses, and they are very close until his illness begins to get in the way.

Social workers descend on the family, attempting to take Kevin away and place Cosmo in care, and amid the tumult Kevin has a moment of urgent clarity during which he gives Cosmo a key and tells him where to bring it – the South Gate of Blackbrick Abbey, a place in which Kevin spent a lot of his youth. He doesn’t explain why, but Cosmo makes his way there anyway, enters by the correct gate, and meets a young man whom he seems to know, in some strange way. He quickly works out the young man’s identity, and ends up staying in Blackbrick for what seems like a year.

And here’s where the book started to lose a bit of its urgency, for me.

I never really ‘got’ the sense of place in the book. Blackbrick Abbey didn’t come alive for me, for a few reasons – I didn’t think it was particularly historically accurate (not that historical accuracy is the point of the book, but still), and there’s a scene between Maggie (a character Cosmo meets shortly after his arrival) and Lord Corporamore, the owner of Blackbrick, which almost made me put the book aside. I understand the point which was being made but I feel it could have been handled differently, in a way which would have taken nothing from the power of what happens to Maggie.

Image: beanmimo.wordpress.com

Author Sarah Moore Fitzgerald. Image: beanmimo.wordpress.com

The book has a lot to say about several important things, including the role of memory in the formation of identity, the terrible toll of grief and the bonds of love between family members, no matter whether geography or ill-health come between them. I loved the scenes where Kevin is teaching Cosmo how to care for horses and the depiction of Kevin in general – even though I wasn’t moved to tears, I still found his character compelling and enjoyable to read. I also loved, and was very moved by, the story of Crispin Corporamore, the son of Blackbrick, whose premature death has also left his family devastated. Having said that, I do feel the narrative voice loses some of its hold over the reader as the book comes to a close. I was bothered, a little, by the time-slip elements in the book too – some of what Cosmo does in the ‘other’ Blackbrick should have had knock-on effects in his own world, but they don’t seem to – but all the same I admired the way in which it was realised and the way in which Moore Fitzgerald ties it in to the theme of memory loss and the fragmentation of identity.

Also, I liked Cosmo (except for one scene near the end of the book when I felt he was needlessly being a brat, but that might be a personal thing!), and I loved his grandparents. Except for the slight loss of voice at the end of the book, I felt drawn into Cosmo’s world and I was with him in his adventure. He was a strongly-drawn and interesting character with plenty of depth. Some parts of the setting didn’t work for me, but the story was clever. Certainly, I’ve never read anything like it before, and I’m impressed by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s imagination.

As I’ve said already, though – this is a book I admire and respect, but it’s not one I love. For some reason – perhaps an entirely personal one – it was missing emotional heft for me. It’s strange, because I had a beloved great-aunt who suffered with dementia in her latter years, and so I do know the effects such an illness can have on a family. Back to Blackbrick is an important book, and its descriptions of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease are unflinching. I’d definitely recommend it to other readers, and I’ll look forward to Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s future work.

Edit: Sarah Moore Fitzgerald has a new book, The Apple Tart of Hope, which is being published soon. It sounds wonderful. Check it out.

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ghost Hawk’

Susan Cooper’s most recent novel, Ghost Hawk, is a masterpiece.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

This is a big statement coming from a person who has adored every word of every Susan Cooper novel that she has, thus far, read: but I stand by it.

Having said this, I have read several reviews of Ghost Hawk which criticise its author’s treatment of Native American characters and traditions. I am no expert, so I won’t have much to say about Susan Cooper’s treatment of her historical sources, but I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect at all by saying that I enjoyed this book.

Ghost Hawk opens with a description of a young Native American man using a bitternut hickory tree to form the handle of a tomahawk. He places the blade in a natural ‘V’ formed between two branches, and ties the branches together so that they grow around the blade. Eleven years later, the man brings his young son to this same tree and, apologising to it, cuts it down in order to give the boy the completed tomahawk. The young son is Little Hawk who, at eleven, is ready to undertake the initiation ceremony of his tribe which will turn him from boy to man. As well as the tomahawk he is presented with double-lined moccasins and a dangerously sharp knife, which his father received from a white man in exchange for some expensive goods; with these treasures, he is sent out into the wilderness in the middle of winter to survive – and to listen for the voice of his Manitou, or spirit guide. The first section of the book takes us through Little Hawk’s struggle to live through his ordeal, his encounters with wild animals and weather which almost spell his death, and his intelligent way of thinking about the natural world and resources all around him.

Eventually, Little Hawk returns home to find his village utterly changed. In time he meets a white man, Benjamin Wakeley, and Benjamin’s young son John – and these characters become central to the second section of the book. One day there is a terrible accident, witnessed by John, and as a result of what happens that day he and Little Hawk become inextricably linked to one another, their lives tied together in a profound way.

The second section of the book deals with John who – also aged eleven – is sent away from home to become an apprentice cooper. His foster family are kind and welcoming, but the people among whom he now lives are – like the stepfather his mother married shortly before he was sent away – hardline Puritans. They are bent on conquest and the seizing of land from the Pokanoket tribe, and others, who have lived in the area they are now claiming as their own for thousands of years. I found the descriptions of life among the colonists absorbing, even though much of it was familiar from texts like The Crucible; a people running from religious oppression in their own country who take refuge in another, and proceed to destroy it and its people in the name of ‘God’. It made me angry, and sorry, and sad to be a Christian – and I think that was the point. Several characters, such as the sharp-nosed, cold-eyed Ezra, made me want to scream. There are kind and loving people among the New World colonists too, of course, including the Medleycotts, among whom John ends up living, and Huldah, the gentle girl who eventually becomes his wife. but even the most gentle and kind-hearted of them still keep a gun behind the door because ‘…no savage could be trusted’ (p. 291).

I found the book’s conclusion to be profoundly upsetting and ultimately very powerful, despite the fact that it has enraged other reviewers, who wondered what the point of the book had been. I would suggest that the very pointlessness of the plot’s denouement is its point; such is human nature. I didn’t much care for the very end, when the narrative intrudes into the modern day: had I been the author, I would have found another way to finish the story out. That, however, is the only thing I didn’t really enjoy. I found the twist mid-way to be one of the bravest and most effective things I’ve ever read, and I loved Little Hawk, and his grandmother Suncatcher, and his sister Quickbird, and I loved John and Huldah too. As one would expect, a Susan Cooper-penned novel is always a work of beauty, and this is no different; it’s gorgeously written and wonderfully paced, though its historical span and length might make it more a book for teens or adults than children.

However. And this is a big however.

As mentioned above, I have read several commentators who have taken issue with this book and how it ventures dangerously close to ‘white saviour’ territory, wherein a ‘white’ (usually ‘old’ European) character is portrayed as somehow saving the ‘native’, whether it’s by literally saving the life of a character in the text or by playing a central role in a historical event that didn’t actually occur that way in reality. There are some examples of that in this book, including one where John saves the life of a Native American child who turns out to be Metacom, who goes on (in history) to become King Philip of the Wampanoag. Some commentators have taken offence at this, saying that it’s ridiculous to portray a white man as the ‘saviour’ of Metacom; I would respectfully suggest it’s nothing more than a plot necessity in order to work John’s story into that of Metacom and his tribe. I do see why some readers would be upset or offended by the episodes in the book where John inserts himself into tribal business, but there were white people of this period who did learn Native American languages and who did try to bring peace between the peoples, and who – for various reasons – did not treat the native peoples like lesser human beings. I didn’t pick up on any of the controversial points while I read the book, and while I don’t wish to be an apologist for colonialism I would say that I don’t think Susan Cooper was trying to be, either.

What I was left with after I’d finished reading Ghost Hawk was a profound sadness at how native peoples were destroyed by European settlers, as well as sadness at how these same European settlers tore one another apart, all in the name of religion. The book is about how all people are one, and how manmade misunderstandings and lack of common language can cause such huge rifts and such terrible destruction, and how even a small amount of consideration, compassion and kindness can make the difference between war and peace.

So, even though some Native American commentators have, for entirely understandable reasons, decided to come out against this book I would recommend it, and I enjoyed it. It broke my heart into shards, though, so be warned.

For a highly spoilerific (do not read this if you don’t want to have the brilliant twist mid-way through the novel ruined for you!) treatment of some of the cultural problems in the novel, have a read of Debbie Reese’s articles on the American Indians in Children’s Literature website.

A portrait of Metacom, or Metacomet (a.k.a. King Philip) taken from Benjamin Drake's 1827 history of King Philip's War. Image: en.wikipedia.org

A portrait of Metacom, or Metacomet (a.k.a. King Philip) taken from Samuel Drake’s 1827 history of King Philip’s War.
Image: en.wikipedia.org

…and Breathe

Things have been busy in Clockwatching… Towers for the past while. My social media presence has more than doubled, my brain has had to adapt to being a business-type thing as well as an arty-farty creator of stories, and I have had lots of calls on my time. I am starting to find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, which happens to everyone from time to time but not, usually, to me.

I don’t like it.

Grumpy cookie is grumpy - just like me! Image: cutengrumpy.blogspot.com

Grumpy cookie is grumpy – just like me!
Image: cutengrumpy.blogspot.com

I am tired, and I need a little break.

My husband has some annual leave coming up, and I’m planning to take those days off too – so, no blogging and probably very little Twittering, Tumblring and all the other stuff I find myself doing these days. It’s odd that even saying this makes me feel like a freaky cop-out – who takes a holiday anymore? – but I’m biting the bullet anyway. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed these past few weeks and I want to make sure I bounce back with a pep in my step, ready to write to the best of my ability (as well as do all the other stuff I need to do, of course.)

Because I’m a tricksy beast, though, I’m not sure whether I’ll take a full week off, or whether I’ll be able to resist popping back in from time to time and having a peek around. Chances are I’ll end up wigging out after a day or two and I’ll find myself running back here, to the safety of my blog’s wordy bosom.

We’ll see, I guess.

Over the weekend, I will be attending the Children’s Books Ireland annual conference in Dublin, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet other people who are interested in all aspects of children’s publishing and in writing for young people – and, also, a chance to spend time in the gorgeous Lighthouse Cinema, which is always a treat. I’m fully expecting to be flaked out on Monday, though, so I think I can safely say that there won’t be a blog offering here that day.

Image: webpagecollection.com

Image: webpagecollection.com

After that, we’ll take it as it comes.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Friday and a fantastic weekend – and I promise I’ll see y’all real soon.

Start Strong, and Carry On

Since last Saturday, my mind has been buzzing with ideas and suggestions about how to make my writing better and more attention-grabbing, and I’m really trying to remember it all before it fizzles away into the arid dustbowl inside my head. I learned a lot from the agents who spoke to us about what makes them take notice of a submission – make your opening snappy, make your first sentence brilliant, don’t overlook the importance of the first five pages – but it was a lot to take in.

This is how my brain feels, right now. Image: cnn.com

This is how my brain feels, right now.
Image: cnn.com

Then I had an idea: compare a current WiP with an earlier version of the same story, and see how far you’ve come – if indeed you have progressed at all. It can be really hard to think objectively about your own work when you’re so isolated from other writers; you don’t know how you compare, where you stand, whether you’re any good in relation to them. So, the next best thing is to compare your current work with what you were doing years ago and see whether you’ve improved.

This, of course, can be a scary prospect.

I’m currently working on a new book, one without a title (so we can call it ‘Mara’, after the main character); it’s based very loosely on an idea I had years ago but which quickly ran out of steam. According to the file, the original work dates from 2006; I couldn’t believe it had been so long. It’s an idea that never quite left me alone, which is why I’m currently working on it again.

In the original version of this story the character was called Molly, not Mara, but everything else is the same. She is a young girl of twelve whose father was lost at sea almost a year before the story begins, and she is finding it hard to cope with her grief. Here’s the opening paragraph of the first version of this story:

Molly wrapped herself tightly in the old tartan shirt that had once belonged to her dad; it still smelled like him, a faint hint of his old aftershave soothing her, making her feel safe. The shirt was red, her dad’s favourite colour, and it was soft and downy against her cheek. Falling asleep had been hard since her dad had died. It had been nearly a year now, so perhaps the scent that Molly could barely detect on the shirt was her imagination, or a memory. She snuggled deeper into it, her forehead wrinkling with effort, praying for the smell to stay with her. Just as she was about to fall asleep, her eyes jerked open, and she glanced towards her wardrobe door. It was open. She blinked into the half-darkness for a couple of breaths, her heart thundering in her chest, before flinging the shirt to one side and clambering out of bed. How could the door be open? She had asked Mum to close it before she went to bed… She shut the door hard, convinced she had woken her mother up with the thump, but there was no stirring from the next room. She crept back over the floor, swaddling herself in the shirt once more, and, checking one last time that the wardrobe door had stayed shut, fell into a fitful sleep.

Right. So much for that.

Now, here’s the opening paragraph of the current version of the book – bearing in mind it’s a first draft, let’s compare the two:

Wait for it, thought Mara. Any second now
The car swung round the bend, like it did every morning at ten past eight, and the big white arrows appeared on the road, as usual. This way to Fun! screamed the sign, looking even more garish than it usually did. It was covered in pictures of kids laughing as they careered down plastic chutes wearing inflatable rings around their middles, and giant hotdogs danced with knives and forks all the way along the bottom. The South-East’s Best Holiday Destination! it announced, as if anyone didn’t know.
‘That stupid place,’ griped Mum, her knuckles whitening around the steering wheel. ‘If I have to look at it one more time…’ Her words fizzed away into mumbles, but Mara didn’t need to hear. She said the same things every morning as they passed the motorway exit for the waterpark.
‘It’s supposed to be quite fun, actually,’ said Mara, gazing out the window as the brightly-painted sign whizzed by. ‘Some of the girls in my class went – ‘
‘I don’t want to talk about this, Mara. All right? Just, I don’t know. Turn on the radio, or something.’
Mara sighed, twisting around in her seat. She leaned forward slowly so the safety belt wouldn’t cut into the side of her neck, and reached toward the radio buttons. ‘You won’t have to do this much longer anyway, Mum. Bring me to school, I mean. After next week, you won’t have to pass it any more.’
Mrs Fletcher’s head snapped around like she’d been slapped. ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean, I won’t have to bring you to school? Why wouldn’t I have to bring you to school?’ Her eyes were bugging out, and there were two tiny white spots on either side of her nose.
‘I – just – the summer holidays!’ said Mara, her words flapping about like a freshly caught fish. ‘I mean, you won’t have to bring me to school because of the holidays. That’s all.’
Mum licked her lips, and looked back at the road again. She blinked, and coughed a bit, and wiped one hand over her forehead. ‘Just – don’t do that. Don’t talk like that. All right?’
Mara slumped back in her seat. ‘Like what?’
‘You know very well what, Mara Fletcher,’ snapped Mum, glancing around as she got ready to indicate. ‘You know very well.’
And Mara did know. She should’ve thought before saying anything. Mum had been like this ever since Dad had died – always thinking the worst, and expecting the worst, and waiting for the next disaster.
Soon, it would be a year.
Mara wrapped her hand around her conch-shell necklace, and stayed quiet until they pulled into the school car park. When she told Mum ‘goodbye,’ all she did was nod.

 I’m not sure which version you prefer, but I know which one I like better – the second, by a mile. It’s like it was written by a different person. This is the difference that almost eight years (eight years!) can make to your writing. The first version is flat – it tells, rather than shows,the reader what Molly is going through. We get no real insight into her mind, or her relationship with her mother. It’s also riddled with clichés – the scent of a deceased loved one lingering on their clothing, a story beginning with someone falling asleep or waking up (this should, I now know, always be avoided), abrupt transitions from one narrative thread to another (the shirt to the wardrobe door), overwrought language – and, frankly, it’s boring.

Forgive me. I was young and stupid when I wrote this.

The second version – though far from perfect – is more dynamic. It makes use of dialogue. It sets up the important things in an opening scene: the relationship between the protagonist and her mother; hints at a couple of different sorts of conflict, not just the obvious one; the reader is shown the grief they are feeling and the stress it is causing rather than being simply told.

Comparing these pieces of work has illustrated exactly how important the lessons I learned at the weekend are – you really can’t overlook the importance of your opening sections when writing a novel. You need to begin in the right place, hooking a reader into an emotional relationship with your characters just before you yank the carpet out from under them. You have to really work at the opening scenes because that’s the only chance you have to attract a reader’s full attention. Personally, I also believe you owe it to your reader to keep that standard up throughout the book – I’ve read so many stories that start off brilliantly but taper away as they go – but it’s definitely true that an agent, or a potential reader, won’t keep struggling with a book that starts off clumsily.

I recommend doing this exercise (comparing something you’re writing now with something you wrote years ago) because it shows you that, even if you didn’t think it, you have progressed. It’s only natural that you’ll get better as you go, and the more you work at your writing the more polished and interesting it will become.

Even if reading your old work does make you feel a bit like this:

Image: mlp.wikia.com

Image: mlp.wikia.com

Bonne chance!

 

Writerly Wednesday

The prompts from CAKE.shortandsweet were delayed today, so I went ahead and improvised: I created five sets of five words using a random word generator, and then I took the first word from the first set, the second from the second and so on until I had the following prompts:

Mile :: idiot :: brooch :: duck :: iron

Image: hdw.eweb4.com

Image: hdw.eweb4.com

Justice

The only problem with iron bullets is – of course – they kill humans, too. Mortflesh flowed around us like they were caught in a slipstream, their tiny, self-obsessed brains unseeing as we passed among them. Not for the first time, I wished for the freedom to fire at will, but I knew well the Council would have my powers if I dared to try it.
‘Where is he?’ muttered Klaas, beside me. ‘How is he hiding?’
‘Let’s hope he hasn’t embodied yet,’ I replied. My finger was light on the trigger of my weapon, concealed in a fold of my robe. ‘If he has, we may never find him.’
‘Chances are slim, surely?’ Klaas’s eyes flickered, gleaming golden, considering and discarding mortal faces one after another. ‘He hasn’t had long enough to find a subject.’
‘All he needs is one mortal willing to be an idiot,’ I pointed out. I saw Klaas nod, shrugging.
‘They are easy to fool,’ he agreed. ‘Something shiny – a brooch, or a bangle of jade – and they’ll do most anything.’
‘Not that you’ve tried it,’ I said, glancing at him.
‘Of course,’ he said, his voice like fresh milk, his eyes far from mine.
And then, I saw a flash between the trees ahead of us – light too pure to be mortal, too beautiful for this earth. The light of a fae, impossible to conceal.
‘Half a mile, dead ahead,’ I murmured to Klaas. He turned to face me again, the golden tang fading from his eyes. ‘Between the trees.’
He blinked, and looked. ‘I see it.’ His stance changed as he trained his eyes on the light, sparkling in the failing day. He took off at a run, mortflesh scattering either side of him. I followed, drawing my gun out of my cloak.
Within moments, we were within range. His light was so clear, so clear, that it made my eyes sting, but a mortal woman stood over him, arms outstretched, seemingly unaffected. I saw him turn to face us, baring his teeth in a hiss; the woman’s approach did not slow.
‘Come on, darlin’,’ she was saying. ‘Come on to Marie, now, and she’ll take good care o’ you.’ She dropped to a crouch, extending an arm toward him. ‘Who’d leave a tiny child on his own in a public park, eh? Who left you all alone?’
‘He’s glamoured,’ I said, and Klaas nodded. Behind the woman, the rogue fae glimmered, his mocking eyes gazing up at us. Five more seconds, and it would be too late; five more seconds, and he would be embodied. Beyond our reach.
‘Ma’am!’ I yelled, desperate. ‘Step away!’
She jerked in shock, turning.
‘What’s going on? Who are -‘ She caught sight of my gun, and shrieked a little, falling backward. ‘Get away from this child!’ she shouted, extending her arms to shield the creature behind her.
‘That’s not a child!’ called Klaas, waving a free hand at the woman, gesturing for her to move.
‘The hell it’s not!’ she replied, shuffling backward. Behind her, the fae laughed, silently. ‘Come on, darlin’. Let’s get out of here and away from these horrible men.’ She turned to me. ‘I’m callin’ the cops, right now!’
‘You must trust us!’ I shouted. ‘Duck, ma’am! Please!’
‘Young man, I – ‘ she began, but the rest of her words were cut off as a gurgling cry tore itself from her throat. The fae had made its move. Two sparkling hands plunged into the woman’s mouth, swiftly followed by its glimmering arms. It lifted its face to sneer at us before ducking into the human flesh that would give it sanctuary, making it immune to our judgement. The woman flopped on the ground, her arms and legs thrashing, her face turning scarlet as she struggled to breathe. Her eyes were filled with tears.
‘Dammit,’ I growled. I took aim and fired just before the fae finished slithering inside its mortal skin. The woman’s body jerked once, twice, as the bullets found their mark.
‘You’re going to be in worlds of trouble,’ remarked Klaas as she slumped on the ground, the growling fae already dragging itself out of her flesh.
‘Just grab him, and let me worry about the Council,’ I said, sliding my gun back into its holster. The dead woman’s eyes regarded the sky as we stepped over her to bind the wounded fae hand and foot, ready to drag him back to where he belonged.
Like I said. Humans find it so easy to act like idiots. Something told me, though, that taking the Council’s punishment would be a little easier, this time.

A Second Date with an Agent: Things Get Serious

Yesterday’s post was a big hit – it seems there’s a lot of interest in anything that smacks of an insight into an agent’s mind (and I so totally understand!) – so today’s post will recap the rest of the advice we were lucky enough to receive at the Date with an Agent event at the weekend.

I think the first thing I’ll say is this: agents are people, too. Having been in a room with several of them and having actually exchanged actual words with a couple, I know that you don’t have to do a Bavmorda on it in order to get their attention.

I command thee to represent me! Image: pinterest.com

I command thee to represent me!
Image: pinterest.com

Yeah. So, you know. No spells or bribes or potions or whatever. Just write a good book and send it to them, and don’t be pushy or weird about it. And also agents are a lot less scary in real life than you’d imagine.

Seriously.

Slushpiles, reassuringly, still seem to be the primary place from which most of our agents draw their clients; despite the fears of some of the participants, the agents assured us that they do read everything that comes across their desks and that – mishaps aside – they endeavour to get back to everyone within a reasonable time-frame. However, part of the whole ‘remember agents are people too’ thing is ‘remember agents are people too who have extremely busy full-time jobs and lives and commutes and significant others and children and bills and all the usual stuff.’ It was mentioned by a couple of them that people still do things like expect them to return calls or emails within days instead of months; if you submit to an agent, you’ve got to be prepared to wait for a response. You’ve also got to be absolutely sure you’ve made yourself as contactable as possible – put your details in the header or footer of every page of your submission, get an email signature with your email address(es), Twitter handle and contact numbers, be active on social media without stalking or harassing the agents concerned – and you’ll find that they’ll respond favourably to your efforts to make things as easy for them as possible.

When asked why they chose to become agents, Simon Trewin responded by saying that he loves the intellectual stimulation of the job, and that he has always had a love of books and words. Polly Nolan loves to work with authors and mentor them, and she takes particular joy in encouraging their stories out – and she’s certainly experienced at doing that, having been headhunted by the Greenhouse Literary Agency last year due to her skill at finding new talent. Sallyanne Sweeney relishes the close relationship between authors and agents – sometimes, publishers and editors change but the author/agent relationship can be a long-standing one. She also loves working with all aspects of book production, from the seed of an idea to a finished product. Madeleine Milburn loves talent-spotting and takes particular enjoyment in doing deals for her authors, and Faith O’Grady not only loves authors and books but also enjoys being part of the process of bringing a book to completion.

A very brave soul in the audience asked the agents about their ‘exit strategy’ – what happens when the relationship between author and agent goes awry? Simon Trewin stressed that he takes on authors, and not books. He, like all the agents, looks long-term at an author’s career but admitted that sometimes the spark between author and agent does fade and when that happens it’s best for everyone to sever the relationship and allow the author to go on to success with another agent. Sallyanne Sweeney described how her agency, Mulcahy Associates, loves to work with agents so long as the working relationship stays happy for everyone concerned, and Madeleine Milburn explained how sometimes it can take a long time to sell a book, and that authors should keep working, and keep writing, to keep their options open while their agent is working on their behalf. Faith O’Grady emphasised this by saying that authors and agents need to be persistent. Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who organised the event and who is a literary scout (The Inkwell Group), described writing a book as being akin to reducing gravy – she advised the crowd not to let their words get in the way of the story, and to keep editing and working on their stories until the very best and richest content is all that remains.

A lengthy discussion took place about author profiles and social media, and all the agents agreed that social media matters, but so do traditional means of making connections between an author and an audience. Connections sell books. They advised things like writing for your local paper, writing book reviews, having shorter pieces published – all of these things build a profile, and it’s always good to think about ways to find the people who will read your book. Marketing budgets in most publishing houses have been cut back, and so authors who have platforms and who are able and willing to help promote themselves are a good thing from a publisher’s point of view. Twitter is incredibly useful, not just for contacts but for finding out about opportunities and openings and competitions, and so long as you remember social conventions – i.e. do not harass or stalk anyone on social media, for any reason – it can be a very wise move to open a Twitter account. Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin also recommended developing a blog or website, and stressed the importance of including contact information, telling us a horror story about losing the cover sheet from an excellent submission she received, and having to work very hard to find a way to contact the author. Build a rounded, interconnected social media profile, and always bear your target market in mind.

A very good tip we received from Vanessa was to write yourself a selection of author biographies – 50-word, 100-word, 500-word – to suit different purposes. Author bios are not your life story, however; you shouldn’t be waxing lyrical about your lovely dogs and grandchildren, for instance. Write in third person. Be succint. Show your publishing credits and your social media handles. Show a bit of originality and flair. If you have relevant expertise, mention it – if you’re a retired police sergeant who now writes crime novels, for instance. Practise getting out and talking to people, presenting your work, doing author events. It will all stand to your credit as your career progresses.

The fantastic Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, who runs the Inkwell Group and writing.ie, and is a prominent and very successful literary talent scout. Image: asiam.ie

The fantastic Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who runs the Inkwell Group and writing.ie, and is a prominent and very successful literary talent scout.
Image: asiam.ie

Vanessa also explained at some length what the process of selling a book entails, and how it affects authors. She described the reality of advances, which is a sum of money paid to an author in advance of sales, which needs to be earned back through sales before royalties – typically less than ten percent of a book’s gross value – can start to be earned. Self-publishing through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or CreateSpace means that the author earns a far higher royalty percentage, depending on the price they charge for their work, and it is possible for an author to move between ‘traditional’ publishing and self-publishing. She stressed the importance of having your work edited and proofread if you choose to self publish, and how vital it is to engage a professional designer to create a book cover for you. There are several companies which provide a complete package for self-publishing, including Kazoo and Emu Ink.

The day finished with a discussion about an agent’s role – which is to get an author the very best deal possible – and a sobering reminder that signing with an agent is not the be-all and end-all; in a lot of ways, the work begins once you have an agent. We were reminded that most authors don’t write full-time, and on average authors earn less than £10,000 per year from their work – but I’m pretty sure that didn’t put anyone off. We were also treated to a wonderful talk from author Jax Miller, who is a client of Simon Trewin – referred to him through Inkwell – who has had a huge amount of success, rather quickly; not only was listening to Jax speak huge fun, but it also reminded us that sometimes dreams do come true.

In sum: it’s important to remember to be professional in all your contact with agents, do your homework on them and their agencies, and make sure your work is as ready as you can get it before you approach them. They are real human beings whose livelihoods depend on finding new talent and nurturing their existing clients, and they want to find you as much as you want to find them. Judging by the ones I’ve met, they’re also exceedingly nice.

I hope that these posts, today’s and yesterday’s, have been helpful and encouraging, and – as usual – if you have any questions or need more information shoot me a comment, Tweet or email. Basically: keep writing, keep submitting, and never give up hope!