Tag Archives: finding an agent

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!

 

Wobbling On

It will probably surprise nobody to learn that I spent yesterday, and will spend today, taking the least sensible of all the writing options open to me; viz., carrying on with my new WiP. I have nothing to offer here in terms of a sensible explanation besides the fact that the story is bashing me around the brain and writing it seems to soothe the savage beast inside my skull.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

Image: dailymail.co.uk

It’s a little like examining a massive tapestry in a huge, unlit room using only a tiny, weak battery-powered torch. All I can see is the picture which is illuminated by the sputtering beam of light in my hand; the bits still to come are shrouded in darkness. I do know what I want to happen in the story, of course – I have a skeletal plot structure and an ending in mind. The detail, however, and the actual meat of the story which will bring me from where I am now to that wonderful point where I can write ‘The End’, has yet to materialise.

But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

I’m working on a story which I first came up with almost eight years ago, during which time the protagonist was a couple of years younger than she is now and my writing style screamed like something out of the nineteen-fifties. I have a draft chapter of this WiP saved, which I wrote in 2006, and I’m surprised words like ‘balderdash!’ ‘jolly good,’ and – of course ‘lashings of ginger beer!’ (which, apparently, doesn’t actually appear anywhere in Enid Blyton’s oeuvre, despite the stereotype) aren’t studded through it like cloves in a boiled ham. I really find it hilarious that the writing I was doing a few years ago is like something from a different planet – it took me years to shake off the style of writing found in the books I loved to read as a child, and develop a voice of my own.

I’m still not sure I’ve managed it, but I think I’m on the right path at least.

My. That's a big path. Image: helenotway.edublogs.org

My. That’s a big path.
Image: helenotway.edublogs.org

However, I tried to explain this current story to my husband the other night, and I ended up going round and round in a ring of syllables, getting more and more confused. I finished on the word ‘basically,’ which is never a good sign you’ve explained yourself clearly, and he turned to me and said ‘Er. Yeah, that sounds… um.’

I made it sound terrible. Absolutely awful.

Now, admittedly, I’m not very far into the writing of this story yet – fewer than 7,000 words of a first draft currently exist – but, as I said, I do know where I want it to go, more or less. In my head, it all hangs together beautifully. But when I tried to put it into words it came out as something like:

‘So, there’s this pilchard, and it lost its watermelon a few years before in a tragic squash-making accident, and then there’s this spider-thing, with a net, that wants to, you know, catch things, and there’s a bucket and spade which the pilchard really wants and so the spider-thing decides to take it first.’

Clear, non? Of course. I know you guys know what I’m getting at.

It’s important to be able to talk about your work in a way that doesn’t make you sound like you need a long lie-down; summarising your plot and characters should, really, be something you practise from the get-go when you’re writing a book. You never know when you might need to pitch something, after all. Of course, it does help to have written the thing first, and that it’s polished and buffed to as high a shine as you can manage before you start pitching it, but still – always be prepared. It does worry me that a story so clearly outlined in my head can turn into a mouthful of must when I try to explain it, and I hope I’ll be able to do it justice in the future.

I’m also feeling a little like a cobweb in a stiff breeze about this book because I’m taking the same approach as I took for the previous one – ‘Emmeline’ – wherein I knew what I wanted to say, but the story pretty much told itself as it went. I’m trying to rely on my inner pantser, which involves forcibly silencing my far more vocal plotter-persona. So far, the story has set itself in a new location, it has raised the protagonist’s age by at least two – if not three – years, it has developed a whole new set of characters and it has given the Antagonist an entirely new and (if I may say so) deliciously plausible reason for being so Evil. During yesterday’s writing a new character – a boy! – walked into the story and held out his hand in greeting, and I didn’t know his name until I typed it.

So, it was really like meeting someone new for the first time. In a weird, spooky and ‘man, my brain is strange’ sort of way.

And yes, I know I know I should be finishing ‘Eldritch’ (again) and trying to work out just exactly what is wrong with ‘Tider’ and chewing my nails to the quick as I wait for news of ‘Emmeline’, but it’s really hard to resist the lure of a new story.

So, for the moment, I am bending to temptation, and hoping it’s the right decision.

Image: writeontrack.ie

Image: writeontrack.ie

Take Cover!

One of the most important hurdles any hopeful writer needs to cross is that of the cover letter, which is sent along with their query when they are making contact with a literary agent, or publisher, or even when entering some writing competitions. They have a reputation for being terrifying, and disgustingly difficult, and deliberately tricksy, and not at all nice, and I am here today to dispel all those myths.

Writing cover letters is an art. It therefore follows that, like any art, the writing of the humble cover letter can be honed and improved upon until it’s as near to perfect as possible. It’s not something which is only do-able by the chosen few; it’s not something which is beyond you because you’re a certain age, or from a particular place, or are writing in a particular style, or the moon is in Aquarius, or whatever.

Writing cover letters is an opportunity. It’s a showcase. It’s a perfect first meeting – made perfect, perhaps, by the fact that you’re not physically there. Your letter is your envoy, so to speak. It represents the best of you – or, at least, it should.

It lets you avoid situations like this. Image: sarahcruz423.blogspot.com

It lets you avoid situations like this.
Image: sarahcruz423.blogspot.com

None of this means that writing cover letters is easy. It’s not. But it is something that can be worked on, and it’s something which has a few generally agreed-upon rules, all of which are worth knowing.

First: I’ve seen it written in several places that the best way to make your initial contact with an agent is to place a ‘phone call to their office, and inquire politely whether they’d like to receive your query. I think I can safely say that this is bunkum. Not the ‘polite inquiry’ bit – that’s very important – but the ‘placing a call’ bit. In general, agents don’t like to be ‘phoned. They are busy. They need to concentrate, all the time. Ringing telephones are not their friend. So, don’t ring them.

Image: steveweins.com

Image: steveweins.com

Plus, who likes to be asked whether they’d like to be asked something? It wastes time.

The most important thing you can do when preparing a query is: do your research. Know who you’re submitting your work to, the sort of book they normally represent, their established authors, and – if you’re very lucky – the ‘wishlist’ of manuscripts which they’d like to see. Some agents will have their wishlist on their websites, and some will have written it in a blog post, and some will have mentioned it on Twitter, and some won’t have said a peep about it anywhere. Even if you can’t find a wishlist, most agencies have a comprehensive website where you can learn all about your chosen agent, including what they like to represent and whether they’re open for queries at any particular time – because, of course, it’s important to query only when the agent or agency is open to inquiries. It’s no good to waste time and energy on a fruitless task, after all.

Second; Prepare your query, which – as well as your cover letter, of which more below – includes your synopsis and/or pitch, and your sample chapters. Always follow the guidelines as set out on the agency’s webpage, or in their listing in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or wherever you first came upon their name. If they want 500 words, send 500 words. If they want five chapters, then send that. If they want the first, fifth, tenth and twentieth chapters, then send those. Do not assume you know better than the agency and decide to cherry-pick your favourite chapters, or send more (or less) material than requested because it ‘looks better’. Just, for Pete’s sake, do what you’re told.

Spend time over this query. Tailor it specifically for each agency. Do not adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy. Make every query unique.

Third: Prepare the cover letter.

The first thing to think about is: what is a cover letter for?

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

It’s designed to give an agent an insight into a few things, namely: your ability to write (yes, even your cover letter is a showcase for your talent), your ability to sell yourself and your product, your personality and how it might fit with theirs, or the ethos of the agency, and your level of confidence in what you’re doing. So, your humble cover letter has to wear a lot of hats.

Tip 1: Never address a cover letter to ‘Dear Agent’. You can guarantee it will become a target for dart practice if you do this. ‘Dear Ms. Whomever’ or ‘Dear Mr. Whomever’ is good; perhaps you prefer to address people by their first name. Either way, know the person to whom you are writing. Do not write them a cover letter which sounds like it came out of a spambot.

Tip 2: Avoid writing things like: ‘Your lucky day has come!’ or ‘Boy, is this going to make your career!’ But, of course, you know that anyway. Right?

Tip 3: Be brief, but comprehensive. Show that you have a cool, confident mastery of language. Do not apologise for taking up their time, or for having the temerity to bother them with your query. Do not belittle yourself, but – of course – do not brag, either. If you’ve won some prizes, simply mention the fact. If you’ve placed in competitions, say so but don’t dwell on it. Don’t wax lyrical.

Tip 4: Follow a simple structure. Introductory paragraph, followed by a paragraph about your book – or, in other words, a pitch – and finally, a short paragraph about yourself.

Something like this, maybe:

‘Dear Ms. Molloy,

I attach the first five pages of my novel, ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, for your consideration. I felt you, in particular, might like to take a look at my work because of your interest in crime fiction, and the fact that you have placed work for clients such as Mr. So-and-so. At 85,000 words, the book is complete.

When Scarlett Stuart, an heiress with more sense than money, disappears the night before her wedding, all eyes turn to Detective Simon Catalan. Scarlett’s daybook shows that she had an appointment with Catalan in his offices at Whateley Place on the afternoon of her disappearance, so why does the great detective deny all knowledge of her existence? What is the connection between Scarlett’s fiancé and Catalan – and why is Catalan determined to make sure Scarlett is never found? ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ is a detective potboiler in the tradition of Conan Doyle and E.M. James, and should appeal to lovers of period fiction and mystery writing in equal measure.

I am a graduate of PoshSnobbery University, where I took an MA degree in Creative Writing. I have had several short stories published in national and international journals, and my non-fiction writing appears in a regular column with my local paper, the Brobdignag Gazette. I have placed in several writing competitions including last year’s Fish Prize for Flash Fiction and the Bridport Prize in 2008. Since completing ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, I have begun a new project, which is a supernatural-tinged thriller set in medieval Bristol.

I would be happy to supply the full MS of ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ should you require it, and I would like to thank you most sincerely for your time.

Best wishes/Kind regards/Yours sincerely,

Your name.’

Some things to consider: Mention your interests/qualifications/life experiences only if they have a direct bearing on your writing. Being a champion knitter is wonderful, but unless you’ve written a book about yarn it shouldn’t be in your cover letter. If you have no degrees, experience, or published work, that’s absolutely fine – you can talk instead about your professional life and other interests, so long as it’s brief. It’s always good to mention that you’ve moved on to a new project, and what it’s about – agents like a long view of a potential client’s career. Always specify that the book is complete (because, of course, you shouldn’t be querying it otherwise), and be clear about genre, title and wordcount. It’s usually best to adopt a cool, professional tone throughout, even if writing the letter makes you look like this:

Image: machohombresports.com

Image: machohombresports.com

And – finally – as I said in my post about synopses, this is all based on my own experience, and may not suit everyone. If you’ve queried (particularly if you’ve been successful!) and you’d like to weigh in on whether these tips are any good, or not, I’d love to hear from you.

The essential message is this: keep writing, keep querying, keep believing, and never give up hope. And let me know how you get on!

 

 

 

The Joy of Words

Well, last week had this in it.

Image: v8.en.memegenerator.net

Image: v8.en.memegenerator.net

For the unclickables among you, I’ll paraphrase the article I’ve linked to above: in essence, a new app is in development which allows people to read at speeds of up to 500 words per minute, mainly due to the fact that you don’t need to move your eyes at all. The app flashes the words in front of you, with one letter highlighted in red (apparently, just at the optimum point in the word for your brain to recognise and process it without even realising it’s doing so), and your eyes remain steady throughout. All you need to do is look at the red letter, and you read the word automatically.

Image: financialanalystwarrior.com

Image: financialanalystwarrior.com

Yeah. I’m with yonder sceptical dog.

The article I’ve linked to has a trial run of the app (called Spritz), and you can see what I’m talking about for yourself. You can also give it a go, and see how it makes you feel. For me, when I got to the 500 words per minute section, I have to admit the letters were zipping by so fast that I did miss a word or two every so often; my brain put together the sense of the sentence, all the same, but it actually felt like more work, to me, than ‘ordinary’ reading. It also made me feel like I’d just stepped off one of these:

Image: zuzutop.com

Image: zuzutop.com

More than that, though, it made me feel a bit sad. Has it come to this, that we’re living in a world where reading is seen as just another chore, something else to plough through at top speed so that we can get back to playing Candy Crush Saga?

I don’t know. Perhaps the app is intended for people who have to read long technical documents, or complicated legal rulings, or government papers, or something like that. I don’t deny the science behind it; certainly, it worked, exactly as it said it would. But it sucked every droplet of joy out of the act of reading, and I think that’s a retrograde step. There was no time to pause, to reflect, to luxuriate in a beautifully constructed sentence; there was no time to appreciate the skill with which the words were laced together. It was like sitting down before a gorgeous meal, prepared with love and care and painstaking effort, and just tipping the whole lot down your neck, oyster-fashion. Not only will you not enjoy the food, but you won’t enjoy the act of eating, either – the two are closely linked.

A lot like the joy of words, and the act of reading. Just in case you didn’t get the metaphor.

Then, I’m speaking as a person who reads quickly anyway, and who enjoys fluency with words. I’m aware that not everyone is like me, and perhaps this app will help some readers who find it hard to get through longer documents; if it’s useful to someone, then it’s to be welcomed, of course. But, to me, reading (for leisure, that is) should be a pleasant and immersive experience, taken at your own pace – whatever that pace may be. It should allow you time for thought and absorption, time to enjoy the words as well as the content.

Or, maybe it’s just my inner technophobe rising to the fore again.

Image: somedesignblog.com

Image: somedesignblog.com

Anyway.

As well as learning about Spritzing, last week was a word-filled one for me in other ways. I spent it glued to the computer going through ‘Emmeline’, making a concerted push to edit it, and repolish it, and finally reach a point where I can say: ‘Yes. This book is ready.’ It had already had five edits before I even began this process, but as late as Friday I was going through it and still seeing extraneous words, unclear descriptions, frankly stupid continuity errors and places where the dialogue could have been sharpened.

It just goes to show that an editor’s job is never done. However, a writer’s job is to get their work to a point where they can say they’ve done their best, and then let their words go. That, friends, is the challenge facing me this week.

Today is the day I start to submit ‘Emmeline.’

Quite. Image: athenna.com

Quite.
Image: athenna.com

I am proud of my work, and I don’t think it’s wrong to say so. I am happy with ‘Emmeline’, I am glad to have written it, I love my characters and I think the story is enjoyable. Now, we’ll see what the publishing industry thinks of it, and I’ll report back to you when I have more information.

If you never hear from me again, you’ll know what happened.

 

 

A Little Bit of Kindness

So, I have received another rejection.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

Image: dailymail.co.uk

The funny thing is, though, that this time – it’s not so bad.

I mean, yesterday (when I got the word) I felt sad, and disappointed, and upset. I felt angry, but it was at myself – how could I have written something that didn’t fit the bill, for so many reasons? Didn’t I know any better? – and I was glad I was alone when I got the news, because I needed to be. I think the reason I feel a little low, but generally okay, today is because the rejection was done so kindly, and so generously, that it was the next best thing to an acceptance. It was full of praise for my work (except, of course, for the bits that weren’t so strong) and it was full of encouragement and support. It gave me an option to rework and resubmit, and it expressed an interest in seeing more of my writing.

So, really, I couldn’t ask for a better rejection email, if that makes any sense.

Now, however, I have several things I need to do – and, of course, because life is like that, they’re all happening at the same time.

Item the First: Tweak ‘Tider’ – just a little – in order to get it ready to submit. I’m almost happy with it, but there’s just something not quite right about the end of it. This weekend will be partly spent buried in my printout of the text. Yay? Yay.

Item the Second: Get my NaNo project (still nameless) off the ground. I felt so deflated yesterday that – just for a second – I considered pulling out of NaNoWriMo, but luckily I came to my senses and realised that would be stupid. So, I’m still in. Today, I plan to write at least 1500 words, which is slightly under-target, but a good start.

Item the Third: Think about ways to make ‘Eldritch’ right. As hard as it was to hear that my beloved book just isn’t quite good enough, I realised that the person giving me this feedback is a professional in the industry who knows exactly what they’re talking about, and who is, furthermore, completely right. It’s funny how writers just can’t read their own stuff exactly as a reader would; no matter how hard you try to detach, it’s always going to be a different experience for you, the writer, reading your own work as it is for someone coming to it completely fresh. I had always imagined ‘Eldritch’ to be the first part of a trilogy – from its earliest existence in my mind, that’s how I pictured and planned it. Now, I know that the story isn’t enough to sustain a trilogy. And I’m okay with that.

Really. I am. Image: runningofthereeses.com

Really. I am.
Image: runningofthereeses.com

Submitting your work to agents is scary. The idea of a knowledgeable, business-minded, critical (in a good way), and exacting pair of eyes reading your tender words is akin to that feeling we all remember from our teenage years – the terror of trying to impress someone we like, and hoping against hope they like us back. The tension of waiting for replies and praying, every day, for an email or a phonecall with news one way or the other is a major drag on your health, both mental and physical. I personally feel like I could sleep for a year, but I know that’s not an option.

But making a dream come true isn’t something you can leave to your Fairy Godmother. It takes work, and devotion, and sweat, and pain. It takes the bittersweet realisation that you’re almost, but not quite, good enough. It will – hopefully, at least – be lined with the sort of kind, compassionate email that I received yesterday, the type that tells you ‘You’re not ready yet, but very soon, you will be, and I want to be there when you are’; it will be full of days like yesterday. And all you can do is be grateful for the help, smile, and move on to the next step.

Easier said than done, but believe me – it can be done.

Happy Friday, and happy weekend to you all. I hope a restful couple of days are ahead for you. And, while we’re on the subject, happy November! How did that happen?

Image: businessinsider.com

Image: businessinsider.com

A Matter of Opinion

Monday is creaking itself into position once again, and another chain of days is about to start careering down the slippery slope we call a ‘week’. I hope you had a restful weekend and you’re primed and ready for it.

Good woman, Barbara. Image: funkmysoul.gr

Good woman, Barbara.
Image: funkmysoul.gr

This past weekend was full of bad news. I’m trying not to even think about some of the news stories that made me sad, or angry, over the last few days – and there were many. I’m not ignoring the fact that things happened in the world which made my red mist descend, and which upset me greatly, but this blog post is all about the positive. Right? Right.

So, let’s not talk about the sad stuff. Not today.

In the spirit of focusing on the non-enraging, one of the more interesting stories over the weekend centred on the kerfuffle surrounding ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling‘, a book which was published to no great acclaim in April. Purporting to be the debut novel of a former soldier and military policeman named Robert Galbraith, the book was receiving good reviews, but had not sold in any huge numbers – reports vary between 500 and 1,500 copies sold – but those who had read it, by all accounts, liked it. Robert Galbraith, the mysterious author, had admitted to writing under a pseudonym to, I suppose, protect his former colleagues and avoid any sort of security issues surrounding his foray into crime writing, but that was far from being the biggest secret Mr. Galbraith was sitting on.

Over the weekend, ‘Mr Galbraith’ was unmasked. Not an ex-military police officer, nor even a man, ‘Galbraith’ is, in fact, J.K. Rowling.

The most interesting thing about the whole situation, I think, is the fact that the manuscript of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ was, apparently, submitted to at least one publisher (under its pseudonym, of course), and was turned down as being ‘not marketable’; it didn’t stand out from the crowd enough, apparently. It wasn’t head and shoulders above any of the other promising submissions received, and so it wasn’t picked up. I have great respect for the editor of the publishing company who turned the book down purely on its merits, and who is now brave enough to admit it, and to give her reasons for her decision; she could have tried to wash her hands of responsibility, or pretend the decision to turn the book down was a tortuous one. She could have fawned all over J.K. Rowling. She could (horror of horrors!) have apologised for her decision. Instead, she simply explained how she felt the book was solid, decent, well written – but nothing amazing.

I thought this was remarkable. Not only because the editor in question is a brave and principled person, but because it made me feel a whole lot better about the rejections I get which are worded along much the same lines: ‘Thank you for your submission; your work is perfectly fine, but just not marketable in the current publishing climate’, or ‘Your work is not suitable for us – but our opinion is not exhaustive, so don’t give up.’ Whatever your opinion of ‘Harry Potter’ is – whether you believe the books are good, or not – it’s beyond question that J.K. Rowling is the publishing sensation of our time. Anything with her name on it is a foregone conclusion, in terms of publication. It turned out that ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ was eventually published by an imprint of the publisher who handled her book ‘The Casual Vacancy’ last year, but it seems that she submitted it to other publishers, just like any debut author – but found, apparently, little success. The book has received very positive feedback from readers, so it’s not necessarily that her work was not good; it just wasn’t good enough for a publisher to take a punt on it, particularly in the crowded crime/detective fiction market.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

This news story has given me a lot to think about, and no mistake. The first conclusion one could draw would be this: what’s the point of anyone trying to get a book published, as an unknown debut author, if a writer with the ability of J.K. Rowling can’t get picked up? Well – yes and no. That’s an insidious and dangerous way to think; it erodes hope and chips away at the future, and should be avoided. There are always exceptions; there are always chances worth jumping at. You’ve got to have faith in your own work, and keep on going with the submissions even if there seems to be no light on the horizon. Rowling herself was turned down by twelve publishers before she placed ‘Harry Potter’ with Bloomsbury. It can happen. People get published every day. They can’t all be world-defining geniuses. Sometimes, a submission will be good enough – not the best submission in the history of writing, but good enough for a particular agent or publisher, and that’s all you need.

So, instead of being disheartened by the saga of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ (in hindsight, rather an apt title), I’m choosing to be encouraged by it. A submission is never going to hit the mark with everyone who reads it; not every publisher is going to like, or even tolerate, some of the work you produce – and that’s not a personal thing, despite how hard it can be to separate yourself from your creative work. It doesn’t mean that if you get knocked back by two, or five, or ten agents or publishers, that you should give up the search – there will, hopefully, be an appreciative ear out there for what you’re writing, and what a shame it would be to give up before you find it.

Of course, if every person to whom you submit your work says something along the lines of: ‘In our opinion, a novel about interstellar time-travelling leprechauns written in rhyming couplets which can, due to the fact you’ve written it in disappearing ink, only be read on the first Tuesday of every month in full moonlight is not exactly the most market-friendly thing; perhaps you should consider submitting something else, or reworking this entirely,’ then maybe it’s time to start thinking: it’s not them. It’s me.

Until then, keep the faith.

In Love with Life

It’s almost the end of May, everybody. In a few short days, this month will be entirely used up and cast aside in favour of June, and I’ll have to make good on my promise to myself that my book – my ‘Eldritch’ – will be ready to start the process of finding an agent.

That’s the problem with making promises to yourself, isn’t it? You’ve got to keep them.

I’m not saying that ‘Eldritch’ isn’t ready. It’s sitting here beside me, in a satisfyingly thick bundle of paper; I’ve read it over and over again. I’ve tweaked it, and fixed it, and pulled sentences apart, and unmixed my metaphors, and checked for continuity errors, and taken out some of the millions of commas that seem to grow, unchecked, in everything I write. But, somehow, it just doesn’t seem good enough, still.

Image: moma.org

Image: moma.org

I just wish I looked as glamorous as this when going through a crisis of confidence. Actually, I look a bit more like Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’. But anyway.

On top of working slowly through The Novel, I’ve also spent the past week writing short stories. I’m trying to work through my list of submission deadlines – lots of competitions are looming, and I want to push myself to enter as many of them as I possibly can. It’s been a while since I made a big submission, and I’ve got to keep this ball rolling as long as I possibly can. However, there is a problem.

None of the short pieces I’ve written have made my personal grade. I’ve worked very hard on them, and I’ve sweated over them, and I’ve chosen words with extreme care, moved paragraphs around, deleted half the story and started again from scratch, changed titles, changed characters, changed everything that can be changed, and… I still don’t like either of the two major pieces of work I’ve completed over the last few days. Hackneyed, cloying, clichéd, boring – this is how they seem, to me. I just know they’ll never be good enough.

The first piece I wrote was a story about a little girl who, confused by something which is happening in her home life, takes out her rage and fear on another girl, a child at school, who innocently involves herself in the first child’s life. The story follows the two girls as they grow older, and shows us how, at one point, the second child has a chance to help the first, but chooses not to because of the pain she still suffers as a result of the first child’s bullying actions when they were younger. I’m not sure why this story didn’t work. It should work. I wanted it to. For a while after I’d written it I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, which is unusual for me; normally, I’m visceral about these things, and I know straight away how I feel about a written piece. But for this one, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to like it, but it didn’t turn out the way I’d seen it in my head, perhaps.

The second piece was about a shy young man and his forceful, abrasive mother, and their strained relationship. For reasons the boy doesn’t understand at first, his mother’s angry sorrow is focused on a particular place near their home. It’s a place she asks her son not to go to, but it also happens to be a popular meeting point for parties, and so – inevitably – the day comes when the young man betrays his mother’s trust, and attends a party in this strange place, sacred to his mother. When the mother discovers her son has broken his promise to her, she is extremely angry, and in her subsequent breakdown the reason for her dislike of the place becomes clear to the boy at the same time as the reader.

Again, a story I really wanted to like. But it just doesn’t work.

Because of all this, I’ve probably been feeling a bit defeated over the past few days. My energy levels are a bit depleted, maybe, and my brain seems stuck in first gear. I needed some inspiration, some encouragement. I needed a reminder of what I’m doing here, and why I’m doing it.

And, yesterday evening, I found it.

I’m not sure if you’ll have heard of a poet named Dorothy Molloy Carpenter. Sadly, Ms. Molloy Carpenter passed away almost a decade ago, just before her first book of poetry was published (two further volumes were also published posthumously). During her time of illness, when she was facing into treatment for the disease that claimed her life, she wrote a prayer of sorts, called her ‘Credo’. This prayer was printed on a card that was distributed at her memorial service, which happened to be held at the University in which I used to work. Many years ago, someone gave me their copy of this card, and I’ve held on to it ever since; somehow, last night, I happened to read it again just when I needed to. I want to quote a little bit from the beginning of the prayer, if you’ll indulge me:

The one essential thing is for my voice to ring out in the cosmos and to use, to this end, every available second. Everything else must serve this. This is being in love with life.

Every voice is needed for the full harmony.

Well.

There you have it. Use every available second. Sing your song. Make your contribution. Say your piece. Write your story. Be in love with life.

Image: insehee.egloos.com

Image: insehee.egloos.com

Happy Thursday. Use it as well as you can, and remember that the world needs every scrap of positivity, every drop of happiness, and every flicker of love that it can get. We can’t all save the world from terror, but we can all do our best to add to the communal store of joy. Let’s all do what we can.