Another snake, another ladder

Yesterday I received another rejection for my novel Border Line. They are stacking up nicely now.

Last night I found an email from a friend. The subject line read: did you write this??? or where did I HEAR IT?

The text read: “Not even purgatory would feature a sing-along bar in Ljubljana. ”

This is a quote from Border Line, which my friend must have read well over a year ago. He may have remembered the line because he hated or was irritated by it, BUT at least he remembered it. He may even have liked it. I have to hang on to all forms of encouragement.

Birches in Anglesea Abbey gardens Winter Walk today.

Birches in Anglesea Abbey gardens Winter Walk today.

Another agent submission

Today I finally stopped messing around (clearing my desk, catching up on household chores, dealing with emails, fetching logs, photographing sunsets), and got out the file of my novel Border Line, worked over the first chapters and made another submission. I nearly failed to jump the last fence as I feel the title needs changing after the shift I made in my last major revision. Then I decided I was rearranging the deck chairs, and pressed the Send button. The title needs to be right, but if the text is good enough it is unlikely to be the rejecting factor.

Looking for a new title took me on a very pleasurable, though off piste, journey through my poetry shelves as I followed the lead from Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, through Graves and Donne and back to Rehearsal (by Eleanor Green), which had been one of the original stimuli for the novel. I still have not found the title, but here are the first four lines of Eleanor’s poem and the reason why actor’s exercises became central to the story of Border Line.


for an exercise
I look at his hands
to improve our relationship

writing critique – real help

A couple of weeks ago I gave my non-fiction project (on Far East POWs) to a neighbour to read and got out my neglected novel Border Line. I’d had a four-month break from it and, as sometimes happens, this gave me the courage to make some radical alterations.

Now I needed someone with fresh, and ideally professional, eyes to read the changes. My options were limited. My writing friends, my other friends and even some relatives had read earlier drafts. I had already shelled out for Literary consultants (extremely useful but equally expensive). However, through blogging I had come across writer Sally Jenkins, who runs a critiquing service.

So I sent her my agent letter and altered synopsis. Following this I sent my first chapter (i.e. all the material I would be submitting to agents). In a remarkably short time, for a very reasonable fee (and I like that I could pay through BACS if I wanted), I received clear, concise, pertinent feedback. Sally also spotted a very important gap in my letter – I’d not mentioned a potential market or similar publication.

This has led me to do some hefty thinking as this is a question I have tried, and failed, to answer before. I know well that my writing crosses boundaries. In Border Line I have written a love story with topical issues (suicide and assisted dying). It is between literary and commercial in style, and readers for my previous two books have been both sexes and mixed ages. Mulling this over and looking at another writers’ website that Sally mentioned, I trawled through descriptions by agents of the types of books they liked. This helped me to focus, as did the fact that I will be talking to a reading group in the autumn about my earlier book Unseen Unsung.

So, I think that the mixture of love, adventure and topical issues would make Border Line ideal for reading groups. Thank you Sally, I shall go into battle again perhaps a little better armed than before.

You might think that after 25 rejections from agents I should be throwing in the towel. However these rejections included 4 requests for the full manuscript, one resulting in some very positive work with an agent. This, in psychological terms, is called random reinforcement, and encourages persistence, and anyway I am too bloody-minded to give up.

writer’s balancing act

A rejection yesterday; today a request to discuss my first novel, A Small Rain (out of print), with a book group. In yesterday’s paper a brief article by a literary agent complaining about capricious, deadline missing, needy, rude authors. I want to put my hand in the air and shout, “Please Miss, please Miss, take me instead. I work happily to deadline’s, I don’t do rude, or writer’s block and…” but she’s not listening.

However many books I finish, I always seem to be reading three more. Current trio are Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, James Shapiro’s Contested Will (good scholarly look at the history of Shakespeare doubters) and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.

Warm, sunny, windy spring day. Gardened to exhaustion.

Dealing with writing criticism

I love the randomness of existence; so Monday morning there was a knock on the door and a great lorry craned a large bag of sand onto our driveway. The snow cover and the icicles everywhere make laying brick paths unwise. Instead I managed to send an email to an agent, who felt like the right person for my Prisoner of War non-fiction book – though the firm is closed for submissions, so I have probably just annoyed him. I also finally posted a submission to an agent for my fiction book Border Line.

An interesting post on How I Handle Rejection on Shannon’s blog made me reflect on how I handle both rejection and praise. I went to a recent email from a friend who had read Border Line critically for me and realised that I had lapped up the praise and not paid enough attention to the criticism. I had dealt with the post-it notes on the manuscript, but not really listened to a more fundamental worry in the covering email. So I spent a happy few hours – and I mean happy – addressing the problem. It is so much easier when someone has kindly identified the sticky patch or the unreal person. When you are writing you tend to have your nose up against the leaves and the shape of the trees get lost.

My mood underwent some yo-yo transformations as I tried to alter the picture for the (imaginary) cover of Border Line on my website. I learnt, as I always do on these occasions, a lot about how not to work in iWeb, but finally I got it sorted. Then, having published the new version, I was maddened to find that one page uploaded the new version, but another stuck to the old. Much trial and error later, I could get the new pages correct only of I used the www. before my address. Today it works properly. There are some gnomes working hard behind the scenes and I just don’t quite speak their language.

The Agent Dilemma

Made myself concentrate on submissions today. It it just laziness that makes me go on looking for an agent instead of self-publishing? I broke even with Unseen Unsung, so I can do it and I have learned so much on that road… and yet… I feel an agent will do well all those things I just scrape through inefficiently. In the meantime another year has passed. Border Line is a much improved book over that year, so I cannot regret the time and effort, but I ache to get on with the new project.

If I were a brilliant writer, I would be writing poetry. This has, in my view to be perfect or nothing. However in the world of fiction, writing across a vast spectrum of quality can be enjoyed. There are happy readers for works from Byatt or Attwood all the way to Mills & Boon’s prescribed plots. So, assuming an interesting enough story, and writing skills somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum, there should be no bar to attempting a novel. However, even with the story in the bag, and enough skills to gain several hundred readers  (for two novels) on a shoestring, finding and agent – let alone a publisher – is like playing a bad game of Snap.

Agents have full books and enough friends (and friends of friends) who write, never to need to trek further afield for new material. They don’t mind being sent new material, but for all their claims about looking for a ‘good read’, they give off a clear vibe of hoping to spot the next Harry Potter or nothing. They have jaded palates when it come to subject matter – and who shall blame them, given the writing they must wade through. They have to predict the reading public’s next year’s flavour. They have to squeeze any author they take on into a pre-recognised genre. Ideally they want a personality to sell as well as a book. Oh, and they don’t much like subject matter (such as assisted dying) that will frighten the horses/publishers.

I could go on. I can see the problem. I’m just too bloody-minded to give in. Even knowing that, should I find an agent via this crazy blind date system they then have to sell my story to a publisher, doesn’t stop me looking. Am I mad?