Readers react in Great Malvern

The pendulum has taken another couple of swings over the weekend. I arrived in Great Malvern (UK) on Saturday and discovered that the book group there were expecting to discuss with me my first book (A Small Rain, 2002, out of print) and not the 2008 Unseen Unsung, which I had prepared. I borrowed my hosts’ tattered copy of A Small Rain for a frantic revision before setting off for the meeting.

We were made very welcome in a member’s home, fortified with a drink and the fourteen of us spread out in her lovely sitting room. Under admirable chairmanship, each member talked about their reactions to A Small Rain and Unseen Unsung, which many had also read. I was able to give explanations and answer individual questions as we went along. After a break for sustaining and delicious nibbles, there was a more open-ended question and answer session about writing and publishing.

For me, to sit among a group of perceptive, enquiring people who have read my two published books and to talk about what works (and what doesn’t) was both a luxury and an immensely helpful experience. I was encouraged to find that they positively relished the complexity of the plots and the variety of subject matter and wanted more stories like this. Several also made a plea (as most book groups do) for a character list because, like many people, they read before sleeping and want to pick up again quickly.

The male protagonist of my first novel came in for some justified criticism for his saintly demeanour and his grating use of endearments. Lesson learnt! On the other hand the child coping with upheavals in his life met universal approval. It gave me great lift that a reader who had never taken to poetry found the selections I used wholly accessible. The writing in my second novel was seen as better paced – a page-turner. They warmed to the main character, a rather spoilt young man, as he lived through the events in the story. Even my dark portrayal of a mother had come off.

I realised with gratitude as I listened and talked, that these intelligent, curious, caring men and women are my readers. This has left me with a glow that will carry my writing forward, and with encouragement such as this, I will get Border Line published knowing that I will have (at least) fourteen readers.

A writer’s responsibilities?

This is a post that has been sitting in the draft folder for a (long) while. Ever since a rejection for Border Line in April. I guess I should face it now. How much responsibility does the writer have towards the reader when dealing with tricky subject matter?

Border Line is essentially and upbeat novel, yet it has suicide at its core and touches on assisted dying. It is fiction, it is written as a ‘good read’, is upbeat and life affirming and is essentially a love story – but the eleven characters’ main intention is to quit life.

I’m not daft. Suicide is only ever the least worst option for the person who chooses to go. For the people who are left behind it is misery in varying degrees. That does not mean it is never the right choice. The crucial word in this is choice. If I publish this novel, perhaps more particularly, if I self-publish, and if it is read by anyone vulnerable, could I be said to be encouraging them to take that route out?

Some friends, pointing out the range and gruesome subject matter available in print, think my scruples are absurd. I could certainly thin the story out to a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ thriller by taking out all the personality and debate, and it would become a harmless guessing game – I think this is what one agent had in mind. But I am curious about real people, how they deal with internal guilt or the random acts of life. My previous books have tended to deal with real issues and that seems to be what interests the kind of readers who enjoy them.

Drafts of the MS have been requested several times, and revised after each rejection. When do I stop submitting to agents and use those spare ISBNs?

Not an amusing post, but I started this with the aim of using the space as a notepad for writing-related thoughts and dilemmas.

age and procrastination

I have noticed an interesting effect of age. I no longer put off doing a major job properly. So in the garden, finding the protective mortar flaking off the lowest level of bricks in one area – which was in the same state four years ago when I was laying paving slabs there – I know that I must deal with it. I have this feeling with all heavy work in the garden; best to do it now, I may not feel like it in a year or so’s time, and best make a good lasting job of it.

This feeling spreads to other areas not necessarily involving physical strength. There is no longer anything to be gained by waiting for a better/quieter/more mature period in my life. While the tendency to cook up long term schemes and projects has not left me, perhaps I am finally learning to live in the moment.

I read that you should only touch a piece of paper once – meaning that when you open a letter you should answer and file it in one go. Looking at the pile of paper in the box that masquerades as my in-tray, I still have a way to go on that front.

Of course it may not be age at all. I have just finished reading an unpublished memoir of a WWII Far Eastern Prisoner of War (Dishonourable Guest, by W G Riley). Riley is a young Signalman who starts POW life in Changi, works on the Thailand-Burma Railroad, gets transported on the doomed Hokofu Maru troopship, and is one of the 23 Britons rescued in the dramatic Cabanatuan Raid at Luzon. I have read many POW memoirs in the course of the last three year’s research. Elements are the same, but each man’s story is unique. You would have to be very obtuse to reach the end of even one of these memoirs and not learn to appreciate the moment.

Riley made, in his son’s words, ‘anguished attempts to get the work published’. His whole life was affected, not only by his experience as a prisoner, but also by his need to get his  story written and known. It was never published as a book, but his son, Steve, had the second version of the text (the first was lost) typeset and printed 1988. This certainly puts the odd rejection by agents or publishers into perspective.

Tearing a manuscript in half

Torn between a new project – redesigning parts of the garden near new drive to be – and further work on Border Line. Had enough discipline to spend a couple of hours, working on dialogue of one character and checking the re-written story of another, then allowed myself to play with the garden. Much measuring in freezing wet conditions, but I now have a passable plan to scale, so ought to feel cheery. I feel pleased with the plan, but slightly unfocussed.

Actually I am frustrated that the weather is too foul to get to work, and I am dissatisfied by my writing today. I also had feedback about Writing to a Ghost from a dear friend. Love the feedback, but the dilemmas remain. Do I try to publish as is, or do I tear it to pieces and create three different kinds of books. I could fulfil the Pen & Sword requirement for a 50 – 70,000 word social history, by using only the relatives letters, and write the story of Phyllis and the dossier and the wives and mothers. Hmm, I can feel the juices flowing a bit as I wonder how to set about this.

Border Line submission

5.3.13 A week ago I emailed an agent in Oxford who requested the whole ms of Border Line in 2011, but turned it down – too slow, too much description of Slovenia, not moved enough by who would live and who would die. I had an email today to say that I could resubmit 3 chapters and synopsis of Border Line. Can’t say I am hopeful, but I am busily messing up the dialogue of one of the characters preparatory to sending it.