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.

Writing – the swinging pendulum

I have been feeling flattered that a friend across the country asked me to come and be quizzed by her reading group about my book, Unseen Unsung. This was published in 2008, so last week I started re-reading it. I was quite shaken by some aspects of the prose; too dense in parts, too many scene changes. I think if I hadn’t written it myself, I might have had trouble following the plot. I became puzzled, people I don’t know (as well as family and friends) have told me how much they enjoyed this story. Apart from one moment, when I forgot I had written it and the story brought me close to tears, I felt that this was not a book I would recommend to friends.

One outcome of this re-reading was an increased confidence in my new book, Border Line, endlessly revised and now going out to agents. Then, last night, I received an email from another writer – an old and trusted friend. She had been reading my most recent draft and she felt that the majority of my revisions were a disappointment and that I had thrown out what was best and unique about my writing.

Tomorrow night I will travel across the country to find out what a group of strangers made of Unseen Unsung. On Monday I will look at Border Line again and see if I can distil and replace the missing spirit.

Meanwhile Autumn is quietly going about its inevitable and beautiful business.

Acer palmatum Sengukako

Acer palmatum Sango-kaku

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.