My Rocky Road to Publication

Five years after she began writing it, Laura Powell finally got a book deal for her debut novel, The Unforgotten. But weeks before publication, it all went wrong. Here she explains what happened next.

Writing The Unforgotten was the easy bit. I spewed out my first draft in six impatient months during a Faber Academy course. I edited it countless times, went on two writing retreats, edited it some more, got offers of representation from three literary agents, did two more rewrites, another edit. Then came those six glorious words from Norah, my wonderful agent at Curtis Brown: ‘It’s ready to send to publishers.’

It was spring 2014. I waited. And waited. At first there was some interest from a big publishing house, then it fizzled out. This, I’m told, is normal. Summer approached, dead time in the publishing industry. Rejections kept coming; each with kind accompanying notes, but rejections nonetheless. I braced myself that The Unforgotten would sit in my bottom drawer forever. Then, Hesperus, a four-woman band behind a clutch of respected novels, including Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, stepped forward. They offered a modest advance and we toasted the deal with cocktails at The Society Club in Soho.

Norah and I continued the celebrations into the early hours; afterwards I lurched into Burger King in Leicester Square on my own and woke with my face in a cheeseburger. I will always look back fondly on that naïve, thrilling night. Because shortly after, the hard work began – then it all went wrong.

First editing: There was a redraft. An edit. Another edit. A line edit. I was used to editing it by now and loved transforming woolly, flawed passages into something tight with editor, Martha. Next we brainstormed titles (as Hesperus didn’t like my working title, Dear Mister Gallagher) and settled on The Unforgotten, a happy compromise. We discussed blurbs, press release wording, I drew up lists of journalist contacts for publicity, drafted feature ideas to help market it.

14107 The Unforgotten CoverCover design was a sticking point. I hated Hesperus’ traditional idea of a painted scene of a loving couple on a beach. And I imagine them balking when they received my four-page moodboard of covers that better reflected the plot and better fitted, I felt, with the way Hesperus wanted to market the book (as a book club-type read). Weeks later they sent me the cover mock up – I could have cried with joy. It was better than anything I could have imagined.

Yet five months before the scheduled publication, the head of Hesperus resigned suddenly. A week later Norah called to say Martha had also left. I was confused she hadn’t told me herself. I reassured myself that the editing process was over and that Ruby, the wonderfully-friendly publicist, was still there. But days later Ruby emailed gently explaining that she was leaving too – at the end of next week. And the fourth employee had also resigned. No replacements had been found. None, as far as Ruby knew, were being sought.

I have never spoken to the owners of Hesperus but I understand they were businessmen based in Jordan who bought Hesperus as an investment years earlier, and had no background in publishing. I’m told they treated their staff poorly, left writers unpaid. I certainly never saw a penny from Hesperus. Jonas Jonasson was, I read, owed thousands of pounds in royalties. I wasn’t angry; I empathised with the team, was sad for them and for The Unforgotten. But I still thought it would be okay.

That night Norah and I brainstormed how to bring out a book without the backing of a publishing house. This was different to self-publishing. The wholesalers were lined up to sell it to shops (though they hadn’t been paid or lined anything up yet). We had the cover design (though the designer was also unpaid). The stamp of Hesperus was on the cover. We just didn’t have Hesperus.

Norah and I tasks divided between us. There were roughly 80 in total. I wrote them on A4 sheets of paper, stuck them to my bedroom wall and planned to work through methodically. This sounds simpler than it was. Some required copious effort, contacts and weeks of work for an experienced publishing team, never mind someone with a full-time job and no experience. Task number one, for example, was: ‘get a review quote from a novelist to put on the cover of The Unforgotten.’

I handwrote individual letters to 50 novelists asking for a cover quote. I wrote them on scented parchment. This, I thought, was a personal touch. On reflection it smacked of desperation and unprofessionalism. No one replied. Next I tried novelists I could approach directly; I called on my colleague who was a neighbour of Julian Barnes, my friend whose boss had a very distant connection with Sebastian Faulks. Again, no joy.

I had no personal contacts in the book world so I turned to friendly novelists I indirectly knew; Orange Prize winner Joanne Kavenna, whom I had once previously interviewed at her home and found marvelously warm and welcoming; wildly successful novelist Katie Fforde who was a good friend of a colleague’s mum; and Maggie Gee, who I respect enormously, whom Norah knew. All three agreed to read it – fortunately they enjoyed it and kindly offered quotes.

I was thrilled. On to task two. Only 78 to go…

I built my own website (which took weeks); listed local bookshops to approach; tracked down names of managers at my local branches of Waterstones and WHSmith; emailed book bloggers; sought out review editors at newspapers for book reviews; pitched articles to magazine features editors for further publicity; contacted local press; listed festivals to approach; radio stations to contact; awards to submit myself for. I even tracked down the right people at Amazon to send the blurb to. Meanwhile Norah was dealing with stockists, wholesalers, cover designer, contracts that are still all way beyond me, and brilliantly trying to keep it all jolly and merry – something I will always be so grateful for.

I also cold-called the publicity directors at several huge publishing houses to ask for help. They were generous in their sympathy and advice but no one gave me what I really, subconsciously wanted – someone to snap up the book and take away the burden. If it weren’t for Norah who shouldered the weight, I would have crumbled.

But eventually came the conversation neither of us wanted: it was too great a task for us to do alone without the backing, resources, few contacts and without the money needed. After all, who would pay the wholesalers? I agreed. It was April 2015. Publication was scheduled for July. By the end of the week, the lawyers at Curtis Brown had negotiated me out of the Hesperus contract. There was a sense of relief that the burden was taken away; but also crushing disappointment. Most of all I felt stupid for having prematurely celebrated, for thinking my book was ever good enough to be published.

Norah sent it out to publishers again. More rejections poured in. I gave up hope. I went to work. I ripped my to-do list off my bedroom walls. I cried a lot. Weeks passed. Then one Friday, as I was on a tight deadline in work, Norah called. ‘They want it,’ she squealed. ‘I’ve found you a publisher.’ The publishers were Freight Books, a tiny but brilliant and fiercely loyal team based in Glasgow. It was, on reflection, an even better fit than Hesperus.

Publication was delayed eight months – Norah, I could tell, was nervous telling me this but I didn’t care. I’d have waited three years if I had to. Finally I had a publisher. And finally, after even more hard work (another article in itself), The Unforgotten was released in March 2016.

I threw a huge launch party; usually I hate being the centre of attention but after so many obstacles, I (bizarrely) felt I owed it to the book. I would like to say that it hit me then, but I was numb. And I stayed numb, even when the kind reviews came out in The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, when I saw it for the first time on the table in Waterstones (on the table rubbing shoulders with Kazuo Ishirugo, my idol). I’d like to say I was delighted – my grandmothers both squealed and Mum bought all the copies, then made me sign them – but I was still in a blurry haze. Hopefully one of these days, it will sink in.

So what of the Hesperus experience? Someone once said it must have been valuable. ‘You learnt the real mechanics of publishing,’ they said. I should probably agree – but quite honestly I don’t. Anyone who has written a book knows it is emotionally draining and damned hard. To go through that, to be on the brink of birth, only to have it snatched back from you, is crushing. What it did make me is doubly grateful for my super agent, Norah, thankful that Freight believed in it, glad of my brilliantly supportive family… and in need of a long lie down – before I begin my next.

Headshot Laura PowellLaura Powell

Laura is a Features Commissioning Editor at the Daily Telegraph. She completed the six-month Writing a Novel course at the Faber Academy, tutored by Richard Skinner. Her debut novel, The Unforgotten, is out now (Freight Books, £8.99). Buy it here.

Read more about The Unforgotten on www.laurajaynepowell.com and follow Laura on Twitter.

Something Odd

Debut novelist Matthew Blakstad on the joy of NOT fitting in when it comes to publishing, and how not all novels fit a mould — some are meant to break them

‘Nothing odd will do long…’ said Doctor Johnson; and you might think this a point well made, except that he went on to say, ‘…Tristram Shandy did not last.’

Because contrary to the good doctor’s words, Lawrence Sterne’s loopy, fractured masterpiece Tristram Shandy went on to prove itself one of history’s great slow-burners. Over the years, we’ve come to recognise its brilliance, profundity and wit, and it’s now seen as one of the defining works of the novel form. It had intertextual play and formal experiment down pat a couple of centuries before the sixties’ avant-garde came along and ‘invented’ them.

Colours to the mast, I love Tristram Shandy. As a reader, I’ve always gravitated to books that achieve such feats of genre-bending originality, that maintain a playfulness and formal dexterity while saying something profound about the world. And as Tristram Shandy proves, quirky doesn’t always equal niche. Vernon God Little; American Gods; Infinite Jest: some of the great popular successes of contemporary publishing, too, have defied categorisation. Which is why it’s a shame that publishing – like music, movies or any other creative industry – is so concerned with categories. It’s easy to see why: publishing is a market like any other. It’s easier and lower-risk to sell a book if you can position it as a little bit like that other book that did so well last season. In a market like this, you can to a large extent judge a book by its cover, because covers are designed to signal to buyers all the other books this particular book is like.

mblakstad2799

When I started the Writing a Novel course at Faber Academy, I knew all this in principle but hadn’t taken on board what it meant for my own work. I’d started writing my novel, Sockpuppet, just as the course began – though at the time it was titled Lobster-pot. (Don’t ask.) Like most of us when we’re starting out, I had strong but unformed ideas about where the book would go and what it was going to say; but no idea how I was going to get it there. Into this swirling cauldron of ideas I tossed a hodge-podge of ingredients: online chatter, political satire, thriller elements, flashes of 20th century history. Nothing went in for the sake of it. Everything was there for a reason. Everything was meant. But I didn’t at first know how it all would fit together.

Yet gradually a form and a style took shape, and a narrative emerged. It turned out to be a pacy story about a political scandal that breaks on social media, and of the hunt for sic_girl, a blogger who’s dishing the dirt on a government minister. Which hunt is made more difficult by the fact that sic_girl doesn’t exist. She’s a chat-bot, created by a maverick software developer. This story gave me the opportunity to say things I found important and urgent: about how digital culture is shifting our sense of identity, eroding our privacy. The central metaphor of an artificial voice wreaking harm on the real world felt rich and resonant and I was enjoying seeing it play out through the narrative.

In the peer review sessions that are the linchpin of the FA course, nobody at any point asked me, ‘What genre is this?’ or ‘What other books is this like?’ And I wouldn’t have know how to answer if they had. They simply responded to the work: directly, honestly and constructively. Their feedback gave me the confidence to continue and their criticism lent me the clarity to make the novel better.

I only began to think about genre and categories when a Notable Writer of Literary Fiction, who shall remain nameless, spoke to my group in one of our all-day Saturday sessions. I should say to anyone considering this course that these sessions are incredibly valuable. They bring the students face-to-face with published authors, agents and publishers, and they provide real insight into the industry. They’re generally extremely positive and constructive. This fellow, though, I found most helpful because of some things he said that I found purely negative.

Because in his view, writing fell into two camps. There was proper literature – Literary Fiction, with leading caps – which was written and read with serious intent. And there was the other stuff, genre writing, which was not serious, and whose readers were looking for some form of high-fructose escape from their own frontal lobes. Suffice to say, I took the NW of LF up on this assertion. I cited the writers whose work I listed in paragraph four of this blog post. I said the most interesting writing I’d read of late was toying with genre elements, was playful, but was absolutely serious of purpose.

As you might expect, NWoLF was non-plussed by my questions, and perhaps not least by the implied assertion that his own work didn’t feature among the texts I found interesting – which was in fact the case. But I have to thank NW, for helping me realise that my book was a genre work, as well as a literary one – and that this is why I cared so much about this debate. And woe betide anyone who told me that because my book was genre fiction, it wasn’t serious.

“…my book was a genre work, as well as a literary one – and this is why I cared so much about this debate. And woe betide anyone who told me that because my book was genre fiction, it wasn’t serious.”

So I continued to write.

Fast forward to my next encounter with publishing categories. This came when I started sending Sockpuppet out to agents. I got a lot of favourable responses – to the writing, the themes, the characters and pace – but still, I was getting ‘no’s. Where the agents were good enough to give me feedback (and by the way, I would absolutely not assume that an overworked agent with a slush pile they can barely see around, will give you anything but a generic ‘no’ when they reject your MS – why would they?) – when they did feed back, these agents all said roughly the same thing. Something that’s best summed up by this one response:

‘My main difficulty was in seeing where I could position it within publishing’s internal marketplace.’

My book, I was being told, was too genre for a literary market and too literary for a genre market. I started to think I’d written something that simply didn’t fit an available mould.

Yet when, in March this year, I was picked up by Cathryn Summerhayes at the agency WME, she responded immediately and unequivocally to the book. She recognised that it sat a little to one side of established categories but she saw that as a strength, not a weakness. And when in April she successfully sold the book, in a two-book deal to Anne Perry at Hodder & Stoughton, it turned out that Anne, too, was excited by the book precisely because it hovers somewhere between mainstream and genre fiction. Over the last few years, Anne has been building a stable of terrific writers – including Sarah Lotz, Lavie Tidhar and James P Smythe – that she’s successfully promoted to both genre and mainstream audiences. The very things that made my book hard for others to place were the things that made Anne see a good fit with her existing list. Now the edit is all but done, and she’s helped me make Sockpuppet so much better a book, I couldn’t be happier to be with her.

I asked Anne recently what genre she things Sockpuppet falls into. She tells me it’s a ‘crossover thriller with near-future SF elements’. Which works for me; though suffice to say we’re not going to put that in the cover blurb.

So my advice to anyone who’s writing the book they need to write, rather than the book they think will fit an established mould – to anyone who’s worrying about whether their book will find an outlet in a market that’s so focussed on categories and sub-categories of categories – is to quote Faber Academy course director Richard Skinner, and the words he used at the end of every peer review session on the course:

‘Well done. Keep going.’

 

mattblakstadMatthew Blakstad

Matthew’s first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had roles in TV dramas on the BBC and ITV, in films and at theatres including the Royal Court. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications, consulting for a range of clients from the BBC to major banks. Since 2008, he has been in public service, using his communication skills to help people understand and manage their money.

He is a graduate of our Writing A Novel course.

Say hi to him on Twitter, and find out more about him and his books right here.

Advice From A Publisher: A Q&A with Mary-Anne Harrington

Tinder Press publisher and editor Mary-Anne Harrington called into our online classroom to answer questions from our Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 students on when to work with an editor, where to find an agent, and how to avoid the common mistakes many new writers make.

Mary-Anne-HarringtonQuestion: Can you tell us about Tinder Press, Mary-Anne?

Mary-Anne Harrington: Tinder Press is Headline’s literary imprint. We launched in 2013 and publish 8-10 new titles a year, mostly fiction, and it’s a mixture of brand authors, and authors we’re working to establish. They’re books we’d enter for prizes, and target at high street and independent bookshops.

Q: Tell us about the journey to being published: should you get an agent first, or go direct to a publisher?

MH: This is an interesting one. I have to say the usual route is to get an agent first – all the debut authors I’ve published recently came via that route. It’s not the only way – more houses are doing open submissions, some of the indie houses want authors to go direct to them, and there is always the self-publishing option. But the agent route is the most established, and has quite clear benefits.

Q: How should a writer search for an agent?

MH: Think about writers you love and try their agents with a carefully worded letter about why you loved their client’s work, and why you think they might be interested in yours. Then look to see who some of the younger agents are, on Twitter, etc. These agents tend to be very active and are perhaps more likely to be taking on clients than the agents who have their names on the door at the agency, who will have very big and time-consuming clients, and might be more tied up with managing/running the business than a new agent might be.

Q: At what stage should a writer work with an editor?

MH: I know some authors do work with editors before they approach an agent, or even via an agent before their book goes out on submission. That’s really a case-by-case thing. You want your book to be in the best possible shape when an editor first reads it. But editors also quite like editing, so they don’t necessarily want to feel that an author has come to the end of the road with a book when it lands on their desk – they’ll usually want to work with the author to refine and improve it. At least I know I do.

Q: What makes a novel proposal stand out to you and avoid the slush pile?

MH: As an editor, I am almost always submitted complete scripts rather than proposals, but it is helpful if somewhere in the letter there is a two or three line summary of the book that I know will grab readers’ (and indeed booksellers’, and in the first instance, my colleagues’) attention. These two or three lines don’t need to encapsulate the entire reading experience, they’re just a steer, but in an industry like this we have to depend to a certain extent on shorthand, so a pithy and preferably original pitch stands out a mile.

A really strong title also helps. Borough Press are publishing a debut by Faber Academy Writing a Novel alumna, Joanna Cannon, called The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, and I can’t think of a single commissioning editor who wouldn’t have been stopped in their tracks by that title.

Q: When pitching your book, is there a requirement to reference it to previously published material?

MH: I don’t see the requirement to reference the book to previously published material. Yes, that’s shorthand we use as an industry, but actually I find when I’m pitching books to colleagues and booksellers they want to hear what this author/book is offering as a reading experience that they won’t have encountered elsewhere. So it’s the differences that are important, more than the similarities. I hate the ‘Curious Incident meets Love in the Time of Cholera’ style of pitching. It makes no sense!

Q: How do you feel when you read a new writer?

MH: I think there is something so fresh about reading new writers – it’s very special, and discovering a writer who is genuinely special and at an early stage in their career is an incredibly privileged experience. I wonder how Jeanette Winterson’s agent and editor felt when they first read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which has the kind of exuberance I think you only ever get in first fiction.

Q: What are the common mistakes you see from new writers?

MH: The main mistake I think is not being brutal enough about whether a book ‘delivers’ in the sense of having a narrative or offering a reading experience or a hook that can be summarised or hinted at or alluded to in some enticing way. To ignore that is to ignore so much about the way this industry works.

Other than that, I think it’s important that the opening pages are gripping and propel the reader in some way. Too many authors – even experienced authors – can squander their reader’s attention in the early stages of a book, with set up that doesn’t necessarily have to come right at the very beginning. Take us into the story at an engaging and readily intelligible point, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the beginning chronologically speaking. I’ve seen so many novels turned around by breaking up this linear sense of ‘X happens then Y’, it’s definitely something to consider if you’re finding your book feels slow to get going.

Q: Are there any particular themes or genres that there’s a glut of at the moment and you don’t want to see again – and conversely are there any genres and topics that are particularly popular and you’d like to see submissions on?

MH: There is an awful lot of psychological and domestic suspense around – there’s still room for it, but the bar is now very high in terms of quality/originality. Readers love that genre, and I don’t see it going away soon, but you’re going to need to really put your stamp on it quite boldly to make an impact in that area. That said, look at the success of The Girl on the Train, which has such a simple hook.

In terms of genres I’d like to see, for me it’s less a question of genre. I think so much of life and current affairs is bleak I love to read books that dare to be funny about serious or quite dark things. But that’s quite personal!

Q: Are there any stylistic writing features that you feel have been overdone?

MH: I do now find endless description makes me feel impatient rather quickly, no matter how beautifully it’s done. It’s certainly still out there; I have just become more demanding over time. I do hear editors moan about endless first person child narrators, but if these are done well, I still have a soft spot for them.

Q: Are there any recent books that you would have liked to publish yourself?

MH: I would have loved to have published Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir, Boy With A Topknot. It’s a painfully funny book about an incredibly dysfunctional but loving Sikh family in Wolverhampton in the 80s/90s. Also Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which I think is a work of genius.

Q: Tinder Press partnered with The Reading Agency in March 2015 to accept open submissions for un-agented manuscripts. Was this a success and do you think it’s something Tinder will do again?

MH: In all honesty, we’re still reading. I think we anticipated we’d get about 500 entries and we got over 2,000, so we’ve done an initial sift and have given ourselves the rest of the summer to look at everything else in more detail.

I’m very happy that we’ve tried it, and still hopeful that we’ll find a novel or stories we can publish. If that doesn’t end up being the case, I’m hoping there will be one or two authors we could mentor or start to build a relationship with, and that a ‘gem’ might surface a couple of years down the line.

Will we do it again next year? No, I think it’s a resource issue. But if not we will ensure we’re finding other ways of championing new writers and trying to source new writers more proactively than sitting back and waiting to see what agents send our way. I think agents do a really important job, but publishers need to be seen to be more proactive than that.

Q: To qualify those 2000 submissions, how many new titles do you publish a year?

MH: We publish 8-10 new books a year. We’re small by design; each Tinder book has it’s own slot in a particular month so it can be the focus of our marketing and PR activity. We find it really helps, particularly in terms of making a mark with debuts.

Q: Did you get a different type of book to the sort that agents send you, or broadly similar in terms of style, genre, etc?

MH: It was more scattershot than we’d expected. We hadn’t been that explicit in terms of genre, we simply asked for writing that would likely sit well on our list. It was pretty clear to me that not everyone had put much research into that. We got a fair amount of romance/fantasy/thriller, and that’s not what Tinder Press is really about.

But I also think it’s understandable – there are a lot of people writing, and it’s a good opportunity. If we’d seen one that was brilliant, we’d have pinged it to one of our colleagues on the main list, so I could see why the authors thought it was worth a try.

Q: Was there a particular thread that ran throughout the open submission entries that is not commonly found in agented manuscripts?

MH: I wouldn’t say there was a thread. I was amazed by how diverse the submissions were. I also felt that there were a good number of authors who could clearly write well and thoughtfully, but who hadn’t given a great deal of thought to genre and where their book might sit. For instance, there were a number of submissions that were somewhere between literary fiction and YA, which can work, but can also be a headache as booksellers don’t know where to put the books.

But the whole experience reminded me how gloriously unpredictable writers and people are, and I loved that sense of not knowing what to expect when I opened a file, and I imagine that’s what’s going to keep us going over the summer.

Q: How would you define literary fiction?

MH: We could debate this for hours, but for me it’s writing where the author’s style or voice is at least as significant as, or perhaps more significant than, the genre in which the book is written.

I’m very clear that genre fiction is in many cases every bit as finely crafted as literary fiction, and to write a completely page-turning genre manuscript demands huge energy and skill. But in literary fiction I think readers are looking to encounter something unique – the author’s voice, their words on the page, have a level of prominence they don’t necessarily in genre fiction. All of that said, I have to confess that even in literary fiction, I like to see a plot, or at least a very strong narrative arc.

It’s very interesting to look at the way quite literary lists are now publishing some out and out commercial fiction, and how a number of commercial houses – including Headline – are breaking into literary fiction. There’s a lot of redrawing boundaries just now! Sometimes I think it’s more a question of which publishing style fits a book best, whether it would get reviews, and where it would sit in a shop.

I think there’s a lot to be said for mixing things up a bit – if a book stands out on your list, everyone you talk to will remember it.

 

Mary-Anne Harrington heads up literary imprint Tinder PressThe next iteration of our online course Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 starts on September 23.

This article was originally posted on the website of the Professional Writing Academy, our online partners.

The Weekend Read: How To Find A Literary Agent

Literary agent Charlie Campbell popped into our online classroom to answer questions from our Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 students about when and how to approach an agent. The conversation was so useful, we thought we’d share it here with you.

Charlie-Campbell-450x677Q: What are the top three things you look for in a manuscript, Charlie?

Charlie Campbell: What I’m looking for is quality of writing first and foremost. Then if it’s good enough, I will wonder about the market for it. A really well written history of snails might be hard to sell to a publisher – but you never know. And lastly, it’s very important that the writer and the agent get on well because it is usually a pretty close relationship. But the writing is what really matters.

Q: Could you elaborate on what you mean by well written? Are you talking about voice, structure, plot, strength of characters or all of these?

CC: We all know good writing when it’s there in front of us. Structure and plot are all things that can be worked on.

Q: Is it true that a novel needs to be finished, polished and oven-ready before we approach an agent?

CC: Other agents feel differently, but I don’t think a novel has to be finished before you approach an agent. But what you do send has to be as good as it can be. So polished yes.

Q: Are the cut-throat stories accurate – that one spelling or grammar error in the first line or para of your novel submission and you’re out?

CC: That’s a good question. I do think that a typo on the first page does leave a bad impression. You’d be unfortunate if the agent stopped reading there and then. But we are usually looking for a reason to say no. And a few sentences early on that don’t really make sense might be a reason to move onto the next manuscript. With non-fiction I might give the author more leeway. If someone has a unique experience, you might find an editor to help them tell it.

Q: So if the theme grabs you but the writing needs some editing and you like the story as it unfolds would you read beyond page 3?

CC: With a novel, I would look past what I thought were flaws, if I really liked the rest of it. Agents don’t expect manuscripts to be perfect and will be looking for potential. But publishers will tend to favour the projects that are already nearly there.

Q: Lots of Faber Academy writers are based outside the UK, so would you say they would be best represented by agencies in the UK?

CC: I don’t think you need to be represented by someone in the same country. I represent an author who lives in Berlin, another who lives in Cyprus, and one who is in Africa much of the time.

But if a writer is based in the US, I would wonder why they would be submitting to me – unless the book was very UK focused. I would assume that they’d struggled to get representation there and were now trying UK agents. Perhaps that’s uncharitable.

Q: Is it best to try and meet an agent face to face?

CC: Meetings are much more constructive once someone is already interested in your work. If I’m submitting to a publisher, for example, I don’t expect to organise a meeting between an editor and the author, unless the editor has already expressed strong interest in the manuscript.

Q: Charlie, you said you represent fiction and non-fiction writers. Is it better as an unpublished author to pitch a novel and mention, say, a children’s book and short stories too? Or should we stick to one form at first?

CC: I think that it is best to pitch one thing at a time. Otherwise you might lose focus.

Q:  Charlie, what are you looking for in a covering letter?

CC: I think covering letters should be short and to the point. Add anything that you think might be interesting to an agent or publisher: why you decided to write the book, if there was a particularly interesting story behind it. The marketing departments of publishers will like that. Marketing is more and more important in publishing – working out how to get the book to a reader/market. So if you can think of angles that would appeal, then great. But that is our job – to help you with that aspect. One last thing: I would never criticise another writer in a covering letter. A surprising amount of people do.

Q: Should the writer compare their work to an established writer – saying ‘it’s a bit like’?

CC: Yes, I think that’s helpful. Think of Amazon recommendations: people who bought this might like this. That sort of thing. It’s not totally scientific yet. But it does help readers.

Q: What do you think about authors submitting to several agents at once?

CC: It’s fine. Perfectly normal. But if an agent does like your book it’s best not to keep them waiting too much, if you can help it. But equally it’s a big decision to make.

Q: If an agency asks to see the first three chapters of a novel on their web submission outline, is it being too cheeky to send through the entire manuscript?

CC: You can send through the whole manuscript but I think it’s best to stick to the first three chapters, if that is what was requested. Also, these chapters should always be the first three. Not 7, 23, and then 48, even if they are the best ones. Because no one reads like that. Except BS Johnson fans.

We have a form that writers have to fill in to submit to us, so that does ensure a better quality of submission, in my view. We don’t get the cut and paste ones, where writers try 100s of agents in one go. It’s much better to really focus on a few very targeted submissions – to agents who represent books you have liked, that sort of thing. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a good place to start looking for suitable agents for your novel.

Q: When you say you should target not spam agents, what would be targeting and what spamming? If I were to send 10 submissions to different agents is that spamming?

CC: Ten is fine, as long as they’re not all at the same agency. It’s worth taking your time. Try sending out one round and see if you get any helpful feedback. Sadly agents don’t always have time to offer constructive feedback. We usually spend that amount of thought on the books we are hoping to handle. But if more than one agent says something about your book, then it’s worth listening to. Maybe.

Q: What would be the ways of telling that I have approached a bad agent? Are there signs like them asking for a fee?

CC: No agent should charge a fee for reading your book. As for bad agents – there are busy agents, who might seem too occupied with their existing clients, but the right one should make time for your book. You have to be patient sometimes.

Q: Given that you are building a relationship with an agent and they are taking time to respond, does one send them a reminder and if so after what period of time?

CC: I would avoid chasing an agent too quickly. We’ve all had calls on the day of submission, which never make you want to work with that person. Obviously it would be nice if we all acknowledged receipt, but few agents have time. I think it’s nice to chase people with (good) news if you possibly can.

Q: What is a good timeframe in which to chase? Six weeks? Three months?

CC: I think it’s ok to chase after 4–6 weeks. But silence usually means someone hasn’t read something – rather than that they hated it and didn’t tell you.

Q: What are your pet hates in submissions?

CC: Pet hates: people who describe their novels as fictional. It’s sweet when writers talk about their mothers having liked their book. (I’m not totally sure mine liked the one I wrote….) But it isn’t that helpful for an agent.

Q: Q: Do you have a particular genre or area of interest you’re looking for?

CC: I’d like more thriller writers. Good lively literary fiction is something I enjoy. Accessible general non-fiction, too. But most agents will look at most things. We don’t tend to specialise as much as editors do.

Q: Finally, can you tell us a bit about the market? How is literary fiction doing compared to other genres and what’s hot right now?

CC: I would say that literary fiction is doing pretty well, with the successes of Nathan Filer, The Miniaturist, and so on. Trends are hard to spot. Obviously. There’s a lot of luck involved. No one saw 50 Shades of Grey coming. If a trend has passed but I liked the writing, I would try to think of another way of pitching the book. To be honest, trend following isn’t really what I do. And I think there are lots of people like me in the industry.

 

Charlie Campbell has been a literary agent for over a decade, and now heads up literary agency Kingsford Campbell

Writing A Novel: The First 15,000, our online novel-writing course, starts again in June. If that’s too soon, you can also sign up now for September.

This article was originally posted on the website of the Professional Writing Academy, our online course partners. 

Sir Gawain and the Study of Plot

During 1987–88, I was a TEFL teacher in a small village in northern Italy called Magenta. The town was so-named after the decisive battle fought there in 1859 and won by a French-Sardinian army led by Napoleon III against the Austrians. According to local legend, so many lost their lives that day and so much blood ran in the streets that they named the colour of so much blood after the town. When you exit Magenta railway station, the first thing you still see is a villa peppered with bullet holes.

The school I taught in was owned by local priests and one of them would arrive every Friday evening and take away a bag of cash with him. The classes were organised and taught by myself and one other teacher, Chris, and we were left pretty much to our own devices. I taught evening classes twice a week as well as some one-to-one lessons with local businessmen who had to learn English for their jobs. These hour-long one-to-one sessions were tortuous as the businessmen were often there against their will and were always dog-tired after a day at work. I remember one very overweight man falling asleep in front of me every time we tackled the present perfect.

One day, however, in walked a student with a strange request. His name was Bruno and he was 16 years old. He said that, at his local gymnasium, they were going to read the 14th-century Middle-English alliterative romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and he wanted someone at our school to help him tackle the text. I had, and still have, no idea why an Italian secondary school would put their 16-year old pupils through such an ordeal, but I was intrigued and so agreed. From then on, we met at the school once a week for three months or so, each time going through line-by-line a section of the text I had photocopied for him the week before. I was as much a newcomer to the text as Bruno and learned just as much as him about the intricacies of Middle-English verse—the way the alliterations come in threes, the way the stresses produce the four-beat pulse of each line, the turning of the shorter ‘bob and wheel’ sections. It was one of the most unusual and rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a test of courage and a tale of the limitations of personal integrity. The story opens with a giant Green Knight arriving on horseback at Camelot and issuing a challenge—any of King Arthur’s knights may cut off his head with a single blow of an axe on the condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in one year’s time. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew and famous as the most noble of his knights, immediately stands up and accepts the challenge. He makes his strike and cuts off the Green Knight’s head, but the Green Knight merely picks it up and rides off, telling Gawain that he must seek him out and fulfil his part of the bargain. The text follows Gawain as he rides out the following winter to find the Green Knight and face certain death.

gawain

Not just a story of chivalry under duress, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also a nature poem, a ghost story, a thriller, a romance, an adventure story, a 2,500-line tongue twister, a myth and a morality tale. The imagery is unforgettable. As Gawain rides along the borderlands of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire, we see the turning of the seasons; the hills, vales and forests gripped in winter’s clutches. Gawain sleeps in his armour, taking shelter under waterfalls, and the pages of the poem seem tinged with frost.

Four years later, I was doing an English degree at Sussex and came across Gawain again, this time in a course on Semiotics. The tutor for that course, Jacqueline Rose, was looking at Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in light of an essay entitled “Morphology of the Folktale”, written in the 1920s by Russian theorist Vladimir Propp. The essay is still one of the most fascinating and convincing demonstrations of the underlying homogenous nature of all plots. For his essay, Propp looked at more than a hundred folktales and drew up a chart, or ‘morphology’, of their basic elements. He first of all noted that there were only seven basic character roles: Hero, Villain, Donor/Provider, Dispatcher, Helper, Princess and False hero. He then made a list of the thirty-one basic ‘functions’, as he called them. Not all the folktales included every single function, but the overall shape of all the tales remained the same. The functions are:

  1. A member of the family leaves home or is absent.
  2. A restriction of some kind is placed on the hero.
  3. The hero violates that restriction.
  4. The villain tries to find the hero.
  5. The villain secures information about the hero.
  6. The villain tries to trick the hero into trusting him.
  7. The hero falls for it.
  8. The villain hurts the hero’s family or one of the family desperately lacks something.
  9. This injury or lack comes to light and the hero must act.
  10. The hero decides upon a course of action against the villain.
  11. The hero leaves home.
  12. The hero is tested in some way and, as a result, receives a magical agent or helper.
  13. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
  14. The hero uses the magical agent or the helper aids him.
  15. The hero is led to what he is looking for.
  16. The hero fights the villain.
  17. The hero is wounded or marked in some way.
  18. The villain is defeated.
  19. The injury or lack [in #8] is put right.
  20. The hero returns.
  21. The hero is pursued.
  22. The hero is saved from this pursuit [Propp notes that many of the folktales ended here].
  23. The hero returns home, unrecognised.
  24. A false hero makes false claims.
  25. A difficult task is set for the hero.
  26. The task is accomplished.
  27. The hero is recognised.
  28. The false hero or villain is exposed.
  29. The hero is transformed in some way.
  30. The villain is punished.
  31. The hero is married and/or crowned.

What’s remarkable about Propp’s morphology is how well it can be applied to all kinds of story, from any period, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here is a synopsis of its plot in ‘Proppian’ terms:

On New Year’s Day in Camelot, King Arthur’s court is feasting and exchanging gifts. A large Green Knight armed with an axe enters the hall and proposes a game. He asks for someone in the court to strike him once with his axe, on condition that the Green Knight will return the blow one year and one day later (4). Sir Gawain, the youngest of Arthur’s knights and nephew to the king, accepts the challenge (5) (6) (7). He severs the giant’s head in one stroke, expecting him to die. The Green Knight, however, picks up his own head, reminds Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day (New Year’s Day the next year) and rides away (8) (9) (10).

As the date approaches, Sir Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel and complete his bargain with the Green Knight (11). His long journey leads him to a beautiful castle where he meets Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife (12); both are pleased to have such a renowned guest. Gawain tells them of his New Year’s appointment at the Green Chapel and says that he must continue his search as he only has a few days remaining. Bertilak laughs and explains that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and proposes that Gawain stay at the castle (13).

Before going hunting the next day, Bertilak proposes a bargain to Gawain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches, on condition that Gawain give him whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. After Bertilak leaves, the lady of the castle, Lady Bertilak, visits Gawain’s bedroom to seduce him. Despite her best efforts, however, he yields nothing but a single kiss. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, his guest responds by returning the lady’s kiss to Bertilak, without divulging its source. The next day, the lady comes again, Gawain dodges her advances, and there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, and Gawain accepts from her a green silk girdle, which the lady promises will keep him from all physical harm. They exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses. Gawain keeps the girdle, however (14).

The next day, Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel with the girdle. He finds the Green Knight at the chapel sharpening an axe (15), and, as arranged, bends over to receive his blow (16). The Green Knight swings to behead Gawain, but holds back twice, only striking softly on the third swing, causing a small nick on his neck (17). The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert (18), and explains that the entire game was arranged by Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s enemy. Gawain is at first ashamed and upset, but the two men part on cordial terms (19) and Gawain returns to Camelot (20), wearing the girdle in shame as a token of his failure to keep his promise with Bertilak (21). Arthur decrees that all his knights should henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain’s adventure (22).

Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone should slavishly follow Propp’s morphology, but it is a brilliant, illuminating way to see how a plot works in practice, from the inside-out, as it were. Reading Propp’s morphology in tandem with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight showed how well its author had laid the traps and sprung the surprises. The beauty of the tale is that, while the story initially seems to be about one thing—the beheading game—it turns out actually to be about something else entirely—temptation.

Ultimately, every story has its own personality. Plot may be the genetic code of a text, but, just as human beings who share the same DNA are obviously and wildly different from each other, so books that show their common lineage are also peculiarly and stubbornly individual. Thank goodness for that! There are very many stories that follow, more or less, the same plot, but it is the writer’s task to create stories, not copy plots. Stories these days might not be original, but they can still be authentic.

Richard Skinner

vademecumRichard Skinner is an author, poet and Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. This essay will appear in his forthcoming collection Vade Mecum: Essays, Reviews & Interviews to be published early this summer by Zero Books

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was also one of the inspirations behind Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

In Defence of Small Agencies

Not so long ago, agent Jonny Geller wrote a piece about the state of the London literary agency scene today, and why a bigger agency is a better option for authors. Fellow agent Piers Blofeld was quick to dispute these claims. Here, Becky Thomas explains why she feels smaller agencies have just as much to offer.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about there being too many smaller agencies, and about how the authors at those smaller agencies are there under a misguided sense of loyalty or because their ego is better flattered as a big fish in a small pond. Authors should, it’s said, be at agencies where they can get a ‘360 degree representation’, farming out their content to the Film and TV Department, the Rights Department, the Theatre Department, the Voiceover Department and so on…and to be packaged neatly with other clients in other departments of that giant agency.

Having worked at both ends of the spectrum, I made a conscious decision to move to a smaller agency where I truly believe I can fulfil my obligations to my authors.

Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with loyalty. A trusting, honest and close relationship between author and agent can only lead to good things. An author whose event you turn up to or whose delivery date you extended when they were having a particularly hard time is someone who will reward you with longevity, love and a better platform – a platform of confidence – to work from in return. Authors should have the relationship with their agent, not their agency. My authors know that I am the one arguing over everything: from their high discount clauses, to whether their signature advance has hit our bank account on the day the publisher said, to their credit on their film adaptation – because those things directly affect both of us. Who is a better advocate for the work when placed in front of foreign editors or a theatre director or a festival booker than the first person to have read it, the person who has worked through draft after draft with the author and who knows what it means to them, who understands the author’s personal preferences?

Smaller agencies are nimble and well connected. We are out there putting together co-agent deals with other agencies who have no interest or expertise in our field or territory and vice versa and therefore we are not diluting our mutual strengths but combining them. We can broker unusual deals because we don’t have a set model of working, dictated to from on high. And we are on the phone or there in person to talk to our clients at any time. We read and edit their work because our lists are selective and therefore we have time to. Small agencies have some of the greatest authors and those great authors shouldn’t be shamed into wanting to be looked after by their chosen agent, their expert agent, at every step of the way.

beckythomasBecky Thomas

Becky Thomas is a literary agent at Fox Mason. Her client list includes Kate Tempest, Tyler Keevil and Isobel Harrop. Visit Fox Mason’s website here, or say hi to her on Twitter

Life and Writing

Academy tutor Julia Blackburn on memoir and the craft of writing a life

In the late 1950s,  the jazz singer Billie Holiday was asked in a radio interview what the blues meant to her.  ‘There are two kinds of blues,’ she says, her voice as crackly as a scratched record, ‘happy blues and sad blues. I don’t ever sing the same song twice and I don’t ever sing the same tempo; one night it’s a little bit slower, next night it’s a little bit faster, depending how I feel. One thing I do say, the blues, they’re part of my life.’

I  have published twelve books, with two more coming out this April. These days I sometimes wonder how much faster or slower, happier or sadder, each one  would have been, if I had  chosen to write it at another stage in my life. I know for sure that in every case the narrative voice would have  different, because of a change in mood or circumstance.

When I started writing I kept trying to make fiction, but its wide and un-signposted landscape made me nervous and I quickly lost my  way. So I stepped into research and the more solid  structure it seemed to offer.  I am not and never have been an historian or a specialist in any particular field, but I am fascinated by the way that one can get closer to an understanding of a  total stranger, just by talking to others, by reading letters, diaries, or written accounts and by entering what Henry James called the visitable past; the places they were familiar with and that still hold echoes of what once was. I remember looking at a milling crowd of dung beetles next to an old carob tree and close to the palace where Goya  stayed with the Duchess of Alba, and  the sudden pleasure of realizing that he must have also seen just such insects, busily being themselves.

My work has been a series of studies of people whose predicaments interested me: Napoleon stripped of his empire; Goya waking up to find himself deaf; a woman living on her own in the  Australian desert; Billie Holiday hemmed in by racism and prejudice. Looking back, I realise that every book I have done, even the two novels, has been part of the process of my own slightly haphazard meditations on life and death, time and coincidence.

jblackburn3ofusI had thought that after completing a  memoir about my very bohemian family background: The Three of Us ( 2008), I would perhaps be ready to cut loose from the subjective voice that has always steered me, but I haven’t done that and now I suppose  I never will.

I have just completed a long poem Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings and a book called THREADS , the delicate life of John Craske. He was a Norfolk fisherman who became too ill to go to sea and so he began to make paintings and embroideries of the sea, in order to keep close to everything he missed so much. The writing  was a  challenge, because Craske, who died in 1943, hardly spoke when he was conscious and was often for months on end in what was called a stuporous state. On top of that, his work (as well as his personal papers) was not taken very seriously and much of it has been casually mislaid. The book evolved around my search for anyone who could tell me something about him and the sort of world he grew up in, the North Sea that he fished in; alongside all sorts of little stories and incidents which seemed to relate to his predicament.jblackburnthreads

When I was about halfway through, I became aware of a strange parallel in my life and the life of my subject. Just like John Craske’s wife, I was looking after my husband, an artist who kept working with dedication and devotion, but who was becoming increasingly frail. And then, in October 2012 my husband died suddenly and very  gently, while Craske was still alive, at least in my account of him. After four very surreal months I managed to return to the writing and the book became the companion that helped to pull me through my grief: my own story and the story of a man who died before I was born, moving forward, hand in hand.

 Julia Blackburn

jblackburnstarlingsJulia Blackburn has written six books of non-fiction, a family memoir, The Three of Us, which won the 2009 J.R. Ackerley Award, and two novels, The Book of Colour and The Leper’s Companions, both of which were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Suffolk and Italy, and is the tutor on our Memoir and Life Writing course, which is now open for applications.

The Doubtful Novelist

S1152_Imageo. A new year dawns, and with it, a million resolutions. Write more. Read more. Do better at being ‘out there’. It’s a time of hope and aspiration, and a time, for a group of people to which I belong, of abject terror.

A year in which you have a book published is undoubtedly one of the most exciting there can be. For me, it’s my second: a novel, Lay Me Down, published by Vintage in February. I have loved and loathed this book during the three years it’s taken to bring it to print; it’s taken me to dark places and to extremely happy ones, through the writing, the re-writing and the major, knock-it-down-and-start-again re-writing. I was unspeakably thrilled when Vintage offered a contract for it back at the end of 2013. And now we have the cover and the proofs and, just this week, the finished copies. It’ll soon be out there in the world, this thing I did.

Which is, frankly, terrifying. It’s wonderful, of course, but it’s also scary. There’s the joy and the pride and the disbelief that swell through you when you first hold a copy of the novel. And then there are the doubts and the questions and the nagging worry that nobody is going to like this except me.

20130116_133223(2)Self-doubt is natural, especially in a career as isolated and introspective as writing. For so many stages of the process, it’s just you and the words, and it’s all too easy for those little inner voices to start chipping away at your confidence. You start to second-guess everything; you walk – and trip over – the oh-so-fine line between good self-editing and unhelpful self-bullying on a daily basis.

This time of year is one of the worst for The Doubts, with social media churning out list upon list of books to look out for in 2015. Author Claire King rightly explains here how unnecessarily stressful it can be – especially for a debut novelist – to scan those and not find your book listed. And, let’s be honest – there’s always some handy stick-shaped internet fodder you can find to beat your poor old ego with. The six-figure advances you read about when you’re still halfway through a manuscript or a handful of rejections down. The two-books-a-year author who’s also writing films and plays and working full-time. Always something or someone we can hold up and say I’m not as good as that. We can’t help ourselves; we let The Doubts in.

This time round, I’ve promised myself I won’t get hung up on the reviews or the Goodreads and Amazon ratings. I’ve warned myself not to take it personally if someone doesn’t like the book; that though the book feels like a part of me, it is, to the rest of the world, a product.

It doesn’t work. The book is a part of me, a part which has been difficult and wonderful to wrangle into words on the page. I’m scared to share it but I’m also excited too – I can’t wait for the characters with whom I’ve spent the last three years to make their first steps into someone else’s imagination.  I’m proud of it, and writing it has been a joy, a torment and a learning curve.

And I’ve realised that last part is the most important. I remind myself that the review for my first book which meant most to me was a two star one. In it, the reviewer said that it ‘had potential’ but that in the end nothing was ‘particularly engaging’. They were very careful to clear up any confusion that they might be suggesting I was on drugs, and they ended with this line: ‘I look forward to her next book and hope that she stretches herself more’.

I hope that I have, too. And I’m going to keep on trying, with the next book and the next, pushing The Doubts into the dusty little corner where they belong. Because, really, the only thing we have any control over is whether we believe our work is the best it can be. I do feel that way about Lay Me Down, and I’m going to spend 2015 doing my utmost to make it true of Book 3 as well.

 

 Nicci Cloke

Lay Me Down
Nicci Cloke is an author, procrastinator and literary salon organiser. She’s also Sales and Marketing Assistant at Faber Academy. Say hi to her on Twitter.

Lay Me Down is published on February 19th. 

Quit Job, Write Novel

Author Tom Savage on why taking a year out from his career gave his writing the kick-start it needed

1126_ImageSitting at a red light outside Charleston, South Carolina, I listened to Desert Island Discs – my weekly dose of Britishness. I was driving back to Beaufort (where they filmed Forrest Gump), which had been my home for the last three years. I’d taken a job teaching English and Creative Writing at a small private school, but really I’d moved to Beaufort to write. I’d envisaged sitting down on a porch, pen in hand, surrounded by palmetto trees and sipping Bourbon while the ocean breeze whispered story ideas to me.

This hadn’t happened, not even once.

On my BBC podcast, Kazuo Ishiguro was talking about taking an MA in creative writing, and how it perfectly replicated the time and space a writer needed, and as I pulled away from the light, I made a decision. I would quit my job, return to London and write full time. I would make my own MA and the final project would be a novel.

By fortunate coincidence, when I called my parents to tell them, their tenant had just informed them that she was moving out. I had a place to live, rent free for twelve months, as long as I covered all the bills. I had about six thousand dollars saved, and I sold my car and all my possessions. I figured that would get me through till Christmas.

Having decided to make such a huge change, I needed a simple outline for the year. One year, one finished novel.

My goal might have been simple but it began with a stuttering start, because I didn’t know how or where or what to write. This was a problem which led to me allowing myself to spend the first month of my year off catching up with friends and telling lots of people I was writing when I wasn’t.

I quickly realized I couldn’t write at home. When I tried, I suddenly had the world’s cleanest, most organised house. I would do anything but write. A low point was using baking soda and a toothbrush to clean in-between the bathroom tiles. They gleamed, but the pages remained empty.

One day, despite never having been there before, I thought ‘I should go and write at the British Library.’ I don’t know why. I ended up having lunch with a pretty girl, but that’s another story; the love affair with real legs was my one with the library. I began to leave the house in the morning with purpose. I commuted with people and it made me feel productive. I’d found my place to write.

Almost every day for the next nine months, I went to the library. I didn’t set a word limit; I just showed up and stayed as long as I could. All that mattered was showing up.

Taking a morning tea break, lunch and afternoon coffee alone could be hard. Writing, it turned out, was a lonely business. If I didn’t play football in the evening or meet friends for drinks, sometimes the only person I spoke to was the person behind the till in the cafeteria – the guy who made the coffee being a fairly monosyllabic chap.

In fact, the lack of interaction on the whole was difficult to get used to. As a teacher, I received lots of feedback – whether it was a pat on the back, a mention in a staff meeting, or just someone telling me how I could do something better. With writing, there was none of that. I’d hear nothing for eight weeks then get, for the most part, a generic e-mail saying ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

There were other difficult moments. I was having dinner with some friends one evening and one made a comment about me being ‘a great teacher.’ There was no hiding the fact that what he really meant was that I was wasting my time and should get a decent job/career like everyone else at the table.

But there was also plenty of good points. I was overwhelmed with love and support – anytime a friend told me that they respected what I did, it gave me the most uplifting feeling. So many people would say ‘I wish I could do that.’ The truth is they could have. It wasn’t self-satisfaction that I felt, knowing that I was doing something that others would like to do. But I did feel a sense of accomplishment, having jumped off the cliff while others stood and rocked back and forth trying to build up the momentum. I woke up nearly every day with a sense of purpose and freedom. I definitely felt like the Master of my fate and the Captain of my soul. Certainly bloodied but definitely unbowed.

tscoverI finished my year, and I finished my book. After receiving two offers from small indie publishing houses, I decided to go it alone and self-publish.

Now that my year is over, I’m back working full-time, teaching English. I’m back to writing during the evenings and weekends, as well as marketing my novel, and I’ve found it a struggle. However, I now know I can write and, more importantly, finish a novel. Going to evening events and weekend conferences is draining, but the difference is that now I show up with a completed novel, rather than an idea for one.

I took away from the experience that I love to write. I learnt what it means to live the life of a writer, and that I can do it. The fact that I am not currently making a living writing is fine; 90% of published authors don’t make money from writing alone. I have held my novel in my hands and that’s an amazing experience. I wanted to try and be a producer rather than a consumer and I achieved that.

I don’t regret my year out at all.

Tom Savage is the author of Tracks in the Smoke. You can find him writing here, and tweeting here.

The Poet, the Pug and the Train Tracks

By Joey Connolly

1159_ImageIt’s hard to be a straight male poet. Your poetry is more likely to be published in magazines, in anthologies and in single-author collections. If you do get published, you’re more likely to have attention paid to your writing. You’re more likely to rise into senior teaching positions and to edit major poetry publications. You don’t, like tennis players, get paid more for winning the major prizes, but you are much more likely to win them in the first place. Your witty, aphoristic sayings about poetry are more likely to be quoted by young men like me, to impress women at parties. You work in an artistic field structured and interpreted by theory written overwhelmingly by men like you. The form itself has a history of – in fact, is inseparable in the minds of thousands of people from – the kind of ‘love’ poem which lovingly dwells on each element of a woman’s body, separately and distinctly. Your eyes are like . . ., you know the drill.

‘That sounds easy,’ I hear you say, ‘I could do that.’ (I assume you’re a straight man, reader, as have my predecessors over the ages). Well, yes, but there’s one last thing about being a straight male poet I’ve yet to mention. It’s hard to be an SMP in the same way as it’s hard to be a policeman; with the power of privilege (over the law, over the canon) comes responsibility. It’s unpleasant to feel immoral (and to be immoral), and it’s very very easy as an SMP to take part in – either actively or passively – a system of writing and reading which implicates your poetry in the oppression of other, less privileged, people. Exclusivity, objectification, plain old sexism – the pitfalls, for the SMP, are everywhere.

Convincing arguments about the spectrum-based (‘spectral’?) nature of gender and sexuality aside, I’m a straight male poet. It’s important to me that my poetry is tied to the world, and rooted in my own experience. But if my experience frequently revolves around my romantic relationships with women, then that’s what I have to write about. Right? Besides, it seems outrageous that honestly representing my own experience could be somehow unethical or dismissive. I don’t actively seek to say mean things about women in my poems, after all: at the worst I’m neutral, surely.

And yet. The neutrality of inaction in the face of a child asleep on a train-track, most would agree, is tantamount to murder (I know, I know, that’s far too heavy an analogy. How about ‘the neutrality of inaction in the face of a pug choking on a shoelace’?). The point is: apparent ‘neutrality’ is not always enough. The problem might even be that what we think of as a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ style of writing actually describes the position from which a certain person – we might say a straight, white, middle-class, middle-aged English man – tends to write.

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A poem isn’t as complicated as a person. A poem is complicated, but human beings are complicated. Even a knee is complicated. A neuron is complicated, and a human brain has a hundred billion of them. I could spend a hundred years describing how complicated is thine eye, my lady, but my point is that a poem about a person will always, automatically and intrinsically, be reductive of that person. Especially if it turns out (and this gives me a terrible headache about my own poems) that a love-interest described in a piece of writing turns out to be playing a bit-part in a poem which is actually about me, the straight male narrator of my straight male poem.

Is poetry automatically reductive, then? Do we write off the thousands of years of poetry dominated by SMPs as sexist and outdated? Well, it’d save me from feeling guilty about the mighty unread Collected Byron on my bedside table, but on balance – no, let’s not do that. One solution is to shift responsibility from the writer on to the reader: if we make sure the poetry audience isn’t passively absorbing the messages of the poetry, then we don’t need to worry too much about what those messages are. In fact, I’d argue that poetry almost by definition requires that kind of active, questioning response from its readers. So that’s nice.

But that old shifting-of-responsibility away from men is too familiar a trick, isn’t it, to make us entirely comfortable. What else? Well, I’d say now is a great time to start answering that question. There are a number of male poets writing today – Don Paterson and Frederick Seidel perhaps pre-eminently among them – who make this problem essentially a part of their poetry. A love poem by an SMP doesn’t have to be a picture of a woman (picking flowers, daintily knitting a Babygro etc.) – it can be a picture of a man looking at a woman, and have something to say about that man’s way of looking, too. One of the great things about poetry is its ability to point at so many things at once, to always be about the things it uses. With some attention, it’s possible to read a lot of love poetry in this way – of discussing, measuring and critiquing the desire it depicts. And, with a little work, a little consideration (and by using Word’s ‘find and replace’ function to remove all instances of ‘her eyes’ from our manuscripts) we SMPs can make our agonising slog through life a little easier.

Joey Connolly

Joey Connolly edits Kaffeeklatsch, a journal of poetry and criticism. A collection of his own poetry is forthcoming from Carcanet in 2016.