Friday, 25 March 2011


In the last two weeks, I've twice celebrated the power of inspirational writing. First, I dropped a line to the manager of Underfall Yard in Bristol, to thank them for the impetus behind my short story, A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton, which won the Sense Creative Award 2010. I'd just heard that the boat I saw being built at the yard, the boat that stars in my story, had been launched. She goes by the name, Edith Gray. The yard manager said how good it was to know that their work inspired people, and to tell me that Edith Gray is named after his aunt, in her 90s, who is going blind. My story is about a deafblind boy. Blindness is also a theme in my novel. How strange that things worked out the way they did, and how apt.

Not so long ago, I was lucky enough to spend a morning in a favourite coffee shop in Bristol, interviewing novelist and short story author, Helen Dunmore. Part of this interview is now up at Fringe magazine, where Helen talks about her latest novel, The Betrayal, about historical fiction vs faction, and the need for vigilance in our dealings with the state. Helen's writing has long inspired me, and it was such a thrill to be able to ask her about her books and stories.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Writers for the Red Cross

March is Red Cross Month, and I was very happy to be asked to participate in Writers for the Red Cross, to raise funds and awareness for aid initiatives around the world. It's particularly poignant and apt that I was able to participate in help for Japan at this terrible time, given my family history which was the impetus for this blog post, What the Red Cross means to me. Please check out the rest of the site for details of auctions, events and fund-raising projects to support the important work of the Red Cross.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Four times I didn't get an agent & one time I did

I promised I'd blog about the road between here, and here, answering specific questions along the way such as Q. How did I choose which agents to approach? Q. What was my approach pattern? Q. How long did it take the agent to get in touch after I submitted the novel? Q. Any magic tips? So, here goes.

First Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's getting close to Christmas 2006. I've just finished a crime novel. It's my first attempt at the genre. Full of the novice's confidence (I don't know any better, yet), I decide to pitch to the biggest crime agent in the UK. I follow the submission guidelines to the letter, send the first three chapters by email, and pretty quickly get an email back, from the agency's editor. The action of the story doesn't start quickly enough, I'm told. Thanks, but no thanks. That novice's confidence hasn't quite left my system, so I pick up the phone and call the editor, and we chat and I persuade her to give the full manuscript a go.

Lesson #1: Don't always take No for an answer. If I'd put a red line through this agency at this stage, and moved on to my second choice, I might still be looking for an agent today. However, this goes hand in glove with:

Lesson #2: The agent is always right. She always has a point. You may not agree with it. But you ignore it at your peril. Because here's what happened next:

I didn't get an agent. The editor stood by her first impression, and she was right to do so. I was given an A4 page of invaluable feedback, and was asked to send my next book to them.

My next book? I was wiped out from writing this one. Could I really write a second? How long would it take? It took twelve months.

Second Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's Christmas 2007, and I'm ready to send my second novel in search of an agent. This time I decide to share my eggs between two baskets, and add a second agent to my hit list, someone recommended by a friend. I follow the guidelines, email the opening section, and quickly get two requests for a full ms. This time, I think, I've cracked it. I don't hear back from either agent for some weeks. Then an email from my first choice: She likes what she's seen so far, can she have a little more time to finish it? Of course. I'll wait. That confidence is creeping back up.

Lesson #3: Never wish too much for something. Try to put it from your mind. You should be thinking about the next writing project, in any case, not indulging in fantasies about this one.

The verdict from the first agent? Not this novel. Maybe the next one. I'm still processing this when I get a call from the second agent. She likes a lot of what I've done, but I've over-complicated the plot, pursued too many tangents, not tied down the core adequately. Could I simplify things, rewrite, tighten, sharpen? And send it to another reader at the agency, for a fresh pair of eyes? Of course I can.

Lesson #4: The agent is always right. Oh, wait, that was Lesson #2. Well, it's an important lesson, so maybe it needs learning twice. Because this is what happened next:

I didn't get an agent. The other reader still found it too complicated, not linear enough. Maybe the next book?

At this point, I felt like Alfred Molina in Prick up Your Ears. You can find out what I mean, here, which also includes an autopsy from this latest agent rejection.

Still reading? Then it's time for:

Third Time I Didn't Get an Agent: February 2009. I've done it again. Written something new. Subbed the front end, received a full ms request, tried to keep my hopes under lock and key. One thing I didn't appreciate fully at the time, but for which I am boundlessly thankful now, was that I had a dialogue going with the biggest crime agent in the UK. Her team (the best in the business) had read the full ms of every crime novel I'd written. Her editor (about whom Val McDermid recently said, '(Her) instinct for story is second to none') was helping me to get better at what I wanted to do. None of this would've happened if I'd struck this agency off my hit list because of that first, or any subsequent, rejection.

Lesson #5: If you're lucky enough to catch the eye of an ace agent, don't shoot yourself in the foot by thinking rejection now means rejection always. If an agent is taking the time to tell you, at length and repeatedly, what is wrong (and right) with your work, then use that. It's gold dust. You can make beautiful things from gold dust.

Where was I? Oh, yes. What happened next.

Fourth Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's another No. It's two pages of detailed A4 reasons why it's a No. It's an offer to read whatever I do next. Not now, but next.

Lesson #6: The agent is always right. Oh, and being bloodyminded goes with the territory. Ultimately, only one person can ever say No to your writing, and that's you. If you're prepared to keep trying, to keep writing, to make friends with failure and get better at what you want to do - it will happen. Because here's what happened next:

In March 2010, I started writing something new. I wrote every day for five months, often as much as 4,000 words a day. I didn't stop. And at least once a week, every week, I referred to the three letters I'd had from the agent, telling me what I needed to do more, or better. Apart from this, I put thoughts of agents and publishers out of my mind.

Lesson #7: Writers write. The rest of it comes later.

In November 2010, I emailed the agent and asked if I could send her something new. She said Yes, please, of course. I sent her the first section, and her reader requested a full ms. Within a week, I received an email from the agent's editor (whose instinct for story is second to none) telling me that the reader's report was very encouraging and asking for an exclusive until the agent and editor were finished reading it.

Lesson #8: There's an etiquette to agent submissions. It might differ between agencies, but learn the rules and follow them. It's only polite, and professional.

It got to the end of the week during which I knew the editor had been reading the ms. On Thursday afternoon I began telling myself it was a No. Too much wishing, remember? And then:

First Time I Got an Agent: At 6pm on Friday, the editor emailed. I'd done a great job with the ms, she said. It was controlled, surprising, compelling, dark and clever. Could I come for a meeting next week? Of course I could. At the meeting, I was offered representation, and asked to do something. Can you guess what? I was asked to rewrite the novel. Well, in parts. And of course I did just that. Have just finished with the rewrite, in fact. It will go back to the agent in the next week. After that, well, watch this space.

In conclusion? It only takes one agent, one time. But it might take four books. Still, you're a writer. You want to write a hundred books. Four is nothing. Right?

Monday, 7 March 2011

Voices, writing contests and thresholds

With thanks to Sarah Jane Dobbs, who has posted a great interview with Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize over at Thresholds. The second part of the blog is my thoughts on how to write stories for contests. There's also an audio recording of me reading my flash, After a Long Illness, Quietly at Home, which will be published and illustrated in new anthology, Voices, later this year. (I borrowed my NW accent from my paternal grandmother.) So, for tips on entering and winning writing contests, check out the blog, which includes some exciting news from the Bristol Prize people.