Friday, 27 February 2009

London Eye

My writing buddy, Gay Degani, has a new story up at Every Day Fiction today. It's a haunting tale about The London Eye that pulses with atmosphere and paranoia (two of my favourite things in fiction). Do check it out. It's short, sharp and packs a hell of a punch.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Proof positive

Here's a thing. You've got a complete manuscript of a novel. You're hiking it around the bazaars. It's double-spaced on A4 pages, according to the rules for subbing to agents and publishers. You've looked at it onscreen for months, maybe years. You've printed it off and read it through and through. If you're anything like me, by this point you're losing all perspective on it as a book. It's become A Manuscript. You can't read it quickly because you can't hold it in your hands like a published novel. You can't get comfy with it, crease the spine, fit it to the shape of your palm the way you do with a printed book. It's a tome of a thing, takes forever to print off, doesn't look anything like anyone's favourite book. You're starting to wonder if it ever will. Well, wait.

What if I was to tell you that for ten pounds you could turn your Word document into a paperback book, printed in trade size on decent-ish paper, perfect-bound, private to you? That you need only spend about forty minutes uploading the document, tweaking the cover text (adding pictures if you want) and paying online. That within five days you would be holding the book - a BOOK not a manuscript - in your hands, shaped to your hands, readable on the train or the bath or in bed. And that the ten pounds includes postage.

This could just be the best ten pounds I ever spent. Already I feel differently about the story, the characters, the impact, the marketability of the book. And I've not even started reading it yet.

The ten pounds was spent at Lulu, for those who haven't guessed already. Probably cheaper than the cost of printing the manuscript out again on A4 paper. And a whole lot more satisfying. I intend to proof all my stuff this way from now on. Don't be put off by the "self-publishing" tag at the website. This isn't publishing, it's proofing. You can keep the book private, it isn't for sale on their site, just for you to be able to read it like a book instead of a ream of paper. Try it and see.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Kellerman and son

I've just finished reading The Brutal Art by Jesse Kellerman, a crime novel about an art dealer in New York uncovering a century old secret. I enjoyed it, although the first quarter was by far the best. It got a little muddled in the middle and the ending was delivered in a series of short denouements that fell a bit flat after the early promise. The Brutal Art is on the Richard and Judy bookclub list, so I guess it's got a high profile over here. Higher, perhaps, than his father's crime books. I first read Jonathan Kellerman a couple of years ago, and have enjoyed watching the incremental improvements in his novels as each new one is published. Rage, which I read recently, was a great book. Clever, layered, full of character-driven plot twists. Not a wasted word in there, and the pace was maintained throughout. Jesse is following in some big shoes, and kudos to him for striding out on his own. His mother, Faye, is also a crime writer, but I've not read any of her books. (The opening chapters to one were published at the back of Rage, and I didn't like her style nearly as much as his.)

A crime novel about the dark world of art - what an excellent idea! Publishers (and agents) please take note.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Agent autopsy

It's silver lining time. Regular readers will know the drill. For newcomers, it goes like this. I pitch the novel to an agent; the agent requests the first three chapters (I've breached the first circle, good); agent requests full manuscript on strength of first three chapters (breached second circle, now I'm getting excited); I wait (usually for around two months, sometimes with 'thank you for your patience' emails at intervals from the agent), during which time I alternate between imagining the wait is good (it never is, by the way, at least in my experience) and preparing myself for the worst. Then comes the letter. The fact it's a letter tells me it's bombed. The letter runs to two pages, is awfully nice but slice it how you like, it's a rejection. All I can really see, jack-knifing from the page, are the words "I'm so very sorry to say..."

At this point, not surprisingly, I experience a depression. It lasts hours, maybe days. I don't just feel rejected, I feel stupid (why can't I get it RIGHT??) and ashamed and talentless and humiliated and guilty on behalf of all the people I've whipped into a sense of anticipation, including my readers here, friends, family etc. After I've hit rock bottom (hello again) I start to claw my way up out of sheer bloody-mindedness. At this point I begin to re-examine the agent's letter, trying to see past the "I'm very sorry to say", gathering every crumb of consolation and doing my best to see pearls of wisdom in what at first sight seemed to be hard words of criticism.

Here we go then.

The first thing I need to remember is that this is the leading UK crime agent. THE agent, none bigger than this. She liked my writing enough to request the full manuscript, to spend time reading, to ask her colleagues to look at it (all this is in the letter), to write two pages of constructive criticism. She also asked to see the next novel, a synopsis of which I sent with the first. This must mean that she likes my characters, and the series concept doesn't suck. That's a fairly big bit of silver lining right there. To come to the nitty gritty in the letter:

Your writing has much to recommend it - as indeed your writing CV leads one to expect. It is controlled and intelligent, with an almost poetic feel in places. It was distinctly atmospheric and chilly - accentuated by the rarefied elements of the world you depict.
Pure silver. Now for the cloud:

I'm very sorry to say, however, that we are not going to be able to take this story on. For all the positives, we just feel it is going to be a very hard sell in the current publishing climate.
Big cloud, black. Mining on, here come the pearls of wisdom (I ignore these at my peril):

In some ways your undoubted descriptive skills caused problems as it felt overly descriptive to the expense of story and tension - there was a lot of scene setting and dialogue with a slight lack of action to counterbalance it. In the absence of a great deal of tension there ought to be strong characterisation or a sufficiently engaging 'puzzle' element, and again I think the script fell down a little in those areas.
There was plenty more to get my teeth into but I won't bore you with the fine details as they don't mean much out of context. She ended the letter by saying she'd be happy to read the first three chapters of the second novel if I'd like to send it to her. This effectively means I get a free pass through the first circle (the pitch) and go straight to second base. I did what I've learned to do in these instances: I emailed her, thanking her for her kind and helpful feedback and asking if she'd be interested or willing to see a redraft of the novel if I decided to edit it based on her comments. She emailed straight back to say, 'I think that I would prefer to see the next novel... starting afresh and reading it for its own merits. Perhaps bearing in mind the feedback on the first novel could help with the next novel as well? – ensuring there is a balance between the descriptions/ dialogue and sufficient action or new developments to keep a strong momentum, taking care to ensure the investigation feels as realistic as it can, ensuring the readers warm to X enough...'

So this is where I'm up to. I can start a new novel (which, let's face it, I'm going to do anyway; if I was capable to stopping I'd have done so after the first three rejections which hurt like hell) and/or continue sending out the first one to new agents, see what gives. Sounds like a plan, but I do have to quote from Prick up your Ears with reference to the 'write another one' angle because I don't want anyone to imagine I can just knock these things out willy-nilly. So here's a little snippet of dialogue courtesy of Alan Bennett, performed to perfection by Alfred Molina. Just insert "write a book" for "have a wank" and you get the picture:

"Have a wank? Have a wank? I can't just have a wank. I need three days' notice to have a wank. You can just stand there and do it. Me, it's like organizing D-Day. Forces have to be assembled, magazines bought, the past dredged for some suitably unsavoury episode, the dog-eared thought of which can still produce a faint flicker of desire! Have a wank, it'd be easier to raise the Titanic."
Don't mind me, I'm off to raise the Titantic (again). And thank you, dear readers, for your patience, tolerance and warmth, for not dropping me like a hot scone when all the evidence suggests I am a very cold and stale scone. You are a constant boon and a solace.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Spreading the word

I wasn't tagged but I liked the look of this from Tania's blog:

List at least five things you do to support and spread a love of the written word, then tag five people. (If you list something that touches youngsters, you get a bonus letter!)

1. Going straight for the bonus points, I read with my eight year old, I buy books with her, I encourage her to read and write. Her enthusiasm for stories is one of the chief pleasures in my life.

2. I'm part of an online writing forum that sets challenges, comments on other people's work and generally sparks off wonderful adventures in writing.

3. I review collections of short stories for The Short Review, and for The Ultimate Book Guides (more bonus points as these are aimed at children).

4. I write with a buddy, swap story recommendations, blog about my experiences in publishing, read stories at Every Day Fiction and elsewhere, commenting and encouraging wherever I can (and learning from this process ways in which to improve my own writing).

5. This one's a bit daft. I leave books in the canteen at work, and sometimes on trains. Paperbacks I've finished and enjoyed but not enough to keep as my bookshelves are over-flowing. I once discovered a new author this way, picking up a stray paperback from the top of a filing cabinet at work (and returning it afterwards).

6. I gift anthologies to fund-raising events and friends and family around the globe.

I tag Gay Degani, Kevin Shamel, KC Ball, Nik Perring and Women Rule Writer, because I know every one of them can tick off this list with what they do to spread the word.

Monday, 9 February 2009

If you love them, let them go

This news story snagged my attention. Caterpillars have learned to mimic queen ants so they can nest and be nurtured in ant colonies, receiving preferential treatment over actual ants and generally lording it up in the colony until such time as they're ready to take flight. This beats the old cuckoo in the nest any day of the week. I wonder how the Queen Ant feels when her 'baby' flies the nest? Bewildered, much?

Sunday, 8 February 2009


A joke's a joke, but I've had enough. It was fun on Thursday and Friday, and I gritted my teeth (and the path) on Saturday but, after a brief sojourn (if sojourn is the word I want), back comes the white stuff and damn it, I want my routine. I'm a creature of habit and living under seige is not my habit. A swarm of bees, a fit of feathers from the sky... There is poetry in snow, I must admit. But this is getting silly. Besides, all the Caramel Bretons are gone and I'm running out of books with which to curl up. Time to crack out the Keep Calm and Carry On mug, one of two I received as gifts at Christmas, the other being It's a Beautiful Day. Any other mug lovers out there?

Friday, 6 February 2009

Ripley Underground

Prose pared back to bone that nevertheless grips and holds you, start to finish. How does Highsmith do it? Here's the image that's going to stick in mind forever, I think.

One fly jumped on the other's back. In plain view! Quickly Tom struck a match and held it to the bastards. Wings sizzled. Buzz-buzz. Legs stuck in the air and flailed their last. Ah, Liebestod, united even in death! If it could happen in Pompeii, why not at Belle Ombre, Tom thought.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Cold snap

According to the news we've ground to a halt over here in snowy Britain. London is under six inches of snow. Can you imagine? Six inches. That's the height of a stiletto heel. Or half the height of a school ruler. Leave the house at your peril, Londoners. As for me I'm staying in, editing a little, writing a little. Warmed by kind praise from an author I admire for a short story of mine she read online. I have an arthritic shoulder, and the glare from outside (it is rather white, no arguing with that) is making it hard to work at my desk. Maybe I will make a mug of tea and curl up with a good book and my box of salted caramels from Paris. That sounds like a plan. I hope you're all keeping well and warm, wherever you are.