Thursday, 15 October 2009

My way...

For anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript then the day finally comes when the package returns. (With apologies to Frank Sinatra.)

And now, the post is here;
And so I face the mail uncertain.
That jiffy bag is mine,
I want to hide behind the curtain.

I sent a full typescript,
I edited, not in a shy way.
And still, I have to say,
I write it my way.

Rejects, I’ve had a few,
But then again, which writer hasn’t?
I did what I had to do,
And ploughed on through, it wasn’t pleasant

I planned each chapter well;
My characters along the byway.
But still, I have to say,
I write it my way.

Yes, there are some, I’m sure it’s true.
They got their book deals, from who they knew.
A relative who’s in the trade,
One dinner guest and they are made.
But that’s not me, and so you see,
I write it my way.

I’ve tried, I’ve done rewrites;
I’ve started new and different projects.
My bottom drawer is full,
Attempted all different subjects.

To think I wrote all that;
And may I say - not in a sly way,
No, oh no not me,
I write it my way.

For what is a scribe, what have they got?
If not their dreams, genre and plot?
Create the words they love so well.
Or sometimes crap, in case it sells.
I read the note, lump in my throat,
I write it my way.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Lost Contract

(From the late, lamented Writing Centre website.)

To any would-be novelist, the sight of a book – your book – on the shelf is surely the Holy Grail of writing. And, like any true grail quest, the path is fraught with challenges, monsters and dead-ends. Here are two of my tales.

My novel Covenant is an unusual beast, a genre crossover that I’ve called Magical Fantasy Fiction. It draws on the Western Qabalah, ritual and reincarnation; not your general sword and sorcery epic.

So you can imagine my delight, after years in the wilderness, when a British publication company expressed an interest from my initial approach. After friendly emails they invited me to submit the complete manuscript – a first for me. Better than that, they telephoned me at home and quizzed me for half an hour about the structure and meanings within my work. It was going so well that I felt sure the 12 weeks evaluation period would fly by.

Then, like buses, another opportunity came along – a delayed response from an American e-publisher I had all but given up on. They asked to see the whole book too. Lightning had struck twice and I wasn’t in wellies. Positive feedback ensued and, when I’d been advised I was under consideration, I asked for and received a sample contract.

Meantime, in the British camp, my 12 weeks passed without a response. I left a polite telephone message and waited. No response. A week went by. I sent a polite email and ticked off the days. Silence. I then sent a recorded letter indicating that I’d had a favourable interest from another publisher and wondered if, now at week 15, they’d come to any decision. At the very least I’d appreciate an update. All I got back was a sense of disquiet. Keen to draw a line under the experience I emailed them and, reminding them that I’d heard nothing in over 15 weeks and had received no response to any of my communications, I asked for my MS back. An email informed me it was with their editorial office and would be returned to me forthwith – this email made it to my inbox in under 24-hours, incidentally. I never got a clear explanation and even with the assistance of the Society of Authors, I could not penetrate the castle.

But hey, there’s still Plan B, right? While waiting for the British publisher to get off the pot, I’d sent the sample US contract to the Society of Authors (I’d recently become a member). A wise investment. So, when the hallowed contract offer did come in, I already had amendments and clause deletions ready to discuss. The editor explained that she was also an author with the firm and she’d made changes to her contract, through the company lawyer, without incident. So, picture the scene; I’m looking at a 3 year e-book deal, for my original 160,000 MS split into two books, with hardcopy publication to follow. My first full vision of the grail!

I emailed the editor back and ask for the lawyer’s email address. No response. A day or so later I email again, explaining that I can’t find the lawyer’s details on the website and asking if she’ll simply refer on my comments and changes. Still no response. Now I’m starting to get a little paranoid. A day or so later I email for a third time, asking if I need to airmail my changes over. It’s as quiet as a foam covered pin factory.

A couple of days on, I receive an email from the executive editor, apologising for contacting me this way and for the news that follows. My editor had died unexpectedly from a heart attack a few days before. Dreadful news from all angles. I’m sure you’re ahead of me now. As my contract wasn’t signed and as the only person in the company to see and approve my work is now deceased, I have no contractual relationship with the company. Regrettably I now need to resubmit my novel so that two new editors can evaluate it and made a decision. Oh yeah, and it will probably take several weeks. Fortunately it’s submission by email so that’s quickly taken care of. I tell myself that it’s a minor setback and prepare to bed in for a month or three. My luck starts to change. I get a response in less than three weeks. But my new luck quickly runs out. The two new editors do not enjoy Covenant at all (they’re forced by the executive editor to write an explanation), consequently the contract offer is now null and void. Almost unbelievably I’m invited to submit something new in the future and the exec apologises once more, assuring me it’s not the quality experience they aim to give writers.

And so, like Bors and Percival, I do not attain the grail; I just get enough of a sniff to be able to go home and talk about it. Perhaps it’s all for the best, under the circumstances. In the first case, I did some research on the British firm and I couldn’t find a single book that they’ve published under their own imprint. And in the second case, with the American e-publisher, having seven years to work with editors who don’t appreciate my work doesn’t not sound like a match made in heaven. It may have taken seven years of rewrites to get an acceptable MS together.

So I end my grail quest empty handed; older, wiser and frankly rather jaded. I’m sure not all publishers are charlatans, bullshitters and fantasists. I have to believe that as I set off in search of new publisher. In case you’re wondering, I did research the US company and yes, my editor was real and, tragically, she did die. And, if I’m being really honest, a little bit of me died with her.


Thursday, 8 October 2009

And what do you do?

Newspaper and magazine questionnaires are always popular (as distinct from surveys, which aren't). If there's one thing we like to know about, it's ourselves.

Writers, whether they are aspiring or published, tend to define themselves by their output. It's useful from the writer's perspective because it reinforces the way we see ourselves – a little like a brand – and it cuts to the chase. But at best it's a limitation and at worst a lie.

For example, many writers don't know or accept that they are novelists until they've completed their first novel. For some strange reason, we associate definition with achievement.

On a recent Arvon Foundation comedy writing course, 16 of us were thrown together and given singleton and collaborative exercises. Playwrights, poets, songwriters, novelists and stand-up writers all pitched in, drawing on their existing experience to create something new. If we’d stayed resolutely within our existing borders, we would have all missed out. As the saying goes: ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.’

Even the title of novelist raises as many questions as it answers. Which genre of novel? What age group and market? And the dreaded ‘So, do you have an agent / publisher then?’ Any writers reading this will already have inserted an appropriately sneery / competitive / eager / dismissive tone to that particular line of inquiry.

I can remember showing my fantasy novel Covenant to a friend of mine, in one of its many incarnations. He later told me that he thought the idea of me writing a novel was a little like a clown trying to write Shakespeare, and that I’d be better sticking to what I was best at. Leaving aside the fact that he never actually read the novel - he merely discussed it with someone else who had – what was his logic? To quote myself (hey, it’s my blog): ‘If you always play to your strengths, they’re the only ones you’ll ever have.’

My writing CV states that I write articles, comedy and fiction. Although arguably, anyone who’s ever written a CV has written some fiction.

In practice that means: articles for one newspaper, some magazines and the web; slogans and captions; topical and situational gags, sketches, monologues and parody songs; a clutch of humorous Little Books; As Above So Below magazine; a fantasy novel; a thriller and a half (that’s not boasting – I’m halfway through the sequel); a couple of children’s books; and around a dozen short stories, of various lengths. I should add that not all of that work is published or performed but quite a bit of it is, and the rest I’m working on.

My point is that fish swim, trees photosynthesise and writers write. When we limit ourselves by definition or genre, we are closing ourselves off from new possibilities. However… it’s important for us to know what kind of writers we are. That is, I think, quite distinct from the types of writing that we do. In my case, I am not a literary writer. I have friends who are poetic and lyrical in their prose; I am not one of them and I’m comfortable with that. And I know because I’ve tried it and it reads false on the page.

Unless we know - and can come to terms with - the kind of writers we are, we don’t have a foundation to work from. But once we fully inhabit our own skins, warts and all, we can create our own personal blend of imagination, insight and magic.