The submission process: one step forward, three back

February 28, 2018 § Leave a comment


I sent my first, and so far, only postal submission off on 5th February last. The other six submissions I made were by email. A total of seven. Despite this small number, each submission has taken a disproportionate amount of time. It is rather amusing that agents think you might be inundating the Book World with your submissions. If only I could afford staff to help me with the process, then there might be some hope of flooding literary agencies with my work.

Agents appear, or perhaps it is my imagination, to accept that 99 per cent of unsolicited submissions are not rubbish. In fact, some of the younger agents have befriended the slush pile: the slush pile is notional now. By and large, documents sent as an attachment to emails form a ‘slush pile’. Gems have been discovered on the slush pile. The impression these younger agents, almost invariably young women, give is that they are much more open to the unpublished writer, or indeed the debut author. You can’t help but feel that the long established agents do not need to fritter their time away reading unsolicited material when they have a stellar client list. They may, of course, consider a ‘writer’ who has been recommended by another writer. Hard lines on the old unpublished author who has no one influential to recommend her.

Never mind. There are vital young agents ready to go beyond and above calls of duty to rescue the would-be debut author from obscurity. Of course, there is a catch. They have to really like what you send them. Hmm. Don’t despair. Have a look at their client list, the ones whose work fired up the agent. You may find that these novels don’t fire you up. Taste is a strange thing.

Obviously, if I see that agents love books by authors I have never been tempted to read, I conclude those agents are not the ones for me. More difficult are the agents who also like books that I have liked. I might take a chance with them. Why not?

Agents may let you down gently saying they receive a lot of ‘strong’ work but cannot take it on unless they feel ‘passionately’ about it. I am not sure I believe this. I wonder how many agents really trust their own judgement or are that in tune with their feelings. Why do they become judges at writing competitions? Do they prefer to look only at work that has already been ‘vetted’?

My own submission process is slow because I have become caught up in this idea of ‘crafting’ the covering letter. How much can I craft it? I read of one writer who had polished and polished her cover letter until it shone. What does that mean? I cannot spent absurd amounts of time on a letter. The law of diminishing returns applies. Even undistinguished cover letters are hard to write. I print out my cover letter many times. I tweak it here and there, but the letter does not shine. It will have to do. All the same, I never send it off at once. The next day, I read it again and discover (guess what?) a mistake.

We are familiar with that horribly punitive attitude agents have to typos. Would you believe I still managed misspell in the footer, so it appeared on every page, the name of my own novel. I was about to bundle this submission into an envelope when I discovered the mistake. Tempted as I was to leave it, I could not. Would an agent forgive me for misspelling my own novel’s name?

Attaching a document by email is worse: are we really sending the most up-to-date version? Indeed, in two submissions I made, the latest version was saved to a memory stick and not the computer, so I attached an earlier one. With mistakes! On discovery, I re-sent the two submissions a week later. Perhaps, they weren’t mistake-free either. Now I hardly dare to press the send button. Am I going to go mad and blind?

In the month of March, I will relax about sending out submissions. A balance must be struck between my original aim of sending out 100 submissions, and ‘over-crafting’ cover letters. It’s a heart-breaking business. But, ultimately, no matter what little quibbles these agents have, all will be brushed aside if they really like your work. But will they?






A New Year, a New Me

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

A new year, a new me?


The last day of January looms as has the last day of the past four months, and I have not posted a blog. After such a long time, I should be writing a pithy piece: I warn you, I will not. Will I post a blog once a month in the New Year? If I were really clever, I should do one today and one tomorrow and have two months off. But I don’t think I am going to be really clever.

It was no idea of mine to start a blog. Someone suggested to me that I should as an ‘unpublished writer’ have a web presence. A number of things have been suggested to me over the years, all entailing a great deal of work. That I should write novels I have not written . . . a screenplay . .  . a biography.

“Listen here matey, I have not had a single thing published, nor won a competition nor even come in the first hundred. Let me continue to giving my all to something I am not getting anywhere with, rather than take on new work in which I have no interest. Do you think, by the way, that I have a little writing laboratory and a writing mixer into which I toss words like ‘screenplay’ or ‘novel’ or ‘biography’ and some paper and ink and I press a switch and the machine whirls the whole thing together and produces a finished piece of work in less than a morning? No, not at all. Novels, I have found take about two years, and then . . And then what? Nothing it appears.”

That’s the end to that rant. A friend of mine was talking about doing a course called ‘A New Year, A New You’. But I have been working on the ‘new me’ since November. I am in the process of metamorphosis now. The key change is positive thinking. I did read Norman Vincent Peale’s book. I read it before. Obviously the mistake I made was not to apply it. I have also dipped into many self-help books. I don’t, of course, wish to be one of those pathetic people who read self-help books and learn nothing from them. (I was such a person.) But remember it’s a ‘new me’. You want some evidence: you shall have some.

I have no ‘success’ (as the word is generally used) to relate but I have rehabilitated my ‘attitude’, I am moving from negative to positive. It is not the work of a moment.

I wrote some time ago of having had a novel critiqued by The Literary Consultancy, maybe I did not disclose the name. The first critique was favourable, and I spent about 10 months incorporating the changes before re-submitting it a second time (a different reader). Then I got an unfavourable critique which devastated me. I put the book aside. (A fourth completed novel mind you) and turned to writing plays. I couldn’t bring myself to write a fifth novel. As regards the plays, it was a good change.  A director of an amateur company, in Ireland, intends to produce the first play I wrote this autumn. I also wrote radio plays and sent them to the BBC. Not one was accepted. I might have gone on sending out the plays until someone accepted one, but instead I decided to return to the abandoned novel, after over 18 months away from it. I have now revised it. I am planning to send my first submission this week. My aim is to send 100 submissions out, and see what happens. In the past, about 30 odd submissions was the most I sent out.

No doubt rejection is ahead, but this time my expectations are different. Let’s see if a positive attitude will pave my way to success.

K. M. Peyton: A little hard on her characters?

August 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

K M Peyton is a prolific writer. She has written over 70 novels. I read six of them last week, published in the 1960s and 1970s. K M Peyton writes well. It is a balm to read one of her books, as against many a modern children’s author. Are there equivalents of Philippa Pearce, Margaret Mahy, and Jan Mark today?

Every children’s book today appears to concern itself with fantasy worlds, witchcraft and wizardy, or dystopias. The ordinary world has ceased to interest us.

K M Peyton’s books are, by and large, in the ordinary world. We tend to associate her with ponies and sailboats and aviation. She writes of these with authority. All the same, when K M Peyton writes of the supernatural (A Pattern of Roses), we believe in her ghost world. In addition,  K M Peyton has a feel for “period” language. We will not find modern slang embedded in the speech of a groom in 1911. In a recent BBC radio drama set in 1890s London, in one episode, or maybe two, we heard “I have a lot riding on this” (late 20th century?) and “grow my (the) business” (21st century?). When we hear such modern phrases in a period drama, we lose faith in the author. Why is the author setting a drama in an era that she is unacquainted with?

We don’t lose faith in KM Peyton. I haven’t spotted any sloppiness in the period detail or language. Not, mind, that I am poised to pounce on such mistakes: rather I feel disappointment, and a little resentment that writers who don’t take much trouble are published.

KM Peyton’s prolific output, however, may be responsible for one defect: a distance from her characters. In “Team” I met Ruth Hollis, a pony-loving girl whose pony Fly-by-Night was too small and she needed a replacement. Within a few weeks, she acquires a once familiar, but now broken down Toadhill  Flax (Toad). The pony used to belong to her friend Peter McNair. Peter’s father, a dealer, sold Toad on. Now Peter wants Toad back, but Ruth wants him too. Is she capable of managing a strong pony like Toad? Will she be able to repay her brother the price of Toad? Will she find a new home for Fly? In any event, you can take it that Ruth has a lot on her plate. At some time during the story, a girl who had been a keen rider is reported to have sold her pony (or ponies) because she has now become interested in boys. She is not our sort of girl at all. We are only interested in Ruth who must make great sacrifices to buy and keep Toad. Ruth triumphs at the end of the story. We are satisfied.

But what a shock awaits us in The Beethoven Medal. We know Pennington from Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer. He is a gifted pianist. But to the Hollis family, he is just a surly baker’s boy. However, Ruth, takes a fancy to him and pursues him. Toad has been injured and is recuperating elsewhere. Toad pays one visit.  As far as I can recall, Toad is dismissed from the pages of the book. It is all Pennington. We feel cheated. Ruth was the girl we were interested in; we shared her struggles over Toad but now Ruth has no time for Toad. We feel very let down. We can’t quite believe in the Ruth Hollis of Team. We can only wonder why K M Peyton didn’t make up another character to be Pennington’s girlfriend. Was it her “prolificy” that hardened her to her characters and enabled her to pluck them from their horsy world and throw them into a teenage-romance one?

John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children tells of a similar disappointment.

“The action of K. M. Peyton’s ‘Flambards’ books takes place just before and just after the First World War. Originally there were three novels – Flambards (1967), Edge of the Cloud (1969), and Flambards in Summer (1969) – which for twelve years stood complete as a trilogy.  In the first book, Christina who will be rich when she comes of age, is sent to live with her Uncle Russell and his two sons in a decrepit country house, financially undermined by Uncle’s passion for horses and hunting. The handsome elder son, Mark, would like to marry her and keep what he calls ‘all this’ going; but Christina prefers Will who rejects the family obsession and longs to fly aeroplanes. The second book centres on Will’s perilous life as an aviator; at the start of the third he is dead, and Christina returns to the old run-down house to bear his posthumous child, work the home farm, and marry the ex-groom Dick who loves her. As well as a romantic story there is obviously a social theme- the death of an old way of life and its rebirth in a new form – and the connection between them and the period is organic. It was First World War that broke up the old framework: the trilogy could not be transferred to any other time and retain its force.

In 1981, after the huge success of the television adaptation, Mrs Peyton added a fourth book, Flambards Divided. Inevitably, this changed the meaning of the other three: instead of completing the story they were leading up to a new conclusion. And the new conclusion was very different.

At the end of the third book, Christina had successfully carried Flambards into a new era; the omens, in her own phrase, were good.  In Flambards Divided, these omens turn out to have been misleading. Christina’s marriage to Dick does not work. Dick is reliable and hardworking, but narrow, class-conscious and different to Christina in temperament and interests. Handsome Mark, home from the War, not knowing anything but fighting and hunting, wins her affections after all.  The squire, it could be said, is back in the saddle – even if it is now the driving seat of a motor car. If the author had written the fourth book straight after the other three, my guess is that she would have done it differently and poor Dick would have fared better. In twelve year illusions can be lost. The new ending may be truer to life, but I find it somewhat saddening. “

In my view, the new ending may be truer to life but is not truer to the characters as they have been depicted. That to me seems to be Mrs Peyton’s weakness: she does not love her characters as her readers might and therefore can manipulate their lives in ways that jar with the original story and our expectations.

That being said, K M Peyton has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. She has now no equal.


Historical Lanuage

May 31, 2017 § Leave a comment


I watched the first episode of the drama “Anne with an e”, based on Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Some of the drama was excellently done: in particular those parts that stuck to Anne of Green Gables.  In the book unpleasant experiences of Anne’s were alluded to. In the drama unpleasant experiences were visually realised in a rather too graphic way.

I assumed the scene with the hired hand, a boy, was an invention of the production team. The scene added nothing to the unfolding of the tale. It had Anne squaring up to the farm boy, each suggesting the other had a “problem”. I very much doubt that “What’s your problem?” was a phrase, bandied about Prince Edward Island in 1908.

But time and time again, we find producers of these period dramas, many of which are based on books containing excellent dialogue, using “modern parlance” which jars. Why don’t scriptwriters take more care with the “historical “language?


Writing: now for a bit of drama

March 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

I have written of my experience of having a novel critiqued twice by professionals: the first (2015), a positive experience, was a boost to my confidence; the second (2016), a negative experience, was a devastating blow. Now it is 2017. I am not simply stating the obvious. I am just reminded again that years pass and writers may have nothing to show for them.

Later in 2016, I finished a children’s book. I gave the book to an eleven-year-old boy, the target market, to read. I was asking too much of him. He wasn’t enjoying the book. I discreetly took the manuscript back. The free critique amounted to:  “This is unreadable.”  Not quite what I had in mind.

Apart from feeling sorry for myself and thinking that some sort of success was long overdue, I began a new writing venture. In tandem with the revision of the children’s book, I was writing a play.

I had never considered writing a play. I had believed a “play” was completely beyond me. Having discovered novel-writing (in the view of the industry) to be beyond me, I thought why not a play? I soon discovered that a chapter in a book could be reduced to one page of dialogue. Best also to set the play in one place, if possible. Apart from running out of material quickly and the limited things I could deal with in one room, I found the business of writing a play extremely liberating. Its three chief attractions were:

I didn’t have to bother with description.

I didn’t have to set any scenes and worry about the type of chairs people should be sitting on.

I didn’t have to worry too much about “my writing”. After all, my characters were ordinary people, not literary geniuses, talking to each other in ordinary language.

Nor did I have to worry about transitions. Act one is Christmas Eve 1956, act two Christmas Eve 2056, if I chose.

Of course, when I completed the play, I was back to square one. Another finished piece of work and no one clamouring for it. I sent the play to someone I knew who is involved in amateur dramatics. (That is after sending it to someone I didn’t know who boomeranged it back to me.) He said he liked the play. He later said he would try and produce it locally (Portlaoise, Ireland) this year. I do not know if it will be produced locally. But I was pleased by the novelty of someone actually wanting to do more with my work than fire it back at me.

One lesson I did learn was: confidence in your work must come from you. If people praise the work, you may doubt them. And the other important thing is: you must find a way of getting your work to as many people as possible, so that it will land on the desk or in the email inbox of that one person in 100 or 1000 who will like it. You may get good advice. It will be free and you will also be establishing connections.

Better to send your work to people you “know” than you don’t. The word “know” means someone you have a very vague connection to. Any degree of introduction is better than none at all. Send sample work by email to “helpful” people, asking for their advice: not asking for them to do anything as momentous as publish you. Persevere with one work. Don’t keep moving on to new work. Promote the work you have already done.

In the absence of any better tips, this is the advice I am trying to follow myself.



A second round with the book doctors

February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

In May 2015, I submitted a novel I had spent nine months writing to a book editor attached to a consultancy. When three weeks or so later, I received the editor’s report, I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, the book was not ready for publication, but a number of good things were therein noted. And my fears as to whether I had managed to maintain a reader’s interest as the book progressed, through different time periods, were allayed. Nor did the book editor take issue with an aspect of the plot which I thought was far-fetched. As my greatest fears proved groundless, I was very receptive to the criticism. The most significant criticism: the “hero” was not sympathetic. A second criticism: there was not enough period detail. These revelations did not disturb me. The editor was right.

I ended up re-writing the entire novel, and, I believed, very much improving it. I made cuts and I made additions. There was a net gain of 20,000 words. I re-submitted the novel to the same consultancy. I was disappointed that the same editor was not available to critique my book. Six weeks or so later, I received the report.  The change of editor was not for the best.

My “hero” had now gone from being unsympathetic to being a cipher. Even I don’t understand how he became fainter, if I had tried to make him more solid. The part of the book I feared to be far-fetched was found to be so. I did not peruse the entire critique; it was long and detailed: too detailed. Wasn’t it enough to say that my hero was a cipher without insulting the hero’s name as well? Did it matter? If the book wasn’t good in its essentials, why gripe about small details? There were positive comments. The book had “promise”. The word promise, I recall, was used in such a way as to indicate that I was not to read too much into the word.

I was not so much back to square one but to a minus square. Was I then to re-write the book a third time and have a third person look it over and find it wanting?

All this happened last April. The book has remained untouched. (I wanted to continue writing so I turned to writing plays.) However, in December I had an epiphany. I rebelled against my dejection. I decided that the editor had gone too far in his criticism. I had handed him too much authority: the authority to tell me my work was not good enough.

My work cannot become something that it is not. Most of the time, it will not be what people want.  The real challenge is not writing a publishable book but discovering the person who will like your book enough to publish it.

Agents advise writers to send in sample chapters and a synopsis. But there are usually restrictions too. For example, you shouldn’t be sending, at the same time, a great many sample chapter out to other agents because you might be wasting agents’ time. Agents might end up reading something that is snapped up by another agent. In whose dreams? Never having had an offer of representaiion by any agent, I think the agents’ fears of having their time wasted are largely unfounded. In truth, only the unpublished writer’s time will be wasted. Some agents do represent unsolicited submissions. But, I think, the odds are 100 to 1.

What do I suggest?  Perhaps you discover a remote connection, amongst your acquaintance, to the publishing industry. Perhaps this remote connection will introduce you to someone more directly connected to publishing and so on. And if you have the time and money to flood the world with your sample chapters, perhaps do that. Make it your aim to collect refusals and rejections. Perhaps, a 100 or 1,000. When the bulky envelope drops through the letter box, you can say: “Success!”

How not to write a novel by David Armstrong

January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The essence of David Armstrong’s advice to those who would wish to become writers is: “Don’t”.

He was “lucky” enough to be one of the 1 per cent picked from a slush pile and published. Although his first published book was well-received by critics, this was not the start of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, but of the more plateau-like career of a midlist writer.

The earnings of a midlist writer are probably less than a steady job working in a supermarket. The midlist writer can, without ceremony, be dropped by his publisher. She might never do better than the sales of her first book. He will never be important. No one will be booking him to talk at important literary festivals. She will never see anyone reading her book on the tube. He will remain not very well-off and obscure.

Some readers may consider David Armstrong’s view of the life of the midlist writer to be depressing and negative. But I found it reassuring. On the contrary, it is the stories of unknown writers coming first in their first literary competition and then signing a three-book contract that depress me.

To know that most writers have to work long and hard for little reward is good news to me.

“When Night’s Black Agents was eventually published, the very things that it had (allegedly) been declined for were exactly the same things that reviewers found to single out for praise.”

For example:

The ‘lack of pace’ that had made the book ‘unsuitable for today’s market’, metamorphosed in the Daily Telegraph into ‘prose with a slow, dark, rhythm’.

In the Guardian the ‘Midlands setting’, frequently cited as an insurmountable barrier to publication, was now, ‘unique and interesting’.