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 The impression these younger agents, almost invariably young women, give is that they are much more open to the unpublished writer, or indeed the debut author.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 Hard lines on the old unpublished author who has no one influential to recommend her.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.

A Taste of Lucy Boston

November 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

The stone giant strode across the lawns with his bare feet and soon came to the river.  At the edge there was thin, loose ice that shivered like a window-pane as he stepped in. The water rushed round his legs and the reflection of the moon was torn to wet ribbons.  (The Children of Green Knowe)

He looked backwards and saw his own dragging footprints like wounds in the snow.  (The Children of Green Knowe)

In those days an arrival was a real and prolonged excitement. Instead of a mere sweep of headlights so dazzling in their approach as to make everything else invisible and the brisk slam of a car door, there was first the clatter of the postillion’s hooves on the gravel to announce that the chaise was following. Then the wonderful moment of certain expectation when everyone ran out with lanterns. The chaise was heard bowling up the drive and the leading horses came into the swinging lantern light, and it shone fierily on wheels and windows, on horses and grooms and footmen, and on the ladies being handed out by gentlemen.  (The Chimneys of Green Knowe)

When he had shown it [the eel] to the others he hurled it up into the sky where it shone silver for a moment before entering the water again with no splash at all, like a needle entering silk.  (The River at Green Knowe)

The entrance hallway was delightfully enclosing and reassuring, full as always of flowers and birds’ nests, the lights relayed from mirror to mirror all down its length, and all the scatter of happy living—secateurs, baskets, books, letters and anything-to-hand lying on the tables.  (An Enemy at Green Knowe)

Its [Green Knowe’s] atmosphere was as certain and permanent as the smell and sound of the sea in a shell.  (An Enemy at Green Knowe)

 Its [leopard] narrow body passed through the undergrowth like an eel through water-weeds.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

Ping loved the meals he had with Mrs. Oldknow. There was just enough ceremony to make each occasion feel like a special one. It was not a discipline that cramped but a ceremony that one could play with and expand and even laugh at.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

 They ran, so buffeted and tossed that Ping might have been a detached willow leaf and the old lady a dress on the line.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

 The rain intensified till it was almost unbroken water. It hissed, it roared, and Ping could no more see out of the window than if a hose had been playing on it. The lighting, launched its sizzling missiles into the helpless earth while the thunder sounded like broken sky whose crashes and avalanches could be heard rumbling away in unimaginable distance. (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

 The basket which he examined was an old-fashioned kind having a handle across the centre and a hinged lid on either side. He looked like a very important gentleman taking a picnic in a quiet spot, having shaken off even his secretary. Ping admired again his appearance of being superbly well dressed—black bearskin sleeves, silver-grey shirt and opossum trousers, worn with style and pride as if he were fully conscious that he was turned out to strike the fear of God into lesser beings. But now he was off duty, enjoying himself in  privacy. He looked first in each side of the basket to see what had been provided, and made his choice. The sandwiches looked ridiculously dainty in his massive hands but he ate them one by one, taking his time and savouring the different flavours—egg and lettuce, cream cheese and tomato, brown bread and honey, and he glanced at Ping as if to say: That’s something I never had served to me in the zoo.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)


Lucy Boston

November 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

Not all writers write well. Yet writers who do not write particularly well may go far, may even win prizes: prizes that are awarded for, amongst other things, literary merit. Such writers distinguish themselves sufficiently by writing a “strong” story.  A writer who writes very well, but whose ability to develop a story is less certain will never fare as well as the “storyteller”.

Lucy Boston was not a great storyteller but she was a writer of distinction. Her home Hemingford Grey was the inspiration for the Green Knowe novels. She wrote six, but only the five written in sequence concern us here.

The series begins with The Children of Green Knowe (1954). Tolly visits his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow in her house Green Knowe for the first time. Green Knowe is 900-years-old. Through his great-grandmother’s storytelling and his own sightings of ghosts (or does he sight ghosts, is it make-believe?) we meet Toby, Alexander, and Linnet who lived at Green Knowe around the time of the Great Plague.

The stories told about Toby, Alexander, and Linnet do not relate to each other particularly. Their stories form a sort of patchwork in which we discern no pattern. They are pleasant stories but not compelling. If the stories had coalesced better, the book would have been a far more powerful one.

The second Green Knowe book The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958) is a great advance on the first. Toby, Alexander, and Linnet, though deeply involved in the history of Green Knowe, do not appear. We can’t help but feel that Lucy Boston will banish characters from Green Knowe when they can serve no useful purpose in another story.

Susan’s story succeeds better than those of Alexander, Toby and Linnet’s because her story has a beginning, middle, and end. We see her in the beginning, constrained, not so much by her being blind but by the attitudes of her nanny and mother to her blindness. Her world is opened up by Jacob, a small black boy, brought from Barbados to be her companion. Jacob helps Susan to interpret the world around her, and also the world which Susan has not experienced, such as the sea.  We are not to like Susan’s frivolous mother or selfish brother Sefton. Neither character cares very much for Green Knowe: generally only good people care for Green Knowe.

In The Chimneys of Green Knowe we are swept along by one main story. What will happen next? What will become of Susan and Jacob? Will Sefton come to a bad end?

Lucy Boston is going from strength to strength, we expect very good things of The River at Green Knowe (1959), but we are most shockingly disappointed. Mrs Oldknow has let Green Knowe to an academic, Dr Maud Biggins and her friend, Sybilla Bun (she is very preoccupied with food) for the summer. Mrs Oldknow’s departure is the first in a series of departures from reality. The letting of Green Knowe is a contrivance to allow “new” children even greater freedom than they would have had with Mrs Oldknow. As Mrs Oldknow is deeply involved in the life and history of her home, it would have been hard to exclude her completely from any adventures: the only thing to do was banish her completely.

Dr Biggins is far too engrossed in her study of giants that once inhabited the earth to bother herself much with the children. The only stricture imposed is that they should turn up to meals on time. It is a wonder that it ever occurred to Dr Biggins to give the refugee children, Ping and Oscar, a holiday. (Ida is related to her.)

The children concern themselves very little with the house, Green Knowe, and are entirely taken up with the river.

Had Mrs Boston a number of story remnants which she wanted to find a receptacle for and thought to unite them all as adventures had on the river? But these adventures are without sufficient bounds. Mrs Boston is not at the helm of her story. As the children drift around on the river, so the story drifts too. We are not even restricted by the 900-year-history but venture back to stone-age people. Neither do we stick to the real world but venture into the fantastical, we have flying horses, and a shrinking Oscar (Or was that a dream?). As Mrs Boston so ably deals with the real world and its phenomena, we cannot quite understand why she had to go on such flights of fantasy. For example, the children’s meeting with a London man turned wild man, one of the realistic phenomena, is more interesting than their meeting giants. (But we do question the wild man’s ability to induce himself to hibernate.)

In The River at Green Knowe we feel that anything and everything could happen but this is a negative rather than a positive feeling.

We do not know what to make of The River at Greene Knowe. It doesn’t seem to belong in the series. What have Green Knowe and Mrs Oldknow to do with the story?

Now if I were just recovering from the “shock” of The River at Green Knowe and Lucy Boston approached me with the idea for her next Green Knowe novel, I should have tried to steer her away from it: hadn’t it been abundantly proved that the further back in time Mrs Boston went, or the further geographically her stories took place from Green Knowe, the more everything failed.

A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961) opens in the Congo in an equatorial forest where we make the acquaintance of a Gorilla family. And yet this book about the Gorilla, Hanno, who is captured and taken to a Zoo in England from which he later escapes to Green Knowe is Mrs Boston’s triumph. Were we to make a line graph of her art, we should, after the sharp descent of The River at Green Knowe, now rapidly ascend to the apex of her achievement.

The ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ did not interest Mrs Boston very much and she certainly did not want to write about them. A writer who risks writing about ‘everyday’ things may write dull stories, and the writer who favours drama may well write of the far-fetched and improbable. The lack of reality which infuses The River at Green Knowe is not present in A Stranger at Green Knowe. In writing of an escaped gorilla, already befriended by Ping who has met him in the zoo, we certainly have our dramatic story.

Readers, even in the very best stories, have to nod at something that is just a little unlikely. It is quite a coincidence that Ping should happen to be staying at Green Knowe when Hanno hides out there. But writers earn our indulgence and Lucy Boston, after conjuring up the Congo and gorilla family life, earned mine.

Lucy Boston’s characters aren’t always compelling. Up until now, apart from Susan and Jacob, we can take or leave them. However, we feel very drawn into the world of Hanno. We too become irresponsible. We approve of Ping’s actions in concealing the presence of the gorilla. We want Hanno to escape detection, to even perhaps make his way back to the Congo. Such is the power of the story that we want and hope for the impossible. But in this story Lucy Boston’s feet are firmly on the ground: the impossible does not happen and the climax is superbly emotional.

Ping’s status as a refugee child, which was really of no importance in The River at Green Knowe, resonates here. Who better to feel for Hanno in his little cement-floored cage in the Zoo than the child who has been displaced too: from one cement-floor to another.

Some writers are content to set out on a story without knowing how the story is going to end. We have, as readers, to wonder if that is the right approach, because when we read a story where the beginning contains the seeds of the end, we have a deeply satisfying experience. We feel A Stranger at Green Knowe took shape in Lucy Boston’s mind and that every incident was contributing to the inevitable end, an end that we wish were otherwise but we know is the right one.

For An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964), we are back in Green Knowe with Mrs Oldknow and Tolly and Ping. The evil Melanie D. Powers makes her appearance. She is trying to unearth some information about, or some of the effects of, a Dr. Vogel who stayed in Green Knowe centuries before. She is deep into black magic and in her efforts to wrest Green Knowe from Mrs Oldknow, she sends plagues of maggots and cats and even resorts to more conventional, if very implausible, legal fraudulence.

Here we feel that Green Knowe’s long memory and history gave Lucy Boston an unmanageable freedom. In 900 years there is little that could not, in theory, have happened in a house.

Maitland Pope, a rather detached scholarly tenant of Mrs Oldknow’s, is hardly to be deflected from his studies by the goings-on of Melanie Powers, but ultimately he does combine with them to defeat her.

This story compares well only to The River at Green Knowe, and is superior because it has a main story which does develop, if on improbable lines. Even the reactions of Tolly, Ping and Mrs Oldknow don’t accord with our notions of realistic behaviour. It is very possible to forget that Green Knowe is very close to civilisation, is in suburbia and there is a police force that might be called upon.

An Enemy at Green Knowe ends on what should be a moving note but we are not moved because Lucy Boston has not prepared us for this closing scene. The book has accustomed us to melodrama, and its echoes are too strident to let the book’s “poignant but happy” ending be felt.

Creating an interesting story with characters that act in a believable way is extremely difficult and, at times, defeats all writers. Most stories are weak in places. We accept that. What is often less acceptable is the way stories are written, the careless use of language, and  the use of similes and metaphors that not only fail to illuminate the writer’s meaning but also confuse the reader. Lucy Boston cannot be accused of any such faults. When we read Lucy Boston’s books we receive a masterclass in the art of describing nature in her many different moods. How might a writer, for example, describe a storm, a stone giant on a winter’s night, a gorilla and his family moving through an equatorial forest? Such phenomena present no problem to Lucy Boston. How writers must wish when engaged on that desperate business of description that the spirit of Lucy Boston would hover near and that she would throw to them some description that she never got round to using herself: it is unlikely to be surpassed by anything they will write.

Thomas Macaulay writes of Killarney, Co. Kerry, Ireland

November 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Killarney is worth some trouble, Macaulay writes to Mr. Ellis. I never in my life saw anything more beautiful; I might say, so beautiful. Imagine a fairer Windermere in that part of Devonshire where the myrtle grows wild. The ash-berries are redder, the heath richer, the very fern more delicately articulated than elsewhere. The wood is everywhere. The grass is greener than anything that I ever saw. There is positive sensual pleasure in looking at it. No sheep is suffered to remain more than a few months on any of the islands of the lakes. I asked why not, I was told that they would die of fat; and, indeed, those that I saw looked like Aldermen who had passed the Chair.  (Macaulay visited Killarney in August 1849)

One of the boatmen gloried in having rowed Sir Walter Scott and Miss Edgeworth, twenty-four years ago. It was, he said, a compensation to him for having missed a hanging which took place that very day.  From Killarney, 24th August 1849

From The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay by his nephew George Otto Trevelyan

I borrowed this book on 28th of September 2013 from Hornsey Library’s reserve stock. The borrower before me was supposed to return the book by 21st September 1972.

Who are all these authors?

April 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

Sometimes you can’t help but look around a library, a bookshop or a charity shop and wonder who all the authors of the shelved books are. Who are they? Why have they escaped our notice?

Over sixty years ago, George Orwell estimated that 10,000 books were published a year in the UK; now that figure is closer to 200,000.

Who are all these authors?

Some names are so familiar. On the literary front, to mention a few, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain and, more recently, Tessa Hadley. The same authors are reviewed by different broadsheets. Will no one take a chance on an obscure author?

How often do these names crop up in bestseller lists: Lee Child, Clive Clusser, and Martina Cole. Their thick-spined books can’t be missed. Yet I haven’t read a book by any of them.

Would we ever get to know about most of the Man Booker prize contenders, if they did not make that shortlist? It is so hard to become known, to have a name that means anything to the browser in shops and libraries.

Then there are other award-winning writers from abroad, who we become aware of long after they have become famous in their own countries, (Claire Messud and Richard Russo).

And what about those other authors who are described as distinguished, who have won awards and who have written a number of books but their names mean nothing to us? Where are they now? Do they still write? Do they live off the proceeds of their writing? Perhaps they have a loyal following: readers who await their next book with impatience.

And we must not forget about the vast legion of unpublished writers. Are they like the characters in Tama Janowitz’s short story ‘Physics’: Most of the people, I know were doing one thing but considered themselves to be something else: all the waitresses I knew were really actresses, all the Xeroxers in the Xerox place were really novelists, all the receptionists were artists.

What might Jane Austen have said to Elizabeth Bowen about ‘The Heat of the Day’: A writer must be wary of introducing circumstances of apparent consequence which lead to nothing

March 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

A new intimacy evolves among those who have not fled, and the carelessness of people with no future flows through the evening air. Stella is part of this society. Living in strange rooms, she holds on to the past and weaves the present around Robert, her lover, and Roderick, her son.

Then she discovers that Robert is suspected of selling information to the enemy and that Harrison, who is trailing Robert, wants to bargain, the price for his silence being Stella herself. Slowly, the flimsy structures of Stella’s life begin to break into pieces around her. Extract from Vintage Classics blurb of The Heat of the Day.

Elizabeth Bowen is excellent at scene setting and making interesting relations between characters. One such scene is Louie’s encounter with Harrison in the park. Yet the full significance of the various characters and how they relate to each other is not made clear to me. Various scenes in the book appeared portentous. Of what did they portend? What did the hints and implications amount to? Here is a list of some things that puzzled me:

1. Why have the two disparate stories of Louie and Stella been put together?

2. Nettie, wife of the deceased Francis, is apparently mad and is confined to a home. What form did her madness take? Something dark seems to be hinted at, but it is never elucidated.

3. Why does Robert a grown man address his unmotherly mother as ‘Muttikins’?

4. We are to understand that the Kelways are an odd family: is their oddness responsible for Robert’s supposed treachery? The Kelways don’t seem at all like real people. And as novel people, I don’t understand their function.

5. Mrs Kelway gives a parcel (containing socks, I think) to Stella. She is insistent that it be posted from London as there is no Sunday evening collection where they live. Stella gives this parcel to Harrison to post. A lot of attention is drawn to this parcel: are we supposed to draw some deduction?

6. Roderick is uncomfortable about inheriting Mount Morris in which Nettie (the deceased’s wife) is given no share. He visits Nettie to appease his conscience and to discover if she is as mad as it suits people to think. Their meeting doesn’t throw enough light on anything but seems only to present more unanswered questions. Have bad things been done to Nettie?

7. Louie’s thinking is too involved for someone who often behaves in a perversely stupid manner.

8. Why did Elizabeth Bowen give Stella the married name of Rodney.  Her son’s name is Roderick, so he is Roderick Rodney. Her lover is called Robert. ‘Rodney’ and ‘Robert’ and ‘Roderick’ is a confusing list. Harrison’s name is also Robert. But as we only discover the duplication towards the end of the book, it does not matter.

Elizabeth Bowen, no doubt, worked much into The Heat of the Day in the time (1944-1949) she wrote it which the casual reader does not perceive. Elizabeth Bowen was not a casual writer who wrote words for the sake of filling up her pages. The following two quotations from her ‘Notes on Writing a Novel’ indicate the purposefulness of what she intended to write:

The weak novelist is always, compensatorily, scene-minded. (Jane Austen’s economy of scene-painting, and her abstentions from it in what might be expected contexts, could in itself be proof of her mastery of the novel.)

What must novel dialogue . . .  really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot.

I accept that as a reader I am often deficient. I may read carelessly, and not take in the literal words never mind their meaning. But even allowing for my deficiency, it seems there is some deficiency in The Heat of the Day. I supposed everything mentioned had significance but I did not know what the significance of some characters’ actions were. There seemed to be a foreshadowing of some revelations about the shady doings of cousin Francis.  Our appetite was whet for disclosures that never materialised.

Elizabeth Bowen could hardly have be unaware of introducing circumstances “of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing.”* So what was going on in The Heat of the Day?

Jane Austen to Anna, 1814: Jane Austen Selected Letters 1796-1817 edited by Chapman

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