I started this blog 4 months ago, mainly because I wanted to share some of my ups and downs and what I’ve learned from these, during 25 years or so of poetry and novel writing. Before this, I’d not come across many other reading/writing blog sites so it’s been a great delight to find so many informative, and/or quirky, inspiring, reflective, hilarious, challenging etc etc whole new communities out there.
One I came across recently made me laugh out loud, the way it celebrates one of the most common aspects of a writer’s life: REJECTION!.Now that I’ve reached the part of my own story, where The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society was accepted for publication, it seems like the right time to say a bit more about my own rejection experiences.
I haven’t kept any of the letters which came with my returned short stories during my first attempt at leading a writer’s life, nor those which, at first, caused deeper disappointment with the return of my very first novel. It took a few years for me to understand the full truth of the adage, ‘beware of what you wish for’: I’m profoundly grateful for that rejection – especially the one from an agent who said she’d be interested in seeing my next novel (click here to see what I felt at the time!).
That was in the mid-eighties; my next supply of rejections came with each return journey of my children’s novel, The Tide Machines of Mermaid’s Rock.
In the next few years, I had less time for Novel Writing, and focused mainly on Poetry.I had some success with this, but in the late 90s I was back in the firing line again with my novel, In The Lamb-White Days. This generated some truly lovely rejection letters in the course of its circuitous journey to and from agents, publishers and The Literary Consultancy (a genuinely useful organization, which, in a roundabout way, helped me find a publisher for my next novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society).
The letter below is the one with the nicest compliments, and I’ve been amused to see from the Rejected Writers site how the same types of phrases crop up over decades and distances. I particularly like the notion of 150% commitment!
Even so, I won’t deny that did gain encouragement from it, at the time.
I have enjoyed reading In the Lamb White Days. You have captured those wonderful days of innocence beautifully and have created an utterly charming world (though with certain bleak moments), peppered with some interesting characters. That said, it seems to lack that necessary ingredient that really lifts it off the page and make me want to take it any further. We are a very small agency and take on very few new authors each year. We feel 150% commitment to those writers that we do sign up, and we work alongside them to ensure that their books reach their maximum potential. Sadly, while I have liked In the Lamb White Days, I do feel that it lacks that magical indefinable something that I would look for in a book of this type, and with that in mind, I’m going to have to recommend that you approach another agent. You write very well, and tell a good story, but without feeling that passion for your novel, I feel it would be irresponsible for us to take you on. You deserve to be nurtured and treasured by someone who believes in you and can represent you with that vital enthusiasm.
I am sorry to be the bearer of such disappointing news, but we all have to realise our limitations, particularly if it involves someone else’s career. I am sure that you will find another agent very easily and I will watch your rise to stardom with interest.
To see more about my rejection experiences for my now-published novel, click here.
This story of my fruitless (so far) search for an agent to represent my novel, is turning into something of a shaggy dog story! In my previous post, (see below) I explained how I’d approached Tindal Street Press, and, at first, had been encouraged by their response, asking to see the complete manuscript.
July passed slowly, and as August drifted away into September, I began to fear the worst.
A couple of weeks later, I received a letter from Luke, telling me that, although their reader ‘found this an appealing story, told with energy and insight,’ they would not be publishing my book, because ‘he thought there were too many problems with the plotting.’
The good news was: their reader thought my manuscript had promise - and I might want to take advantage of an offer of further editorial advice. They’d been asked by the National Association of Literature Development to choose some promising manuscripts to send to…(and here is where I experienced a strong case of déjà vu) …The Literary Consultancy for a free read. (See my post, so near and yet…)
For a while, I wondered if I really wanted to take on yet another person’s helpful suggestions for changes, and then, if I was lucky, have the TLC’s reader recommending my book to the same agents who had turned down my previous novel In The Lamb-White Days. I was finding it hard to get rid of the song that had been reverberating in my head since reading Luke’s letter: ‘There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Lisa, dear Lisa….’
But I find it almost impossible to ignore a genuine ‘free offer’. On top of that, I had been told to contact Sibyl Ruth, the Literary Officer at the Midlands Arts Centre at that time, if I wanted to accept the offer – and I had a particular reason for wanting to bring myself to Ruth’s attention.
(This is where Me-as-Poet wants to take centre stage, but the story of Single Travellers, my small poetry collection, will have to wait for a while.) As will, my account of Late Shift’s performances at the EdinburghFestival in 2003
Ruth was very encouraging, and The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society was packaged up again, and posted off to London.
Poetry keeps intruding when I’m focusing on prose, so before I carry on with my account of trying to find a publisher for my novel, I have to make a brief mention of a very entertaining poetry event I attended on Tuesday evening at the welcoming and atmospheric Kitchen Garden Café in Kings Heath.
There was a real buzz to the evening, created not only by the highly entertaining and thought-provoking performance of Luke Kennard,the guest poet, but also from members of the audience who’d signed up for their three-minute floor-spot to recite their own poems. I love hearing these – there’s such a wide variety of styles and subject matter, all delivered with great enthusiasm. And I enjoyed having my own three minutes of attention too.
So far, on this blog, I think that my fiction has taken up most of these posts, and I see that I’ve already reached 2004 without saying much about what had been happening with my poetry. That will have to wait, while I carry on telling you about my novel.
By the time I’d received the disappointing news from Leigh Pollinger, it was already 2004, (see this earlier post) and I’d almost exhausted the supply of literary agents listed in the 2003 Writers & Artists Year Book . Each attempt seemed to have led me round and round, backwards and forwards through a maze of impenetrable hedges. And now I found myself at the start again.
This time, I decided to try a different route to publication. Tindal Street Press, the small, Birmingham-based publisher had recently had its profile raised by the success of Clare Morrall’s brilliant book, Astonishing Splashes of Colour. I’d re-worked The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society to its final, final shape and length, so I felt I had nothing to lose by approaching them. After all, I was a ‘local author’ and my book was based mainly in the Midlands, with several key scenes taking place in Birmingham. I could be in with a chance.
Several weeks later, I allowed my hopes to rise when Luke Brown, the Editorial Assistant asked me for the whole manuscript – their reader had obviously liked what she’d read so far. As the weeks went by, I tried to think of what I could do next if they turned me down. After being rejected by nearly 40 agents and a few publishers, it was beginning to seem that the only realistic option for The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society would be to publish it myself.
One of the activities I’ve most enjoyed since becoming a published author, is giving talks to book-reading groups. Many hundreds of new novels will have made their appearance in the bookshops since my publication date of October 2005, so it was a nice surprise to be invited by Gail at the Sutton Coldfield Waterstones to join the group that meets there once a month on Wednesday mornings, because they’d been reading my book.
It was a lively group with lots of interesting comments and questions, and I’m hoping that I didn’t rattle on a bit too much - once I get started on talking about writing novels and all the other stuff that comes with it (getting published, and then the marketing side of things) there’s no stopping me!. So it was probably just as well that I had to leave them early and get back to work.
This morning at Waterstones, I was asked if I’d approached publishers directly, or went through an agent.
Even before I’d received the definite rejection from Orion, I knew that I had to start hunting for an agent again – so I went out and bought the 2003 version of The Writers & Artists Year Book.
Apart from the addition of a few new literary agents, the most useful development was the occasional invitation to make a first submission via email. Hurray!! I thought, that’ll cut down on postage costs (high) ,and the length of wait for any response (long). It was certainly encouraging to get swift responses from the ones I approached, most of which were encouraging - ‘your book sounds unusual and thought-provoking’ and ‘interesting and original’ (phrases like these are food and drink for a struggling author).
Equally encouraging were requests to see the synopsis and first 3 chapters, and even more encouraging, the few who took things to the next stage and asked for the whole manuscript to be sent. (Yes, sent. By post. Freshly printed pages packed into large jiffy bags with return postage.)
In spite of several encouraging ‘starts’, I was no nearer to persuading an agent to take me on. The nearest I came to that happy situation was a useful correspondence with Leigh Pollinger from Pollinger Ltd. Before that, I thought that I’d cut it as ruthlessly as possible, from 120,000 to 114,00 words.
But when I followed Leigh’s advice to remove one extraneous story-thread and try to reduce the word count to 80,000, I went though the whole manuscript again, removing any paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that wasn’t making an essential contribution to the novel. eventually, I managed to get the word-count down to 87,000, and I know that the book is much stronger than it would have been without this useful advice.
My first contact with Pollinger’s was made in early June 03, and it wasn’t until early February 04, after he’d seen a couple of re-writes, that I was given his final conclusion: this was either ‘the right book, with the wrong title, or the wrong book, with the right title.’ Although I was grateful for the time he’d spent on reading through and commenting on my work, I was beginning to lose heart.
If I wasn’t ever going to find an agent, then I’d need to approach a publisher without one.
Hurray! It’s Friday evening and I’ve got the whole weekend in front of me. I can catch up with emails and phone-chats with friends I’ve been neglecting a bit recently. I might even have time to do more work on my publishing venture, NovelPress. (But more of that at a later date.) And I’ll play around with my newly acquired skill of posting pictures. (Just for practice, here’s one of our cat, Heidi, admiring a few punnets of strawberries from my husband’s allotment)
Meanwhile, I’ll carry on with what I was saying in my last post , The Literacy Consultancy.
Although it’s encouraging to be praised enthusiastically by an experienced agent, it’s also frustrating, since it raises the question, ‘So what else do I have to do to convince an agent to take me on?’
Here is an example of one of those letters, praising and (sadly) rejecting In The Lamb-White Days:
“You have captured those wonderful days of innocence beautifully and have created an utterly charming world (though with certain bleak moments), peppered with some interesting characters. You write very well, and tell a good story, but without feeling that passion for your novel, I feel it would be irresponsible for us to take you on. You deserve to be nurtured and treasured by someone who believes in you and can represent you with that vital enthusiasm.
I am sorry to be the bearer of such disappointing news, but we all have to realise our limitations, particularly if it involves someone else’s career. I am sure that you will find another agent very easily and I will watch your rise to stardom with interest.”
This lovely letter was from Broo Doherty when she was still working for Gregory and Company.
When I’d exhausted TLC’s supply of named contacts, I had to face the fact that this was it. The meandering path had led me, pleasantly enough, back down to where I’d started.
Not quite, though. This whole experience, from winning the prize of a free read with TLC, through all I’d learned from Sara Maitland’s reports, to the encouraging comments from the recommended agents, had boosted my flagging confidence, and given me renewed enthusiasm – enough to get back to my next novel, the ideas for which were still in the very early stages of development.
It had been a useful experience. I’d learned a lot, and in my own eyes at least, I’d been confirmed as a ‘real writer’ worthy of publication. I just hadn’t made it yet. And even if I never did find a publisher, it wouldn’t be because I wasn’t ‘good-enough’. I didn’t actually need ‘permission’ to carry on with my fiction writing – I would do that anyway. But it was nice to be given that affirmation of my skills.
As far as I was concerned, that would be my last contact with TLC and Sara Maitland. I was wrong, as I’ll explain later.
Meanwhile, I needed to get my act together and sort out the jumble of ideas jostling for inclusion in the novel whose main character, following on from my discussions with Clarissa Dickson Wright in the pub in Herefordshire all those years ago, was just emerging from the mist of unconsciousness: seventy-five year-old Agnes Borrowdale. (See my post, ‘about rats and not writing a sitcom’)
I chose a good weekend for driving down to visit my mum - the countryside is so beautiful at this time of year, especially when it’s sunny.
Now it’s Tuesday already and I can’t believe how quickly time is rushing by.
Now, back to what I was talking about in my last post. The first hundred pages of In The Lamb-White Days were read by Sara Maitland, a well-respected and highly accomplished novelist - Her first novel, Daughters of Jerusalem won the Somerset Maugham award. (See my previous post to find out more about my novel). Within a few weeks, I’d received 3 pages of typed A4 paper, full of welcome praise, and critique that was both lucid, and, as I immediately acknowledged to myself, fair.
I’m constantly surprised at the way I manage to ignore some deep seated niggles of doubt about certain passages of my fiction, and phrases of my poems. As soon as these have been pointed out to me, I know that the comments are valid because they strike with the light of recognition.
I still had a lot of work to do on this novel, and I tackled it with enthusiasm. In some ways, I enjoy the re-writing more than the first draft(s).
When I’d managed to reshape it into a form that I was happy with (apart, I later realised, from some aspects of the final section) it was time to contact TLC again. Would I have to pay the full price for a read of the whole manuscript? If so, would I go ahead? I needn’t have worried: as a previous ‘client’, albeit non-paying, I was entitled to a greatly reduced fee.
Sara’s reaction to my amendments was very gratifying, and, still inspired to aim for the best, I went back to the novel again and re-wrote the entire final quarter. Having got this far, it seemed stupid to baulk at another payment. I felt that Sara had so far earned every penny I’d paid. I trusted her judgement implicitly, not only her suggestions for improvements, but also her detailed and specific praise.
The final (and third) report I received, announced that she deemed my book worthy of publication, and would recommend to TLC that they should offer me help in finding an agent. They duly gave me the contact details of a short list of agents whom they felt might be interested in representing me.
From each of these, I received a beautiful letter, praising the quality of my writing, but, suggesting that, although they, themselves, could not offer to represent me, they were certain that I would be successful with another agent.
Before I ‘get back to my novel’, I’ve got to mention poetry first because I’m about to drive over to Leicester to my fortnightly evening meeting with the women’s poetry group, Soundswrite, and this particular meeting is one I’ve been looking forward to for ages - The wonderful poet, Mimi Khalvati is coming up from London to lead a workshop for us, and she is always inspiring - even if I don’t manage to come up with anything during the event, I’ll certainly be taking away a few lines ideas to work on later.
My free time at the moment is divided between my first love (poetry) and my equal love (fiction). I used my-as-yet-unfinished novel as the basis for my dissertation, and achieved my Masters degree - but I hadn’t joined the course for the sake of a qualification. (See my post: ‘Starting my first proper novel’. What meant far more to me than the qualification were my new friendships, and the novel for which I was determined to find a publisher.
When I finished that novel, I was back onto a self-directed course, learning even more about the Difficulties of Getting Published. My first ‘course’ on that subject had been more than fifteen years earlier, and I’d gained nothing to show for it (apart from an increased resilience in the face of rejection.)
Nothing? The hide of a rhinoceros and the tenacity of a terrier were precisely what I needed during the years that followed.
I was already aware that publishers were unlikely even to glance at a standard submission package of three-chapters + synopsis, without the stamp of approval from a reputable agent. (See my earlier post Hunting for and Agent)
In spite of that, I did approach a few publishers direct - ones which, for some reason, I’d hoped might be different from the rest. After all, a person can’t give up their store of magical-thinking without the occasional lapse - you’ve got to leave at least one tiny door ajar, for luck to squeeze through!
My belief in luck diminished as the pile of agents’ rejection slips approached the state of critical mass. It slowly dawned on me that agents themselves were longer the first port of call. I was increasingly finding, along with their brief , ‘Thanks-but-no-thanks’, an enclosed leaflet with information about the third layer: the Professional Readers Services.
The leaflet which turned up more often than any other was from an organisation called The Literacy Consultancy ( or TLC), and, being part-funded by the Arts Council it seemed like the best bet. However, when I saw the fees involved for a full length novel, I put it from my mind.
Until, that is, I came across a writing competition, organised by East Midlands Arts, inviting the submission of the first 100 pages of a novel. The prize for the one (or more) of the most promising manuscripts was a FREE read and subsequent written report from TLC itself.
I won that prize!
Once the first rush of excitement had diminished, I realised that though it was very encouraging in itself, this prize was only a start. It felt a bit like setting out on a winding track that seemed to be leading uphill, but could just as easily wind its way back down to the start again.
(This post might make more sense if you read the one below, before you read this)
My mother was one of the big influences on me as a writer – she was an expert story teller of tales for children. At the time, we didn’t realise that the reason why she insisted it was time for us to go to sleep wasn’t necessarily anything to do with her wish for a bit of peace and quiet before her own bedtime, or that she was deliberately leaving the main characters in an almost impossible situation, in order to whet our appetites for the next instalment, no, it was more likely that she needed time to work out what was going to happen next .
So it was natural for me to make up stories for my two children. And one story grew and grew so long that they insisted I should write it down. So I did. And after school I had to read them the next chapter, and the next, till it had reached 40,000 words, which happened to be the end of the story, and what felt to me like the right length for a children’s novel .
In spite of being a creative writing tutor, my ignorance about the publishing world knew no bounds. It was a bit late to look in the Writers & Artists Year Book to see what they said about age groups and required lengths according to these clearly demarcated boundaries.
So Mermaid’s Rock (later re-written and re-named The Tide Machines of Mermaid’s Rock ) earned lots of rejections slips too, though not as many as ‘A Head for Heights’, because there didn’t seem to be as many agents and publishers who handled fiction for children. And I’d illustrated it with my own drawings too! As I later discovered, another no-no. Still, my children loved it – as did several of my nieces and nephews.
One of these days, I might take another look at it and see if I might be able to do something with it.
(This post might make more sense if you read the one below, before you read this)
There’d been lots of other writing-related developments in the twenty years between writing that story and launching my published novel. There were many more ‘boomerang’ short stories and I thought I was becoming quite hardened to rejection. Little did I know that I was still a mere novice in the art of, ‘Oh well. Maybe next time…’
Perhaps it was that minor success which gave me the impetus to write a full length novel – that, and all the ‘How to Write’ books I was reading in order to help ‘my’ creative writing students.
Whoever first said, ‘Ignorance is bliss,’ was dead right. In spite of my B.A. Hons in Eng Lit, followed in later years by everything I’d learned from my students’ work, and from reading all those books about writing, I was virtually clueless.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, I revelled in the experience of working on a novel. Instead of facing regular blank starts as I struggled with the plot of another short story, or tried in vain to catch the vague feelings that were hovering out of reach above the part of my brain marked ‘Poetry’, my ‘novel’ was writing itself.
Somehow it managed to uncover the peaks and troughs in my generally uneventful life, and shape these, (together with a few imagined disappointments, joys and expectations) into something like a coherent whole: approximately 70, 000 words of a novel, the title of which, I’d taken from that short story, A Head for Heights.
So, armed with my ignorance, and my first Writers & Artists Year Book, I set out on the long hunt for an agent. Even now, that hunt goes on. Or, to be more accurate, has only just been halted – but I’ll come to that later.
A lot has changed in the publishing world since then – For a start, the NET book agreement still held good – not that I had the least idea of what that meant for authors.
In those days, some agents were prepared to nurture talented new writers, even if their first published novel stood only a small chance of making much money for anyone. They could afford to be patient, because they knew that (in those far-off, happy days) commissioning editors had some level of autonomy, and could trust their own judgement in spotting a promising writer, whose big success might not materialise until their second or third novel.
I can now appreciate the handwritten letter from one agent who said that while H for H was not for them, she’d be happy for me to send her my next novel. My next novel!! Didn’t she know that a novel took at least a whole year to write – that it wasn’t a matter scribbling down yet another short story, or a twenty line poem. This was bulky stuff. Serious work. And that woman could glibly refer to ‘my next novel’!
Some time later (several years, in fact) I was profoundly thankful that it hadn’t been published. It was, as the astute agent had seen, a ‘bottom drawer’ novel – an apprentice piece, a hotchpotch of semi-autobiography. It also demonstrated that, in patches, I could write well, but it wasn’t something I’d want to have my name attached to.