The Waiting Game

chairs against wall

On Meeting an Agent by Janey L Foster

So you know how it goes – festival folder clutched to your chest, like a shield, like a prized possession. And your lanyard flips and shines in the sun as you walk with purposeful steps to the first appointment. It’s quiet and you’re early but the space is good for the nerves. You nod to guides and helpers but you know where you’re going. Your shoes click the stairs as you throw out a knowing smile to a delegate coming back down. At the desk you announce yourself to the fluorescent pens and spreadsheets with your hope fuelled confidence that hides the butterflies under your dress.

And you wait.

And you wait with the others. The collection of faces from other towns with tales of train journeys, told to ease the minutes as they ticked.  You rearrange papers because just one more shuffle wouldn’t hurt, you swing your shoe on the tip of your toe letting the through draft cool your heel.

And you’re all there, waiting with your words, fine tuned and formatted; your stories about to lay bare.

You stop waiting.

You’re summoned in. In polite procession with brief eye contact and ‘good lucks’ you find your place, with a table in between you and the tension of a delivery room, you wait for the words from the agent’s mouth.

And you’re grateful for the handshake and the smile, the warmth of a human touch, as she does her job with enthusiasm and passion from the other side of the tracks. Her phrases tumble out and swirl around you, her thoughts and her notes and more smiles. You hear yourself go up a gear as your own words find their order and your characters sit on your shoulder, whispering into your ear. And for a number of moments there is just the connection, not minutes on a clock. And you want to hold the moment, let the world in your head burst through and dance in between you on the table, over her notes and up her sleeves. Miniature protagonists in all their time-lines and their glory, weaving and spinning golden threads around her till she’s bound and laced into the plot. And you listen, just outside yourself, to her suggestions and you talk and you laugh and you buzz.

Time breaks through and you wind up. Other sounds and people fade in and fill out the edges as your awareness seeps back into the room. The handshake again, the smile, the thanks

…and The Request: You get a second date.

You leave. You seem to move just above the carpet, You beam at the girls in yellow but can’t stop. You have to move, to almost run and the stairs turn to silk under your fast feet. You’re back out in brightness with her voice in echoed ripples in your head.

You want to grab your protagonist’s hand and dance until your feet crumble into the earth. You want to shout, you want to burst.

But you don’t. You walk with purposeful steps, you find a quiet place and you tap. You fill your Notes App with the words and her comments. You think and you plan and you beam.

Delegates come and go around you. Doors close, the chatter muffles and you find a bin for your coffee cup.

Your next appointment is due. You gather yourself back up, clutch your festival folder to your chest and head back. Lanyard fluttering in the stark sunlight up to familiar steps and the plastic seats and the wait.

It’s summer. You hold onto your protagonist’s hand – you have journeys ahead.

The dreaded D Word

I was instilled with a certain amount of fear about having to write another dissertation. The mere word brought back all the memories of last year; filling my summer with research, reading every book on my subject, juggling it alongside other essays, word count deadlines, the endless drafts, locking myself in my room for six weeks and not looking at anything other than that word document until it made sense. In summary, it took me a full nine months to cram all my research into one coherent narrative, like birthing a terrible paper child. I even had a full scale meltdown in the final few weeks which culminated in several long nights spent with pages all over my parents’ floor, fretting over which sentence I could lose to get under the maximum word limit.

I’m a little scared about repeating the whole process.

So I finished my final essay and handed it in, knowing what was waiting for me around the corner.

I met with my tutor for that all important first discussion. I had decided on my final idea after thinking about books I had read recently that I would love to put my own spin on. It came to me like a giant shiny arrow covered in light bulbs had just descended over my desk and picked up the book which I was thinking about most and made it float in front of my eyes. And then I had to manically scribble the entire thing on a post-it, because I was actually at the train station, walking somewhere, I can’t quite remember. All I know is it was one of THOSE moments. Everything clicked and, I hate to use the word because it’s annoying and bland, but it suddenly all made sense.

So I entered the first meeting with a clear plan, and I think that’s key. I had rationalised my idea to myself over and over, thought about whether I could make it work in the word limit and started making notes, began researching the novels I would deal with. It was totally doable to me. And I was consequently delighted when my tutor thought so too. I left feeling so joyous and floating home I had another giant arrow moment when my first character started talking to me. I scrambled to find my writing journal. We only work with hastily written scribbles which are barely legible here.

Over the ensuing weeks I have kept calm. My tutor asked me about deadlines and I remained vague as I don’t work well to word counts. I decided to make this year easier so to avoid last year’s meltdown madness. I made a wall calendar with crucial dates and worked out my reading list for the following eighteen or so weeks. I’ve set myself rough deadlines but I’m not fretting just yet.

And I have to say, it’s technically early days, but it’s going well. My characters are shifting constantly, but that’s okay. It’s all coming together and I feel good, capable and, crucially, in control. We have sixteen weeks of this. It’s totally doable.

Everything is awful but keep going – Guest Post from David Owen

Writer David OwenWhen my first publishing deal was confirmed I was standing in a Sainsbury’s car park that smelled of urine. It didn’t involve champagne and fireworks and slow motion jumping like I had always imagined. I accepted the news, ended the call, and went back inside to help my dad find the cheapest bacon.

Later that day I text my agent to apologise for not seeming pleased. What I really felt was profound relief. After so many months of rejections I was just happy that my preceding years of hard work had finally paid off.

Although there is undoubtedly a great deal of luck involved in getting an agent and a publishing deal, you will never be on the receiving end of that luck without having first worked ludicrously hard. My first novel took me a couple of years to write and was promptly rejected by every agent under the sun. It was rubbish, and they were right to do it. My second novel took something like four years, written alongside two jobs and an MA, went from one book to a trilogy and back again via an ill-advised jaunt into self-publishing, and at the end of it fell on the scrapheap.

But it got me an agent. Baby steps.

So when I heard the news I was relieved, but I knew it was only the beginning. This was just an oversized toe in the door. The book wouldn’t even be out for 18 months. So I went home and got straight back to work on the next book I was already writing.

Since then I’ve finished that second novel (when it comes to chronology I choose to disown my failed, rejected children) and am deep into redrafts of a third. I get up at 6am every morning to write before work, and I follow that with a few hours in the evening.

I have my first publishing deal, but it doesn’t guarantee me any future success. I must make that for myself. Writing is wonderful, but it is also work, and all you can do, wherever you are in your career, is work as hard as you can because you can’t do anything but, so that when it pays off you know you earned it.

David’s debut novel Panther is released today. For more about David: check out his Twitter feed https://twitter.com/davidowenauthor or his website: http://www.davidowenbooks.com/

Revision Tips and Tricks – Guest Post from Sara Grant

Head shot of author, Sara GrantI’d love you to believe that this is my writing process:

  1. A fully formed idea for my next novel springs to mind while I’m sipping champagne on my private jet.
  2. I type the manuscript in a rush. The story unfolds perfectly from my brain to the page.
  3. I immediately send it to my agent. She reads it and forwards it on to my publisher and they all agree – every word and punctuation mark is pitch perfect.

I WISH.

Every writer has some sort of revision process. If an author suggests otherwise, he/she is either a liar or unpublished.  Revision is the key to making a good story great. But revising is much more than reading your manuscript from start to finish.

I used to hate revising my stories. I was hooked on the thrill of capturing the idea on the page. Once I’d told the story to myself, I didn’t really know how to improve what wasn’t working. Over the course of many years, I have devised a system to dissect my story. I start with the big picture and consider plot, subplots, pacing and characters. Once I’m happy with the overall story then I review and edit my work chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene and ultimately I scrutinise every line and word.

To share my complete revision process would be more of a book than a blog. I love talking about revision and have given revision workshops. (I now offer them as part of www.bookboundretreat.com) Here are a few key tips:

  • Review the big picture first. Don’t waste time line editing when you may end up cutting an entire scene or chapter. If you’ve polished a section of your prose until it sparkles, you will be less likely to cut it when you realise it’s not serving your story.
  • Know what’s at the heart of your story. Write down a sentence or two that explains why you are writing this particular story – not the plot or theme but why this story is important to you and why you are the only person who can tell it. You may need to change plot, characters, setting, etc…but know what’s at the heart of your story and remain true to it throughout the revision process.
  • Make an inventory of your story. Create a chart and in a sentence or two write down the action (what happens) and also the importance of each chapter – why is this chapter necessary? If you removed it, would the story suffer? Look at the pace of your story. Is every chapter moving your plot and subplots forward? If you are writing a funny story, put an asterisk by funny moments. If it’s a romance, where are the romantic scenes? If the story is a mystery or action-adventure, highlight where the twists and the surprises are in your story.
  • Read the first and then the final chapter of your novel. Your first chapter promises a journey. Am I captivated? Does the final chapter deliver on the first chapter’s promise? I think the first and last chapters should have a resonance.

And two micro-revision tips:

  • Circle the verbs. Now read only the circled words. Do you have a sense of the action? Are your verbs working hard enough? Are there verbs you over use? Watch out for passive voice – there was, it is, etc. It drains the energy from your story.
  • Proofread your story once from beginning to end then proof read your chapters out of order. Often I’m fatigued by the time I’m reading the final chapters so the next time I proofread, I start with the final chapter. Sometimes I read my paragraphs on a page out of order to look for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.

The most difficult thing about revision is knowing when to stop. I revise until I can think of no other way to improve my manuscript. Then I send it to my agent – and she always finds a few more opportunities for improvement. Then the process starts again. Sometimes it can feel unending, but I’ve already invested hundreds of hours in my story; what’s twenty or forty or even a hundred more?

Good luck with your revisions!

About Sara Grant

Book coversSara writes and edits fiction for children and teens. Dark Parties, her first young adult novel, won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Crystal Kite Award for Europe. Her next teen novel – Half Lives – is a story told in two voices from a pre- and post-apocalyptic time.

Book covers of Sara Grant young readersShe also writes a funny magical series for young readers, titled Magic Trix. As a freelance editor of series fiction, she has worked on twelve different series and edited nearly 100 books. She has given writing workshops in the US, UK and Europe as well as guest lectured at the University of Winchester. She co-founded Undiscovered Voices – which has launched the writing careers of 26 authors, who now have written more than 120 children’s books. (www.undiscoveredvoices.com) Sara was born and raised in Washington, Indiana. She graduated from Indiana University with degrees in journalism and psychology, and earned a master’s degree in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She lives in London.

Writing and Breathing – Guest Post from Robin Mukherjee

Robin MukherjeeThe sweetness of adversity is noticeable, sometimes, only in retrospect. I was in my early twenties, a law career abandoned, my prospects vague, employment meagre and resources negligible. Old associates from university were landing gainful positions in legal practices, finance companies, even seats in parliament. I was taking time out to think, working in an old people’s home because I felt I’d never actually done anything useful; in those days I liked to see things in primary colours.

As a younger child I had suffered terrible asthma. This meant long nights contemplating the meaning of existence and the elusive nature of breath. In those dark, insomniac interludes I discovered writing, not as an activity, but as a way of being. In imagination I could jump and laugh and play while the other form, the physical lump, hunched over the desk inert and incapable. I never went anywhere without my inhaler. And, after a while, I never went anywhere without a pen and paper. The asthma passed, thankfully. The urge to write has not.

So that’s the impulse, carved into my soul as hungry as the need to breathe. What amuses me, looking back, is that I never quite made the equation between writing and earning. I wrote and wrote; all kinds of things, scraps, notes, short stories, poetry, the beginnings of novels, one of which I rewrote as a television script. One day my brother came to visit. I was out, but my girlfriend (now wife) was in. They dug up that script and sent it to the BBC. A few weeks later I was astonished to get a letter. Why the hell would the BBC be writing to me? They said they weren’t sure about the script, but were interested in the passion behind it. I went to see them, was assigned a mentor (who remains a great friend), received guidance, was encouraged to write for theatre, was mercilessly criticised and generously praised. Eventually one of my stage plays led to a radio commission, to an agent, to my first television gig.

I have been busy ever since. I am busy now. I even teach a little, while writing, and am constantly amazed to see that same passion, purpose and crazy leap of faith reflected back at me from a roomful of young faces. The routes into professional writing are clearer these days, with myriad courses across the country at every level of education, but faith, passion and craziness are still the price of admission. The most accomplished writer remains threaded to his younger self: the long nights, urgent needs, quiet thoughts and private dreams that shape the mind and heart.

That I wrote for love over reward might seem quaintly noble but it was merely realistic at the time. Perhaps you can’t tell a story you haven’t lived, nor understand your story until you’ve told it. Still, I do exhort my students not to be shy about getting their work out there (lights under bushels and all that). And I wonder sometimes – not without a little chill – what would have happened if I’d been in, that day, when my brother called.

The Art of ScreenplaysRobin Mukherjee has written extensively for television, radio, film and theatre. His most recent television feature was nominated for a BAFTA. His film ‘Lore’ won numerous international awards and was Australia’s official entry to the oscars. He has recently been appointed as a lecturer in scriptwriting at Bath Spa University and is currently completing the MA Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. Present projects include a feature film adaptation of Paul Scott’s Booker Prize winning novel ‘Staying On’, and contributions to Series 2 of ‘Hetty Feather’ for CBBC.

Robin’s book, The Art of Screenplays: A Writers Guide was published last year. This is a working handbook for writers with stories to tell. Addressing the key issues of creativity and craft, its aim is to connect with our natural understanding of story, to demystify the screenwriter’s art, and to enable fresh, original and authentic writing.

Website: robinmukherjee.com 

Guano Toupee – Guest Post from Mark Rutter

Mark RutterSometime back in the early 1990s I started a poem based on an off-hand remark. I was walking through London with my old friend Mike Harris when, between pubs, we passed a statue of Churchill, the head of which was covered in bird shit. ‘I like the guano toupee’, I said, or something like that, and Mike laughed, prompting me to note it down on a beer-mat as he went to the bar to buy a round. Years later, Mike told me that the statue had been electrified to stop the birds from landing on it and taking a shit on the eminent prime minister’s head.

I sent the poem to the Hawai’i Review along with five other haiku, and they wrote back saying they’d like to publish it, but only if I gave it a title. So I came up with ‘Tory Wig’, which I thought of as nothing more than a silly pun.

Recently while I was looking for a visual poem of mine online I noticed something unusual at the bottom of the screen: ‘mark rutter caustic poem hawaii’. I clicked on it and, to my surprise, found this very poem quoted on page 117 of a book about the history of the Pacific: Reimagining the American Pacific, by Rob Wilson:

The 1993 “sovereignty issue” of Hawai’i Review commemorating – and by diverse        voices and genres, contesting – the disposal of queen Lili’uoka-lani by the         missionary-sugar oligarchy in 1893, ends with Mark Rutter’s caustic poem “Tory          Wig”.

 Queen who? Wilson goes on to explain that the poem is ‘a haiku to the Euro-American will to possession across a native-emptied Pacific, for purposes of monumentality’, and then quotes it in full:

Tory Wig

Churchill statue:
the firm, determined chin,
the guano toupee.

 ‘The guano toupee’, explains Wilson, ‘may be a souvenir of the American presence as it took possession of the Pacific,’ and then outlines the poem’s reference to an act of Congress:

In 1856, Congress enacted the so-called Guano Law that empowered the U.S.      president to take over bird-shit-rich islands in the Northern Pacific and absorb them as “appertaining to the United States” with its interests in fertilizers and high explosives during the Civil War. One of these guano-rich islands was Johnson-Atoll, called       Kalama Islands by Hawai’ians, which is being used as a nuclear weapons incineration site by the USA, dumping ground for a kind of cold war bird shit.

By now I was amazed at the historical and cultural reach of my ‘caustic poem’, the sheer density of historical reference I’d managed to pack into it without having the faintest idea I’d done it.

Yet Rob Wilson has enormously extended the meaning of the poem by his misinterpretation – if that is what it is – and in an odd way, it seems to fit. I like the idea that, without intending to, I had satirised a whole era of the western imperialist project, referring in the process to the Guano Law, a law so ludicrously named it could itself be part of a satire. And it makes me wonder if writers are like mediums, channelling meanings they are unaware of, out of the ether of language.

Basho in AcadiaPoet Dr Mark Rutter teaches on the MA Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. His poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Other Poetry, Magma, Interpreter’s House and London Magazine. He has had two collections published in the US, where he lived from 1990-2002: The Farmhouse Voices (Puckerbrush), and water fir rook hand (Tatlin).

He has recently published Basho in Acadia (Flarestack Poets). Rooted in naturalism, these poems share an imagistic power and present a complex vision of the wild landscape of the Maine coast along with the creatures that inhabit it. A verbal-visual work, Homage to Andrei Tarkovksy, is due from Tatlin Books (Maine) this year.

Weird Tales – Guest Post from Marcus Sedgwick

Novelist Marcus SedgwickQuestion One: How do you get an agent? That’s certainly in the top ten questions you get asked as a published writer, and it’s a fair one at that – most people trying to get a book published have heard that it’s impossible to get a book published without one, and only almost impossible with one. I exaggerate, but not much.

Question Two: How should you react when someone tells you something utterly unbelievable? That’s not a question I have ever been asked, but I have at times wished I knew the answer. There was the time someone told me in all seriousness that the wall of their bedroom became a swirling portal to somewhere else. There was the time someone told me they once teleported across a room. And the time someone told me they fell out of a tree but were caught by the Green Man. Yes. Ahem.

I’ll answer Question One first. In my case, I did what you’re supposed to do, namely contact likely-looking agents listed in the Artist and Writer’s Yearbook (this was the 1653 edition, obviously) and write to them all, and then I happily waited for a few weeks while not one of them replied to me. However, finally, one day I found a promotional copy of a book in the stockroom of the bookshop I worked in, and by chance it had an agent’s address label on it. Not being one of the people I had contacted so far, I wrote to her. She suggested I send her something. She liked it, and suggested we arrange a meeting to see if we would be able to work together.

Back to Question Two: well, this is one you’re going to have to work out for yourself, as I tell you a strange but yes, of course, true story about something odd that once happened to me. When I was still a skinny student, around 21 years old, I was idling away a hot summer morning in my student pad, when I suddenly noticed writing on my leg. I should specify that I was wearing shorts, and that the writing was not writing that I had put there. It was not in ink, but was, sort of, embossed in my skin. It was somewhat sideways, but it was very clearly a date, and the date was March 6. No year was specified, but for the next 5 or 6 years I assumed that I had been presented with the date of my death, and with each March 7th that rolled along, I would breathe a sigh of relief. As the years went by I finally began to wonder if perhaps it would be something good that happened on March 6th, and eventually, we come to March 6th 1998, when I met my soon-to-be agent for the first time; a date which my soon-to-be agent had chosen, not I. Cynics among you will suggest that something eventually had to happen on a date I had been looking out for. In fact, cynics among you will assert that I was off my face back in 1990, but I am a clean living gentleman and I assure you I was not. So how then should you react when someone tells you something utterly unbelievable? Who knows? If I were you, I’d make an excuse to leave and shuffle away. Yes. Ahem.

If there’s anyone left, I’ll just add one more thing; which is this: even more important than finding the right agent, with or without supernatural help, I would suggest, is that you write the right book. What’s the right book? Well, it’s the one that you most want to tell, even if you think people might look at it and shuffle off sideways muttering ahem to themselves. Copy what other people are doing at your peril. Write something truly original and every publisher in London will have your hand off at the elbow. Believe that, and it just might happen.

MS March 2015

Marcus Sedgwick is the author of many YA novels and has also written his first novel for adults A Love Like Blood and released a novella, Killing the Dead, for World Book Day. Marcus has won the Blue Peter Book Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the Printz Award.  In addition he has received numerous nominations, including the Carnegie Medal, the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.

To find out more about Marcus and his work, head to http://www.marcussedgwick.com/