Friday, November 20, 2015

A binge on the backlist - who I'm reading right now!

When I find an author I love, I’m a binge reader. I’m reading my sixteenth or seventeenth Phil Rickman novel at the moment. I’ve lost count. I began with the Merrily Watkins series as recommended to me simultaneously by a couple of friends. This was before the television series, which I didn’t watch, because by the time it was shown, I had very definite ideas about the characters and I didn’t want to interfere with them. I enjoyed them all, although they did grow very dark towards the end of the series, almost too dark for me. And Jane, Merrily’s daughter, sometimes irritated me to the point where I wanted her to meet with a sticky end. But these were minor matters and I was never going to stop reading. From there, I moved smoothly on to Rickman’s backlist, novels written and published in the 1990s, big, meaty books, right up my street: earth mysteries, witchcraft and the supernatural, folklore, custom and belief, the occasional murder, but all told brilliantly – what a wonderful storyteller this author is!

I find myself racing on, late into the night. And I’ve been reading these books at the same time as I’ve been writing a fairly hefty and demanding new novel myself. But they’ve been just what I’ve needed to take my attention away from my own obsessions. I generally read in the evenings, or – especially when I’ve been writing late into the night – in bed for an hour or so before falling asleep. Every time I go back to one of Rickman’s books it has been a sheer pleasure, the kind of excited anticipation that you only get with a good book.

Once you’ve come to the end, you just want to move smoothly on to the next.

The thing is, though, that I would never have been able to do this without Amazon. Well, I would. But it wouldn't have been easy. I’ve read all of these books on my Kindle, and with the exception of a single short story that I ‘borrowed’ with Kindle Unlimited, I’ve bought them all, steadily, one after another and sometimes two or three at a time.

I checked in one of my local bricks and mortar bookstores last week – I love this bookstore and visit it and buy from it – but they had only one or two Rickman novels in stock as far as I could see and none of that dense and wonderful backlist. I know they could have ordered paperbacks for me but that would have been an expensive business and I would have rationed myself. Or I would have thought better of it and moved on to another author. The simple fact is that we can't all afford to spend as much as we would like on books. 

Most of my purchases were made in that frame of mind where you’ve finished a great book and want more of the same and you want it NOW. They were made late at night when I had come to the end of one novel, heaved a sigh of satisfaction, clicked on that little cart on my beloved Paperwhite and bought a couple more, just to be on the safe side.

I don’t blame the bookstore for this. They only have the shelf space to accommodate the backlist of a handful of starry authors. I still love them, still browse and buy from them (and drink the occasional coffee there as well). But when I’m absolutely addicted to a writer and want to binge, it’s Amazon I’m going to turn to. And when I think about that as a professional writer, I would be crazy if I didn’t want other people to do something similar with my own work - even though I have nothing like Rickman’s amazing backlist.

I don’t know which book to recommend most. I liked Night After Night best of all, but it's the second or third book involving a few of the same characters. You don't have to read them in order, but it's more satisfying if you can. Rickman clearly becomes fond of certain characters (so does the reader) and continues them into new and different series and mini series. The novels are scary, but not revolting in the way some crime novels are revolting – or at least I don’t find them so. The supernatural elements are well handled and believable. The characters are likeable and the villains suitably villainous. The landscapes sing off the page. You’ll want to visit these places if you don’t already know them. And he really knows his stuff where folklore, custom and belief are concerned.

So I can recommend them. But unfortunately, the end is in sight. I've almost read them all. He has a new novel coming out soon. Will my backlist binge last until the new book is out? Well, probably. But after that, I’ll have to move on, find another writer to satisfy the urge. 

I seem to remember that I had a mini binge on China Mieville some time ago. Then I got distracted. But I see that there are a lot of his novels I haven’t read yet. Which cheers me up no end. And a television series of The City & The City - one of the best novels I have ever read - is planned, which doesn't cheer me up at all, because I can't understand how anyone could ever squeeze that amazing novel into the constraints of television. I'll probably stick with the novel. 

So tell me - what books do you binge on? And whose backlist have you found irresistible? 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Timelines, Killer Details and Thank God for Google: Researching Historical Fiction.

So many reference books ...
As usual, I'm reblogging my latest post for Authors Electric here on my own blog, for anyone who might be interested. This time it's about the process, the joys  - and the occasional pitfalls - of historical research.

Those of us who write historical fiction will be well aware that there are various ways of setting about it. There’s no single right or wrong way and the volume of research needed will vary not just according to how well you know the period, how immersed you are in a particular time and place, but will also depend upon the kind of fiction you’re writing, and reader expectations too. One reader’s unacceptable anachronism may well be excused by another reader who is happy to focus on the story rather than the detail. Most writers know their readers, know what they want and I’m not about to argue with that.

Personally speaking, I do masses of research. In fact I have to persuade myself to stop, give myself permission to get on with the writing, because there’s a part of me that enjoys the research too much, especially going back to primary sources: letters, contemporary accounts, old documents of the kind where you have to ‘get your eye in’ even to read them. It’s justified procrastination. But sooner or later, you have to write the book.

The book in question is a new novel called The Jewel, all about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, due to be published next spring. So you set the research aside, and immerse yourself in the world of the novel. Then two things happen. You realise that you have to go easy on what’s included. Historical research informs the novel, informs the way the characters behave, but if you try to put in everything you now know, the novel will suffer from great indigestible chunks of fact for fact's sake. At the same time – paradoxically - it's only when you begin to write that you discover all the things you really need to know, but that have somehow eluded you.

My favourite Jean and Rab:
Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie
When I was planning this post, it struck me that there are three key points to researching historical fiction. Well, in truth, there are lots more, probably as many as there are writers. But these three issues always loom very large for me, so it’s worth sharing them.

I think of them as TimelinesKiller Details and TGFG or Thank God for Google.

When you’re researching something that really happened, even if you’re going to allow yourself to make up all kinds of things that might or might not have happened, timelines are vital. Knowing your dates. And I don’t just mean what year something happened, but what time of the year something happened – and what else was going on at the same time. It is amazing how often knowing precisely when something happened in relation to something else gives you an interesting perspective on your subject: one that may even be counter intuitive. For example, it soon became clear to me that Jean didn’t actually fall pregnant for the first time in summer, even though the imagination loves to conjure pictures of outdoor dalliance among the mountain daisies, but in the middle of a damp, chilly, Ayrshire winter. Which immediately makes you wonder about the how and the where of it, especially at a time when houses were crowded, privacy was at a premium and both parties knew that her parents disapproved of the poet to the point of paranoia. I have plenty of ideas about the how of it, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I think! 

Time and again, the juxtaposition of dates and events either explained something satisfactorily, or threw up a conundrum that served to make the story more interesting.

Alongside these timeline issues though, are what I like to think of as killer details. These are more likely to come from primary sources: statistical accounts, parish records, surviving letters; and it’s vital to go back to them wherever you can. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite like seeing the real signatures of your protagonists, and knowing that the people you are writing about were once there in the flesh, holding a pen, making those marks on that particular piece of paper. (OK, I admit it, I shed a tear when I thought about that one!) There’s the fact that in another document, the word ‘child’ suddenly becomes ‘children’ long before the babies in question were born, suggesting that the midwife must have heard two heartbeats. There’s a contemporary description of the internal geography of an alehouse that allows you to ascertain the truth or otherwise of a particular piece of gossip. There’s the sudden realisation that you have - serendipitously, and while looking for something else - come across the details of another birth that has significance for the plot you want to construct. These are small details that may seem insignificant but they add authenticity. And the excitement of discovering them is incomparable.

Jean lived in a room here. So did Rab - on and off.
Finally, there’s Google. Thank God for Google. Take the tiny, unimportant example of Ballachulish slate. I live in a house – a listed building - with a Ballachulish slate roof. (You can see something similar in the picture above.) This kind of slate is no longer available except in reclaimed and reconditioned form although substitutes are generally used. For a small and relatively unimportant detail in the story, I found myself assuming that Jean Armour’s father – a prosperous Ayrshire stonemason - would have used Ballachulish slate, especially on the houses of the wealthy. But rereading the chapter, it tripped me up. Just how old is Ballachulish slate? When did they start quarrying it? In the olden days before Google, I would have had to go to the library, look it up and waste precious writing time checking when the quarry was in its heyday and how likely it was that an Ayrshire stonemason and building contractor would have had his roofers using it some thirty years before our own house was built. Or - more likely - I would have deleted Ballachulish altogether and reverted to the simple word ‘slate’. Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. It was a minor detail. But in terms of authenticity, all the Ayrshire builders I know have used the description Ballachulish slate. So, it turns out, might Jean Armour's dad. Thank God for Google in dozens of small but interesting ways.

So those are my three important issues. But of course there are plenty more. If you're writing historical fiction, or even considering it - what's the most important challenge for you? 

Even more research books...

My historical novel The Physic Garden is still available
in paperback and as an eBook from most outlets.
If you want to see my first 'take' on Rab and Jean, you can read my play
  Burns on the Solway on Kindle and on most other eBook outlets too.
The Jewel is scheduled for publication next spring.
Watch this space!
Catherine Czerkawska 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Physic Gardens, Gardeners and Poets

The Physic Garden is on special offer on Amazon at the moment - 99p for the eBook, and I'm not at all sure how long that is going to go on! It could go back to full price any moment, so if you're reading this and have missed the boat, apologies. Not that it's terribly expensive at full price. And because the cover is so beautiful - many thanks to Glasgow Museums for supplying my publisher, Saraband, an image of a sampler that was not only right for the novel, but pretty much right for the date too - the paperback is a lovely book as well. It's one you might be glad to have on your shelves, even if, like me, you prefer reading novels on a Kindle.

Did I really say that? Well, I'm afraid it's true. But sometimes, when I like a particular book a lot, I want to have it in both versions.

And I'm a small time collector of antiquarian books as well, so my shelves are fairly cluttered with old volumes, not even very valuable old volumes either: just extremely pre-loved.

Extremely pre-loved books.
I really do like the smell of those. I honestly don't care about the scent of new books, even my own new books. They sort of smell of paper and nothing else and so does bog roll or printer paper. But old books, very old books - oh, like old textiles, they smell of time, and the perfume of the past, and I can get quite sentimental over those.

When I was researching the Physic Garden - a book I sometimes think I ought to have called The Psychic Garden, because that's what so many people want to call it! - it struck me that my narrator/gardener/bookseller, William, of whom I'm still very fond indeed, would have known all about Robert Burns. The lives of the two would have overlapped, in terms of time although they would never have met. Burns would have died only six years before William first met his sweetheart, Jenny Caddas, taking her swarm of bees. So when William, whose narrative voice was so strong that I was never quite sure what he was going to say next, mentions Robert Burns, and the challenges he must have faced in the houses of the Edinburgh gentry, it seemed perfectly feasible. 'But then, I believe, the poet's father was a gardener too, and it was that work which first took him to Ayrshire where Rab was born,' writes William.
The cottage William Burness built. 

Much more recently, as regular readers of this blog will know, I've been finishing a new historical novel about Jean Armour, the wife of that same Robert Burns. This is no coincidence. I was already immersed in the time and place and had previously written a couple of plays about the poet, but had always wanted to write more, a lot more, about Jean.

Because the new novel, titled The Jewel, is primarily about Jean, the poet's father - also called William - only figures peripherally. He was dead by the time the family moved to Mossgiel farm outside Mauchline. He comes across in most of the biographies as a kindly father, intelligent and thoughtful but very strait-laced and rather grim. His son felt that his father was disappointed in him. Yet it struck me that William  Burness, as he signed his name, must have had some spirit of adventure as a young man. He moved from the North East where he was born, first to Edinburgh to work as a gardener, and thence to Ayrshire. Moreover, he met Agnes Broun, the poet's mother, at the fair in Maybole and married her with a certain amount of precipitation, so it must have been a whirlwind courtship! Perhaps the poet, whose chief virtue was genuine kindliness and who could be impulsive, was more like his father than he knew.

Greenside, Maybole, Ayrshire.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Creative Visualisation: Being There

Been spending a lot of time with this lady!
There has been a great deal in the news recently about something called ‘aphantasia’ or the inability to conjure up images inside your head. You can read all about it on the BBC Website here.

There is a whole spectrum of abilities, and people at one end of it can’t do it at all. I was intrigued to note that the late great Oliver Sachs was ‘face blind’ so that when shown, for example, a photograph of Oprah Winfrey, he had no idea who she was. Well, maybe not everyone does know who she is, but this was not a one off. A series of well known faces provoked a shrug and a shake of the head. There’s a whole section of the population who lead perfectly normal lives without being able to visualise things inside their heads. They know, they just can’t visually imagine.

It got me thinking, especially because I had just finished a draft of a rather complicated historical novel, so I was very much in creative writing mode. Most writers of fiction will know that alongside the perennial ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ question, (which makes a lot of sense to non-writers who are intrigued by it, but provokes a faint feeling of dismay in writers, who are generally drowning in unsolicited ideas), there’s the OTHER thing.

I used to think there was a gap but I think of it more as a yawning chasm between non-writers and writers in this respect, and now I know that the ability that creative writers tend to have in spades has a name: hyperphantasia. For most of us, it may be even more intense than that.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, call it super-hyperphantasia.

I suspect most writers of fiction are hyperphantasiacs (if that's even a word!) and if they aren’t, I’d lay bets they aren’t very good creative writers.

But the reports got me wondering if the scientists conducting this research have thought about ways in which writers and other creative people, artists for example, enter this state? To some extent you can summon it at will but I’m not entirely sure you can do it to somebody else’s specification. If you ask me to visualise pretty much anything, I will be able to see it quite clearly ‘in my mind’s eye’ – to the extent that I will be able to describe it for you. I have a strong visual imagination. Years as a playwright – where you always have to see what’s going to be happening and to whom, on stage or on film - have only reinforced it.

I once took part in an experiment in past life regression. It was intriguing, faintly disturbing, immensely vivid. I can still remember who I was, where I lived, how I was dressed, dozens of details. But I have a suspicion that the writer in me was simply inventing the character in response to a number of prompts from the person doing the regressing. Not that she gave me any of these details. She simply asked a series of questions. Where are you? How are you dressed? What are you doing? Where do you live? I knew all the answers, right down to the 'best' shoes that were almost too uncomfortable to wear. But this is exactly what I do when I'm writing.

I had a pair of shoes like this but only in my mind's eye.

I know that when the writing is going really well, it’s similarly intense and vivid. I’m truly elsewhere. I’m in the world of the book or story or play. Mihaly Csikszentmihalji called it a state of ‘flow’, and so it is. Time has no meaning. Then you suddenly come back into yourself and find that several hours have passed by and you have no remembrance of them. And that’s because your mind, your whole imagination has been somewhere else. The room may have grown dark or cold, and you’re hungry and thirsty, and often you feel quite ill and disorientated. Well, I certainly do.

You have been in the world of the book or story or play. You have been seeing it, feeling it, living it and experiencing the emotions of various characters – and for a while at least it doesn’t just feel as real as the ordinary world. It feels hyper real, a place beside which the ‘real world’ feels quite disappointing. You’ve been kind of playing God and sometimes you have the uneasy sense that we’re not really designed to do that. Which is why it takes its toll, why we feel so strange afterwards and so utterly bereft between projects.

Is it worth it? Well I think so. And if you can’t do it, you’ve no idea what you’re missing, literally, so you won’t mind. I’m not sure you can be taught how to do it, but I do think innate abilities can be honed and improved.

I’m often asked about dialogue. It’s hard to teach people how to write good dialogue. There are the usual hints and tips, such as reading it out loud, listening to what people say, how they really speak. But I think good dialogue only comes when you are in one of these states of being 'in the zone', because what you are then doing is not so much ‘making’ people say something as listening to your characters. Climbing inside their heads, overhearing them talk and writing it down – all at the same time. And it’s almost impossible to teach somebody how to do that if they can’t make that quantum leap into being there.

Somebody once said to me that the worlds inside her head were far more real, more vivid than the world outside. I’d identify with that. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I’m not at all sure it could be induced under controlled conditions. Writers of historical fiction have to do a lot of familiarising first, which is essentially what the research is for. It's like a secret agent being briefed before a mission. And then, armed with all that knowledge, you make the quantum leap into inner space.

Also, the experience is not without a few unwelcome side effects: rabid insomnia being one of them. The inner world has a habit of either invading your dreams – not so bad, because at least you’re sleeping - or prodding you awake several times a night, reminding you of its existence. Come back, it says.

And then your characters join in. 'We’re here. We have things to tell you. And no, we’re not going to shut up or go away until you give us the voices we think we deserve.'

If you want to sample a couple of my historical novels to see what happened when I made that leap into the past, you could try:
The Physic Garden
The Curiosity Cabinet
And look out for a new historical novel called The Jewel, to be published in 2016.

This post has been reblogged from Authors Electric.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Dreaming Jean, Seeing Jean

The Cottar's Saturday Night, Faed.
The other night, I woke up in the early hours of the morning, from a slightly restless sleep, to hear my husband - he had just been to the loo - coming back into the bedroom, and stopping with an exclamation of surprise. He got back into bed, muttering, 'No - it's OK,' and went back to sleep.
So did I.

Over breakfast I asked him what had been the matter. He has quite severe mobility problems and I wondered if he had tripped over something.
'No,' he said. 'I thought I saw somebody standing in the doorway. In fact just at first, I thought it was you, but then I realised it couldn't be, and besides, you were still in bed.'

What he thought he had seen - when he elaborated on it later in the day - was a woman in 'old fashioned dress'. He said it was exactly like the 'woman in the Lloyd's bank advert.'  And there she is, walking alongside the horse and plough, early in the ad.

Now we live in a very old terraced cottage - more than 200 years old. But not noticeably haunted. Our house has always had a lovely atmosphere, and still has. In fact it has had surprisingly few owners over its lifetime. People tend to stay here for a long time. People like us.

Jean in her forties.
But it got me thinking. Especially when I reviewed the ad and saw what my husband claims he saw! For the past couple of years I've been researching and writing a novel about the life of Jean Armour, beloved wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns. It has been a huge project for me, and one very dear to my heart, since I've already written a couple of plays about Burns that turned out to be quite as much about Jean.

The novel is scheduled for publication next spring. And I have become - not to put too fine a point on it - pretty much obsessed with Jean and her famous husband. The more I've found out about her, the more I've found to like about her. I think she's a heroine in a million.

I don't believe she's haunting me. And even if she was, she's such a lovely person that I wouldn't be very worried. But I do sometimes wonder if writers can focus so clearly on a character that they create what the Tibetans call a 'thought form' - when concentrated thought - and novelists do a whole lot of visualising and concentrating - takes shape in the material world.

Not that I saw her. It was my husband, who gave himself a surprise in the middle of the night! But then I didn't need to, because I see her pretty much all the time and every day at the moment, anyway. And the simplest explanation may well be the best one. Not so much a thought form as a thought transference. I'm so deep in love with Rab and Jean that I'm infecting my poor artist husband of thirty years with my imaginings now!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Linens and Lace and Other Inspirations

The occasional old shawl like this gorgeous Cantonese shawl
For some years now, I’ve been running another business on the side, supplementing my writing income by buying and selling antique and vintage textiles of all kinds. Textiles have been pretty much a lifelong passion with me. It all started when I was a child and used to go with my mum to the saleroom – she would always be looking at pottery and porcelain while I would be gazing at linens, lace, embroideries and the occasional old shawl that was always thrown in the corner of the saleroom, because nobody bothered much about old clothes back then. Or, come to think of it, old teddies. How time have changed!

An old fabric doll, fully dressed in Polonaise style
For me, there seemed to be something quite magical about them. When I went to university in Edinburgh, I was fascinated by the emerging vintage clothes shops there, even though ‘vintage’ had not yet become a mainstream interest. My mum was a very good seamstress and she made me a long Dr Zhivago coat (well – Lara coat, really) in black wool with fur around the hem and neck. There was a maxi dress too, from one of those Vogue Paris Original patterns, a beautiful thing with a weighted hem. I still have that, along with a long white lacy skirt, originally a petticoat, very ornate and detailed, bought from a little shop down in Stockbridge with carefully saved cash. Old army greatcoats were in fashion for the boys, long skirts, Indian cotton dresses for the girls. I remember going to one party in a nightdress from Marks and Spencer, a long candy-striped garment with a high waist, straight out of Jane Austen.

'Do you know,’ said the shocked wife of one of our lecturers, ‘that some students wear nightdresses to parties?’ I’m still not 100% certain whether she guessed what I was wearing or not ...

Nowadays, with a lot of writing to do, I spend less time on the textiles, but I still browse boot sales and the local saleroom, still splash out on a box of old linen and lace and sell most of it on to other textile nuts. But all this has certainly helped to enlighten me about costume in my historical fiction. Finding out what somebody would have worn, the how and the why of it is a vital part of the research for me. And also you’ll spot the howlers, like the mediaeval underpants mentioned in a recent post about anachronisms in historical fiction by Mari Biella. 

A lady's bonnet, rather than a baby bonnet - from France.

A few years ago, a curator of textiles gave a small group of Society of Authors in Scotland members a private viewing of a few of the textiles in storage in one of the big Scottish museums and since they were for study purposes, we were even allowed to handle some of them. It was enlightening, not least because certain items were beautiful to look at but very badly stitched ‘behind the scenes’ as it were. Clearly some dresses were like theatrical costumes - the illusion was everything. She also told us that although the really poor would obviously have great trouble keeping clean, for many ordinary eighteenth and nineteenth century people - tradespeople or tenant farmers, for instance - keeping their linens clean would have been important. 

Essentially, they would not be as smelly as we think. 

Looking at inventories of possessions, you can see that people of even limited means would have several shirts, shifts, etc so that the items worn closest to their bodies would be reasonably clean. Which makes sense when you think about how uncomfortable it would be to play host to fleas and lice, the inevitable result of filth. And for country people, a great deal of linen was spun and woven at home. Elsewhere it could be bought by the yard. Pretty printed cottons were also becoming fashionable through the eighteenth century and ease of laundering was an important factor in their popularity.

If you think about how seldom even today we dry clean a winter coat, for instance – perhaps only once a year, unless we’ve been out in the mud – you can see how little we've changed in this respect although I don't think a daily bath was an option or even thought desirable. But then nor was it the norm back in the fifties, and I don't remember that the world felt particularly grubby, even then.  

The embroidery that inspired The Physic Garden
This interest in clothes has been very important to me in several of my novels. In The Curiosity Cabinet, not only is an embroidery central to the plot, but the clothes of a dead woman, gifted to another woman in desperate straits, provide a turning point in the story. In my nineteenth century Polish historical epic, The Amber Heart  what the heroine wears became a sort of indicator of her character, all the way through - and certainly it mattered to me in terms of how I perceived her relationship with the hero (or possibly anti-hero) of the novel. And in The Physic Garden, an authentic embroidered garment looms very large in the story. 

Perhaps most of all, though, it has been important to my work in progress, the Jewel, about Robert Burns’s wife Jean Armour. The daughter of a master stonemason, she was not hugely wealthy but still cared very much about her appearance as a young woman of some consequence in the small town of Mauchline. This perception of her ran contrary to many subsequent accounts of her as a plain countrywoman, not quite 'worthy' of her famous husband. I never really believed that. The six ‘Mauchline Belles’ of which Jean was one - I always see them as eighteenth century cheerleaders - are described by Rab as being keen on fashion too. ‘Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess, In London or Paris, they'd gotten it a'.’ So even in Mauchline in 18th century Ayrshire, the lassies were happy to imitate London or Paris fashions if they could. 

Jean's silk shawl? Maybe. But not from Rab!
Later on, it becomes obvious that Rab liked his wife to dress as well as possible on their limited budget. He spent money on the finest ‘lutestring silk’ for her gowns, and the latest fashion in printed shawls. His own stylish mode of dressing was one of the things that her family so disapproved of during their courtship– and also one of the things that made Jean fall for him. She continued to appreciate nice things and pretty clothes throughout her long life.

Finally, the single sexiest garment the textile curator showed us on that museum visit, was a linen shirt. I’ve found these kind of things in boxes of old linen, but never something just as wonderful, as old, as well preserved, as that late eighteenth or early nineteenth century linen shirt, a man’s garment, with flowing sleeves, lots of fabric and a smooth, cool texture under the hand: a bit like the ones you see Ross Poldark or the musketeers wearing on the recent television dramas. 

But the really interesting thing is that such shirts were deemed to be very intimate. They were undergarments. So if a young lady actually saw a man in his shirt, like Mr Darcy on that TV adaptation, it would have been very shocking indeed, even for somebody as forthright and brave as Lizzie Bennet! 

I'm hoping that the new novel will be published in 2016. Meanwhile, if you're another textile nut (or even if you're not) you could check out The Curiosity Cabinet in particular. I only wish I possessed an embroidered cabinet like the box of the title - but unfortunately, I don't.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Do you really need an agent? Six things for writers to think about before writing a hundred query letters.

The Society of Authors will NOT do this to you! 

I’ve blogged about agents before, but it seems worth revisiting, since things seem to have moved on in the intervening period. I’ve had good agents and not so good agents but now I’m not looking for one. To be fair, my ex-agency – the one that actually did a lot of good work for me - still remits my share of royalties and residual payments for past work with great promptness and efficiency. But for some time now, I think that the relationship between writers and agents has been skewed. For a start, there are too many potential clients chasing too few agents and this is partly because of the myth still being perpetuated by most creative writing courses, that you need an agent to find a publisher. The other fiction is that if you get an agent, you will find a publisher. Neither is strictly true.

So here are some things to think about.

1 What, realistically, are you expecting your agent to do for you? Do you want somebody to nurture you, or do you want a productive business partnership? If the former, consider that you will always be a humble supplicant, sending in your latest manuscript and nervously waiting for the response. Bit like Scheherezade, really, and that’s an unenviable, not to say unnecessary position to find yourself in. If the latter – and your putative agent agrees – you might have the basis of a decent working relationship. But really, nurturing is for babies.

2 Your agent is meant to be working for you. Too many agents have lists of requirements for submissions that sound like job specifications. I’ve even seen people advising writers to ‘treat your query letter like any other job application’. But it isn’t, is it? Nobody is going to be paying you a regular salary. This is, of course, a result of the imbalance in the market: too many writers with too little experience, chasing too few agents. But it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re looking at a partnership, and that you have every right to expect a modicum of efficiency, courtesy and commitment. Just as your agent has every right to expect the same from you. Do I have some sympathy with agents? Sure I do. They have to cope with a lot of submissions, including the bottom drawer manuscripts typed in single spacing on both sides of sheets of vibrant pink paper. But this is their job and they're volunteers. Actually, some of them really are volunteers. I just saw an ad for an unpaid graduate internship with a big literary agency and found myself wondering how many of those hopeful aspiring novelists know that they are being summarily rejected by a 21 year old recent graduate with almost no experience of what mature readers might want.

3 Whose side will the agent really be on? They’re meant to be fighting for you, the client. But the reality is that corporate publishers wield a vast amount of power, and an agent will be cultivating good relationships with a certain number of ‘acquisitions’ editors. These editors will, in turn, have to answer to ‘the team’ and a lot of decisions will be dictated by buyers at the big chains. It used to be the case that if one of these major editors loved a book, the company would take a chance with a new writer. Now, an editor may love a book but if it doesn’t have the potential to be mega successful that may be as far as it goes. Everyone is afraid of getting it wrong, and in their shoes, you would probably feel the same. The agent will almost never want to damage the relationship with the editor. So you’ll be told to try again, write something else. But you may also be warned that an informal ‘three strikes and you’re out’ situation exists. By the time you get to your third novel, the editor may decide that she doesn't even want to look at anything from you again. This doesn’t happen so much with small-to-medium independent publishers, which is why so many popular mid-list novels of recent years – and the occasional bestseller - have emerged from micro publishers. But the sad truth is that many agents don’t much like submitting to small publishers. Advances are not high enough to make it worthwhile even though the resulting deal may be worthwhile for you as an author.

4 Who is telling you that you need an agent? You can’t believe everything you’re told. Are agents telling you that you need them? Well, they would, wouldn’t they? If you’re studying for a creative writing degree, have a good look at your lecturers’ back stories. They may be very fine writers, and they may be truly excellent teachers, but do they know anything about the business side of writing? Have they been happily and successfully agented for years, in which case, do they know anything about the downside? Are they bringing in agents to ‘cherry pick’ the top students in any one year, leaving you struggling with a multitude of query letters? And if they are lecturing full time in creative writing, consider that they may well be employed rather than mainly self employed, and may be reiterating the conventional wisdom of writing and publishing as it was twenty years ago. If your creative writing course doesn’t include a sizeable module or part module on the changing business of writing, taught by people who are brought in from the world outside, ask yourself and your university why not.

5 What are the benefits? There are some valid reasons to have an agent, among which might be: access to Big Publishing, (but as we’ve already seen, publication doesn’t always follow) better deals, (maybe) vetting of contracts, (but a good IP lawyer or the Society of Authors will do that for you, and sometimes they will do it more efficiently) and foreign sales. This last is important, and might well be a good enough reason for seeking an agent. But in all my years of being agented, nobody did anything for me with foreign sales. Now that could be entirely down to me. Maybe my books don't appeal to foreign buyers. But I'm unconvinced and if I could find an agent to sell books and plays to foreign countries for me, I might consider signing with them – but for that purpose only. Or perhaps an agent to capitalise on a particular book – a flexible project-by-project arrangement. Do such agents exist? Possibly, but I suspect this is an area that is ripe for expansion. And yes, that would be an interesting development and one I’d be happy to consider. I'm all for a 'horses for courses' approach to writing and publishing. It works in other areas of creativity so why not writing? But I also suspect there would be resistance to it in some quarters.

6 What other options do you have? That question used to be simple to answer, if depressing. None, except for spending a small fortune on some vanity publisher. Now, there are lots of options, but all of them demand a certain amount of application on your part.
You can submit to the many and varied small and micro publishers that accept unagented submissions. You have to be careful. You must have contracts vetted by somebody who knows what to look for before you sign them. The Society of Authors will do this for you in the UK if you are prepared to join, but you can also pay an Intellectual Property lawyer. You may think this is expensive, but it’s not half as expensive as signing away all kinds of rights you never thought about. The truth is that there are a great many good small publishers out there, and many of their contracts are much simpler and far less onerous than those imposed by Big Publishing – so making sure you’ve got it right shouldn’t cost a fortune.
You can self publish with Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon and elsewhere, onto various other worldwide platforms, via Smashwords or D2D. You can publish Print on Demand paperbacks. You can even go the whole hog and set up your own small publishing business and make a deal with a local printer for short runs of books and pamphlets. You will have to deal with covers and editing and formatting but it isn’t as difficult as you think and there are lots of freelancers out there so you can do what other businesses do and outsource the work you don't want to do yourself. You will have to do some publicity and promotion, but you’ll have to do a lot of that anyway, whoever you publish with. The big campaigns are reserved for the very big names these days.
Or you can do a mixture of both self and traditional publishing. Or you can publish with several small publishers at once.  Even though, in order to do this, you will need what my Canadian friend calls 'inventory'. So you need to get your head down and get writing. But since you might spend two or three years writing query letters to agents, or rewriting your single finely wrought novel to the demands of various agents and editors - you could instead decide to spend those years honing your craft, working on a couple of novels, a small collection of stories, a series of novellas ...and give yourself some options. 

Decisions, decisions.
If you are wildly successful, you will have agents beating a path to your door. If you are moderately successful, you will get a small but steady income and will realise that a book nowadays has a much longer shelf life online than you have been led to believe. A book that might have quietly fallen out of print after a year in the old system can go on selling for many years in the new. You may well realise that you enjoy this whole process and that you don’t want an agent at all. If you are not successful, what have you lost? Nothing is forever. You can take a book off line, rewrite it, republish it. You can work on something else, instead of wasting years of good writing time on rewrites to somebody else’s requirements. You can self publish your first two ‘competent’ novels (as opposed to the novels that should probably never see the light of day) and then you can write something quite new and submit it to an agent if you decide that’s what you want to do.

But the interesting truth is that many people who reach that point are often so comfortable with running their own affairs that they think twice before relinquishing control. Some writers may decide otherwise, and that’s fine too. I'm not here to dictate to anyone. What suits one may not suit another. The point is that the power is in your hands. Think about what you want.

Your choice, your business.

And finally – one other thing you might like to consider, if you’re female: you might want to think about changing your name!

If you've found this remotely helpful, have a look at my Amazon Author Page because the books there reflect my own experience pretty accurately. I'm the same writer that I ever was - perhaps a bit more competent and confident - but I'm both traditionally and self published and very happy to continue trimming my sails to the prevailing wind.