Friday, 24 April 2009

The Best Things Come to Those Who ...

A few weeks back I blogged about 'Queryfail' - where agents were sharing on Twitter the worst approaches made to them by writers. This has caused rage and frustration in the writing community: go to to listen in to writers getting their own back by grousing about the dreadful behaviour of agents. I took a look at this last week and it was already a very lengthy thread and although I felt sympathy - and recognition - I also felt that it was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory to sneer at agents and complain about them. Sadly, many of the complaints were badly spelled and expressed - and this does the would-be clients of agents no favours. We need to stay calm, professional, icily articulate. Do go across and take a look: some of the experiences recounted are truly shocking. After a while, though, I bet you'll start feeling weary or uncomfortable - where does it get us all? I enjoy a good bleat as much as the next hard-done-by writer (oh, you noticed that, did you?) but there comes a time when you have to detach yourself and think of ways of taking practical, independent action. You have to have your pride, even if you don't have the cherished book-deal.

That said, I did recognise one of the cardinal sins of agents, and publishers, repeated over and over and over, and I have been at the receiving end of this so many times. What is it? Cruelty, a sneering dismissal, a promise unfulfilled, a stolen idea? No. It's SILENCE. It's the hardest thing of all to cope with. You put together the best submission package you can, you write a smooth, brief, ultra-professional letter, you dutifully follow all the guidelines on the agency's website, you act keen but not insanely desperate. You send material off by snail mail or through the ether. Then you wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You know you should be writing something new but you can't settle to it until ... until you know, once and for all, whether your beloved project has found a home.

You wait some more.

You agonise about when it would be permissible to make a brief, humble enquiry - did my material, perchance, reach you safely? When do you think you could let me know whether you're interested? You draft an email enquiry with more care than you put into the whole novel. You wait.

And you wait

And you wait.

Christmas comes. Another birthday. Your children grow six inches. So does your waistline. The photo you fondly thought might do as a publicity shot bears less and less resemblance to your current haggard state.

You keep waiting. Weeks, months - and sometimes years - down the line, an answer comes. When it does, it's a weasel-phrase, a wriggle-clause, written by an overloaded overworked agent (or minion) who, in spite of the fact that an entire geological epoch has passed since you submitted the thing, hasn't really had the time to read much of it, or read it with care. You suspect that these time-delay judgements are also, paradoxically, snap judgements. Not quite right for our list, bleh bleh. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere, blah blah. The knowing for sure, is cruel - but it certainly beats, believe me, the NOT knowing for sure. Tread on my dreams if you must - just don't skirt them and wander off without any comment at all on their pretty colours, their soft textures.

Several writers on the Bookends blog were particularly upset by failure of agents to reply even when material had been solicited! Another grouse is that agents put up on their websites that they will reply in four or six weeks - and then don't. Or they say that if you don't hear in a certain time, it's a no. Hmn. You'll still be left wondering - did it get to them safely? I must know, I must know! So you'll still chase them. Glitches do happen: when I revised my last book for my agent and waited several weeks for her response, then emailed her, I was told she hadn't received it. In fact it was at the agency, lying on somebody else's desk, for the best part of a month, further delaying the time when it would be sent out to publishers.

Now then, because God forbid we should sound biassed and unfair, let's take a look at an agent's perspective. Go to agent Nathan Bransford's excellent blog (in my blogroll to the right) - he's been conducting a very interesting experiment. He posted, with the writers' permissions, fifty genuine query letters he'd had and invited us to judge whether we would, as agents, have requested material from those writers. If you go to the blog, scroll right down to the beginning of this process: it's a lot of material and takes a while to read. I have to say I just read the queries rather than the hundreds of comments people were making on them, because I do actually have a life and it's really too short to follow up all of this. What is fascinating is that he buried in the midst of this three queries where the writers did go on to get publishing deals. He invites you to spot them. (This is why it's important to scroll right down to the start of the process and read upward, as it were). Well, I didn't. In fact, I can't remember any of the queries making my pulse go faster. Maybe I'd be a really mean agent! Try it for yourself: be an agent for a day. It'll fill up some of that waiting-time.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Winchester Writers' Conference Programme

My regular readers (you're still with me, aren't you?) will know that each summer I teach at the Winchester Writers' Conference. This is a busy, packed affair which this year will run from the weekend of the 3rd July. The programme is now at last up on the conference website at, so do go and take a look as there's a huge range of courses, talks and appointments available with writers, editors and agents. The Saturday programme is so full that the biggest problem is always what to select from so many talks. I'll be teaching a mini-course on the Friday called 'Making Memorable Scenes' and on Saturday I'll be giving a talk called 'From Short Hop to Long Haul' about making the transition from writing short fiction to tackling a novel. The conference also runs writing competitions - when I started going there as a delegate, before I was published, it gave me a real thrill to win some prizes there: anything that validates you as a writer is an encouragement. To be amongst other writers who are sharing the same hopes, dreams and doubts as you is also balm to the soul, especially if you are unlucky enough not to be supported in your ambitions by those around you. People who attend Winchester tend to be exhausted by the experience but also pepped up, their enthusiasm refreshed, their knowledge of the publishing industry broadened. It's a great place to network and make friends.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Carrion Jane Follow-up

My last post was about Seth Grahame-Smith's 'mash-up' novel 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' - well, prepared to be sickened further: Publishers' Weekly reports he has now landed a two book deal with Grand Central Press, for a rumoured $575,000. The first book is to be 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'. Yup. There's a film proposal too.

So, we know now where we've been going wrong: how about 'Prince Albert, Royal Werewolf'? 'Little Nell, Awaking the Undead'? 'Hamlet: Ghostbuster of Denmark'? 'Dante, Scourer of the Underworld'? 'John Knox and his Monstrous Regiment of Lesbian Zombie Fighters'? 'Churchill and the Black Dog Revenants'? 'Scrooge and the Time-Raiding Spooks'?

There you are, now. Loads of ideas. Get mashing.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Carrion Jane

I actually came across this a few months ago - but assumed it was some kind of spoof. Apparently not: yes, there really is a novel called 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' (with a truly gruesome cover), which has reached number 12 in the Amazon charts. This literary 'mash-up' by LA TV writer Seth Grahame-Smith sees Netherfield overrun by the undead and Elizabeth Bennet as a Regency Buffy. Apparently all five Bennet girls have been trained in martial arts by Shaolin monks in China. Well, of course. We knew that. The blending of the original Austen and the new take on her world is virtually seamless: sisters at a ball are described as 'fine women, with an air of decided fashion, but little in the way of combat training.'

Aren't you just kicking yourself you didn't think of this, when it's blindingly obvious that modern readers want to move away from quadrilles and needlework to ninja action, from conversing at an elegant ball to kicking a zombie in its decaying balls? We are promised a lot of vomiting. Goody. Grahame-Smith promises that 'at least one major character slowly becomes a zombie in the course of the book.' Apart from the reader, that is?

If putrefaction isn't enough to satisfy your tastes, dear Jane will be forced into arranged marriages with other genres, so here's more for you to look forward to: in a Marvel comic the Dashwood girls will gad about with the Fantastic Four. There will be a vampire novel, called 'Jane Bites Back'. And this is my favourite, I have to say, because of the title: a film in which Austen fights with aliens: 'Pride and Predator'.

I bet you think I should have posted this on April Fool's Day, don't you?

Now pass me the hartshorn, my dear: I feel a fit of the vapours coming on.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Diagram Disappointment

Back on the 25th of February I posted the shortlist for the Diagram prize which is awarded to the year's weirdest title. Now I told you, didn't I, to vote for 'Baboon Metaphysics' - a title worthy of a novel on the Costa or Booker shortlist. In fact, I might just well go off and write it. Sadly, it came second to 'The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais', which was the front-runner all along but just didn't do it for me. So where were you when those baboons needed you?