Fingers crossed!

I have just sent out “Song of the Nightingale” to 13 literary agents. It has taken me many days and hours to get to this point and I am exhausted. I know some will say that 13 is too many, but if each agent takes 6 – 8 weeks on average to respond, then I don’t have enough years left to send it out one by one until someone accepts it!

I sent my first novel, “The Jewel Garden,” to well over 70 agents and 30 publishers before it got accepted by a publisher. So I know that the chances of getting an agent for “Song of the Nightingale” is low, but I still want to try as I think they can offer more than I can ever achieve with a publisher or just by myself.

It isn’t easy to select the right literary agents. For “The Jewel Garden” I used Agent Hunter, an on-line search engine. I can’t recall whether I had to pay something – but if I did it certainly wasn’t the £195 annual subscription demanded by Jericho Writers, which has incorporated AgentMatch into its many services. Jericho Writers is probably well worth the money if you want videos on getting published, how to write, how to self-publish, and advice on writing etc – but it is expensive if all you want is a quick way to find literary agents who are interested in historical fiction.

So, this time I purchased the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook 2019 instead and trawled through the list of literary agents – some 27 pages, averaging 6 per page = approx 162. I looked at their website for any who listed literary or historical fiction (ie most of them)  and were open to submissions (ie most of them). I made a list on a spreadsheet of any that seemed reasonable – that is, if I liked the website because it was encouraging and supportive, rather than dictatorial and discouraging, or because one of the agents said they were particularly interested in the type of book I think “Song of the Nightingale” is, or sometimes just because.

In the end I had a list of 42 potential literary agents, of which I highlighted 13 because I think they are possibilities – usually because I really like what one of the agents has to say or, to be honest, because they promise to respond within a very short time. Then, of course, I had to return to each website and read the submission instructions. Most want a cover letter that gives a very brief overview of the novel , including number of words, genre etc, and what else you have written and will be writing. I wrote a skeleton as a word document that I then copied and pasted into the body of the e-mail. I made sure I personalised each e-mail by addressing to a specific agent and also tried to add something that showed I had read their web page and I explained why I was sending my novel to them.  I always admitted I was submitting to a number of other agents – they often ask you to say. I don’t know whether they ignore these submissions or whether, in fact, this makes them more keen if they are the slightest bit interested.

Most agencies want a synopsis. I had one that I was quite happy with, which came to over 1200 words. This was fine for those agencies which just said “send a synopsis” but not so fine when they said “send a synopsis of no more than 300 words”. 300 words! I started by cutting out all the flowery words and used full stops rather than and or but. Then I removed whole paragraphs, then sentences until I had reduced the synopsis to the required 300 words. Time will tell whether any agent is able to tell from these few words whether the book is worth reading!

Lastly, the easiest thing the agency wants is an example of the book itself. Usually the 1st three chapters or the first 50 pages or 1st 10,000 words – it must be consecutive from the beginning of the book.

Every time I pressed “send” I felt a spark of hope but it will be hard to keep the flame alight once the rejections start coming in. But, dammit, it’s a good book, so I am going to keep my fingers crossed!

 

 

Advertisements
Standard

To re-write or not to re-write, that is the question

I said I would write a blog about the progress of getting my second novel “Song of the Nightingale” published (or not, as the case may be).

I have sent it out to two people so far:

  1. A professional reviewer called Ben Smith. He gave me excellent advice for “The Jewel Garden” and I trust his suggestions.
  2. Ben took a bit longer than the 2 weeks I expected and I got a bit impatient and decided to send it to just one literary agent. She had rejected “The Jewel Garden” but said she might be interested in a book about castrati.

I have had responses from both and I need to decide whether I agree with their recommendations and what changes I should make.

I could, of course, ignore their feedback, but what would be the point of spending £195 and then ignoring Ben’s advice? Similarly, although the literary agent reminded me it was just her opinion, she is a reader and presumably knows what makes a good novel. Her views may be the views of the majority of other readers.

BEN’S REPORT

I have selected some excerpts from Ben’s report:

Narrative Strategy

The first person narration works well for the story and allows for exploration of the emotional impact of traumatic events. It also services the concealed facts of the story. I feel that a slight proportional increase in dialogue would balance the narrative more effectively and aid characterisation.

Characterisation

I have just taken Philippe as it is a good example of Ben’s feedback. Similar comments regarding the other main characters.

Philippe: He has a good vantage point as a narrator as he is present for most of the story and credibly absent when facts need to be concealed. Additionally, his middling social status allows him a broad view of society. His family circumstances lend him an ‘outsider’ status which you could perhaps make more of. His observations about wealth disparity and religious corruption could be sharper; this would contextualise his empathy for the boys and remove the suspicion that he is a passive character by underlining his impotence within the social structure. I’d particularly like to see him reflect on this when he wears il Conte’s ring.

Sofia: A wonderfully drawn character, I wouldn’t change her at all.

Story/Plot

The story is very strong indeed and is plotted out lucidly. The opening is arresting and I like the ending although some readers (and publishers) might suggest that following the boys’ contrasting lives further would bear fruit.

Ben then suggests one addition and one significant change:

  1. Adding in the scene, as a flashback, of when the boys are actually taken from their families
  2. Changing the rape scene into one where Sofia consents but then regrets.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The premise is enticing and it is executed with pace and clever plotting. It is more commercial than your previous work and sits happily in a historical fiction genre that publishers will understand. None of the revisions I suggest are structural so, from my point of view, this is one draft away from completion.

All in all, I was very pleased with Ben’s report. There are no structural changes and, as he says, most of the improvements can be made by dialogue and an extra scene or two. My biggest doubt is regarding the rape scene. My intention was that Philippe thinks he has raped Sofia but that actually she wants his seed (sorry, a bit basic!) because she wants a baby but no husband. I think I will make this a bit more obvious – but I still want Philippe to feel immense guilt, which he would only do if he thinks he has raped her.

LITERARY AGENT’S RESPONSE

I have to say I was quietly thrilled when she asked for the manuscript just a few days after I had sent the 1st 3 chapters. She then sent an e-mail a week or so later, which in itself is pretty amazing – the time not the content.

Her main concern is that it is Philippe’s story, whereas she thinks it should be the boys’. She obviously doesn’t like first person narratives and considers Philippe to be a “crashing bore” (see Narrative Strategy above for Ben’s opinion that 1st person works well). She suggests that it will be easier to understand why, for instance, Sofia accepts Philippe as a lover, if this part of the story is told from her point of view. Also, the story of the boys would be brought more to life if the reader understands their motivations and thoughts from their point of view.

I am a very insecure writer and over the last day or two I have swung between leaving it in the first person or re-writing in the 3rd. Who is right? Ben? The literary agent? Me? No-one?

But as I wrote this blog and re-read the literary agent’s e-mail it is her sentence “(Philippe) dominates the novel which is more his story than that of the far more interesting castrati” that has decided me.

Yes, it is Philippe’s story – and that is the story I want to tell. So, decision made – I will retain the 1st person and not try and please the one literary agent. Phew!

I will, however, absolutely take on board Ben’s suggestions:

  1. Improve the dialogue to make clearer the characters’ personalities and to put more flesh on their bones.  Also, make Philippe less of a crashing bore!
  2. Add a few more scenes to describe dramatic events that I had left to the readers’ imagination
  3. Change the rape scene slightly (but only slightly) to try and make it clearer that it is only rape in Philippe’s head. Ann Evans, the leader of the writing group I attend, who had read the whole novel also suggests I should take out Philippe kicking Sofia’s dog during this scene. I don’t agree. Philippe is full of anger and guilt and the dog is trying to bite him – wouldn’t you kick him? The dog doesn’t die, by the way. I think I will make more of this bit of the scene but, sorry Ann, the kicking stays in.

So, unless I have another period of dithering or every other literary agent I eventually send it to also says otherwise, I won’t re-write in the 3rd person because, after all, it is Philippe’s story I want to tell.

 

 

Standard

How important are facts in historical fiction?

This is a common question and much discussed on FaceBook and Twitter. It is very relevant to me because there has just been a review published in “The Woman Writer” (published by the “Society of Women Writers & Journalists” – SWWJ) in which the reviewer says:

“The Jewel Garden is a work of fiction, based on the life of the Victorian fairytale writer Mary De Morgan (sister of the famous tile-maker William De Morgan).

It is a fascinating story, set first in England, then in Egypt, where Mary taught in a children’s reformatory and died of tuberculosis in 1907 …. and this is where, as a reader who loves historical fiction, I have a problem: why does the author, who published a non-fiction book Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan in 2012, write in her novel, and very poignantly too, about Mary’s death in 1895?”

The reviewer then goes on to say very nice things about the book and the characters.

So, why did I change the year of Mary’s death? I obviously knew it, as I have indeed written her biography and in the Postscript of The Jewel Garden I start by saying “I came across Mary De Morgan (1850 – 1907) ….”.

I thought long and hard about:

  • The age difference between Hannah (a purely fictional character) and Mary. I decided on a ten year gap, Hannah being the younger, so she has to be born in 1860. If the age difference was more I was concerned that Hannah would more likely to look to Mary as a mother, rather than a lover.
  • At what age Hannah would first meet Mary. I wanted Hannah to be old enough to be able to live independently so I have her first meeting Mary when she is twenty and therefore Mary is thirty.

Obviously Mary is a key character in the novel and I use her fairy tales to introduce each chapter; I have Hannah accompanying her on many of the visits that actually took place; I have Hannah meeting some of the people Mary actually knew; I have events occurring that actually happened. But the story is Hannah’s and I wanted to tell of one woman’s love for another, how she coped with the loss of her lover and her feelings when she discovered she had been deceived.

Hannah had to be born in 1860 and the events I tell of cover thirty five years until Mary’s death (1895) reasonably well. In all honesty I just could not make their relationship last another twelve years without it changing, which I didn’t want it to do.

I did struggle with making Mary die earlier than she did in reality, but I convinced myself that this piece of “poetic licence” would not even be noticed by most readers who would most likely never have heard of Mary De Morgan and wouldn’t know when she had really died. If I had kept Mary’s date of death as being 1907 then the book would not be the same and, I believe, not as good.

So far, this reviewer, whose opinion I totally respect, is the only one who has either noticed or cared that I have chosen to change the date of death of a little known person.

So, have I made a complete and unforgivable faux pas? Or am I excused?

Only the readers can say.

 

Standard

Now the fun starts!

I have just finished writing “Song of the Nightingale” – my second novel – that tells the story of two young boys in 18th century Italy who are bought from their families by a count, castrated and then taught to sing as castrati. It is told from the point of view of the count’s secretary, Philippe. Needless to say all does not end as expected. My sister has read it and says she likes it (she is the sister that hated one of my chapters, resulting in me totally rewriting it and producing a much better one).

I am the sort of writer that tries to perfect a chapter before going onto the next one, so although I did find a few typos when I read it through, again it was, as far as I am concerned, fundamentally OK. However, I decided to send it out for a professional review. I did this with my debut novel, “The Jewel Garden”. I sent it to Ben Smith (“Benjamin Smith” <englishwritingconsultant@gmail.com>) and he made some really useful comments so I have sent SotN to him as well – the cost for the report is £195.

When he sends the report, (hopefully in a week or two), as long as there is no rewrite necessary (as there was with TJG ) I will send out to literary agents. When I sent out TJG I got a large number of rejections, but one of them did say they would be interested in SotN as she likes music. So I will send the 1st 3 chapters and the synopsis to her first, then if she is not interested (as I expect will be the case), send out to other agents. I would much prefer to have an agent or find a publisher myself, rather than self-publish – at the moment anyway.

I have a draft synopsis ready, but I need to refine it. As most writers, I find the synopsis really hard to write – it is incredibly difficult to summarise an 83,000 book into just a few hundred words, telling the main story without making is sound like a list  of “then this happens, than that happens……”

I’ve loved writing the book and I believe that it is really good – but if my experience with TJG is anything to go by, my confidence will be worn away with every rejection. One thing I am pretty confident about if that I will get a large number of them!

I will write another blog when I have something more to say.

Just an update on TJG – I am still trying to promote it and recently I have:

  1. Given a talk at Coventry Library about Mary De Morgan and the writing of TJG. This was the first time I did a talk so although there were only two people it gave me the confidence to do it again.
  2. Given an interview to Neil Wilkes of Coventry Culture Show on TJG, which was broadcast on Saturday 29th September. A pretty scary experience but again, it went better than I expected and boosted my confidence.
  3. Given an after dinner talk to the Guild at the Barr’s Hill 110th Anniversary dinner, telling them who Mary De Morgan was and how I came to write a novel about her. The attendees were all old Barr’s Hillians and were aged from 63 (me and another from my year) to 98. They were wonderful, bright, feisty women and it was a real honour to be asked to speak.
  4. I am giving a talk at Atherstone Library on TJG in January.

Small steps………

I have two projects I am about to start – one is to rewrite some of Mary De Morgan’s fairy tales for today’s children and the other is novel number 3 (more later).

Standard

Too many loose ends?

I have just finished my second novel, “Song of the Nightingale.” The seed was sown early 2015 and I played around with the beginning over the next few years whilst I finished my first novel, but didn’t really start writing in earnest until the middle of last year, after I had sent off “The Jewel Garden” to literary agents and publishers for the second time.

I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to start and to end and actually wrote the final paragraphs in January of this year. The detailed plotting of the middle section was made easier because I knew where all the characters needed to be and what needed to have happened to them.

I was surprised, therefore, when I actually came to the end and was just about to copy the last paragraphs from the file that had been sitting waiting all year, when I thought, “no,” this isn’t how it should end. All my characters were in the right place, all the right things had happened to them and all it needed was for the loose ends to be neatly tied up. This is how a novel should end, isn’t it?

Well, yes. But I think it does no harm to leave some ends flying in the wind. I have no intention of writing a sequel that provides the answers to the questions readers may have, I would prefer them to use their imagination.

I won’t tell you all the details, after all I would like you to read the book if it is ever published, but here is the first ending I wrote:

I sat with my legs stretched out, my boots off. Berti was playing with the wooden blocks I had made for Tabitha. He piled them up as high as his ill-coordinated, podgy hands would allow, then laughed heartily as they tumbled down. I watched, fascinated by his delight at his continuing failure. “He won’t be an engineer.”

            Sofia lifted her head from kneading the bread and I sensed, rather than saw her smile. “He will be what he will be.” She turn towards me and tilted her head. “You look very comfortable, sir. Are you sure you can’t find anything more useful to do? Does il Conte not need you for anything?”

            “No, he is away for the day and yes, I am indeed very comfortable, thank you.” Then it just came out, unbidden but not regretted. “I wish I could stay here always, with you and the children. Il Conte can do very well, without me; he has Roberto now to do his bidding. Perhaps it is time for us to become a proper family?”

            Sofia stopped pummelling.  “I have told you many times, Philippe, I will not marry you, not in a Church. Not by a priest who considers me to be a witch just because I know how to use herbs, herbs created by God Himself.”

            I don’t know where the thought came from, perhaps God put it there. “I know, I know, Sofia. But we can still say our vows before God. I am sure He will still listen to us, even if we are in a field rather than a man-made building. Perhaps he will listen even more?”

            Sofia stood with her hands idle, buried deep into the dough. “Really? You would do that for me? Be married only in the eyes of God? You would live and work here with me, with us?”

            I frowned at her doubtful expression. “Of course! Do you doubt me? You can teach me all about herbs and how to keep chickens and goats.”

            Sophia laughed excitedly. “And you can teach me and the children to read and write. I can label all the bottles properly!”

            An idea suddenly came to me, or perhaps God’s hand was again guiding me. “I could teach the village children too. We could start a school!”

            “We wouldn’t charge, though.”

            We. How I liked the sound of that. “No, we wouldn’t charge. So, shall we do it?”

            Sofia merely nodded, winked at me then turned back to her kneading.

            I sprang to my feet, feeling a surge of hope and exhilaration surge through my body. “When Sofia, when?”

            “Tomorrow at dawn. A new day, a new beginning. Now, entertain the children whilst I finish this baking.”

            The following morning, before even the sun had risen, Sofia got the children up, then woke me and we all went outside and walked up the path to the glade in the wood. I remembered how both Berti and Tabitha had been conceived there; it seemed an appropriate place. Sofia had put some flowers in her hair but she wore her normal pinafore, having no other. She looked the most beautiful woman in the world to me.

            We stood holding hands facing each other. Neither of us spoke as the sun’s rays caressed our bodies and warmed our skin. Then Sofia spoke, looking me directly in the eye.

            “I, Sofia, promise, before God, before the man I love and before the children we have both created, to love and honour Philippe Augustino, every minute, of every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year, until my dying breath, and beyond. Amen”

            I had written and memorised a love poem during the night, but Sofia’s simple honesty dried the fancy words in my mouth.

            “I, Philippe, promise before God and the family He has blessed me with, to protect and cherish them with every fibre of my being; to respect my wife as an equal and to raise our children to love God, God’s world and God’s people.” My vision was blurred with emotion. Then I remembered to say “For ever and ever. Amen.”

            Our witnesses were the children and some chickens that had followed is in the hope of being fed. Tabitha sat on the carpet of pine needles, holding Berti on her lap, who would have much preferred to go foraging amongst the roots. She had a big grin on her face and clapped when we finished our vows.

            As I stood there I suddenly remembered the wood the boys and I had stopped in the night we had left il Barbiere’s after he had died, poisoned by Fabio I now knew. I could hear their angelic voices, still untrained but oh, so sublime, but then the breeze took them and wafted them up to God for one last time and it was the dawn chorus that celebrated our union.

Since writing this ending, I have written the middle of the book, which, after all is the vast majority and my understanding of the characters and even my style of writing has changed. This ending, therefore, is no longer right.

It is true that Sofia didn’t want to get married throughout the book for very good reasons, so why would she suddenly change her mind now? She may have been that sort of woman nine months ago, but not now I knew her better.

In the original ending I had Roberto take over from Philippe because then I thought Roberto was innocent and it would fit very nicely for Roberto to become il Conte’s secretary so that Philippe could leave. But by the end of the book Philippe, and the reader, is not sure which of the boys was the killer. So Roberto didn’t take over from Philippe when he left, no-one did. Does it matter if the reader doesn’t know whether il Conte managed to get a replacement secretary? Of course not!

In the original, Philippe’s decision to leave is a spur of the moment decision, in the final version, not so. It wouldn’t have been much of a change to rewrite that bit.

The main thing I no longer liked about the ending, was the sheer length of it and the description of their plans for the future. I wanted the future to be uncertain, for isn’t that what it is really? I wasn’t going to write a sequel, so I didn’t need to plan out their lives. The readers should know enough about Philippe and Sofia by the end to imagine for themselves what their future might hold.

So here is the ending I have just written:

I left the horse at the vineyard and walked home. When I arrived at the house I was tired, dishevelled and dusty and my stomach was growling with hunger. The door was open and I stood in the opening and quietly enjoyed the domestic scene before me. Sofia was kneading bread and humming tunelessly, Tabitha was building a tower of wooden bricks that Berti took great pleasure in knocking down each time.

Sofia glanced up and saw me. It was like a scene in a painting where the characters were frozen in one position for ever, the artist having caught Sofia’s expression of surprise, Tabitha’s of patience and Berti’s of sheer joy.  

I heard the horse munching on the grass, the chickens clucking, the pigs snuffling, the goats bleating. It was early evening and the birds were settling down and singing their final psalm of the day.

Just for a moment, I thought I heard a nightingale.

You may not agree, but I think this is much better. Yes, the reader doesn’t know what happens to Roberto and Fabio, whether Philippe and Sofia get married, open a school, even if Sofia will have him living with her.

Does it matter? Are these too many loose ends? I think not but I suppose time will tell.

Let me know which ending you prefer.

Standard

When is it time to say, “Enough, I can’t afford to promote my book?”

If you want answers then don’t bother reading this blog. I have no answers, merely questions.

If you have read my previous blogs you will realise that all I seem to do is moan about how hard and time-consuming it all is, once your book is published. But I am facing yet another conundrum.

How much should I pay out in order to promote my debut novel, “The Jewel Garden”? When is it time to say, “Enough, I can’t afford to promote my book?”

Obviously, if it was easy to determine that a cost of £x resulted in sales of £y, then it would be an easy decision. But it is difficult (if not impossible) to determine why any reader buys a book and what it was that caught their attention and made them make the actual purchase.

I hope I have done all the basic things that I have been advised to do in order to promote my book, some of which have no cost (other than time), others do have a cost.

So, the costs I have paid out so far, which I would not have done if I had not written a book and wanted to promote myself as a write as well as my book, are:

  1. The cover of the book. This was painted by an artist friend. She asked for no money but I gave her a £100 token in appreciation. I have no idea how this compares with any other means of getting a cover produced.
  2. I have purchased about 10 hard-copies so far at discount to send to reviewers at a cost of £60. I have not yet received the reviews from some of the reviewers.
  3. Postcards printed to leave at bookshops, literary festivals, shop windows etc etc. I have had 150 printed at a cost of £90. I still have well over 100 left.
  4.  I have joined the following societies in order to help promote me as an author as well as my book:
    1. Society of Authors – £102 per annum
    2. Contact an Author – £49.50 per annum. No-one has contacted me as yet.
    3. Historical Novel Society – $50 per annum. Not received their review as yet.
    4. Readers Review Room – £26.08 (will no longer be in operation after 2018. No reviews added.
    5. SWWJ – £55 per annum. Not received their review as yet.

There are a few other things that I could potentially pay for:

  1. A blog tour. I gather there are blog tours for historical novels but they certainly don’t get such mainstream visibility as those for crime/thrillers/light romances.  I have had mixed responses about whether these are worth while. Some enthuse and some say they are not worth it. I suppose it depends on whether the author believes the tour resulted in sales. There are, unfortunately, no guarantees, so it is always going to be a risk. The costs vary, the cheapest I have seen is £45, which covers the basics but for £85 I would get my book “promoted over the blogs every day for a week. This includes reviews, interviews, guest posts and extracts. We also provide a professionally designed poster.” This sounds good to me, but I would have to sell a couple of hundred Kindle versions to cover the costs. Can anyone actually convince me that this is cost effective?
  2. Use a company such as Publishing Push to do all the promotion for you. This sounds perfect for someone like me – but comes at a relatively high cost. I seem to have lost the e-mail I had with indicative costs but I seem to recall that it is in the region on £400+. I would have to sell thousands of Kindle versions to cover these costs.
  3. Audio version. This is only something I started to consider yesterday after a writer colleague posted something on FaceBook. Again, there is a cost (I haven’t researched how much yet) and more time and effort.
  4. There are doubtless many more ways I could pay someone, which might possibly increase my sales.

No one cost is high, but there is the potential to spend a small fortune, far more than I may ever earn in sales, especially when the cost of the Kindle version is £1.99 and I get a % of that after the publisher has taken his %.

I still love my book and have faith that others will love it if they read it (based on the reviews on Amazon.co.uk). But how much should I spend before I say, “Enough, I can’t afford to promote my book?”

 

 

Standard