Friday, 27 March 2009


Just passed the halfway mark in my latest effort. Going to put my feet up for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

They just keep getting better

Had another… well, let’s call it a rejection. At least I know who the tosser is who scrawled illegibly on my covering letter, because they did it on my covering letter – which had their address on it.

Today I had a submission returned. My covering letter wasn’t in with it. Just my synopsis, writing CV, and sample chapters. No illegible scrawl. No letter saying ‘blah di blah, not right for us in the current climate, cliché cliché etc’. Nothing. The postmark is no use, either. It is the central sorting office in Glasgow. I have not submitted anything to anyone in Glasgow.

That’s me taking the time to print everything up according to the standards expected of a professional. I enclosed the correct postage for return. The envelopes were labelled with printed labels. I took the time and the money.

You, whoever you are, couldn’t even be bothered to make a scrawl on my letter, couldn’t be bothered to check you had put your rejection letter or compliments slip in the envelope (always assuming you had bothered to write one in the first place). You now rate lower than the semi-illiterate who managed the scrawl. I didn’t think there would be anyone lazier, more contemptuous and more contemptible than that. I was wrong.

Ironic really as these last few days I have been saying to myself, ‘you really must post something a bit more positive’. Fat chance.

I really didn’t expect agents to be falling over themselves to take on my book. It falls outside the parameters of safe work in these deeply conservative times (though goodness alone knows it is hardly innovative stuff – how a Beckett or a Robbe-Grillet would fare in these times I dread to think). However, having taken the time to read up on agents and submit only to those who might be interested and submit exactly what they ask for, I do think I have a certain right to expect I will be treated with courtesy.

All I can say to these agents (well, there’s a lot I could say) is get your acts together. Mistakes get made, but never ever forget that you are dealing with people who have put heart, soul, tears, and time into what they have sent you. The very least you can do in return is make sure you let them down easily, politely, legibly, and on a bit of headed notepaper – like the professional agents out there.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


These days, if you want an agent or editor to consider your work (especially if you are an unknown like me), the manuscript has to be word perfect. Don't you dare have a spelling mistake, or a typo, or the teensiest bit of iffy grammar. Don't even think about bucking convention and daring to use anything so out of fashion as dialect (despite the fact that this faddish dislike amongst agents has left us with a slew of books that sound like a bunch of 1940s RADA trained actors doing lower class accents). Try any of that and your submission will spend about six seconds on a desk before being shunted along to the shredder (or the post room if they can be arsed to slip your work into the prepaid and addressed return envelope, which some clearly aren't - do they steam off the stamps and use them elsewhere? isn't that theft?).

On the other hand, if you can raise a $5m advance for the US rights on your second book, guess what? Your agent and your editor will work on it for you. Allegedly.

How does that happen?

Sounds to me a bit like a few people got pissed over lunch, added a few too many zeros to the cheque, sobered up, thought 'Shit!', and are now doing what they can to the manuscript to justify such an obscene amount of money.

Yep. No other word. Obscene. Kick in the teeth to a lot of hard working midlisters. Crap from a great height on all the hardworking writers who do get it word perfect and celebrate with a box of chocolates if their advance looks like it might cover last quarter's electricity bill.

If this book is such a sure-fire bestseller (apparently literary and commercial, as if that has never been done before), why not a reasonable advance on US rights ($100k) and let the writer earn their money from royalties? Because it seems to me, OBSCENE (just in case you hadn't got the point) advances are going to make a writer lazy. Really. Why bother when you are now a millionaire and you know that other people are going to do all the boring re-writes for you?

I have no objection to writers earning a decent living and raking in the royalties on a popular book. I do get kind of pissed at this way of running the industry. You spend that kind of money on an advance, you are going to make damned sure you do all you can to sell the book. It will have a huge marketing budget, lots of exposure, lots of sales as a result (and lots of almost immediate re-appearance in second hand book and charity shops), and all the tossers involved will slap themselves on the back convinced they know how to spot a good book. Self-fulfilling. In the meantime, all that money that has gone round in a big circle and done nothing but pay for itself could have gone round in scores of more modest circles and given us a great deal more genuine choice. For that kind of money we could have had 100 new books (each with a very respectable advance) and of that 100, one could have been this so-called best-selling comlit work, and a whole range of other stuff including some genuinely innovative work.

OK. The needle's stuck. I'm sure you must be bored hearing me go on about this. But every time we get a story like this touted as some sort of success, I will snap back about the blatant hypocrisy of it all. Because it is time that people in the publishing industry stopped behaving like all the merchant bankers out there. The government ain't gonna bail you all out when your business goes belly up. Most politicians wouldn't know a book if it bit them in the arse, and those that recognise what they are really don't give much of a f*** about them (unless they are on the receiving end of one of those OBSCENE advances). No. When the publishing industry goes belly up, those of us at the bottom end of the food chain, the ones that do all the work, will celebrate their freedom from all the leeches who feed off their hard work. Then they will make use of modern technology to carry on doing what they love - writing and selling their work.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

They're at it again...

I don't know what Twitter is (other than a vague sense of something electronic) and I don't much care. I have enough trouble keeping up with new-fangled stuff like pigeon post.

However, it appears that a number of literary agents have been using Twitter to play a 'game'. They have been publishing (anonymously) the worst of the pitches they have had for books. Apparently the intention is to educate, not to humiliate. Yeah, right.

Well. Seems to me the agents who took part in this tacky display of unprofessional behaviour need to keep a few things in mind.

There is a thing called copyright. By publishing extracts from letters sent to you without the permission of the person who wrote them, you have stolen that person's work. And it is no good saying it was a quote for the purpose of education, because it is accepted practice to cite the source of any quote. What you have done is broken a fundamental trust that needs to exist in the world of publishing; namely that work submitted to an agent or publisher isn't going to get published without a contract expressing right and remuneration.

There is also a thing called professionalism. Agents and publishers constantly bang on about how people who submit to them need to be professional. This extends well beyond decent layout and the inclusion of return postage. If you want to be an author, you have to treat it seriously in all respects. Agents and publishers have made a lot of money writing books about this sort of thing (although a lot of them clearly don't take their own advice). Well, people, it is a two way street. If we authors have to be professional, so do you. You probably do get a lot of submissions that simply haven't a hope in hell of ever being a commercial success. Learn to live with it. It's the profession you chose (I doubt anyone was ever forced to become a literary agent). Don't make fun of these people. They might not be much good, but they have put heart and soul into their work and to turn round and mock them is reprehensible in the extreme.

It is no wonder that writers are looking for alternatives to the current publishing model. Print-on-demand; social networking; direct access to distribution networks; and other recent developments mean that authors can become independent, keeping a great deal more of their hard earned cash. It won't be long, dear agents, before authors are able to turn round and say to you: "We like your work, but in the current climate..."

Saturday, 7 March 2009


Well, I may not be able to sell them, but I can write them.

I have just finished the first draft of the first part (of three) of my latest work. 23000 words in four weeks - with lots of interruptions. Once I get my head straight, I might get even quicker.

And I'm beginning to wonder if I might not manage to draft two novels this year (having already prepared detailed notes for another).

I am now going to go and soak my hands in something soothing. And possibly soak my insides with something soothing as well.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The rules of writing

It’s Charlie’s birthday today. And another rejection for her book flopped through the door and hit the porch floor with a smack that sounds just like the palm of a hand making contact with a cheek. To add insult to injury (or maybe someone somewhere has a dark sense of humour) the only other post for me was Help the Aged trying to tout a funeral plan. Reminds of that witty riposte, “Fuck off and die.” Probably not one of Oscar’s.

So. These rules.

I can hear people perking up. Is he, they wonder, going to let us into the secret of how to get into print? I wish.

The rules, such as they, are not about helping you to produce good writing so much as they are rules for how to not produce bad writing.

Look at any How-To book (or CW course material) and you will soon pick out the basics. These books are written by writers (and CW teachers and agents) so what they say must be true. They, of all people, must know what they are talking about.

So why, oh why, is it so hard to find a new book these days that abides by these rules? I’m not talking innovative, ground-breaking stuff that re-writes the rules on its own terms. I’m talking about all that run of the mill stuff that packs the shelves of book stores.

A case in point. I was recently a book to review. It was the third in a crime series. The first book had, according to the blurb, won prizes. The fact that I had the third book must mean that an agent and a publisher thought it was worth getting into print. Yet it broke all those rules. It was a crime novel – you know, one of those books in which a detective uncovers what happened – yet we were treated to a lengthy prologue which, presumably (I say presumably as I gave up on the book and sent it back) helped to set up the story. It was dull, plodding (all the sentences constructed the same, the same length, with events being laid out one after another), and apparently pointless. The first few chapters were much the same. After that I flicked through, just in case it got better. When I came across a paragraph that told me a character proceeded to explain something and told me what that was and how they did it; then followed up with several paragraphs of speech in which the character did the explaining, I knew this was a badly written book.

Yet it was in print

I looked up the author. Ah. Light dawned.

I’ll give another example of a book I saw recently that promised to tell me all the secrets of successful screenwriting and how to get my scripts taken up by movie companies. After an hour of searching I could find no screenplays credited to this author – produced, in production, or found as shreddings in the bottom of a hamster’s cage.

So how did this one get into print? I’ll give you a guess.

Another example in the making. A few days ago, a well known actress announced that she wanted to write some short stories. Not that she had written some, or was trying to, or was taking a course. Simply that she wanted to. And I bet within minutes of making the announcement, publishers were falling over themselves to offer a contract. Never mind there was nothing on paper, or that short story writing is a highly specialized art, or that established writers have trouble getting their short stories into print.

See a pattern?

I do.

I am not saying the whole of publishing is like this. That would be an insult to the many very good writers out there who slog their guts out on a daily basis and get into print. I know some of them. I admire their tenacity and, yes, I am sometimes jealous of their good fortune. Which is perhaps unfair. It’s not like I haven’t had books of my own published.

The trouble is, there is enough of this ill-considered mutual grooming going on to make the whole thing look like a sleazy, incestuous gravy train.

Perhaps the average person browsing in a bookstore doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. Perhaps it has always been like – although I seem to remember a time when there was a greater variety of work available despite their being far fewer books making it into print.

And the point of all this?

If you have gone through all those How To books or been on CW courses and learnt all the rules, then forget them. You stand just as good a chance of getting into print and you’ll save yourself a lot of money and effort.

Oh yes, and make sure you know someone in publishing. It helps.