Conflict-averse protagonists

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my own writing – sadly that’s because I haven’t been doing a huge amount of it. I’ll get back in the saddle soon I’m sure.

One of the problems is that I’m a little stuck in all of my usual go-to projects, and I don’t want to start something new as I’ve got so many juicy (albeit stalled) things under way already.

I can’t remember what I last posted about my novel A Calling-on Song so I’ll do a quick catch-up: I had it all nice and finished, sent it off to agents with no luck; I paid for a professional critique from one of the market leaders in such things; feedback was very useful and identified a few things which I’d been sort-of aware of and hoped had been buried beneath awesomeness.

The main issue highlighted was my main character, Robin. He still came across as too passive or stand-off-ish. One of the things this meant was that it’s unbelievable that the people who tag along with him and lend assistance would actually bother. This stems from the very initial draft and, rather than pluck the problem out and solve it, I wrote around it. I came up with motivations and reasons to excuse it all that fitted neatly into the narrative. Four drafts on and it’s much more daunting to tackle!

In the mornings before work I watch 20 minutes of a TV show. Over the years its been everything from an episode of The Simpsons or Friends to a smidge of The Wire to a variety of costume dramas. Right now I’m part way through a rewatch of Pushing Daisies, half-episode at a time. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s not a big commitment as there were only 2 relatively short series. Just like Firefly it left me wanting much more, and just like Firefly it’s excellent.

The general premise is that the MC, a piemaker by trade, has the power to bring anything back to life with a touch. A second touch will permanently kill what was brought back. If something or someone is brought back for more than 60 seconds then something else close by will die in its place. He uses the power to help a private detective solve murders (obviously). The whole tone borrows very heavily from Amelie and it’s a lovely, romantic, funny and touching confection.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that the MC is very risk-averse, both physically and emotionally. He is stand-off-ish and often reactive rather than proactive. He wants, by and large, a normal life and to be left alone. And it works very well. This desire for a smooth ride causes tension among the other characters and, due to his use of his power, leads to secrets and intrigue. The characters that surround him are all very proactive, from the private detective starting new cases to the MC’s brought-back-to-life childhood sweetheart who wants to make the most of her new lease of life.

I’ve tried for a similar set up – my MC keeps the causes of some of his strange behaviour to himself, hoping his life will return to normal. Around him friends and colleagues poke and prod and investigate and suppose as they try to help or further their own agendas (or both). 

So why isn’t it working for me? 

A couple of considerations: maybe the critiquer is ‘wrong’. This is a dangerous door to open – disregarding what someone thinks of my novel is not something I intend to do, particularly if they’re a professional in the field! And it’s something I was deep down aware of to boot!

Perhaps its down to likeability? Despite his stand-off-ishness The Piemaker is very likeable thanks to a combination of both the script and performance. I may need to work on my MC, as I don’t have a top actor to rely on…

Another consideration is that the viewer doesn’t solely follow the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies. My novel is 3rd person, but we only follow the MC. Is this too much of a halfway house? Maybe committing to 1st person or pulling the ‘camera’ back to follow other characters would bring the dynamic that I’m lacking.

The Piemaker is pulled into scrapes partially because of his work with the detective. And he is only useful to the detective because of his power. My MC doesn’t really have a power or useful quality that his friends are lacking. So maybe that’s a key. They should need him for something as much as he ends up needing them…

There’s always the possibilty that it doesn’t work in Pushing Daisies. I mean, I love it of course. But it was cancelled after 2 short seasons so can’t have been wildly popular at the time. Could it be that I have a predilection for these kinds of characters, but popular appeal isn’t there?

And one final thought – maybe these kinds of characters are better suited to a visual medium. Characters who are ‘numb’ generally work better in film than on the page. Perhaps it’s the same for the risk-averse.

If you’ve got any suggestions of books featuring stand-off-ish characters trying desperately to cling to a normal life do let me know.

@BornToPootle

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Discovery Day at Foyles

Today was Discovery Day at the Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road. What that means is that a load of agents from Conville & Walsh and Curtis Brown had foolishly agreed to meet a massive load of authors and listen to hundreds of novel pitches.

I’ve written a fair bit about pitching generally (and specifically) while touting my novel A Calling-on Song (update: it needs a bit of a redraft and is waiting in my queue of projects to work on). What I hadn’t done to date though, was pitch my novel to an agent in person. Bearing that in mind I prepared a pitch for the novel I’m currently working on, which is roughly 50% complete and 50% drafted/plotted.

The Discovery Day Setup

Foyles

The view from the queue

I had been allotted a time slot, so was allowed into the queue (long, but well managed don’tcherknow). Awaiting me at the top was an agent looking for two things: a 30 second verbal pitch, and the first page of my novel. That’s all they were after.

I heard someone in the queue likening the experience to an X Factor audition. I think that’s a little unfair – X Factor seems predominantly about revelling in other people’s misery, humiliation and lack of self-knowledge (I’m not a fan). This, as the blurb promised, was more like speed dating. No-one would witness my soaring success or crashing failure apart from me and the agent, and maybe, just maybe, a long and fruitful relationship would come out of it all.

30 Seconds Of Glory

I reached the front of the queue, clutching my pitch notes and first page in an increasingly sweaty hand. Then it was time and I was led across the room to sit opposite an agent. Her surname was the same as one of the most famous/infamous magickal figures of the last couple of hundred years, which I took to be a good omen – my novels tend towards magick with a ‘k’ after all. We introduced ourselves and then it was showtime.

As I’ve written before, distilling a novel full of odd characters, weird cults and all sorts of dramatic goings on down into a handful of sentences is both gut-wrenching and necessary. This is what I came up with for this event, though I think it’s a bit on the long side in hindsight:

“When a teenage punk trio sell their souls to the wrong devil, the fate of all music hangs in the balance. Reuben James was the original guitarist with We Are The Scene, back before they were famous. Now he’s the most hated man on the planet. Blamed by tabloids and fans alike after the death of We Are The Scene’s singer, it’s time for Reuben to reveal the truth behind their stratospheric rise and tragic fall. This isn’t sex and drugs and rock and roll; this is small town toilet venues, revenge and ancient magick.”

Once that was done, the agent asked me a few questions: was it my first novel – nope, but would be my first to be published. Did I think it was stronger – yup, a much more active main character for starters. Where did the idea come from – mashing together some of my favourite things, together with a great deal of time spent at the Tunbridge Wells Forum in my youth, both watching and playing. That sort of thing.

And then?

She read the first page. Asked if it was a horror novel (more urban fantasy with horror elements than out and out horror I’d say. So I did). Then told me it wasn’t really her sort of thing and wrote down an agent who was building a SF/F list and bade me farewell.

That was it?

Not quite. I had been hoping for a little feedback on the pitch – was it on point or waffly etc, but there wasn’t any of that. I headed downstairs and joined a table of five other pitchers chatting to a different agent. This was more about the industry and process generally, not specifically about our individual pitches, but was a nice informal group. Following questions, the agent talked about his slush-pile process, trends in literary and women’s fiction and the like.

And that was that. Nerve-wracking and certainly an interesting experience. It was a bit of a shame there wasn’t really any feedback from the agent I pitched to – as with letters of rejection, the more feedback I get from the industry the more I can work out how to approach things in future. But talking about my novel to industry types was great practice which could prove invaluable, and I’ve got the name of an agent to approach once the novel is done. Now to ride up and down in Foyles lifts until one of the agents is trapped in there with me… All I need is 30 seconds!

@BornToPootle

A Professional Critique of my Novel

This is the latest in my series on trying to get my first novel published.

A little while ago I wrote about sending my manuscript off to a professional critiquing service. I chose one of the most reputable (based on my own research) – Writers’ Workshop.

I was happy with my manuscript, but had sent it out to a number of literary agents without luck. During the many drafts I had critiques from a few brave and trusted souls – trusted to give honest feedback rather than glowing praise, that is – but I’d put some money aside and thought a pro critique would be a good idea. After all, this is the first novel I’ve got to a stage that I’d call finished. I’m working on a number of other projects which are at various stages of completion, so if there are important lessons to learn or delusions I’m under then best to find out now.

Writers’ Workshop are frank on their website: they won’t sugarcoat bad news. So it was with some trepidation that I sent my manuscript off. They let me know the name of the chap who would be critiquing the novel. I looked him up (of course) and found out he had a massive number of books published. Most of them are children’s books, but also a fair few that seemed to fit with my novel’s genre and market.

I waited. I held my breath. I twiddled.

An email from my critiquer dropped into my inbox (in very good time, I should point out). Despite being under the weather when the email arrived, I opened it straight away. On a side note, there isn’t a really satisfying way of opening exciting emails. Not like tearing into an envelope or using that weapon of a more civilised age, the letter opener. Oh well, progress.

Now, I knew to keep my expectations in check. I’m self-taught as a writer and haven’t previously had anything looked at by a ‘proper’ author. That said, and if I’m entirely honest, deep down a tiny little part of me really did think the opening sentences were going to be singing the praises of the finest novel of its generation.

Sadly that’s not what awaited me.

First the good bit: he liked my writing style. That’s a biggie. If it turned out that I really can’t write that would be a rather large blow (though not career-ending, judging by a couple of obvious recent bestsellers).

There were major problems though. The critiquer thought the pacing / plotting wasn’t right and, even more crucially, hated the main character – particularly his passivity and refusal to engage. There were other things too (as well as a number of things he really liked), but these seemed to be the biggest issues that will require major work to fix.

Now this is interesting.

Very interesting.

Because after the first draft I noticed these problems myself. Over the following redrafts I tried to fix them with tweaks here and there (alongside other overhauling work), but I never tore out the root of the problem. I thought I could polish the issues away and hoped I’d succeeded. Apparently not.

And this is great news. Not as great as if I’d written the Finest Novel Of Its Generation of course, but great nonetheless.

Why?

It means I can trust my instincts. That’s a fantastic position to be in. I may not be hitting the bestseller lists any time soon, but if I can trust my writing, trust my instincts and keep plugging away then who knows where I’ll end up.

If you’ve had any good or bad experiences with pro critiquing then let me know in the comments – it’d be great to compare notes.

@BornToPootle

London Book Fair 2015

Or, A Drop In The Ocean

One of the earliest posts on this blog was after my sojourn to last year’s London Book Fair.  Well it’s that time of year again, only this time I popped along to all three days rather than just the one.

Held at Kensington Olympia, it was a wonderfully maze-like expanse of beautiful beautiful books (none of which were on sale to the likes of me – it’s an industry fair after all). Here’s the best cover I spotted:

Enough from Burt? Never!

Enough from Burt? Never!

Like last year, there was a dedicated ‘Author’ area slap bang in the middle of the labyrinth (where the minotaurs roam). Each day saw a series of 45 minute seminars and panel discussions on topics like tips on getting an agent, success stories from published authors and more general discussions on how authors are changing their writing to suit newer forms like Twitter.

I only went to the seminars I was most interested in, but that was still a hefty ten or eleven. There was a little variation in quality, but on the whole they were very well presented. I found a couple were either slightly mis-named (or perhaps they veered off topic at the beginning and didn’t recover) and one or two came across as marketing pitches for one or other e-publishing services. I suppose that’s the nature of this kind of event. There were great talks from representatives from The Bookseller and various agents, publishers, journalists and booksellers though, and served to give an interesting overview of a few different parts of the industry alongside decent practical advice.

I’m sure there were plenty of opportunities to network with other authors – just by hanging around and chatting with others at the Author HQ for example – but being an obtuse sort I used gaps in my schedule of seminars to meet up with a couple of editors I know of old and take foolish selfies.

A professional demeanor is key at these events.

A professional demeanor is key at these events.

Worth going to? Absolutely. I think a lot of what was covered in the seminars needs further research and, arguably, could be gleaned by decent research online in the first place, but I can put a few industry names to faces now, met a couple of other novice authors I’m going to try and keep in touch with and drank a fair bit of (pretty decent by exhibition centre standards) coffee. A good rebaptism into the publishing world, having had a couple of months of self-doubt. I’ll come on to that next time, but did you go to the Book Fair? Anything stand out particularly for you?

@BornToPootle

Professional Critiquing Services

This one fits into my ongoing series about trying to get published for the first time.

Quick summary of where I’m currently at (though feel free to have a look back at some of previous posts along the way) – I’ve got a novel that, after a lot of redrafting, I’m happy with and have sent out to agents. So far there haven’t been many nibbles, though I haven’t been quite as proactive about sending it out as I possibly could have been.

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is paying for a professional critique of my novel. Whilst I am hopeful that it’s going to knock the socks off anyone who reads it, I am aware that it’s the first thing I’ve written and polished to this degree and I am entirely self-taught. I’ve been hoping that I might pique an agent’s interest enough to get a little specific feedback but, while I’ve had one little morsel, it’s not really enough to base a further redraft on.

At an earlier stage I got a few trusted friends (trusted also in the sense that I thought their opinions would be honest) to have a read and provide feedback which was invaluable, but now I’d really like something a bit more industry-centric. And that comes with a price tag.

I looked up quite a few different services, and tried to find peoples’ own reviews of them, which proved surprisingly hard. Google something like ‘Novel critique service uk review’, and of course you’re only really going to get links to the services themselves! There were a few that stood out from the pack though, and I’ve ended up going with the Writers’ Workshop. They seem to be at the higher end, both in terms of price (over £500 for my 87,000 word novel) and, hopefully, quality. I figured it’s probably worth going for it though – if it helps get towards publication then it’s money well spent, and any feedback on style/structure etc will be useful for future projects.

They’ve got an impressive list of editors, so I’m looking forward to finding out who’ll be tackling my novel, but what swung it for me were their sample critiques. Loads of detail (one of the sample reports is over 10,000 words!), and looking at things from all angles, including marketability. It looks like there should be the chance to chat with the editor about their feedback, and they have ties to agents and publishers should they think it’s strong enough or close to it. We’ll see.

I’ve been able to ask a few specific questions on areas I’m thinking may need attention (is the first quarter attention-grabbing enough? Is the MC active, or too passive? How the arse do I market it as anything other than UK-centric?!) so hopefully they’ll be addressed in particular detail as well as all the other bits and bobs. It takes a fair few weeks to hear back, but I’ll definitely post about the results.

Have any of you had professional critiques? How useful did you find them?

@BornToPootle

Writing Competitions

I haven’t mentioned much recently about how I’m faring in trying to get published because, well, there’s not been much news. However, while trawling the internet for opportunities I’ve found that there are a couple of great writing competitions for debut/undiscovered novelists on at the mo – I thought I’d share them just in case anyone’s interested and hasn’t spotted them yet:

Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize 2015

This one actually has my local bookseller – Bookseller Crow – as one of the judges, which is pretty cool. I’ll be taking bottles of whisky in on a weekly basis until the shortlist is announced.

The Word of Mouth Prize

This also looks good and has, amongst others, the owner of Dulwich Books as a judge – also not a million miles away for the purposes of bribe-delivery.

I might actually send different novels into each one. For those who’ve read a few of my previous posts you’ll know I’ve got one novel ready to go (in my opinion) and another one well under way. The second of the competitions allows for works-in-progress, and I’m pretty happy with the first half of my second novel, so might give that one a whirl. The deadline isn’t for a while, so I’ll give it a bit more thought before committing either way though.

I also spotted this short story competition today, specifically looking for speculative fiction on the theme of First Contact (not necessarily extra-terrestrial). I haven’t written a short story for a while, but have a stack awaiting an airing. Maybe it’s time to try sending a few out…

Good luck if you’re going in for any of them. Anyone know of a good resource/blog/twitter account that reliably collates these kinds of things? I’m thinking of the novel ones specifically really, and ideally UK-focused.

@BornToPootle

Is Genre Fiction Reaching Critical Mass?

"...all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination..."

“…all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination…”

Interesting things are happening in SFF and other ‘genre’ fiction right now. Having been looked down on for decades (centuries?) it’s increasingly looking like mainstream cultural and critical acceptance is on the cards. Why do I think this? And why now?

The last two ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions at the British Library were devoted to comics/graphic novels and Gothic fiction. The BFI have a sweeping Sci Fi season on at the moment. The BBC are getting in on the act and have sci fI documentaries playing right now. And then there was this speech from Ursula K Le Guin (and if you haven’t read her Left Hand of Darkness I suggest you stop reading this right now and get a copy).

I’ve written briefly about Interstellar already and, whatever you may think of it, there’s surely no denying it’s great to see a slab of grown up sci fi reaching a wide audience – not just robots slugging each other in the face for once. And on TV Game of Thrones has become the one to rule them all.

That’s why I think it’s happening now, but where has it come from? What’s driving it? I wonder if it’s not linked back to the phenomenon that is/was Harry Potter. The generation that were kids when the first book came out are grown up now. And through their teenage years and into early adulthood they followed Harry’s saga, with Lord of the Rings punctuating it on the big screen (along with the Potter adaptations themselves of course). It was an adolescence defined by fantastical fiction, some of the most successful ever, and it has led to an fantasy-literate adult audience broader than ever before.

That’s my theory at any rate, and I’m sure there are many other ways to spin it – capitalism following one genre success to make more money maybe, or the internet uniting disparate fantasy fans into a collective force, or something in the times we’re living through making fantasy and sci-fi appealing as either carriers for metaphor or escapism from the global recession.

I’ll post something more about Harry Potter soon, but what do you think? Do you think genre fiction is ascending to its rightful place alongside ‘literary’ fiction? If so, what’s your theory?

@BornToPootle

NaNoWriMo – My Experience

The first of November is rolling around, a date that has indelibly been stamped into my mind for the last five years. Not due to Halloween-induced hangovers or the fact that it marks a fortnight until my Birthday, but because it’s the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I thought it worth a quick pre-NaNoWriMo post in case I sway one more person into taking part, because (spoilers!) I think it’s awesome.

Picture the scene. It’s September 2009. I’ve written a few short stories. I’ve got the first few thousand words of a couple of different novels languishing a long way short of complete. One of them, at fifteen thousand words, is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And then my wife discovers NaNoWriMo. I grumble that it’ll distract us from finishing what we’re working on, that it’s better to keep our heads down rather than start new projects. She, fortunately, ignores me, and I eventually see sense.

With no planning, and no idea of what I’m trying to say, I write a complete first draft in a month, mainly on my phone on my commute and lunch breaks, and scribbled in notebooks to be typed up later. It’s about 40,000 words, so shy of the 50,000 target, but it’s the longest thing I’ve written and my first attempt to structure a longform story. Unsurprisingly, when I read it a few weeks later, it’s Not Great. Very Not Great. But there are some interesting things in there, and having completed a first draft I begin the process of redrafting for the first time. It’s the obligatory post-apocalyptic coming of age novel, of course.

A year later, and this time I’m a bit more prepared.As well as massive supplies of tea, I have an idea of the general plot and characters for my steampunk opus. I write about 60,000 words in the month and finish it off in December with another 10,000 words or so. Upon reading it, it’s also Not Great. But I have some thoughts on why, and look up more about how to structure a plot. How to plan a novel. How to develop characters.

Next time it rolls around, rather than start a brand new project (which is what NaNoWriMo is supposed to be about – honestly though, who cares as long as it gets you novelling) I turn to the idea that’s been burning at the back of my mind all this time. One of the novels I’d started before NaNoWriMo came into my life. I spend a month plotting and squeezing my brain and then spend November completing the novel. The planning paid off – it’s a lot more coherent than my previous attempts, though needs a lot of work still.

The next year is spent redrafting that novel, A Calling-on Song, and I give NaNoWriMo 2012 a miss, but when the Summer version, Camp NaNoWriMo, approaches in 2013 I decide to take a break from redrafting. I spend a couple of months preparing a new novel, The Lord of The Dance, then kick it’s ass in a month. I write the first three quarters of it, but it’s already 80,000 words. I leave it there, happy to draft the last quarter when I’ve shored up the rest, and return to redrafting A Calling-on Song.

And now, as I’ve been blogging about, A Calling-on Song is being chucked at agents in the hopes they like it and I’m in the process of redrafting The Lord of the Dance. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about writing, about me as a writer and about what I want out of life along the way.

Will writing a novel in a month make you a successful author? No.

Is it hard work? Yes. Oh god, yes.

Will you have to make changes to your routine to accommodate it? Yes.

Could it be the most awesome thing you ever do and change your life? Yes.

Let me know if you’re tackling it. Good luck!

@BornToPootle

Where do you get those ideas?

Or, Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow.

Some of the books I've stolen from. I mean, 'been influenced by'.

Some of the books I’ve stolen from. I mean, ‘been influenced by’.

Welcome to the latest in my series about trying to get published for the first time.

I’ve been submitting my ‘finished’ novel to a few more agents over the last couple of weeks, and an interesting thing occurred to me. On many submissions advice pages on various agencies’ websites there’s something along the lines of ‘include anything that makes you an expert in what you’re writing about.’

Now, I’d sort-of assumed that was mostly there for non-fiction submissions but now I’m wondering if that’s not the case. Faced with my query letter, synopsis and novel extract, a prospective agent is, I imagine, looking for two things: material they really connect with and a reason to say no (given they’ve got unsolicited submissions coming out of the wazoo, wherever that may be). Or, perhaps it’s a default ‘no’, but they’re looking for a reason to say yes, something they can sell, some nugget they can base a pitch to a publisher around, something that lends credence to a submission.

I’ve not made much of an effort to disguise some of my book’s origins – it’s set in the town I grew up in, and the main characters work in a DVD rental store (possibly the last one!), which plays host to a number of important scenes. I worked in record shops in the town for four years between leaving school and going to drama school, so there are a fair few little quirks and tics that are directly based on those experiences. So far, so not-that-enticing – who hasn’t written something based on a re-imagined version of their home town? It’s far from an original idea.

But that’s just the setting. And there are reasons and ramifications for that setting, but it’s not the juicy part of the novel, it’s not necessarily going to hook anyone in unless they have some kind of affinity for the town. The real meat (or tofu-steak I should say, being a damn hippy) of the novel is in the folk tales that stalk my main character and that besiege him at every turn. It is, when boiled right down, about a young man discovering a deep connection to the traditional stories of these isles. And that’s where I’ve been underselling myself.

When I was 12 I joined a youth theatre, and the first play I performed in was a version of Robin Hood that reconnected the character to traditional folklore. It was an established play co-written (I think) by Toni Arthur, and we were lucky enough to have her directing us. Those of a certain age may remember her from the children’s show Playaway. She taught me most of the swear words I know. But she also, during the course of the play, taught me and the rest of the cast a few folk songs. And I’ve been singing them ever since. A few years later for a different production her ex husband, and former musical partner, Dave Arthur, taught me a few more folk songs. And then, a few years later still, in my mid twenties, I got interested in American folk and made the logical leap back into traditional British folk music. It really did feel like coming home.

Dave and Toni Arthur were part of the 60s/70s British folk revival that spawned the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (who, along with Martin Carthy, I’ve been lucky enough to see live a number of times over the last few years). And they taught me folk songs which wormed their way into my bones and have wound up in my novel. So that is where the root of the idea comes from. And I think that’s a much more engaging narrative for my own journey to write the novel than the one I’ve been giving to potential agents.

What do you think? Is it worth letting agents and publishers know the truth behind the novel?

An Agent Replies

Or, Careful What You Wish For.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. A little while ago I mentioned in a post that what I really wanted from an agent (other than an offer of representation of course) was feedback. As a rookie writer I sometimes feel like I’m howling into a gale – I’ve got no real way of getting decent impartial feedback without paying a critiquing company. And while I think the novel is good to go, I’m not precious about it – if something isn’t working then I’ll fix it. All I need is some consensus from people in the business to know what needs another draft. And guess what? I finally have a bit of industry feedback!

In a previous post I talked about sending the novel off to a friend of a friend of a friend who works at an agency. He requested the full manuscript and here’s what he had to say, verbatim:

‘Dear Jonathan

Thanks for this, I’ve read a bit more. I think you write really well and there’s some interesting elements in your story but it lacked the pace and edge of your seat thrill that really gets me excited about a novel. I also think it’s hard these days to have adult books which are quite so quintessentially English in there (sic) settings. I enjoy it but publishers tend to shy away as it limits the appeal out of the UK. For that reason I don’t think I’m the right agent for this book. It’s such a fierce market out there that you really need someone who is 100% behind your writing and will champion you with conviction.

Sorry for the disappointing response but it really is just one opinion and you may find other agents who completely disagree.

I wish you all the best with getting the book published.’

Interesting, no? What do I take from this? There are two real issues here and I think they may have very different solutions.

The pace/excitement factor is something I’ve been wondering about myself, so it’s good to have that raised. I think the novel does start as a slow burner and once the strands twist together – about halfway through – momentum gathers and the pace becomes more breathless. But possibly readers are only going to get to that if they are patient for the first half. This gives me a valuable insight to feed into the next redraft, though I will keep pursuing this version for the time being. As he states, it’s all down to personal opinion so I’ll exhaust a few more avenues before picking reaching for the tipp-ex.

His observation about the quintessential Englishness of the novel is very interesting. The novel is, when you get right down to it, about a young man in small-town England discovering the English folk tradition and folk stories, so making it less quintessentially English would be either tricky or diminishing to what I’m trying to do. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought of the Englishness being a limiting factor myself, so I wasn’t altogether surprised it was raised. However it got me thinking about other novels and films that are quintessentially English in some way and yet have managed to transcend into international appeal. Richard Curtis films are a good example, I think. Bridget Jones too. Where these work is that the setting is picture-postcard enough (in a way) to be an unthreatening window into the culture for those outside and yet well-observed enough to appeal to the culture itself. Add to that dealing with universal themes and it’s a good combo.

Now, I think I’ve got that balance to a degree. The story distils into a coming-of-age tale when you strip everything else away. The setting is, I suppose, a scratch down below the chocolate-boxiness of some fluffier versions of England, but it’s not exactly gritty. There are a lot of references to geeky cultural touchstones from both the UK and America to broaden the appeal, but also my own observations of day to day life in high-street shops. And when things really get going there are weird, ooky, odd planes of existence with giant spider-monsters. Those are universal, right?

So what does that mean? I think (and I could be wrong – I may need to redraft to broaden the appeal, but as with the pacing I shall seek further feedback ahead of that) that I need to sell the book differently. I need to manage the expectations of the agents I’m writing to and join the dots for them. Effectively I need to tell them why this has more broad appeal than they may think at first glance. Because if I was told about a book set in an English high street about English folk tales then I too would assume it would appeal primarily to the English. Maybe that is the case, but I think I’ve got something more here. I’m going back to my query letter to see if I can work something in to highlight this as a positive rather than let agents think of it as a negative. In a strange way it gives me an aspiration. I want to be the Richard Curtis of the weird.

More soon!

@BornToPootle