Not-So-Secret Agent (anymore)

I have news. Good news. The sort of news unagented and unpublished writers dream of receiving. (And I’ve been sitting on this for ages, like a penguin desperate to get off his egg).

I am now longer without an agent.

Along with writing the next Harry Potter series, having a book optioned by a Hollywood studio, and being part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club, having an agent make an offer of representation is, for most writers, part of the Holy Grail. The shiniest treasure; that which gleams like a glorious, golden geegaw, is, of course, a publishing deal. But here’s the thing about the publishing industry: it’s really hard to get your book onto the shelves without first having an agent to help you get it there. An agent acts like a conduit – a well-connected, deal-making conduit – between the starry-eyed (or bleary-eyed, depending on how long they’ve been hammering away at the keyboard) writer and the publishing houses. It’s possible to make it without an agent looking out for you, but not easy.

I’m insanely happy to have found my agent. Here’s how it happened.

In a previous blog I wrote about my experience at the Society of Children’s Bookwriters & Illustrators UK conference. I’d entered a “pitch-your-book-to-a-panel-of-agents” competition. Having made it to the final, I had to live pitch my book, on stage, in front of the massed conference, with the judges (agents) sitting behind me!

I won the event, and my prize was to pick one of the agents to have a 1-1 with at some time.

I had spent some time researching the five agents, just in case I should be lucky enough to win. Therefore, when I was put on the spot, and asked to pick the agent I wanted to get some feedback from, I was ready. This task was made easier because I’d felt some connection with her during my ten minutes on stage.

And wow! How pleased am I to have chosen the fantastic Thérèse Coen?

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Agent & Writer!

Fast forward two months…

Thérèse had already asked for my full manuscript (a leap forward in itself – only two other agents ever asked for THAT before), and we arranged for the 1-1 to take place in London. Thérèse picked an interesting venue: the House of St Barnabas in Soho.

 

It’s a not-for-profit private members club, whose staff have experienced life challenges in the past, but who have been offered a chance (and employment with training) by the club. It’s members appeared to be predominantly hipsters with beards tapping away on their Macbook Airs. The unmistakable scent of Penhalligan’s beard oil lay at chin level like an alternative-scene aether.

Thérèse had pre-warned me about the location’s pro-trendy tendencies, and I did my best, honest. I think my slim-fit jeans, Uniqlo sweater and air of quiet desperation did the job.

Fast forward two hours…

Having received feedback on my manuscript, Thérèse said the magic words and offered to be my agent. I think I was so shocked that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d heard correctly. She very politely suggested that if I had any other agents in mind, she would understand. Notwithstanding the thirty plus rejection emails in my inbox, I accepted her offer without too much delay.

Fast forward two weeks…

With my contract at Hardman & Swainson Literary Agents signed, I am now at liberty to share my good fortune.

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Signing the contract!

And share it I have. A friend of mine from SCBWI-BI said that good news such as mine is like oxygen for writers. It is. We thirstily lap up positive stories about publications, prize wins, and yes, agents obtained. They smell better than the rejections we bury out in the garden.

Right now I’m embarking on edits and word-culls to get my book into shape for the publishers my agent might approach. And I’m doing so with a smile on my face. Writing has always been worth it; I love telling stories and bringing characters to life. I like giving them problems to solve and danger to survive. I enjoy forcing them to take risks and aim high. Higher still. As high as they can reach.

I took a risk entering the pitching competition. And I’ve been aiming high for ages trying to get an agent. Now I’m aiming higher still. But now I’m not aiming alone; with my agent behind, beside and out in front, we’re aiming as high as can be. Write a book? Check. Find an agent? Check. Get published? Not yet, but I’m reaching for that star right now.

 

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Second-hand books; first class words.

Being, as I am, fortunate to travel all over the world in my job-that-pays (writing, as yet, not providing much in the way of financial nourishment), I try to grab opportunities when they come my way. And an opportunity to duck into a second-hand bookshop is never to be missed.

In Boston, this means a pilgrimage to Brattle Book Shop. Despite the cold, visitors are still drawn to the bargain carts of books which sit in the vacant lot next door. Arranged in ascending – or descending, depending on your inclination – price, the carts offer books at $1, $3, or a heady $5. It was on a $5 cart that I found my first scoop of the day:

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At only five dollars, this US first edition seems like a bargain. Just as well Vita isn’t looking down from the writer’s mural on the wall. To be available so cheaply….

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Still, I feel that I have found myself something special. And a quick check on Amazon suggests that ‘The Dark Island’ isn’t in print. A copy in French is available; but even for this francophone, that’s a bit de trop.

Escaping from the biting chill whipping through the carts, I headed directly for the children’s section. (I didn’t dare head to the vintage and rare books floor; last time I did that I found myself shelling out for a Christopher Isherwood first edition). It didn’t take long to bag a couple of gems here. First up is this joyous volume:

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There’s something comforting about knowing kids have been learning the same alphabet for hundreds of years. The examples might have changed, but the letters haven’t.

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Shame they couldn’t think of anything for ‘Q’ or ‘X’.

A topical modern version might begin: ” A’s for America that’s been led astray; B is for Brexit that won’t go away”.

And talking of satire…

My final delight of the day is this intriguing book. It is, of course, a parody of Alice in Wonderland from the late 1920’s. In it, the author satirizes immigration restrictions, censorship and prohibition, amongst other topics.

As Trump takes office later today, I imagine we should expect a tsunami of satire to pour forth from America. As it must.

Heading back to the hotel along Boston’s mall, Commonwealth Avenue, I stopped at one of the many statues which proudly watch over the joggers, lunchers, dog-walkers and book-buyers. William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist, suffragist and social reformer. The kind of person I’d gladly sit next to on a plane. His world view – an expansive, anti-isolationist one – that we are all the same, is on the defensive in many parts of the world right now. But it is one I identify with, and on a day which feels like a massively retrograde step for decency and democracy, I’m sharing it with you.

“My country is the world. My countrymen are all mankind.” William Lloyd Garrison.

A morning which began with second-hand books, ended with a first class sentiment.

And an unexpected feeling of hope.

Capitalism:1; Creativity:0

Buildings tell stories.

At least, the people inside them have stories to tell, or stories to be told.

I was considering this in New York last week. If there was ever a city whose buildings can spin a yarn, it’s this one. Think, The Hotel Chelsea, with its cast list of famous and creative residents; The Empire State whose viewing level has played host to countless stories of love and loss – not to mention an infamous skirmish with an oversized gorilla; massive department stores – Barneys, Bloomindales, Bergdorf Goodman – where staff sell hopes and dreams and too-tight jeans to harried and hurried customers; the ghosts of the Twin Towers with their thousands – too many thousands – of tales of loss and mourning and grief; glamorous apartments house even more glamerous ageing widows…think Iris Apfel; nondescript buildings in the East Village whisper the secrets of beatnik poets.

For me, it is the apartment buildings that have the most to say, simply because they contain the most people. I love to stand and look up; look skywards and gaze at the hundreds of windows, behind which who-knows-what is happening. Someone laughing here on the phone…they’ve just been told some gossip, but shhh!…it’s a secret. Someone there in tears…they’ve been dumped by text. Up top there’s a couple taking the morning off…loudly. In the lift, a man wonders if he can still pay the rent now that he’s been made redundant. At the entrance, an elderly woman with a small dog on a leash whispers in the doorman’s ear and presses a twenty into his hand: for his daughter’s education, you understand. How else can he send her to college?

Every storey tells a story.

Cycling in Central Park, the tops of hundreds of apartment buildings loom over trees. Just because these Upper East and West side addresses house mostly the wealthy and privileged, doesn’t mean they can’t tell their own stories. Even the rich have secrets: they laugh and cry; they love and hate; they live and die.

But there is a building in Manhattan which will buck the trend. It’s freshly glazed windows won’t blink to reveal. It’s heavy doors poised to shut like sealed lips. It is a building with few tales to tell because despite its size, it is mostly void of humanity and will most likely stay that way.

432 Park Avenue is a new breed of building.

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Conceived solely for a new class: the Ultra High Net Worth class (UHNW). These are folk with assets of at least $30 million. We’re not talking the 1%…we’re talking smaller percentages. This is a building which reflects the rise of the global super-rich. Even its architect, Rafael Viñoly, has said that “there are only two markets, ultra luxury and subsidised housing”. And this place is ultra.

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Ultra-high. Ultra-expensive ($95 million for the pent house anyone?). Ultra-inaccessible.

Ultra-empty.

And here’s where a building’s ability to tell stories has been stifled, silenced, starved of material.  For this is a building which will never be fully occupied. It’s a building designed to be less than half occupied. Some reports suggest it will never be more than a quarter occupied. 432 Park Avenue is where the UHNW club come to park their cash. If they come at all. It’s mostly just where they park their cash. Too much wealth Sir? Don’t like the look of that domestic tax bill Madam? Why not allow your money the luxury of a multi-million dollar residence? There it can bask in the summer sun or revel in the winter snow. Allow it the space to breathe, to flex and to grow (in value).

This is a building destined to remain silent. Silent of laughs. Silent of tears. Silent of the stuff of life. And whilst The Chelsea and those run-down East Village apartments no longer resound to the creative beats of writers’ and artists’ drums (the creative class of New York having long ago been forced into an economic retreat), at least their history can testify to something human. Something emotional. Something we can all relate to.

432 Park Avenue isn’t alone in being built for the ultra-wealthy. New York is going to be littered with sky-high, tax-free bolt-holes for lonely dollars. And Europe’s not immune to this spreading canker: In London, The Tower, St George’s Wharf is 432 Park Avenue’s Special Relationship cousin, destined to house the currencies of the world’s super-elite.

These buildings are not conceived to nurture lives, loves and lines of poetry. They have only one story to tell; and it’s an ugly one. An empty, heart-sapping tale of selfishness, greed, and complicity in both.

It’s a story no-one wants to read. It’s a story I wish I didn’t have to tell.

 

Towers of Words.

Flying Scribbler eschewed flying last week and took to the waves for a trip to Arran.received_641117452708841.jpeg

In years to come, memories of this holiday will, like all memories, fade away. Traces will remain of the walks, the cheese, the whisky; even the hare which sat for a second outside our rental cottage, before leaping away into the long grass. But one memory will linger, persisting in my mind far loner than any other.

Pebbles.

I adore pebbles.

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Pebbles have so much to offer: they are things of beauty; they are tactile; they can be skimmed on the surface of a sunset-drenched sea; and they can be balanced, one-by-one, to create centre-of-gravity-defying, teetering towers.received_641117662708820.jpeg Sedimentary upon metamorphic upon igneous constructions,  growing from the beach, playing chicken with the evening breeze.

The attraction for me is in creating something so temporary out of something as permanent as the rock of the earth. These towers can’t last: even those built away from the reach of the highest tides won’t survive a storm, or the flap of an oyster catcher’s wing. Whilst those built as the waves lap at their very bases will be re-consigned to their horizontal plane in mere moments.

I wonder if by writing, I am constructing something as temporary as the pebble towers, or as permanent as the pebbles themselves?

The paper my words are printed on will, in time, degrade and decay to dust.  If I become published, even the copies of my book held in the permanent collections where all books are destined to be stored, even these will disappear given enough time. The memory of the words I write can only ever be as permanent as the memory of the last person to have read them.

Stories have a finite life. It may be a long life in the case of Homer’s Odyssey, the Norse myths or the Bible. But even these will fade from memory in the millenia to come.

And although those pebbles rolling and frolicking in the surf on Arran, will themselves be reduced by friction and attrition to tiny particles, they will endure far longer than words. They will endure until Earth’s final moment.

So in writing my stories I am creating my own, temporary, pebble towers.

The trick is to build them on solid, even ground, away from the elements, to give them the best chance of standing tall for as long as possible.

As I write, word upon word, line upon line, page upon page, I’ll keep in mind those towers on a beach in Arran, and build the best stories I can.

Second-hand Perks

One of the perks of my job, (besides the obvious: nights out of bed, permanent jet-lag, cleaning up vomit), is the chance to visit some truly wonderful bookshops around the world.

I’ve not taken the opportunity to blog about them before, and I’m certainly not the first to do so, but this being no reason at all not to, let me tell you about Brattle Book Shop in Boston.

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Tucked down a sunless side street just off Boston Common, Brattle Book Shop claims to be one of the oldest and largest used book shops in America.
There are three stories of books inside, including a rare and antiquated section (where I once found a first edition of Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood), but outside is where the most fun is to be had.
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Here, along shelves attached to the brick, or on wooden trollies, are the cheaper books…$5, $3 or $1 will bag you a bargain to send you home with a bibliophile smile, and a couple of kilo’s extra baggage.

There is little order to arrangement outside…Dewey decimal does not deliver here. Instead, fiction squeezes alongside non fiction. Poetry tickles prose. History nuzzles German cookery.
On one trolly I witnessed ‘Advanced Mathematics’ for Christians’ bivouacked with a biography of Lincoln.
So, the keen book-hunter must keep their wits at the ready and scan the shelves with an open mind (which I imagine you would need for that tome on mathematics).
Otherwise, how to explain these three gems which will accompany me home to Scotland?
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Eclectic? Perhaps.
There’s the ‘worthy’ read…Bede’s History of the English Church and People.
There’s the one to add to my other Isherwoods.
And there’s the joker in the pack. How could I refuse the cries (or was it whale song?) of Frances Diane Robotti’s book? This was written in a time before whales were regarded as in any way vital to the planet. To quote from the dust jacket..whaling was early America’s “most romantic and picturesque industry”. I chose it mainly because you never know….inspiration can come from anything.
And indeed, a story immediately presents itself when the book is opened…this was hiding inside:
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Come on, be honest… don’t you want to know what these two discussed either before 11pm or over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows.
Like I said, inspiration and stories everywhere….

The End of Knowledge

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Kinghorn Library, Fife. R.I.P.

My local council announced the closure of sixteen libraries this week. Sixteen. Sixteen out of 45. That’s a lot of libraries. A lot of books. A lot of learning. A lot of possibilities. All gone. Vanished. Evaporated.

Fife Council is under pressure, like all councils in the UK. They need to make difficult decisions about which front line services to make cuts to in order to balance the books with the budgets allocated to them. Make no mistake: these are decisions forced onto local councils by central government. In austerity Britain, Eton-educated politicians sign the orders to cut budgets, leaving local councillors to weild the knife, and local communities to mop up the blood spilled.

Can you tell I’m angry?

Good.

When bombs, paid for by a government commited to ‘austerity’, fall on far-away communities, destroying what little they have left of public services, then you know the end of days has arrived. I shan’t even bother to work out how many libraries could be kept open for each bomb that falls on Syria, (or how many nurses employed, free school meals provided, care home beds offered…).

The Council talks of “tough decisions” and the need for “sustainable” services which are “suited to customer need”. And there lies the truth of the matter: library users are no longer seen as readers or learners or folk with a hunger for knowledge; we are  customers. The language is important: by turning a library user into an unwitting player in a commercial transaction, those holding the purse strings can legitamise these difficult commercial decisions. Not enough customers for your service? No problem. Remove the service. Budget balanced. Bombs purchased. Let’s all go home.

The fact that public services were never supposed to make money seems lost.

It comes down to how we measure wealth. And in this age, wealth is measured solely in ownership of property. The value of learning, knowledge, reading, talking, singing, painting, laughing, keeping warm by a library radiator, interacting with people…the value of all these things has been reduced, made less imporatnt; it’s been forgotten.

I shouldn’t need to illustrate how important local libraries are to a community, but personal testimony seems to connect people to an issue, so here’s mine…(More testimony today in the Guardian from Fife writers Val McDirmid and Ian Rankin).

As soon as I was reading, my Saturday mornings where spent in two places. We always went swimming at the local, council-run swimming pool; followed by a visit to the library next door. I can still remember the thrill – and mild panic –  of deciding which four books would be exchanged for my four pink children’s tokens. Four was never enough, so this was a decision of monumental, and weekly, importance.

Then, having moved to another county, I discovered the delight that is Romsey Library.wp-1449831832789.jpeg This is the sort of place the Victorian philanthropists had in mind when they decided to share their wealth with less fortunate people and give the gift of learning through their generosity. What a privilege for a child to have this resource a short bike ride away. wp-1449831841319.jpeg In the socially democratic years of post-war Britain, the State took on the role of providing health and education when it still understood the benefits that universal learning (and health care) could bring to a nation.

It wasn’t long before I could swap my pink tokens for mustard-coloured adult ones. I think there was a transition period when I was allowed both; ah, the agonies I must have gone through. Especially when the pink tokens must have been revoked, effectively banning me from borrowing anything from the children’s library. The horror!

How to get round this tricky dilemma?

Get a saturday job in the library of course! I think I’ve never felt the same satisfaction from paid employment as I did back then, pushing my wooden trolly around, replacing borrowed books on shelves. I’d sneak the occasional five minutes (no-one was watching if I hid in the reference section, apart from the homeless man who spent his days snoozing at the table there) to read a page or two from whatever had been returned.

The library for me was a place of learning and a vital resource for someone from a single-parent family. There was no money to buy books. There was often no money to buy decent food. Like our health service, libraries do not discriminate: rich people can borrow as many books as the poor. That is the point. It is, or was, about knowledge for all. Without my local library I would not be writing now. I would not have made it to university. I would not have discovered the joy of flicking through an encyclopaedia for the hell of it.

I would not be me.

I don’t blame Fife council for their decision to close the libraries; with their hands tied very firmly behind their backs by the rope of austerity, what choice did they have? The blame lies squarely with those in Westminster who willingly allow the axe to fall on public services. This is nothing less than an ideology-driven programme to shrink the state, and with it shrink the hopes, opportunities and dreams of communities everywhere.

It is, for many, the end of knowledge.

 

It’s Getting Drafty Here.

The lamentable abandonment of my blog of late has been entirely intentional; I apologise to my regular visitors.
It was an experiment: in the same way some people opt for giving up watching television; and others leave off Facebook for a while. I wanted to see if, by ceasing to plan and write blog posts, my other writing pursuits increased in productivity or quality.

I hoped to improve the speed at which I’m writing my novel for children.
I haven’t.
I thought it might improve my concentration on other projects.
It didn’t.
I fancied it might focus my mind; free me to think about other things.
It hasn’t.

Although my posts were always sporadic (at best), and sparingly read (definitely at best), I enjoyed the process of blogging. Finding a subject to blog about is always exciting; as is the research it inevitably leads to. Writing the posts is, let’s be honest, fun. I wouldn’t bother otherwise. It flexes the writing muscles, loosens the mind and offers the opportunity to use different styles than I otherwise employ. And then there’s the inevitable wait for responses……….sometimes a very long wait for a single response. Which turns out to be a ‘like’. Or just spam.

So, in addition to the discovery that I miss blogging, I also found that not blogging has no impact at all on my story writing output. It’s the same process which means that when I have say, a week off work, I get about as much writing done as when I have a scant 3 days available. It’s the concentration of time which concentrates the mind so well; much in the way that if you want something doing, you are supposed to ask a busy person.

However, there have been advances in the time I have been away from the blog.
I have progressed to a second draft of the novel; it finally takes shape. I know where it’s going and, most importantly, I know how to get it there.

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This, incidentally, is what one and half drafts of my story looks like. Thank the writing overlords for post-it notes.

I have made a further discovery; a true revelation: if given only 30 minutes of spare time, I can still write something. I can still contribute a sentence, an idea, or just a few words to the whole. These snippets add up. They will eventually lead to a whole.

Therefore, I will keep blogging. I already have an idea for another post. And I will do it with the knowledge that it is unlikely to have any impact on my other projects. And my novel will get written. It’s an organic process; like a plant growing in stages, it sometimes enters a dormant period before bursting back into full, unfettered growth.

So, on with the second draft. And on with the blogging.