Suffering the arrows of outrageous fortune

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Me, except I've got eleven of the Uruk Hai's black arrows sticking out of me...
Me, except I’ve currently got eleven of the Uruk Hai’s black arrows sticking out of me…

It seems obvious to me now, that writing Charlie’s Worries was akin to making the dread journey through the Mines of Moria – battling the goblins of procrastination, the cave-troll of doubt and then the ultimate enemy, the Balrog of pernickety editing. It’s almost as if JRR Tolkien wrote that section specifically to highlight the perils and torments of writing a novel.

So, after two years of scribbling and typing, I emerged from the fusty tunnels of imagination into the bright light of hope and Lothlórien. Galadriel took me to a clearing and showed me some things that have not yet come to pass. I expected to see money raining from the sky and awards and publishers prostrating themselves before me, yet strangely all I saw was fire and ruin.

“I know what it is you saw, for it is also in my mind.” Galadriel’s voice echoed in my head, somewhat smugly.

“I cannot do this alone.” I replied.

“You are a writer, Simon. To be a writer is to be alone.”

So I screwed up my courage and sent out missives to the Gatekeepers of Amon Hen (I think this is what most people call Literary Agents). Then I set out onto the river of rejection with only some biscuits for sustenance.

Gatekeepers of Amon Hen - A cross between an orc and a Nazi.
Gatekeepers of Amon Hen – A cross between an orc and a Nazi.

I could sense the Gatekeepers chasing me down the banks of the river. Somehow I knew they were there, just out of sight, but always in my thoughts. I imagined them reading my work, gasping at its audacious originality, crying at the pathos, laughing hysterically at the funny bits and then falling over themselves to send me an Email of Acceptance.

But this utterly failed to happen. Instead gnarly, black arrows of rejection thumped into my heart. Each one chipping away at my self belief, until now, two weeks after I sent the first email, I lie breathless against a tree with eleven slivers of despair protruding from my soul.

Then, once again, I hear Galadriel’s voice in my head. It says: “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail to the ruin of all.”

So, slightly heartened by these somewhat ambiguous words of encouragement, I determine not only to stagger to my feet and suffer the inevitable sting of bad news, but to write more. I’ve already written nearly 15,000 words of The Book of Lies and I shall use this as a shield against the depressing times ahead.

So bring on Sauron, what’s the worst that can happen?

And so it begins…

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Like Théoden standing atop the battlements of Helm’s Deep I have, once again, decided to test my courage and my resolve against a dark army of malignant evil. Unlike the King of Rohan I can do it indoors and without getting too wet.

King Théoden’s enemy was a host of orcs and Uruk Hai armed with jagged iron and armoured with a fanatical hatred for mankind. They were forged beneath Isengard, twisted from the mud with no concept of compassion or mercy. To them beauty is abhorrent. Something to be crushed beneath their dirty boots. The hopes and dreams of the men, women and children huddling in the caves behind Helm’s Deep mean naught to them. Indeed all human life is but a scourge upon their sight.

Serves you right for trying,
Serves you right for trying,

My opponents are the gatekeepers, a clandestine clan of shadowy powerbrokers known throughout this kingdom of ours for their ruthless willingness to destroy a dreamer’s dream with a cut and pasted paragraph of bitter truth. They are, of course, the Literary Agents.

They have been created in the bars and coffee houses of Bloomsbury, authored by cynicism and spite with no concept of compassion or mercy. To them hope is abhorrent. Yet it is that same hope that gives them their power. It is something to be enjoyed before squashing it from a middle-aged writer’s heart.

And yet against my better judgement I’ve gone and prodded the dragon.

I’ve chosen a handful of carefully selected agents and sent them a synopsis and the first x number of chapters of “Charlie’s Worries”.

I want to know, I really do.
Me for the next few weeks.

And now I feel sick. The familiar feeling of needing to check my emails every few seconds has returned. And I still get that horrible lurching in my stomach when I see one that might be a response to one of my queries.

Just as a quick addendum to this post, if you are a literary agent and you’re reading this, please understand that I most certainly don’t include you in the aforementioned shadowy clan. No, I’m sure you’re lovely.

Procrastination for good, not evil

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In order to once more prove my procrastination credentials, I’ve spent some time trying to process my emotions when confronted by rejection… in video form.

Here is the result.

Strength through Joy!

Desert Island Discs – 23rd June 2024

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Kirsty Young: Hello, I’m Kirsty Young. Today’s castaway is a writer. He was a late starter: his first taste of publishing success was in 2015, when he was 45. But since then he has been a powerhouse in the world of fiction, seemingly just as comfortable writing Young Adult novels as he is creating comedies for the screen. When asked about how it felt to get his first novel published, he said: “It’s taken fifteen years to get to this point, now I can have a rest…” He is Simon Yates.

KY: But, Simon, you didn’t have a rest at all did you?

Simon Yates: [chuckles nervously] No, Kirsty. I guess that first taste of success was addictive. I’d completed four novels at that point which had taken my whole life, but a lot of my time had been taken up by sending out queries and manuscripts to agents and publishers, attending my place of work all week, and long bouts of procrastination…. All that practice gave me momentum when I began writing full-time. It gets harder to write with every rejection letter you receive, but after publication all my previous disappointments fuelled my drive to continue.

KY: If that’s what made you write then, what motivated you before that?

SY: Well, I’d always wanted to be a writer. I got a typewriter and some carbon paper for Christmas when I was in my early teens, which I remember asking for. It wasn’t a random present. And it wasn’t a career pointer from my parents either. My dad was far too sensible for that.

KY: So your father would have disapproved of you being a writer then?

SY: When I was in my twenties I was a complete wastrel anyway so I suppose he’d have been pleased to see me doing anything even vaguely constructive. But when I was growing up he’d have very much wanted me to pick a solid profession with prospects and a pension and things like that.

KY: Why do you say you were a wastrel?

SY: [laughs] Because I was! After I finished University I worked in a pub, then graduated to getting drunk in the pub. And then finally, to save time, I started living in a pub!

KY: Living there?

SY: Yes. The landlady of the pub is now my wife.

KY: Really?

SY: Yes. That was the turning point actually.

KY: So you stopped being a wastrel then?

SY: Not immediately. It was more of a gradual process. I did start to write a novel… [snorts] but I was still not prepared to put in the work. I had an idea in my head of what a writer should be: flamboyant, artistic, prone to fits of depression… I rather thought if I lived my life to those principles I was bound to be a success.

KY: And did that work for you?

SY: No. I wrote about 10,000 words in six months. And every one of them was rubbish.

KY: Time for your first disc.

SY: It’s a poem. I remember it from my childhood because my mum knows it off by heart. I love the way it tells a whole story in so few words, from zero to hero and back again, and I like to think that it stirred an early appreciation of how words, if they’re chosen perfectly, can summon up images that go far beyond the mundane definitions. It’s “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash.

Reading of The Tale of Custard the Dragon

KY: So, was your mum a big influence on you? Creatively?

SY: Oh, yes. She told me when I was about thirteen and really leaning towards maths and computer programming, that she thought I’d end up with a career which involved writing. And I’ve never forgotten that. I have no idea what she based her theory on, because all the evidence at the time was pointing towards me being a real science nerd, but… well, I guess she knew me better than I knew myself at the time.

KY: Were you a nerd?

SY: Absolutely. Massively. I had two very close friends (we used to play D&D together) and one of our greatest pleasures was disassembling the machine code of games I had on my BBC Micro computer. We had to do it by hand looking up the number of each opcode… I’m sorry I can see I might be boring you.

KY: [yawns] No. No. But I think it might be time for some more music.

SY: I remember seeing this band on the telly in 1977. The lead singer was dressed in a black and white motley leotard, and he strutted around the stage like a peacock on steroids. No man should be able to get away with behaving like that but Freddie Mercury absolutely rocked it. They weren’t performing the song I’ve chosen, but this was my introduction to them and I’ve spent the last fifty years in awe of Queen’s, and especially Freddie’s, entertainment factor. The song I’ve chosen is “The March of the Black Queen”

The March of the Black Queen” by Queen from the album “Queen II”

KY: The listeners couldn’t see how much you seemed to be enjoying that…

SY: Thankfully. I’ve always felt faintly embarrassed by how much I loved Queen’s music. My best friends at school were all into The Smiths or Joy Division or whoever, but there was something so unashamedly entertaining about Queen that made more “serious” music seem a bit drab. And I want to write like that. To me, the most important thing is to entertain.

KY: You’ve said you had a comfortable, happy childhood. Your mother was a teacher and your father a company director. Were there any tensions growing up?

SY: No. No. None. I moved schools when I was fourteen, which was about the only difficulty I had. And that only lasted for few weeks, when I started to hang out with some cool kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.

KY: [snorts] Dungeons and Dragons? Really?

SY: Yes! While other adolescents were out trying to score 2 litre bottles of Woodpecker from the off licence,  I was roleplaying my level 7 female magic-user through the Forgotten Realms with my buddies. I think I learned a lot more about people that way than actually talking to real ones.

KY: Your, erm, understanding of women and more particularly feminism got you into a bit of hot water early on in your writing career didn’t it?

SY: Yes. “The Rise and Fall of Ultra-Knitting”  That was very confusing. I’d had some success with my young adult fiction and I’d had an idea for a short story pointing out the unfair tactics employed by men in the battle of the sexes. So I entered “The Rise and Fall of Ultra-Knitting” into the Bridport Short Story Competition where it came 2nd. Everyone at that point seemed to understand what I was trying to say. The top 13 entries are also entered into the BBC National Short Story Award, and I suppose because of the wider audience some people started to complain that it was sexist.

KY: Well isn’t it?

SY: Yes. Sort of. But it’s supposed to be a damning, but probably fictional, indictment of men and their methods. A vocal minority, or perhaps the clandestine group of men portrayed in the story, caused such a fuss that my story was disqualified from the competition. And I was almost blacklisted from the industry.

KY: So how did you manage to turn that around?

SY: Well, I didn’t do anything. The more I tried to explain the worse I seemed to be making things. I think I’ve got the Daily Mail to thank really, although it certainly wasn’t their intention to help. I seemed to be top of their hit list at the time, hated more than all the murderers and terrorists and foreigners. But, as you know Kirsty, most right thinking people generally believe the opposite of what the Daily Mail says and so gradually people started to actually read the story properly.

KY: There was one particular celebrity on your side though, wasn’t there?

SY: Ahhh, very clever! I can see why you’ve been doing this for so long.

KY: Thank you.

SY: Yes. Jessie J was particularly vocal about it. She’d written a song a couple of years before called, “Do It Like a Dude” which carried a similar message, and was equally misunderstood by the hard of thinking. So, with the aid of your clever steering, that brings me to my third choice, which is by Jessie J and was also the first song that my youngest daughter brought to my attention. It’s:

“Who’s Laughing Now?” by Jessie J

KY: That song is about bullying isn’t it? And that’s something you’ve explored in more than one of your books.

SY: Well I don’t know if “explored” is the right word. Some of my books have got bullies in them. Charlie’s Worries and Entering the Weave certainly, but they’re just characters used to further the plot or introduce some threat.

KY: You always seem to take quite a sympathetic view of them though. Is there a reason for that?

SY: [pauses] I don’t know. I was bullied slightly at school. When I was 14 I moved schools. From a fairly posh, private, all boys school to a mixed comprehensive. I had a few problems adjusting, but I think I was at fault just as much as the bullies were.

KY: That sounds like you’re making excuses for them. Are you saying you asked them for it?

SY: I suppose I am. I didn’t ask for them to put my finger in the woodwork vice or any of the other minor acts of violence they performed. But I can see how I wound them up. I was very sarcastic and horribly confident of my intellectual superiority.

KY: They put your finger in a vice? That sounds pretty brutal.

SY: Yes. It was. But they weren’t serious about it. They forced my finger in to the vice and started to tighten it. I remained completely silent and didn’t offer any resistance. Eventually, and fortunately before they broke my finger, they let me go. They obviously just wanted me to struggle or cry, but their fear of punishment kept them from doing any real damage. So they weren’t that bad.

KY: That still sounds charitable.

SY: Yes. Possibly. I just don’t really blame them. I can imagine I was insufferable.

KY: You’ve had three very different choices so far.

SY: Yeah, in a way I suppose. But I think they all tell a story. When I was really young I used to listen to Benny Hill’s “Ernie – The Fastest Milkman in the West” and my dad had a song about a bubble car that chased him in his sports car and it didn’t matter how fast he went, but the bubble car kept up…  I’ve never been able to remember what that was about exactly, but I loved the fact that I was being told a story in a song.

KY: You said earlier that your father wouldn’t have approved of your artistic endeavours, but it sounds like he was more encouraging than you give him credit for.

SY: In many ways he was arty, but he valued pragmatic abilities higher than aesthetic. He was a really talented painter and could play the piano and guitar by ear. But learning properly, I think, would have seemed like a frivolous waste of time. But he was a big influence over me when it comes to music. He considered the vocals of a song to be no more or less important than any other instrument and made me listen to various tracks where he’d pick out a sound that was almost subliminal to me, and then wax lyrical about why he thought it was so good that it was there.

KY: And does that lead us onto your fourth title?

SY: Yes indeed. This is a classic case of that. We were driving somewhere, just me and him in the car. I think we were going on holiday and we were listening to Alchemy by Dire Straits. There’s a bit in Private Investigations where a sound from the audience actually changes the tune slightly. Every time it came on he’d tell me to listen carefully, and then say “There! Did you hear it?” Eventually he started to rewind the cassette because I was totally incapable of hearing what he meant. So we listened to the same ten seconds about fifty times before I finally fibbed and pretended to hear it. It was good fun in a weird way, although I think he thought I was being dense just for the sake of it. It also made me realise how much depth there can be to music, and sometimes you can listen to a piece a thousand times and still not wring every bit out of it. Much like a great novel. So my next track is “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits because it’s brilliant and it will always remind me of my dad.

“Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits from Alchemy

SY: Oh no. It was just getting good!!

KY: Well, we can’t listen to music all the time, we’re here to find out about you. But this isn’t the first time you’ve been on Desert Island Discs is it?

SY: [laughs] Blimey. You really have swotted up. I wrote a blog entry back in… oh I don’t know 2014? which was a transcript of my future appearance on here. It was just a bit of fun really. Writing practice I suppose.

KY: But you were obviously sure you were going to make it then though?

SY: No. It was just nonsense really. I’m an ninja-level procrastinator and when I wrote it I’m sure I thought I was somehow helping my writing career, when actually I was just putting off doing any constructive work on “Charlie’s Worries”.

KY: So. You’ve told us that in your twenties you thought of yourself as a bit of a wastrel. What changed?

SY: Meeting my wife. It’s as simple as that. I was very prone to self sabotage I think. Probably scared that trying too hard might end up in failure and if I didn’t attempt anything I couldn’t fail at anything. Plus, I would tell myself that living the life I was living was edifying for a writer. My life was much rawer than someone who worked for a living, closer to the edge.

KY: And she taught you otherwise?

SY: I’m not sure how it worked really. When we first started living together she seemed perfectly happy to let me carry on with my revelries. It became a bit of a joke that me going out for a couple of hours in the afternoon would mean me rolling home six hours later and barely able to speak… Surprisingly, she didn’t shout or rant about it, I guess it’s something they teach women at their clandestine training camps. She used to work lots of hours 80-90 a week and I suppose subconsciously I knew I was not really pulling my weight.

KY: And so you stopped?

SY: Gradually, yes. It probably just ran its course I suppose. I was worried at one time that I might descend into addiction, but strangely that never became an issue. I’d go out, drink copious amounts and come home happy. But I can’t even begin to imagine behaving like that now. Marriage and children and a normal working life have taught me that you don’t need to be staggering around the streets to mix with people who have interesting lives. And, for me, not being drunk all the time makes it easier to write.

KY: I don’t know how she put up with you.

SY: No. Me neither. But I’m glad she did. I’ve chosen one of my pieces of music from those times though. Whenever I’d come home, I would always go straight to the jukebox and put on a particular song. It was quite loud and long and no matter where she was in the building, upstairs or in the cellar she’d know I’d got home safely.

KY: So, what’s track number five?

SY: It’s “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead.

“Paranoid Android” by Radiohead from OK, Computer.

KY: You do like long songs…

SY: Yes, well I wanted to get my money’s worth.

KY: You moved down to Northampton then and got a job working for a Engine Tuning Company. Did you enjoy that?

SY: Yes. Immensely. It was exhilarating to actually be doing something constructive. Writing computer programs is like a very rigid version of writing prose. There are far more rules and the logic always has to work, but some computer code can be crafted so well that it looks like art.

KY: Really?

SY: Well, maybe not quite art. But artistic.

KY: I assume that’s where you got the idea for your “Programmer’s Guide to Life” series.

SY: Absolutely.

KY: But what made you change from programming to writing? Especially as you say you were enjoying it so much.

SY: Well, my youngest daughter was born in 2002. At that time a couple of friends and I had started a business based around a program I’d written. I had thought, foolishly, that I’d be able to commit to carrying on the development of the program along with looking after a new baby. I’d had a fantasy that my daughter would sit quietly in her high chair next to me while I wrestled with the complexities of the latest API for 3D graphics… It turns out that babies are quite messy. And noisy. And don’t listen to instructions very much.

KY: And that came as a shock?

SY: I know it shouldn’t have done. But it meant that while I still worked full-time I didn’t have the energy or concentration for complex coding in my spare time.

KY: So you wrote a novel? Most people wouldn’t think that would come any easier.

SY: It wasn’t easier. It was just different. If you make a mistake with a piece of code, the program doesn’t work. If you make a mistake with a piece of writing, it doesn’t read very well but you can still continue and come back to it later. You might need to rewrite the whole section or chapter or even the whole book, but it’s subjective. You might actually find that you like what you’ve written when you come back to it, whereas with a program it will never work unless you find the error. And if someone is throwing baby food at you that can be quite challenging.

KY: But surely writing a novel requires some peace and quiet.

SY: Oh absolutely. But it’s very much something you can ponder over while a two month old baby snuggles into your chest. I found it inspiring, and while some people might be able to channel that inspiration down more logical avenues, I had a real urge to start writing again.

KY: And so you wrote “The Clockwork Butterfly”?

SY: No. Actually I wrote “Entering The Weave”, which I finished in 2007. It was picked up by an agent, but never found a publisher. And by that time I’d been bitten by the writing bug and realised that that was what I wanted to do. So then I wrote “The Clockwork Butterfly”

KY: Time for your sixth choice.

SY: When I sat down to make my choices, this band came to mind immediately. I could easily pick eight tracks just from them because although I don’t have specific memories associated with particular songs, I think as a whole they formed the soundtrack of my life. Certainly my teenage years and my twenties. It’s Pink Floyd, and the song I’ve chosen pretty much arbitrarily is “Comfortably Numb”

“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd from The Wall

KY: Another long one.

SY: I could’ve chosen “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Parts one and two are twenty-five minutes long.

KY: Do you listen to a lot of music?

SY: Not nearly as much as I used to. I listen to a lot of podcasts rather than music. When I’m writing I’ll often put some music on in the background, but it can’t be too intrusive, so I’ll usually put something on that’s either very familiar or purely instrumental.

KY: Like your next choice?

SY: No. Not really. I find a lot of my favourite classical music very distracting, even when it’s familiar. If you listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos there seems to be a lot of mathematical trickery going on, or with Schubert’s Sonata in D Major I find myself playing Haruki Murakami’s game of listening for the mistake. There always seems to be more than just the music when it comes to really great classical pieces.

KY: Is there with your choice?

SY: Well, not so much really. Although, like all my other choices, it tells a story. Or rather describes some scenes I suppose. I liked it at the time though because, although it was written just over 300 years ago, this recording felt very modern. It was certainly the first piece of classical music that I considered to be as entertaining as pop music. Interestingly I think both Patrick Stewart and William Shatner have recorded versions of it with them reading the sonnets that Vivaldi possibly wrote to accompany it.

KY: So what is it?

SY: It’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Le quattro stagioni by Vivaldi

KY: So, after the publication of your first novel, you really went from strength to strength, didn’t you?

SY: Well, yes. As I said at the beginning, it was very hard to get published initially, but after my first hundred or so rejections, I really learned to knuckle down and write. So by the time my first novel was in the bestseller lists I had five more ready to follow them in quick succession. My agent and publisher did a fantastic job of timing the releases, but before I knew where I was I’d become an overnight success.

KY: After fifteen years of trying.

SY: Exactly. I think that’s the way of it. A year before I’d entered some writing competitions and hadn’t even got on the short lists. I remember a golfer, maybe Palmer or Player, said something like: “The harder I work, the luckier I get” And I think my success can be attributed as much to continued effort as it is to the quality of the writing.

KY: Do you really think so? Or is this just false modesty?

SY: No. Not at all. There are hundreds, thousands of great writers out there who never get their work published. It’s a lottery really. When you’re submitting, you’ve got to absolutely blow your reader’s mind. It can’t just be good enough to be published. I’ve heard agents say they wouldn’t take on a new author unless he or she was better than the clients they already had. So this leads to inevitable disappointment, even from books which are perfectly publishable. And writing a novel is hard, time consuming work. You’ve got to be bloody minded, lucky and probably a little bit stupid to carry on…

KY: So that’s the message then? Keep plugging away.

SY: Definitely.

KY: Right. Time for your final choice.

SY: I love musicals and I couldn’t come on here and not choose at least one show tune. The problem was narrowing it down. or just choosing one. But in the end I decided on this one from Evita. It’s not in the film version or the more recent stage revival in this form, which probably means that Andrew Lloyd Webber or Tim Rice don’t really like it that much, but for me it’s perfect. It moves the story along giving out a mass of information, the wordplay is sublime and it absolutely rocks. It’s “The Lady’s Got Potential” from Evita

“The Lady’s Got Potential” from Evita – Original Stage Recording 1976

KY: So now I have to ask you how you think you’d get on alone on your desert island.

SY: I think I’d be OK. I’m fairly practical and necessity is obviously the mother of invention so I think I’d enjoy the physical challenge of surviving.

KY: And mentally?

SY: Well that’s hard to say. My family and close friends will say that I’m a bit of a misery guts where people are concerned, but I think that’s a bit of a show really. For the first few days it’ll be bliss I suspect, but then, especially without loads of books to read, I think I’d get a bit lonely.

KY: You won’t have a lot of reading material, but I’ll give you the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. What other book will you take?

SY: You’ve made this easier recently. In the past you didn’t allow encyclopaedias or reference works. And you even allow “The Complete Works of…” whoever.

KY: Well, just for you, I’ll make an exception you can only have one.

SY: Damn! Well my favourite book of all time is “Slaughterhouse 5” by Kurt Vonnegut and I think that it probably covers most aspects of human experience. From war to being captured by aliens… so, yes. “Slaughterhouse 5” please.

KY: And your luxury?

SY: Oh, now this is hard. A few years ago someone asked for a tennis court and you gave them Wimbledon Centre Court… now that includes the roof and the stands I assume?

KY: No. You’re cheating…

SY: OK, then… I guess I’ll go with a piano? No. No. I think it’ll have to be a great big notebook and a pen. Actually how about a Stationery Shop?

KY: [laughing] You can have the notebook and pen. Now, if the tide swells and washes away your record collection, which is the one disc you’d save?

SY: Oh, now this is difficult. I’ve sort of attached some sentimental meaning to a lot of these so choosing one might upset the others…

KY: I’ll have to push you.

SY: “Paranoid Android” then.

KY: Why?

SY: Because otherwise Marie would kill me.

KY: Right, Simon Yates. Thank you very much indeed, for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.

SY: No, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


The State of the Thing

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There were a number of reasons that I started to keep this blog:

  1. To practice this writing thing as often as possible; to give me an outlet where I didn’t need to concentrate on characterisation or plots.
  2. To record and document my progress towards getting published, as a history for me and any other aspiring author.
  3. To motivate myself by transforming each rejection from a personal slight into a mere statistic.

Recently, I’ve been busy.

“That’s no excuse. Writers write. You can’t publish a blank sheet of paper.”

I know. I know. I know.

But I have been busy. And I’ve still been fairly productive in the writing department, so shut your face.

I’ve now had a soul destroying 29 rejections for “The Clockwork Butterfly” and 3 submissions have timed out following an email asking me to assume the worst after a period of time. The last rejection I got was 10 days ago and so I’m beginning to assume the worst for the rest of them as well seeing as though the longest one has been out there for 91 days now…

The status of submissions for "The Clockwork Butterfly". Notice how much procrastination has been involved automatically working out the little subtables and graph at the bottom...
The status of submissions for “The Clockwork Butterfly”. Notice how much procrastination has been involved automatically working out the little subtables and graph at the bottom…

Still. Nevermind. I’ve almost got Charlie’s Worries to a point where I can start submitting it, so I’ll be able to go through the whole heart rending process again.  (It really helps that it’s only about 30,000 words long, rather than 150,000)

I entered Hot Key Unlocked and managed to write about 2,000 relevant words, following the brief laid out by the rules of the competition. Although I’d been thinking a lot about the plot I only put fingers to keyboard on the Sunday it had to be submitted. Of course, I knew I wouldn’t win. I’ve never written anything sexy or spicy before and found it hard to find the balance I wanted. In the end, though, I was pleased with what I produced and as the days went by I’d fooled myself into thinking that I might win.

I didn’t.

And I was disproportionately disappointed by this. After a day or so, after realising that I’d actually entered it to test my focus, rather than become the new Barbara Cartland (or more probably Dame Sally Markham) , I got things back into perspective and saw it for what it was: a good exercise and excellent writing practice.

Next up is NaNoWriMo  and I’ve got a nicely absurd idea for this. I need to remember that this is another exercise to work my writing muscle and not necessarily an attempt to create a novel fit for publication. I want to try and have fun with it.

So, by the end of November I should be ready to start my next project “The Motley Life of Edison Swift”

Twitter… Now I understand!

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Something rather marvellous happened yesterday. Something similar to a technological fairytale, or perhaps the beginning of one anyway.

Over the last month or two I’ve started to stalk literary agents and publishers on Twitter as part of my overall scheme to get a novel published. I’ve replied to a few of their tweets, injecting as much wisdom, humour and professional writing skills as I can into each 140 character missive as is logically possible.

No one has replied so far.

But I don’t take this to mean that my wisdom, humour and professionalism have been ignored. No. I think I’m inching into the minds of these gatekeepers like a mental parasite. When they next read a piece from me, a tiny trigger might click and they’ll realise that I’m the very same person who corrected their spelling or told them how wrong they were to like something. Check! Connection made.

Some tweets, though, don’t need correcting. Photos posted from literary events. Announcements that a client’s book has been placed. Publishing dates published… All proof that beyond my study, writerly things are happening.

One such post caught which caught my attention had an agent sounding comment on it from @someoneididntrecognise. After clicking through to her details and then to her blog, it did indeed turn out to be someone in the literary world. In fact an agent who was about to restart her agenting career.

Attaching my best Twittering fingers, I fired off a tweet, asking whether it was a secret where she was about to work and also a note saying how good her blog was. As usual, this led to much time wasting as I checked my Twitter feed once every three seconds.

Three hours and 3,600 checks later, @someoneiwasrecognising twet back saying thanks and “Not long til I can let you know now x” (note the kiss). A genuine message from a soon to be literary agent.

I grabbed the bull by the horns and replied immediately.

Are you accepting sneaky pre-officialagentedpostion submissions? #cheekygrin#rapaciousselfpromotion

(Hashtags are always funny and relevant)

Everything was on show within this tweet. I’ve heard of hashtags. I can make up words. I supposedly know what rapacious means. And I’m being funny about it. She’ll think I’m a genius.

Amazingly, she got back to me straight away. The great thing about twitter is you can read the whole tweet before you get nervous about what it might say. Not that those horrific rejection emails. And this was not a rejection at all. This was an acceptance. She was going to DM me my deets. Which sounded good.

Mere moments later (and these were moments expanded by the time-slip law of anticipation) her deets were indeed DMed to me. (I got her email address via the medium of direct messaging)

So, I dusted off my query letter, cunningly rewrote it to incorporate reference to our Twitter exchange, and sent off the first three chapters and the hopelessly dry synopsis of “The Clockwork Butterfly”.

She, a person not a automatic response, replied back and I wished her luck when she finally revealed her secrets in the future.

So, all in all, it’s just one more query to one more agent. But this one feels like it has a much more personal touch. I made tenuous contact first and I’ve read all of her blog so I do feel I know a bit about her. And she sounds nice.

Fingers crossed.

There’s a postscript to this which is both inspiring and terrifyingly intimidating.

I follow this secret agent on WordPress now and her latest post is in reply to a challenge she must have received on Twitter. I think it’s amazing, but I didn’t want to come across as too sycophantic, so I feel a bit silly “liking” it on her blog. If you want to see it I’ve added the link below…

Procrastination, Professionalism or Cowardice…

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Since coming home from Crete and getting back into mundane swing of normal life I have done very little actual writing. There are a few reasons for this, ranging from crippling curiosity about how my prospective agents are getting on, to genuinely urgent work projects or home tasks, and, of course, procrastination.

Ah, procrastination! My mortal enemy. If it were not for you I would be the emperor of Northamptonshire… if not the world. Why does the insignificant always take on such a fascinating sheen when I should be embroidering a blank page with magic? Why am I drawn to frivolous diversions like a chubby, flightless moth to the intoxicating flame of distraction?

Who knows?

So, today I have:

  1. Sent off another query to one other agent
  2. Added a little widget to my Excel spreadsheet of agent queries which now counts how many replies I’ve had on each day of the week… (5 for Mondays and Tuesdays, 2 for Wednesdays, 3 for Thursdays and 1 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday)
  3. Rejoined
  4. Written this blog entry
  5. Completed level 181 of Candy Crush
  6. Made my twitter page look lovely – (The photo of the sky is from the Scillies, the land from Crete)
  7. Spent a while looking up procrastination on the web… this is meta-procrastination.
  8. Sorted out my seldom used apps on my iPad
  9. Decided to do NaNoWriMo, so spent some time pondering what that novel should be about

Maybe 1 and 3 are prodding my writing career slightly forwards, but even though I’ve spent some time trying I don’t believe the others are. If I’d spent the time writing instead of doing these things perhaps I wouldn’t have got another rejection. This one from Gillie Russell at Aitken Alexander Associates. This rejection may have come out of cowardice though: I wimped out of writing that I’d chosen her because I thought she had kind eyes. So I’ll put this failure down to being too professional.

Utter Torture

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I have now received 15 rejections from various literary agencies for The Clockwork Butterfly. And each one hurts like the crushing of a childhood dream.

There is a pattern to it now.

I check my emails every few minutes. It doesn’t matter what time it is. In my mind agents beaver away reading unsolicited material twenty four hours a day and my writing is so good that they won’t be able to wait a second to send me a gushing email telling me how great I am. And how they would sell their diamond encrusted pants for the chance to represent me.

So I check. And (very, very occasionally) there is an email from an agent. I am immediately paralyzed. This is it. This is the one. Someone has finally recognised my genius. But I am unable to open the email because a tiny part of me knows that it’s another rejection. My mouse hovers over the email. And then, holding my breath, I click on it.

The first time I read it I don’t understand any of the words. It must be a defence mechanism to stop the excitement or hurt destroying my soul.

I calm down. Exhale. And read it again. And it turns out that perhaps I’m not a genius. I’ve been rejected.

A few minutes later, I read it again, just to make sure I haven’t misunderstood what they’re saying. But I haven’t. I’m still a reject.

Then I get cross. And I stamp about and complain that they obviously didn’t read it properly. And that they’re stupid. And fat. And smell. How could they not realise how brilliant it was? I’m going to write back and tell them how wrong they are. About everything.

Then I’m stomach churningly sad and I mope.

This whole process has now happened fifteen times. It’s a positive yet horrific thought to think that it could happen another thirty or forty times before I’ve exhausted my list of potentials. I am unsure if I’ll be able to cope.

Of the fifteen rejections thirteen have been bog standard, copy and paste daggers through my heart. The other two have been ever so slightly more encouraging. Jamie Cowen from The Ampersand Agency said:

You can clearly write, and there is a good deal of imagination on display in terms of the plot. Sam is cleverly thought-out and will appeal to a broad audience, and the cast of supporting characters is remarkable in its scope.

Which is nice and fairly specific to my novel. The other one, from Clarie Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge and White was less specific and now that I’ve read it again may just be a standard reply (disguised for the willingly gullible). I read it the first time and felt enthused though so I’ll still count it as encouraging…

The most confusing email I got was from Madeleine Milburn. I was on holiday (which I mistakenly thought would make the waiting easier) and we were out and about, but that didn’t stop me checking my emails every few minutes. And I went through the process mentioned above. Now Madeleine Milburn is one that I have high hopes for so I was even more excited about this and deliberated for longer than usual before opening it.

And… its title was “Celebrating SOULMATES publication with the Madeleine Milburn Agency” Now, my book is not called SOULMATES, which is a clue that this was not about me, but it didn’t stop me thinking that it was. For the best part of a minute my addled brain tried to wrestle the words in the email into an order that said they wanted to represent me… I failed. It was an email telling me about a new blog post from Madeleine Milburn. And I felt like a reject once again. (Heartfelt congratulations to Holly Bourne though – now that I’ve recovered)

The First Fresh Rejection and the Solution

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On Sunday night I had a discussion with my better half about how many submissions I should be sending out at a time.

“I’ve read in my books on writing,” I pointed at the bookcase, hoping it would lend weight to my argument, “that I should send out three or four at a time and see what they say .”

“I’d send out loads. To everyone.”

“You can’t do that. It’s just not done.”


“It’s just not.”


“Well. What would happen if two agents I’d approached got talking to each other at one of their many gala dinners or money counting parties and they found out that I’d submitted to both of them?”

There was a slight pause. I think it was to let the sheer idiocy of the question sink in. “That’d be brilliant!”

“No… but…”

“Two different agents talking about your book at a party. Surely that’s exactly what you’d want.”

It was exactly what I wanted. “Ah, but what if one of the agents that I don’t want to be represented by offers me representation before one of the ones I do want to be represented by?”

“Firstly,” she said, “if you’re going to be a writer you need to make your writing clearer. Secondly, don’t approach any agencies who you don’t want to work with.”

“I’ll send more out.” I said.

So, this week I’ve sent more out. Loads more. But I have always made sure that each agency is willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts and I’ve followed their submission guidelines to the letter.

And my reward?

At quarter past one this afternoon I received the first rejection. This was from The Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency although I commend them on their speedy response, I curse them for their lack of speedy acceptance. Even though I didn’t, I thought I had a connection with Penny Holroyde because she’d rejected “Entering The Weave” eight years ago.

The email I got was just a standard reply. Which is FINE. Honestly.

No, really. It is fine. I understand that there is no point in spending any more time than is absolutely necessary on work that is not going to be accepted. But, although it was entirely standard, they still said that they “enjoyed reading my material”. This is politely encouraging and suitably vague which means that it can be used for almost any reply. That doesn’t help me, and, in the long term, I don’t think it actually helps the agencies, either. I’m sure many aspiring writers will hang onto the fact that this agent “enjoyed reading” their work, and hold it up as testament to their own skill, therefore prolonging the hope/agony when ruthless honesty would have been kinder and more helpful.

I think they should be more structured. I propose that the next agents’ banquet they all get together and adopt a formal method of response which should include a rating out of 10 for how much they liked it or how close to accepting it they were. It wouldn’t take long to add that. And even if they really liked it and gave 10/10 they wouldn’t need to actually take it on. I understand how very few writers get to be represented. But a simple scoring system like this would be useful to everyone. If a writer was getting consistent 9s and 10s, then she’d know she was close; whereas if all the agents returned 1s and 2s he’d know there was something seriously wrong with what he was submitting, and he would know that the next thing he wrote would have to be different.

It would also help the agents in the long term. Even the most stubborn writer would learn to target his audience and begin to submit to agents who were giving him higher marks, rather than submitting across the board.

Second Foray

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So, Friday evening probably isn’t the best time for me to send submissions out because I’ve got to wait until at least Monday morning before anyone gets to read anything. So I’m almost certainly making life more difficult for myself, by giving myself a whole weekend to fret about everything without an iota of a chance that anything’ll happen… This will not stop me from checking my emails regularly though, just in case someone creeps back into their office to do some moonlighting.

One of the most promising rejections I got from “Entering The Weave” was from Sarah Manson. So I picked her agency as one of my three. Looking at the website though, I was disappointed to see that they were not accepting new submissions. So rather than submitting anything I thought I would introduce myself.

Dear Sarah

I’m just starting the long process of submitting my second novel for consideration and as part of my research I’ve looked through all my previous correspondence to see if there were any in particular that seemed more hopeful or personal than the standard rejection slip. And although you rejected my submission at the time, you gave me some handwritten feedback which was most appreciated.

It was for “Entering The Weave” on 2nd September 2005 (I’m sure you remember it well) and you said: “I loved the idea of the Weave running alongside the internet, but I’m afraid the narrative just didn’t work for me. Good luck with it!”

“Entering The Weave” was eventually picked up by Anne Dewe at Andrew Mann Ltd, and I thought I’d really made it then. But the publishers thought otherwise and so it was never released upon the unsuspecting world. It took me some time to get over it, but I started working on a new novel soon after and now, finally I’ve finished.

I checked with your website and you unfortunately it says that you’re not accepting new unsolicited material. So I thought a short(ish) introduction might turn the unsolicited into the solicited… Would you mind if I sent you my new novel?

Kind regards,

It took some time to compose this, and I thought it was succinct enough, that it might just tickle some interest. I sent it at 5:19.

I received this at 5:21:

Sorry, I’m not taking any submissions.  Good luck!

Ah, well. I guess she knew I didn’t like waiting…

But it goes to show that there really is no point in sending something to people who say they don’t want that thing. Lesson learned. On to the people who might want it…

Submission 1 – Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency

Caroline Sheldon-Entering The WeaveWhen I sent them “Entering The Weave” I garnered the response on the left (Click it to bigify)

This implied a proper read of the material and the fact that Penny had been kind enough to give some tips on improvement as well as saying “it’s promising but not quite ready yet” was decidedly encouraging.

On their website they seem to encourage new writers:

The Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency is always looking out for exciting projects by début authors in both adult and children’s books, but out of the enormous amount we see, we select very few. On occasion we do make detailed editorial suggestions and comments but we only do so when we see real promise in the work.

They’ve also published a page with their 12 pet hates. Which I particularly liked because I don’t think any of them apply to me:

  1. Lacklustre submission emails including little information about yourself or your work. This is your opportunity to pitch your book—use it.
  2. Humorous submissions that aren’t funny.
  3. Proposals for fictional novels – what other sort are there?
  4. Submission emails without representative material to read attached. We want a one hit submissions process – to read about you in your email and to read your work immediately afterwards.
  5. Query emails, telephone calls or letters about what we want to read from unpublished authors. We welcome submissions but we want to read your work, not engage in phone calls or correspondence. We think all the necessary information for submissions is included in this website.
  6. An invitation to follow a chain of website links to find your work. Please don’t make us have to dig it out – the delete button beckons.
  7. Artists’ submissions of original work. We much prefer an email submission with attachments or a link to your website (a link to a website is an easy way to view work but please don’t make us trawl through a complicated string of links to get there).
  8. Inclusion of non-consecutive chapters e.g. 1, 13 and 26. Always send the first three. If you’re not confident in them, revise before sending out.
  9. Picture book submissions that state everything depends on the illustrations. The words are what you are supplying—if it all depends on the illustrations, why are you necessary?
  10. Submissions to more than one agent in the agency – this just wastes our time. Plump for one,
  11. Submissions that say your mum loved it. (My mum loves everything I do, so perhaps I have fallen for this one)
  12. Submissions that are obviously carpet-bombing the whole of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. We don’t love the ‘send all’ approach.

(Reproduced from Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency – Pet Hates)

I attached the first three chapters, a synopsis and, in a cynical but far-fetched ploy to be remembered, a scan of Penny’s rejection letter for “Entering the Weave” to this email:

Dear Penny,

Please find attached the first three chapters and a synopsis of my novel “The Clockwork Butterfly” for your consideration.

This is my second YA novel and the second time I’ve submitted to the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.  You, personally, rejected my first submission, “Entering the Weave” but you explained your reasons and you were very encouraging about the imagination and accessibility of the novel.

“Entering the Weave” did eventually get taken on by Anne Dewe at Andrew Mann Ltd, but she couldn’t get it published and I think that led to her retirement.

I don’t have any professional writing experience, but I am an ardent lover of books. I’ve never forgotten the sense of wonder I felt when I read my first Diana Wynne Jones (The Power of Three). More than anything, this novel is an attempt to recreate those feelings for my own children.

“The Clockwork Butterfly” is a pure hearted fantasy story about a young girl who travels to another world where she is drawn into an ancient struggle against an eternal evil.

[ A very brief outline of the story here, more like a blurb but giving away some of the plot ]

My next book is for younger readers called “Charlie’s Worries”, then another YA/Crossover novel called “The Motley Life of Edison Swift”

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards,

Submission 2 – Aitken Alexander Associates

I received a fairly standard rejection letter from Gillon Aitken Associates when I sent them “Entering The Weave”, but it was printed on nice, yellowish embossed paper and they did say that it was “an interesting idea, fluently written”, and their website implied an openness to new submissions and an almost terrifying professionalism.

The process was different to a normal email submission. It was done via a web-form, including a field to write your covering letter and one for your synopsis. It also asked if the work was finished, whether you’d submitted to them before and which of their agents you’d like to target. I liked this high tech approach and spent a lot of time on my covering letter:

Dear Gillie

I hope you find the first 33 pages and a synopsis of “The Clockwork Butterfly” attached to this letter, but I’m only on page two of the submission process so I’m sure plenty can go wrong from here…

This is my second YA novel and the second time I’ve submitted to Aitken Alexander Associates (although before it was Gillon Aitken Associates) My first submission, “Entering The Weave” was rejected but Kate Shaw said (as she probably did to everyone) “It’s an interesting idea, fluently written…” It went downhill from there. “Entering the Weave” did get taken on by Anne Dewe at Andrew Mann Ltd, but she couldn’t get it published and I think that led to her retirement.

“The Clockwork Butterfly” now needs representation and when I read through all the profiles of the Literary Agents at AAA yours was the one that caught my eye. Obviously you’re in the right genre, but it was the fact that you published Diana Wynne Jones that really grabbed my attention. In all my previous covering letters I’ve said:  “although I don’t have professional writing experience, I am an ardent lover of books and I’ve never forgotten the sense of wonder I felt when I read my first Diana Wynne Jones story (The Power of Three)”

So, how could I not choose you? And you looked the kindest.

“The Clockwork Butterfly” is a pure hearted fantasy story about a young girl who travels to another world called Lyonesse.

[ A very brief outline of the story here, more like a blurb but giving away some of the plot ]

I’ve written it because I love writing things like this. And I’ll continue to write them. My next book is for younger readers called “Charlie’s Worries”, then another YA/Crossover novel called “The Motley Life of Edison Swift”

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards,


This all went swimmingly until the final SUBMIT button appeared. It seemed to work, but then returned straight back to the first page. Which was blank. I didn’t get an email or any other notification that it had worked, so I did it again. And again. So, either they haven’t got it at all, or I’ve made the same submission three times…

I’ve emailed them, asking for clarification about what’s supposed to happen at the end of the submission process and until then I won’t send it again.

Submission 3 – Darley Anderson

I got a completely standard rejection letter from this agency the first time, but when I looked them up on line I was impressed by how easy they’d made it for unpublished writers to submit their work. And they even have a special email address to send to for children’s/YA submissions.

So I attached the first three chapters and the rather long synopsis to an email and wrote:

Dear Clare and Camilla,

Please find attached the first three chapters and a synopsis of my novel “The Clockwork Butterfly” for your consideration.

This is my second YA novel, written seven years after my first “Entering The Weave”. This was taken on by Anne Dewe at Andrew Mann Ltd. Unfortunately she couldn’t place it with a publisher and I think this led directly to her retirement…

I don’t have any professional writing experience, but I am an ardent lover of books. I’ve never forgotten the sense of wonder I felt when I read my first Diana Wynne Jones (The Power of Three). More than anything, this novel is an attempt to recreate those feelings for my own children.

“The Clockwork Butterfly” is a pure hearted fantasy story about a young girl who travels to another world where she is drawn into an ancient struggle against an eternal evil.

[ A very brief outline of the story here, more like a blurb but giving away some of the plot ]

My next book is for younger readers called “Charlie’s Worries”, then another YA/Crossover novel called “The Motley Life of Edison Swift”

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards,

So, fingers crossed. Switching to waiting mode…