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So my Date With An Agent at the London Book Fair 2017 went like this…

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In January I decided, as an unpublished and unagented writer to go to the London Book Fair. I wanted to find out what made it so special, see it for myself – peak at the wizard behind the curtain. To dispense with the far away allure and come away with a proper picture of how things really were in Oz.

I didn’t expect to get anywhere when I entered the Date With An Agent event but as I was going anyway, I thought I’d give it a shot. When I got word that I’d been accepted I was ecstatic, rereading the email over and over to see if maybe I was projecting positive words where there were none but no, I had a place and now a legitimate reason to go. The curtain was shifting.

Given my general tongue tied delivery, I thought it best to be prepared. Research. Notes. Full questions and answers document and then pacing the kitchen from one end to the other until I knew it inside out. I had business cards made (thank you Neogen) and I selected (with a little bit of help from friends and family), which of my suggested cover images I might show them should the conversation extend that far. My vision for the project. I would also show my experience in publicity and marketing, again should the topic of how to sell my book come up. Hell, it could go all the way and I allowed myself the dream that I would show them the whole world I had envisaged for my series while they grabbed the world’s biggest publishers into one room to begin the bidding war.

But while I’m a dreamer, I’m also a realist and with a little bit of homework on the fair itself, I found out that the agents and publishers conduct constant back to back meetings, for their existing clients on a separate floor. You needed an appointment just to get through the door. There would be no impromptu exchanges unless I accidentally tipped coffee over one in the queue for a danish. And so the date I had confirmed, grew in importance. One date, ten minutes. You try not to put too much pressure on yourself but its impossible when you’re wishing that this opportunity could change your life. A meeting with the wizard if you like.

I may as well have slept in my car, for all the sleep I had the night before. But then missing my red eye flight, was not an option. On the plane I ran through all my questions again in my mind. First my pitch, then questions that might be asked about conflict in my story, romance, themes, the period setting, the supernatural elements, my character breakdown, how I came up with the idea, authors that inspired me. I also had answers to the tricky question of what made my book different to others on the market, its target audience, my research, my plan for the series, and perhaps the biggest answer I’d prepared – how I would promote it. I prepared notes on other story ideas I had, just in case. I had done, I thought, as much as I could. My pitch was ready, once I didn’t falter.

Once inside, I made my way to the overhead balcony on the first floor just to peer into the warren below. From there I could see the expansive stands of Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon and Schuster and Pan Macmillan. Their stands from above looked like clinical cafes with lots of white tables set out for their meetings. I guessed they didn’t travel to the other floor. The agents came to them. The rock stars of the industry. Each of their stands had an exclusive entrance – again not somewhere you could wander into. But there is comfort in the familiar and I made my way to Author HQ, the area of the fair specifically designed for writers. Here I sat in on seminars on Copyright (useful), Sci-Fi and Fantasy (really good) and a presentation on self publishing by their sponsor Kindle Publishing Direct (always enlightening).

When the date rolled around after lunch I was ready, glad that at least my appointment would be done early in the day and I could breathe out at last. For the purposes of discretion, I won’t mention who the agent was I met, but suffice to say they were on my wishlist and so I was delighted. Would I remember by pitch? Damn it what was the first line? But as it turned out, they did most of the talking. They explained before I said anything that they’d read through my chapters (I’d sent the first three in advance) and that basically my manuscript was unsellable for at least another 15 years before my brand of supernatural characters i.e. vampires would make another appearance back into the publishing spotlight.

My pitch killed stone dead. No questions about my project, not even one I hadn’t prepared for. The agent wasn’t rude. They were very professional and friendly. They said they were happy to report that they liked my writing but suggested I try a mythological route, perhaps taking my protagonists into a new story – one from my Celtic background. I don’t dismiss it as an idea but to have them say it then, while my book lay dying in front of them was difficult to hear.

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

A very good question.

‘I want people to read this book’ I said, my hand nervously tapping my notes.

‘Then perhaps look at self-publishing for this book’, they suggested.

We talked for a few minutes more. In an attempt to take something away from it, I pitched my other idea for a book which they liked (good to try it out) but unwritten as it is, there is nowhere for it to go. I thanked them and they wished me luck in whatever I do.

As I walked away I kept thinking – they want me to write something else. The negative of that see-sawed with their positive comments about my writing. My self-confidence nonetheless shrivelled. Jesus, was I going to cry? No, pull yourself together. It had been a long day and it was still only half past two.

Maybe this wasn’t Oz after all. Maybe I’d wandered into the witches castle by mistake. Were an army of flying monkeys about to snatch me into the air and carry me out, drop me in the Thames? No. Still Oz – but maybe the wrong wizard for this Dorothy. And while I could have sat in my pyjamas at home to get another rejection, this face to face one was all the more jolting in a weirdly positive way. The truth is you won’t always hear what you want to hear. Because the person sitting opposite you is a person, an individual with a different experience, professionally and personally to you.

Were they right though about it being unsellable now? While my work was in no way an attempt to jump on the already peaked Twilight trend of the YA vampire when I started writing five years ago, I knew that it would be a difficult sell in the years following after it. So how quickly do trends come back? Is it fifteen years as they said? Like the Wicked Witch of the West, I was melting, cold water thrown over me as I disappeared into the floor.

The following morning, after a very nice meeting with a literary consultancy group I approached the big publishing stands – each manned with a reception desk and a gaggle of busy people. I asked if I could leave my information, my one page synopsis and cover art with them. The girls at the Harper Collins desk were lovely and helpful. Hell, they took it from me which was a small victory in my head. Some others looked at me as you would a five-year-old. ‘Oh, you know we don’t take unsolicited work? You need an agent. Have you heard of the Writers and Artists Yearbook?’ Strangely I told her I had. She wasn’t getting my vibe of YES OF COURSE I HAVE – I’M TRYING A DIFFERENT APPROACH HERE – JUST TAKE THE BLOOMIN INFO SO I CAN WALK AWAY FEELING LIKE I’M TRYING AND DOING ALL I CAN FOR MY BOOK. I smiled politely and walked away.

I hit the Ireland stand and hooray for the friendly and welcoming girl there who took my info no problem. I went to a few more seminars (all top notch and very helpful), listening closely to another Kindle Direct Publishing one. I know that there are readers out there for my book. They exist. I just need to reach them and if I can’t get a ‘legacy’ publisher on board, the option to go it alone and do it myself is very tempting – more so with every minute and the lure of complete control over my book, my cover, my pricing, my marketing, my rewards, grows with it.

Maybe something will come from my guerrilla marketing, maybe it won’t but I can’t say I didn’t try. The London Book Fair is that rare thing of soul crusher and dream builder.  Would I go again? Sure. Did I take a mental kicking? Sure, but then that’s nothing new. The submission process is a beast at the best of times.

This is the industry and it’s tough. And more doors will slam in my face than ever before and I’m putting myself in front of those doors and those people for a reason. Because I want my book to be read. Not a future book. THIS book. THIS story. Rejection toughens you, makes you resilient but most of all it makes you more determined than ever. So as long as doors are there I’ll keep knocking on them, politely and professionally. Or maybe I’ll get the wood and nails and build my own door to my readers.

Whatever the outcome for my book, the journey to release will have been a hell of a ride.

 

Short Story: ‘Little Miss Ashleigh’

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Come closer. Move in. Take a closer look. Don’t worry they can’t see us or hear our footsteps. We are merely watching, invisible, like a fly on the mirror over the mantle or a piece of china sitting on the sideboard in the drawing room. Come with us now into the home of the Boudreaux family. Feel the warm Georgia air through the open French windows, your collar beginning to sweat. You’re wondering why we are here. Don’t worry it will soon become clear. This is Ravenwood. The largest cotton plantation west of Atlanta and the year is 1837. Home to the Boudreaux family for three generations, we have come to look in on the youngest Boudreaux at this time, little Miss Ashleigh.

There she is, her golden ringlets bouncing as she bounds down the long staircase. She can smell the cookies Annie has made and she’s making a beeline for the kitchen eager to get there before her older sister Marguerite. But her sister is already hanging from Annie’s apron strings as she takes the biscuits from the oven. Before the tray is even rested on the stove top Marguerite grabs the biggest one, throwing it between her hands, the heat burning her as she scores a victorious look to her newly arrived sister.

Ashleigh’s face is a disgruntled snarl and even though Annie burns her own hands she lifts one to give to the smaller child and draw a line under her defeat. Ashleigh devours the cookie, crumbs falling to the kitchen floor and grabs another before knocking the tray into the air, falling into a jumbled mess as Marguerite screams. What you’re seeing is typical sibling rivalry but it is important to see Ashleigh for the eight-year-old child she is, for children are not equipped some would say, to understand the proper order of things, not yet. They have much to learn. They are impetuous, acting on instinct and finding their way between the folds of good and bad behaviour.

This is where we must jump forward, only by a few nights to the events that would shape the child into the young woman she would become. See, there she is, lying in slumber, her hair a halo of fallen curls. She looks restful doesn’t she? But inside, her mind is a torment of voices as they try to gain control. The demons have spent years delicately burrowing into the girl, every night, twisting her mind a little further. Some nights she wakes screaming for her mother and they giggle to themselves already planning their mischief for the next opportunity.

Close your eyes for a moment and you can hear them whispering to her. Their voices, first a low rustle and then building, until hundreds of them overlap, crawling over each other to be heard. They are strong and they will her mind, manually turning the tiny cogs to their deeds. This night they will truly test the girl and themselves. Arise they command and so her little body sits upright, her face still lost in the façade of sleep. At first they are satisfied to just move her but when that proves an easy task, they goad her out of her bed and into walking, one little bare foot in front of the other, until her tiny hand meets the glass doorknob. You are thinking we should wake her but we are merely watching these moments like sketches in an artist’s book already drawn. We are visitors and the future is already set. We have no actions here but to witness what befell the girl. Across the landing to the stairs, she moves silently without a creak of wood to give her away and like a spectre in the darkness, we follow her little white nightgown.

They are taking her outside. The night air is cool, but they cast their invisible arms around her, keeping her in the warmth of their embrace. As her feet touch the grass, they lay themselves beneath her lest the blades disturb her wander and they draw her now to the woods where they will end it. Inside a clearing not far from the slaves quarters, they halt her, dropping her to her knees. They seek her voice now tunnelling through her body to find it, enclosed in the back of her throat. Make her speak they chant.

“Let me in” she whimpers, her voice weak as her hands find the soil beneath her and begin to move it slowly. The demons are marvelling at their power, one voice complimenting the other.

Again.

“Let me in.” This time a little louder as she scratches at the earth, making furrows with her fingers dragging it to her knees. The girl is lost inside and if the demons have their way they will take her down into the soil with them. A loud scream sounds from deep within her. The girl has fight after all for even in their torment she makes a mutinous revolt of her own. They must silence her and so they strike her head to the ground rubbing it in the small pit she has dug, the earth finding its way up her nose and into her open mouth. She is lost, yet she is screaming, her eyes sealed to the nightmare.

Can you hear the whipping of branches as he runs through the low bushes and gorse? Running from the slave quarters to the cries of a child in the darkness. Keep watching, there to the left. Here he comes. Joshua. He sees her, the Master’s child. Little Miss Ashleigh screaming, her nightgown thick with muck, her face smeared by her own hand it seems. He calls her name and for a moment he thinks he sees her head turn before it strikes again and if we move back we can see his feet sliding through the leaves as he lands beside her, grabbing her shoulders.

“No, Miss Ashleigh”, he says, holding her back.

Her body is rigid in his grip and her dirty hands have found his face, her head turning to him. Inside the demons scream and her eyes flash open, milky swirls before they shut tight again. The demons will fight him for her. Her hands become claws, dragging through his skin, drawing blood. His long arms clutch around her body trapping her flailing ones beneath his, his face now out of reach as she takes them both to the ground, the demons bucking and jolting her. In the distance through the trees, gather more witnesses but unlike us, they are flesh. They are like Joshua and they are frightened.

“Get the master, quick” he yells to them.

“He’ll be mad” one says.

“Get him” shouts Joshua.

For a moment she stops fighting and her limbs soften as he whispers softly into her ear.

“You’re safe Miss Ashleigh. You’re safe”.

Her head twitches, her ear turning to his lips, lost among the mess of her hair. Her body convulses as she hears his voice. She hears it, as do they and he is invading her mind with soothing words at odds with their hoarse cries.

“Where is little Miss Ashleigh?” he whispers. The one who sits on the top step of the porch, tapping her feet, eating rose water jellies, or clutching blossoms picked from the meadow, wildflowers in their hair. “Are you still in there?”

Her little body is shivering as the demons slowly lessen their embrace allowing the cool night air to prickle the hairs on her arms. Joshua’s voice rises in the darkness singing softly to her as he rocks her gently in his arms. He can’t think of one song she and he might share and so instead chooses a slave song, the deep timbre of his voice vibrating in her bones as he sings it into her ear.

The demons are listening for they fall quiet and suddenly they release her to him. Oh there is more merriment to be had this night, they think. Inside Miss Ashleigh’s mind they recede to the shadows, poking her with long fingers as they go causing her to shudder again. They howl with laughter and the sound of it starts to fade slowly as the girl begins to return, a song of redemption bringing her back to the surface. At last her rigid muscles relent and she sags into his embrace, curling her body into him. On he sings and she opens her eyes, looking at the man holding her as if he were Christ himself, a deity who made the monsters go away. His eyes are kind and she bursts into tears. He stops singing, wiping muddy strands of hair from her little face. She is tiny in his arms. She can smell the wood smoke from his worn shirt and through her tears comes the slow dawn of her surroundings. She is outside.

“The Master’s coming”. A man runs back into the trees away from them and she can hear her father’s voice bellowing across the lawn. He is worried and angry. He is always angry.

Her father is coming. Here. To her now. She is weeping fresh tears as she pushes her hands away from Joshua to look at him properly. She sees not the face of her saviour but that of a slave.

A slave.

She feels his hands on her holding her still, his eyes questioning hers. The sound of the wind in the leaves is suddenly very loud and he is asking her if she is okay but she can’t hear him. All she hears is her Daddy’s voice and the whipping of the branches. Her cheeks are hot and red and her stomach is squirming.

A slave.

Her eyes blur before settling on the image of Alfred Boudreaux in his nightgown, the tassel on his nightcap blowing in the wind. His face drops when he sees the two of them and that’s when the demons begin to celebrate and Miss Ashleigh begins to scream anew. She kicks her legs, her bare feet flying back and forth, her arms struggling in his. She’s afraid. Afraid her Daddy will see that she could be comforted by this man. And oh to explain how she came to be there with him. For he simply will not understand it.

“Help me” she screams.

Joshua sets her on the ground quickly and she runs from him, hugging her Daddy’s hip as he picks her up. He registers the state of his child, running his hand over her golden hair, ridding it of twig and leaf, glaring at the man before him.

Joshua speaks, his voice shaking as the situation now present dawns.

“Master, she was o’come with a madness Sir.”

Miss Ashleigh buries herself from his words but she has decided and when she speaks her voice is meek but definite.

“He took me here Daddy. He took me from my bed”.

Joshua protests but his words fall into the wind. Mr. Boudreaux sees the scrapes on his face, the trails of blood from her tiny fingernails. And how the demons laugh. They will happily find another to torment. This child has chosen a path now that will give them so much more amusement than if they had simply taken her life. Little Miss Ashleigh clutches her arms around her father’s neck as they walk away, her decision nesting within her, its roots taking hold. Her toes are tingling as her father holds her tightly, Joshua staring at her as he is set upon by the foreman with his noose – no pleading now – just a steely gaze in her direction, a recognition between them of the lie and he can almost see the demons circle her like ribbons as they celebrate his fate.

The Boudreaux’s don’t stay for the hanging and nor shall we. Instead we will watch as she is carried back to her bed, simpering at her father’s kind touch, and as sound slumber reaches for her in the warmth of her covers, she is again soothed by the slave song playing in her mind.

 

©Clare B. Daly 2016

 

 

 

 

Writing competitions: Running the endless race…

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Epiphanies are rare. That moment when the right thought finds the right cubby hole in your brain in which to nest and nurture itself. This morning I realised after much anxiety this week that writing competitions just aren’t for me. What was I torturing myself for? How I’d goaded myself into believing that there’s a path and if you want to be a successful writer you must follow it to the letter. Given I’m a bit of a newcomer and have had my head wedged in the pages of my first book for the best part of four years, I told myself that I really should be writing some short stories and entering local competitions. Get yourself noticed. Get yourself heard. A chance to shed the invisibility cloak for a while. Sure look at this writer and that one who started out winning competitions and so on until my brain wrote one just to shut the voices up.

I should have known really that competitions weren’t for me for I am an eternal optimist. I do the lottery rarely but when I do I get a little tingle at the prospect that yes – it could be me and I have it all but spent by the time the draw comes round and someone in Belmullet has won it again. Unlike the lottery you’ll be surprised to find writing stories requires a bit more effort than a Quickpick and so time and energy must be exhumed in order to bleed the right shade of blood that a particular competition is looking for.

Don’t get me wrong, I see their worth, their value to those that win but what of those that don’t. Eight hundred people entered the competition I agonised over this week and twenty-four were shortlisted. Brilliant for those writers and fair play to them but what of the seven hundred and seventy-six writers bereft of any words in the pool of disappointment, not knowing if they came close or were the first to reach the recycling bin. Did I think I could win it? No but God I hoped. It’s the lottery all over again and so I found myself all week refreshing the relevant website for news. Again and again and again. I care a little too much and that scares me because its damaging to me and its also distracting me from the actual joy of writing. I have enough to be thinking about with my novel currently out on the hunt for an agent and that I have discovered, is all the anguish I need right now.

Compare if you will a writer to an athlete. Always writing, always training, breaking a mental sweat versus the physical one. Now imagine that athlete running a marathon, urging every last cell in their body to get them over the finish line, pushing themselves until they can no longer breathe, the finish line the only thing keeping them going as it appears in the distance, growing nearer and nearer. Perseverance is needed but they reach the end and have the beautiful satisfaction of recording their time, checking if it’s a personal best and if they’re lucky enough maybe even picking up a record and a nice medal. Now imagine that marathon runner is a writer and they have secreted themselves out onto a page and entered a writing competition. Their mind will run that marathon for months waiting on the result for they can’t enter that same story in another race while still running this one. They have cut loose a piece of themselves to be judged, only in the end satisfaction is not forthcoming. Only silence. Now the two are melding, the athlete running among his peers but he is invisible, like a ghost moving one foot after another as other runners jostle past them. For the invisible runner, the finish line just keeps moving further back into the distance and they may never ever reach it and if they invest themselves as they do in all things with 110%, they will end up forever exhausted and unable to do what it is they so loved in the first place.

Having taken my short story from an anecdote told in my novel, I do realise that it comes down to personal taste and maybe my tragic notes are not for everyone. Hell I get that, I do. Completely. And so rather than torture myself and burn my energies finding more competitions, I shall leave it to the pros. There are so many talented writers in Ireland and so I bow to those of you who have what it takes mentally and the physical arsenal of material to keep firing at these deadlines all the time.

I’m not an athlete (I spend far too much time sitting at this computer) but I fully appreciate that training is a huge part of finishing races and achieving goals. But there is a pressure out there, probably self imagined that mirrors my I’m-a-mother-I-should-be-able-to-do everything to I’m-a-writer-I-should-be-able-to-do-everything that is just not realistic and for the foolhardy among us leads only down a road of further torture.

I’m not afraid of showing people my work (if I was my novel would be sitting in a drawer right now and I wouldn’t be writing its sequel). It is what it is. I do what I do. Like all forms of creativity it speaks of the individual who made it and one story, song, painting, poem is not going to speak to everyone in the same way. And so I have decided that writing, much like the film reviews I write should be expressed and sent out to float into the atmosphere and find their own natural home. So no more competitions, no more judges, no more waiting. I shall post it here and continue what I love best.

 

 

 

 

 

Is it wrong as a writer to dream about film rights?

 

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I work in the imagination, my mind is my office, the daydream my work. At the moment it’s a volunteer position where I put in the hours for the pure joy of doing it and the dream that one day perhaps I will see my book in print. Every unpublished writer’s dream. But is it wrong to dream about the film rights and one day seeing my story in cinematic form? Purists might thing it crass to say such a thing out loud, the writing is key and true writers don’t write to make movies, they write to write but as Emma Donoghue proved so successfully with her book and film adaptation of Room, you can do it and do it very successfully.

Now, I don’t envisage my tale winning any Oscars by any means but since its inception I’ve allowed myself to clear out a little cobwebbed corner of my mind and allow that notion to tap its feet and hum a show tune. I work in film; so why can’t I have that dream? It’s a big part of who I am and I allow myself to hallucinate that one day I might venture to its World Premiere in Dublin, standing alongside the actors playing characters that I created. Me. My characters.

If dreaming were an occupation, I’d wrack up some serious overtime but I don’t think it harms my writing process – if anything if enhances it and so what’s the harm? When I write, the spools of film run through my mind, a succession of flashing images that I translate to the page. I see my characters, I hear their voices, their laugh, their cries, the texture of their clothes and the ground underfoot…they are real to me. Is it normal to then conceive that someday I may see that to fruition, taken from the reader’s mind, the personal made public for all to see?

Well then why not write a screenplay, I hear you say? Perhaps but my story has come together in novel form and the road to publication is one with many possibilities. Screenplays it seems to me, brilliant ones, stay on dusty shelves awaiting funding and making films is a much more expensive business and a bigger gamble with lots more players with money at stake.

The inflated ideas

I can hear the voice of a cynical agent as they throw my manuscript in the nearest bin at such a notion, berating me for thinking that a film deal is an easy conjuring trick for any agent to make happen. I’m a dreamer but I am not without the practicalities and logic that go with putting your trousers on one leg at a time.

The money

At the moment I have nothing to lose and so I state my dream proudly. Tell me an author doesn’t feel that tingle of being on set when that scene is being shot that they worked so hard to perfect years before, or the joy of sharing that first trailer on their social media. It’s about the money you say! I mean film rights, come on, doesn’t Hollywood pay the big bucks? Don’t all writers want to be Dan Brown or Stephen King? Isn’t that the penniless writer’s dream? I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t matter (you should see my bank balance at the moment) but it’s not everything. You certainly won’t see me in a Ferrari. [as my husband weeps]

The glory

As a film publicist I’ve worked a lot of red carpets and it’s been a terrific experience but I do not possess an ego that wishes to step into the limelight and grab some of that celeb glory for myself. A peasant who wants to sit on the iron throne. Nope, not my style. So, the kudos doesn’t interest me. The vision does.

How it may be transferred? Who will write the screenplay? Me? Who will play my characters? There’s a merry game on a rainy afternoon. One day I know I’ll get my book out there in one form or another – if I have to sell it from a pram door to door or over the fabulous interweb or shout the words to passers-by on the street, I’m ready for whatever route that comes. And a film, well that would be a special and personal gift especially as I’m in this for the long game.

So laugh, begrudge, call the men in white coats but a gal can dream and dream big. For what are we without them?

Five things I’ve learned on the hunt for an agent…

So the writing posts have been quiet of late and as usual its not for the want of trying but rather I feel like the car I was travelling in has temporarily ditched me at the side of the road, as the driver (possibly Satan, possibly just a surly guy with long unwashed hair and a lot of denim) pulls the door to his mini shut and speeds away up life’s highway without me, his cackle still audible in the smoke filled air. I’m on a road I’ve never been on, with no idea where it goes or if my destination actually exists.  The regular asphalt has crumbled away, unearthing the scorching hot gravel that I must navigate in my bare feet with my lowly manuscript (sorry I meant magnificent, see No. 4) under my arm. Yes, agent hunting is a new world to me but I’m learning a few things as I go.

Here’s my top five:

1. You need a time machine.

No really – if there is ever a hope of getting an agent before I turn ninety, I’m gonna need one of these. With an average 12 weeks for a reply and a prevalent wish for exclusivity with each submission, this is going to take forever. I may have grandchildren by then, even a great grandchild. How nice it will be for them when their wizened old nan has her first book published. You may venture for multiple submissions but I learned very recently that some may put yours to one side if being read elsewhere. I can see their logic. Hence the time machine. Honesty has always been (perhaps to my detriment) the best policy. I may need to re-consider.

2. Don’t suppose for a second you can imagine who they are and what they want.

You don’t know these people. You may google them, follow them on Twitter, check out who they represent but really you don’t have a clue about what makes them tick. In my short experience, no two are alike, which makes sense as yes they are humans just like you and me. They are not Sauron-like, with their big fiery eye glaring at your pitiful work. Nor are they robots, checking your words for the perfect algorithm. They are people with good days and bad like the rest of us and you will find them having both.

3. Rejection is an armour piercing arrow.

Impossible to deny but much as you steel yourself for replies, the knockbacks and the comments do get through and they do hurt. This is something you care about and its like giving your child to a stranger to be slapped as you stand by watching. Maybe you’ll get a rejection and think ‘hey c’est la vie’ but maybe the next day, that arrow will hit you right in the ticker when you weren’t expecting it.  Their words will swirl around as you try to climb over them and the only thing you can do is move to the next agent on your list.

4. Doubt will be your daily burden.

Looking for an agent? You? With that book? And you will shrink at the thoughts of actually approaching one, let alone calling one and when you do get off the phone you’ll imagine all the really good things you could have said rather than all the pitiful garbage you did. You fool! Press rewind. What do you mean there’s no rewind? Where’s my godamned time machine?!

5. Be you because you can’t be what they want, if they don’t want it.

Much as your manuscript will divide so too will you. While you think your cover email/letter may be as concise as you can, you convey a little part of you and some will like it and some won’t and you can tell from the comments you receive back that some haven’t liked you or your book. Call it paranoia perhaps but this is personal. You are selling yourself too. So don’t compromise that. Just be yourself.

So onwards on the lonely road I go, book in hand with an old saying in mind – “what’s meant for you won’t go by you”. We shall see.

I shall adjust my armour, sharpen my spear and keep hunting.

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Write On The Train, They Said!

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For a few days last week, I found myself gratefully employed (one cannot live on dreams alone) and my mind sprang up with travel possibilities and the best way to squeeze some  writing in on my way into Dublin city. I’ll get the train I thought, those romantic memories returning of sitting in my own little world, my book swirling in a dance around my head and me its wily choreographer, as the train carriage slides hypnotically through the gorgeous countryside. But reality it seemed had a lesson to teach about best laid plans and so I found myself seated (thankfully) and squashed (uncomfortably) in among three others as I tried to wrestle my little laptop out of its cover.

My knees were waging a war with the man opposite – patella against patella in a fight to the death or at least until I could wriggle away. There – perfect! Just tune it all out. Get in the zone! I slung my headphones on as Dave Gahan’s darkly beautiful voice enabled that drift, pushing the volume up so as to drown out any audible civilian distraction and fired up my little Acer, its tiny white keys full of possibilities. Writing is like a yoga workout, you start out feeling a bit decrepit, your joints stiff and then you stretch and your muscles take the fullest and purest of oxygenated breaths and magically they start to infuse with energy and you feel more and more capable with every inhalation.

I had only taken my first deep energising breath when all yoga analogies came to a swift end. My computer screen glared back at me, like a cartoon villain, one eyebrow arched high, lips curled in a sneer. Ah yes it bristled. Thought you could just pick me up whenever you want. Don’t have your fancy home PC now do you? Ha no, just little old me and my little ole version of Office, screaming to be renewed and therefore useless. I did what any respectfully sane person would do – tap the keys incessantly hoping it would overlook it this time and just let me type. But no, Word had shut up shop, slamming its metal shutter down on my poor hopeful fingers.

I resisted the urge to scream FUCK! out loud and calmed myself. This was not a disaster. I’d just log on to the Wi-Fi and update it. As I rattled around for a good signal, the screen rolled a taunting bar sideways, like a digital finger to its temple deciding my fate. No signal. I’d already travelled three stops and so far my writing existed only of random curse words not even committed to paper. I had sacrificed my real notebook for my digital one in my bag and my heart sank slowly to the bottom of the passing canal.

Sweeping that aside for the day, I was realistic when it came to my journey home. I hadn’t been able to update the package so I told myself to keep it simple – just get a seat and go from there. I could write on my phone. Not ideal but you do what you have to do. I entered the train station three minutes before my train was due and ran the usual five minute walk to the platform. Now I’m not a runner. I don’t like it and it doesn’t like me but faced with 30 minutes wait for the next one I found myself barrelling up the gangway from the underpass, my train’s final carriage ten yards away, the doors thankfully still open but stuffed to the gills with weary commuters. With a last burst I made it through before the doors closed and like a sardine in a very oily, squashed and sweaty tin, the train pulled out for home, my face virtually pressed to the glass. Writing on the train! Breathing on the train was my priority.

I tried to settle my panting and take deep breaths as the man’s newspaper beside me crumpled into my shoulder. How was there room for a paper! My feet felt spongey in my shoes, swelling from the sprint and glued as they were in one spot, they were showing their agitation. Your bottom should be on a seat by now, they screamed. I know! I screamed back. The claustrophobia and the heat in the carriage weighed heavy and I knew that I was going to have to take off my coat or collapse. As I contorted myself out of my bag which was slung across my body, I set off all manor of contraptions like that old game of Mouse Trap. My bag caught in my hood, which as I wriggled free pulled my ponytail loose and my headphones sideways off my head before knocking my glasses off my face to the carriage floor. In a narrow space filled with strangers I felt like a sea divided us, the people who have their shit together – and me.

I eventually got a seat about two stops from home but I spent that time trying inconspicuously to unravel the mess I’d made of my headphones, conscious that the sight of me pulling them one way, actually strangling myself and having to work out how to best get out of them must seem hilarious/sad from afar and in my head all I could hear was Bruce Willis’s voice doing his best John McClane…Get the train, they said! Write, they said!

 

Dare I call myself a writer? A priceless lesson in self belief from Cecelia Ahern, Patrick Ness, Sarah Crossan and Louise O’Neill

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I’m sitting in the second row at the ‘How Dare You’ YA panel featuring Cecelia Ahern, Patrick Ness, Sarah Crossan and Louise O’Neill at the Mountains To Sea dlr Book Festival and I’m feeling fidgety. My IKEA notebook with the bat on the front and the pink spine gets shuffled from one knee to the other, my biro rolling between the creases in my trousers. I should probably put them back in my bag. Taking out my notebook makes me feel like I’ve just lit a neon sign over my head, flashing ‘thinks she’s a writer, ha!’ in a bright orange glow. She has notions this one!

It remains closed and tightly gripped throughout the 90 minutes, fear getting the better of me and I relax a little in the hope that I’ll truly remember and engrave the good stuff on my brain anyway. Having it with me is kind of like my writing security blanket. Even closed, it has power to me. It has hope. Hope that one day perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to have my book published.

Early in to the interview, chaired by Easons YA guru and all round lover of cool things David O’Callaghan, my shoulders relax a notch further when Sarah Crossan describes how even still she gets impostor syndrome. That the feeling of not being good enough and someone calling you out on it may happen yet, even after you make it across the scorched plains to the juicy validation of an agent/publisher/book sales. Ness agrees. The uncertainty that comes with being a writer never goes away and that in itself is an important lesson to me. Get used to it. If I feel this way now, with my first out on the intrepid agent hunt, thinking its most likely rubbish and I’m just really exercising my fundamental right to mortally embarrass myself (again with the notions!) then I had best let this feeling settle in a bit, find a pair of comfy slippers for that insecurity and wriggle my toes in it. It’s part of being a writer.

I’m sitting off to the left and as I watch David ask a question I see Cecelia’s in my eye line. Morto! Don’t stare at her! Don’t catch her eye. She doesn’t want to see your face – the desperation etched into every nook and cranny starring back at her. Don’t embarrass yourself! There’s a way that Cecelia talks that makes her come across as (a) normal and unaffected by her success and (b) someone you’d love to sit down for a cup of tea with. She’s friendly and open and the moment she mentions her obsession with colouring books I think – now there’s a sound mind. She must be so good at switching off all the noise and bustle that revs around the brain, the screaming distractions that stop me so many mornings from actually getting any writing done. Note to self: buy colouring book and possibly some dot-to-dot puzzles on the way home. Mindfulness is key.

If the panel were some sort of rock band, than Louise O’Neill would definitely be the front-man or woman in this case. I look at her intently for the secrets to her confidence, enviously wishing I could take just a pinch of it to sprinkle over me. She has similar issues to the others but there’s a positive swagger to the way she speaks that you think – yeah, you go girl! She’s rocking it and everyone in the room, particularly the teenagers are loving it. She speaks eloquently about the public reaction to her novels and how it feels to know your book has reached people and touched them in some way.

The subject of book covers arises, both in terms of control and input and Ahern tells a funny story about how all of her covers in Poland having a smooching couple on the front, no matter what it’s about. That’s her brand if you will and her Polish publisher is sticking to what worked so well for her books in the first instance. It seems creative control wanes on foreign markets and there’s a lean towards trusting the publisher in that territory to know what image it needs to sell. I can but dream of a cover for my book and so I’m rapt listening to them talk. This is all, if you’ll pardon the pun, kindle for the fire of motivation and I’m lapping it up.

When asked about the ever-changing YA appetites and labels from dystopia to teen illness to cli-fi, they all roll their eyes, declaring that until a publisher points out to them that their book is for example YA dystopia, they do not concern themselves. The key is to write what you want to write, the story you have to tell, the one that ONLY YOU can tell. That’s what makes writing special. That’s what makes writers special. As Ness says, you do you and to hell with what anybody thinks. Someone doesn’t like it, well fuck them. His words seep into my pores and I wish I could have him on speed dial for those days when as a writer I feel worthless and question what I was thinking in the first place. His encouragement is brilliant and for a brief moment the room is empty and he’s just talking to me.

My writing journey such as it is, is a solitary one. Again in the wish to not embarrass myself I didn’t join the local writing group or take a writing class. So my peers are invisible and I with them. That’s why listening to the real deal, writers who persevered and continue to do so, is just the inspiration and the kick up the backside I need to keep going. One day perhaps I may count these writers among my peers. Perhaps they are already. We are all writers after all and they are just about the most encouraging and welcoming gang a writer could hope to meet.