The Not So Rave Rejection.

Last year, my novel, The Curiosity Cabinet, was published by Polygon. It had been shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, had been praised by respected poet John Burnside, (as well as Lorraine Kelly, who loved it!) and seemed to be selling well. (It has since sold out, which explains why it's hard to get on Amazon.) While I was in the middle of writing the final draft of God's Islanders for a different imprint of the same publisher, I also finished a new novel called Darragh Martin. It had gone through several drafts, and my agent liked it. She sent it out to a number of publishers, including the publishers of The Curiosity Cabinet. The reception was, not to put too fine a point on it, lukewarm. (This blog is nothing if not honest!)
At the time, I was a bit peeved, because I had enjoyed writing it. It was an unashamed homage to Wuthering Heights, but with a Scottish setting. I hoped that it was a well written story of neediness and obsessive love and I fancied that it might have a commercial edge. But some of the letters of rejection, relayed to me by my agent, were very helpful. There was, so they pointed out, a gaping chasm at the heart of the novel. The way in which the story was narrated was problematic. And one of the characters bored me, so it didn't surprise me that she bored the readers. But the real fault lay with the main character, Ceit Galbreath. (And she was the main character, not the Darragh Martin of the title) who was a vividly drawn girl to begin with, but who petered out into a rather pathetic creature by the end.
After an initially defensive reaction, I reread the letters and saw that they were right. While I was working on God's Islanders, Darragh was still fermenting away, and I realised that, come hell or high water, I had to do something about it. This was neither practical nor sensible, since I have a couple of completely new projects in waiting. One is a highly commercial idea for a new novel, which is all about solving a Scottish historical mystery in the present day. I have even started writing it. The other is for an equally commercial non fiction book, which seems to tap precisely into an aspect of the current zeitgeist. My lovely agent suggested mildly that I would do better to forge on with these. And she is right. But - as so many writers will know - there is a difference between shelving a project because you have gone as far as you can go with it, and realising that you have short changed a character whom you have grown to love. Which may explain why I spent most of November and December rewriting what had once been Darragh Martin as a very different (and I suspect infinitely better) novel called Corncrake.
But can we do anything with it now that it is finished? Well, there's the rub. I suspect not. Because it has been turned down, it can't be resubmitted. Never mind that it is now quite a different book. But this explains why I am going to subject you to the odd extract on Wordarts. If you think that you might like to read more, will you do me a favour and let my current publisher (Polygon/Birlinn) know all about it!

The Rave Rejection

An online writers' group of which I am a member, has recently been discussing the phenomenon of the Rave Rejection. It used to be customary to be turned down by publishers (or magazines, or theatres, or even the BBC) in one of two ways. There was the standard letter of rejection, and then there was the personalised 'We like this but...' rejection, which was hopeful, and could most certainly be helpful, in that it usually contained a modicum of information about why a manuscript had been rejected. Sometimes the suggestions were perceptive and inspirational. You felt you could take them on board and move forward.
However, an increasing number of us have been victims of the Rave Rejection in which the novel in question receives fulsome praise but 'it isn't what we are publishing right now' or 'I didn't love the book.'
Many moons ago, my husband and I used to have a craft shop, and that was exactly the rock we perished on, so I know a bit about the hard realities of selling. We only stocked things we 'loved'. What we should have done was stock a whole cross section of stuff, from things we loved, through things we quite liked, to things we really didn't fancy but knew would sell. That way, we might have made a go of it. The public at the time were buying pottery dogs as though dogs themselves were on the verge of extinction, and we should have changed the name of the shop to Pot Dogs R Us and stocked masses and masses of them... but that's another story.
So no publisher in their right mind would only sell books they 'loved'. Nor, I'm sure, do they. But I'm equally sure that an editor has to champion a book through the whole thorny publishing process, which must explain a good many of the rejections. Perhaps what they sometimes mean is 'I'm looking for the next massive blockbuster, and I don't think this is it.' Or perhaps they mean 'I really like this, but the marketing department doesn't.' Or perhaps they mean that the writer (as a friend of mine was so memorably described by a BBC producer) is 'tainted by experience.' Or perhaps they mean exactly what they say. This is well written, but I'm not mad about it.
The problem with the Rave Rejection, from the writer's point of view, is that there is nowhere to go with it. What can you do? They haven't suggested changes. On the contrary, they think it is beautiful just as it is. Nothing wrong with it at all. And there's the rub. It is completely unanswerable. Get a few of them and you're left with 100,000 words of unloved, but beautifully written text, fit for nowhere except the bottom drawer - and perhaps, sadly, that is what is intended all along!

Worthy of Hire?

Late last week, I had a phonecall from what sounded like a very nice young man who explained that he worked for Scottish Television. They were organising a webcast for Burns Night - a kind of Burns Supper,to be filmed in Mauchline. 'I think we're doing it in Mauchline because he lived there, went to the brothels there' said the young man, cheerfully.
It would be going online, mainly for foreign consumption, so they needed somebody who 'knew about Burns.' They certainly needed that. The presenter was going to be a young actor called Donald Pirrie and he had suggested they contact me. Would I be interested?
Possibly, I said.
Donald played the poet himself (brilliantly, in my opinion) in my play 'Burns on the Solway' which was produced at Glasgow's Oran Mor centre last spring. It was a play about the relationship between Burns and his wife Jean Armour - I've certainly written several plays and articles about the poet, I've even been asked to do the 'Immortal Memory' at the occasional Burns Supper and have always insisted on talking about the poet, instead of - as so many male speakers seem to - seizing the opportunity to tell a string of dubious jokes about myself and my friends. So I felt fairly certain that I could answer any questions they might have. The young man promised to call again with more details, and did, early this week. I was out, but my husband took the message. Could I be in Poosie Nancies, in Mauchline for mid-day on friday?
I called him back. Was there any - erm - possiblity of payment, in the shape of expenses? After all, when writers don't write, they don't earn. And I would be away from my desk for a whole afternoon.
Well no. 'We have a very low budget' he said. 'We could give you some travel expenses' (10 miles by car....) and then there's the food.'
So by then I had got to thinking. If I phoned my solicitor, or my dentist or my plumber, and asked him to spend a whole afternoon working on something for me, using his considerable expertise, and offered to pay his transport, and feed him, would he do the work? Or would he laugh uproariously and put down the phone.
I did neither. I very courteously declined his kind offer, and told him that perhaps he should find a retired amateur expert, who wouldn't mind giving up a whole afternoon for the benefit of a major commercial company in return for a free lunch.
But afterwards I got to thinking that if I had had a book about Burns to sell, for instance, I would probably have done it. Would it have made any difference to sales? I very much doubt it. But still I would have felt constrained, in the way that solicitors, dentists and plumbers never do. (Come and replumb my house for free, think of the publicity you'll get....)
Which, as Hercule Poirot used to say 'gives one furiously to think' does it not?

Poets Reading Their Own Work

Some time last week,I was standing daydreaming in the shower (all my best ideas seem to come to me in the shower) with BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, as a faint noise in the background. Then, I became aware that somebody was speaking in the dull, and strangely offputting drone that I always associate with public poetry readings. I emerged from the shower to hear the end of a poem which was being recited in the customary monotone, and all the memories came flooding back - the hours of boredom,the stifled yawns, the pretence of knowing what the hell the performer in question was talking about....
These were candidates for the T.S. Eliot Prize and each was being given the opportunity to recite one of his or her poems for the delectation of the listeners. Guiltily, I thought that I was probably alone in my revulsion, but it seems that by the end of the week, Radio 4 had received a flood of letters and emails from listeners making exactly the same point. One poor woman declared that she had almost been prompted to drive into a brick wall, and begged the BBC not to do it to her again....
Many years ago, I used to write poetry myself, and I have also been known to read it in public. In fact the Poetry Performing Circuit can be one of the few ways in which a poet can make some kind of a living from his or her work, since they sure aren't going to make any fortunes from publication. Mind you, I always tried to be careful what I chose to read, perhaps because I was also writing for radio and theatre at the time, and was well aware of what made sense and what didn't when read aloud. It was at about this time that -working for an organisation called The Arts In Fife - I was commissioned to set up a series of public readings in Kirkcaldy. One of the performers was a distinguished novelist who had better remain nameless. I loved his written work, but his reading of it (pages and pages, head in book, droning monotone without pause or variation) was hideously boring. Mind you, I was young and foolish, and had forgotten to check the local football fixtures, so the actual audience upon whom this horror was inflicted was really very small indeed.
The BBC's current efforts rekindled all those memories. But why do poets - great poets at that - still think that a public performance needn't involve any kind of effort to be entertaining? Do they really think that their words are so ineffable and immortal that we will be bowled over by the simple sound of the syllables?
Could it be that, because the poetry reading is still, essentially, a middle class activity, they are lulled by the silence, and the polite handclapping at the end, into thinking that they have actually entertained everyone?
Bring back the hook, I say, the one that used to be used in the old Glasgow music halls, to yank unfortunate performers off the stage.
Mind you, it's not all doom and gloom. Last week I also caught Seamus Heaney reading one of his own poems on another Today programme, and found it to be completely magical, his voice lending an extra and very welcome dimension to the poem on the page.
I remember being lucky enough to tutor an Arvon course with the brilliant, kindly and clever Scottish poet and novelist, the late Ian Crichton Smith, who wrote in both Gaelic and English. On the last night, he was persuaded to read some of his Gaelic poems. Few of us understood what he was saying, but it was still a wholly enchanting experience, musical, emotional and spellbinding. I don't know how he did it but I wish some of last week's poets had taken a few lessons.

Happy New Year and Apologies

Apologies for my long silence - more than a month. My excuse, quite apart from Christmas and several power cuts, has been that the run up to the holiday was spent in a frantic effort to complete the latest 'tranche' of renovations on our house, and the computer became completely inaccessible for a while. Posting on blogs was the last thing on my mind. Oh and I did my back in lifting, you've guessed it, boxes and boxes of books, and spent the week between Christmas and New Year hobbling about, high on painkillers and the occasional infusion of wine, or something stronger.
After accumulating books for many years, I decided that the end of 2006 would see a certain amount of decluttering. I'm not one of those writers who can work on an untidy desk, although I'm not of the minimalist persuasion either - I just like things to be a bit ordered around me. The study had become more and more of a hell hole, so one of our pre Christmas tasks was to strip it bare, decorate it, carpet it and decide what really HAD to go back in, and what could safely be consigned to the car boot sale or the charity shop. My aim was to reduce the library by a third. I probably achieved about a quarter.
First of all, we spread a few more books round the house - you know, novels in the living room, textile and art books downstairs, all the Dickens and Agatha Christie in nice editions in the hallway where visitors can make a selection before bed, that sort of thing. Well, it gives the illusion of decluttering anyway...
Then I sifted miserably through the rest, trying to decide which books I (a) would never ever read again, (b) would never read at all or (c) wouldn't discover, immediately after throwing them out, that I needed for some obscure research project or other. They amounted to several boxes worth, they have gone, and my heart feels inexplicably lighter. My back's knackered though. Ulysses is still hanging on in there, as is War and Peace. Some dear old friends (The Lucia Books by E.F. Benson, for instance) are so battered by time and love, that I think I need new editions. In the course of the selection, I did find a little book that I had spent many hours searching for in connection with God's Islanders, completely unaware that it was lurking on my own shelves all the time.
Now, the study is painted in that restful shade of blue that the Swedes were traditionally so fond of. The shelves are relatively dust free. The carpet is soft and woolly. The PC is enticing. And spring is surely on its way. All I need to do is finish the next two novels. Of which more soon. Oh, and guess what? There's a bit of room for some new books.