The Great Silence

Wormwood.
Last week, a good friend in a different area of creativity asked me why I had given up writing plays.

I suppose the answer is that I haven't, not completely, and if somebody asked me to write a play again I would certainly consider it, especially if it involved dramatising one of my own books. Still, the question gave me pause for thought.

Why did I give up?

Well, one of the main reasons was that I wanted to write fiction, and in fact I was writing fiction, lots of it. But because I was learning my craft, I didn't want to go back to dividing my time between the two. I wanted to live in the world of whatever book I was working on. So in a way, abandoning plays wasn't so much a conscious decision as a refocusing. And that was fine.


But there were other factors. Lots of women who were writing plays at the same time as me seem to have abandoned theatre as well, especially here in Scotland. Somebody speaking about women in theatre on a radio programme only the other week pointed out what a difficult place theatre was for women to get so much as a toehold in, back in the 1980s. Listening to her, I thought 'not just me then.'

It struck me that one of the other reasons why I gave up on theatre was that my life had changed significantly. I was living in the countryside, I had a child - and I couldn't any longer lurk in theatre bars making sure that those doing the commissioning remembered my existence. This may sound like a lame excuse - and the truth is that had I wanted it badly enough, I might well have done it - but the fact remains that I fell off their radar and at the time, I really didn't miss it.

Quartz
Back in the 80s, after writing 100+ hours of radio drama, some TV, community theatre, and a production at Edinburgh's Lyceum, I had two major and very well reviewed productions at the Traverse in Edinburgh: Wormwood (all about the Chernobyl disaster) and Quartz. I remember Michael Billington's complimentary review of Quartz and his hope that the theatre would go on to 'nurture' me.

Nurturing was never going to be on the agenda.

I had a brief resurgence with the wonderful David McLennan at Glasgow's Oran Mor, who produced three of my short plays, at least one of which - the Price of a Fish Supper - has gone on to have an excellent and successful life beyond its first production. But after David's sadly early death, I again entered what I have come to think of as The Great Silence.

I would send ideas, scripts, proposals to various theatre companies. Most of the time, they simply weren't acknowledged at all, although there was the occasional standard rejection. From that point on, nobody - except David, for that short time - treated me like a professional.

I was reminded of this recently, when I decided to explore the possibility of finding an agent. I have had agents in the past, including the late, great (but scary) Pat Kavanagh, who sold my first full length adult novel. It was sold to the Bodley Head, which was instantly taken over by one of the big publishing beasts and they tried to transform it into the fashionable beach bonkbuster it wasn't. My next novel had a Polish background. Pat loved it but couldn't sell it, and if she couldn't sell it, nobody could. We got a string of rejections saying that editors loved it but nobody was remotely interested in Poland. Nevertheless the single best piece of advice I have ever had about writing came from Pat.
'Only write something if you can't bear NOT to write it,' she told me.

My last agent disappeared without trace. I have no idea, not the foggiest notion, what became of him. He went AWOL and incommunicado and I've never heard from him since. Perhaps he too entered the Great Silence. Over the past year, with nine published novels under my belt, four of them still very much in print, and a brand new and well reviewed non-fiction book published in the summer, I contacted various agents who said they were looking for new clients, and who seemed like a good fit.

One responded pleasantly and personally. She was understandably too busy and told me so quite quickly, while also praising the work.
One turned me down immediately with a formal rejection letter. I doubt very much if my enquiry got beyond the intern employed to sift them.
One asked to see a PDF of a book and then - nothing.
The rest didn't respond at all. I had again entered the Great Silence.

Well -  I'm fine. I have an excellent publisher and exciting work to do, and I've given up on the notion of representation. In fact I've probably got enough interesting writing work to keep me busy for the next few years: work that I can't bear NOT to do. And that's a blessing in anybody's book.

But it does make me wonder about people just starting out. Apart from the lucky few, how do they get themselves noticed? How do they ever stand out from the crowd? And what about that old maxim that if you're 'good enough' you'll make it? So you just have to persevere? Because the successful people I know have persevered with the actual writing, for sure, but I suspect most of them have also taken matters into their own hands in some way.

I don't have any easy answers to this, but I do wonder what other writers, experienced or emerging, think about it.
How did you do it?
How do you plan to do it?












Comments